The Zulu remain one of Africa’s most influential and numerous ethnic groups, with their population mainly resident in South Africa, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Their rise from a relatively insignificant tribal grouping to a huge kingdom was largely as a result of the leadership of their 19th century king and military leader Shaka. As a leader, he was responsible for significant social and cultural changes. The influence of European religion and culture also played a part in changing the culture of the Zulus. This paper will examine how Shaka and Christianity combined in their different ways to produce the eclectic, interesting and robust culture which exists among the present members of this numerous African ethnic group.
The Zulu are a tribal group which dwells in southern Africa, with their population mainly concentrated in the South African province of Natal. There are also small numbers of Zulus who dwell in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. Despite their current status and fame, they were a relatively insignificant group before the 19th century rise of their famous leader Shaka. Under the leadership of this man, often viewed as an African Napoleon, they grew from a basic culture which practiced agriculture and horticulture, into one of the most powerful ethnic groups on the continent, who were a serious rival to the European colonial powers who invaded. Both the British and the South African Boers would come into conflict with the Zulu. This paper will examine this unique and fascinating culture, charting its development and progress, and evaluating just how far it was altered by the rise of Shaka and its contact with Christianity.
Zulu economic activity in the days before the rise of Shaka was based upon the raising of cattle and the growing of vegetables. Cattle were particularly important as a measure of wealth and status, and were used as dowries in the case of marriage. Men played a dominant role in Zulu society, while women carried out the kind of craft and home-making activities typically associated with a pastoral culture like this. Bread-making, basket making, and pottery manufacture were all typical activities carried out by Zulu womenfolk. Bead work and basketry made by the Zulu are still recognized as being especially fine. Women would carry out the planting and harvesting of crops, while men were responsible for raising and protecting cattle. Significantly, women would own the family home, giving them more economic power than might be expected in this kind of society.
As with many traditional African communities, their main religious focus before the rise of Shaka was a belief in ancestral spirits. These ancestral spirits were referred to as 'AmaDlozi', and were invoked in the course of divination rituals. The diviners in these rituals were usually women, and played a cultural important part in the daily life of the Zulu. The main focus of much religious practice was fending off the attentions of evil spirits, who were viewed as being responsible for any kind of bad things which occurred, including death. As Christianity began to make headway in southern Africa, in the 19th century, it began to influence Zulu belief. This influence was nowhere near as intense as it was on other cultural groups though, with Christianity only being incorporated in syncretic ways, existing alongside the old beliefs and never really being fully adopted as many European Christians would understand it. Isiah Shambe, considered a Zulu messiah by some people, was responsible for the adoption of this modified form of Christianity by many among the Zulu.
Zulu society at this time and during the rise of Shaka was rigidly hierarchical too, with men occupying a higher position than that of their womenfolk. Women were responsible for raising the children of the family. The structure of society and its hierarchy was evident in the