Meeting the Ndebele King

Well, we didn’t actually meet the king, but we met his son the prince and the rest of the royal family. The king had to leave for a meeting before we arrived. This has been a common theme in our training as many things don’t exactly happen the way they were planned and we learn to live in flex time. In very general terms, time flexes and flows a little more here than it generally does in the U.S.

The Ndebele people are one of the many tribes in South Africa. Generally they are thought of as being artisans demonstrated to us by the rich beauty of their beadwork and their beautifully painted houses. The Ndebele originally lived in an area north of Pretoria, but were moved from their ancestral grounds during Apartheid. Much like the move of Native Americans to the reservations, tribes were moved to villages and townships outside of the areas where whites wanted to settle.

There are many traditional formalities observed when meeting a chief or a king. For women it means wearing a dress or a skirt and covering your head and possibly shoulders depending on the tradition of the specific tribe. The day we went it was ridiculously hot, but despite the oppressive heat, many of the Ndebele women wore thick flannel blankets displaying the Ndebele colors around their shoulders. The women and the men sat separately during the meeting. For our group is was the first time that we had seen the subservient female tradition prevalent in most South African tribal cultures so obviously displayed. Many of us had caught queues from various interactions, but it was the first time that it had been so prominent before us. At the end of the meeting the men sang and danced together, and then the women sang and danced together. During the meal that followed, the men and the women mingled, but the hierarchy was imprinted in our mind. It became a major topic during our question and answer session with the prince and a few of the elders.

For most of us growing up in a post-women’s lib America, the cultural inequality between the sexes is a source of much discomfort both for the women and the men in our group. Among the women, several of us are struggling to find our footing and to find the balance of sharing our belief in gender inequality while showing a respect for the culture. The amount of subservience varies from tribe to tribe, village to village, etc. This can at times make it even more of a struggle to find the balance of how to be culturally appropriate in the village we live in but then travel to another village and be culturally appropriate in that setting. For women this also means more unwanted attention.

Despite the aforementioned, there is much beauty in the Ndebele culture. So many traditions with so much meaning and purpose. The prince was incredibly welcoming and gracious to us. We are always welcomed with so much love and openness, and we are honored over and over again by community after community and group after group. The spirit of “Ubuntu” which literally translates to “I am because you are” is pervasive wherever we go. And it is a sentiment that echoes throughout the cultural traditions and every community we have come in contact with.