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Blog / Category_African Culture

The Zulu Kingdom: Click Speaking, Miriam Makeba and More!

The Zulu (pronounced ZOO-loo) people are one of the most well-known groups in Africa, most notably for their unique style of speaking. Descendants of the Nguni-speaking people, they are known for their "click" speaking and singing.

Today, close to 10 million Zulu-speaking people live in South Africa, primarily in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Some also reside in other areas, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. However, the Zulu tribe’s people are concentrated in rural and urban communities in the southern part of the continent. To learn more about the culture and history of the fascinating Zulu people, we highly recommend viewing this video - Kingdoms of Africa: The Zulu Kingdom (Episode 6 of 8 about the Kingdoms of Africa).

"Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom. He is widely credited with uniting many of the Northern Nguni people, specifically the Mtetwa Paramountcy and the Ndwandwe into the Zulu Kingdom, the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the portion of southern Africa between the Phongolo and Mzimkhulu Rivers, and his statesmanship and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu kings. He has been called a military genius for his reforms and innovations, and condemned for the brutality of his reign." Source: Kingdoms of Africa.

Here is a map showing the approximate geographical area of South Africa where isiZulu is spoken (indicated in green)

isiZulu Language

To the surprise of many, click speaking, which is formally known as the isiZulu language, is one of the most dominant languages in South Africa. In fact, the language is so popular that it became one of South Africa’s official languages in 1994. To date, there are 11 official languages.

Zulu is the most widely spoken language in the home, and it is understood by well over 50% of the population in the region. “Zulu is idiomatic and proverbial and is characterized by many clicks. The Zulu language is characterized by hlonipha (respect) terms. Addressing those who are older than oneself, especially elderly and senior people, by their first names is viewed as lack of respect. Therefore, terms like baba (father) and mama (mother) are used not only to address one's parents but also other senior males and females of the community.” Since the Zulu tribe has religious roots in Christian and traditional beliefs, it makes sense that Christian missionaries were the first to create a way to write Zulu. The first Zulu Christian booklet was written by Newton Adams, George Newton and Aldin Grout between 1837 and 1838. It was titled Incwadi Yokuqala Yabafundayo, and it explained the spelling of Zulu words as well as the history of the Old Testament. One our favourite examples of the "click" songs of the Zulu people is the venerable Miriam Makeba - Mama Afrika. Enjoy her famous performance of Quongqothwane, also known as the click song during the festival "Zaire 74".

Zulu Musical Style

As with many Africa cultures, music is a group activity for the Zulu people. Often, all village members will join in producing the music that accompanies ritualistic dance. Members of the group will gather around the main performers of the dance, singing in unison while other members play instruments.

Zulu Instruments

The Zulu use many musical instruments that are common to African music. They employ several types of drums, including the djembe drum and the ngoma drum, into their performances, as well as ankle rattles, shakers, rain sticks and bells. The Zulu also use their bodies as instruments by clapping and slapping parts of their bodies rhythmically.

Perhaps, the most fascinating features of the Zulu language is the use of click consonants. These consonants are unique and unlike anything we use in the English language to form words and phrases. Even though the click sound feature is shared with a number of languages in southern Africa, it is primarily used in the KwaZulu-Natal region.


As outlined on Wikipedia, there are three articulations of clicks in the Zulu language:

  • c: dental (comparable to a sucking of teeth, as the sound one makes for 'tsk tsk')
  • q: alveolar (comparable to a bottle top 'pop')
  • x: lateral (comparable to a click one may do for a walking horse)

Each articulation covers five click consonants, with differences such as being voiced, aspirated, or nasalised, for a total of 15 different click sounds.

The Zulu Alphabet

Here is a chart outlining the Zulu pronunciation and click consonants that make up the language: 


Learn the Zulu Click Sounds

Talking about the Zulu language is one thing, but actually hearing the sounds and learning how to make the click sounds will provide you with proper context. Here are a number of instructional videos that will teach you about the basics of the click speaking of the Zulu Tribe:

Q, Qh & Gq Click Sounds

X, Xh, Gx Click Sounds


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The Maasai Olympics: Replacing Hunting for Lions with Hunting for Medals

"This Maasai Olympics has been the greatest celebration of Maasai culture I have ever attended,” - Katoo Ole Metito (Maasai), Minister of Internal Security, Government of Kenya.

Lion Hunting: A Maasai Tradition

Lion hunting is a tradition in Maasai culture. In the past, hunting was used as an event to signify the transition of young men into manhood. Lion hunting was also a symbol of strength, vitality and prowess to attract females. However, over the years, the tradition of lion hunting has had a significant negative impact on the number of lions, rapidly decimating their population in Africa. Realizing the impact Maasai traditions were having on the lion population, they decided to change their culture for the better in 2012. WATCH: The Hunt for Medals, not Lions : The First Maasai Olympics. Source: The Big Life Foundation

Replacing Hunting for Lions with Hunting for Medals 

Rather than focusing their efforts on hunting lions, the Maasai people made the transition to focusing on sport competitions, creating the Maasai Olympics in 2012. The Maasai Olympics is an organised Maasai sports competition based upon traditional warrior skills.

It allows young men to compete for recognition, express their bravery, help identify future leaders, and to impress women. It was first held in 2012, was a raging success, and the event has continued to grow over the past few years. “In truth, this program is very successful, and we are now doing something honourable. We used to celebrate lion hunting, but this program has shown us a better celebration,” says Iltuati, Maasai Warrior, Amboseli-Tsavo Ecosystem. 

 Here are the highlights from the first event:

  • It was first held on December 22, 2012
  • It was first held in southern Kenya
  • 25 athletes from 4 warrior villages in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem participated
  • The event is supported by the African Wildlife Foundation and local sponsors

The Events

There are six core events held as part of the Maasai Olympics. They are a combination of traditional running and throwing skill events, all skills that were previously used to hunt lions (running, herding, throwing). Events include:
  • Rungu throwing for accuracy
  • 200 meter sprint
  • Spear throwing for distance
  • 800 meter sprint
  • 5 kilometer run
  • High jump

Even though girls were not traditionally participants in lion hunting traditions, because of their role in the conservation of African lions and their support of warriors, competitions are now held for women on Olympics day.

Three Levels of Competition

While the Maasai Olympics takes place on a single day each year, it is actually a three phase event that plays out over the course of the year. Here are the three levels of competition

1. Local level competition: Warriors receives training in the events and compete to be selected to one of the four teams across the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. As outlined on maasaiolympics.com, “Each will represent a warrior manyatta (village) that will host in aggregate 4000+ young men during their 12 to 15 years of warriorhood.”

2. Regional level competition: Teams compete against the other three manyattas of the ecosystem.

3. Olympics Day: This is the official Maasai Olympics event day. The events receive national coverage, and the event is attended by government, media, tourists and family. The four teams compete in six events for medals and prizes. The overall winners receive a trophy and prized bull.

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Living On The Brink: The Omo Valley Tribes of Ethiopia

The Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia is as picturesque as it comes. Hills, mountains, rivers, graceful waterfalls, jungles and numerous exotic wild animals and plants all converge in this one area. The grand Omo River snakes through the region emptying in Lake Turkana at the Kenyan border.

The earliest known discovery of human fossil fragments was found in the lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana (which is mostly in Kenya). With this precious discovery, the area was declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Nestled in this beautiful setting are 15 tribal groups living in the hills and the banks along the Omo River. It’s estimated that over 200,000 tribal people call the Omo Valley home. In this isolated corner of the world, these tribes have lived for centuries developing their own distinct and rich customs. Each tribe has different body markings, clothing, hairstyles and beliefs. 

The Tribes - A diverse group of people live in the Omo Valley. But the various tribes in the region do share some commonalities, such as their reliance on the Omo River as an essential resource. Most tribes rely on the annual flooding of the river. Cattle, goats and sheep are also essential to most of the tribes’ livelihoods. For the tribes, traditions are important and many involve some sort of body adornment or fancy headdress.


Here are some traditions of the Omo Valley tribes:
  • The Mursi: The Mursi’s traditions include body painting, decorative scarring and piercing. Some Mursi women still hold onto the tradition of piercing and then slowly stretching their lower lip with a clay plate, up to 18cm (7in) wide. The lip plate is done to attract a spouse. There are few mirrors around so boys usually paint one another with elaborate designs. Mothers paint their babies, so the traditions start young.
  • The Suri Tribe: The Suri use flora and fauna for decoration. They make elaborate head ornaments from leaves and branches.
  • The Karo Tribe: The Karo paint their bodies and faces with white chalk to prepare for ceremonies. They sometimes wear face masks and clay hair buns with feathers stuck into them. The women sometimes scar their chests, believing it makes them beautiful. Men also scar themselves, representing an enemy or dangerous animal they’ve killed.
  • The Hamar Tribe (also known as the Hammer or Hamer): The Hamar people wear colorful bracelets and beads in their hair. Some women wear circular wedge necklaces to show they are married. Men wear hair ornaments to represent a kill of an enemy or animal. Men also paint themselves with white chalk for ceremonies.


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Outside Influences - There are no written languages or calendars among the tribes, but they’re not immune from outside influences. Today, as a result of recent conflicts in Sudan, nearly every family in the Omo Valley owns an automatic weapon—an AK47 being the weapon of choice. Perhaps most alarmingly, the tribes’ very way of life may be threatened by the Gibe III dam—a controversial hydro-electric dam set to open later this year. Salini Costruttori, an Italian construction company, began work on the dam in 2006. The US $1.8 billion project is about 90% complete.

The dam is expected to more than double the electrical output in Ethiopia to about 1870 Megawatts. In addition to the almost completed dam project, others are encroaching on tribal lands. In 2011, the Ethiopian government began to lease sections of the Lower Omo region to large Malaysian, Italian, Indian and Korean companies. Sugar and cotton plantations are springing up in the area, all of which are eating up precious tribal land. Tribal grain stores and cattle grazing land are being destroyed and some tribes are even being forced into resettlement areas. Obviously these are complex issues where the rights of all Ethiopians must be balanced, but someone must look out for the more vulnerable groups in the area. Fortunately, international and domestic efforts are underway to protect the precarious way of life for the tribal people in the Omo Valley. Hopefully their efforts to preserve these fascinating cultures won’t be too late. 

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Halloween in South Africa: Ghosts, Goblins and Ghouls, Oh My!

Halloween is one of the most fun and most exciting times of the year for children, and, in recent years, it has increased in popularity with adults as well. While it is perhaps most popular in the United States, Canada and the Western World, traditions and celebrations vary from country to country. Even though it may not be as popular as in other countries, Halloween is celebrated in South Africa! 

It has only been in the past few years that it has caught on, but Halloween continues to gain momentum as more and more parties and participants are showing up each year. It’s just another reason to have fun and throw a party, right?

About Halloween in South Africa

Primarily viewed as an American tradition by local residents, Halloween in South Africa is very similar to the way we celebrate it here in North America. It is observed each year on October 31st as a non-secular holiday celebrated with candy and costumes. While the costumes may take on a more South African flair and include local cultural symbolism for the region, you will still see your fair share of ghouls, goblins and vampires! Some of the most popular Halloween costumes in South Africa include:
  • Skeletons
  • Your favorite board game brought to life
  • Old-school cartoon characters
  • Vampires
Since the tradition is relatively new in the area, people have gravitated toward more traditional costume options. Over time, undoubtedly people will get more creative with their costume ideas and look for new ways to impress their friends on Halloween. Cape Town is full of Halloween events that you are familiar with:
  • Haunted houses
  • Zombie walks
  • Trick or treating
  • Horror film festivals
  • Halloween parties
  • Mystery murder dinners

While you would assume there would be some local traditions and rituals, Halloween in South Africa is actually a direct replica of what we have experienced for years.

Why Is Halloween Catching On?

The obvious reason why Halloween is catching on in South Africa is because it’s an excuse to dress up and have fun. It also offers local companies countless business opportunities to cash in on a lucrative holiday. Halloween is a $6 billion industry each year in the U.S. alone! Even though Halloween originated in Ireland with the Celts, symbolizing the end of the summer, it was embraced by the U.S. and taken to an entirely new level of popularity. This popularity of Halloween culture, which has been on display for years in Hollywood films, is now catching on as South Africans are exposed more and more to American and Western culture. Stores in South Africa are following suit with their American counterparts, stocking their stores full of Halloween candy and costumes, bringing the complete experience to South Africans. Halloween is also the perfect marketing opportunity for clubs and restaurants to hold theme events and parties to bring in patrons. While it is not an embedded part of the region's culture, it is quickly becoming another reason to get together with friends and have a good time.

Happy Halloween!

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The Mandingo of Sub-Saharan Africa

Referred to as Mandingo, Mandinka or Malinke, the Mandingo represent one of the largest ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Based primarily in West Africa, the population of Mandingo peoples is about 11 million. Spread across Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Ivory Cost, Chad and Niger, the Mandingo are thought to have links with the ancient Central Saharan lineage. Mandingo is a branch of the Mandé, which also includes ethno-lingual groups such as the Bozo, Bambara, Kpelle and Ligbi. 

The Mandingo people are purported to be descendants of the Mali Empire (1230 A.D. to 1600 A.D.) Some scholars think the Mandingo's roots go back even further - to the legendary ancient city of Djenné-Djenno (3rd century B.C.) The Mali Empire was established in the Senegambia region, deep in the heartland of West Africa. It is believed that they migrated there in the search for better agricultural lands and to expand their territory. More than half of the tribal group converted to Islam (from their indigenous pantheist belief structure) after reaching West Africa. Sadly, although the Mandingo people existed very nicely with the other settlers in the region, in the 15th century, Westerners arrived looking for human labour. The desire for farmland and the Industrial Revolution contributed to a period of slavery for the Mandingo.
Unfortunately, many Mandingo merchants were themselves involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It is difficult to understand, but many Mandingo were sold as slaves by their own people! As a result of the despicable slave trade, more than a third of the Mandingo population was sent to the Americas. This is why a large number of African-American people residing in the United States today are descendents of the Mandingo. The Mandingo culture is both spiritual and musical. Griots are well-known for their "praise singing" in which they tell stories, sing songs and proverbs. They are the keepers of oral tradition spanning centuries. Take a look at the video we've included below. This is a fascinating recounting by Imiuswi Aborigine ~ Prince Diabata - a griot musician from West Africa - of the history of the griot legacy and their long traditional of oral history.


Music also includes drumming and playing a unique instrument, called the "Kora", which has 21 strings and is made by hollowing out half of a large gourd and covering it with cow or goat skin. It looks pretty complex to us!

Clan society is patriarchal with many people living in family compounds in rural areas. The Mandingo have a natural bent for seeking autonomy and self-rule, incorporating leadership by a chief and a group of village elders. Their homes are largely centered along trade routes built by merchants known as "Dyulas", who supervise the overland, coastal and inland trading. Trading in rice, groundnuts (peanuts), corn and millet along with animals, the economy is labor-intensive.

Traditionally, marriages are arranged, particularly in rural areas. The family of the potential groom sends a gift of kola nuts to the male elders of the family of the potential bride. If the gift is accepted by the family of the bride, the courtship is then allowed to begin. Since their pre-Islamic days, the Mandingo have practiced polygamy, allowing a man to have up to four wives - only if he is able to care for each wife equally. The first wife has authority over subsequent wives and wives are expected to live communally, sharing responsibilities like cooking, laundry and house-keeping. The Mandingo people have an interesting history that can be traced back many centuries. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General is of Mandingo ancestry. Don't miss any of our articles, blogs, updates or recipes! Sign up for email updates.

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5 Misconceptions About African Art and Culture

Even though we are seeing a remarkable rise in popularity of African art and culture here in the Western world, it is amazing how much misinformation and misconception still exists. Let's take a look at some of these misconceptions and hopefully gain a better understanding and appreciation.

Misconception #1

Africa Is A Country

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest piece of misinformation that exists about Africa – it is not a country. It’s a continent and it is comprised of more than 50 distinct countries. Now that this is out of the way, let’s take a look at some other misunderstandings.

Misconception #2

We Can’t Do Anything To Help

Many assume that there is little we can do to help and assume the entire continent is like what we see in commercials on TV. There are many ways that we can help regions of Africa that are in need. Zawadee gives back in three ways . . .
  • charitable donations through charity: water (Zawadee donates 2% of all sales and also supports).
  • Supporting African Artisans and Entrepreneurs through micro funding. These methods help to empower African artisans and entrerpeneurs.
  • providing a sales, marketing and distribution channel for African artisans and entrepreneurs

Zawadee remains committed to supporting the empowerment of African artisans and entrepreneurs.

Misconception #3

Africa Is Homogenous

Africa is one of the most diverse continents. This diversity is reflected in the multitude of arts and unique cultures. In general, there are five main regions: North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Art collectors and aficionados often look for African art based on these regional divides, however, distinctly different cultures and artistic expression occur within each region as well.

Misconception # 4

Africa Is Primitive

Many people think the entire continent is primitive, poor and war stricken. Not true at all! There are many progressive areas, and African art, culture, architecture and fashion have evolved significantly over the years. While African artisans are perhaps best known for their traditional wood carved sculptures and masks, African art continues to evolve. The growing community of contemporary artists and their creativity that are on display in art shows and galleries around the world is the proof of this constantly changing, constantly developing creativity.

Misconception #5

African Art Is Cursed

Many examples of African culture have spiritual meaning and can be associated with mythological and cultural spirits, namely the Shetani. Every piece, whether mask, sculpture, carving, painting, etc., is meant to communicate an aspect of culture, history, heritage. And, as with any artistic expression, some are lighter and more holistically spiritual and some are darker - communicating a more negative slant.

Hopefully, we've helped you gain a better appreciation for African art and culture!

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