Lesedi cultural village is set among the rocky hills north of Johannesburg. When we arrive, a man in animal skins and fake fur takes my humiliatingly heavy bag. With a loud grunt, he hoists it onto his bare shoulders and we walk through the bushveld to our room. It adjoins some round concrete huts inhabited by a family that has been imported from a village near South Africa's border with Mozambique. They are "elders, wives, and children, all peacefully living their traditional lives in a traditional homestead," claims the brochure. We are supposed to be welcomed by a "villager" and taken to meet his family. Instead, we are handed a key and left alone in a thatched-roof room, with an African-print bedspread, a bathroom, and a front patio that seems more traditional motor lodge than village.
Sarah, my traveling partner, is a composer and vocalist with an interest in ethnic music and a day job at New York's Museum of Natural History. I'm a Manhattanite who's intoany culture more exotic than my own. So what are we doing here, feeling like two hapless tourists at a tribal buffet?
We are trying to have a cultural experience. We, two of a group that the Travel Industry Association of America claims numbers 65 million travelers every year, have left behind our frenzied lives in search of another world, where the only form of telecommuting is by way of ancestral voices. Yet what we are looking at could not be less authentic. We are surrounded by topless young women in beads and sneakers, children in ceremonial garb, and a busload of tourists. Of course, we knew this place would not be the real thing, given its promotional literature and proximity to Johannesburg. Still, neither of us was prepared for this level of processed tribalism. "Oh my God" is all Sarah can say.
We are shepherded into a theater for a presentation that is primitive only by Disney standards, and that introduces us to the four tribes of people represented at Lesedi—Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, and Pedi. Performers run around, waving shields and torches. A cow gets up and walks offstage on cue. The German tourists listen to the show through headsets customized with Zulu beadwork. "My friends, you have made an effort to visit us," says the show's host, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and not much else, "and you will be rewarded." A tour follows.
Outside the Xhosa village (Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa), we yell "Uwena!" to let the "chief" know we want to visit. At the Sotho village, a woman makes sorghum beer. Here's a Zulu carrying wood on her head. Here's one pounding millet. Neither is smiling. Would you, if you were carrying wood and pounding millet, things you left your village to forget about, along with dangerous animals, AIDS, flooding, poverty, and malaria?A lively concert follows, then a feast of impala, crocodile, ostrich sausage, and oxtail stew.
The busload of tourists departs. Sarah and I are the only overnight guests, and suddenly it's too quiet. I buy the "cultural host" of Lesedi, Hlon Phisa Chonco, a drink at the bar. He's exhausted, and when I ask if we can go hang out with the other "villagers" to see how they really live, all he tells us is that "they are relaxing." In other words, no. He's been moving tourists around all day. Tomorrow there will be more, and maybe the tips will be decent.
The pay is low at places like Lesedi—maybe a hundred dollars a month. Still, villagers want jobs. "We're helping young people keep their traditions," Chonco says. "Today, people know nothing about their cultures. I like bringing kids here." I'd like to know what the inhabitants of Lesedi do between shows and shifts of washing sheets and dishes. (We find out later they have a TV hut.) But Chonco looks too tired to be asked. After he says good night, a line from the show that he had cheerfully narrated earlier echoes in my head. "Africa," he said, "is a place of great suffering."
It is hard, in fact, to go to Africa these days without feeling fearful—Liberia, Uganda, the Congo are not names to conjure with. South Africa, however, with its solid tourism infrastructure and posh wilderness lodges, seems different somehow. In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's northeasternmost province, game preserves and Zulu villages checker the rippling green land that ends at the Indian Ocean. KZN encompasses the Zulu Kingdom, also known as Zululand. About 600,000 of the country's 2.1 million foreign tourists a year come here. Forty-six percent of those visitors head to cultural villages. According tothe region's tourism Web site and a popular book put out by Africa Holiday Publications called Zulu: People of Heaven, Zululand is a dynamic culture steeped in the old ways. What I had read suggested that people still wove baskets and built beehive huts from grass. I pictured drumming, traditional stick fighting, and the kind of choral singing made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon's Graceland. But South Africa, like Polynesia, was colonized early on; the genuine culture of the Zulu nation was suppressed more than 100 years ago by colonial armies and Christianity.
To complicate things further, much of Zulu history (written by Englishmen) describes battles against other tribes or against the Boers and the British. Thus it perpetuates the image of modern Zulus as warlords. "Zulu culture is a difficult thing to describe," says Jerome Dube, a student at the University of Natal in Durban. "In fact, one wonders what it is—military or what?" Whatever it is, Dube has observed a recent upsurge in its promotion. "These days, everybody is selling Zulu culture and dressing for ceremonies," he says. Along with Heritage Day, virginity "testing days" are becoming as popular as they were 50 years ago. And when he co-curated an exhibition about traditional healers (sangomas), the crowds poured in. A significant number of black South Africans use traditional healers. By law, the Zulu language—or one of the nation's 10 other languages—must be taught in schools, along with myths and traditions. And now you're just as likely to hear Zulu on TV as in the streets.
But even before apartheid ended, a tidal wave of Zulu awareness had hit South Africa, in the form of the slick, epic miniseries Shaka Zulu. Based on the diaries of an English naval lieutenant, Shaka Zulu tells the story of the empire-building King Shaka during the turbulent 19th century, when European forces were encroaching on the hunting and agrarian cultures of KZN. As Roots did in the United States, Shaka Zulu galvanized black consciousness in South Africa. Even today, Henry Cele, who played Shaka, is celebrated as if he were a king. While good for black South African self-esteem, Shaka Zulu also threw into relief the country's cultural schizophrenia—tribal on the one hand, Westernized on the other. But it's tribal realism that tourists come to see. To satisfy Zululand visitors, guidebooks, tour promoters, and even a government Web site are suggesting that today's Zulus are far more old-fashioned than they actually are. This problem is not unique to Zululand.
A British organization called Survival for Tribal People warns that referring to cultures, from Canada to Indonesia, as "untouched by time" is "demeaning and quite simply untrue." And an article published by UNESCO in 1999 contends that rather than empowering local communities, "cultural tourism" chips away at cultures by turning people into commodities with reconstructed ethnicities. So, how do you find the real thing?"To identify the authentic," Dube tells me, "you have to see the fakes."
Our guide for the week in Zululand is the perfect accomplice for this. Dingani Mthethwa, who is getting his master's in history at the University of Natal, was booked for us through a South African travel planner. He grew up in a village in Maputaland, in KwaZulu-Natal's remote north.
After driving three hours northwest from Durban, first along the ocean, then into an undulating green landscape, we take a dirt road into Shakaland, a serene, luxurious place crouched low in the tall grass. Built on the set where the TV miniseries was filmed, Shakaland sits in the Entombeni Hills overlooking Umhlatuz Lake. The place is as posh as a quiet Caribbean retreat, with deluxe guest huts, a conference room on the site of King Shaka's great hut, and a video screening room called the House of Pictures. In a dining rotunda, a mural by the art director of Shaka Zulu depicts the life of the warrior who commanded 15,000 men. The images of bloodthirsty savages make Dingani cringe. I find them fun—history via showbiz. "A man without culture," the mural explains, "is like a zebra without stripes."
On the way out, Dingani asks a young man in Zulu getup, who is Xhosa, not Zulu, what kind of dance he does in the show. "It's supposed to be Zulu, but I dance Xhosa," he admits. "The tourists don't know the difference." His boss explains that it doesn't matter what tourists are seeing as long as they get a feeling from the dances. Dingani nods and smiles. He has seen similar things before. A shop in the Valley of a Thousand Hills sells crafts made in Taiwan. A nearby hotel lures tourists with a beehive-hut homestead (family installed) even though beehive huts were never used in the area. A guidebook suggests curdled milk is a staple food, when it isn't. Dingani doesn't want to live among "postcard Zulus." "Unless something is done," he says, "we will end up living in a history that never happened."
After lunch at Shakaland we drive a short distance to the Simunye Pioneer Village & Zulu Lodge, near Melmoth, and are relieved to be greeted by a staff not in costume. We ride on horseback to the lodge, looking into the Mfule Valleyand at the Zulu villages on the horizon. The lodge itself is set between river and cliffs. Simunye (owned by the Protea Hotel Corp.) is the former homestead of a white South African whose family purportedly maintains a close relationship with members of the local Biyela clan. It was designed to give tourists a sense of how Zulu people live today. "But then visitors started complaining that they wanted to see villagers in animal skins," says François Meyer, a Protea manager, "so we threw in some skins. Now the biggest criticism is that it isn't authentic enough."
That may be, but Simunye, built as it is so close to nature, seems to take a somewhat more subtle approach to promoting Zulu culture. Although I've been told that the place is not running at a profit, I can see how it has the potential to succeed: it's rustic enough to seem almost like the real thing—the rooms are comfortable but basic; there is no electricity; you can smell the cooking fires from neighboring villages. At dusk, we walk with a dozen other guests in a torchlit procession behind a Zulu guitar player. At the gate of a beautiful village (or kraal) built for display purposes only, we are introduced to a chief who tells us, through the lodge's interpreter, that taking photos is allowed. Even though he's only an actor, he's imposing, with cow-tail tufts around his upper arms, patches of calfskin around his waist, and leopard skin, the mark of power, around his shoulders. We are shown the inner corral where the cattle—a form of currency for Zulus, although increasingly less so as grasslands are overgrazed and modern life replaces tradition—are kept. "The price for a bride is eleven heads of cattle," the guide tells us, "unless she's been married before; then it's only nine." Offered a calabash of sorghum beer, one tourist takes a long drink. "Very yeasty," he says. We laugh. Perhaps it's the setting, but the modern world finally feels light-years away. Who could complain?
Back at the lodge, a bonfire is burning, and some performers cross the water with torches, voices soaring above the roar of the river. Their dances—a "bull dance" invented by miners, a shield dance dating back to Shaka's time, a women's hunting dance—are performed at shows all over KZN. Many of them require high kicking, and the dancers' enthusiasm, as they sing and entreat us to join in, is infectious. "It's lovely here," one happy tourist says. "I want to remember everything." Dingani is not so approving. Some of those dances aren't even from South Africa, he says, and he hears that the staff is overworked and underpaid. But the hearth fire is burning so brightly, the singing is so pretty, the spot so wild yet unthreatening, that it seems almost cynical to bring up politics. "Listen, I don't want to know," I tell him. "This is a great place."
The following morning, after a demonstration of ox-plowing and stick fighting, we sit in a "hut" where we inhale heather incense and hear about marriage customs still practiced today: two-day weddings and polygamy. Later, we leave the property with a lunch , prepared for us by the resort, that's meant for three but could easily feed 15. Dingani is taking us on a walk to visit some nearby villages.
Past a shack of a store with a Pepsi sign, on paths through tall grasses bowing to the wind, we walk from one village to the next. A boy accompanying us gives a traditional yell at each one, asking if we can enter. There is not much to the villages. No stores or gardens. Just empty areas where cattle used to be and a few tiny houses. We sit in variously shaped huts. Some are bare, with cleanly swept, polished clay floors and rolled-up straw mattresses. Others have furniture and Western mattresses, and one even has a tape player and a battery-powered TV. Women whose husbands are out working or looking for work, a regular task in a region that has 34 percent unemployment, talk to us in weary voices while holding children in tattered clothes. We give out toys and crayons and smile a lot. The villagers smile a lot, too. At our last stop, we sit with an elder under a tree. "Simunye doesn't give much back to the community," he tells Dingani. And unlike Shakaland, which allows cattle to graze freely on its property, this resort does not enjoy good relations with its neighbors. "How do you feel about an actor playing a chief?" Dingani asks him. "A shame, but it's a way for a man to give bread to his family," the man replies.
I am finally having an authentic Zulu experience and I am miserable. The land may be pretty, but it is no longer arable and cattle cannot survive. The people may seem at peace, but they are anxious about jobs, about feeding their families. Dingani is making me see that this is not a happy place at all.
Back at the car, we set out our copious lunch—a giant platter—under a tree on a dirt road. Nearby, kids are walking home from school, and we entreat them to join us. Suddenly, we are surrounded by friendly faces. With me on ukulele and Sarah on drum, we give a goofy, impromptu concert. The kids are tickled. In response, they sing for us. Dingani is impressed. These people, as patient as they are with affluent tourists, have been seeing them for far too long. I feel less guilty looking at them when I'm a novelty myself. That night, with only a few guests, the dance performers (each is paid a dollar per show; some have to get up the next day for school) seem strained. I applaud for them until my hands hurt.
In The Interpretation of Cultures, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz compares the work of learning about a society to a journey that, "like any genuine quest," takes you through "a terrifying complexity." Terrifying complexity is inescapable on our trip through KwaZulu-Natal. Yet despite the discomforts of being on a South African vacation freighted with the politics of race, authenticity, and land management, we are having what could be called a good time.
At Mgungungdlovu, the grassy hill of King Dingane's capital, we stand at a monument where 35 Boers were killed in 1838, triggering the Boer-Zulu war that followed, which ended badly for the Zulus. Dingani, who is self-conscious about his name around Afrikaners, has an uncomfortable moment. Four Afrikaners (latter-day Boers, who originally came to South Africa as Dutch settlers in the 17th century) get out of a car to pay their respects to the dead. When they see him giving us a tour, their faces tense and they file past quickly. "They know I'm telling you the story from a black perspective," he says. "South African history is all about people with competing stories." So many battles were fought here, in the heart of Zululand, ending with the final British victory against the Zulus in 1879. Today, a hereditary king, Goodwill Zwelithini, is in office, and there's a regional parliament in Ulundi as well as in Pietermaritzburg, and solid Zulu representation in the national government. But things are far from settled. Despite the Afrikaner alliance with the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, there is tension between the two groups over land rights and the ongoing economic and social discrepancies between blacks and whites. "History is not finished here yet," Dingani says. "Not at all."
We are finding complexity everywhere: in AIDS awareness posters, in conversations about corrupt Zulu chiefs elected to office through questionable voting procedures, and in the faces of children who give us a roadside choral concert that ends with outstretched hands and pleas of "I am hungry." There is complexity in nature, too. And I don't mean in the fact that one night, at a lavish candlelit dinner at Ndumo Wilderness Camp, after being introduced to a crocodile named Oscar we get to watch crickets hop down the pretty linen dress of a dignified South African hostess. I mean that the question of who controls nature in South Africa is complex. "The trouble with the government," says Phillip Mphini Khumalo, a local man who acts as our wilderness guide at Ndumo, "is that it looks after rhinos, not people."
Ndumo, situated on the Usutu River adjacent to the floodplains along the Mozambique border, has been a reserve for more than 60 years. It doesn't have any big cats, but it does have a big problem with the neighbors, whose crops are being destroyed by the hippos the lodge is protecting for tourists to see. Besides destroying crops, the hippos prevent locals from being able to fish in their own waters. "The point of a fence, more than keeping animals in, is to keep people out," says Khumalo, who is happily employed and fond of his white South African bosses at the lodge. "It separates locals from their burial grounds and ancestral homes. These days social ecologists are trying to work out new deals and compromises to let villagers back into the parks."
Dingani is less optimistic about such developments, even with KwaZulu-Natal gaining control of the administration of its parks and the increasing presence of private, socially conscious programs like the Cashew Nut Project, which trains Zulus to grow crops that do well in sandy soil. "I like the idea of it," Dingani says. "But the project is still run by outsiders."
"So, are you ready to see the animals at Phinda?" Dingani asks sarcastically as he navigates the dirt road from Sodwana Bay to a small private game reserve located just west of Lake Saint Lucia and the Indian Ocean. Our final stop in KwaZulu-Natal is a famously posh place, and Sarah is ecstatic about seeing animals. At this point, knowing what I know about conservation in Africa, I feel defensive about going somewhere to enjoy nature. This is a good place, I tell Dingani. Phinda, I have been informed, is the model of a new type of game preserve, developed with the idea that to conserve wildlife in Africa, the local people must also receive serious attention. He's skeptical at best, and our parting, at Phinda, is more bitter than sweet. "Enjoy the trees and animals," he mutters before driving off.
On our first game drive, we see zebras, giraffes, rhinos, and lions. We'll see elephants later. To be enjoying such things is a relief. Nature is always hopeful. In addition to bush walks, Phinda offers its guests "educational community trips." And so the following day finds us driving outside the electric fence around the paradise of the preserve, which covers 42,000 acres of sand forest, savannah, and wetland ecosystems. Jason King, Phinda's general manager and a white South African, is taking us for a look around. With him is Gladys Zikhale, a local Zulu who worked her way up at the lodge from chambermaid to one of its two full-time community liaisons for charitable projects. These projects include school and clinic construction, land rehabilitation, scholarship programs, and employment initiatives, such as offering loans to sewing clubs that make school uniforms. "We realized early on that if the people don't want us here, then we won't exist," King says. I know it's his job to make Phinda look good. Still, his focused concern is convincing, as is the simple fact that there have not been any land claims against Phinda since it came into the area 10 years ago. When Phinda builds facilities in the communities, King tells me, they are designed with input from local people. He shows me a new school and a 24-hour health clinic that serves three villages and 70,000 people. Inside there are boxes of supplies, donated by a Canadian dentist who was inspired while staying at the lodge (many of Phinda's guests end up making substantial contributions). Dingani might say this doesn't help people to help themselves. He might cringe at the scene I saw next—a village man deeply moved by the gift of some boxes of clothing and stuffed animals. But to date, Phinda has raised more than a million dollars for community projects. "What we're doing is unusual, but not impossible," King says. The same is true of a country struggling so intensely to right so many wrongs in such short order.
Three intra-Africa airlines connect Johannesburg to Durban and other areas of KwaZulu-Natal province. Africa Tours (800/235-3692 or 631/264-2800; www.africasafaris.com) offers custom air-land charters and can set you up with local guides (including Dingani Mthethwa), arrange charter flights and safaris and book hotels and a car. (Malaria is endemic in the low-lying regions of coastal Zululand and Maputaland; see your doctor for antimalarial drugs at least two weeks before your trip.)
WHERE TO STAY
Simunye Zulu Lodge Eleven basic rooms and five stone-and-thatch huts. DOUBLES FROM $280, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. RTE. 66, 27 MILES PAST ESHOWE; 27-35/450-3111; www.proteahotels.com
Ndumo Wilderness Camp & Lodge Eight large canvas tents, with more than 400 recorded bird species on-site. The neighboring Mathenjwa community receives a share of lodge profits. DOUBLES FROM $500, INCLUDING ALL MEALS. 27-11/884-1458; www.wilderness-safaris.com
Phinda Four lodges—Vlei, Rock, Mountain, and Forest—with chic, spacious suites, and seven ecosystems. Part of the Conservation Corporation Africa chain, with forward-looking community-relations initiatives. DOUBLES FROM $860, INCLUDING ALL MEALS, A GUIDED NATURE WALK, AND TWO GAME DRIVES. 27-35/562-0271; www.ccafrica.com
For a list of ecolodges with community-based programs, check out Conservation Corporation Africa's Web site (www.ccafrica.com).
WHAT TO DO
Shakaland You can stay overnight (doubles from $220), but Shakaland, 100 miles north of Durban, is best visited on a day trip. RTE. 66, 8 MILES PAST ESHOWE; 27-35/460-0912; www.proteahotels.com
Mashu Museum of Ethnology The University of Natal's museum displays Zulu artwork, cultural artifacts, and an extensive beadwork collection. 220 MARRIOTT RD., DURBAN; 27-31/207-3711
The Zulus, by Ian Knight (Osprey Publishing). A short guide to Zulu history.
The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz (Basic Books). A foundational text of cultural anthropology.
The Heart of Redness, by Zakes Mda (Picador). Acclaimed South African writer Mda examines the tensions between traditional beliefs and modern ambitions in post-apartheid South Africa.