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Zulu Nation

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."

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