Cultural Experiences May Seem Odd, but Remember that to Black South Africans, Some American Culture is as Well

I had a rather interesting cultural experience about three weeks ago. It demonstrated the significant differences at times between the old, traditional Zulu South Africa and the modern, ever-changing one.

At the primary school next door to Masiphile, four or five students reported to a teacher that they had seen a woman with blood on her arm, but she wasn’t a real woman. She was a ghost or an apparition. The teacher apparently told the principal, whom I’ve met several times and who is intelligent, sophisticated, educated (he drives a Beemer). Now, I’m getting this second hand from co-workers who live in this village, Shayamoya, so I don’t know exactly what transpired next, but after a few days it was announced there would be a “day of prayer” at the school. As next-door neighbors and partners in various activities, we were expected to be there, so Welile (well-LEE-lay) and I represented Masiphile.

There were about 100 people there, in addition to the students, all sitting under a huge canopy that had been erected to protect us from the sun (or the rain – you never know what it’s going to do). At the head table were 11 ministers from various churches, all dressed in nice suits, all with open bibles, ready to quote scripture if given the chance. The head table also included the principal and a local politician. And, eventually, me. As usual, I was the only white person present. Anytime I get invited to any community event they always insist I sit at the head table. Sometimes I have to say a few words, but, if I’m lucky, I don’t. I’m always honored to be treated as someone special, but it’s not my nature to seek the limelight, so it’s something that has taken some getting used to – especially having to get up and speak Zulu on occasion.

We were a few minutes late so the festivities had already started when I had to walk to the front and take a seat in front of a couple hundred people. They put me at the end on the left, next to speakers the size of Volkswagens. There were several people in the audience that I recognized: a couple of our crèche teachers, parents of some of our kids, women from our elders’ group, our ward counselor. Several local congregations were represented, each distinguished by the distinctive congregational attire they wear – black and white, or blue, or green and white, what amounts to uniforms, just as learners in all public schools have uniforms in the school colors.

There was lots of singing, praying, dancing, pandemonium, common at all Zulu functions, and all of it amplified to about 40 decibels higher than it needed to be (well, in my opinion). The soloist was a hefty Zulu woman with a wonderful voice and impressive range, right up there with Diana Ross, Ethel Merman and Whitney Houston, talented gospel singers all before they went on to become famous entertainers.

Eventually, someone came ‘round and asked everyone at the head table their names and what they did, or who they represented, for formal introductions. The person said to me, ”Are you a pastor?” although I was in my sheep herder vest and dusty hiking shoes, having not known until just a few minutes earlier that I would be representing Masiphile at the head table in front of hundreds of people. This sort of thing actually happens a lot – I’m the last to know my part in important events, often just minutes before I am to “perform.” Gotta be flexible and adaptable. But I digress! I didn’t look anything like the actual ministers, but I was mistaken for one. I wonder if that’s good or bad.

It all went on for two or three hours, culminating in a loud, energetic, boisterous 30-minute message by the main minister about casting out demons, fighting Satan and cleansing the school of evil. There was reference to the old saw, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” clearly an explanation for why it was necessary to have a day of prayer at the school to help it return to normal. He referred to Matthew 8:28-32. In essence, it was an exorcism, I think. An effort to cast out evil from the school. And I mean no disrespect. It’s important for Peace Corps volunteers, and anyone learning about a new culture, to understand that the people they are learning about may have been practicing their beliefs for thousands of years. And understand that there are practices and beliefs the newcomer/studier has in their own culture that might seem just as strange to rural South Africans. Though South Africans in many ways embrace modern practices and ideas, one can’t expect them to suddenly forget about cultural mores in play for a thousand years. I had never seen anything like this event, though I imagine there are some American churches that practice similarly. Is not exorcism a tenet of Catholicism?

The local politician spoke last, watched over as always by his two armed body guards. City councilors here are routinely assassinated for their political beliefs. About 35 murders in KZN alone in the last four or five years.

As I have mentioned before in this space and in Facebook posts, the idea of separation of church and state, the law in the U.S., is a concept most black South Africans would find baffling. Every aspect of their lives is intertwined with their religion – most are Christian – including government and education. Every public event, council meeting, etc. starts and ends with a prayer to “Baba” (father or God), and is often accompanied by a spiritual song before the meeting begins and again at the end.

Peace Corps Core Expectation # 7: Work within the rules and regulations of Peace Corps and the local and national laws of the country where you serve

About GaryC

I'm a retired mental health worker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer (South Africa, 2012-2013), and a writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon with the world's best dog, Carly. My card describes me also as "Jack-of-few-Trades, Master of Some", non-profit supporter, friend, grandpa and world traveler.
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