Adventures in a Zulu Village, South Africa

Zulu village children in South Africa

“I’m very excited that my village is getting electricity at the end of the month,” proclaimed Eric, our Zulu guide as he proudly showed us around his Zulu village in the Drakensberg in the shadow of Catherdral Peak.

I was shocked to learn that only a couple of houses had electricity.  When I asked what he was most looking forward to about electricity he didn’t hesitate to answer “A refrigerator, so that I can eat more meat.  Now I only eat meat a couple of times a month when I go into town, but I have to eat it quickly before it spoils.”

Zulu village children in South Africa

Eric our Zulu Guide and resident of the Zulu community we visited.

The next day I met his brother Wiseman and posed the same question to him.  Despite living in the same house as his brother Eric, his answer was completely different, “A T.V. so that I watch more football (that’s soccer to N. Americans).”  This brief encounter got me asking myself a question I had never thought about before, What would I look forward to most about having electricity? and What else could I learn from the Zulu way of life?

Wiseman guide at Zulu Village, South Africa

Wiseman, our Zulu hiking guide and Eric’s brother. They live together with their parents in the same house.

If you lived in a Zulu village you would probably spend most of your free time playing football if you were a boy.  Girls are allowed to play, but usually choose not to do so.

Zulu village, South Africa

The Zulu village we visited with the dramatic Drakensberg mountains in the background.

If you lived in a Zulu village you wouldn’t be able to get married until you could pay your bride-to-be’s family with 11 cows.  I’m not making this up.  Wiseman has two children with his girlfriend from another village 90km away but is unable to live with her until they marry.  They cannot marry until he provides her family with 11 cows.  When asked if it was negotiable he thought for a moment, chewing his lip,  “Yes, I could marry her if I had 8 cows, and would then have another year to get the remaining 3 cows, but I don’t have 8 cows.  Cows are expensive.”  A line of credit so to speak.  “Would you like to marry your girlfriend?” I inquired.   “Yes of course.  Now I have to cook for myself and wash my own clothes.  When I come home from work I am tired and don’t feel like doing this.”  I waited for the punchline.  There wasn’t any.  Wiseman explained to me that in Zulu culture married men and women have clear roles – the man works and provides a living for his family, while the woman takes care of the household.  He was shocked by my surprise and asked if my husband helped around the house.  “Yes, I replied, he does all the laundry, I do all the cooking and we share the cleaning.”  He looked at me in disbelief, shaking his head as he muttered something under his breath.  Clearly he thought my husband had not gotten a good bargain when he married me.

Zuli Village in South Africa

Eric and Wiseman’s house where they lived with their parents.

Despite the distinctive roles, men do play an active role in the parenting.  After my previous conversation with Wiseman, I might not have believed this had I not seen it with my own eyes.  But Eric’s youngest of four children ran up to him in too big running shoes for a hug, clutched to him as Eric showed us around his village, and cryed miserably when it was time for Eric to leave.  Absolutely heartwarming!

Child at Zulu village, South Africa

Our Zulu guide Eric’s youngest of four children, who was clearly attached to his dad and beyond adorable.  Check out his too big shoes.

If you lived in a Zulu village you may not know what an “earthquake” was.   Eric explained  that since you would likely not have experienced one, and not having a T.V. or a computer may not have ever seen one.  Eric said this was where his village was split. Some residents were interested and sought out international news and events, others had no interest.  But without electricity seeking out information was not as easy as it is for most of us.   Despite the information divide, most Zulu speak more languages than most North Americans do.  Eric and Wiseman both spoke four languages, their native Zulu, Afrikaans, English and another local language, putting me to shame in the language department.

Store at Zulu village, South Africa

The only store in the Zulu Village we visited. The nearest grocery store is 45km away. Residents usually take a collective taxi to get there.

If you lived in a Zulu village you wouldn’t (gasp and unthinkable to me) like baboons, since a troop of baboons can destroy a garden in a matter of seconds and they can be very destructive should they get in your house.

If you lived in a Zulu village you might  never want to leave.  Both Eric and Wiseman were proud to be Zulu and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.   They loved their close-knit community and they seemed happy.

A week later back at home, I’m still pondering the electricity question.  It’s not easy to answer something that I’ve taken completely for granted my entire life.  I’m grateful for my adventures in a Zulu village that made me ask the question in the first place – and for my husband’s help around the house!

We stayed in the nearby lovely and spacious  Didma Chalets  which are only a short drive from the Zulu Village.  Inquire there or see the official South Africa Tourism Site (in German) or the South African Tourism Site (in English) for more info on how to arrange a tour of a Zulu village in the Drakensberg.

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Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.


  1. Leigh May 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    A thought provoking post Laurel.
    After a trip like this you come home and re-examine much of what we take for granted. Sounds like your short trip offered up some interesting experiences.

  2. Laurel May 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    @Leigh – Thanks, it definitely did give me a lot to think about and be thankful for – can’t say I thought much about being thankful for electricity until I visited the Zulu Village. Our trip was mostly a hiking trip, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with some locals.

  3. Chris May 9, 2012 at 4:05 am - Reply

    Thanks for that post! It certainly gave me a lot to think about! Hope you had a great trip down there.

  4. InsideJourneys May 9, 2012 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    This post was difficult for me to read and actually left me feeling a bit sad.
    It would be interesting to see how having electricity affects the community.

  5. Ryan at Travel and Graphs May 10, 2012 at 2:07 am - Reply

    I enjoyed the contrast you drew in the villagers desire for electricity. It is easy for westerners reading posts like this to generalize together the residents of a rural village, but posts like this remind readers of the individuality in all people.

  6. Jennifer Dombrowdki May 10, 2012 at 6:25 am - Reply

    Thought provoking post, Laurel! I was just having a discussion earlier this evening about cultural views of the man and woman’s role in relationships. Really makes us think about how lucky we are and how much we take for granted.

  7. Robert May 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing! I’m so sensitive about African situation as my father was born in Ethyopia and went there twice!You can really understand how people actually live in Africa only if you get the chance to experience it!

  8. And we have trouble going away for the weekend in places that don’t have cell or internet service! I enjoyed learning more about this Zulu village. Very thought provoking indeed!

  9. Steve May 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Heck, there’s a whole field full of cows out behind my house. I doubt the farmer would miss a couple of them. Let’s get these two married!
    On the other hand, with Eric’s craving for more meat, that might not go as well as planned.
    Really great read Laurel. Thought provoking.

  10. D.J. - The World of Deej May 10, 2012 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    Great stuff Laurel…oh the things we take for granted…

  11. Cathy Sweeney May 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Laurel, it was so interesting to read about your experience in the Zulu village. Such a unique opportunity. I love your photos and stories about the people you met. Great job!

  12. Suzy May 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Great insight Laurel. It’s funny because many of us have to take vacations just to unplug from all of that electricity we are using. I can see why they would know so many languages because they aren’t so distracted in life. The grass is always greener I suppose.

  13. Mary @ Green Global Travel May 18, 2012 at 3:26 am - Reply

    Very thought-provoking post! It compels you to realize just so much that we take for granted.

  14. Ashleen Moreen May 23, 2012 at 1:14 am - Reply

    Sounds like Eric and Wiseman are very excited to have an electricity in their village. I think you had a wonderful experience in Zulu Village. I wish I could have some trip like this.

  15. Sara June 2, 2012 at 3:46 am - Reply

    It is heartening to know that there are millions of houses across the world without electricity. If no electricity, then No TV, Refrigerator, Fan, Mixer.. O feel happy for Eric and Wiseman..

  16. Jessica August 27, 2014 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Having lived on a boat in SE Asia for a while, we have at various times and for various lengths (months) been without certain power-run things and I can tell you my experience. Some things – such as a/c, tv, water heater, even lights – are things you adapt to living without (however disagreeable). I agree with your first Zulu villager: I most value my freezer! Especially in places where meat is difficult to come by, that freezer makes food supply much easier, the diet more varied and the cooking more convenient (also for keeping bread, leftovers, vodka!, etc). Fridges are much easier to live without, especially if your milk comes in ultra-pasteurized boxes and your eggs and fruit come from markets where they have never been refrigerated and so “keep” at room temp. I do miss when I don’t have power outlets for fans (in our tropical heat), a microwave (to defrost the stuff from the freezer), my all-purpose/does everything rice cooker, toaster oven, and of COURSE, the laptop and cell phone power! (I guess the vacuum cleaner would also have to go on that list, but I’m happy for an excuse not to vacuum!) I HAVE noticed that having full electricity, a/c, etc changes our natural and communal rhythms: staying up late at night in artificial lights, not taking daily or weekly community trips to the market to get fresh foods, hiding inside air conditioning instead of outside where we visit with neighbors, playing on the computer when we could be out for a walk together. For all its conveniences (most of which I would not trade!!), it does come with a cost. Enjoying the blog!

    • Laurel September 29, 2014 at 12:41 pm - Reply

      @Jessica – Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.

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