Shakaland: Traditional Zulu ways on display at 'village' that grew up around movie set
ESHOWE, South Africa (CNN) -- You won't see much evidence of traditional culture on the street in South Africa. Instead, one of the only places to witness the old ways is to visit a cultural village like the Zulu tribe's Shakaland.
South Africa's majority black population includes more than 17 different ethnic groups, but their lifestyles have been changed by European culture and urban modernization. Places like Shakaland have grown in popularity as tourists look for evidence of traditional tribal societies.
Shakaland can seem like a theme park, but it is meant to represent a real "kraal," or village. It was put together from parts of a set built for a mid-1980s television miniseries called "Shaka Zulu" about King Shaka, a 19th-century Zulu chief known as one of the greatest African warriors of all time.
The story of King Shaka
King Shaka formed the Zulu tribe, South Africa's largest ethnic group, when he unified all of the Nguni clans and gave the new group his own clan name.
Shakaland is located in KwaZulu-Natal, an area named by the powerful king. KwaZulu means "place of the people of the heavens." Here, visitors learn about the history of Zulu culture by observing demonstrations such as a courting ceremony and the work of "sangomas," or spiritual healers.
Visitors also learn about the tribal etiquette of asking for permission to enter a home or gateway, and they watch the making of beaded jewelry in which messages are encoded with color.
There also are demonstrations of the sport of stick fighting and the strategies behind making -- and throwing -- spears.
The Zulu way of cooking also is demonstrated, and visitors sample the native cuisine at dinner, which includes rice, wild spinach, wild pumpkin, stew and grilled beef.
Learning Zulu customs
Shakaland's guests also learn that traditional Zulu rules of attire relate to the wearer's status. For example, young unmarried women go topless, while women who are married or engaged cover their breasts and their heads.
One of Shakaland's most compelling activities is the energetic dancing. There are dances for different ceremonies -- including courtship and preparing for war.
"It is a working village in the sense that people are actually living here. They live inside the village," said Francois Meyer, general manager of Shakaland. "But... I'm not saying people live like this all the time. Our schoolkids go to school in the morning. People actually have off days and they go home to their homes."
Guests can stay in rooms that look like the traditional beehive-shaped, grass-and-mud huts on the outside but have all the comforts of home on the inside.
Critics say the villages exploit
Although the traditions they demonstrate are centuries-old, cultural villages like Shakaland are relatively new.
Critics say they exploit the local culture, but supporters believe the villages represent a way to teach while preserving tribal heritage.
The debate touches on concerns that the cultures are being preserved for the entertainment of mostly white, wealthy tourists, and some say that many cultural villages are owned by white South Africans who reap the benefits of increasing tourist dollars.
At Shakaland, employees get a salary and can make extra money by selling their crafts. Blessing Dube, an employee, said he and his co-workers are happy to show their proud heritage to visitors.
"They come here without any knowledge of our customs and beliefs. We hope that they will see the difference now that they have met the Zulus, how the Zulus live, what type of people Zulus are..."
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