Something Old, Something New, Something Butchered, Something With Entirely Too Much Sugar In It

26 Apr

What’s been going on that I have been neglecting the blog? For starters, school. To be the best teacher I can be demands a lot of my time. It’s hard to believe one term has already come and gone. I recently had to fill out a report for Peace Corps covering the first term of school, and I expect I’ll cover a lot of those topics in an upcoming post. But for now, enjoy this latest glimpse of Zulu culture as experienced through the eyes of someone who now feels deeply entrenched in Peace Corps culture.

Last Friday night, five of my PCV friends came to visit me at my site for the weekend. The main event was the Zulu version of an engagement party for one of my host brothers, Dumisani, and his bride-to-be, Zanele. It is called “lobola” which entails the beginning of the negotiations for how much he will pay the family (in cows or their cash equivalent) of his bride-to-be to marry her. (Think of it like the man having to buy the woman away from her family to join his.)

But the fun-filled weekend actually started Friday morning. Most of us were to meet with our local Department of Education managers that day at the Education Resource Center in town – a building that I would say is far too nice when compared to many of the schools in the district it serves. If some of the schools were as modern and well kept as this Resource Center, maybe the students would have better chances for success.

Anyway, in true Zulu fashion, the meeting which was originally scheduled for 2:00 pm was rescheduled for 9:00 am just two days prior. The volunteers (all of us still willing to attend after the last minute time-change, that is) arrived between 9:00 and 9:15. We waited in reception for more than thirty minutes while a receptionist tried to get the DOE attendees to answer their cell phones. We were then led into a conference room, where we waited for at least another 45 minutes before the receptionist and the remaining volunteers agreed to give up and scrap this meeting. We walked across the street to one of the local lodges and had an early lunch.

The meeting wasn’t a total loss. The volunteers had lots to talk to each other about, considering we now have one full term of teaching on our own under our belts. But, we could have done that at a different time. Keep in mind, if we weren’t attending a meeting that morning, we would have been doing our actual jobs: teaching children. (And, in these schools, there is no such thing as a substitute.)

So, our conversation continued over cold drinks and a lunch of cheeseburgers (that more closely resembled meatloaf sandwiches) and fries. We waited for our compatriots (who decided against coming to what turned out to be a non-meeting) to join us as their schools let out. (As a general rule, all schools “knock off” early on Fridays, though curiously enough, I’ve never seen a printed schedule that reflects this Friday anomaly.)

After some more food and more catching up, we journeyed down the street to the grocery store to stock up on supplies for the weekend. Those of you who keep up with my Facebook page already know that my friend Kelly in Phoenix, Arizona had recently sent me a large care package that included many important items for creating a fiesta of Mexican food.

Box contents Kelly 4-9-2013

The timing of the package’s arrival was nearly perfect for me to host five Americans who truly miss south-of-the-border cuisine. We just needed to buy ground beef (or “mince” in the South African parlance), a block of cheese, rice and vegetables; Kelly took care of the spices, salsa, chiles, refried beans, and – most importantly – the tortillas (flour and hard AND soft corn to choose from!).

Diana, Katrina, Michael, Shawn, Vanessa and I then walked to my site, which was already abuzz with activity in preparation for Saturday’s proceedings. That evening, in between figuring out sleeping arrangements and socializing with members of my extended host family, we cooked and enjoyed our Mexican feast in my little house.

We also had a chance to talk with who Dumisani designated as his negotiator in the lobola process: Mr. Gumede. Unfortunately, no one was really forthcoming with details of how all this works. Like most things in South Africa, we would figure it out as we went along.

On Saturday morning, we rose early enough to enjoy Katrina’s recipe for french toast before getting ready for what was sure to be a long day. I was in a suit and tie, as it was my brotherly duty to be dressed up for the occasion. Vanessa was in traditional Zulu attire (and excited that she had a good excuse to wear it, I think). The rest of the volunteers were comfortable in casual attire. We were ready to travel across the village to the bride-to-be’s family’s house for whatever we were to encounter next.

As I was reminded by Dumisani (and all of my host brothers, for that matter) on several occasions, I was extremely encouraged to take lots of photos of the event. So before we even left my yard I had started snapping them.


Part of the custom of the negotiating is gift-giving. Just to seek an audience with the family costs you the first cow and bunch of blankets (and apparently several cases of soft drinks). The cow was dropped off the night before. All of the other things and a bunch of people were loaded into the back a large truck. Luckily, the Americans got to ride in a smaller, extended cab pick-up. Add to that a few more car-loads of people, and you have yourself a lobola caravan for a journey that takes under 10 minutes in an automobile.

They were expecting us at 10:00 am. We arrived about 25 minutes later than we were supposed to, which is pretty good by the standards of “African Time” and how many people we had transported from one home to another. However, our late arrival was something of a faux pas as it pertains to the negotiations. Apparently we had already incurred a small fine for this. But, this is all part of a “dance” – a traditional, back-and-forth of haggling every detail of what happens over the course of the day. (I mean, really, come on! It’s not like there was a chance we weren’t coming; the cow had already been delivered!)

We got out of the cars, but we were just milling about in the area of the yard where we had parked, away from the houses on the property. They weren’t officially letting us in to their home yet. It was a bit weird. We could see them. They were all outside.

One of the first things I noticed was a large decorated tent. I knew lobola was serious business, but I wasn’t sure just how serious until I saw the tent. For an event to be tent-worthy, they had to have been expecting lots of people. Moreover, they were willing to spend the money to rent the tent, plus all the tables and chairs.


Next, I noticed the cows. It was pointed out to us that the largest and oldest was the gift cow. I’m still unclear where the other half dozen cows were from; perhaps they were just the bride’s family’s existing stock.

BS and cows

My best guess is that over 50 people from my host family were there, mostly adults. Probably close to twice that many people from the bride’s family were there. A group of this many Zulus means singing and dancing – it’s automatic. I’m desensitized to it now. But this was somewhat different in that my family was doing their own singing and dancing different from what the party-hosting family was doing. It was like a good-natured dancing and singing throw-down, and at least a little cacophonous.

However, the Zulus in my family were taken aback (and elated) when Vanessa (known to all the folks in attendance by her Zulu name, Sbongile) started dancing with them. She was already dressed for it, and she’s certainly not shy.

Vanessa dancing

Plus, we didn’t have much else to do. We were waiting (and the Americans weren’t even sure for what). It turns out that this is part of the negotiation ritual, too. Make the buyers sweat a little bit. Make ’em wait.

Finally, after a good 30 minutes of the sing/dance-off, we were allowed to parade ourselves over to the waiting family with all the gifts. We dropped them off, then made our way back to where the cars were parked, and to wait some more.


Luckily, the Americans were granted a reprieve about ten minutes into this next round of waiting. It was time to start slaughtering the cow! The oldest men from my family were in charge of this task, while the bride’s family (mostly the women) were on hand to keep the singing going. I get the feeling that traditionally we wouldn’t even be allowed over for this part of the day’s events, except that we were all curious to see it (and we were kinda’ special guests as it was).

This process wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure it was far from painless for the cow. But, there is a method to it, and even some honor in how it is done, considering they pulled out a special spear for just these types of occasions.

The first thing they do is tether the cow to a large tree: one rope on one of its hind legs and another on its head. Then they take up the slack in the ropes so it is fairly immobile and pretty close to the tree. The spear is unwrapped from a decorative ribbon, and the oldest brother prepared for the kill.

He skillfully moved in towards the beast, pierced it in the heart, and quickly backed off as the beast let out some dissatisfied noises. Unfortunately, this had to be repeated. By the second stabbing, blood was spilling pretty freely. The animal couldn’t take it anymore and had to sit. Less than two minutes later, it had to lay down. It was time to put it out of its misery.


Over the next five or so minutes, the cow was dragged by the men closer to the large branch of the tree from which it would be hung for cutting off its hyde. Once it was in position, they began to slit its throat. This is when I started feeling kinda’ bad for the animal.

Up until this day, it probably lived a pretty good life for a cow: grass-fed, low-stress, not a care in the world. Then, one day in its twilight years, someone decides it’ll be a good idea to tie it to a tree and stab it in the heart. It gives up and decides it is time to lay down and die. But just when it thinks its day couldn’t get any worse, the brother of the dude that stabbed it decides its respiratory system has to be discontinued.

It got bloody (or should I say “bloodier”?). The cow took its final breaths.

Now the men could hitch the rope that was attached to the cow’s head to a pick-up truck standing by to hoist it into a hanging position for butchering. After taking a bunch more photos, I had had my fill of this scene (as did most of the Americans by then), so I went back to where my host family was still singing and dancing by the yonder parked cars.

It was just after noon at this point, and everyone was getting pretty hungry. (The french toast from breakfast seemed like a distant memory.) My gift for the event was a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but I was clever enough to not drop them with the other gifts when we did our traditional parade of gift-giving earlier that morning. I knew they were going to be a gift for someone that day, so I didn’t feel bad when I had just enough to treat all the people standing around the cars to one cookie each. So what if the bride’s family missed out? Anyway, there weren’t nearly enough to give one to every person there. After I gave one to the (relatively) small group surrounding me, only two were left: one more for me and one more for the groom.

For about the next 30 minutes we took some more photos and chatted. Finally, we were given the ok to enter the tent. We were directed to sit at one of two very long tables in this festively decorated, white tent. Shortly after that, they started serving us refreshments of fruit, muffins, chips, and soft drinks.

So, Dumisani and all the folks in my host family – who had been enjoying each other’s company outside all morning and into the afternoon – were now sitting under a tent to enjoy each other’s company some more, except for the fellas who were still busy butchering the cow. The bride’s family was yet to join us. I took off my tie.

no tie

And, for about the next four or so hours, that was what was happening. It’s hard to decipher exactly how long it was, because when you really aren’t doing anything for so long, you get a warped concept of time.

Throughout that time, the butchering team joined us. Then, the bride’s family. Finally, dinner was served as it was getting dark outside. Everyone consumed mass quantities. (None of the food came from the freshly slaughtered cow, by the way. That we started consuming the next day.)

And then, after we had all eaten, the bride-to-be made a grand entrance to the tent. Now the families were all singing and dancing to the same tune.


The sky had been threatening rain throughout the day, but it held off from really serving us up a downpour until about the time the party was over. We hurriedly crammed ourselves back into the extended cab pick-up for the jaunt back to my house.

It became clear to me by the end of the party that throughout all of these events outside and under the big top, Dumisani’s negotiator, Mr. Gumede, was inside the bride’s family’s house, doing his best to get the girl for the least amount of cows. We waited so long for dinner because it wasn’t to be served until they had reached an agreement. When I asked one of my other host brothers if the negotiations had shaken out in Dumisani’s favor, his response was “he won.”

Bride-to-be, sitting across from the groom

To cap off the evening, I had planned to bake another batch of chocolate chip cookies for my PCV friends. I put them to work chipping up bars of chocolate (since it seems to be impossible to buy a bag of chocolate chips in South Africa). I started mixing the other ingredients. But, we were talking and I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I was doing.

I definitely put in too much butter. And, I realized after we started that I didn’t have enough treacle sugar (a delicious and abundant substitute for recipes that call for brown sugar). But, the biggest (Hugest? Most colossal? How could I have done this?) issue was when I accidentally mixed up my containers of flour and powdered sugar.

The cookies were a joke. I tried to fix the batter as I went along, but I still hadn’t realized the powdered sugar mishap, so all of my attempts were based on the notion that I had just used too much butter and an improper balance of white and brown sugar. I put the rest of the cookie dough (can we even call it that?) in the freezer to deal with at another time. The weird stuff I had pulled out of the oven was partially eaten by all of us in strange pieces and many crumbs (it did have nice big chunks of chocolate in it, after all), and the remainder was put in a tupperware in the fridge. We went to bed.

Even now, it is unclear to me how much of what went into that cooke dough was flour and how much was powdered sugar. All I know for sure is that I no longer have powdered sugar in my house, and I only figured all of this out yesterday evening.

Sunday morning, I orchestrated some breakfast burritos with the six remaining eggs I had and the Mexican food leftovers. They were delicious and I feel it was a step in the right direction for redeeming myself after the cookie failure.

All the PCVs readied themselves for the walk back into town, where they would find transport to their respective sites. I went along to pick up some items that I would need for the week ahead … and to catch up with Jonelle, our PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), who was planning to be in town that morning, too.

As we were finishing packing up everybody’s stuff, Diana decided to give the frozen, unbaked cookie dough a taste test. To her delight, it was quite delicious that way. Everyone had a chunk or two (or three). I think (I hope) that everyone felt they got some benefit out of chipping all of that chocolate.

By late Sunday morning, it was back to just me in my little house, preparing for the upcoming week of classes and reviewing the 600-plus photos I had taken the day before. However, the after-lobola-party was just getting underway, right outside my door.

Dumisani was given a considerable amount of beef from the freshly butchered cow, and quite a delicious stew was prepared for the party with it and served over rice. A plate was even delivered to me by the kids. I joined the party for a while and enjoyed some more food. The cow did not die in vain.

But the question on all the after-party-goers’ lips was “Where’s Sbongile (Vanessa)?” Until the next big family event that all my PCV friends attend, I guess I’ll have to work on my Zulu dance moves.

PS: The baked, sugary, chocolate chip concoction that went into the fridge was subsequently consumed by mixing it with cream cheese and roasted almonds. It tasted so good that I am contemplating figuring out how to do it again. The unbaked, frozen dough remains … for now it is untapped creativity.


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