The interesting link between a Chinese philosopher and an African tribe
Welcome to my Way of the Zulu series where I share my most rewarding and valuable experiences as an Englishman living in an ancient African culture.
Five hundred years before the Christ story gripped the western world, a Chinese philosopher called Lau Tzu wrote what has since become a literary masterpiece on the practice of life in less than five thousand words. It's called the Tao Te Ching or The Way and its characteristics and in it, Lau Tzu says that he cannot give it a name but only describe how it behaves and its now pretty clear that over two and a half thousand years later and with the benefit of modern science, we can say that he was describing the nature of the way or the way of nature, as in its enduring and unchanging laws and processes. He also talks of the need to return to the way of the ancients, which takes us even further back into our human ancestry and as I discovered, all the way back into southern Africa where it all began and where, unbeknown to the rest of the world, it is still practiced today among the Bantu tribes and most expressively by one tribe in particular.
Over a three-year period at the end of the nineteen nineties, I travelled extensively through Namibia, Botswana and South Africa on self-guided safari tours and engaged with many of these Bantu tribespeople whose welcoming friendliness was practiced universally. Then on the advice of a safari guide that I met and got drunk with in Namibia, I visited a remote tribal village called Mbazwana in Zululand, South Africa where I encountered the Zulu people and stepped into a different world.
The environment around the village was a paradise of nature with four major game reserves within a two hour drive of the village, home to every African animal that you can imagine and plenty that you can’t. And just ten minutes drive from Mbazwana is Sodwana bay, part of 220 kilometers of pristine golden beaches on the clear warm waters of the Indian ocean. It has the world’s most southerly coral reef system and the whole coastline is protected two kilometres inland and twelve kilometres out to sea because it is home to the most ecologically diverse marine life on the planet. It is on the migration route of Humpback and Southern Right whales, Whaleshark and Rays. It is home to Dolphins, Turtles, Ragged Tooth and Reef Tipped shark, Moray eels and Octopus as well as innumerable exotic fish species and things that I don’t even know exist.
Mbazwana is home to around 30,000 Zulu and the tribal centre for many more who live out in the bush. As soon as I arrived, I engaged with the local community but I got a lot more than the customary Bantu friendliness that I was expecting. I was literally adopted by the community and by one family in particular and welcomed into the whole Zulu family that numbers some 11.5 million people, not as white Roy from England but as Roy a brother in the Zulu family. As you can imagine, coming from a culture where your family is measured in a handful of people and everyone else is either a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger on a sliding scale of emotional importance, this had quite an effect on me. So much so that I moved in with my adopted family and my two week visit became a four year stay where I lived with the Zulu, as a Zulu and learned all there is to know about their history, beliefs, traditions and ways of life.
I soon found out why Bantu tribes are so welcoming and friendly when I was first told of Ubuntu, a Zulu word that translated means, I am because we are. It is the belief that we are inseparable from each other as human beings and it is practiced in the behaviour of one human family. As I experienced more of this culture I realised that it was the way of life described by Lau Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, with which I was very familiar. I spent a lot of time with Sangoma’s (Shaman in other cultures) who were telling the story of Lau Tzu’s ancients that the Zulu call the ancestors. Zulu history pre-dates the written word and is kept and told orally. Sangoma’s are the guardians and keepers of this story and the story of Ubuntu has an unbroken lineage right back to the first human families that came out of the very nearby cradle.
And as I explored the natural environment in which I was totally immersed more and more, an incredible and amazing picture began to emerge of Lau Tzu’s way. The processes of nature at work in everything you see, wherever you are and how to live as a human being in harmony and unity with them. If I could meet Lau Tzu today, I would tell him that the Way he could not name is the way of nature and it is the way of the ancestors and it is the way of the Zulu and it is the way of all human beings to live a natural, healthy and happy life. And I would tell him that the way of the ancients that he lamented for humanity is very much still alive in Bantu culture and very much kicking in the Zulu.
My Zulu story has gone on now for over twenty-years and although what I have learned and experienced over that time is of no use to Lau Tzu and the past, it is of great use to everyone in the present and the future. This is nature’s original and best story of life that has never left southern Africa but that has been forgotten, diminished, misunderstood and altered as human beings trekked their way around the world. It should be clear with the climate change story as a great messenger, that we must listen to nature and return to living by natural law if humanity is to survive. To eyes made ignorant by the worship of material wealth, the Zulu would appear poor but they are the healthiest and happiest of people and to live with them in their natural paradise is to be healthy, happy and wealthy in humanity, the way that nature intended. The Zulu celebrate life daily in song and dance and happiness for them is a way of life.
Alas, this is not to be said for life in the UK, or indeed in any so called western developed nation where a belief in the “self” being separate from everyone and everything else and the practice of it in life, ensures a life of doubt and fear. In over twenty-years, I have never known a Zulu that was stressed, depressed, worried or lonely but I know many people that are all of those things in the UK. I have never known a broken Zulu family but I know many broken families in the UK, including my own. I have never known a Zulu family where children were not involved in every aspect of life or where they could not play anywhere at any time and be perfectly safe. That is just not happening anywhere in the UK. And I have never met a Zulu who would not freely and unquestionably share what they had with you down to their last piece of bread but that is not the way in the UK.