The chief of Lesedi Cultural Village welcomed our class wearing a feathered headdress nearly as big as the ostrich it was made from. He offered a lesson on the native language and food of local tribes, hoping to acquaint a few young Americans with traditions dating back to his ancestors. And when the lesson was over, the chief answered a call on a cell phone he pulled from his leopard-print loin cloth.
The objective of the Cultural Village is to educate visitors who may be unfamiliar with African heritage, such as 29 American college students, to the traditional customs associated with the lifestyle of various regional tribes. Lesedi, in some ways, is the Colonial Williamsburg of South Africa. But while the history of these tribes may date back for centuries, often referred to as the “Cradle of Mankind”, they are still very much a part of modern South African culture.
Lesedi consists of seven different tribal “villages,” each built as an accurate representation of the real thing. This was an easy task because the original villages are not even close to being extinct. In fact, many of Lesedi’s workers come directly from their home villages to work in the replicas for the cultural hub. Thus, many have not lost their cultural identities, even with the possession of a cell phone or other adaptations to Western lifestyle.
This technological convergence is part of the beauty in South African culture. So many in this country are making valiant efforts in education, economy and sometimes even politics, to become more involved in the rapidly globalizing world. But among these efforts, South Africans have not forgotten their heritage as many of their old and new customs have been combined.
Following the Chief’s welcome, our class had the pleasure of viewing traditional dance performances. The various tribal people of Lesedi combined their customs to create one giant routine of flying beads and pounding feet. The dancers would continue grooving until they fell over, something I first attributed to astounding effort. After learning the traditions of this “Hunting Dance,” I came to realize the dancers used their fall to represent the defeat of an enemy. The entire performance was an amazing work of collaboration while giving details about each specific tribe.
It was in the Bashoto’s performance that I experienced déjà vu. These were people wearing blankets and boots from the aftermath of settling their villages in the rocky mountain tops. The same boots that the Happy Feet children dancers were wearing in their performance at the Langa Cultural Centre back in Capetown. While these children are growing up in an urban township with increasing exposure to the westernized way of life, they can still identify with these traces of their Bashoto heritage.
Between the dance performances and our proceeding village tour, further evidence connected modern South Africa with its tribal roots. The Xhosa villagers boasted of having the highest bridal price of 26 cows, as well as former South African President Nelson Mandela’s connections to the tribe. The fierce spear-making Zulu had traditional dances that were a favorite hobby of a few Alexandra children interviewed for the Adopt-a-Student program. And the use of cow-dung floors in the Pedi village, well, that one tradition and stench seems to remain solely with the tribe.
Without having the time to travel into currently existing tribal boundaries, Lesedi gave our class an accurate and abridged version of native life in South Africa. While the village is swarming with tourists, it was a great history and anthropology lesson to increase our understanding about so many of the traditions we have witnessed daily during our time here. South Africans, despite all their hardships, still strongly identify with their cultural roots. As Americans, I wonder if we can do the same… especially if it means taking a moment to put down our cell phones.