Zulu Warrior

By Bryce M. Towsley

The open safari car rolled quietly through the KwaZulu-Natal night progressing down the narrow track. The canopy closed in more with every yard, until it felt like a tunnel through the jungle. Dusk was approaching and as we rounded the corner I saw a small skinning shed back in the trees, bright with lantern light. There was a tall black man in there skinning a nyala.

As we rolled closer I observed him to be lean and muscular with dark, ebony skin. His hair was in dreads, his shorts, the only clothing he wore, were frayed and fringed, his body shiny with sweat. His knife was homemade and he had scars on his body and face. As he worked, the fierce expression showed that he was not so much skinning the nyala, as he was attacking it. I was spellbound.

He was every inch a Zulu warrior. Proud, fierce, tall, and mean. I watched him work and thought that we really had not come that far. This man could have been fighting the Voortrekkers at Blood River. I could see him trusting the power of the izinyanga zempi, the war doctors who had prepared izinteleze medicines which they said made warriors invincible in the face of their opponents, even after 3,000 of his brothers fell to the muskets and turned the river red with their blood.

He might have been part of Shaka’s Impi; one of his celibate warriors (no wonder they were pissed off) using his isihlangu shield made from the skin of Nguni cattle to hook his opponent’s shield out of the way so he could stab his ribs with his short iklwa spear. 

I easily pictured this guy at Rorke’s Drift charging the bloody English and their Martini-Henry rifles, armed only with confidence and a spear, knowing they would prevail simply because they are Zulu. This guy was a warrior; he was a time traveler; he was a Zulu. 

I watched in awe, lost in the history, until a cell phone rang. The warrior put down his knife and dug into the pocket of his shorts. Then he lit a cigarette, picked up a Coke and wandered off, lost in trivial conversation. And the spell was broken.