Spending a year in Johannesburg makes us not-quite-locals and not-quite-tourists. We have been spending a lot of our time in the city trying to get a real feel for the place, finding hidden gems and our favorite spots. But when visitors come to town, we get to do all the real tourist stuff, like visit a lion park and ride around on the red tour bus. This is also how we ended up booking a night’s stay at the Lesedi Cultural Village.
Lesedi is part tourist attraction, part living museum, and part hotel. It is made up of 5 mini-villages, replicas of the villages of the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Ndebele, and Bashoto tribes. Tribe members live in the villages, wearing their traditional costumes and introducing visitors to their native homes and ways of life.
A tour of the villages started with a short film spanning the entire history of South African tribes. Our up-beat guide then led us through each of the villages, teaching us about their customs as we went along.
First stop was the Zulu village. A warrior greeted us from his perch across the gate, holding a spear and cowhide shield. The Zulus are known as a great warrior tribe, famed for their aggressive stance against colonial expansion led by the great king Shaka Zulu.
Inside the village, we met a chief who bartered for a new wife amongst the tourists for the price of 11 cows. In all of the tribes represented, we learned that cattle is the primary source of wealth and the most important possession of any tribe. The Zulus keep their cattle in the middle of the village to protect them from theft and predators.
Visitors were also offered the chance to take home a second wife from among the unmarried females in the village, identified by the beaded skirts they wore. Spencer was denied permission from his first wife.
The second village belonged to the Basotho. They are from the independent country of Lesotho, where they retreated high into the mountains to protect themselves from the aggressive Zulu. They wear a distinctive coned hat and big, thick blankets to keep warm in the cold mountains. Like the other patriarchal societies we learned about, the Basotho village has a meeting place where important decisions are made, and women are not allowed to enter.
Next, we came to the Xhosa village. Like Zulu, Xhosa is a language that uses clicks. the ‘x’ in Xhosa is pronounced by clicking the tongue on the top of the mouth. This is the tribe that Nelson Mandela grew up in. We were ushered into the round meeting hut, were we knelt on the mud ground and listened to the Xhosa villagers sing us a song.
The last village we visited was the Pedi. Their village had a unique architecture, featuring square homes with painted patterns. The Pedi men wear a distinctive costume of kilts. This, we were told, dates back to the wars against the British. The Pedi saw the Scottish regiments approaching and mistook them for women. As their culture forbade them from attacking women, they were instructed to leave the kilted attackers unharmed. As a result, they were clobbered, and took up the kilt as a reminder of the clever maneuver. This is likely a very tall tale, but a fun one nevertheless.
After our grand tour of the villages, we were treated to an entertaining dance show in an elaborately decorated hall. Costumed villagers kicked and twirled to the thumping beat of the drums. We even got a special bonus performance, as my nephew couldn’t help but dance along with them.
That night, we stayed in a couple of the huts in the Zulu village. From they outside they were traditional mud and thatch round huts, but inside we had all the modern conveniences. They were nicely decorated and comfortable, and a really fun place to sleep for the night.
Cultural tourism is a tricky thing. We tourists want to experience the traditional cultures and way of life that are unique to that place. But we have to recognize that: 1) the image of traditional societies that we imagine is likely overly romanticized and unrealistic, and 2) that globalization has rapidly changed they way people all over the world live, permanently altering the ‘traditional way of life’ that tourists expect to see.
So what is a curious tourist to do? Lesedi is cheesy, and a bit contrived. It is a “Disney-fied,” sanitized version of South African tribal culture. But, it allowed us to take some photos and experience a taste of the exotic cultures without imposing ourselves on a real village and gawking at their way of life. And for all its cheesiness and cultural oversimplification, I actually learned an awful lot. Now I have a better understanding of these tribes and their history, and I can use that knowledge going forward as I discover more of the real South Africa.