Contextualizing Objects in the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection


Zulu Women

Two Zulu women dressed in traditional attire interact at Adams Mission in 1916.

Zulu Resistance to Cultural Condemnation


Missionaries have been in the greater Zululand area since 1835.15 After 1836, the Zulu people began to come into conflict with the white settlers.16 They rejected the right of young white missionaries to judge and condemn their traditions, institutions, and ways of life. Despite the introduction of Christianity, the Zulu people maintained their religious institutions and belief system. Christianity came to coexist alongside the indigenous Zulu religion and both are still practiced today. 

American missionaries trained Zulu people as ministers at the Amanzimtoti Seminary but did not want to give them control, freedom, or independence in their own churches.The missionaries were opposed to syncretization and saw a problem in “unsupervised Christian churches.” They feared the blending of Christianity with what they considered the “innumerable supersititons” of the Zulu people.17 The Zulu fought past attempted missionary control and domination. While Catholic and Anglican churches existed, a number of Independent Churches were established as well. The churches were led by Zulu ministers and clergy and served the Zulu people. The first of these was the Zulu Congregational Church established in 1896 by Simungu Bafazini Shibe who was ordained as its minister in February 1898.18

Not only did the Zulu people have to resist attempts by American missionaries to force them to accuturate but by the British colonial government as well. The British government had explicitly outlawed Zulu divination and healing practices in the 1860s.19 In 1928, the Natal Native Medical Association was established to preserve traditional medicine and healing practices through lobbying the colonial government for “native medical rights.” One of the biggest threats to the British colonial government was Mafavuke Ngcob, a Zulu inyanga specializing in herbal remedies. Ngcobo used the Westerner’s own language to describe himself, referring to himself as “doctor” and a “native medical scientist.” In 1940, Ngcobo was put on trial by the British colonial government for positing himself as a legitimate chemist and prescribing doctor. “In Ncgobo’s trial, the white administrators and doctors argued native medicines were static and unchanging while the Natal Native Medical Association argued African therapeutics were dynamic, experimental, and changed with the times.”20 The trial is one important representation of how the colonial government followed in the lead of the missionaries to do everything possible to disrupt and discourage the new hybrid system that was resulting from this forced culture contact situation. Furthermore, it is indicative of the deeply engrained ethnocentrism of the British who made base claims about the Zulu people's religion without taking the time to educate themselves on how the religious system actually operated.

In conclusion, the contact of Zulu, American missionary, and British colonial government cultures in Natal, South Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century resulted in a new religious system for the Zulu people that nobody anticipated. The Zulu people exhibited strong resistance to the forced acculturation attempted by American missionaries and the colonial government. In the face of foreign domination, the Zulu people were able to retain their own indigenous religious beliefs while also incorporating a localized Christianity into their cultural ethos. The Zulu let no outside source dictate to them how this incorporation would be done or what it would look like. Despite being colonized and criticized by the British government and American missionaries, the Zulu people maintained their agency to practice their religion how they deemed appropriate.