Zulu words for white person



Nettime August 2001

My name is Sabiye, and I live in the region of South Africa known as Mpumalanga, which you might know according to its old name, the eastern Transvaal. I work at the Vulamehlo Arts Centre. ‘Vulamehlo’ is a phrase in my language that means ‘open your eyes’. We say ‘vulamehlo’ usually to tell the other person that something is happening - open your eyes so that you can see what you can see.

Last week a stranger came to our centre. He was standing in the clearing just outside our building. He was just standing there looking up at the sun through a pair of cardboard sunglasses. Just looking at the sun for about ten minutes. He looked quite strange. One of our phrases for white people is ‘indlebe zikhayi langa’, those whose ears glow in the sun.

After a long time he came over to our building and introduced himself. ‘Sabuwona’ he said, which means ‘I see you’. It was nice that he used our word, but he spoke it like a tourist, a bit stiff.

I must admit, I was curious about the glasses. He gave them to me and I too looked at the sun. It was quite amazing. You could hardly see the sun at all – the moon was covering it like a big black disk. It was a solar eclipse, very special.

I was reminded of the stories about the first white people who came here. We called them ‘umlungu’, which means people who practice magic. Among their wonderful objects were these magic things that look back at you with your own eyes. Our ancestors happily gave up their cattle and land for these little pieces of glass. The person with me today had a few tricks up his sleeve too.

He asked to take my photograph. I stood beside the new cabinet I’d just built, so he could get a good shot. After he took the photograph, he showed me the back of the camera. There was this little screen and slowly rolling down was this bright image of me from just a few second ago. It looked really sharp, just like the television.

He was quite forward in his manner. He said he was from Australia. I was reminded of another phrase we use for white people: ‘ipuma lemile’, which means those to walk out upright. Traditionally, Zulu huts have very small doorways, so we have to crawl to get in and out. Crawling is a sign of respect, though I’m getting a bit old for that now.

He asked me what I knew of Australia. I didn’t mean to offend him, but I had to tell him the truth. A friend of mine had returned from Australia and said that it was like the old South Africa. He said that black people in Australia still have to kneel down for the white man. That’s why so many of our whites have decided to move over to Australia. They won’t have to worry about black people there. This umlungu looked at little shocked at this.

I asked him what Australians know of South Africa. He started talking about all these terrible things, AIDS, poverty, crime and corruption. I thought to myself, they must think we are really miserable. I said to him what a pity it was that they think this. For so many years, the country had been isolated by apartheid, when the world disowned us, and rightly so. But now we are our own people, they look only for the bad things, as though if black people are in charge then things must be pretty bad.

And I reminded him, it’s not really accurate to call us ‘black’. We’re really ‘unsundu’—brown people.

I guess I opened his eyes a little with this sort of talk. I didn’t mean to lecture him. And I do like many things about Australia. Their hardwoods are exceptional – in fact I have some beautiful Jarrah in my workshop. But with all the terrible things you hear about life there, I wouldn’t want to visit Australia.

Southern Exposure