I was awestruck and a little nervous as we rumbled north from Durban toward the traditional Zulu capital of Ulundi. Our white Jeep Cherokee seemed fit for the trip, but I had been warned in serious terms that this was not a completely safe journey. Over the last six months alone, there had been more than four thousand armed car hijackings in the greater Johannesburg area alone. I didn't want to know the number for all of South Africa.
I was glued to the car windows like a child. I couldn't believe I was in Africa. Just yesterday, I had been comfortably ensconced in the familiar surroundings of my own home. Now, I was entering the endless hills of Zululand.
A few days earlier, I had been asked to come teach a class in basic electoral democracy, a political campaign class, to members of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Youth Brigade, an IFP party organ made up of young and old. Of course, I accepted. This Texas boy had never been so far away from home, and I relished the opportunity.
The IFP is one of the many political parties in the new South Africa. It is the largest party in the Kwazulu-Natal province, a hybrid political jurisdiction created when apartheid was defeated, by combining the richer Natal Province with the traditional Zulu lands. Most, but by no means all, IFP members are Zulus.
My mission was to instruct them in the basics of electoral democracy. Having had only one free national election before, they were unschooled in even the most basic precepts of nonviolent political campaigns. But they took their newfound freedom seriously, and they were serious about learning to do it right. The very fate of their home was in the balance.
For several days, we worked together in classes that stretched from morning into the night. In a short time, we grew as close as family, we with the common goals of peace and freedom.
Toward the end of the final day of classes, the leader of the IFP Youth Brigade announced that we would stop early. They had a surprise for their teacher.
Behind the small hotel was a very large, grassy area. We all walked out, wondering what we would find, though some of the students had knowing smiles. The first thing I saw as we rounded the corner was a low-burning ring of fire on the green grass. And then I heard something.
A chorus of voices began singing in low, beautiful harmony. The Zulu dance began. There were about thirty of them; men, women and children, dressed in traditional clothing fashioned from animal skins and pelts. I still don't know what they were singing. I just know that they were prayers, and I felt a tingling run up my spine. A strong, loud chorus, thirty-strong. And sounds of night birds whistled through their lips. And - the dancing. Lifting their bare feet far above their heads and slamming them audibly to earth in one of the most amazing feats of athleticism I have witnessed. My students were proud, so proud of their heritage, so pleased to offer me this wonderful gift, this tremendous honor. I was humbled and deeply touched, both by the generosity of the gesture and by the beauty and spirituality of what I was seeing.
We all watched for thirty or forty minutes. Occasionally, one of the students, not wearing the traditional clothing, would be overcome by the sound and rush out to join the dancers for a few seconds, and return to us, smiling and laughing.
At one point, one of the grown men who was dancing locked his eyes onto me from maybe twenty yards away. I stared back as he moved straight toward me, the Zulu warrior, kicking high, high into the air. I was determined not to flinch or seem afraid, thought it looked ominous. It took thirty seconds, our eyes locked, until he was in front of me. He kicked and I felt the breeze from his foot on my face. Suddenly, he was flying in the opposite direction, rejoining the others.
I don't know why, but I cried when I watched the Zulu dancers. It was one of the most beautiful, touching experiences of my life.