Try to imagine living in a culture that practices polygamy, families make sacrifices to their ancestors, youth cannot easily approach elders, young men have to pay a dowry to receive their wives, woman are treated as less than men, fathers tend not to be present or engaged in family life, and AIDs affects close to 25% of the population. Now imagine trying to live as a young Christian in such an environment, where so much goes against Scripture, but the elders promote cultural practices and traditions. Add in pressure from peers and from society to become a certain type of man or woman. These are the challenges that the youth face today in KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa.
The Zulu culture is filled with ancient traditions passed down from many generations, some which are beautiful and matchless, others that are causing great distress and even death. There are people dying because they were trying to fulfill the cultural standards of what it means to be a man or a woman. The cause of this suffering is escapable, but the habits and traditions of old are deeply engrained in the minds of the people. Resistance is not easy.
Boys try to prove they are men by seeing how many women they can be with, and each time they sleep with a girl they are putting their lives in danger. All it takes is one night and you could be on your deathbed. Despite the risk, the boys continue to seduce girls into this possibly deadly act. Some girls feel they must have children in order to become women, so the young girls allow for the boys to sleep with them, both trying to prove their worth. In the process many lives are lost.
In the Zulu culture men have to pay a dowry to their future fathers-in-law, which once consisted of 11 cows, and has sense turned into iPhones and Mercedes Benz. The fathers of the girls want more, and even some of the uncles try to receive something from the marriage. The young men cannot afford to pay such ridiculous prices so many just refuse to ever marry. Instead they sleep around with multiple women ultimately leading to HIV or orphaned children. Children are born to infected mothers, some of whom die not long after giving birth. The sickness passes down into the blood of the baby, who then suffers from something that easily could have been avoided. There is a great need for transformation in order to reduce these deaths, and bring a people back to life. The young generation needs to take a stand, choosing to be different, if they wish to overcome such obstacles. This will not be easy.
How do you overcome a problem that is passed down from generations and you cannot even approach your elders on such issues? Boys and girls serve their fathers like slaves, facing abuse and no real sense of love. Father asks for food and you must deliver it on a tray, kneeling before him, bowing your head so as not to look him in the eye. Conversations are not light and fun; there isn’t much laughing with a father like that. It is through the mother that most communicating with the father takes place. This is the safest way.
Fathers want their boys to become tough men, and force them through different rights of passage. A young boy is given a knife, told to slaughter the bull that is tied to the nearby tree. The father walks him over, shows him where to place the knife in the bulls neck, and how to jab the blade in by hitting it hard on the handle. The boy tears up. He raises the knife to the neck, quivering; he loves this animal, and doesn’t want to go through with the sacrifice. Those nearby begin to chant and pressure him to proceed. He smacks the knife at the right point, but it isn’t enough. He tries multiple times but just cannot complete the task. Father comes over and finishes the job. Sacrifices are made to please the ancestors in order to avoid curses that may come over the family.
Other boys are out in the field tending to their cattle. One of the boy’s bulls begins to fight with another’s. This means that they, too, must fight. They brutally beat one another with their staffs until one of the bulls is victorious. The fights can be vicious, and they are only over once one bull submits to the other. Whichever boys’ bull wins determines the victor. Here is another step in becoming a real man.
The young Christ followers of this generation have a lot to rise above, and it will take time and commitment, working together in the process. Every culture has its own challenges and practices that must be reformed. It is not only the Zulu people that have issues to sort out. Even the American culture has a number of practices and traditions that are carried out by Christians that aren’t imitating the life of Christ. For example, just look at the American dream and how many people pursue an individual lifestyle. It is a life designated to pleasing the self above anyone else. I would be interested to find out how many selfies have been taken in this year alone. I’m sure the statistic is outrageous. These things are not necessarily bad, but are often used for personal glory, leading to a life that forgets about the struggles and needs of other people. Some people just need someone to walk alongside them for a while, showing genuine compassion, a present person who actually listens, but many times we don’t even notice. This is where we need to ask the question, “how would Jesus live your life if he were you?”
What I am trying to say with all of this is not that we are all wicked and evil people, but that we need to take time to study our cultures and see where we need to make changes. We should be reflective beings who think critically and deeply about how we are living each day. Instead of settling for what we think we know we should be lifelong learners, assessing our lives daily, seeking out new and creative ways to overcome challenges that we may face. We are not called to be idle people, but people who are constantly seeking to grow. Ultimately this is what it takes to be a successful person in any area of life.
Again, this post is not meant to condemn or degrade, but to encourage. I hope that you will journey with me, pursuing a life of learning and self-assessment, going beyond the norms of society and seeking a more fulfilling existence. Some of the examples I have shared above come from the stories of people I have met on my journey, and these issues were addressed this past weekend at a youth conference that Courtney led. The young adults were all greatly challenged, yet motivated, to go and make a difference in their towns. Courtney has also been working closely with a few young men from the township who all have decided to fully commit their lives to following Jesus. It has been incredible listening to them discuss the ways that they are going to try and bring change to their homes. It will be a tough task, but I know that they have some dedicated leaders that will push the others to persevere when times get tough.
This past week has been slow for me. We have not been going into schools because the kids are on break, and I have had a lot of time alone as Courtney has been in private meetings with some of the young men. In this time I continue to learn and grow. In the evenings I eat with my hosts and they share incredible stories about growing up during apartheid and the many complex situations that they faced throughout their lives. There is an older Zulu lady also staying on the property and she has been sharing some amazing stories each night of what it was like living on the other side of things during apartheid. These times have been educational and refreshing. In my downtime I continue to read and write. I have recently started working my way through Les Miserables, and so far it has been incredible. I also have been reflecting a lot on the past two months. This journey through Africa has revealed so much to me, and I have only just begun to process all that has been happening. It is nice to have time to do this while I am still here so that I am not completely overwhelmed when I return home.
We leave on Monday for the UK where we will be until the 26th of October. From there I head to New York, and then I should arrive home on the 27th. It is hard to believe that my time here in Africa will come to a close in about five days. The journey has been magnificent and unforgettable. I have met so many wonderful people and have enough experiences to write a book. I look forward to sharing stories with you when I return, but for now there are still some stories to be made. Thank you again for all of your support over these last few months, both financially and through prayers and encouragement.