Zulu Culture
The Zulu Family Structure, Polygamy, Sleeping and Etiquette
Zulu Family Structure
  Email this page to a friend   Change text size here: Increase Text Size Decrease Text Size

Please support us with a Like!

The relationships between various family members and others of the clan and the tribe were established hundreds of years ago.

Bringing up the Children

It is the duty of the wife to bring the children up and children are taught from an early age to respect elders and never speak unless spoken to. There is a complete lack of familiarity between father and son.

The wives are subservient to the husbands, bringing them their food before retiring to their own quarters. The husband will eat his fill and leave the rest for the remainder of his family.

The Boys

Boys are given a pet name when they are born, another name from his father when he is seven, another nickname from his herd-boy friends and finally another name should he enter one of the amabutho (regiments).

Naming protocols are similar for girls except that they may add a variety of Christian names. One also finds a variety of strange names that are related to an event close to the birth of the child - Lightning or Unfortunate are some names that may be used.

Zulu culture by Warthog Website Design

The boys are expected to look after the family's herds, leaving home each morning, returning for the daily milking and breakfast before taking the herd out again for the afternoon. One of their pastimes is stick fighting as preparation for entering military service.

Stick Fighting

The fighting is done either with a shield in one hand and a stick in the other or with a stick in each hand. Such sticks are of hardwood and approximately 700mm in length and can land a painful blow. At the age of fifteen, young boys will receive their very own spear from their fathers before the next step, which is carrying their elder brothers' accoutrements to military camps.

Tending the fireIn this way, the boys are gradually introduced to the military way of life. The camps also introduce the boys the military legends, military successes and the respect, esprit de corps and honour that are attached the regiments.

The Girls

Girls are slowly introduced to the family chores by first learning how to carry water using a small gourd. She learns to carry the gourd on her head by means of braided supports that her mother applies to her head.

In the field, she is taught how to plant and reap the crops and is given her own hoe when she is eleven. By this age, she is capable of making a fire, preparing some simple dishes and looking after her younger brethren.

The Men

Zulu culture by Warthog Website DesignThe man of the house deals with visitors, attends public meetings, makes all the decisions, owns the hut and its contents in their entirety and is solely charged with entering into any agreement. As the boys get older, they are also introduced to the adult responsibilities. The husband may also carve wooden spoons and other utensils.

If a family stretches over several kraals, an umnumzana (headman) is appointed whose job it is to arbitrate over small matters. Several of these will serve under an induna who sits in the lower house of the Royal Parliament.

The wives are in all respects inferior to the husbands. They are expected to look after all the children, tend the fields, carry the water, make pots and brew the beer. Often, the husband will pay greater attention to his herd than to his wives.

The Chief

Inkosi Ambrose Malinga The tribal chief is called an inkosi and is more than a chief but an arbiter, an object of reverence and respect and the figurehead for the entire group he is responsible for.

If a chief failed his king, not only would he be put to death but all his subjects. He was also at risk from his own offspring as age advanced and was thought to be prone to making wrong decisions.


The Zulu Grandmother is the object of reverence and exerts considerable influence. She lives in the large hut of the ancestors.


The practice of having several wives indicates a man's social standing, wealth and virility. The first wife will initiate the acquisition of further wives as they are a help around the house. She, along with the grandmother exerts a powerful influence in the family.

Each wife has her own hut, located in order of standing from the husband's hut, she also has her own fields, herd and cooks only for her immediate family.


The practice of uku-hlobonga - sex without penetration - is accepted amongst young people. However, should penetration occur, a beast must be paid to the maiden's father. Should there be an unwanted pregnancy, although the woman will be ostracised, it is the man who will bear most blame.


The Zulu pillowTraditionally, a reed mat is used with a small bench acting as a pillow.


This is the practice of paying the future father in law with cattle, for a wife. If the wife is deficient in any way, the father in law is expected to make a replacement available or refund some or all of the cattle.

The cattle are used to recompense the father in law for the expense of her upbringing and the loss of her services.


The Greeting: Sawubona (I see you), response: Yebo, Sawubona, the person of the higher standing greeting the inferior member.

Excessive eye contact is considered to be provocative and is avoided, particularly between women and men.

 Serving beer

The Handshake: Firstly the conventional shake, then clasping thumbs around thumbs and finally another conventional handshake.

Food: The men are served according to their standing, then the women, then the children, boys before girls.

Walking: Wives walk behind their husbands who, should they encounter another man, pass him on the left enabling both to see the other's weapons.

Beer Drinking: The women brew beer every couple of days and it is a slight to refuse it. The vessel is held in the right hand and the saucer with the left and the beer is drunk sitting or squatting. Rubbing the stomach compliments the brewer.

Seating Order: Men always sit on the right of the hut with those of highest standing to the rear.

Giving: Giving something is accomplished using the right hand only, the left supporting the right at the elbow to show that nothing is hidden.

Sitting: One is always expected to sit on a hide or shield.