Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

UKZN Press

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Find out more about Impundulu, the Lightning Bird

Zulu Plant NamesRead an excerpt from Adrian Koopman’s paper “Lightning Birds and Thunder Trees” exploring the Impundulu of Zulu culture.

Koopman is the author of Zulu Plant Names, published late last year by UKZN Press.

This paper was published in Natalia in 2011, and is available to download for free.

Related links:


Read an excerpt:

The “lightning bird”, in Zulu both impundulu and inyoni yezulu (“bird of the heavens”) appears to manifest in two distinct ways in Nguni culture. On the one hand, it manifests specifically as a bird associated with lightning; on the other hand as the familiar of a female witch, in which case it may change its shape frequently (often to that of a handsome young man), and is associated with evil and malice rather than lightning.

Let us look first at the association of the impundulu with lightning. Callaway (1970:119) presents us with some interesting detail:

“The bird of heaven” is a bird which is said to descend from the sky when it thunders, and to be found in the neighbourhood of the place where the lightning has struck. The heavendoctors place a large vessel of amasi mixed with various medicines near a pool such as is frequently met with at the top of hills; this is done to attract the lightning, that it might strike in that place. The doctor remains at hand watching, and when the lightning strikes the bird descends, and he rushes forward and kills it. It is said to have a red bill, red legs, and a short red tail like fire; its feathers are bright and dazzling, and it is very fat. The bird is boiled for the sake of the fat, which is mixed with other medicines and used by the heaven-doctors to puff on their bodies (pepeta) and to anoint their lightning rods, that they be able to act on the heavens without injury to themselves. The body is used for other purposes as medicine. A few years ago some peacocks’ feathers were sold at a great price among the natives of Natal, being supposed to be the feathers of this bird.

We have already seen earlier in this article that the fat of a lightning bird is an essential element in making the medicinal mixture used to doctor pegs used for lightning protection. Of interest is the symbolism of the pot of amasi (sour milk) used to attract the lightning to a distant hill-top, presumably well away from human habitation. This would of course appear to work very well, given that lightning is naturally attracted to high hill-tops. Hammond-Tooke points out (1962:273) that in the homestead itself calabashes of amasi and milk must be hidden.

Berglund (1976:39) tells of a young man who was present when lightning came into a hut and killed an old woman and two children. His perceptions of the strike were as follows:

Looking, I saw the thing. It was fearful to see and moved very quickly. But I saw it clearly. It was a bird. The feathers were white, burning. The beak and the legs were red with fire, and the tail was something else, like burning green or the colour of the sky. It ran quickly, saying nothing, simply snatching those whom it took. Then it touched the grass with fire.

According to a number of Berglund’s heaven-herd sources, the lightning-bird is sent by the “Lord-of-the-Sky” when he “wishes to have a human” (op.cit., 40). His sources go on to say that there is no mourning for someone killed by lightning, as this would be regarded “as an arrogant act of rebellion against the Lord-of-the-Sky”. Nor, apparently, is there an ukubuyisa ritual for one struck by lightning.

The “lightning-strike-as-bird” metaphor is continued in the belief that when lightning strikes, the bird is alighting to lay its eggs. This idea has an extra spin to it in the Bhaca belief

… that electricity is the excreta of the lightning bird and that White people chase the bird until it excretes an oillike fat. This is electricity. The excreta is very fluid and everything it touches is burnt. (Hammond-Tooke, 1960:282fn)

Hammond-Tooke agrees that for the Xhosa and Bhaca the lightning-bird (impundulu) is associated with lightning (1960:382):

The spectacular and dangerous properties of lightning have formed the basis of another Bhaca belief, that in the intsaka yetulu, 13 the “bird of heaven”, called in Xhosa, impundulu. The impundulu is identified with the lightning; thunder is the beating of its wings, while the flash indicates the laying of its eggs that will hatch the following summer.

He goes a little further, though, on the relationship between lightning and evil, saying that the flicking of “muthi” around the borders of the homestead is “to drive away imishologu (evil influences, including the lightning) that encompass the kraal” (1960:272). This apparent relationship between lightning and evil leads us to the second manifestation of the lightning-bird, as a familiar, and Bhaca beliefs here clearly go way beyond what Berglund records about the impundulu in Zulu society. Hammond-Tooke begins (op. cit., 279) by saying that “no one knows for certain who is a witch” and that “the submissive young bride, outwardly demure and obedient, might be the possessor of the dreaded lightning bird, whose kick can cause sickness and death.” He continues
(op.cit., 282-283):

The bird may also be possessed by women as a familiar … [It] comes to its mistress in the form of a beautiful young man, often white and dressed in a grey suit, who has sexual connexion with her.

Clearly members of the Bhaca society must be very careful about how they deal with people even if they are “outwardly demure and obedient” for

The intsaka yetulu appears to a person in the form of a young man in a grey suit who asks why he is annoying its owner. There and then it turns into that old bird and kicks him until he dies.

It is worth noting that an intsaka yetulu may be sent to someone by letter. If you should open that letter, soon you will be visited by the same young man in a grey suit who will turn into a bird and kick you until you die.

Although there is no indication in the anthropological literature on the Zulus of this Protean bird which shifts easily between the personable young man in the grey suit and the bird with a fatal kick, it is worth noting that Doke and Vilakazi (1957:513) say for the entry impundulu that this is a “bird supposed to be used by women in witchcraft”.

They do not mention the link with lightning strikes. Bryant’s 1906 dictionary does not record the word impundulu, which makes me wonder if this is not a comparatively late adoptive into Zulu from Xhosa. There is a possible link between the word impundulu and the similar word impundu in Zulu. Doke and Vilakazi (1957:677) give three meaning for this word: “1) gate-post; 2) smaller lobe of beast’s liver; 3) species of plant, Gasteria glabra, whose bulbous roots are placed at the kraal-entrance to cause forgetfulness in would-be evil-doers”, and say it is derived from the verb phundula (“lead astray, mislead, puzzle, confuse, frustrate”). Bryant (1906:516) says the same, but in more detail:

impundu: one of the posts standing on either side of the entrance to the isibaya (not kraal); the smaller lobe of a beast’s liver, said to make a man forgetful if he eats it, therefore the perquisite of the old women; a certain plant whose bulbous root is stuck at the entrance to kraals in order to make the abatakati forgetful of their evil practices.

Both Hutchings (1996:35) and Pooley (1998:342,430) recognise impundu as a Zulu name for various species of Gasteria, with Hutchings saying of Gasteria croucheri that the leaf infusions are used as protective sprinkling charms and that the plant is cultivated on hut roofs as protective charms against lightning.

Before we move on to the “thunder tree”, it is interesting to note other bird species linked to lightning and other forms of weather. Hammond-Tooke (1960:288) tells us that

… if the uthekwane [Hamerkop] or indlazanyoni [Speckled Mousebird] flies over a kraal or alights on it, it is said that lightning will strike the homestead, but if the bird is killed or driven away the evil will be averted

and that

The owl (isikhova) is also considered a bird of ill-omen, for if it hoots round a kraal someone will become sick, or lightning will strike the stock.

Krige (1950:315) tells us that

The commonest fat used as an ingredient in this [anti-lightning] pegmedicine is that of the Ngqungqulu bird (Helotarsus ecaudatus) [Bateleur Eagle] which, when flying quickly, makes a noise like thunder, and to this is sometime added fat of a “peacock” which is said to cry and ruffle its feathers before thunder.

Krige also associates the Bateleur Eagle, as well as the Ground Hornbill, with rain (op.cit., 321):

The insingizi bird [Ground Hornbill] is closely associated with heaven and the rain, for if many izinsingizi walk in the open country and cry, it is an omen that it will rain. Another heaven-bird, for the death of which the heavens will mourn, is the iNgqungqulu [Bateleur] … it, too, is killed for rain. If this bird cries while flying it foretells rain.

Woodward and Woodward (1899:97) noted much earlier of the Ground Hornbill, “It is generally heard crying before rain, from which the natives think it has the power of bringing rain …”, and although they do not mention it, Burchell’s Coucal (Z. ufukwe) is also known by the colloquial name “the Rain Bird”.

Book details

Image: Kat Houseman

» read article

Adrian Koopman Shares His Light-bulb Moments of Discovery at the Launch of Zulu Plant Names

What started out as a chapter for his book Zulu Names, published by the University of Natal Press (now UKZN Press) in 2002, soon became a project in and of itself and finally culminated in the publication of Zulu Plant Names earlier this year.

Zulu Plant NamesThese were the words of Adrian Koopman at the launch of Zulu Plant Names, which was held at his house in Lincoln Meade, Pietermaritzburg, earlier this year.

Koopman invited friends, academics and family to his home where many of the plants explored in the book can be found in his indigenous garden. To illustrate the complex relationship between plants, the Zulu language and Zulu culture, Koopman shared some of his “serendipitous moments” during the research of this book.

In Zulu Plant Names, Koopman not only teaches the reader how to identify plants but tells us more about Zulu plants and how they perceived or used in Zulu culture.

At the launch, the author first thanked all the people who helped him put the book together, and shared interesting anecdotes about his discovery of the clear links between plant, language and culture.

Read Koopman’s speech from the launch:

This book was originally meant to be a chapter in my earlier book Zulu Names which the University of Natal Press published in 2002. The reviewers, however, suggested at the time that the chapter was too long, and that I should think about expanding the chapter as a separate book. Well, 13 years have passed since then, and it has been a long haul between that earlier suggestion, and the launch of Zulu Plant Names today. In that long haul, many people have helped in both the writing and the publication of this book and it is important that I thank them publicly today.

Thanks to various people:

Ndela kaBhekifa – also known as Nelson Ntshangase – has been an absolute fount of indigenous knowledge about plants and how they are used and perceived in Zulu culture. Many were the hours, nearly 10 years ago now that we sat together and you shared you knowledge with me.

Hhayi-ke Wena kaBhekifa: Wangivumela ngitape inyosi engqondweni yakho, wangivumela ngilime ngikhe ngivune emasimini akho. Manje, namhlanje, inqolobane igcwele, ngenxa yosizo lwakho.

Mgazi, Somlomo, Biyela – Ngiyabonga kakhulu.

I thank Mkhipheni Ngwenya for his helpful suggestions on the first draft of my manuscript. Mtimande! Bambo lunye! Zingaba zimbili weza nonima! Mkhipheni and I share other things related to the interface between botany and the Zulu language. He and I together with Rosemary Williams were joint authors of Zulu Botanical Knowledge and were together with Noleen Turner, Elsa Pooley, Nelson Ntshangase and a number of others participants in the Zulu Botanical Knowledge Project. But there is something else which links Mkhipheni and I, and that is that both of us are named after plants: My adopted Zulu clan name is Khumalo, derived from the noun ikhumalo, the tree Cassinopsis ilicifolia or Lemon-Thorn, while Mkhipheni’s clan name [u]Ngwenya shares the same word root as ingwenya “crocodile” and umgwenya (Harpephyllum caffrum). You’ll find the link between the crocodile and the tree on page 235 of my book.

Noleen Turner also made useful comments on the first draft of the manuscripts, and has been the first to write a review – before the book has even been launched – which will be published in this year’s issue of the journal Natalia. Noleen has been inviting me over the last two years to join her Zulu bird names workshops (which I have done), and a book on bird names and birds in Zulu culture might well be my next project.

And then I must thank Elsa Pooley: Elsa has played a double role in this book on Zulu Plant Names: First, when I was researching and writing the book I relied enormously on her wonderful publications Trees of Natal and Wildflowers of KwaZulu-Natal. And then secondly I must thank her for her extremely useful suggestions when she read a draft of the manuscript.

I am glad to see Louis Gaigher here: He was much involved in the earlier review and consultation stage of the book. Thank you for that, Louis.

I owe a great debt to Angela Beaumont. She was responsible for going through the manuscript from the first page to the last, checking and correcting botanical errors (I am in no ways whatsoever a botanist!) and especially in checking whether scientific botanical names were still current. Much of my Zulu name material came from books published over 50 years ago, and in one case 110 years ago, and over this period of time botanists have made a lot of taxonomical changes, which means that the scientific names frequently change. We decided in the editing of the book to leave the earlier names in place, but mark them with an asterisk, so the later, current names could be looked up in a list of synonyms. You’ll see her annotated copy of the manuscript on the table inside.

But I must also thank Angela for the superb colour painting of the Snake Lily in the book, and her equally wonderful drawings thoughout. The black mamba merged into the umdlebe tree on page 196 is stunning. We were lucky to have such a gifted botanical artist to illustrate the book.

And then my thanks to the UKZN “team”: UKZN Publisher Debra Primo, Adele Branch, who has organised this launch here today, Christopher Merrett for his usual meticulous text-editing, Trish Comrie for typesetting, and Catherine Munro for proofreading. But particularly I must thank Sally Hines for managing the entire production process. Many were the long hours we worked together, Sally. I bet you are pleased to see it’s all over!

And then last but not least (as they say) I come to my wife Jewel: Jewel, thank you first for allowing this launch to be held here today. Many of us here will know how much work this entails, and Jewel didn’t hesitate to take it on. And then I must thank her for doing most of the General Index of the book, a task that required hours of the most boring kind of work. But mostly I must thank Jewel for a different type of contribution. I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but I find that when I am researching and writing (and I seem to be spending 100 percent of my time since I retired doing just that) that it is enormously rewarding, if not essential, to have someone to share exciting discoveries with – to have someone you can run to and say, “Hey! Look what I’ve just discovered!” Jewel has always played that role to perfection.

And now to a few remarks about writing the book and the book itself:

I have to say that researching and writing a book like this one can in no ways be considered work: It is rather a wonderful and intriguing voyage of discovery, marked at regular intervals by instances of pure serendipity.

I don’t want to spend the next two hours talking to you about the book, so let me rather give you just three serendipitous moments:

I mentioned earlier the connection between umgenya the tree and ingwenya the crocodile. I had been puzzling for years trying to see if there was a link between animal and tree, and then I came across a statement in Peoples Plants by Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke about how muti from the tree was used to cure warts and pimples. Bingo! Light-bulb moment! At once I saw how the crocodile and the tree could be linked. You’ll find the story on 235 of Zulu Plant Names, together with a drawing of a crocodile, a half-eaten mealie cob, and a pimply face.

And then I must mention my puzzlement when I first read in Pooley’s Wild Flowers that the Zulu name for Scadoxis puniceus or Snake Lily was idumbe kaNhloyile. I knew the word idumbe to be the singular of what Natal English calls “madoombies”, and I knew that unhloyile was one of a number of names for the Yellow-Billed Kite. It was only last year, at the beginning of August when I saw the Snake Lilies in this garden starting to poke their snouts above the soil, and at the same time heard the Yellow-Billed Kite calling above that my mind once again went ‘Bingo!’ – another moment of serendipity.

I was likewise puzzled when I read in Pooley that the Caterpillar Bean or Zornia capensis had the Zulu name umkhondo. I only knew the word umkhondo to mean the track or spoor of a person or animal. Here it was my old friend Doke and Vilakazi’s Zulu-English Dictionary that provided the link. They give three meanings for the word umkhondo, all linked to each other. The first meaning is the one I was familiar with: “track, trail or spoor of passing animals or persons”. The second meaning is “disease of new-born baby, entailing a sinking of the fontanelle, believed to be caused by the mother crossing the track of an ill-omened animal such as the eland”. And then the third meaning of umkhondo is “species of spreading weed, Zornia capensis, used by pregnant women, tied around the ankle as protection against the umkhondo disease”. Another light-bulb moment! Here we see the link between umkhondo as spoor and umkhondo as plant name. When I read this I learnt about three distinct Zulu cultural beliefs that I had never known before: One, that the eland is an unlucky animal; two, that the bad luck inherent in an animal can pass up through the feet and the body of a woman carrying a baby, and cause its fontanelle to sink; and three, that an anklet made from the plant Zornia capensis can prevent such bad luck passing into a person.

Here in this last example we see clearly the link between plant, language and culture; a single space where the distinct worlds of botany, linguistics and belief systems come together. Such linking is the major theme of this book on Zulu plant names and there are many, many more such examples. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Facebook gallery

Related links:


Book details

» read article

Join Adrian Koopman for the Launch of Zulu Plant Names in Pietermaritzburg

Invitation to the Launch of Zulu Plant Names

Zulu Plant NamesUKZN Press would like to invite you to the launch of Zulu Plant Names by Adrian Koopman.

In this book Koopman details the complex relationship between plants, the Zulu language and Zulu culture.

The launch will take place on Saturday, 5 September, at 2 for 2:30 PM at 37 Grimthorpe Avenue in Pietermaritzburg.

See you there!

Event Details

  • Date: Saturday, 5 September 2015
  • Time: 2 for 2:30 PM
  • Venue: 37 Grimthorpe Avenue
    Lincoln Meade
    Pietermaritzburg | Map
  • RSVP:, 033 260 5226

Book Details

» read article

Adrian Koopman Examines How “Words of Power” are used in Conjunction with Plants in Zulu Culture

Zulu Plant NamesAdrian Koopman’s 2013 paper entitled “The interface between magic, plants and language” is available to read online.

Koopman, Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is the author of Zulu Plant Names.

The article begins by investigating how the meaning of the word “magic” changes in different contexts, and then examines the “power” of plant names in different cultures, especially in Zulu botanical nomenclature.

According to Koopman, there is a clear distinction, in Western thinking, “between a herbalist’s use of plant medicines with proven healing properties based on scientific observation and chemical analyses, and ‘magical’ plants that link to a belief system but not necessarily to scientific evidence”.

Read the extract:

This article looks at the interface between magic, plants and language. After examining various conceptualisations of ‘magic’, the article focuses specifically on the manipulation of materia, particularly when accompanied by the ritual use of language. The emphasis in this part of the article is on incantations, recitation of spells, curses and similar utterances. Examples are given first from various cultures in Europe, then from Africa as a whole, and finally from Zulu culture. In examining these ‘words of power’ and the way they are used together with plants and other materia, the articles explores the notion that the name of a plant may often contain as much power as the plant itself. The article then goes on to look specifically at Zulu plant names, and concludes that in addition to their power in various forms of magic, such names may also have a mnemonic function, assisting traditional healers and diviners to remember not only the name of a particular plant, but its various functions in society as well.

Book details

» read article

Carolyn Hamilton Praises Greame Reid’s How to Be a Real Gay at Joburg Launch

Graeme Reid

How to Be a Real GayOn Monday evening, at the launch of his book, How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa, Graeme Reid introduced some of the flamboyant characters whose stories have been included in it. They had come all the way from the Wesselton township of Ermelo to attend the event held at the Atlantic Philanthropies’ offices in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch in New York, explained that he took the title of the book from a series of workshops organised by gay activists in Ermelo.

An anthropologist by training, Reid received a PhD from the University of Amsterdam. His book is a study of how protection of gay rights is a litmus test for South Africa’s Constitutional democracy, and yet is seen by many as a threat to traditional values, customs and beliefs. The book looks at what it means to be homosexual in South Africa today and also speaks to the tremendous capacity of gay people to carve a space for themselves in a harsh environment.

During his address at the launch, Reid asked the audience to maintain a moment of silence for the high number of participants in his research who had passed away and noted that although HIV/AIDS medication is now readily available, stigma and silence are the biggest killers.

Reid introduced Professor Carolyn Hamilton, the guest speaker, who has been his academic mentor for two decades, as well as being a friend and colleague. She holds an NRF Research Chair in Archive and Public Culture based in the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Cape Town. Her research areas include the ethnography and history of the archive; the history of pre-industrial South Africa; and the anthropology of the past in the present.

Hamilton described a story in Reid’s book about the funeral of one Dumisani in 2006. It was attended by diverse people, from matrons to people in full drag. Dumisani was afforded the full rites of the church and, contrary to what might have been expected, there were no voices of dissent or criticism of his lifestyle in any of the speeches. She also described how the book explores the success of gay hairdressers in black society. It provides insight into the economic aspects of being gay and how gay people access donor funding and resources and create networks linking their small towns to cities.

Hamilton praised Reid’s care and commitment to archiving, which is evident throughout the book. How to be a Real Gay provides a powerful analysis of the issues and makes crucial contributions with carefully built-up arguments. By exploring everyday life in hair “saloons”, churches, taverns and meeting halls, Reid shows how well-recognised gay activity is in its setting; the book looks at how gay modernity is performed, and shows how gay life can be lived with reference to, and not in violation of, tradition.

Facebook gallery

Book details

» read article

Launch of How to Be a Real Gay by Graeme Reid at the Atlantic Philanthropies

Invite: Launch of How to Be a Real Gay

How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South AfricaUniversity of KwaZulu-Natal Press and the Atlantic Philanthropies cordially invite you to the launch of How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa by Graeme Reid.

The event will take place at the Atlantic Philanthropies offices in Rosebank on Monday 28 January at 5:30 PM for 6 PM. Professor Carolyn Hamilton will be the guest speaker.

See you there!

Event Details

Book Details

» read article

Video: Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free Film Co-Directed by Graeme Reid Now Available Online

How to Be a Real GayGraeme Reid, author of How to be a Real Gay, made a documentary in 2000, with Paulo Alberton, titled Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free. The film documents a “road trip through gay spaces in small town South Africa.”

Frameline Voices has now released the film in its entirety online:

Book details

» read article

Graeme Reid Examines Gay Identity in South Africa in How to Be a Real Gay

How to Be a Real GayNew from UKZN Press How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa by Graeme Reid:

This book offers a poignant, lively and detailed ethnography of shifting forms of self-understanding and social organization amongst gays living in the South African countryside in a time of democratic transition. It is also about the ‘raw materials’ that gays draw on in re-imagining themselves and forging their life worlds. These ‘raw materials’ include traditional and historical ideas about gender and same-sex practices; a Constitution that upholds the principles of gender equality and non-discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’; as well as increased access to the discourses and practices of international gay and lesbian social movements.

These intersections on local, national and trans-national levels are evident in the everyday practices of gays in hair salons, churches, taverns, and meeting halls – the focal points for this ethnographic study, which is the first of its kind to emerge from South Africa.

The book argues that ambivalent responses to homosexuality in South Africa – on the one hand as a litmus test for the success of Constitutional democracy and on the other as a threat to traditional values, customs and beliefs – can best be understood in terms of competing claims to modernity. It shows how a close association between gay lifestyles, fashion and modernity makes homosexuality fertile symbolic terrain for expressing deeper anxieties about rapid social change.

‘It is beautifully written up in a style which makes for entertaining reading and this book is, to my mind, a hybrid genre of oral history, life-stories and participating observations. ’
— Ena Jansen

‘Reid has woven together theory, method, research results and personal observations in an attractive way… Throughout the book he discusses and tests theories. He does not put down the great story of the history of sexuality in South Africa in a dry way in broad terms, but embeds the most important events in a story.’
– Gert Hekma

About the author

Graeme Reid is director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch in New York. He has conducted research, taught and published extensively on gender, sexuality, LGBT issues, and HIV/AIDS. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 2011, Reid was the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and a lecturer in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at Yale University. An anthropologist by training, Reid received a PhD from the University of Amsterdam.

Reid is the author of Above the Skyline: The Reverend Tsietsi Thandekiso and the founding of an African Gay Church, an ethnographic study of the early years of an African, gay Pentecostal-style Christian community in Johannesburg.

Book details

» read article