Thursday 19 September 2019

KwaZulu-Natal: Dive into a world of local South African culture

Thoko Jili, Zulu guide
Thoko Jili, Zulu guide

Rachael Taylor Fawsitt

For many, travelling is about so much more than winding up in the usual tourist traps. It’s about visiting parts unknown, meeting the local people and immersing themselves in the culture.

Thoko Jili is a tour guide in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, where she grew up. Through her work, she takes travellers on the journey of a lifetime and helps them to dip their toes into local KwaZulu-Natal life. She decided to become a tour guide as a way to share her heritage and teach people about everything that her region has to offer.

“I grew up here and I’ve just fallen in love with it,” explains Thoko. “I thought I have to share my stories with people who might not know about my province because when you hear anything from the horse’s mouth it sounds better.

“With the festive season the days are always hectic, I own a tour company known as Wisdom Travel and Tours and my average day is very busy. We have two big ports that host world-travelling cruise ships and I’m very busy with them. They come and dock in those two ports and I take tours around. Besides that, I host people who come from everywhere, even local South African tourists.”

Thoko runs tours out of Durban, with flights to Durban available from London.

Meeting the world

Valley of a Thousand Hills

Thoko says that being a tour guide has opened a world of opportunities that she would never have experienced before.

“The main thing for me is that I am meeting the world. Without this job that would never, ever happen. Meeting the world to me means everybody that I’ve met so far, I would never have had an opportunity to meet them otherwise. It gives me an opportunity to tell them about my province and to give them an experience they’ve never had.”

“While I’m hosting people, I am myself travelling. I get to take them to different places around my province. Local people here have never been involved in travelling, even myself. When I was growing up, we didn’t travel.

“We have very big families and that’s our own travel. I would visit my cousin every day, but that is all. Since I’ve engaged in tourism, it’s opened my eyes and I love travelling. It keeps you going. I love meeting different people with different attitudes. It gives you a taste of how far you can go.”


Thoko explains that the region has so much to offer travellers, for culture to adventure. 

“This is a very unique province, that’s why it is called the Garden of South Africa. If you come here mid-winter you will find trees smiling at you - green, very green. Whenever people come here, they love the beautiful landscape. We have outstanding beaches. People from all over South Africa leave their provinces and come to see our beaches.

“You can achieve whatever is on your bucket list in our province. We are very rich in wildlife and the mountains are beautiful. The highest peek is about 3400m above sea level so for hikers and adventurers, it’s beautiful. You can do your quad biking, your hot air ballooning, you can do horse riding - there is just so much you can do. Also, in the mountain there are original bushman caves and painting. We had those before even the first settlement of the Zulu people.”

Zulu Culture

Traditional Zulu jewellery

South Africa is known for its many tribes and traditions and one such tribe is the Zulu people. Thoko aims to take her guests on an authentic Zulu journey, showing how they have stayed true to their heritage and roots.

“This is the province in South Africa where you can find a lot of Zulu people because originally this is the home and the place of the Zulu tribes. The culture is really something that is very unique. You would love to meet the real people in their comfort zone, where they grew up in their original land and where they live their daily lives. The life that they live there is still very, very authentic.”

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, nine of which are native languages.

“Here in KWZ, you will find the Zulu language and the Zulu culture. In our culture, we are taught about self-discipline and about loving each other. You will feel our culture of loving people as soon as you arrive at King Shaka International Airport. You feel it from the porter that will help you with the luggage, from the driver that will take you to your hotel - you will just feel it. The smile that we have, it’s not a fake smile. It lives with us. We smile our hearts out.”

Many of the local traditions have stood the test of time in KwaZulu-Natal.

“There are some traditions that have still survived. If a young man wants to marry a girl, he has to pay 11 cows to the father of the girl. That’s part of our culture. Those cows are not about letting people pay for you. It’s about giving a young boy an exercise because the father of a girl wants to make sure this young man is ready to maintain a family. Cows in our culture are part of wealth.”

Learning about local beliefs and traditions is an important element in Thoko’s tours.

“When people come to Durban or KwaZulu-Natal, I take them, and we go and see people. We walk along the big rivers and I tell them about some of our beliefs. There are beliefs and rituals connected to the rivers everywhere in our culture.”

Experiencing local life

Zulu choir in KwaZulu-Natal

Thoko’s tours are centralised around the day to day life in the local villages. Some of the traditions can feel a world away from what visitors are used to, which is something Thoko believes is important to share.

“Our tradition allows a man to take more than one wife. So, in the village we visit some of those families where the travellers and guests will communicate and interact with the two, three or four wives and ask questions as to how they feel to share a husband. Some will interact with the man and find out how he feels about having more than one wife and all the challenges that surrounds all that, so it’s a real tour.”

“We also have lunch with the community, which is our traditional lunch where we cook a village chicken for the guests. Lots of our cooking is very easy, it’s just boiling, and then we add whatever it needs - maybe a little bit of sugar or salt.”

Discovering local delicacies is a must for travellers, and every region has something unique to offer.

“We cook pumpkin leaves instead of spinach. Pumpkin leaves are just WOW! You will never want anything besides them. They are very seasonal, and it depends on summer and rainy season when our pumpkins grow, but they are part of our staple foods.”

“We also have ujeque - we use it instead of rice. It’s like soft porridge. It’s almost cooked similar but we keep on adding maze meal or corn meal so that it ends up being very dry. So instead of eating rice, we eat that.”

Meat lovers will feel right at home in these villages in South Africa, as Thoko explains it is a key ingredient in their diet.

“We are not vegetarian, we eat a lot of meat. That’s why livestock is part of our culture. You will find each and every family will have cows, goats and chickens for different purposes.”

Growth and change

After living her entire life in the region, Thoko can see what has changed and also what has remained the same.

“The region has changed in some parts, we have cities and towns now which we didn’t have before so there are a lot of changes, but there are some places which are still as unique as they were before. Where I grew up is a village in the rural areas, so it’s not easily affected by civilisation. In the rural areas the culture has never changed - remember that culture lives with people. I can stay in a big mansion in the city, but my culture lives in my heart.”

Thoko thinks that to truly understand the province, the best way to discover it is for yourself.

“It’s like a wrapped gift, you have to come and unwrap to see what is there. There are many places in South Africa that are popular and well known, but when you come to KwaZulu-Natal, you will be amazed.”

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