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16th June 2003Zulu basic diet in 1879
By Miguel
While viewing some pics of 1879 Zulus, I couldn't help to notice that many if not all of them showed a very distinctive 'pot belly', slightly disrupting the image I had of Zulus as extremely athletic people.

At first I thought those bellies were signs of malnutrition, but then someone mentioned 'Zulu beer', and that makes me ask the learned experts here what was the basic Zulu diet in those years.
16th June 2003MarcJung
Miguel, if you are the one and only same Miguel who answered my last enquiry, then thanks, matey! In answer to yours, I heard that the Zulus existed on millet and sour milk, although I don't know if this is true of today (in the Zulu countryside) But maybe the more experienced on this excellent site can help you if this isn't true. Take care, Marc.
17th June 2003Melvin Hunt
I have never seen a picture, circa 1879, of what I would call an athletic looking Zulu and I wonder if this "fit, well drilled war machine" who could run many miles and fight a battle, is yet another myth perpetrated over the years. Having said that, I do not wish to detract from the achievments of the Zulu Regiments during the defence of their country.
18th June 2003Miguel
I couldn't agree with you more, Melvin. I must say that none of the Zulus I have seen in pictures caused a great impression in me, from an anatomic point of view, this is.
19th June 2003Keith Smith

Sorry but you are gravely in error. Shaka himself is recorded as running prodigious distances. Hearing of his mother Nandi's impending death, he travelled 60 miles in about 18 hours. This feat was witnessed by Henry Francis Fynn, who could only keep up with him because he was riding a horse!

At Isandlwana, the reserve (men in their 40s) jogged about 25 kilometres from their bivouac to Isandlwana, Fugitives Drift then Rorke's Drift, a total distance of about 25 kilometres, between midday and 4.15 pm, spending half an hour to take snuff on the way. They then fought the Brits at the mission station for about 12 hours after that.

As for their build, you only have to look at modern marathon runners to see that most of them would have to run around in the shower to get wet.

19th June 2003Miguel


And yet, all the Zulus one can find in contemporary pictures show a very clear pot belly or a generally soft appereance. So the question remains unanswered about what the basic diet of the Zulus was.
20th June 2003Melvin Hunt
Thanks for the reply. I'm not sure if I'm gravely in error of anything though. All that I was questioning was the commonly held belief that the Zulu regiments, circa 1879, were very fit and athletic. I have no doubts regarding the prowess of Shaka and HIS regiments. I can tell you that you cannot be "jogging fit" if you have a pot belly.
Maybe the photos in question were'nt representative of the majority of the regiments at the time. By the way, the 25 kilometre distance can be covered in the 3.75 hours (plus half an hour stopping for snuff) at the equivalent of a brisk walk. (ie. 4 mph in old money.) Either way, as with most issues discussed on this great site, its all thought provoking.

20th June 2003Keith Smith

OK, the following is taken from A.T. Bryant, "The Zulu People as they were before the White Man Came". The word "Mealie" refers to Maize or Indian corn, you know, the stuff on cobs. They generally ate two meals a day -

1. Toasted green mealie cobs, boiled sweet potatoes and pumpkin. This was sometimes acompnaied by a roast, although beef was only used infrequently. (Cattle was their form of wealth, so they would kill a beast rarely.) They had chickens, goats and plenty of wild game to choose from.

2. Other vegetables and fruits such as gourds, melons, yams and tubers, beans, wild tomatoes and monkey nuts

3. Men enjoyed their meat and beer; the latter was made from sorghum. The grain was allowed to soak in a stream to soften it, then spread on the hut floor to dry. It was then steeped in water for another day, then crushed into a dough while still wet. It was then put in a large pot and boiling water was added. Eventually, the beer fermented and was drained through a grass seive to remove the solids. It was best to be drunk within the next day or so. (This description is deliberately truncated - there are a couple of other steps which I have omitted.)

4. Sour clotted milk or amaSi. It is just cow's milk left to go sour in a pot for 48 hours. The 'curds' (solids) are separated from the 'whey' (liquid ) and the latter replaced by fresh milk and left to ferment for a few hours. It is then ready to eat. Fresh milk was not drunk, except by young boys, who ritually drank it straight from the cow's udder (ukuKleza) while cadets in their regiment.

Enough, I think.

20th June 2003James Garland
Just because many of the zulus had pot bellies doesn't mean they weren't fit. I served for a few years in a British infantry regiment and one of the fittest men in my company was very fat in fact he was huge but he could run for hours carrying full battle kit plus the section machine gun.
20th June 2003Peter Ewart
I've often wondered about the pot bellies in those photographs, but suspect we're looking at a very small sample of Zulus!

Many of the potbellied chaps which appear in regularly published photos are of indunas or royally-connected leaders. Well known ones of men posing with rifles in front of huts were among many taken some time after the 1879 war and some of the others are of Zulus who had lived in Natal for a few years (and may presumably be expected to be less fit from a changed lifestyle - for some of them at least?)

I know that pictures of, say, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha, show him as a little corpulent but back in the 1870s he doesn't look quite so bad! His kinsman, Dabulamanzi, looks fat in many pictures, horsed or unhorsed, but the well known one of him with attendants & rifles c1873 isn't too unathletic, given the accepted tendency in his maternal line of obesity. Cetshwayo was decribed as a well built man when young but obviously led a more sedentary life as King and his physical privations when on the run in July/Aug sound painful.

Illustrations of Mpande depict him as absolutely enormous (plate 18 in "Rope of Sand"!!!) but how many drawings of him as a young man do we have? Ntshingwayo had a bit of a pot, but we don't know what he looked like 50 years earlier, do we? Sigcwelegcwele kaMhlekehleke (typed that really carefully but can't pronounce it!) also had a pot & commanded the iNgobamakhosi in 1879 but I suspect he was thinner as a young warrior.

But if you look more carefully at many more photographs than just the few which are understandably republished, thereby increasing the size of your sample, one comes across very many lean, athletic looking Zulu.

Those in Gardiner's "Zoolu Country" for example - admittedly well before 1879 and even there one can see the suspicion of the odd pot, or in the famous series of posed snaps taken in London in 1853 - they look reasonably lean underneath the huge costumes. A photo of Hlubi in AW Lee's life of Chas Johnson shows "comfortable" in European dress, perhaps concealing a slight pot, but he was not young then.

So I wouldn't say "all the Zulus one can find in contemporary pictures" have pot bellies, nor do I think the published ones are necessarily representative of the whole, either.

On the other hand, I have an unpublished letter (1856) somewhere of a description of Cetshwayo's half-brother Mkungo, when a "little" boy, in which he is described as one of those huge fat boys who are paraded around England by circuses!!! By 1879 he doesn't seem to have got much thinner!

20th June 2003Peter Ewart
In para 3, read paternal for maternal!