The Zulu tribe of South Africa is the largest ethnic group, living in the KwaZulu-Natal province, with a 10-12 million population. The Zulu tribe is famously known for its art and cultural beliefs. They take pride in their skills of beadwork and reed dance which acts as their identification. 

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Amongst the eccentric features of the Zulu tribe, the vernacular architecture of their dwellings remains overlooked. The traditional Zulu Architecture appreciates the past techniques and locally-available materials to form an abode apt for the climatic conditions. 

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DelphineCourtes, Usage of Locally-Available Materials by Zulu Woman,(2015), [photograph], @www.pixabay.com
These dwellings around the KwaZulu region appear to be traditional huts with an inferior structure and applied homogeneous techniques. Though, the inappropriate belief of terming traditional architecture as uncivilized has shot down. The dome-shaped shelters where Zulu people reside are not ordinary cribs. They show the features of vernacular architecture and a boon for the people’s economic lifestyle.  

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Modern architecture has set our past and the unique techniques of construction apart. The material usage has grown with the technology, and building with the environment lacks behind. The visible features of Zulu-tribe architecture are the thatched roof and its dome shape. These factors prevent the harsh climate of Southern Africa from affecting people without the usage of external energy.

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John Atherton, Traditional Zulu house, (1979), [photograph], @www.flickr.com
The Zulu architecture is famous for its beehive houses that are the primitive stage of house development in the tribal areas. The structure and the materials used in these dwellings are easy to maintain. From the looks of it, the form looks monotonous and easy, though it requires special skills for its construction and an increased number of sophisticated materials. 

The Nomadic herders and Pastoralists living in the region build these houses with economic restraints and only locally-available materials. The Zulu houses built are mainly of rope, lattice, thatch, and wooden strips that are locally available in the area. Experts in the field of thatching are required to make these roofs. 

A usual kind of grass, the elephant grass, and local wood is gathered from the surrounding and weaved together to form a stable structure. The wooden strips form a solid framework that supports the thatched roof. The nomads built houses that were flexible with time as they moved from one place to another often, and these materials helped them actualize the situations.

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Inside Zulu Homes. @www.pinterest.com

The Zulu homes are finely thatched, constructed, and extensively decorated at the entrance of many South-African regions. The security of entry is through a thick hinged wooden door. Some Zulu traditional huts have layers of mats beneath for insulation against the harsh climate of the region. These dwellings introduced a grass matting as a finial at the top of the hut for waterproofing purposes at a later stage. 

The intricate techniques of constructing the beehive structure are mesmerizing and require skilled labor. There are vertical members provided supported by the horizontal bracing to increase the hut height. The roof pattern and materials are the identifiable elements of Zulu architecture. The walls are decorated with bright colors, though there are no specific functions other than providing insulation. Interestingly, the beehive structure developed from crude shelters, natural shelters, caves, and overhangs. 

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Zulu Dwellings. @www.pinterest.com

Techniques and culture of the past are shown significantly in the indoor planning and the cluster formation of these dwellings. The arrangement of houses according to the family patterns and the rituals performed are the symbol of growth. The Zulu houses are also known as Indus. They are constructed jointly by both men and women of the society. The men do the skilled structure construction work, while women perform the thatching and weaving as they have expertise in the famous beadwork of the Zulu Tribe. 

The usual plan of the abode divides man and woman areas in two directions. The cattle kraal is towards the center of the dwelling. The Zulu tribe values their cattle, and it is a symbol of wealth and power that resides at the center of the homestead to radiate livelihood and strength.

The family pattern, according to their culture, is that a man marries more than one wife. The houses of wives are around the periphery, with the chief mother’s house in the center. Watchtowers circle the cattle kraal, as the nomads value their cattle more than anything. There is a separation maintained for unmarried boys and girls. Palisades around radial planning used for the protection of livelihood are spiky coral tree branches.

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The Typical Zulu Homestead (after M. Hall 1984b), [photograph], @www.researchgate.net
This society believed in providing roles and purpose to each of its members. Their women were the forest dwellers, and the men were the skilled laborers. They did the chores which required heavy lifting and also took care of the cattle.  In the Zulu society, their architecture represented this segregation of responsibilities in their homesteads called Umuzi. 

The Umuzi consisted of two concentric circular palisades of coral-tree branches or thorny bushes. Firstly their huts were located in between these rings. Subsequently, their precious cattle resided inside the doubly protected inner circle, which was called the Kraal. The cattle in their society were the symbol of wealth, status, and power. When the chieftain of the Zulus dies, he is buried in their cattle Kraal. It was considered a high honor.

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Zulu Architecture. @www.pinterest.com

Even after withstanding the test of time, this socio-cultural piece of architectural designing marvel is severely underappreciated. There is a common perspective floating around that the traditional architecture was uncivilized and highly primitive, which was nailed into our heads by the colonial masters. They deemed their way superior. Though, Sojowski highlighted the importance of Zulu architecture in the local context. I

n rough terrains and an underdeveloped society, the natives learned to use the indigenous raw material ingeniously. They solved many social, economic, and geographical issues with these simple designs. They made sure to use every resource in their vicinity judiciously. Something as simple grass weaved as a roof could withstand the vast temperature differences of dusks and dawns. 

Some housings even included thatching with insulation which regulated the temperature in places where electrical air-conditioning was just a fantasy. With resources that were as cheap and readily available, the Zulus beautifully incorporated their culture and socio-economic hierarchy in their design.

Author

Shevi Saxena is an ambitious architecture student with a keen eye to learn more every day. She can ponder and research over the smallest occurrence related to architecture any day and write about it. With an eager interest to learn about the history and its implementation today, she believes that architecture should give the comfort back to the users and nature.

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