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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

Interpreter, Please! Learning Zulu in South Africa

Written by Kelly N. Patterson
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“Where are you going this time?”  Family and friends asked.

“Well, I can’t exactly pronounce it,” I confessed.  “But I can spell it:  H-L-A-B-I-S-A.”

“Where?” they chorused.

“It’s a rural area in north-western Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.”

Blank looks followed by further questioning: “But where in South Africa?  I mean which country?  Zimbabwe?  Zambia?”

“South Africa is its own country!” I exclaimed.  “You know…Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Charlize Theron…”

Fortunately, I was not as geographically-challenged as my American peers.  Prior to accepting this position as development executive of a community-based healthcare and rural development NGO, I did some research.  Libraries, the internet and even maps could not distinguish where Hlabisa was; regardless, I collected fragments of information about the province of Kwa Zulu Natal.

I was aware that South Africa boasted 11 official languages, but I only had to master one: Zulu.  (Or so I thought.)

Kwa Zulu Natal, South AfricaDespite my attempts at self-instruction and an introductory course in Johannesburg, over the last two years my Zulu has been clumsy at best.  But my English—my first language—has been significantly challenged.  Not one travel guide or reference book hinted that South African English is its own unique language.  English communication proved to be more fallible than my amateur Zulu.

I was pleasantly surprised (and secretly relieved) to discover most of my Zulu colleagues and peers were quite conversant in English.  However, almost immediately, in conjunction with clashing accents, the confusion began.


“I’m happy!”  A young Zulu woman enthusiastically greeted me at Richard’s Bay Airport.  A bit flustered by her joie de vivre, I stuttered: “Oh, sawubona! I’m pleased to meet you, too.”

“I’m your new assistant,“ the gleeful lady said as she stuck out her hand.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I’m happy!” she cheered again and grabbed my bags.  Bewildered, I asked in Zulu.

“I’m happy!” her grin widened.  I gave up.  It took me days to realize her name was actually “Happy.”

Happy and Caesar, the driver, escorted me in a retired ambulance from Richard’s Bay Airport through Hluhluwhe-Umfolozi Game Park to my new home in Hlabisa.

“Your house is the rondavel,” the self-proclaimed happy woman pointed at a cluster of clay buildings.  As far as I could see there were five square huts.

“Excuse me, which house is mine?”

“Dat one. The rondavel, “she pointed emphatically.

“But none of them are round, “I stated and asked at the same time.  Happy looked at me as if I had spoken in tongues.  She got out of the ambulance and started walking towards a square hut and pointed: “Dat one, OK?”

When Happy and Caesar started to drive off, I realized I had no keys to get into the square hut they called a “rondavel. “ I ran after the ambulance, directly up to Happy’s window.

“You forgot to give me the keys!” I screamed over the Harley-like engine, through a closed window.  Happy looked at me as if an armadillo was playing a saxophone on my head; she glanced nervously at the driver.


“I need the keys!”  I repeated.

She hesitated, looked alarmingly at Caesar, rolled down the window slowly, then awkwardly, leaned out the window and gave me a kiss.

“Well, thank you, but I just need the keys to get into my house,” I blushed.

“Oh!” she gasped and started giggling. “I thought you said you needed a kiss!”

A few days later, with Happy’s assistance, I arranged an executive committee meeting in order to introduce myself to the entire staff.  The meeting was supposed to start at 9 am.  By 10 am, only a fraction of the guests had arrived.  I became concerned that my invitations had not been delivered, or worse, disregarded.

Happy frowned—we could not begin until all the executive committee members were present.

“But don’t worry, “she said.  “They are coming just now.”

It took me months but here are my translations of “South African Time”:

S.A. English American English

now                                                                           now

now now                                                                   10 to 20 minutes

just now                                                                     one hour or so

soon                                                                          not in your lifetime


At around 11 am, most guests sauntered into the meeting hall, with the exception of Mr. Xulu, the executive treasurer.  I asked Happy if she was certain she had sent Mr. Xulu an invitation.

Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa

“Kelly, Mr. Xulu is late, “she responded.

“Well, let’s wait just 10 more minutes and then if Mr. Xulu still does not show up, then we will begin regardless.”

Happy frowned with her eyebrows (Zulus have mastered what I call “eyebrow language”—a distinct non-verbal communication system done solely with the eyebrows) and said, “Mr. Xulu has been late for six month now.”

This statement completely perplexed me.

“What do you mean he’s been late for six months?!”

“He is not coming,” she whispered, paused and concluded, “Ever.”

We exchanged sinister eyebrow looks.  Mr. Xulu died six months ago.  From then on there was constant confusion about whether an absent person was just “running late” or dead.


And in Zulu, the words “right” and “left” appear to be greatly under-utilized.  When asking for directions, Zulus will point to a general direction and say, “Hamba (go) dat way.”

“Which way?”

“Dat way!” pointing vigorously.  “Then after the robot, turn dat way.”

They indicate “dat way” in an opposite direction and after four “dat ways” one is terribly lost.


“OK,” I am getting frustrated. “Which ‘dat way’…and where is a robot?”

I am imagining Star Wars’ R2D2 standing on the side of the road, next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken, pointing “dat way.”

“OK, is it left dat way, or right dat way?” I plead.

“Just dat way,” they are exhausted with me.

And here is a hint: “robot” is the South African term for “stoplight.”  I don’t know how long I walked until I realized I was not going to find CP30 further down this street.

So honestly, it has taken me nearly two years just to be able to communicate efficiently in English with South Africans.  I promise you.

I am practicing daily by watching the South African soaps and going to plenty of “braais” with my “brus.”  I am confident I will be fluent by the end of the year.

So next time you come towards Hluhluwhe-Umfolozi Game Park in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, please drop in.  Just take the N2 north from Durban and once you see the sign for “St. Lucia Wetlands”, just turn dat way.

© Kelly N. Patterson

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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