Sunday, June 13, 2004

The 13 Zulu moons

There is an urban legend that claims that last year there was a tremor from an earthquake in the middle of Los Angeles. People ran out onto the streets and, on looking up, asked what those bright things were up in the sky, only to be told that they were called stars.

It is not surprisingly really. Modern man rushes from his office to his car, speeds home and then, looking downwards, enters his nuclear home. He stops only to switch on the telly, check on the Hang Seng index, change the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling and set the alarm for the morning. Rarely does he look up to see "the new African moon lying on her back" as Karen Blixen described her.

The pulses of the seasons, the waxing of the moon, the sudden hush of nightfall and the bird-filled African dawn are drowned out by the shrill cries of morning alarm bells and the bleeps and artificial tunes of a trillion cellphones. Time only stops, said Albert Einstein, when you take a ride on a beam of light.

There was a time, though, when we were on more intimate terms with the moon. We lived our lives by its rhythms and had a name for each one. The American Indians, the Mayans, the Egyptians and, in fact, most of the Earth's peoples had at one time names for the 13 lunar months.

The Zulus were no exception. Each name of each moon described what was going on in nature at the time that it waxed and waned in the heavens.

As we are now in summer, let us start with the Moon of Inspection (uNhlolanja), which is inspecting the land to see if the pumpkins that have been planted are starting to grow. It is also the time when wild dogs mate.

We will soon move on to the Moon of Plenty (uNdasa), when there will be an abundance of new mealies and stomachs will be full. After this, the early winter will start and the Fire Kindling Moon (uMbaso) will rise as fires are lit in the hearths of the huts.

One of my favourites then appears, the Aloe Blooming Moon (uNhlaba), and one suddenly sees those perfect slender spikes of orange and yellow, and feels the first chill wind off the distant Berg. It is then that the winter moon arrives and blankets are taken out and more wood is gathered for the fire.

When the leaves are shed and shaken off the trees, she is called the Moon of the Bare Trees (uNhlangula).

Because of the size of
KwaZulu-Natal, the land of the Zulus, the same moon may go by different names in the northern tropical parts from those in the southern regions or the high grounds of the Drakensberg Mountains (Khahlamba) that rise up as pointed spears into the sky.

In the early autumn comes the Great Dust Driving Moon (known as Untulikazi by some and uMaQuba Omkhulu by others) when the hot winds stir up the dry lands and men cover their faces with their jackets. There is also the Moon of the Nesting Yellow-billed Kite (uKholo, also known as uNhloyile) as she glides on her synchronised wings in the crystal thin, blue sky.

At this time, another of my favourite moons appears, the elegant New Green Moon (uNcwaba) when the land starts to turn green after the first smattering of rain and the early crocuses peep up through the old dry yellow winter grass. It is time now for late spring and early summer with the Moon of Sprouting (uMfumfu) and the Moon when the Impala Lamb (iMpala).

The grass is now getting longer and the Moon of the Spittle Bugs (uLwezi) is waxing high in the night sky and the frogs start making reverberating noises in the river beds. The days become warm and the Moon of the Stinging Hot Sun (Umandulo) rises when the women prepare their gardens and start hoeing in the fields. As the summer continues, the grass grows over the paths in the veld and the Paths are Lost Moon (uZibandhlela) hardly cools down the heat of the mid-summer sun. After this, it is the turn of the Searching about Moon (uMasingana) who, from a distance, searches the land to see if the crops are ripening.

'The Moon of the Stinging Hot Sun rises when the women prepare their gardens.'

I have not matched up the Western calendar months with these lunar rhythms. The Western calendar remains pinned on the fridge door with all its rigid precision. You can see all the penned-in deadlines. They do not include the Perplexing Moon (uNdida), when people dispute which one she is. The poetry is not there. The clouds, like dark riders, slowly cross the full moon unseen by Western man as he presses his remote controls to change the channels of his programmed life.

There is a Zulu legend that the craters on the moon form the image of a woman carrying a child on her back, with a bundle of wood on her head. The story, usually told by the grandmother, is that there were certain days when the people of long ago were forbidden to go into the forest to collect wood for their fires. One woman had a very naughty child who cried out for food on a day when people were forbidden to go into the forest. Despite this, she decided to go into the forest to gather firewood. On her way back with the bundle of wood on her head, the moon, as punishment, came down and took the woman up into the sky where she will remain for ever.

The moon is thought by some to be on this side of the sky but you and I know that it is a hole in the heavens and that the stars are small white holes in the floor of the sky. They are the children of the sun. The light from them has taken billions of years to reach our upward-looking eyes. They give a perspective to our lives, which are lived in the microsecond that it has taken for you to read this last word.

·  Chris Ellis is a local doctor and senior lecturer in family medicine at the Nelson R. Mandela Medical School, University of Natal, Durban. His post doctoral studies are in cross-cultural hermeneutics.
Publish Date:
19 March 2002


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