Episode 71 – Calendars, the lunar month and the Zulu “houses of the sun”

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This is episode 71 and Shaka has just been installed as the Zulu regent in 1812. There is even debate about this as the year – some say it was more like 1816. However, I believe historian Dan Wylie’s earlier date is probably the right one – by the way 1812 is the same year that Napoleon advanced on Moscow in his disastrous Russian campaign. How dating worked in southern Africa prior to the use of the Gregorian calendar requires quite a bit of explanation. Folks have asked me how this all worked, how did the Khoekhoe or the Zulu keep track of important months. They didn’t really think in days as you’re going to hear. It's quite a story, and so let’s start with Traders Francis Farewell and Henry Francis Fynn. They fixed Shaka’s installation as Zulu chief happening in 1816 because once again we don’t really have a firm year if you anlayse this using the Zulu lunar calendar. Farewell and Fynn came to a different year, 1816, by counting the number of annual umkosi or first fruits ceremonies that Shaka was supposed to have officiated – which was 8 before the hunters arrived in 1824. Zulu oral tradition marked months peppered with important events – birth of a king, death of a king, a drought, a flood. And before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the isuZulu calendar was mainly based on the cycles of the moon, like many cultures across the globe. Zulu months are dated from the appearance of the new moon – which means that months are 28 days long and there are 13 months in the year. The Zulu names of the months are usually derived from phenomena occurring in the natural world. Take the first month of the Zulu year which begins with the new moon of July, uNcwaba, which means glossy green or attractive – perhaps linked to the fact that the Zulu burn the veld on the mountains at that time, and the first shoots that appear after the burn are a deep green.In pre-modern society, the moon was also crucial.

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