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Linguistics Ph.D. Student and Fulbright-Hayes Scholar Discusses Zulu Group Project Abroad

A group of people in traditional Zulu cultural attire laugh and dance against a green leafy background.

This summer, Ph.D. student Meg Fletcher participated in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to study Zulu in South Africa for 8 weeks. 

Meg was introduced to Zulu when Dr. Pilar Chamorro used Zulu as the “mystery language” in her Language Documentation and Field Methods course. Documenting and investigating the language made Meg want to learn more. She decided to take the Zulu 1001 course taught by fellow Ph.D. student Lindo Sikhonde. When given the opportunity to immerse herself further in the Zulu language by studying in South Africa, she couldn’t hesitate—and the experience has altered her interactions with the world. 

A group of people, some wearing traditional Zulu cultural attire, stand on a porch, all smiling.

Throughout the Fulbright Hays summer program, as well as taking Zulu courses Monday through Friday, students got to experience unique cultural events such as Umemulo, a coming-of-age ceremony for Zulu women which also involves traditional dancing called Ukusina. 

Meg’s personal favorite event from the program was the day she visited the Linzwa Foundation, a South African organization dedicated to raising money for victims of gender-based violence and for children affected by gender-based violence. The children that the students visited were excited by their speaking Zulu and by the idea that other people across the ocean were learning Zulu.

The student group also had the unexpected opportunity to meet the Zulu king. The king, Misizulu KaZwelithini Zulu, hosted and fed the students after inviting them to his palace. Another day, the students also met a former queen, Nompumelelo Zulu. When asked what she would most want American visitors to know about the Zulu people, Queen Nompumelelo Zulu emphasized the importance of preserving Zulu culture and the language that is inherently connected with it, as globalization has in some ways diminished traditional culture and values. 

A group of students stand in front of a mural of Nelson Mandela against a mountainous landscape. The following text is written in black letters on the sky: Honour Madiba's legacy. Make your mark on Mandela Day.

A key aspect of that culture and of learning the Zulu language is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a philosophy, a culture, a people, and a language unto itself. The term is typically translated to mean “humanity,” “humanity towards others,” or “I am because you are.” 

This culture of reciprocal altruism was one of the most important draws for Meg as she continued to learn Zulu. “People would literally give you the clothes off their back,” Megan explains to emphasize the Ubuntu culture of sharing. Ubuntu was a philosophy discussed in her Zulu class, but Meg did not fully understand the extent and nature of the communal culture until she had experienced it for herself. 

Megan Fletcher pictured with two of her fellow students in front of a stone structure in South Africa.

The program made Meg feel more urgent about learning and preserving the Zulu language. Zulu has linguistic features that are rare, such as the “click” consonants used and the expansive noun-class system. As an understudied language, Zulu has not necessarily been taken into account in the development of linguistic theories, and for that reason as well as many others, it needs to be documented further to preserve the language and the culture that is connected with it. 

To learn more about courses in Zulu and other African languages offered at UGA, visit the Department of Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies or the African Studies Institute’s PAL (Program in African Languages) webpage.


Ph.D. Student, Graduate Teaching Fellow

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