The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Vulture Feet

“This vulture is endangered. It cannot find enough to eat. Also, we cut off the vulture feet and give it to the baby that cannot walk so it can walk.” Thus our guide informed us of the bleak prospects of a rare South African vulture, keeping his usual flat tone and poker face. My initiation to Zulu culture recommenced on my second trip to South Africa.

The Zulu shaman has to ambush a vulture to cut its feet off. This task must be a lot harder than it sounds. A girl in Uzbekistan who wanted to marry me for a visa sacrificed a chicken for Allah, and even that poor poultry put up a fair fight. I was glad I was not the one to combat the fowl. I would have suffered sustained injuries. Then I made another sacrificial offering of a chicken in Burkina Faso, but that was a lot easier, since we sacrificed it to a sacred crocodile, which proved eager to render assistance in the matter. In any case, hats off to Zulu shamans.

Vulture nest

The red arrow indicates the location of the nests of the vultures. Good luck taking their feet.

Traditional medicine is ever-ready to slay the last remaining specimen of an arbitrary species. It is tempting to condemn such practices, but, as our guide said, if we forget our traditions, what else is left? The Zulu maintained their beliefs despite the invasion of the conquerors. We cannot claim the same, for instance, about Eastern Europe, where countries are hardly more than tertiary markets for second-class products and a source of unskilled labour. The flavour of difference is lost, which is why it is so exhilarating to visit Africa, where nothing is as a Western mind would expect.

The Zulu language itself is an endless source of fascination. It has nothing to do with the standardized nature of European languages: that would be boring and static. The Zulu language is primarily oral, traditions are transmitted exclusively orally, and since it is not tied to the shackles of writing, it evolves rapidly. Since tradition and rapid evolution coexist, there are N+1 ways to say the same thing. You can ask a Zulu speaker how to say some phrase in Zulu, and you will never hear the same answer twice. To make it even more fun, Zulu contains a whole variety of click sounds, which makes vocalization a true challenge. Our second guide’s name contained two clicks, but after our repeated failures to pronounce his name, he told us to call him Lucky.


This bloke was not Zulu. He was not interested in vulture feet and he probably did not have a click in his name.

We hiked across the mountains for several days. We usually found a nice sunny spot for lunch, where we could stretch out and feed. One day the planned lunch area was at a rocky widening of a river, which was homogeneously covered in baboon crap. While this prevented our picnic, we learned from our guide that spreading baboon piss on the skin is useful to keep the witches away. He shared this titbit in the same sentence in which he pronounced the location unsuitable for a rest, keeping the flat tone and the poker face, as if he was telling the time. I loved the guy.

Further baboon-related trivia trickled down to us over the days. For instance, the powdered bones should be rubbed in scars cut in the skin to gain their agility. At least baboons are not a critically endangered species. Hordes of them were crossing over and back the Lesotho border, ignorant of the rules that apply to their primate relatives. Actually, tribesmen were also gaily violating the border, along with their cattle. The only mammals who were not crossing over were us. We were bloody sheep.

No baboon agility

These people did not have the agility of a baboon.

We never figured why, but the Zulu have a deadly fear of all legless reptiles. Whether its an innocent water snake or a cobra, it makes no difference. The reaction is usually murder. Our fearless, poker-faced guide, who had the agility of a baboon, whom witches would never encircle, and who could talk in an equally flat tone about our cans of beans and deaths in his family, lost it completely when a brownish snake slithered away from a sunny spot on the trail. The serpent’s life was spared, thanks to undergrowth.

While we adored our guides, we had no understanding of one another. They buried their trash, whereas we insisted on carrying the empty cans for days. We read books in the evening, they kept conversing. They smoked, we did not. They told stories to children who encircled us on the last night, while we preferred smelling our own feet in the tent. We were worlds apart. We should have smoked, should have told stories to the kids, should have kept conversing, and should have buried our PET bottles. I am full of regrets again. Next time I will slap on ochre, bathe in baboon piss, contact an STD, and start enjoying life at last.

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