With a mixture of wonder and bemusement Mpunzi Shezi watched the abelungu build the very first square house ever seen in Zululand. Like all the others, he had wanted to go to see what happened inside this house. But, they were told that they had to dress up nicely. So Shezi and the rest of them took off their skins and put on white men's clothes to go inside this house.
Now, he went inside the building - which historians later determined to be a church - and he records in his diary that they told sub-standard stories about ancestors - pretty violent ancestors nailing people to crosses and all sorts of stuff.
But they used to pass a plate around at the end and collect money. And Shezi thought to himself, “If these people can come all this way and tell such shit stories and still get money, then surely I too can do that.”
So Mpunzi Shezi took a giraffe leg bone and went to Japan to tell stories about the Zulu cattle industry and he also took a gargantuan pearl oyster and told them about the Zulu black pearl industry. And that is how he ended up in Japan, by default becoming one of the first Zulu missionaries. He took ubuntu to the Buddhists, brought Zen back to the Zulus, studied Tantric sex with the geishas and taught his dog to meditate so he didn't have to bother with the difficult subject himself.
Until recently, few people had ever heard of this elusive Zulu legend. That is until Peter Engblom, a photographer and museum designer by trade, stumbled upon a collection of exquisite, delicately recoloured photographs that provided ample proof of the exploits of this intrepid cultural explorer. For three years, he has been cataloguing these images, discovering other archives, other adventures that define the parameters of Mpunzi Shezi's cross-cultural world.
Further investigation and contemplation, however, reveal that things are not as they seem. The possibility that Engblom might have invented the mighty and increasingly ubiquitous Shezi surfaces in the mind of the viewer . . . Perhaps this learned discoverer is actually a con artist. Perhaps he is a master of digital manipulation. What's he trying to pull, I ask this errant historian, who possesses the blunt, unapologetic pragmatism of what used to be Northern Natal.
“I do what I call stand-up anthropology,” says Engblom. “If you take the trouble to get to know me, then perhaps you'll find out that this is about the whole idea of belief. The moment that you believe something, you stop thinking about it. When you stop thinking about it, it's got you. Politicians have used that trick forever, religions have used it forever. Now, if you really believe that Father Christmas is going to make your life better then you're ready to believe Zulu Sushi as well.
“And that's the bottom line. To set up a whole lot of way points that lead you along with documentary evidence of something taking place that never took place, but that you want to believe took place because it's such a nice idea. It's a nice, quaint idea.”
An idea which, by this point, is almost true. When he started the project, Engblom didn't have that much evidence. But three years later, there is so much evidence to support his theories, that to suggest the non-existence of Mpunzi Shezi seems a little absurd.
“When I'm finished,” says Engblom, “they will have to come and negotiate to buy Mpunzi Shezi from me. Because he'll be more famous than Shaka Zulu. And he will be worth using, because he's a new age meditating Zulu, not the violent type that runs around with spears being antisocial to his neighbours. This is the Tantric sex-instructor type.
“Tourism KZN don't realise it, but the tourism indaba's on now and next year we'll launch the Zulu Sushi tour. It will be world famous and I'll be the only accredited guide in the country.
“Because nobody else knows where to go deep into the mountains where you can still find these Zulus who practise Tantric sex, eat macrobiotic food and listen to the radio, with it switched off for an hour a day, and call it meditation.”
PM: You're using this Zulu
iconography. But in the rest of the world, it has a very different meaning to the people who actually live here in KZN. In my head, there's the image of Shaka and then there is also a kind of Zen Buddhism in the culture.
PE: It is there. The similarities are frightening. The Shinto religion is almost identical to the original Zulu religion, which doesn't have a name. There are spirits everywhere, same as in Shinto. There are places with power, same as in Shinto. Zulus have their own Feng Shui.
How do they do it? They don't go around with a dousing stick. No, they herd cattle. Now cattle can read energy absolutely perfectly. In fact, a cow will give birth to its calf in the place with the least geopathic stress. Which is the very place where you would build your kraal when you leave your father.
Which is exactly the same principle as a Japanese master would use to choose the spot. So although they're very, very different philosophies, they become very similar. When you look at post-colonial theory, you deconstruct each thing. What is Zulu beadwork? Traders arrived in ox wagons with glass beads that were manufactured in one factory in Czechoslovakia. In those same wagons were patterned fabrics made in Manchester.
These glass beads were arranged in the patterns of the fabric. So all this crap about the meaning of beads is total hogwash. These are glass beads from Czechoslovakia arranged in the patterns the people of Manchester designed.
And as for the Japanese - sushi is not their invention. It's Korean. They used to pickle fish in the same method as sauerkraut, but interleave it with rice, which they chucked away - which the peasants started eating. That's where sushi comes from. It's a crude pickling method.
So, all of these are constructions that eventually become part of folklore. And then a politician jumps on and tries to market it as history. It's all a big, huge construction.
PM: Don't you think that if you go further to England and Korea that those things don't belong to them either, that all culture is fluid and derivative?
PE: If you look at anywhere seriously, you'll find that there's a hell of a lot of cultural exchange. A friend of mine took a fabric that was made in Holland, which was an orange check, and did an exhibition in the Dutch East India Company headquarters called Universal Pattern. And it's about the number of places on earth that swear that this fabric is their national fabric.
The Arabs have it on their heads, and so-and-so has it here, and this tribe does this with it. And it's just one thing that went out in bales from a factory. And everyone swears that it's part of their religion and it's a cultural icon. And it's all nonsense. Some trader makes some money out of it and a politician talks shit about it. And it never changes. And it's not going to change, I don't think. Religion and politics both have to make quite a lot of money and they both have to bullshit a lot.
PM: And that's their grand culture?
PE: That's what they sell. So I'm quite surprised the way this whole thing has gone. Because very few people realise what it's about. And I don't tell many people what lies behind it. Because of its pure seductiveness, it looks like eye candy. So I say that it's meaningless. You know, the Zulu guru Mpunzi Sheze said that when you unpeel the onion skin and you get to the very central core you find what the Zulu's call vokall. This exhibition is based on that Zen like principle that the Zulus found in the onion.
I ask Engblom if he's had any slack for an exhibition that is, on the most obvious of levels, quite inflammatory. Sadly for him, the answer
“I'm so sick of no controversy. No one has slated it, except Business Day. I gave a speech in Jo'burg about Mpunzi Shezi and I had all the side products. I have telepathic tea, traditional Zulu idea powder, Tantric underwear, pink pills for pale people, all the products. And she said it was such a pity that a person like Peter Engblom had to discover this important man and trivialise him completely.
“I find dogma the most disgusting thing on earth. If you can sell people themselves, by any trick possible, you're achieving something. And Zulu Sushi in some small tiny way tricks people into thinking. And even if I achieve just that, I've done more than you can normally do. Because most people walk around in a kind of hypnotised stupor most of the time.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago your parents had sex. And into that blob of protoplasm jumped a spirit. Now each person's job on earth is to discover the spirit that they were given. And if you don't, your spirit goes out to lunch in a different restaurant. And then you get possessed by all sorts of other spirits.
“And that's the problem. Only once you are possessed by your own spirit can you have dialogue with this thing called God. But if you're possessed by the spirit of an automobile, clothes, perfumes,etc then the more of them own building blocks in your brain, and the less is left for you to think with.
“The sangoma talks about how a person's spirit has gone away from them. A shaman tries to catch that spirit and put it back, whereas the psychologist says they're having a nervous breakdown or whatever.
"But, nevertheless, it is a lack of looking after yourself. And then follows depression. And then you take drugs. But that's not going to help it. The only thing that's going to help it is an enema, because you're full of shi. Basically.”
Peter Machen speaks to Peter Engblom, the creator of Zulu Sushi