Written by the South- African poet, satirist and literary critic Roy Campbell, “The Zulu Girl” is a moving account of a Zulu mother feeding her child in the middle of her working hours at a farm. The poem highlights the plight and distress of the people of her tribe who were once the proud masters of the land in which they now have to work as slaves. This powerful poem is a commentary on the hardships faced by these people at the hands of imperialism, the strength of a mother and the lost dignity of the native tribes of Africa such as the Zulus whose history was filled with mighty kings and their conquests but who, after being crushed under the British government that colonised Africa, are now reduced to mere labourers in their own lands.
The Zulu Girl | Summary
The poem opens with the image of an extremely hot day during which the labourers- members of the Zulu tribe- are engaged in back-breaking work at the fields. Drenched with sweat, these workers toil hard in this scorching heat which seems to be burning up the farms where they are working. Amidst these people is a girl who, after putting down her tools, takes her child out of the sling which she used to carry him on her back as she worked with the hoe in the farms. The responsibility of motherhood compels her to look away from her work and tend to her poor child who was much troubled by the flies hovering around him.
Unslinging her troubled child, she takes a break from the gruelling work at the fields and goes to sit in the shade of some thorn trees where she can feed the baby. The spot is filled with ticks indicating the filthy work environment of these workers. As the child drinks milk from her breasts, the girl runs her hands lovingly through his head, trying to gently caress him as he feeds. Though life is a bed of thorns for this girl, she does not shy away from her duties as a mother and harbours deep love and affection for her baby. Life is tough on her- she, along with her fellow workers- are treated like prisoners being forced to do crippling work in adverse conditions. Yet, she seeks to leave no stone unturned in caring and fending for her child. As she combs through his hair with her fingers, her nails get entangled in his curls leading to a clicking sound, resembling that of electric currents being made. These “sharp, electric clicks” may also be due to energy and resentment that lies buried within the souls of these workers, fuelled by the injustice meted out to them.
In the third stanza, moving our attention towards the feeding child, the speaker now tells us that the fatigue prevailing in his environment has his effect on the baby as well. He sucks languidly on his mother’s breast, drinking to his heart’s full like a small puppy, and grunts in satisfaction. The exhaustion and calmness of the tired girl as she feeds him in that shade, taking momentary respite from her hard labour, seems to flow through her to her child, soothing and comforting him.
Despite her fatigue, the child senses some sort of a passive energy running through her. Though forced to work as a slave, there lingers within her soul shards of her tribe’s lost pride and power. An undercurrent of strength courses through her veins and the thirst for their lost dignity burns within her. Her tribe may have been defeated but she still carries some traces of her self-respect and courage, however suppressed she, or others of her tribe, may be.
Using her body to shade the child from the intense heat, she looks just like a huge hill that provides shelter to an entire village, shielding him from the harsh weather. Her body is huge as compared to the little child and appears to loom over him protectively. Her love and care is a source of comfort and security to the child. In the concluding lines, the poet compares the mother to a massive cloud indicative of an approaching storm, which probably symbolises the unrest brewing within the members of her tribe and suggests the possibility of an uprising by them against the wrongs they suffered. Just as the cloud brings promises of harvest, the shadow of his mother’s love gives the child, as well as the girl, hope for a better future.
The Zulu Girl | Analysis
The poem is composed of five stanzas of four lines each and follows the rhyme scheme ababcdcd and so on. The language used is easy to understand and its simplicity makes the poem quite effective. Metaphors and imagery have been skillfully employed to give a detailed description of the scenery and describe the act of the mother feeding the child, which forms the centre around which all other thoughts have been expressed. The movement of the girl’s fingers through her child’s hair is compared to that of a tiger through the use of “prowl” symbolising the ferocity of her love for him. Simile has been used in the third stanza where the child is compared to a puppy and the flow of the mother’s “languors” is likened to that of a river. It is used again in the last stanza where the mother is compared to a hill and a metaphor is also used to compare her to a cloud as she uses her body to protect the child from the sun.
Through the simple image of a mother feeding a child, Campbell highlights the plight of the people who were treated as prisoners in their own country. Through the subtle show of strength and her dedication towards her responsibilities as a mother, the girl symbolises that though defeated, they have not lost everything. The fire of passion and resentment burns in their hearts and they shall make all possible efforts to regain their lost glory. Campbell seems to suggest that though their spirits seem to be broken on the surface, the simmering fire of resistance continues to warm their souls, burning ferociously to give them the strength to fight.
The girl’s love and affection for her child, and the impulse to shield him from any kind of pain, in spite of being tired and weary herself, beautifully portrays the relationship between a mother and her child. The Zulu girl presents a perfect harmony of a mother’s indomitable will and strength and her gentle care and concern for her child.