Joining the annual Shembe gathering, where followers of this Afro-Christian church meet, is a rare privilege for visitors wishing to learn more about the Shembe faith, a fascinating blend of Old Testament Christianity and traditional Zulu beliefs.

Did you know?

The Shembe faith is one of the oldest independent, indigenous churches in the country.

Each year the Shembe annual gathering brings people from all over Africa to a remote corner of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to celebrate their faith, a faith shared by more than one-million worshippers.

Founded in 1911 by Isaiah Shembe as the Nazareth Baptist Church, Shembe devotees blend traditional Zulu belief systems with elements of Old Testament Christianity.

Their annual gathering is a key event on the Shembe religious calendar. In October each year tens of thousands of the Shembe faithful gather at Judea Village, near Eshowe. The village is a temporary one that doesn’t exist outside of the month of the gathering. It is made up of hundreds of family-run shops selling food, clothing and Shembe icons.

During the three weeks of the festival, a busy religious programme combines with social and cultural events, including Zulu dancing and singing. For these aspects of the gathering, clothing changes from the white robes used for prayer to traditional Zulu attire. Men dress as warriors while women either clothe themselves in modest black or beautifully beaded dresses and headgear, making it a colourful spectacle to experience.

Visitors to the gathering are welcome, but it’s advisable to use the services of a knowledgeable local guide, who, in addition to providing useful background information, will ensure that you do not commit any breaches of etiquette when attending this religious event.

Note that the annual Shembe gathering in October is not the only event on their calendar. In January every year, the faithful again don their traditional white garments to walk more than 30km from Ekuphakameni to their sacred mountain, called Nhlangakazi. With constant singing and dancing en route, accompanying this moving pilgrimage is another unforgettable experience.

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