The Shembe church observes rituals which include fasting, the washing of feet, keeping of the Sabbath and baptism by immersion. The two annual Shembe pilgrimages are to their holy mountain near Durban, and to their sacred village near Eshowe in the north-east. The church's membership throughout southern Africa exceeds a million people.

Did you know?

Shembe claim the vuvuzela – the plastic trumpet made famous by the 2010 World Cup – as their own invention.

The Shembe church, which has a membership of more than a million, is a blend of Old Testament-based Christianity and African Zulu beliefs.

Although it has followers throughout southern Africa, the Shembe church has its stronghold in KwaZulu-Natal and its belief system is steeped in Zulu culture. Basic ethics of the Shembe faith tend to mirror Zulu social and moral behaviour.

The historic lynchpin of the Shembe movement is its founder, Isaiah Shembe. Born in the shadow of the Drakensberg mountains near Giant’s Castle, Isaiah moved to the Harrismith area as a young boy. Legend goes that while working as a herd-boy, he heard a voice urging him to pray.

Shembe joined the Wesleyan Church briefly before going on to found his own healing ministry in 1910. A year later he formed a church called the Nazareth Baptist Church. He bought a farm and transformed it into his holy city of Ekuphakameni.

Apart from his religious teachings, Isaiah Shembe was an innovative and pioneering agriculturalist. He encouraged his followers away from the Zulu custom of constant cattle acquisition, suggesting instead that they bred well and kept a manageable number of milk cows. Being a man of vision, Shembe could see how the huge Zulu herds were overgrazing the lands and turning them barren.

Isaiah Shembe died in 1935 and left his church a wealth of recorded insights, philosophies, music compositions, hymns and a tradition of dance.

In January every year, many thousands of Shembe followers dressed in traditional white garments walk more than 30km from Ekuphakameni to their sacred mountain called Nhlangakazi. With constant singing and dancing en route, this moving pilgrimage attracts large numbers of tourists.

In October, tens of thousands of Shembe also gather at Judea Village near Eshowe, north-west of Durban. There’s a busy religious programme during this time – and a hectic social whirl as well.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Zululand EcoAdventures
Tel: +27 (0) 35 474 4919
Email: info@eshowe.com

How to get here

The sacred Shembe city of Ekuphakameni lies near Inanda township, north of Durban; the Shembe village of Judea lies outside the town of Eshowe, about 110km north of Durban.

Best time to visit

The pilgrimage to the holy mountain near Durban takes place in January, and the gathering at Judea village near Eshowe in October.

Around the area

You're in deep Zululand, one of the richest cultural areas in South Africa. Your choices are magnificent. Check the Zululand EcoAdventrues website.

Tours to do

Zululand EcoAdventures is good for 'all things Zulu', from royal tours to Zulu prawn braais (barbecues) to ceremonial dances. They operate from Eshowe.

Get around

Self-drive is the best way to travel around these parts. And hooking up with a knowledgeable guide is always advised. He or she can give you the background to the Shembe Church while ensuring that you do not commit any breaches of etiquette.

What will it cost

Tours to Judea village near Eshowe cost about R350 per person.

Length of stay

Try to factor in about a day per venue.

What to pack

In January, dress lightly because the Durban weather can be treacherously muggy and hot; In October, up the coast near Eshowe, you'll probably still be wearing light gear. Take a shawl or jacket for the evenings.

Where to stay

Durban has plenty of accommodation. Eshowe has a number of backpackers' lodges, guest houses and the legendary George Hotel.

Best buys

Zulu crafts, including Zulu dolls, embroidered eggs and woven products, especially grass mats and baskets.