Mhambi Ndlela, Ruby’s husband, is a well-educated man.  A magistrate in a Zulu court of law, he owns two cars – one of them a gold Lexus with plush leather interior and welcome air-conditioning.  He and Ruby live in a “brick house” in Pietermaritzburg and have a large, rural compound in the countryside near Lesotho.

Every evening after dinner, Mhambi and I sat to watch soccer on television and had lively discussions on world politics.  His knowledge of current world events would put most Americans to shame.  By all accounts, Mhambi is a very modern African man.  


He also practices the ancient Zulu tradition of infant scarification.  A practice that you can read about in Ruby’s World.  A practice that turned my stomach.  A practice that brought me and Ruby close together as we bonded over the common experience of motherhood.

The question of Mhambi being educated vs. being so traditional always comes up at book club events.  Readers struggle with the apparent contradiction, with the frequent opinion being that education should create a “modern” society absent of such out-dated traditions.

Really, though, the two have nothing to do with each other. Education does not wipe out traditions practiced for hundreds of years because of need.  Scarification patterns, much like military uniforms, easily identified friend and foe on Zulu battlefields.

I suspect that if each of us were to take a close, an honest look at our extended families, we would discover traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation – without question – that have no place in our present day lives. You’ve all heard the story of Grandma’s ham … old habits die hard.

Of course I don’t condone scarring the faces of infants.  I do, however, think it’s a good idea to be slow to judgment.  To ask lots of questions.  To be willing to put ourselves under the same magnifying glass we use on others.  To give the same allowances we expect in return.  Who knows?  Maybe trying to understand each other will create a shift. It’s a sure bet that judgment won’t.