Travers­ing ma­te­ri­al­ity: Un­earthing in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in Rev Robert Mof­fat’s ren­di­tion of Nde­bele cul­ture

Sunday News (Zimbabwe) - - Culture/arts/education -

Cul­tural Her­itage

Pathisa Ny­athi

IT is ac­knowl­edged that ex­plor­ers, ad­ven­tur­ers, trav­ellers and even mis­sion­ar­ies that came into con­tact with dif­fer­ent peo­ples and left be­hind ac­counts of their ex­pe­ri­ences, added value to the preser­va­tion of those peo­ples’ his­to­ries and cul­tures. So it was with the Lon­don Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety (LMS) mis­sion­ar­ies who sought to pros­e­ly­tise African com­mu­ni­ties in the in­te­rior, in­ad­ver­tently left an in­deli­ble record of the peo­ples that they vis­ited.

A peo­ple’s cul­ture is in a state flux, chang­ing all the time as a re­sult of in­ter­nal and some­times ex­ter­nal so­cial, eco­nomic, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal fac­tors. What Rev­erend Dr Robert Mof­fat recorded does cap­ture as­pects of Nde­bele cul­ture that have un­der­gone trans­for­ma­tion over the years. There are other cul­tural as­pects that have en­dured, al­beit with lit­tle change. This is true of the spir­i­tual as­pects that in­form cul­tural prac­tices.

One as­pect of Ubuntu so­cial phi­los­o­phy is hos­pi­tal­ity. Isisu somhambi kasin­ganani sin­gan­gophon­jwana lwem­buzi. The stom­ach of a trav­eller is small, as small as the horn of a goat. A good turn de­serves another. Ikhotha eyikhothayo. It, a cow, licks the one that licks it. A vis­i­tor will not fin­ish his/her hosts’ food. One day the host will travel ( un­yawo kalu­lam­pumulo) and will ex­pect sim­i­lar treat­ment — hos­pi­tal­ity from hosts. While this as­pect of African cul­ture may have been di­luted, it still en­dures.

In his vis­its to the Nde­bele monarch, Rev­erend Mof­fat cites ex­am­ples where African hos­pi­tal­ity man­i­fested it­self. He de­scribes one oc­ca­sion when, “a fat young goat was slaugh­tered,” for him. On another oc­ca­sion, it was a fine fat ox. Beer was also of­fered to the LMS mis­sion­ary and his en­tourage that in­cluded Dr An­drew Smith, and did not de­cline the of­fer. He knew ap­pro­pri­ate eti­quette: you do not de­cline a gift be­ing ex­tended as a wel­come ges­ture. Beer was a bev­er­age that ce­mented re­la­tion­ships. While deal­ing with the ex­pres­sion of hos­pi­tal­ity, we get to know about the types of live­stock the Nde­bele peo­ple kept: sheep, goats and cat­tle.

As part of en­sur­ing po­lit­i­cal sur­vival, pro­tec­tion and se­cu­rity, the Nde­bele State gath­ered in­tel­li­gence on po­ten­tial en­e­mies. We do know that there were vil­lages in the pe­riph­ery of the State, known as imizi yezikhuza or imizi yez­ih­labamkhosi which acted as in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing sites. Trav­ellers were not al­lowed to go beyond des­ig­nated bor­der posts with­out se­cur­ing clear­ance from the monarch. The of­fi­cers were al­lowed to main­tain a dress code that did not ex­pose them as Nde­bele in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives. Lin­gual ver­sa­til­ity was an im­por­tant at­tribute.

On the south­ern bor­der the Babirwa were cel­e­brated in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing of­fi­cers. Kgoata­lala, uHwadalala Nare, was one such. His po­si­tion be­came pre­car­i­ous fol­low­ing the death of King Mzi­likazi Khumalo in 1868. On the in­struc­tions of the new king, Loben­gula Khumalo, he was speared while in a sheep pen in the Konongwe area where his home was lo­cated. At the time of Rev­erend Mof­fat’s visit the French mis­sion­ar­ies based at Mosega had re­lo­cated to Mosheshe’s coun­try. Mis­sion­ar­ies Le­mue and Rol­land had been forced to aban­don the mis­sion sta­tion fol­low­ing nu­mer­ous de­mands from a Nde­bele chief who was in charge of the area. The king was keen to know more about the sit­u­a­tion in the land of Moshoeshoe.

The Nde­bele had been re­pulsed by King Moshoeshoe’s forces on Thaba Bo­siu, a moun­tain fortress where the Sotho were holed up and man­aged to roll down rock boul­ders with dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects on the Nde­bele. Both cat­tle and hu­mans, such as the Mloyis, Hal­i­manas and the Magonyas, were de­liv­ered to the Nde­bele king and sub­se­quently as­sim­i­lated into Nde­bele so­ci­ety. The king thus had rea­son to know what was hap­pen­ing in Moshoshoe’s coun­try.

Diplo­matic re­la­tions were im­por­tant in in­ter-state re­la­tions. The re­la­tions were meant to pre­serve the state and fur­ther its in­ter­ests. King Mzi­likazi Khumalo was alert to such con­sid­er­a­tions as part of ef­forts to en­sure the se­cu­rity of his fledg­ling state. It was against that back­ground that he sent a del­e­ga­tion to the Gover­nor at the Cape, Ben­jamin D’Ur­ban, to es­tab­lish cor­dial re­la­tions be­tween the two states in or­der to avoid con­flict. There were so many en­e­mies such that if they teamed up against Nde­bele sol­diers the con­se­quences were go­ing to be dis­as­trous. There were many Sotho/ Tswana groups, the Gri­qua ( Amalawu/Amahiligwa) and the Zulu that the Nde­bele had to con­tend with.

By the time the Nde­bele were domi­ciled in the Mosega-Egab­heni area, Afrikan­ers were mak­ing for­ays into the re­gion. Nde­bele bound­aries were breached by these ad­ven­tur­ous Afrikan­ers and, in par­tic­u­lar the Gri­quas who had the ad­van­tage of bet­ter mo­bil­ity. They pos­sessed horses and guns. At one time An­drew Ged­des Bain had his wag­ons cap­tured by the Nde­bele. The Gri­qua had raided beyond the Nde­bele bor­der and cap­tured both hu­mans and live­stock. In re­venge, the Nde­bele con­fis­cated Bain’s wag­ons. Poor Bain sur­vived Nde­bele spears and trav­elled as far as Motito from whence he trav­elled to Ku­ru­man af­ter se­cur­ing a wagon. Also car­ried away by Nde­bele sol­diers were Peter David’s chil­dren. The Gri­qua took ad­van­tage of Rev­erend Mof­fat’s good of­fices to plead with the king to fa­cil­i­tate, on their be­half, the re­lease of David’s chil­dren.

Among the Nde­bele, and in­deed other African peo­ples, food served much more than the nutri­tional value. It be­came a cul­tural ex­pres­sion. The king’s so­cioe­co­nomic and po­lit­i­cal sta­tus was ex­pressed through the type of con­tainer from which he par­took of his beer. While the gen­er­al­ity of the peo­ple used gourds, amaqhaga, from which they drank beer, the king used a tin ves­sel and his beer was brewed dif­fer­ently from that of his sub­jects. Rev­erend Mof­fat de­scribed the bev­er­age as “brown stout.” Strat­i­fied so­ci­eties ex­hib­ited dif­fer­ent lay­ers of so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

The elite were a cut above the rest. King Mzi­likazi Khumalo’s praises cap­tured that essence: un­kone ovele ngob­uso emdib­ini. Roy­alty was eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able through their dress­ing. Nde­bele peo­ple traded grain for beads. There was con­trol over the colour of beads that com­mon­ers would pos­sess. Beads known as isan­tubane were the pre­serve of royal women. Royal women, in par­tic­u­lar the princesses, adorned them­selves as if they were men. They wore ostrich head gear, ind­lukula, and a car­ried short stab­bing spear, umdikadika/ijozi/isi­jula.

Con­tact with the East Coast ex­posed the Nde­bele to ex­otic dis­eases brought to Africa by the Euro­pean traders. One such dis­ease was De­lagoa fever which was wa­ter-borne. Rev­erend Mof­fat de­scribes the steps that King Mzi­likazi Khumalo took to avoid con­tract­ing the dis­ease. He re­treated from the royal town to live in a re­mote and se­cluded set­tle­ment. The peo­ple were aware how the dis­ease spread: it was con­ta­gious. For the peo­ple dis­eases were feared and nu­mer­ous agen­cies were iden­ti­fied as causes of dis­ease.

Some dis­eases, it was reck­oned, were caused by su­per­nat­u­ral agen­cies. For a peo­ple who posited a broader world with both ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual di­men­sions, cause and ef­fect were ex­pressed in the same dual re­al­ity. Their be­hav­iour re­flected their un­der­stand­ing of re­al­ity. Causal­ity, like treat­ment, has a cul­tural, in par­tic­u­lar, a cos­mo­log­i­cal mi­lieu.

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