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