To pray or not to pray: To whose God and in whose way
MOST societies do recognise the presence of a supernatural power, some God of sorts who has power and takes care of human beings. The Ndebele call him uNkulunkulu; the Sotho/Tswana refer to Him as Modimo (later Ndebelised to uMlimu) while the Shona call him Mwari and the BaKalanga refer to him as Mwali. The Xhosa call him uMvelinqangi. What is clear is that various Africa peoples did recognise the existence of a God who had well known spiritual or religious roles to play for the good of communities concerned.
When the early Christian missionaries made contact with these God-fearing African people there was no need to reinvent the wheel in terms of what name to give to God. The God who is written about in the Bible became Mwari, uNkulunkulu, uMvelinqangi, Mwali etc. Ideas concerning God may have differed between the pioneering Christian missionaries and African peoples that they sought to proselytise.
With regard to the Africans, God was not in general terms, approached directly. Instead, there was a hierarchy of lesser gods who were in the front line and closest to humankind. Each godly personality forwarded messages to the next in the hierarchy till it got to the Source, to God beyond whom there was no other greater power. In terms of how the hierarchy was propitiated there were differences. Gods were approached through a prayer, ukukhuleka.
We should be aware how the term was used in other related situations. A visitor approaching a Ndebele village stood by the entrance, isango and akhuleke. “E! kuhle!” he or she would yell so that his /her voice carried far so as to reach the ears of village residents. This was a way of announcing himself /herself to the residents/ village inmates. It was all intended to announce his good intentions. In those times there were raiders who did not announce their approaches. Their aim was to raid children and cattle. Sometimes they would burn the grass grain bin, izilulu and leave villagers in a dire situation in which, in the absence of reserve grain, they would starve to death.
As a precautionary measure, some grain was stored in cattle pens, ezibayeni where imilindi, grain bins, were dug and fires lit in them so as to ensure there was no moisture which would spoil the grain. The interior was then plastered, ukubhada, and followed by ukusinda, smearing. Ash and grass were introduced prior to grain being poured in. Such grain was called umncatsha and was reserve grain in the event grass grain bins, izilulu, went up in smoke. We have, in previous articles, made mention of the role of ash in grain preservation.
The London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary Reverend Doctor Moffat did observe in his 1835 visit to King Mzilikazi Khumalo and his Ndebele people, then domiciled in the Marico-Egabheni areas of Western Transvaal (now the Limpopo Province), how the monarch ‘‘prayed’’ to God via his ancestors. We are told that King Mzilikazi Khumalo (please do note that before colonisation the Ndebele people did not use two names, first name and a surname) used to keep a head of black cattle, (uncastrated) with each allocated to one of his ancestors in the long royal genealogy, starting with the youngest ancestor, his own father Matshobana to the oldest (read most senior) known, and nearest to the Source (God).
Oral tradition has it that such black cattle were kept at a village under his maternal uncles, the Ndiwenis, and specifically where Tshamayi Ndiweni was chief (EMacingwane/Kwezimnyama) where the chieftainship is referred to as KoWasi today. Kwezimnyama refers to the very black cattle that were used during propitiation of royal ancestors, maintaining the hierarchy where the most recent or youngest ancestors were called upon first. Both this Ndiweni house and that of Mabuyana (Nyangazonke’s grandfather) were descended from Khondwane, King Mzilikazi Khumalo’s maternal uncle (referred to in history books a Gundwane). The Ndebele monarch’s biological mother (isisu alala kuso) was Cikose Ndiweni, a sister to Khondwane, both being children of Ndlovu (not totemic).
His cultural mother, responsible for his ascending the royal throne, was Nompethu Nxumalo who was umdlunkulu, the senior house entitled to produce the heir apparent. Matshobana’s right hand house (wife) eyangasokunene, was Cikose Ndiweni whose eldest son, Mzilikazi, in the absence of the Nxumalos bringing an inhlanzi, a surrogate wife, was entitled to take over. What led to Mzilikazi taking over was that either Nompethu Nxumalo did not produce a son or her own biological son Prince Dwangubana Khumalo who lived among his maternal uncles, abakoNxumalo, the Ndwandwes whose king was Zwide okaLanga, was done away with by the Khumalos after realising he was no match for the rising Zulu king — uShaka kaSenzangakhona.
Reverend Dr Moffat saw the propitiation ritual engaged in for his own sake as vain. King Mzilikazi Khumalo thought the LMS missionary was a God send, a white chief from whom he was set to get what he was always keen to possess — guns in an effort to match the Griqua(Amalawu or Amahiligwa) and the wandering Afrikaners who, sometimes in collaboration with Sotho/Tswana peoples, attacked the Ndebele. For him guns were also for other purposes-shooting elephant. “When I obtain guns from the white king, I shall shoot elephant and give him ivory.”
Control of ivory trade was one way in which African rulers amassed wealth. Independent hunters were expected to give a share of their ivory to the monarch who traded with whites (Swahili, Arabs and later Portuguese) in the East Coast. King Mzilikazi Khumalo was no exception. He needed guns to shoot elephant so he could trade in ivory. He had learnt how to shoot relatively accurately. Trade enabled him to acquire ox wagons.
It was this acquisition and possession of ox wagons that led to the expression that today is often used without knowledge of its historical meaning: UMthwakazi ondlela zimhlophe. The latest book that I am currently working on, regarding the history of the Makhalima people, will deal with that issue more conclusively. Actually, it will be the concept UMthwakazi and its related one, UMthwakazi ondlela zimhlophe, which will be delved into, in both cases drawing from extensive interviews with Cont Mhlanga and other sources.
King Mzilikazi Khumalo thus regarded Reverend Moffat as one who was going to facilitate his accessing guns to shift the balance of power in his favour. Before Reverend Moffat departed, the king approached God, through his ancestors, praying to Him for journeying mercies for the Reverend Dr Moffat who was returning to Kuruman in the land of the BaThlaping. Little did the monarch realise he was casting pearls before swine, his prayers were not appreciated by the LMS missionary who thought such forms of prayer were pagan and vain.
For him, praying had to be done in his own way and those of others of the same religious persuasion. Anything else was not only pagan but downright superstitious. The spiritually inclined King Mzilikazi meanwhile prayed, “Moffat is sent by God. God is good to him. My companion, who is as Machobana, has come. God must preserve him that he may return in safety. No evil must befall him while he is with his children.” Unless the prayer was directed to the Reverend Moffat’s God, it was of no consequence, as good as no prayer at all!