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Monica Dispatch

So Who Was Shaka Zulu- Really?

Map of southern Africa
The original name of Bulawayo was Gu-Bulawayo, or "the killing place", in memory of when this land was fought over by various ancient kingdoms. However, in 1999, during our visit, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe appears to be a mellow, friendly town.

Kavitha and I arrived here on the TransLux overnight bus from Johannesburg, South Africa, and checked into "Shaka's Spear," a hostel close to the city center. One often hears about "Shaka," when learning about Africa, and the name has spilled over into pop culture: Chaka Khan, Boom Shaka, and the like. I wanted to learn more about this "Shaka" and so set out to find more. The traditional center of Ndebele culture (Ndebele means "Those who carry long shields") lies only 60km to the north, and Bulawayo itself exhibits a rich blend of the folklore, traditions, languages and customs of the Ndebele and Shona peoples (the two main groups in Zimbabwe today). So, how does Shaka tie in? Read on to find out!

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Me in my Ndebele chair-How lekker!
A visit to the Mthmazaki crafts store, at the corner of Leopold Takawira Avenue and Samuel Parirenyatwa Street, yielded a glimpse into traditional Ndebele designs: I sat in a wicker chair with colorful geometric patterns gracing the walls behind me, and the thatched roof above echoed ancient Ndebele house construction. Ndebele women were well known for their skill in thatching roofs. (Funny enough, a man speaking on a cell phone near the entrance made a business deal in perfect Spanish to a client-- where am I again? Right, Zimbabwe.) Inside the store were finely crafted drums and baskets, wooden statues, and examples of beaded jewelry: the Ndebele were also known for their custom of ear piercing.

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Our new friends Rose and Linda
As it turned out, the most knowledgeable sources about Ndebele and Shona cultures were... students like you! (I should have known.) I met Rose, 13, and Linda, 16, students in Form One and Form Two at Evelyn High School in downtown Bulawayo, while on my way to the Internet cafe in the mall. They explained a lot about the Shona and Ndebele peoples - as well as the story of the real Shaka Zulu.

"The Ndebele originated in South Africa," Rose said, "and the Shona people were here in Matopo." Thirty kilometers outside of Bulawayo, Matopo National Park, now protected, is filled with bare stones and wildlife. Read Kavitha's dispatch for more about the ancient history of this region.

Shona-speaking people make up about 76% of the population, and Ndebele speakers form 18% of the population. Spoken in central and eastern Zimbabwe, Shona is a collection of different Bantu dialects. The Shona one hears on television and radio originates in Harare. Called "Zezuru," this version of Shona gets used in official documents and broadcasts. Ndebele, spoken mostly in the western and southwestern parts of Zimbabwe, derives from the Zulu languages. Most Zimbabweans learn English as a second language, only 2% speak it as their first language.

Benson, our tour guide through Matopo National Park, 30km outside of Bulawayo told us that his mother is Ndebele and his father is Shona, so he can speak both languages, as do many people in Bulawayo. He pointed out, "the difference between the two languages is that in Ndebele there are clicking sounds, and in Shona, there aren't."

Here are a few phrases for you in English, Shona, and Ndebele. These are used when speaking to one person - some of the words are different when speaking to a group of people:

Hello (greeting)MhoroSawubona
Hello (response)AhoiYebo
How are you?Makadii?Linjani?
I'm fineNdiripoSikona
What is your name?Unonzi ani zita rako?Ibizo lakho ngubani?
My name is...Ndini...Elami igama ngingu...
Thank youNdatendaSiyabonga kakulu

Zimbabweans also have their own phrases, some derived from English, which Kavitha and I practice saying with each other, including:
Izzit?loosely translated as Really? or
Is she?
Is he?
Is it?
Are we?
Are you?
Are they?
LekkerYummy, tasty
Sadza ne nyamaMaize porridge with meat sauce
RobotTraffic light
Ziko ndabaNo problem
ShameToo bad, used when something is not going well

For example, here are some dialogues:

"The sadza ne nyama today is quite lekker." "Izzit?"

"It's easy, just turn left at the robot to get on Takawira Avenue." "Ziko ndaba."

"The Internet connection isn't working today." "Oh, shame!"

"Well, first of all, who is Shaka?" I interrupted. "Oh, you want the full history," nodded Rose, and started to wave her fingers rapidly. "Tshaka," was the illegitimate son a Zulu chief, and a Langeni tribewoman. He grew up with his mother's people. After the chief died in 1816, Tshaka fought his brother for their father's throne. He embarked on large-scale military reforms and made the Zulu army a strong, efficient, and disciplined fighting machine. Using the short spear (hence our hostel's name, "Shaka's Spear") and a "horn formation" when attacking neighbors, he motivated troops of young men and women, expanded the Zulu empire and caused thousands of people to flee in fear. You can learn more about Shaka from Abeja in the last update.

By about 1836, the Ndebele, led by one of Tshaka's top-ranking military commanders, built a strong kingdom (where South Africa is today) composed of Sotho (as in Lesotho), Tswana (as in Botswana), and Swazi (as in Swaziland) communities. In 1837, the Dutch, moving north from South Africa, started to attack the Ndebele, forcing them in turn to move northwards. "So Tshaka's commander came up from South Africa with his army to Zimbabwe, where they attacked the Shona and forced them to join them," continued Rose. "The commander's son, settled in Old Bulawayo."

"The Ndebele made three groups: the Hole, the Enhlu, and the Zansi," explained Rose, and wrote down the names for me. "The Hole were Shona, the Enhlu were Tswana and Sotho, and the Zansi were the Ndebele." I had trouble understanding her accent, so I looked up some words in a junior reference book. By the way, it's pronounced ho-lai, enn-loo, and san-see. "The Ndebele society in Bulawayo formed three distinct layers. On the lowest level were the conquered Shona groups, who were laborers and soldiers. The Swazi, Tswana and Sotho, formed the middle power group- trusted advisors and chiefs were drawn from this level. The original migrants from Zululand were the upper class and ruling elite.

The Ndebele based their society on the Zulu in four different ways: political organization, militarization, agricultural and pastoral production, and stratification.

First, the Ndebele politically had the same levels as the Zulu. At the base was the chiefdom run by a hereditary chief. Then there were territorial units selected from the middle class. The king ruled from the top of the system, and reigned as military, political, economic, and spiritual leader of the society.

Second, the Ndebele society, as Benson, our guide, explained was "very war-like. They came from the Zulus, so they had the spears and were very aggressive." The Ndebele kingdom in Bulawayo was also extremely militarized, and at first depended on raiding neighboring states for goods.

Third, the economic system was similar to the Zulu system. The Ndebele brought many cattle with them, and divided them amongst the conquered Rozvi chiefs and the Shona under the mafisa system. In the mafisa, the King owned the cattle, but "leased" them out for milk. In return, he received tribute in the form of labor, as well as grains and animal products. After a while, the Ndebele also pursued agricultural production, growing the same crops that are produced today.

Rose and Linda would like pen pals from other countries. You can write them at:

Rose Jawa
Central Park
Leopold Takawira Avenue

Linda Nyamwanza
36 Park Road

Fourth, as Rose explained, there were the three different social classes, which did not intermingle. However, most history books like to point out that the Shona peoples were not "conquered" by the Ndebele, but rather, it was a two-way process of assimilation. For example, some Shona adopted the Ndebele language and practice of piercing their ear lobes, while the Ndebele absorbed the Shona religious belief in a high-god, as well as various dance and music forms. I asked Rose and Linda if it mattered today if one was Ndebele or Shona.

Linda added, "Sometimes, it shows, for instance, in football."

"That's right," chimed in Rose. "There are two teams, the Dynamos are mostly Shona and the Highlanders are mostly Ndebele. Sometimes after games there is fighting in the streets. But it's not real fighting, it's just football." She paused to think, and then continued. "No, it doesn't really matter now if you are Ndebele or Shona. Nowadays we are all Zimbabwean."


Kevin - Music Can Keep a Family Together... Even After Death
Kavitha - da Vinci and Michelangelo have nothing on the San Bushman
Kevin - Mbira, Mbira, in the Hand, Who's the Coolest Cat in the Land?
Abeja - Traveling in Fairyland: Visiting Swaziland's Colorful Culture and Wildlife
Shawn - Swaziland: Rich in History and Smiles

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