Uncovering the lost and exiled kings
On a recent visit to Grahamstown, a friend made time to drive me around the town.
This wasn’t a sanitised tourist adventure; it was a tour meant to reveal the gritty side of this sleepy, settler town.
By a happy and strange coincidence, we found ourselves at Luvuyo Community Hall in Fingo Village where Nkosi Lobengula’s descendants are buried.
When I came to the town again, this time to cover the National Arts Festival, I decided, together with photographer Tania Pehl, to make a pilgrimage and document the obscure graves of Zimbabwean royalty.
Using a slightly creased copy of a mental map, and not without taking a few wrong turns, we finally located the shrine. None of the locals we asked for directions knew where the graves were, nor, it seemed, the identity of these people.
At this point perhaps I should dredge up a few facts about Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). When Cecil Rhodes’s colonial mission for that country was taking shape by the turn of the 20th century, the most sustained resistance to his forces had not come from the warlike Matabele in the south of Zimbabwe. It had come, surprisingly, from the rather “passive” Shona tribes in the north, led by chiefs and spirit mediums, the most famous being Mbuya Nehanda.
The martial Lobengula, as he contemplated defeat and the breakup of the kingdom his father Mzilikazi had founded in the 1830s, had burnt his capital near Bulawayo and then fled to die in an unmarked grave somewhere on the savannah grasslands of the Zimbabwean lowveld.
The spear had not been a match for the maxim gun, so the flames of chimurenga (revolution) had been, in time, been snuffed out. Most of the leaders of the chimurenga were captured and executed. The natives had to kneel before Rhodes, the new king of the land. Rhodes had to make that sure that none of Lobengula’s offspring could be used as a rallying point to mount further resistance, so his children had to be exiled.
Some trekked to South Africa, others might have taken a boat and sailed to the mother country, Britain.
A few months ago I read Negro With a Hat, Colin Grant’s biography of Caribbean black nationalist Marcus Garvey. He writes that, at the time the Jamaican-born revolutionary was in London in the early 1910s, there was an impostor who posed as Lobengula’s son.
The three graves we saw in Fingo Village sheltered three of his descendants, who found a new home in Grahamstown. There is the rather unfortunately named grandson, Rhodes Njube Lobengula (born August 23 1903; died January 16 1937), someone who could have been his wife, Rosamond Nombini Lobengula, and a Mzilikazi wa Matshobana (born in 1880; died in 1910).
On the headstone it is written that the government of Southern Rhodesia contributed to the erecting of the shrine. Like any security state, it seems the big brother eye of the government of Southern Rhodesia saw, even beyond the Limpopo river, what the royals were up to in their forlorn exile.