​Languages speak of shared pasts

'Though isiXhosa and Ndebele survive to this day in Zimbabwe, where the former remains a curiosity and a rarity, the storyline differs for their northern cousins.' (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

'Though isiXhosa and Ndebele survive to this day in Zimbabwe, where the former remains a curiosity and a rarity, the storyline differs for their northern cousins.' (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Western Zimbabwe sounds like South Africa’s Limpopo and Northern Cape provinces.

Nguni pervades alongside sprinkles of Chinambya and Shona. Sesotho and Setswana stand out in areas such as Matabeleland South’s Gwanda, where people answer to names such as Mpendulo and Karabo. The Zambian version is Kalabo.

In western Zimbabwe — anchored by Bulawayo and Victoria Falls — it’s unsurprising to bump into an Andile or a Buhle.

There are also Kabelos, Lindiwes, Sibongiles, Thembas and Vuyos aplenty.

Still, Zimbabwe’s cultural and historic ties aren’t always obvious to southerners. Take Mduduzi Khumalo’s story.

“I used to work at Nongoma [where] some people couldn’t believe there was a name like mine in Zimbabwe or that we speak this language,” muses the man from Matomboni, south of Bulawayo. His ancestors arrived here in the 1840s, under the baton of Chief Mzilikazi ka Mashobane, after zigzagging present-day South Africa before eventually crossing the Limpopo after a sojourn in Botswana.

That long walk, says Fred Khumalo in Touch My Blood, was “a strategic retreat” from King Shaka ka Senzangakhona’s east coast territory after the monarch and Mzilikazi fell out. That is how their language landed here, joining Tshivenda, Xitsonga and Khoi or Tsoa.

Somehow, these three are missing in the classroom despite recently being accorded official language status. Despite Harare’s reluctance, Zimbabwe’s isiXhosa-speaking community is pushing to have its tongue, also official, as a school subject.

In between tackling the subject at hand — southern languages that migrated across the Limpopo and Zambezi — Canaan Sibanda, a fit sexagenarian in a white shirt, throws back. Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and forced removals loom large in his memory. Imfazwe, sometimes referred to as the First Chimurenga, an 1890s decolonisation project, was waged from this soil.

Sibanda is an usobhuku, or headman, at Mbembesi’s St Elizabeth village. Neighbours include Ngxingweni and Ntabazinduna. His home is “not far, just up this way”.

The walk along a sandy stretch from the bus stop, which my host spruces up with morsels from history books and National Geographic magazines, turns out to be about 40 minutes long. A hyena is at large, says the former game ranger, pointing at newish tracks as we near a dry river. A donkey cart races the other way on this boiling Tuesday morning.

The local dialect is what heritage practitioner Mark Lephoto terms archaic Nguni. Some believe the language is a version of isiZulu, albeit with a trans-Limpopo timbre. It is said that schoolchildren on either side of the Limpopo read the same setworks, including Uhlelo lwesiZulu and Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu. Even so, the language in question is known as Ndebele. Right there lies confusion because Mzilikazi, a Khumalo, was no kin of 16th-century Chief Ndebele (an ancestor to Mpumalanga-based King Makhosonke II).

Peter Lekgoathi offers insight. The etymology is Matebela, Sesotho for pursuers, he says in Mpumalanga History and Heritage. “[Mzilikazi’s people] accepted this appellation but pronounced it AmaNdebele.” To this day, names such as Nare and Mare have assumed Nguni versions: Nyathi and Mathe.

Although some derided Mzilikazi as a runaway, his “people were revered as amavulandlela, pathfinders and trailblazers, who stood up to King Shaka”, Khumalo writes.

Given the usobhuku’s alacrity around this topic, it’s obvious that the sentiment still holds. Flanked by his wife, MaNdlovu Sibanda, he revisits pre-colonial and colonial eras over tea in the shade outdoors. The folks, now joined by their granddaughter, Quest Khumalo, meld oral with written history. The tattered state of a copy of Ndabaningi Sithole’s Umvukela wamaNdebele, hauled from a yellowish hut, speaks volumes about its status by way of reference.

Usobhuku introduces me to his neighbour, MaMpinge Ncube, who flips between Ndebele and isiXhosa. It’s almost like being back in Umzimkhulu, where code-switching of this sort is not rare.

She recalls with glee King Zwelonke Sigcawu’s debut visit to Zimbabwe in 2011. His visit coincided with that year’s circumcision season. “I am happy to meet the descendants of the Xhosa people in Zimbabwe,” the scion of Gcaleka and Phalo said.

The throngs who descended on Sojini village were as jubilant, says Ncube. “Yho! Imincili yayisithini laa mini!”

In 2000, the community celebrated its centenary. A good number of the descendants of the 1898 party remain around Mbembesi, 130km north of Bulawayo.

Mostly landless and disenfranchised, the pioneers hailed from the coast and others were members of the inland Hlubi chiefdom that suffered a series of tragedies, including a civil war that displaced Queen Mother ’MaNthatisi’s Batlokoa in the highveld.

Armed with no tangible assets but faith aplenty, in pursuit of land ownership, greener pastures and a defined destiny, the 1898 group left the populous Cape (or//Hui !Gaeb, in precolonial times) by train, via Mahikeng, for an unknown Mbembesi. 

Though isiXhosa and Ndebele survive to this day in Zimbabwe, where the former remains a curiosity and a rarity, the storyline differs for their northern cousins.

“Chingoni [or Nguni language] ... has more or less disappeared,” according to a study by the University of Malawi’s Professor Pascal Kishindo, a linguist. This language was introduced to upper Southern Africa in 1835 by the people of Chief Zwangendaba ka Ziguda, an heir of Gumbi and Jere.

Outside Lusaka’s museum, which offers some nuggets, is a satellite rank for Mtendere-bound minibus taxis. One taxi, the driver of which bobs to a Mafikizolo tune, is emblazoned Uthando and its rear declares Sesifikhile. Still, that snapshot is deceiving. The language group is foreign here.

Zwangendaba “took his people out of Ngoniland”, uPhongolo, just south of the kingdom of Swaziland, says the writing on the walls of the museum. Barring a handful of traders who might have plied these routes, the destination was unknown to them. Surprises lay ahead, in this case beyond the Limpopo. This included a scrap with Portuguese settlers.

But it was tsetse flies, having decimated their livestock, that forced the Ngonis across the Zambezi in 1835. Some their descendants inhabit Zambia and others found homes in Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

Remaining traces of that era are said to include songs and customs such as inc’wala or, in Zimbabwe, inxwala, a centuries-old renewal and harvest ceremony. The queen mother is called indlovukazi and, sometimes, Mhlekazi.

Zwangendaba’s great-great-grandson, Paramount Chief Mpezeni IV, now on the throne, is an ingwenyama. King Mswati III, too.

Names such as Jabulani, Nikiwe and Thandiwe, in Zambia and neighbouring states, straddle the past and the present. This is also the case with surnames such as Zulu, Ndlovu and Ngwenya. Author Tlou Makhura links some of these — notably, Ngwenya and Mlambo — to Khoi roots. That was a throwback.

Back to 2016 and Lozi-speaking congregants at a blue church in Sesheke, a tiny border town west of the touristy Livingstone, sing choruses that could be heard in Gaborone, Maseru and Tshwane. In Livingstone, Limpo Sakala switches between English, Tonga and Lozi (also known as Chilozi and sometimes Silozi) with colleagues before sharing her thoughts about “the Lozi from the south”, in reference to Setswana and Sesotho.

“It’s difficult, too many Rs,” she says. As with Setswana, says Lephoto, Lozi derives from a language now known as Sesotho. Lozi is a lingua franca in western Zambia, bordering Namibia and Angola. Bafokeng (later Barotse) — under Chief Sebetoane oa Mongoane, a bright spark, avoiding ’MaNthatisi’s army — left their home south of Lekoa (Vaal) in 1823.

Bafokeng managed to import their tongue. That explains the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, which they gave the world-famous magical waterfall colonially named Victoria. Whereas the word chief translates to morena in the south, it’s molena here.

Indeed, the “R”, a difficult sound according to Livingstone’s Sakala, fell. In came influences of Siluyana, a language already spoken here pre-Sebetoane. Still, people who understand “the Lozi from the south” wouldn’t need subtitles to figure out or ki nako mani, as a Sesheke man asks what time it is.

In western Zambia — and the Namibian panhandle, where Sebetoane’s capital, near Katima Mulilo, sat — there’s probably a child named Mpo (Mpho), Sepo (Tsepo in Lesotho) or Tumelo in every other school.

Still, divergences exist. One school of thought says Lozi and its southern cousins are not mutually intelligible. To gauge how Sebetoane’s mother tongue has changed, two centuries later and having crisscrossed South Africa before dwelling in the Kalahari via Botswana (where Lozi is also spoken), consider a warning on a gate in Livingstone: Saba Nja (be afraid of the dog).

A tweet by Ntate Chris sums it up: “[I] knew a Zambian guy in Lesotho [who] did not need to learn Sesotho (but) charmed ladies perfectly in Lozi.”

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