Polygamy, feminism‚ Shaka Zulu-style: Book reveals history before Van Riebeeck

16 October 2017 - 09:32 By Penwell Dlamini
A comprehensive history of the Zulu people by Shalo Mbatha "Umlando Nobuqhawe bukaZulu", spans 800 years of Zulu heritage and culture and gives rare insight from an insider's perspective into events between the birth of king Shaka up to the monarch Goodwill Zwelithini. King Goodwill Zwelithini wrote the foreword.
A comprehensive history of the Zulu people by Shalo Mbatha "Umlando Nobuqhawe bukaZulu", spans 800 years of Zulu heritage and culture and gives rare insight from an insider's perspective into events between the birth of king Shaka up to the monarch Goodwill Zwelithini. King Goodwill Zwelithini wrote the foreword.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe/Sunday Times

Have you ever wondered how the Zulus combed their hair or practised medicine hundreds of years ago?

These are some of the questions answered by Shalo Mbatha in a book that took 20 years of painstaking research to complete.

“uZulu‚ Umlando Nobuqhawe BukaZulu” explores 800 years of Zulu history.

Mbatha‚ a former journalist who now works for the Gauteng Film Commission‚ described her journey in an interview with TimesLIVE

“In my research‚ I went to the places that I mentioned. I travelled every part of KZN‚” she said.

“I slept in people’s houses. It has been an amazing journey.”

One of the most fascinating discoveries was getting to grips with why the Zulus loved polygamy.

“I learned that isithembu (polygamy) is more than just more two or three women married to one guy. For example‚ if you as the wife are sick‚ the other wives can help you with your children and share the burden of having to please your husband night after night after night. These Zulu men don’t play.”

Mbatha believes that the book is the very first of its kind‚ which is why it was endorsed by King Goodwill Zwelithini‚ who wrote the foreword.

Her sources were interviews‚ dissertations‚ as well as unpublished and published manuscripts. These included books written in Dutch‚ German‚ French‚ Spanish and Portuguese.

She also used data from the first white settlers‚ such as pastors who kept records on Africans when they arrived in black communities.

She found entries about white people who arrived in South Africa long before Jan van Riebeeck in 1652‚ including notes about shipwrecks along the country’s coast.

The book also explains the basic life of Zulus. What occupied their 24-hour day and what they used to comb their hair – fish bones and other objects made out of horns and wood.

Zulus had their first meal of the day at 11am and only ate twice a day. People worked seven days a week‚ meaning there was no such thing as a weekend. Jobs were classified according to gender and age.

Women did the unending jobs‚ such as cooking and cleaning‚ while men carried out time-bound tasks like hunting and building houses.

“I learned that women today take men seriously and equate them to themselves when they should not. Those rural women have men totally figured out. These women asked me why are we divorcing men in Joburg. They said to me whatever problem one has with this man‚ the exact is likely to happen with the next man. The Zulu culture and philosophy just blew my mind. It is practical. It is us who tend to overthink things and complicate them.”

The book also details how clan names and praises for most of the Zulu surnames came about.

“The information was not in one place. So I did research for the book during weekends and when I was on leave. It took so long because‚ amongst other things‚ I had to verify new facts at least five times‚” Mbatha said.

To unpack the history of the Zulu kingdom‚ she used each king as a golden thread throughout their reign and other tactics such as each kings’ laudatory praises‚ songs‚ myths‚ idioms and investigated commonly held beliefs.

Zulu kings’ praises were taught in schools during the apartheid era. Children were compelled to recite these praises‚ with little understanding of what had inspired the praise singers or laudatory poets‚ as they are now known.

One famous part of Shaka’s praises is‚ “Ilembe eleqa amanye amalembe ngokukhalipha.” Most people have always believed that ilembe was a particular wild animal‚ while it was actually a person from the Ndwandwe clan‚ who lived during King Shaka’s time.

Actually‚ King Shaka had a council made up of women. Only women who were past menopause sat on the council to provide advice to the king.

“Shaka believed that‚ after menopause‚ women were not guided by emotions. He never went to war without consulting women because the women always had a different view from men‚” Mbatha explained.

The king also did not want men to have children before the age of 40. He believed at 40‚ you would have fought so many wars and your genes would be stronger. People lived beyond 100 years. Men lived for war and women to raise families.

“There was no stress. Everybody knew their place in life. There was no confusion. Everything was herbal and organic‚” Mbatha said.

The book also covers extensively the diet of the Zulus and reveals that women ate boiled meat while the meat for men was grilled in the fire.

The Zulus also had a system of education that began at the age of five. Girls and boys were taught the roles they would play at a later stage of their lives. As children grew up‚ the parents would start recognising their talents and direct them on their path.

Children who had a great memory would become libraries for the families. All history about the family and clan would be taught to them.

Mbatha’s research also contradicts previous views about history. One example is that the Zulus were defeated on the banks of the Blood River. Mbatha visited the area and checked all the available literature and there was no evidence of the Zulus’ loss in battle.

“They say the river turned red. But the river was flowing strongly and there is no way it can get red.”

Families also married according to skills. If they were missing a carpenter‚ the family would recommend that the children marry into a clan that possesses the required skill‚” Mbatha said.

“All I want with the book is for black people to tell their own stories. I also want clans and surnames to be able to tell their own stories.”

She admits she has already received calls from people challenging her findings. “What I’ve written is what I found. It is very important that we have a conversation. History is a living document. If you don’t agree with my research‚ write your book and get it right. Nobody owns the story.”