Indaba, My Children

Indaba My Children Credo MutwaFrom the Back Cover: A definitive compendium of African myth and folktale, retold in rich, vibrant prose, Indaba, My Children is a stunning literary and ethnographic achievement. As a young man, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Zulu from the South African province of Natal, was determined to follow in the foot-steps of his grandfather and become a tribal historian in order to keep the rich oral tradition of his culture alive. In this book, begun in response to the injustices against Africans and their culture, he sets these legends down in writing.He begins with the creation myth, when Ninavanhu-Ma, the Great Mother, created the human race. From there, an epic unfolds, an intricate and vivid cultural tapestry populated by gods and mortals, cattle herders and supreme kings, witch doctors, lovers, grave diggers, warriors, and handmaidens. The story continues all the way up to the colonial era, when a Portuguese Kapitanoh and his crew arrive on the African shore. Indaba, My Children is a classic and indispensable resource for anyone interested in the cultural life of Africa and the human experience as it is filtered into myth.

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  • “The narrative of the historian turns into the incantation of the visionary.”-The Guardian (London)
  • “An absorbing collection of legends . . . This interesting and human book deserves a wide circle of readers.”-The Times Literary Supplement (London)
  • “Remarkably well-written.”-B.B.C. World Service (UK)
  • “This book is indeed an epic.”-Sunday Tribune (Durban)

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, whose title means “Awakener of the Zulus,” is a historian and practitioner of traditional medicine and a specialist in African art. He used to live outside Johannesburg, now he lives in the Northern Cape.

Read This Extract From Indaba My Children

Malandela, whose name means ‘He that follows’, stood at the gate of his sprawling circular kraal and looked with angry pride at his massed impis darkening the land as far as the eye could see. On either side of him stood his six famous rainbow Indunas. There was the hunchbacked, wry-mouthed mute giant [Ngovolo, a veteran of countless battles who commanded the regiment, The Beggars. His exact opposite, the massive bow-legged dwarf with the big head and only one eye, [Malangabi, who had killed a whole pride of lions single handed, commanded the regiment, The Madmen. Then there was the great thinker, Mapepela as wise as he was brave, and tremendously fat, the only man who could out-eat and out-drink and talk back to Malandela himself – and the only man who referred to Malandela to his face as ‘Old Thundering Stomach’. Mapepela was Malandela’s Chief Adviser and Malandela had two of Mapepela’s sisters in his seraglio, one of whom was the famous Celiwe – the beautiful and the wise.

Then there were Ziko and Majozi, who were brothers and who jointly commanded the regiment, The Night Owls. They were a youthful pair of hard-drinking, hard-loving and hard-fighting hotheads, also famed as great singers and story-tellers who had composed long verses in praise of Malandela.

Finally came the fierce, loud-voiced old man Solozi, who had fought under Malandela’s ill-fated father, Mitiyonka, who was murdered by his own wife and daughters. Solozi, whose name means a kind of pumpkin, was the best – or rather the worst – braggart in Malandela’s kraal. Although he had never been in love with any woman and had never married, because of his natural shyness, he boasted about the hundreds of mistresses he had taken to the love-mat – mistresses who existed only in his fertile and colourful imagination. He was among the bravest of men, but his life was one big falsehood, one big lie.

These were some of Malandela’s famous Ranbow Indunas – men who were one day destined to accompany their king on the greatest journey of all time, The Journey to Asazi, the journey to ‘we know not where’.

* * * * *

Members of the Boys’ Regiment, the Mice, led fifteen oxen into the centre of Malandela’s Great Kraal – oxen that were to be used in the coming Ceremony of Strengthening the Warriors. From every regiment the Battle Indunas selected twenty men who ran into the second gate and surrounded the fifteen oxen in the centre of the great clearing among the many hundreds of grass huts that made up Mzinwengwe – Malandela’s Royal Kraal. (Mzinwengwe means ‘the kraal of the leopard’ and Malandela was fondly called the Leopard or the Lion of the Nguni.)

The duty of the men, who had been chosen from every regiment, was to slaughter the fifteen oxen without weapons – by kicking, pummeling and tearing them apart. The flesh of these oxen was cut into little pieces and pickled with juice from crushed, bitter-tasting herbs before being given to the warriors to eat raw. Being made to eat meat so treated upset a man’s stomach and left a very bad and bitter taste in his mouth, and this was destined to kindle a man’s temper in battle – which it always did with disastrous results to the enemy.

Then from their hut came Luva, Vambe and Mukingo, together with the tall, hard-faced Dambisa-Luwewe, the female Vamangwe sybil. Vambe, Mukingo and Luva were covered from head to foot in billowing fibre costumes and looked like faceless long-haired beasts that had just emerged from the swamps from Demonland. But the female Damesa-Luwewe wore nothing except a long fringed mask with a toothy, hideous grin – grotesque in every respect and representing the female demon Watamaraka. Dambesa-Luwewe’s naked body was furthermore painted with broad stripes of red, white and grey clay and she carried two great skin bags of thousands of dirty green pellets of the dreaded lubanji drug which turns men into raging bloodthirsty beasts who no longer feel pain, and who can still fight with enemy spears buried deep in their bodies. So fantastic is the power of this ancient drug that men under its influence have been know to fight on with arms cut off, and other severe wounds from which blood was freely flowing.

Dancing, leaping and shrieking like demons, Vamba and his followers tore through the circle of men surrounding the fifteen oxen and danced from beast to beast, spitting at each and calling it all sorts of vile names. The lithe Dambisa-Luwewe brought lusty cheers from the throats of the assembled warriors by leaping high into the air and doing a double somersault on the backs of two oxen and landing on her feet on the other side. This was the signal for the war drums to sound forth a thundering tempest that filled all hearts with dread. The warriors within and without the kraal began to dance, each regiment in perfect formation, led by its battle leaders and Rainbow Indunas. The angry red dust rose in columns from tens of thousands of stamping feet.

“Heshe! Heshe!” went the rythmic chant from thousands of throats. Then from the mouths of the watching women who peered over the grass fences and guma screens in front of the entrances of their huts burst the blood-curdling Kikiza cry: “Li-li-li-li-kee-kee-keeee-!” At that signal Dambisa-Luwewe did another breath-taking somersault over two oxen and then danced away together with Vamba and the other two men.

With bloodthirsty yells of pure savagery the chosen warriors closed in on the oxen with punching fists and clawing fingers to tear them apart. All but one ox went down under a pile of yelling and bellowing men who gouged out their eyes, tore their ears off and broke their horns from their skulls. But this beast fought back equally savagely, tossing men high into the air and trampling others underfoot. It broke away – an evil omen – and charged down the great clearing to the First Gate where Malandela and his six Indunas were standing.

The mute hunchbacked giant Ngovolo leapt forward and seized the beast by the horns while the dwarf Malangabi went behind and seized its tail. A short fierce struggle followed in which Ngovolo broke the animal’s neck and then helped Malangabi to drag it back to the centre of the clearing. The dead warriors whom the ox had gored and trampled down were carried away for quick burial by members of the Mice, while the other warriors drew their mpangas and cut up the dead oxen into little pieces, each about the size of two or three fingers. This done, the witchdoctors emptied great potsful of juice from crushed ntshuba leaves on the pile of meat, rendering it terribly bitter.

At a signal from Malandela the clearing was emptied and everybody proceeded to march in at the first gate and out of the second. As each warrior passed the pile of raw and evil-tasting meat he picked up a piece and immediately started chewing it. A strict watch was kept by the battle leaders to ensure that nobody spat out the foul meat. Those who tried to bolt it down to reduce the clinging foul taste left behind in their mouths, choked themselves and had to be thumped on the back by their fellows. As the warriors came out of the second gate chewing and with ugly scowls on their sweating faces, the masked Dambisa-Luwewe thrust the green lubanji pellets into their mouths and each man was forced to swallow the pellets with the meat.

In the late afternoon about two hundred thousand angry warriors with aching stomachs and a nasty taste in the mouth, filed at a brisk pace past where Malandela stood with his Rainbow Indunas. As each sullen evil-tempered warrior went past his king, he stooped low and saluted by placing his right hand above his heart. Many were the foul whispered curses the warriors directed at Malandela, who was not what one might call a popular leader.

With a loud shout, Majozi and Ziko leapt away from the group around Malandela and stood facing him. Majozi started to praise his king, leaping high into the air, stamping his feet, falling flat on his stomach and even standing on his hands with his feet in the air.

You are the black eagle of sunset
That snatches the lamp from the hands of Galaza;
You snatched the lamp and brought it
to your nest to warm your eaglets with.
You are the Lion of Sunrise
That stalked the craven impala
And brought it into your great den
To feed us, your cubs, till we grow.
River of Wisdom that flowed from
Between the breasts of Nomvula;
Flame of Courage that was lit
By the valiant Mitiyonke –
Bayede, Bayede Uyi Zulu. (Hail, Hail, you are the heavens.)

So chanted the greatest tribal poet that ever lived. As he finished the last verse, he leapt up and allowed himself to fall violently to the ground, lying still in pretended death. His brother Ziko stood over him like a warrior victorious in battle and sang a song, a song destined to be famous for scores of generations to come. Ziko held his spears in one raised hand and his shield in the other. He stood thus, still as a carved image, while tears flowed down his face and his lips trembled as he sang – the ‘Song of the Warriors’:-

My ears have heard the battle drum –
Summoning me to war;
My soul has heard the voice of God –
Calling on me to die.
I’ve snatched up war’s whetted tools
And now I stand prepared;
My headdress nods upon my head –
My ox-hide shield is here,
And bright in the midsummer sun
Glitter my honed spears.
Before I lay me down and die;
Before my heart is stilled-
I’ll send into Kalunga’s Hell,
A hundred foes and more –
That men in years as yet to come
Shall speak my name with awe.
The hoary past looks down on me –
The silent future waits;
And loud my dead ancestors call –
Go conquer son, or die!
Farewell, farewell, my mother dear,
Farewell my wrinkled sire;
And you that share my marriage mat
Weep not for me, farewell!
I ask not, God, to come back safe,
But that victory be mine!
With a roar that shook the very heavens, some two hundred thousand voices took up the savage refrain of the last two lines – and went on chanting the last line again and again.

For Malandela and his Indunas there remained yet one ceremony, one which tested a man’s courage to the utmost and one which was effective in its simplicity – the throwing of the Royal Spear. Malandela summoned all his Rainbow Indunas, his lesser Battle Indunas and battle leaders to the centre of the great clearing in his kraal. They came and stood in a circle around their king who had laid aside all his weapons except one heavy throwing spear. This he was going to throw high into the air, and as straight up as possible above his men’s heads. The idea was to see which man lost his nerve, jerked his head up to see where the spear would fall. The spear would turn around and come down point first among them. But nobody must make the slightest movement.

Malandela bent backwards with the spear poised in his hand; he straightened suddenly and the spear hissed into the air. Not one man among his Indunas moved a hair in those few terrible moments while hearts stopped functioning. Then there was a dull thud and all eyes turned to see where the spear landed. It had missed Mapepela’s protruding stomach by a thumb’s length and still stood quivering the ground a finger’s length from his big flat feet. A barely audible sigh went out from the lips of each man – the test was over.

“All regiments,” roared Malandela, “all regiments follow the setting sun Westward! Westward!”

The Flamingoes went first, closely followed by the Beggars, Madmen and Night Owls. Regiment followed regiment in perfect battle order and last of all the Boys’ Regiment, the Mice, who carried hundreds of sleeping mats, tens of thousands of corn cakes and huge slabs of boiled meat for the other regiments. Some of the boys even carried big bags full of nsangu (dagga or marijuana) and great magudu water pipes used by the warriors in smoking this drug.

The Mice were never used in actual battle – or very seldom. They were simply camp followers and scouts. All tribal armies had one or two Boys’ Regiments, some as many as four.

* * * * *

The Third Wife Celiwe was standing behind the guma screen that shielded the entrance to her hut and watching the regiments depart towards the West. She heard their chanting grow fainter and fainter the farther they went and, like a secret spear thrown by a coward from a hiding place, fear tore through the little woman’s heart – a meaningless fear, fear without a reason and all the more terrible for that. Something was very wrong somewhere, but Celiwe could not for the life of her tell what it was. Although it was a very hot day, Celiwe suddenly felt a chill wind caressing her back and the pimples of fear erupted all over her crawling skin. A small voice suddenly started to whisper in her mind: ‘Get out of this kraal – get out!’

Beads of sweat jewelled Celiwe’s round little forehead and her huge eyes opened wide. Her heart seemed to miss a few beats. “There is evil afoot, I can feel it,” she sobbed. “But what am I do to?”

* * * * *

The Lord of Day sank beyond the western mountains and his last rays stained the weeping clouds a fiery, passionate red. Darkness, the usurper, slowly claimed the world thus abandoned by the sun, until the trees were sharp silhouettes against the burning sky. There was a roar of thousands of hooves as countless cattle were driven into the pens from the pastures by more than a hundred Royal Herdboys. Loud in Celiwe’s ears were the bawling of cows and the whistles and shouts of the herdboys. Sharp in her little nostrils came the smell of fresh dung and persistent in her heart there was a strange still voice: ‘Get out of this kraal!’

The silent moon rose in the eastern sky – the holy missile with which the Tree of Life stunned the Great Mother millions of years ago. Slowly the caitiff Darkness yielded before the Orb of Peace, which flung a veil of shimmering light over the head of her sleeping baby, protecting it from the stings of ravening mosquitoes.

Aieeee! But even as the Orb of Peace shed its light on the enchanted earth, the footsteps of evil came with stealthy and silent pace to within striking distance of the Great Kraal.

Foul were the grins of savage triumph worn by the thousands of Vamangwe cut-throats as they crept nearer and nearer to the lightly defended kraal. They went down on their bellies in secret ambush in the forest that surrounded Mzinwengwe, waiting for the treacherous Vamba to set one of the huts near the gate on fire as a signal for attack.

All this Celiwe did not know. But as the silver-drenched night wore on, so within her grew the great uneasiness. Then she saw something strange happening near the first gate which had just been closed for the night by members of the Old Men’s Regiment, the Tortoises.

She saw Vamba and Mukingo come walking slowly towards the two old warriors guarding the gate and engage them in conversation. Celiwe could not hear because of the great distance. Then she saw Luva creep behind one of the old men and stab him in the back, while both Mukingo and Vamba seized the second guard and dragged him into the shadows. A spear flashed as it stabbed downwards in the moonlight…once…twice.

Celiwe turned and ran to the hut of Nomikonto, the High Chief’s sister. She found the princess reclining on a pile of leapard skins inside her hut with her two handmaidens washing her feet with warm water in a great stone bowl.

“Great One,” gasped Celiwe, “there is treachery! I have just seen Vamba and Luva and Mukingo murder the two guards at the first gate…”

“What?” Nomikonto leapt to her feet, upsetting the stone basin and sending one of the handmaidens sprawling. “I thought some such thing might happen. I knew it! Oh, my stupid, gullible, headstrong, foolish brother Malandela – I never did trust those Vamangwe dog-people!”

“We must warn all the women, Great Princess,” said Celiwe. “They must escape while there is still time.”

“Come on, you girls,” said Nomikonto to her handmaidens, “Go and warn all the other women and tell them to leave the kraal quietly by the second and third gates. Hurry up…come on, hurry!”

“Tell them,” added Celiwe, “tell them to make their way into the forest and assemble near the Rock of the Eagles. Send boys to warn the Indunas of the Tortoises as well. Hurry, my children, hurry!”

The girls ran like scalded mice out of the hut and just then an inspiration came to Celiwe. She ran out of the hut with Nomikonto close behind her and crawled into the Great Hut where the first and second queens were already sleeping. Without bothering to wake them, Celiwe seized one of Malandela’s battle bugles and crawled out again, leaving Nomikonto to awaken the sleeping queens. Once outside, Celiwe put the bugle to her lips and blew one long blast and three short ones, the signal for Vukanibo – ‘Everybody wake up’.

The ever-ready members of the Home Regiment, the Tortoises, who slept with their headdresses and loin-aprons on, tumbled out of their huts with their shields and spears in their hands, ready to die for their High Chief’s Kraal, cattle and wives. But from the gate came Vamba’s cold and contemptuous voice: “Hear me, you old and doddering idiots…I have the kraal completely surrounded. You are outnumbered two to one and if you so much as raise a finger, I shall order the massacre of every living thing in this kraal, men, women and children alike. Lay down your spears and I shall let you get out of this kraal alive to spend the remainder of your wretched lives in peace.”

“What guarantee have we of that, Oh treacherous one?” asked Jeleza, the old Induna commanding the Tortoises. “And what about the High Chief’s wives?”

“I gave you my word, Oh miserable old goat,” sneered Vamba, “and I shall see to it that the blood of your High Chief’s wives will not be spilt, provided you do not try to resist. So lay down your spears now.”

“Our duty is to defend the Kraal of our Chief to the last drop of our blood, Oh Vamba, and this shall be done,” Jeleza said quietly.

But Nomikonto, who had come out of the great hut with Muxakaza and Zuzeni, raised her husky voice and called out to Jeleza and his men who were forming up to oppose the Vamangwe now advancing on the Kraal openly from all directions: “Loyal servant of my brother, order our men to lay down their arms. It is childish to let blood be spilt in vain. I command you to put down your spears in the name of Malandela.”

“But, O Great Royal Child,” protested the grizzled old Jeleza, “what guarantee have we that the murdering dog of a Vamangwe will keep his word? From Vamba Nyaloti I can accept nothing short of a High Oath!”

“Vamba Nyaloti,” said Nomikonto coldly, “I, the daughter of Mitiyonke, the son of Malembe, the son of Vezi, do hereby challenge you to take the High Oath that you will honour your promise that if the Tortoises lay down their spears without the spears having drunk the filth that the Vamangwe have instead of blood, you shall let the old warriors go unharmed and shall also spare my brother’s wives and concubines. I, Nomikonto, the undefiled daughter of a thousand kings, challenge you to take the High Oath.”

“I accept your contemptible challenge, Oh spinsterly daughter of a thousand Nguni fowl-thieves,” laughed Vamba. “I swear by the Great Spirit and by the silver thighs of the Goddess of Creation, the mother of man, and also by the breasts of Mamerave, the second mother of Mankind. I also swear by the loins of the High Father Odu, that if the Tortoises yield and lay down their arms, I shall not spill so much as a drop of the blood of the human beings within this kraal. I, Vamba, the son of Nyaloti, the son of Dawudi, the son of Kabanga – have spoken.”

Then Vamba fell on his knees and licked the dust with his tongue, and as he finished taking the High Oath of Solemn Promise, the Vamangwe cut-throat army poured into the Great Kraal.

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