Thursday, February 25, 2021

Builders of Botswana: “Children of the Mambo”

For those who have been following our History of the Bangwaketse, we promise to eventually get back to the lives and times of Gaseitsiwe, Bathoen and those who followed them. Twenty episodes is certainly not enough to cover the legacy of the Sons of Ngwaketse.

But, for now, in the interest of greater inclusiveness in the cause of unity in diversity, this week we shall restart an old column, beginning with a new serial topic. For the next few weeks we will begin again by exploring some of the historical traditions of the Bakalanga, focusing on the decline and fall of the Banyayi Kingdom (c.1650-1842).

Why now turn to the Bakalanga past? Beyond the fact that one needs to start somewhere before one can get anywhere, and the practical circumstance that this author has some material filed that cries out for revision, one is firmly of the further view that modern Botswana’s branches are nurtured by buried Ikalanga roots. They survive deep in our Republic’s soil, undergrowth that still remains part of our ongoing growth as a united and proud nation.

These roots have, moreover, not simply been politically grafted on to the country through the vagaries of colonial boundary making. As one goes back in time, into the recesses of pre-colonial era, one finds evidence of longstanding interrelationships between Bakalanga and Batswana, as well as other neighbouring cultural communities, to the extent that it is not possible today to speak of the history of merafe in isolation.

The Bakwena royal names “Sechele” and “Sebele”, for example, are apparently of Ikalanga origin. Does this mean that the Bakwena royalty were once Bakalanga? Absolutely not! They are rather the true descendents of Masilo aMalope, if not Matsieng of Lowe. But, the game in the name suggests something in the past that may have amounted to more than casual contact.

Consistent with the above, the Bakalanga shall in this space be defined to include any and all communities who have historically identified themselves with Ikalanga language and culture. We will not, therefore, confine ourselves to the traditions of so-called pure or dumbu lineages.

In the past local Ikalanga, like Setswana, speaking communities have been distinguished by their ability to peacefully incorporate outsiders into their ranks. In this respect what former President Mogae referred to as our modern national omelette has been saut├®ed over many centuries.

A prominent example of this fact is the Bakalanga bakaNswazwi. For many, the She (Kgosi) John Madawo Nswazwi VIII (who died 1960) has become a post-colonial icon of colonial era Ikalanga self-assertion. This has been the case notwithstanding the fact that the She’s not too distant forefathers were Bapedi. His followers have thus praised their ancestors in a language that they did not otherwise generally speak.

Another reason for following in Tautona Mzilakazi footprints, by moving rapidly from the south-east to the north-east, is that like so much of our indigenous past, the history of the Bakalanga has been largely ignored. Even where it is cited in passing its cultural identity is often obscured through the application of such external labels as Changamire, Monomatapa and Torwa.

As a result there has been little contemporary recognition of the accomplishments of either the Chibundule or Nichasike dynasties, which for over four centuries successively united Bukalanga into what was for many decades southern Africa’s largest and arguably most sophisticated kingdom. It was a realm whose firepower was witnessed by the young Sechele and Sekgoma, father of Khama, before it was finally shattered with the arrival of Mzilakazi’s Matebele.

The Chibundule, whose descendents are associated with the Balilima branch of the Bakalanga were the kingdom’s founding rulers, or Mambo, emerging after the 15th century abandonment of the Great Zimbabwe. But, during the 17th century their throne was usurped by the first Nichasike Mambo, whose followers were thereafter labelled as the Banyayi.

Let us therefore begin with a sample praise in honour of Mambo Chibundule. The translated text below was originally recorded in Ikalanga by the late Masola Kumile, whose transcript is available:

“The Praises of King Chibundule – Indeed it is the country of Chibundule, a refuge which gave shelter to the elephant and rhinoceros, with Zwikono like a calf in comparison. Vunakmakuni strikes the rhinoceros with a big axe and the buffalo he reaches out to strike with its shaft. And Nkami the milker of those without calves, the milker who milks before the calves have sucked.

“They are the praises of Chibundule, indeed! He who is the refuge that gave shelter to the elephant and rhinoceros. He is the one who washes in milk, because of the water having tadpoles in it. He is the one who honours the elephant, the animal of the big ears. He is the builder of hilltop strongholds that cannot be penetrated by the enemy. He is Chibundule who sheltered the rhinoceros and the elephant.”

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