Avoiding reinventing the wheel: Documenting in culture specific ways

by Sunday News Online | Sunday, Jan 7, 2018 | 1240 views

Maintaining a diary

Pathisa Nyathi

Maintaining a diary is important in that later generations have access to primary data. In most cases it is not based on hearsay but lived or observed experiences and is thus a reliable method for data collection. It is acknowledged that some societies wrote down what they observed and did on a daily basis. Either such diaries or travelogues were deposited with archival institutions or were kept as family heirlooms. This is the case with western and other literate societies.

This is not true with regard to African societies who were illiterate. However, being illiterate did not mean Africans did not document their experiences. This they did in their own ways that were in line with their overall world-view and culture-specific methodologies for documentation. For example, there is a lot that they documented through the naming ritual.

When one is named Fulatha you know they were born feet first. Alternatively, such persons may be named Nyovane, a name from the word with the same meaning as fulathela, from which the name Fulatha is derived.

The time when one was born was tied to events taking place at the time of birth. In the most recent case some babies would not have missed out being named Masotsha, the year (2018) when soldiers staged some smart political change in Zimbabwe. Would you be surprised to come across babies with names such as Tshiwenga/Chiwenga, Mnangagwa, Phillip Valerio and Sibusiso?

At the same time we are likely to get names such as, Grace, Amai, Chipanga and Chombo, inter alia. Nkanyezi is a name given to those born in 1910 when a comet appeared. The Ndebele referred to it as inkanyezi elomsila, the star with a tail. Ndlalambi is a name for one born in 1947 when there was a serious drought which led to crop failure and subsequent hunger and starvation, indlala embi. National hero Masotsha Ndlovu’s son born in 1947 was named Ndlalambi when yellow maize meal referred to as inkenya was consumed.

The yellow meal was imported from Kenya, hence the name inkenya. Isitshwala, thick porridge from imported maize meal was far from palatable and hence was appropriately referred to as isikundamoyo, from the Tjikalanga word tjikundamoyo. Even the month of one’s birth was documented. When a baby was born, it and its mother were confined to the hut where the baby was born. It was believed the baby was vulnerable to life threatening conditions including the actions of malevolent individuals.

The baby stayed indoors till the bit of severed umbilical cord, ufokothi fell off. Further the baby had some fortifying herbs administered on its fontanel, inkanda. Each clan had its own herbs including animal skins that were used to ward off evil influences likely to threaten the baby’s good health, sometimes resulting in the untimely death of the baby.

Once again, each month was named on the basis of natural and periodic events taking place. July was uNtulikazi when there were gusty, dusty and windy conditions. January was uZibandlela when footpaths, izindlela, were covered by grass and December was uMpalakazi, the time when impala were calving. It is important to appreciate that each community has its own interpretation of the same or similar health condition. For example, Africans would attribute death to a collapsed fontanel, inkanda because the appropriate medicines were not administered. However, communities with imperial arrogance will dismiss this with a lot of disdain and condescension.

We should, at all times, appreciate that beliefs are real in so far as their consequences are real. There should be no room for arrogance, self conceit and self importance. Be that as it may, the most important channel or methodology for documentation for Africans was tied to their spirituality. As we know, their spirituality was targeted for destruction as it was perceived to be pagan and primitive.

Proselytising religions sought to supplant African Spirituality with their own exotic faiths. African Spirituality operated within a perceived reality of dual existence. In addition to the material or physical world, there was an interacting and interfacing spiritual or non-physical (intangible) world. In addition to archiving knowledge and information in the material (tangible) realm, the bigger part of human and institutional knowledge was archived in the spiritual realm.

The spirit persons, imbued with both material and spiritual assets provided the link between the past, the present and the future. Clan lineages were sometimes known to the living, through media such as lineage praises, songs and stories. However, the best source which spanned several generations — sometimes spanning thousands of years were spirit mediums whose ancestor spirits were regenerated down the ages. What was, in actual fact, being regenerated was knowledge, including knowledge of medicinal formulations and the health conditions that they treated, family lineages and historical information.

All this is not possible on the material realm. It thrives on the interaction between the two worlds. Sadly for the Africans, knowledge generation and its canons are in the steely grip of those whose world is material and does not embrace the spiritual realm. Spiritual phenomena are therefore relegated to the backburner of primitivity. Being educated means narrowing the total world of experience, that is both the material and spiritual, to just part of it — the material realm. What was archived in the spiritual realm, which must willy-nilly be retrieved in the same fashion and form in which it was archived, is no longer accessible or retrievable.

Africa is then faced with the challenge of starting all over again from virtually zero knowledge and moving in a direction not of her own choice or preference. This has been the way of introducing our enduring theme — the Reverend Dr Robert Moffat and his numerous trips to the Ndebele monarch, King Mzilikazi kaMatshobana. The trips were not without clear objectives on his part. The LMS Scottish missionary felt pity for the Ndebele who he perceived to be living under terrible conditions of heathenism. He sought to play a part in introducing them to his own religion — Christianity, through evangelism.

He was convinced his own religious ways were the right ways. “During the afternoon service a few Matabele, who happened to be near, attended and sat with great decorum, though it was little they could be made to understand. They seem perfectly aware that we keep the day to God,” wrote the missionary on the 16th of July 1854 which was a Sabbath. Reverend Dr Robert Moffat observed that the Bamangwato who were present turned the noun into a verb. By this he meant they were saying, “we are Sundaying.” Indeed, it was a correct observation, albeit not unique to the Bamangwato.

The Ndebele were doing exactly the same, and still do the same to this day. They will say, “siyasabatha, siyasonta,” both being verbs from the nouns Sabbath and Sunday, respectively. There were few Ndebele people then who desired to listen to what Reverend Dr Robert Moffat was saying. As he observed, only those who were near the site of the service turned up. This is not to suggest the Ndebele were not spiritual. They were and that gave them contentment and saw no need then to abandon their spiritual beliefs which they did not seek to force down the throats of non-Ndebele people.

Their spirituality was a way of life into which one was socialised. There were no special days when spirituality was given special attention. Instead, spirituality permeated all facets of life. Spirituality manifested itself in health matters, agricultural practices, animal husbandry, various rituals and ceremonies, to name but a few. Royalty was nowhere near the site of proselytisation, a situation which was welcomed by the Reverend Dr Robert Moffat.

He presumed royalty was against what he was teaching and wanted their subjects to adopt a similar stance. Can we justifiably take this to be resistance to change? Perhaps not, when we consider that new items of material culture were appropriated by royalty. This is the same royalty that adopted glass beads as items of body adornment and even decreed that certain colours be their exclusive preserve. Isantubane was a type of glass beads that was restricted to royalty, King Mzilikazi kaMatshobana being no exception. This selectivity in identification of items for royalty served to keep them apart as a distinct and privileged class, different from lower classes. Rulers must have something that they alone possess and is used to legitimise their rule.

Where such legitimation is considered rooted in spirituality, there is understandable resistance to change to the status quo or adoption of ideas that may threaten their privileged status. As far as is possible, rulers seek to perpetuate their rule through, among other measures, keeping it within their dynasties — through father-to-son succession and sometimes even husband-to-wife. At times leaders degenerate into becoming rulers when they were elected as leaders and not rulers. The Reverend Dr Robert Moffat should have known this as his own people back in England and Scotland confined rulership to monarchical dynasties. It took the LMS missionaries at Inyathi, Hope Fountain and Centenary quite some time to get converts.

Apparently, that happened when there was some loosening up following the weakening and finally the demise of the Ndebele State. In the LMS church, Makhaza Nkala and Mathambo Ndlovu were pioneering converts and the former was executed for his faith. After the defeat of the Ndebele in 1893, floodgates opened as more and more converts were won over. Military defeat led to the questioning of the ways of the Ndebele. “Why and how did these young boys defeat us? Their ways were on trial.

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