Ox wagons: Carriers of goods, people and status

by Sunday News Online | Sunday, Nov 5, 2017 | 596 views

Ox wagons

Pathisa Nyathi
Ubaba wayelenqola,
Elayitshel’ eMbembesi,
Idonki yakhahlela kwaze kwachithek’ amazambane.

THESE are a few lines from the lyrics of a song that used to be popular in days gone by. We learn quite a few things from the three lines. Wagons and later scotch carts were used for transportation. Farm produce, peanuts for example, used to be carried by these scotch carts or ox wagons to the markets. Before the advent of motor cars, ox wagons used to rule the roost. They were the means of transport and used to criss-cross the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

Pictures from early days in Bulawayo show the Market Square where today there is the City Hall, the third to be built on the same site. Farm produce was brought from the Commonage where gardens flourished. Eggs, chickens, vegetables and other fresh farm produce were brought to the market in ox wagons. At the time Bulawayo’s roads were not tarred and in the summer months the streets were a bog. The Market Square was a hive of activity as sellers, market gardeners and buyers mingled while money and produce exchanged hands.

Those were times when refuse collection was done by ox or mule-drawn wagons. Horses were also used at times. Horses were kept near present day Ross Police Camp. There was a gate commonly referred to as Egedini likaJabhi, an expression that Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) commander Alfred Nikita Mangena was fond of. “Sizahlangana egedini likaJabhi,” he would say. One member of the Ndebele royal family was employed there.

Those were days when the bucket system was in vogue in Bulawayo’s Old Location, later named Makokoba after the native township superintendent who walked with a stoop. It was work which was performed in the main by Tonga men who lived at the Bulawayo Municipal Compound (BMC). The buckets were emptied very early in the morning so that men who did the work would not readily be identified, as the work they did was perceived to be menial and generally despised. In those days human waste was deposited near where Happy Valley Hotel stands today.

The link between rural areas and urban centres was facilitated through the use of wagons. At the time there were stockists of these modern technological contraptions who included Fath where my father bought his own in the 1960s. Alick Stuart was another stockist for whom my father worked for several years. The black urban market still had a taste for traditional produce that was cultivated by villagers. At the time the Land Apportionment Act (1930) had then not been promulgated, let alone implemented. As a result there were Ndebele settlements very close to Bulawayo. What is today Pumula Estate was under Mazwi Gumede, okaMdlankunziyedwa.

Cecil Rhodes’ corpse was carried by train from Cape Town to Bulawayo after he died in 1902. Getting his corpse to Malindandzimu Hill in the Matobo Hills was left to a wagon which covered the distance in two days. The cortege outspanned in the present day Matopos Research Station. The Zeederberg (Izudubeki) Coaches, a somewhat more sophisticated version of the wagon, travelled to various destinations in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). A sample of this mode of transport is preserved and displayed at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo.

King Mzilikazi Khumalo first saw an ox wagon when two traders, Scoon and McLuckie, visited him in 1829 when he and his people resided at present day Pretoria which was his second settlement from 1827-1832. In the same yea, Reverend Dr Robert Moffat of the London Missionary Society (LMS) travelled from Kuruman in the land of the Bathlaping, the fish people, to visit the Ndebele monarch with the sole objective of establishing a Christian mission among the Ndebele, a people perceived to be warlike and needful of pacification.

King Mzilikazi fell in love with the ox wagon. He would spend hours in it. As a general rule, exotic items were acquired by royalty first. Glass beads became important possessions as they were markers of status and generally became expressions of aesthetics. This had certainly been the case when the Ndebele were still in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). King Mzilikazi Khumalo used ivory to barter for beads, some for personal use and others for his queens and mother. He acquired wagons through barter and later, captured some that belonged to people who used to raid his territory for cattle in particular. His perennial enemies were the Griqua, Bastards and the Koranas.

His soldiers captured wagons from these perennial enemies. Peter David had some of his wagons captured by Ndebele soldiers. Something popular and held in awe usually found its way into a people’s language and naming. One of the regiments created south of the Limpopo River was Amatshetshe. We have in the past indicated how Amatshetshe proudly extolled themselves as abathwali bophahla. In actual fact, they had carried off a wagon sail tent from one of the wagons that they captured.

Reverend Dr Robert Moffat writes about Matsetse, the youths who looked after cattle. According to the LMS missionary, these Matsetse were younger than machaha (amajaha), “. . . the invincible soldiers who must either conquer or die.” Above them were amadoda (men), who Reverend Dr Robert Moffat called ‘‘mantoto.’’ Above all these, were izinduna, tuna as Tswana-influenced Reverend Dr Robert Moffat referred to them. These wore circular headrings, izidlodlo.

During sojourn in the Marico Valley (1832-1837) King Mzilikazi Khumalo possessed several wagons captured from his enemies. The contents were generally untouched and were being ravaged by rust, mice and moths. In place of sail tents, reed mats covered the tops of wagons. Reverend Dr Robert Moffat sought to be the envoy between the Griqua and the Ndebele king. He tried means fair and foul to get the monarch to release the wagons some of which belonged to Peter David. The king was however, adamant and stuck to his guns.

Reverend Dr Robert Moffat offered conditional sprucing up of the wagons if he was allowed to take control of those belonging to Peter David on his return journey. Again, he failed to convince the king. It was tragic for Peter David as his daughter Troy (uToloyi) had too been captured, so was William his nephew who the king used to send on errands to fetch firewood. Guns too required servicing and Reverend Dr Robert Moffat obliged in the hope he would secure Peter David’s wagons. The trick did not move the king who noted that there were some of his own soldiers that had been captured by the Griqua but had not been released.

In fact, it does seem there is one Griqua captive girl who got to Matabeleland. She was found by the Andries Hendriek Potgieter-led Afrikaner party that attacked Ndebele territory in 1847. Ukhalo lukaNdaleka which was captured in song is the pass that Afrikaners passed through. The girl who had acculturated into Ndebele society is said to have preferred to stay among the Ndebele than return with the Afrikaners. She chose to commit suicide by hurling herself down a steep rock cliff somewhere in the Fumugwe area. The Zwangandaba regiment commanded by Mbiko kaMadlenya Masuku repulsed the attackers who, together with their Sotho helpers, licked their wounds and returned empty- handed.

Not so long ago there used to be a phrase, “UMthwakazi ondlela zimhlophe!” Little did some of us link this expression with King Mzilikazi Khumalo’s possession of wagons. In the fullness of time, we shall explain both ‘UMthwakazi’ and the related phrase, ‘‘UMthwakazi ondlela zimhlophe.’’

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