Reconnecting with God: The Mfengu convene religious ceremony

19 May, 2019 - 00:05 0 Views

The Sunday News

Phathisa Nyathi

On Saturday, 1 June 2019, the Mfengu-Xhosa communities from all over Zimbabwe will gather at Elitsheni in Mbembesi, just outside Bulawayo  where they will hold a religious service meant to revive an old tradition that was discontinued in the 1960s when the Smith regime clamped down on public gatherings. 

The annual religious tradition was discontinued as far back as 1968. Then the Mfengu communities used to gather in order to renew their vows and commitment to the “Fingo Oath” which was sworn way back in the Cape Colony near Butterworth.

The “Fingo Oath” came into existence following the exodus of the Mfengu out of Transkei to settle in the Cape Colony following an invitation from the British, more specifically Governor Benjamin D’Urban. 

The famed trek comprising 17 000 people and 22 000 head of cattle was led by a white missionary known as Reverend John Ayliff who came from Butterworth.  

On that historic day, the 14th of May 1835, the assembled Mfengu people made an oath which endured till some of them emigrated to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1899 and 1900. Even in the new colony, the “Fingo Oath” endured into the 1960s.

In an interview in Bulawayo on 16 May 2019, Ayanda Victor Nyilika and Mangangandile Dhlamini gave an interview regarding the oath that is being revived through some religious ceremony that will be attended by hundreds of the descendants of the Mfengu who made the oath over a century-and-a-half ago. 

The original four Christian denominations that were brought into Zimbabwe by the Mfengu will be in attendance.  

There are the Anglican Church, the Wesleyan Methodist, the Presbyterian Church (iRhabe) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Zimbabwe has been independent for over three decades now, and why only now have the Mfengu communities thought of convening what had become a forgotten religious tradition?

“The religious ceremony is being convened to reconnect with God. Over the years, as communities, we have drifted away from the tenets of the oath, from God and from some elements of Ubuntu,” says Nyilika.  

Dhlamini weighs in and enumerates some of the things that have gone wrong. 

“As communities we have lost the all-important value of respect for one another and for God. Equally, love has been lost. We are experiencing inexplicable deaths. 

The youth is no longer interested in education and respect and adherence to the churches is on the decline. 

Our area is experiencing unprecedented and prolonged droughts. For a people who are strong believers in the power of God, we thought it prudent to reconnect and reconcile with God, our Creator.”

In the two gentlemen’s  lament,  mention is made of some of the elements of the oath which was sworn in a solemn and sombre atmosphere under a milkwood tree, umqwashi, soon after settlement in the Cape Colony. Reverend Ayliff was present during the commitment that was made by the Mfengu elders under the tree whose name has endured to this day. 

The old tree is secured by means of a fence. Equally, the name of the tree has survived as the name of EMqwashini Primary School in Mbembesi, about 40 kilometres north of Bulawayo.

The “Fingo Oath” was associated with and linked to emancipation of the Mfengu whose lives under the Gcaleka-Xhosa had been a litany of suffering, misery wretchedness. No wonder, their migration has been likened to the Exodus that was undertaken by the children of Israel. They thus took the oath of emancipation by committing themselves to three promises at Peddie which was one of the districts: To obey God and listen to the Christian missionaries. 

To be loyal to the Crown(Queen Victoria) and the Cape government and finally, To educate their children.

The solemn oath was subsequently held on 14 May each year as “Fingo Emancipation Day.” Back in the Cape Colony, the Day was celebrated under the same  mkwashi (milkwood ) tree where the ceremony was held in 1835. 

So powerful was the oath that it led to the Mfengu becoming a modernising people among the Bantu of South Africa. They embraced organisational life and the elective process characteristic of democratic dispensations. Their mode of dress and culture accommodated western ideas. 

They were the first to establish and support educational institutions such as the famed Lovedale and St Matthews. They thus became the leaders in the adoption of western education. 

They led the way in the creation of political organisations that opposed white rule. Their Imbumba, led by John Ntengo Jabavu would eventually unite with the South African Native Congress to form the African National Congress (ANC).

Western agricultural practices were adopted, in particular the use of ploughs which was demonstrated to them by white missionaries. 

New varieties of crops were grown such as maize and sorghum. They were the first to grow wheat.  

Their association with whites saw them become farmers that provided fuel and food to the sprouting mines such as the diamond mines in Kimberly. 

-To be Continued next week


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