The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
IT is the story that has been told a million times.
It is a story passed from generation to generation. It is the story that is sold to all children, whether they sit on grass mats around crackling fires in the rural parts of Zimbabwe or lounging on the comfort of couches in spacious urban living rooms.
The story never changes. It is the story of the great rain that bucketed down on the Shangani River in Lupane, as its banks ran red with the blood of Lobengula’s forces and the Allan Wilson patrol.
It is the story of the King who disappeared, leaving no grave nor shrine where his people could pay future homage to their last recognised monarch.
Historians have “wasted” barrels of ink on King Lobengula’s possible final resting place, yet their words have never also been in harmony, with most having their own version of the death and burial of the Ndebele monarch.
Oral tradition says the King disappeared, evaporating like mist just beyond the blood-soaked banks of the Shangani River. Some historians claim King Lobengula marched northwards to the land of the BaTonga, where he remained under very strict security conditions while arrangements were being made for him to cross the mighty Zambezi River and go to his cousin, Mpezeni Jele, in the eastern region of what is now Zambia. According to this version, he reportedly later died between 1920 and 1922.
Others, however, claim that King Lobengula died in Malawi.
The speculation on the cause of his death is also as varied as the theories on his final resting place. Some claim the King was murdered while others say he succumbed to dysentery or small pox.
Culturalist and historian Cont Mhlanga, however, believes it is the people that live in Malunku, near the actual site of battle, who have a better and more believable version of where King Lobengula rests.
According to Mhlanga, it is a travesty though that the people around Pupu-Shangani have never been given full voice to a story whose echo refuses to die, cascading down by word of mouth from generation to generation.
Over the last few years Mhlanga, through the medium he knows best, art, has brought the story of Pupu-Shangani back to life, with a festival that retells and relives that battle vividly. While the festival takes place in June, the past week is when festivities acknowledging a battle that reportedly transpired on 4 November 1893, take place.
At the centre of the story on that story, is the disappearance of King Lobengula. Mhlanga believes that with each day he spends with the people that reside in Pupu-Shangani, the answers to one of Zimbabwean history’s greatest mysteries inches closer.
“I call it the island mystery. Oral tradition here says that the King was transported from this place to an area somewhere in Binga and by the time he got there, he had already passed away from malaria. This is where Chief Pashu comes in. According to oral tradition in the area, the King was buried together with Chief Pashu in a cave because it was said that Lobengula’s could not go into the afterlife unaccompanied and in such a case, only a high-profile sacrifice could do.
That is why even to this day, there is no known burial place for Chief Pashu. He is said, by official historical records, to be someone who disappeared together with Lobengula,” Mhlanga told Sunday Life during a tour of the Pupu-Shangani battle site on Thursday last week.
Mhlanga said although their oral tradition was rich, people in the area were reluctant to share it as they believed that outsiders would not believe it.
“At first, the people here were uneasy about sharing their own version of history. When you come here, they always tell you the version that you want to hear. This is because they know the story that is told out there which does not tally with their own oral traditions.It took three years before the people around here could start opening up to me about their own version of events.
I am inclined to believe this particular theory more than any others because it seems plausible. If one is to track the movements of the King from the Pupu-Shangani battle site, it makes a lot of sense that that is where he ended up. You also ask yourself where Chief Pashu ended up,” he said.
On hearing local accounts of how the King disappeared, one can understand why locals are reluctant to share that history. The story told by those that live at the foot of where the King was last seen contains some fantastical and even supernatural elements that one that is a stranger to the oral tradition of the area would find it hard to believe.
The story of Lobengula’s disappearance and death, as locals tell it, also revolves around the disappearance of a golden table clock which is meant to pinpoint where the King drew his last breath.
“According to locals, the King had a gold table watch that had been given to him by the Queen of England. It was very valuable and it was thought that it had been one of only 15 that had been made so as to be gifted to kings around Africa. The intention was to bribe kings.”
According to local folklore, the watch has supernatural powers because it could still be sighted by some. If you were lucky and it favoured you, one could still see it. However, they say that the last time someone claimed to have seen it was in 1965. But once the war started, there were no longer any sightings of it.
“There was a white man who believed that he could locate this elusive watch. He had reportedly hired a plane from Cape Town back in the 60s and tried to locate the watch from the air. Locals say he flew over the place several times but could not locate it and he even enlisted the help of young schoolchildren to help him find it. They say the plane eventually crashed while he was trying to locate it.
There’s an old woman who passed away last year, that said she had been there at the time the plane was circling over the village. She even had some of the metal wreckage from the plane in her home. She is gone now and I fear that part of history is gone with her too because she has not cared to find out and spotlight the history of this place as shared by locals,” said Mhlanga.
According to Mhlanga, it made sense for King Lobengula’s aides to have taken him northwards for burial, due to the relationship between the BaTonga and the Ndebele State.
“The whole administration of the Ndebele State was carried by BaTonga people because the leaders were afraid that if other Ndebeles administered, there would be a coup. So, the man who was the King’s personal assistant was from the BaTonga and he is the one that left with the King’s cattle and personal belongings during the battle.
When he arrived in Binga, people did not know him but they only knew that he said he was from Bulawayo. That is why today we have what is known as Bulawayo Kraal in that area. He arrived with a lot of beasts and married wives like a typical Ndebele,” he said.
According to Mhlanga, the story of the crossing of the Shangani River, and the battle that ensued there has not been told well or accurately enough, given that this was an event of almost biblical proportion.
“The crossing of the Shangani was spectacular. Lobengula took 20 000 people who were crossing the Shangani all at the same time. The King had taken everyone from warriors to women and children. Remember that as they were doing that, Forbes and his troops were coming for them.
The story is almost similar to the one of the Jewish people’s crossings of the Red Sea but the difference is, in the biblical story, the sea was flooded when the Jews got there whereas the Shangani was dry but only got full later after the people had prayed for the rain.
“There is a mass grave here of those Rhodesian soldiers that were killed here. But it is rarely spoken of and in actual fact white historians have never told the history of this battle properly because this a place where they were defeated.
It’s unfortunate that we also seem to have also taken that history and made it our own without interrogating it.
I have a problem with the fact that the force which was sent after Lobengula, who had already left Bulawayo burning and abandoned it, is called the Shangani Patrol like it was an innocent and inconsequential that waged a major battle on the river,” he said.