Albert Nyathi - Matebele Poet

Ndebele Praise poetry (Izibongo Zamakhosi) is poetry that developed as a way of preserving the history of a clan by narrating how it was founded and what its outstanding achievements were. The praises centred on the leader of the clan. As the clans grew into tribes, it was the leader of the tribe who became prominent and hence his praises were sung.

In the Nguni tradition, to which the Ndebele belong, a special person called the Imbongi recited the praises of the leader of the tribe or chief and later of the king. The task of the imbongi was to narrate the leader’s history and focus on his role in the formation of that tribe or nation, hence the poem is referred to as Izibongo Zamakhosi (King’s praises). The imbongi salutes the king and addresses him directly referring to him through images that highlight his bravery, skills, greatness and other positive attributes. Praise poetry uses images drawn from the local environment and from the universe. The following praises of King Mzilikazi illustrate this point:


Bayethe! Hlabezulu!
Untonga yabuy’ ebusweni bukaTshaka.
Utshobatshoba linganoyis’uMatshobana.
Intambo kaMntinti noSimangele-
Isimangele sikaNdaba
Intambo kaMntinti noSimangele,
Abayiphothe bakhal’imvula yeminyembezi.
Ilang’eliphum’endlebeni yendlovu,
UMkhatshwa wawoZimangele!
Okhatshwe ngezind’izinyawo,
Wal’ukudl’umlenze kwaBulawayo.
Inkubel’abayihlabe ngamanxeba.
Unkomo zavul’inqaba ngezimpondo,
Ngoba zavul’iNgome zahamba.
Ithwase ngoNyakana kaMpeyana.
Inkom’evele ngobus’emdibini.
Uband’abalubande balutshiy’uZulu.
Inkom’ethe isagodla yeluleka


Bayethe! Ndebele Nation!
You are the knobkerrie that menaced Tshaka.
You are the big one who is as big as his father Matshobana.
You are the string of Mntinti and Simangele
Simangele son of Ndaba.
You are the string of Mntitni and Ndaba
The string they made until they wet tears
You are the sun that rose from the ear of the elephant,
It rose where upon the birds announced to each other.
You are the son of Simangele who was kicked!
Who was kicked by long feet and by the short ones.
You refused to eat the gift of meat in Bulawayo.
You are the fighter who has marks of fighting,
You are the cattle that opened the closed pen with their horns,
Because they opened the Ngome forests and left.
You are the moon the people said had set
Yet it was just rising;
It rose in the year of Mpeyana.
You are the cow that showed its face from the crowd.
You are the log from which the Zulus cut firewood until they left it.
You are the cow that, while it was just emerging made progress.

These praises are better understood if one is familiar with Ndebele history. They tell us how Mzilikazi escaped from Tshaka’s army to establish his own nation, hence “the knobkerrie that menaced Tshaka”. He refused to take part in celebrations at Tshaka’s capital Bulawayo, hence “he refused the gift of meat in Bulawayo”. The imbongi also tells the audience about what people thought of Mzilikazi’s attempts at running away from Tshaka, the great warrior. They thought Mzilikazi would never make any progress hence “the moon they thought had set, yet it had just arisen. It rose in the year of Mpeyana”. Here the image used is that of the old moon disappearing from the horizon. In Ndebele the term used is inyanga ifile, literally meaning, “the moon has died”. Death signifies the end of something, which is what people thought had happened to Mzilikazi. The imbongi contrasts this view with the image of a new moon that has just risen: a very powerful image that dramatises Mzilikazi’s rise to power through his bravery and skill in creating a new nation. The cause of the conflict between Mzilikazi and Tshaka is also referred to through the ‘cows’ that opened the closed cattle pen with their horns and marched through the dark Ngome forests and left Zululand. Again the use of force is suggested through these images referring to the fact that Mzilikazi left Zululand because of the conflict he had with Tshaka over cattle he had captured on a raid. Mzilikazi rose to power in a spectacular manner when it was least expected. The imbongi depicts this through an image of a sun that rises from an elephant’s ear – such an unusual event that the birds had to announce it. Such images are meant to create an impression that will linger in the minds of the audience.

It must be emphasised that Ndebele praise poetry was recited in front of an audience, which was expected to admire and marvel at the achievements of their king. Such a recitation would earn the king the respect of the people who are being reminded of his role in building the nation. The imbongi was, however, at liberty to criticise the king if he thought there was something that was not proper that the king was doing. Mzilikazi’s praises have no criticism largely because he was regarded as a loving and a caring king, unlike his son Lobengula. The latter was criticised for killing his own brothers – (Ingqungqlu emadol’abomvu ngokuguq’engazini zabafowabo: The eagle that has red knees because of kneeling on the blood of his brothers.)

In modern times praises of kings have been composed and recited with the intention of using them to unite a nation against an enemy. Before the Ndebele rebellion of 1896 prominent Ndebele imbongi composed new praises for Lobengula, who had disappeared during the war of 1893. These praises were intended to unite the Ndebele against the British. A few lines from that composition will illustrate the point.


Ngwalongwalo kaMatshobana!
Watshonaphi, Mzac’omnyama
Otshay’izinkomo lamadoda.
Nkub’enkulu yamahlathi,
Eth’ezinye zitshiy’umzila,
Yona ingatshiyi lasonjwana.
Silwane samahlathi!
Ezinye ziyathungatheka,
Kanti lesi sakwaKhumalo
Sadabula singatshiyi mkhondo.
Amadoda wonke amangele,
Kwaze kwamangala lezinja ezimhlophe
Ukuthi watshonaphi, Khumalo.
Ngangelizwe uyindab’enkulu!
Wal’ukuthunjwa yizizwe
Ithuna lakho liyakwaziwa ngokhokho kuphela, ngangezwe!


The owner of many books son of Matshobana
Where did you disappear to, Black Rod
That beats cattle and men?
You the big elephant of the forests,
Whereas other elephants leave a trail,
You do not leave even the smallest trail.
You the lion of the forests!
Whereas other lions can be tracked,
But this one of the Khumalo
Moved across without leaving a scent
All men are surprised
And even the ‘white dogs’ are surprised
About where you disappeared to, Khumalo
You who is as big as the earth you are big news.
You refused to be captured by foreigners
You chose to die a free man
Your grave shall be known by your ancestors only, you who is as big as the earth!

The most significant thing about Lobengula’s praises is the reference to “owner of many books”. This reference is historical as Lobengula was involved in signing so many treaties with white people that his people regarded him as a man of books. During his reign he captured both men and cattle from the tribes that lay outside his kingdom hence the reference to “the black rod that beat cattle and men”. He is described as both an elephant and a lion, the king of the forest. The imbongi continues to give his audience hope for the future by implying that the people must emulate their king who refused to be colonised and chose to die a free man: by emphasising his ability to escape from being captured by the enemy, thus giving this event an heroic interpretation.

In short, for anybody to enjoy and appreciate Ndebele praise poetry it is necessary for them to know Ndebele history. The images that the imbongi uses, although derived from the local environment and the universe, are used in accordance with the role played by the king in the history of his nation. They can only be appreciated and seen to make sense if one has knowledge of that history.

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