Last month, we talked about the griot tradition of West Africa. This African tradition of long lineages of storytellers, historians, and history repositories of the society, extends beyond West Africa, to all over the continent. For the Ndebele of Zimbabwe, the griot is known as the imbongi.
Below is a praise poem celebrating the Ndebele King Lobengula. The poem was recited in Ndebele by imbongi (griot/poet) Mtshede Ndhovu to T.J. Hemans around c.1970. Mtshede Ndhlovu was born when Mzilikazi (Lobengula’s father) was still on the throne, that is, before 1868, making him some 105 years old. His son, Bova Ndhlovu, acted as interpreter, assisting Hemans with the translation.
For the entire poem, with the Ndebele version, please check out African Poems .
Praise Poem for Lobengula
It roared like a calf. (1)
He who has books is at the river crossing. (2)
The cumulus cloud which rains from overcast sky. (3)
The words of a mountain, King of Mgabi Ndwandwe. (4)
The bird that builds with its beak pointing to a pool of water,
some say catch it some say leave it that it the way it builds. (5)
The black lion of Mabindela.
Grass does not burn in the Kalahari, some burns and bends. (6)
He was furious and then the tribes and commissioners were angry. (7)
Spoor of the leopard that disappears in rivers. (8)
The bush buck that strikes with its hooves and damaged the stones. (9)
Watch him, the destroyer, because he destroyed the commoners. (10)
He who is food they feed from for many many years,
when he dies where will they feed from,
they will eat jackals and roots.
He whose majesty is like that of his father Matshobana.
Cattle have popularity, they are lowing and attract afar.
He whose path is winding like that of ants.
The small bird of the spear, so small it can sit on the spear.
Praises Given to the Kings of the Amandebele,
Nada X, 3 (n.p., 1971).
(1) This praise-poem was recorded c.1970, when a new war for Zimbabwe was in progress. Lobengula is contrasted with Mzilikazi for failing to protect the nation. He is a calf compared to a bull and his roaring is not impressive.
(2) Lobengula signed the Rudd Concession in 30 October 1888, granting mining rights to the British South African Company. He assumed the miners would accept his kingship, but it was soon evident that the BSA were coming as colonizers. He who has books is Charles Rudd, the treaty bearer, and the river crossing is the Limpopo, the southern border to Ndebele territory.
(3) A reference to Lobengula’s responsibility as rainmaker. Later in praise [line] 12, he comes food they feed from.
(5) Lobengula’s succession was controversial, and his performance as king was disputed.
(7) The signing of the Rudd Concession led to anger on all sides, culminating the war of 1893.
(8) Lobengula’s policies were difficult to follow. See also praise 15, where his course is winding like that of ants.
(9) Again, this contrasts with Mzilikazi, the bush buck that steps carefully on the rocks, implying diplomatic skills such as wariness.