Monday, 23 November 2020


Most scholars take the view that marrying wives from other tribes was a major factor. 

While I agree that Nyanja, Senga, etc speaking mothers played a role in the loss of the Ngoni language I have now come to a point where I believe that it is overplayed.  

If that was the major factor how do you explain the fact that the Ndebele who also had assimilated thousands of Karanga Shonas still maintained their language even though they intermarried with the locals?

In fact,  it is the locals who adopted the Ndebele language and not vice-versa. 

How about the Mbelwa Ngoni who also assimilated huge numbers of Chewa, Senga, Tumbukas among them but managed to maintain Ngoni languages well into the early 1900s. 

Even to this day, you will still find pockets of Ngoni speakers in a few villages. My own grandfather even though he spoke Tumbuka most of the time knew the Ngoni language. 

For example, when I asked him for Ngoni names he did not have to read a Zulu book to find names, he gave me unique Ngoni names based on his knowledge of the Ngoni language. (The Ngoni had a slightly different way of naming their children which is a bit different from modern Zulu). 

It would have been different had I contacted my Maseko Ngoni paternal grandfather who passed away some 40 years ago. He was a proud Ngoni who still lamented the loss of lobola system among them but I am sure knew very little if any Ngoni word even though I was too young to know then.

When I was young my mum used to tell me that when she was growing up the elders in her area in Endindeni, Mzimba, used to speak in Ngoni among themselves and as children felt out of place with this "strange" language. 

Having feet in both the Maseko Ngoni and the Zwangendaba Ngoni I can tell you for a fact that if the Ngoni had followed the regimental system of the Ndebele at least in Mzimba Malawi everyone would be speaking Ngoni today. 

The only weakness was that they still kept their language too. So they spoke Ngoni in the military and before the leaders but spoke Tumbuka at home. It was therefore a fight between two languages and identity and sadly Tumbuka prevailed. Actually, it was already winning already in the 1890s when the Scottish and Xhosa missionaries arrived. This was because as Ngoni power waned so did the influence of their language.  

The Ndebele military was however fashioned differently from the Ngoni. Even though Mzilikazi Mzilikazi was born of Nompethu "The maggot" the daughter of Chief Zwide of the Ndwandwe people (tribe) he abandoned Zwide and joined his archenemy Shaka Zulu as a general. 

Because of this, the Ndebele was structured in the style of Shaka Zulus regiments where young people were spread around in barracks away from home. It was a way to indoctrinate them with Shaka Zulu's doctrines and military-style. 

In the case of the Ngoni, barracks were area-based as a result the youth remained with their families. This made it easy for the children to maintain their mothers' language and culture and in some instances made it easy for people to rebel. 

A case in point is the Malawi Tonga and Tumbuka rebellions. These would not have been easy if the children had been spread around in barracks as they would have no time to plot such rebellions. 

Both the Ngoni and the Ndebele insisted on the use of the Ngoni language in the barracks. This worked better for the Shaka Zulu regimental system as the barracks were permanent keeping the children away from their parents. 

In the case of the Ngoni, these children were still in their areas and still were at home with their fathers and mothers. They were only called upon when needed by the indunas for military training and war.

You can imagine that if you are away from your parents and are only allowed one language you are bound to lose your mom's language. And over time even the mothers will be forced to learn the language of the new majority.

In the case of the Maseko Ngoni, it was a numbers game. The Maseko Ngoni returned to Domwe after the defeat and therefore must have been very few in number. They did not leave Songea in peace. In fact, I believe that there are more Maseko Ngoni in Songea now than in Malawi.

That group that came from Songea spoke pure Ngoni as testified by the Xhosa Presbyterian missionary William Koyi who spoke with Nkosini elders around the 1870s near Cape Maclear. Even then the language was confined to the elders as the children he met were speaking to each other in Nyanja according to Dr. Robert Laws. In fact, according to William Koyi, the Maseko elders still had maintained all the Zulu clicks in their language. 

This was not the case up north in Mzimba due to the adoption of the language by the natives who struggled with clicks. However, among the elders in Mzimba, all the Nguni clicks were still being used. 

By the time of the war of the 1890s, even the elders were all speaking in Nyanja among themselves. R. C. F.Maugham who participated in the war and was a Zulu linguist says he tried to speak Zulu to the captured leaders (Indunas) and no one could understand it. He also said he kept his ears open to hear any Zulu or Nguni words but heard none as all he could hear was Nyanja. At the same time, all the Europeans who passed through Mzimba noted that almost anyone including the Tumbuka you met in Mzimba that time knew Ngoni

The influence of Nyanja could be seen in the area names among the Southern Ngoni in Malawi. You will be hard placed to find Tumbuka area names in Mzimba, Malawi.

Even among the royal family, you will see Chewa names in the leaders such as Chidyaonga, Chathanthumba. In the case of the Northern Ngoni, most of the names are Ngoni except for nicknames in the case of Inkosi Chimtunga whose real name was Mbalekelwa. It is his Chewa subjects who gave him the name Chimtunga, the knobkerry.

I wish I could say something about the Mpezeni Ngoni but I have only managed to find very few historical documents about them. I however think that the departure of Mpherembe to join Mbelwa (M'mbelwa) weakened them in terms of Ngoni speakers. I, therefore, believe that it was because of this that the Ngoni language failed to take root in Mpezeni's area as it did in Mbelwa's. 

I could be wrong here and I hope people like Mr. Lastone Richard Tembo can shed more light on this. By the way, every time I hear the surname of Tembo I am always reminded of the most prolific Ngoni songwriter, Mawelera Tembo. My favorite song from him is Israel Buyela, buyela kuYehova. (Israel come back to Jehova).

I, therefore, submit that even though mothers played a role, the real reason for the loss of Ngoni among the Southern Ngoni was a question of numbers. Whereas in the case of the Zwangendaba Ngoni it was because of the way their military was structured. It was based on areas and therefore the captives still maintained links with their families. 

Once again I am not a scholar by any stretch of the imagination so I await your points of view on this.

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