Monday, 23 November 2020


 A few days ago, I came across an excellent article titled, “Markers of Ethnic Identity and Factors that Contributed to the Death of the Ngoni Language of Zambia”. You can find this article on 

While reading the article I came across the following excerpt which reminded me of the differences between the Ndebele and the Ngoni. 

"It is clear that although the Ngoni dominated militarily, they did not have a policy regarding their own language like the Ndebele of Mzilikazi who changed the names and totems of the Karanga they defeated. Naturally, all the people the Ngoni captured learned to speak the Ngoni language….."

This excerpt shows something that I too have noticed as I have interacted with some Ndebeles here in the UK and also the writings of G. Liesegang.

The fact is that while the Shangaans, Ndebele, and Ngoni leaders were originally under Zwide and have family connections with Zwide’s family, Mzilikazi’s time with Shaka (Tshaka) changed the way he ruled his people. The Ndebele were structured along the lines of the Zulus while the Ngoni maintained the Ndwandwe structure of Zwide.

As I pointed out in an area article on the death of the Ngoni language except for a few villages in Mzimba and I am told in some few villages in Tanzania, the Ngoni military structure was different from the Ndebeles. The Ngoni had what may be called area armies and not purely military barracks villages like the Ndebele and the Zulus did, where children from different areas could form a barracks village so to say.

As a result of this children still lived with their parents in their own areas and therefore maintained their language besides the Ngoni language which was the language used in the military and during royal functions and in courts.

The article above about the Zambia Ngoni mentions the fact that the Ngoni had no language policy and the Ndebelerisation of the captured Karanga as the main difference. While that had some influence I honestly do not think it was the main reason for the demise of Ngoni. 

I now believe that it was the fact that there was no intermixing of the various groups among the Ngoni that led to the demise of the language. The Ngoni social structure had the abenzansi, the Ngoni aristocracy at the top, and the abenhla,  the "people from the upcountry" in the second position and the rest of the people derogaratively referred to as abafo, pronounced as "awafo" at the bottom. 

Abafo (singular, umfo or mufo as the Ngoni pronounce it) in Ngoni is not brothers or strangers as in Zulu but slaves. These are the people that replaced the izinceku (confidential servants of the king and royals while they were in South Africa). These would therefore be the people that cared for the abenzansi, and abenhla's cattle and farming besides taking care of their own farms.

This separation resulted in people living in separate villages with their own kin and people and this, therefore, meant they also kept their language. They were for all intents and purposes speaking two languages, Ngoni and their mother tongue, be it Senga, Chewa, Tumbuka, etc. And therefore, in the end, it is the mother languages that prevailed and eventually, even the people at the top ended up picking these languages.

Another interesting difference pointed out by the authors is the fact that the Ndebele forced the Karanga to change their totems and names to Ndebele names and totems.  That means for example that if your surname were Njobvu, the elephant in Chewa it would be changed to Ndlovu in Ngoni. Mzilikazi was following the example of Shaka Zulu who tried with some success to make his captives Zulu in language and culture with some huge success. He managed to make various clans start to see themselves as Zulus which was a small clan compared to many of the clans then. Though they maintained their totems and names, unlike the captured Karanga.

However, while I think that this had little effect on the language, it is something that the Ngoni should have embraced to make their captives feel part and parcel of the group.

Robert Moffat, a British missionary wrote the following about the Ndebele:

"The Matabele take from the conquered tribes boys and girls, the boys ofcourse acquire the language and the habits and customs of their captors and are reared for soldiers, so that by far the greatest majority of that people are composed of such tribes. At each town of any consequence of these people is generally a Matabele officer, and some soldiers to receive tribute, and to such natives, Mzilikazi, in general, gives over a number of cattle to be taken charge of. In conversing with such I have observed that there is nothing they deplore so much as their children being taken from them just at a time when they become useful to their parents. It is therefore quite common to see a soldier having a boy or youth, whom he calls his servant, whom he has taken int he above manner to rear up for war." - The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860 ed., J.P.R. Wallis (London, 1945), vol. 1. p. 319

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