Wednesday, October 23, 2013

260. Indaba, My Children - African Tribal History, Legends, Customs and Religious Beliefs by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa

For most Africans the history of their lives, their culture, their ancestors, begins from the point of entry of the unknown men with pale skin, who would later become the colonialists and the oversea slave traders. To most of us who have gone through formal education studying subjects like Social Studies, Life Skills and a bit of History, not as an Elective but as a core, the farthest we can trace our history is to the borders of the Mali, Songhai and Ghana Empires. Even then, we do not know how they are linked to our present selves. Thus, to ask a Ghanaian student - to be specific on what I can guarantee, though I know this might largely apply to several Africans - to think of his ancestors beyond this period is to ask him to risk haemorrhaging his brain cells or to cause him to hallucinate holographic images of people whose faces he cannot outline or describe and whose deeds he does not know.

Yet, it is ironical that these same folks who know nothing about themselves, their origins - for we all migrated from a source - will insist and claim certain traditions as their culture, insisting that 'this is not our culture' and yet be unable to define, to trace, to historically discuss that culture which they are trying to protect. And the authorities, the men who have to ensure that this problem is solved, look on unconcerned. The leaders - or as they prefer to call themselves, the politicians, who must invest - material and personnel -  to ensure that this knowledge gap is bridged hardly ever think about it. But it is not for nothing that money is pumped into such studies of archaeological interest. The end result is not the museum such archaeological finds occupy; they are profounder than that. They are psychological.

It has been said - and has ignorantly been repeated - that an unexamined life is not worth living; if this is the case, then we, who have lost our roots and who have no vision of where we had come from and whose only claim to fame is our struggle with the British colonisers in eighteen-something, are not worth living. There are those who will ask: What is the use? Why not move on? What will this bring us? To such questions one can only say that there is a psychological importance to knowing one's history. For instance, currently, we sit in awe of the enlightenment of other cultures with the belief that we never had one, had never had one; we sit in perplexity over where we all did come from and if we really all did come from some source then this space we currently occupy belongs to all of us and not one particular ethnic group. Thus, knowledge of our roots will imbue confidence and unity amongst us, as a people. The knowledge that one's ancestors did something meaningful is a sure way of motivating one to aspire to do greater things. Great countries have been emboldened by the greatness of their past. This is one reason why it is important. It will also expose why we are as we are; why certain progress has not been made; and, consequently, what we must do to lift ourselves from the morass of deprivation. And such researches should not be limited to the text-books of higher institutions. It should be made available to all through different sources.

In Indaba, My Children (Canongate, 1998 (FP: 1964); 696), Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa sought to trace the history of the Bantus and other similar groups from the Central and Eastern Africa as they migrated towards Southern Africa. Vusamazulu, himself a Bantu Shaman, has pieced all this history together from the stories he was told, the native songs of the people, and the histories he was forced to memorise as one of the keepers of Tribal History and Stories. Through these he has created a book filled with legends, stories, customs, and beliefs of the people. He has recorded the battles that were won and those that were lost; he has recorded the brave men and the cowards; those who created nations and those who destroyed them. Vusamazulu, more importantly, has also discussed - in this beautiful book - why Africans (or may be Bantus) failed to develop technologically. He also removed the cover from some of the beliefs and rituals of the people, showing them as they truly are.

In the telling of the stories, the author relied on the oral mode of telling engaging stories by mixing mythology with history to the point that the listener is somewhat unable to stake out where one ends and the other begins. However, as always, the essence of what is being said could be seen if one look beneath all these mythological tales and legends. He pointed to songs, to inscriptions and paintings on caves, to the art of the people to support his statements. Through this book Vusamazulu has broken myths - like the popular belief that Shaka (the Zulu), who appeared at the tail end of the story, was the greatest Zulu warrior [refer to both Thomas Mofolo's Chaka and Walton Golightly's AmaZulu] and the main cause of Piet Retief's murder. In fact, according to Vusamazulu, Shaka was a coward who killed his mother. Here he explained in Bantu life, a mother is revered and therefore if one draws blood from one's mother, he or she is deemed to have killed her. Hence, both those who argue that Shaka did not kill his mother and those who claimed he did are right. The Bantus regarded Shaka's stabbing her leg with an arrow as murder, even though she actually died of dysentery. Yet, writings by Europeans and from European perspectives are what have influenced this 'brave Shaka' tale and our minds to an extent that no single person doubts the legendariness of Shaka the Zulu. 

Furthermore, Vusamazulu answered many unasked questions. Did the African ever attempt writing? Many an European writings about Africa - fiction or non-fiction - have shown how savage the African was. Books such as Conrad's In the Heart of Darkness and others as such show how blood-thirsty the African was in such times and that it was the coming of the Europeans that brought to the dark continent, a modicum of civilisation. Therefore, it will not be a surprise if most African and all European readers doubt that the African ever wrote. According to Vusamazulu, message sticks and mats and calabashes were passed round in moments of need, confirming that the African wrote. In fact, he provides examples of these inscriptions and their meanings in the book. The most significant eye-openers in this book are the numerous 'surgeries' the African performed, such as - even in the not too distant past - the precise drilling of a small hole into the skull of a person to turn him or her into a zombie, the delivery of babies, the suturing of wounds and others. The problem is that all these were shrouded in mystery and attributed to gods and spirits.

The question one is likely to ask is what then prevented us from developing into a machine-gun-wielding people with stone-buildings at the time the Europeans arrived. It is this that Vusamazulu intends to answer with this tome of a book. He seeks to educate the black man as well as the white of the intricacies of the Bantu's - or more generally, the black man's - mind. He believed that his book - published when his native South Africa was still under apartheid rule - will lead the white supremacists to an understanding of the Bantu's mind and thus lead to an amicable and peaceful coexistence. Whether this was achieved is there for any of us to interrogate, for it took three decades after the book's publication for South Africa to break the yoke of apartheid. 

According to Vusamazulu, there was a period where there was massive progress among the people - buildings, weaponry and others. However, usurpers who want to be equal to the gods or to lord over the people and live every vision their depraved minds could conjure, took over these to suppress the people to the point of slavery. Here he referenced the Zim-Mbaje (the stone building in Zimbabwe). It was at a point when these usurpers were toppled and their colonies thoroughly destroyed that a high law was passed to prevent people from improving on things that exist and from creating new ones. According to the law, anyone who did so was comparing himself to the gods and should be sentenced to death. This high law, and its strict application, ensured that 'deviants' were killed leading to a suppression of creativity and development and the homogenisation of the society.

The book, like all mythological tales of history and unlike the formalised historical writings, also narrated the Africa's (or Bantu's) creationist story linking it to the coming of evil, life after death, the essence of man and his purpose on earth, and the African's view about death. Thus, the African religion - which has variously been labelled as fetish, pagan, animism etc. - is comparable to any other religion. He refuted the oft-said and always misunderstood statement that the African worship his ancestors. He explained the role of ancestors in the African's life.

In proving that Africans have come from a common source, Vusamazulu relied on the commonalities in our languages, where sometimes similar words are used for the same thing by different ethnic groups across the continent, from Eastern and Central Africa down to Southern Africa. In this linkage, Vusamazulu made a bold statement, not based on any research finding, that Africans migrated from South East Asia. I must say that during the time I was reading this book, I watched a documentary that seems to support this idea. Here, I who hardly speak or understand any local language apart from my native Twi, found some of the similarities. For instance, according to Vusamazulu the Yiddish name for Mother is Ima, and Ma in Bantu. Among the Gas in Ghana, it is Imaa (shortened from Imame or my mother). In Twi it is Mama or maa (the contracted form). Similarly, the name for Father in Yiddish is Aba, in Zulu, Shangaan, Shona, it is Baba, which is also used among certain ethnic groups in Ghana. There are several of such examples: Mina is Me or Myself in Bantu, Me, Meus, Mei in Latin, and Me in Twi and Mi in Ga. (Note that the Twi and Ga additions are mine).

This is a book that makes bold statements from a point of knowledge and that seeks to unmask Africa's hidden past - both the good and the ugly. It seeks to dispute the claim, which most Historians (including those on the continent) make, that Africa - because it lacks a written language - has no history. Here Vusamazulu, a man whose great-grand father worked with Shaka and who himself no less a person than one of the High Priests of the Bantus who has sworn to protect tribal secrets, has bared it all. Whether we agree with what has been said, whether we attribute them to legends and fables or to an imaginative mind, he has provided a compelling story, which regardless of the legends it entails, should make us think and think again as Africans. He shows clearly that the African has lived for thousands and thousands of years on this continent and that he had means to preserve his culture in the face of torture and oppression.

Vusamazulu employed several narrative styles. There was the omniscient narrator, the first person narrator - where he sets out to describe and explain, and another first person narrator but from the point of view of a character in the story, Lumukanda, and sometimes from the points of views of animals and plants. Thus, the African's view of life, as all-encompassing, was honoured here: trees and animals are all spirit beings, and so too are the mountains and the rivers. There were also places where poetry and songs, in the form of stanzas, were used. However, the entire language is dreamlike and poetic.

This is a book that must be studied. It is one which must be treasured and one whose content must be subjected to critical debates and scientific researches because Vusamazulu does not take what he says lightly, he believes in them and ask us to do same, not religiously but to subject them to studies and see if we will not come to the same conclusion. He is bold and this is what I like about the book, in addition to the fact that to some of us inquisitive minds - those of us who want to know exactly what our past was like - it is like a refreshing spring that one must visit over and over again.
About the Author: Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa (born on July 21, 1921) is a Zulu Sangoma from South Africa. His father was a widower with three surviving children when he met his mother. His father was a builder and a Christian and his mother was a young Zulu girl. Caught between Catholic missionaries on one hand, and a stubborn old Zulu warrior, Credo's maternal grandfather, his parents had no choice but to separate. Credo was born out of wedlock which caused a great scandal in the village and his mother was thrown out by her father. Later he was taken in by one of his aunts.

He was subsequently raised by his father's brother and was taken to the South Coast of Natal, near the northern bank of the Mkomazi River. He did not attend school until 14 years old. In 1935 his father found a building job in the old Transvaal province and the whole family relocated to where he was building. 

Where Christian doctors had failed, his grandfather, a man whom his father despised as a heathen and a demon worshipper, helped him back to health. At this point Credo began to question many of the things about his people the missionaries would have them believe. "Were we Africans really a race of primitives who possessed no knowledge before the white man came to Africa?" he asked himself. His grandfather instilled in him the belief that his illness was a sacred sign that he was to become a shaman, a healer. He underwent the initiation from one of his grandfather's daughters, a young sangoma named Myrna. 

His other books include Zulu Shaman: Dreams, Prophecies, and Mysteries (2003); Songs of Stars, 1st Edition (2000); Africa is My Witness (Blue Crane Books 1966); The Reptilian Agenda (with David Icke); My People, the Writings of a Zulu Witch-Doctor (Penguin Books, 1977)[Source]


  1. Nana,
    You just started off a deep hunger in me with this review. It is not just enough for us Africans to believe everything we were told. There is no doubt that a lot of questions about us remain unanswered; no records, no documentations just mere hearsay. I will have to read this book.

    1. Yes, you really need to. We need to investigate more into our past. It's very important.

  2. hey! Nana, a good review indeed keep the good work.

  3. I have no doubt in my mind now that this book is the next book I'll read after i'm done with my current read, great review


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