65. Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Historical Fiction/Epic Tragedy
Publishers: Heinemann African Writers Series
Pages: 168
Year of first Publication: 1931 (in Sesotho), 1981 (English)

Chaka is a historical fiction of the life of the founder of the Zulu Kingdom, Chaka, (sometimes spelt Shaka). As an epic tragedy, the story's arc follows the normal curve or the inverted 'U', where events are built up to the peak and begin to descend uncontrollably ending in the demise of the main character, Chaka. In this very novel, Mofolo mixes facts with fiction to recreate the legendary and wondrous life of one of Africa's most mysterious and highly enigmatic figures whose true life is stranger than fiction.

Chaka born out of wedlock became the first male child of Senzangakhona, Chaka's father. His position, however, became precarious after Senzangakhona's senior wives began to bear him male children even though the chief had quickly married Nandi, Chaka's mother, to cover up any suspicions his subjects and concillors might have. But Senzangakhona's wives conspired and impressed upon him to send Chaka and Nandi away from the palace. Fearing that his taboo deed might be found out, Senzangakhona acceded to his wives' demands. In spite of this, and perhaps exacerbated by it, the news of Chaka's rejection and his illegitimacy spread through the villages, making him object of ridicule and persecution.
These boys were persecuting Chaka because they heard vague rumours that suggested it would be a good riddance if they killed him. (Page 12)
Nandi, fearing that her son might be killed by these unscrupulous people, sought the help of her native doctor who strengthened Chaka with potent medicines. Thereafter Chaka's bravery spread throughout the land and women began to sing to his name after he single-handedly rescued a man and young girl from the jaws of a lion and a hyena respectively, when all others had run away or were afraid to come out. But it was these bravery that made him fled his village. In his wanderings he met Isanusi, the diviner promised him by his medicine woman just before she died. And it was Isanusi who gave Chaka all the medicine that would make him great and fearful. Other interpreters of this novel have suggested that Isanusi was a mythical figure created by Chaka to pursue his agenda of power acquisition and wanton revenge. Whatever interpretation one choose, this tragic epic story, Chaka runs parallel, at some fronts, with  Macbeth. For it was Isanusi who promised Chaka the power he desires, it was he who fashioned him a new weapon and also provided him with a strong medicine that would later make him a great King. And it was within this that his end lay.

Chaka's macabre deeds intensified after she killed pregnant Noliwa, the sister of Dingiswayo - king of the Mthetwas who was Chaka's godfather, who took him in when he had no place to go, who supervised his ascent to the Zulu throne and who betrothed his most beloved sister to Chaka - after Isanusi had requested the blood of a loved one as an ingredient required in formulating the medicine that would make Chaka the greatest, most revered and most feared King in all the land, ruling over territories that have no end. After this, the atrocities Chaka committed were innumerable. According to Mofolo,
In order to comprehend this fully, we should use the example that the number of people killed by him in the ways we have described, is equal to the number of the Basotho, counting every man, woman and child, multiplied three or four-fold. Imagine them all being killed! (Page 153) 
Though the story seems to be narrated by an omniscient observer, throughout the novel we discover that the narrator does not know or have all the facts and in numerous places had to resort to conjecture. For instance, as Chaka started having painful dreams when his end was nigh, Mofolo writes
Three times in that same night he dreamed that one dream, from a certain point to a certain point, but the most amazing thing was that he kept waking up when he reached the point of his meeting with Isanusi, even though we are at a loss to know why it was that suddenly he was afraid of his dealings with Isanusi who was his closest friend. (Page 157, emphasis mine) 
In this way the story follows the oral traditional story telling mode common to most Africans. Another, style adopted by Mofolo in this story that is typical to oral story telling is the repetition of statements and of ideas, directly or indirectly, for emphasis.

Mofolo's story has a specific audience, the Basotho people, to whom he frequently addressed in the story. And this is much appreciated if we realise that the story itself was first written and published in Sesotho, the language of the Basotho people of Lesotho. Consequently, sharp analogies are sometimes drawn between these two cultures as a means of elucidating certain parts of the story (as in the quote from page 153 above). The effect of narrator's frequent reference to the audience, inviting them to be part of the story telling and even sometimes using 'we' to indicate that he is as much a part of the telling as of the listening would have been that responses would have been required from the audience.

Many divergences exist between Mofolo's representation of Chaka and his deeds in Chaka and what historical facts and other fictionalised forms, such as Walton Golightly's AmaZulu, presented. The first and obvious difference is with the spelling of 'Chaka' and its implication in Chaka's story. In Golightly's story Chaka was spelt 'Shaka' and it was the name of an intestinal beetle that was said to have infected Nandi when she told Senzangakhona that she was pregnant for him. It was this that led to Shaka leaving the home of his father. Another point of divergence comes from the killing of Nandi by Chaka in Mofolo's story. Again, in Walton's Amazulu Shaka did not murder his mother. He loved her so much, considering her to be his personal talisman or ubulawu, so that when Nandi died from dysentery Shaka began to lose touch with himself and his people. Besides, whereas Golightly attributed Shaka's greatness to his strength, intelligence and bravery, Mofolo attributed it to the metaphysical. According to Mofolo himself
The events in Chaka's life were overwhelming because they were so numerous and of such tremendous import; they were like great mysteries which were beyond the people's understanding. But since it is not our purpose to recount all the affairs of his life, we have chosen only one part which suits our present purpose. (Page 153, emphasis mine)
Thus, Mofolo took numeorus literary licenses to write a story that follows a set plot and suspense. According to Daniel Kunene, the translator of this edition, this was done to provide a dramatic effect to the story. Hence, the story is just what it is meant to be - a story not an exact biographical representation of this Zulu warrior or a recording of historical facts. Even then there are some overlaps at numerous places.

Perhaps Mofolo's depiction of Chaka, as a bloodthirsty ruler without human compassion, who lives only to kill, this morbid presentation of Chaka might have been influenced by the missionaries, especially Casalis, who worked with him and who helped him to publish his work
There is evidence that the first time Mofolo gave any further attention to the 'Chaka' manuscript since 1909 or 1910, was in the early 1920s, which coincides with the return to Lesotho from France of the Reverend A. Casalis who was the one person who constantly advised and encouraged Mofolo in his effort as a writer. ... Gerard asserts, 'the records of the "Conference des missionaires du Lessouto" clearly shows that Casalis was solely and entirely responsible for  the publication of the book'... (page xiii, Introduction)
It is also possible that Mofolo used Chaka's story as a treatise on choice between good and evil. The first time Chaka met Isanusi, the latter laid bare all his commandments that Chaka would have to follow if he is to attain what he desires. He made it known to Chaka that his medicine is extremely evil but also extremely good and it was Chaka who has to make the choice:
The doctor said that the medicine which remained to be used was one which he did not have with him; he said it was a medicine associated with the spilling of blood, with killing: 'It is extremely evil, but it is also extremely good. Choose!' (Page 43)
Before that Chaka has promised to bind himself with all the commandments Isanusi would give him:
Chaka: 'I bind myself to abide by your commandments in every way in which you will command me' (Page 41)
so that even though Chaka's ruthless spilling of blood was a direct result of the medicine, it was Chaka who made the initial decision, the choice.

This book was listed as one of the best African books of the twentieth century. I recommend it for all those who love historical fiction and who want to know more about different cultures.
Thomas Mofolo
Brief Bio: Thomas Mokopu Mofolo (December 22, 1876- September 8, 1948) is considered to be the greatest Basotho author. He wrote mostly in the Sesotho language, but his most popular book, Chaka, has been translated into English and other languages. Born in Khojane on Dec. 22, 1876, he was educated in the local schools of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society and obtained a teacher's certificate in 1898. While he was working at the book depot in Morija, some of the missionaries encouraged him to write what was to become the first novel in Southern Sotho, Moeti oa bochabela (1907; The Traveler of the East). The edifying story of a young Sotho chieftain's conversion to Christianity, it is cleverly interwoven with traditional myths and praise poems. Its success prompted other young teachers to try their hand at fiction writing, thus launching one of the earliest literary movements in sub-Saharan Africa. Mofolo's next book, Pitseng (1910), is built on a rather clumsy love plot in imitation of European fiction. It contains perceptive descriptions of native mores in Lesotho and in South Africa and a thoughtful, by no means encomiastic, appraisal of the influence of Christianity on traditional marriage customs. Mofolo then composed Chaka, a fictionalized account of the Zulu conqueror who built a mighty empire during the first quarter of the 19th century. (Source)


  1. I read his travellers to east and didn't likme the overtly christian theme ,but this sounds a lot better I did like his writing style ,all the best stu

  2. @Stu, expect that from an African who has been educated by the missionaries. The first thing they teach you is to hate yourself because whatever you were doing before is evil. How with Chaka the Christian theme is not overt, perhaps covertly portrayed in the way he developed the character Chaka making his downfall being the result of some spirituality and not attributing his popularity to anything physical.

  3. Great article and biography on "Thomas Mofolo".


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