Inxwala: Conduct, timing and significance during the heyday of the erstwhile Ndebele State

Pathisa Nyathi
SOME few days ago I observed some large Bulawayo City Council (BCC) machinery clearing the site bordered by Masotsha Avenue, Joshua Nkomo Extension and Selous Road in North End. I would later learn that the site was part of the itinerary for the President of Zimbabwe, Cde Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, who was scheduled to visit some cultural sites of interest in Bulawayo. The acacia trees that normally grace the site were removed, so was the grass.

The site has survived since 1893 when the Ndebele State was destroyed by white colonists and King Lobengula abandoned his capital KoBulawayo and struck north till he crossed the Zambezi River and finally settled among his Ngoni relatives in Chipata, Zambia where King Mphezeni I, the son of King Zwangendaba, lived at Mtenguleni.

Those who took over the running of KoBulawayo knew the site as one of spiritual and historical significance and spared it of any residential, industrial, commercial or aesthetic development. This has been the case to this day and debates are raging regarding what should the piece of land used for in terms of urban zoning within the context of Greater Bulawayo. There is some general consensus that it be reserved for cultural development. I, therefore, found it proper to pen two articles that seek to unpack the ceremony that took place at this long-surviving site.

I have always lamented the wrongful embellishment of our history by those who do not do justice to it in particular with regard to thought or worldview that illuminates, underpins and informs the cultural practices such as Inxwala which was performed there every year about the month of January. In 2002 I wrote a book titled, “Traditional Ceremonies of AmaNdebele.” I had, a few years earlier, penned a book titled, “Lawo Magugu: The Material Culture of AmaNdebele.” That was at the time when Old Bulawayo was being developed and the initial idea was to turn it into a theme park where people were going to live there and lead 19th Century Ndebele way of life. Sadly, the idea, a very culturally sound one at that, was shelved.

Today I am focusing the spotlight on Inxwala, as a ceremony, how it was conducted, the purpose of the pre-eminent national ceremony and ritual of the Ndebele people. The Ndebele referred to the ceremony as Inxwala a word which means something taboo. The one aspect that was taboo, was the song that was sung on the day of the Main Inxwala. After its singing, it was erased from the people’s mouths, only to be sung the following year at the same time. Only the King presided over the ceremony and nobody else. The other meaning of Inxwala is squint eyes, like what I have.

Alternatively, Inxwala is referred to as Incwala among the Swati and the Ngoni of King stock, lost their cultural identity as a result of miscegenation with the Tumbuka and the Chewa. When they refer to Incwala they say Intshwala, but spell it as Incwala. Among amaBhaca it is known as Ingubhe, and seems to sound very close to umgubho. Some people will refer to it as uMkhosi.

In my numerous articles on African Thought I referred to the cosmos and celestial objects as having some bearing on the ways of life for Africans. During Inxwala this became apparent. There were two components held a lunar month apart. There was the Minor Inxwala/Inxwala eNcane/UMthontiso where milk from cows with grown up calves was used. The cows are known to have been looked after by Sikhobokhobo Nxumalo and Maphungo Mabhena, who was chief of eMnqunyeni. The milk was delivered to the royal town at night so that the generality of the people would not know that Inxwala eNcane or UMthontiso was about to take place. This was a private ritual, some kind of dress rehearsal for the Main Inxwala, a lunar month later.

I have just penned a book about Maphungo who was brutally killed for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of King Lobengula’s izinkomo zethunga for UMthontiso ceremony. The Assistant Native Commissioner at Inyathi known as Graham and uMehlwenduku to the Ndebele, went after Maphungo Mabhena who was adamant he was not going to surrender the royal cattle to uMehlwenduku and the colonists. As a result, he was tied up with some bark fibre rope and dragged along by a horse till all his brains were scattered on the ground and met with excruciating death in Nkayi.

Before we get to the conduct of the Minor Inxwala and the resident symbolism, let us deal with the timing of the ceremony and then seek to unpack the purpose of the ceremonies and the ritual. It is important to appreciate that ceremonies of a spiritual nature embrace private rituals which the general public should not be privy to. Inxwala had a component that had to do with the consumption of the first fruits.

The King was the first person to partake of the first fruits. The cultural practice was used to express the importance and unassailable person of the King and a cultural thanksgiving practice to the ancestors and God who provided bountiful harvests. In any case, even among the commoners the oldest among them was first to pick up meat and the rest followed in chronological order. My book, “Beyond Nutrition: Food as a Cultural Expression,” deals with that. There were thus expressions of loyalty and unity. The medicines that were used were then taken to the villages where the same process was undergone. There the chief was first to partake of the first fruits. There were traditional doctors who conducted the ceremony. For example, at Empandeni a Nyathi man under Chief Tshitshi Mpofu, son of Sindisa, was the spiritual officer.

There were other roles played by Inxwala ceremony. It had spiritual, economic, political, social and historical dimensions all rolled into one. Paramount in the ceremony was the regeneration, revival, rejuvenation of the State and nation as represented by and symbolised through the person of King. The King was the State and the State was the King. He was metaphorically and symbolically the State. Where the regeneration of nation and State was required, he as its personification, was spiritually attended to, in particular through the slaughter of a black virile bull. National unity and loyalty to the King were facilitated through the conduct of the ceremony. For example, in 1872 Mbiko kaMadlenya, chief at Zwangendaba Village did not attend Inxwala in that year. The bone of contention was that the King was of minor ethnic descent, being a son of a Swazi Queen Fulatha Tshabalala, okaMabindela.

Timing for the holding of Inxwala was of the essence. Back then the rains arrived about the month of October. By the time of Inxwala the early ripening crops were ready for consumption, in particular marrows, amakhomane. Indeed, the name of the month, uZibandlela tells a lot about the advance of the agricultural season. Grass then was covering the paths, ukuziba indlela. On the night of the new moon the King went into seclusion. The belief was that when the moon was “dead” the King was vulnerable to malevolent forces. He accordingly withdrew into seclusion to avoid a possible calamity.

Some bitter marrow, uselwa, ungqamungqetshe ikhomane elibabayo was obtained by doctors. By squirting at the sun the King sought to attract solar potency or power. Remember the King was symbolised as the sun the brightest within the solar firmament. The King remained in seclusion till the early morning of the next day when the crescent moon appeared and the nation chanted, “Kholiwe hamba lomkhuhlane!”

As the moon waxes, it increases its potency or power. This is the time when IMfazo II was initiated on 20 March 1896. A concoction comprising milk, and various herbs had been collected for this day, the Day of Umthontiso/iNxwala eNcane. Early, in the morning the King arose and went to stand on the highest ground within the royal town. He dipped his finger into the prepared concoction and got the drops into his mouth and swallowed. Next, he squirted the concoction and squirted at the rising sun.

Mornings signify regeneration; hope for a new day. This, according to Africans, was the opposite of the sunset which, on account of the Law of Opposites, marked the decline in potency. Squirting at the sun was a way of inviting solar potency and the King investing it on his person. The King was symbolised and represented as the sun among his people. The sun above was the heavenly or solar King and the earthly King mediated between his followers and the Solar King.

A virile sacrificial bull, invariably black, was slaughtered and roasted for two days. On the third day it was consumed and at the same time the regiments from the various parts of the country began assembling. A month elapsed before the Major Inxwala was conducted. That will be the subject of the next instalment.

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