An African Experience

Ezra Azra

Copyright 2023 by Ezra Azra

Photo by John Mic on Unsplash
Photo by John Mic on Unsplash

In my seven teen years, I grew up on the family farm, a few miles inland from the Ifafa Beach train station on the east coast of the Province of Natal in South Africa.

The Umtwalume River ran through our farm on its way to the town of Umtwalume on the east coast. For a few years, I attended school in the Town of Umtwalume. I remember two teachers. Daniel Lubbe and Gilbert Goldstone. Gilbert Goldstone's farm was next to ours.

Once a year, during the annual vacation month of July, a troupe of story-telling African women minstrels would visit the farms, entertaining farm families. They spent only two nights on a farm. They were welcomed everywhere. Nobody seemed to know when and where this annual event was started. Everybody agreed the beginning happened before the present generation.

The leader of the troupe was a tall woman named Lwerng. Sometimes she hinted that they were around during Zulu King Shaka's time. King Shaka was assassinated in his home by followers of his half-brother, Dingane, in 1828.

In the years I knew the troupe, Lwerng was the only member that returned every year.

The players accepted food and clothing in payment. The story-telling included chanting, drum-playing, and dancing. Members of the troupe used many languages. The audience was free to join in, with its own languages.

There was so much fun in those events, I wasn't the only teen that had serious thoughts about joining the troupe.

They discovered quite by accident, how to be invisible; not really; just a trick of magic; must have been.

It worked with four persons. A particular grouping instantly made the four invisible. This ability was especially valuable when the troupe encountered people who did not like them. It was spectacularly entertaining to see instruments being played by players who were invisible.

When they were invisible, they were not intangible. And, so, although animals could not see them, animals could smell their presence. Hence, even while invisible, they were still vulnerable to poisonous snakes, and predators like lions and mosquitoes.

Every year there were some new stories. They repeated stories if the audience requested. Since they did not have their stories written, their repetitions were never the same; not in words, not in instrument accompaniment, not in accompanying actions and gestures and songs.

One favourite request was about their origin in the time of Zulu King Shaka. They welcomed this request especially because it gave them opportunity to tell of their belief in how they came by the invention to render themselves invisible.

Before the time of Shaka, there was no Zulu nation; there were many independent Negroid African tribes, all of the Nguni race, living in what later became known as Zululand, in South Africa.

Senzangakhona was a Chief of one of the smaller tribes. By Nguni custom, he had many wives. All men were allowed many wives. Senzangakhona was reluctantly obliged to accept Shaka's mother, Nandi, as his last wife because he had made her pregnant before she was formally accepted as one of his wives.

He treated her disrespectfully in that, first, when her father had approached Senzangakhona about accepting his daughter as a wife, the Chief ridiculed her father by saying his daughter was in a false pregnancy. It was believed that false pregnancies were caused by an insect, iShaka, that entered the body.

Second, when the baby was born, Senzangakhona was obliged to take Nandi as a wife.

Third, he disparagingly named the boy, Shaka.

Fourth, he relegated mother and son to living quarters among his other wives, as far away from his home as possible.

Fifth, the worst of all disgraces among the Nguni, the Chief had no other children by Shaka's mother.

Shaka's childhood was miserable. He was an outcast taunted, shunned, bullied by all the other many 'legitimate' sons of Senzangakhona by his other wives.

Homicidal anger in Shaka served him well in that it made him a fearless hunter. He won the respect of Dingiswayo, a Chief of a major Nguni tribe, when he killed a lion and presented the trophy to Dingiswayo.

Never in the history of the Nguni people had any Chief been so honoured. Dingiswayo rewarded Shaka by making him the leader of a regiment of warriors.

Under Shaka's leadership, his regiment won every encounter in the many minor wars among the Nguni. When Senzangakhona died of natural causes, Dingiswayo overrode all Nguni custom by bypassing all Senzangakhona's other sons, and giving the Chieftainship to Shaka.

When Dingiswayo died in battle, Shaka took over Dingiswayo's tribe, and went to war against all tribes that disputed his leadership. Shaka never lost a war. By military force, he unified all the Nguni into one nation he called AmaZulu. The word Zulu means Heaven.

More than all his unique achievements, the most everlastingly puzzling fact about Shaka Zulu as a Nguni Chief, was that although it is reported he built homes for nearly two-thousand women acknowledged to be his wives, he never had children. There is nobody living in whom Shaka Zulu's DNA lives.

Tradition claims he was assassinated by his half-brother's accomplices. This claim can never be accepted as fact because, first, there were no impartial witnesses. The claim is that the murder took place at a fireside where Shaka and about three others got drunk.

Second, his body was never found. Down through generations, many guesses have been offered about what transpired at that fireside drunken party.

Here is the guess the Lwerng troupe repeated at their annual performance to us at Ifafa.

Lwerng claimed that after his drunken fireside buddies had inadvertently killed their Chief in a drunken brawl, they fled in fear, perhaps even not knowing he had been fatally wounded. Shaka's lifeless body was discovered by his servant women; they immediately spirited it away.

To this very day in the twenty-first century, traditional Zulu tribal medicine promotes belief in the healing benefits and other miraculous effects gained from eating human living organs, especially when the organs are still living-warm.

Lwerng believed that one of the miraculous benefits gained by the servants of those Shaka women who carried their King's body into oblivion, was how to be invisible. Those women knew that when Shaka's mother, Nandi, died a year earlier, all her living women servants, by Nguni custom, were buried alive with her corpse. Shaka's women servants could expect no different fate if Shaka's corpse were found, to be given official burial. And, so, either, the women servants ate the body, or disposed of it in another way that has never been discovered.

The Lwerng troupe always opened with the story about the beginning of life on this world.

This world was like all others in the infinite universe in that it was just a thing of rocks and soil and air and water. There was no life on it.

Living Creatures arrived from the stars, and thoroughly loved living here. In time, they created vegetation, which was their kind of life, except that the vegetation here did not move about freely. The Living Creatures seemed not to be able to imbue vegetation with locomotive abilities. They were working on it.

And then, at a time when some of them were playing about with mud at a riverside, a mud-shape became animal life. Which particular animal it was, has been lost.

The Living Creatures were excited, and very much moreso as they became aware the mud-animal living things were developing the ability to make changes in themselves, without the help of the Living Creatures. And they had acquired locomotive abilities. The Living Creatures were in awe. And so the world of countless animal life forms came about.

At the beginning, humans were just another mud-shape that came alive with many, many others.

For thousands and thousands of years, all animals thrived in peace, their numbers increasing. And then, just as inexplicably as mud became living, some mud-animals began eating other mud-animals!

The original Living Creatures were utterly disgusted, and frightened! Eating was unknown in their way of existence.

They discussed the matter among themselves. They had to admit, sadly, that they were at a loss to understand the distasteful eating-evolution of mud-life.

They considered their option to destroy all life that had come from mud. They rejected that option because destruction of any kind was not in their nature.

They decided to abandon Earth. They did. They have never returned.

The last year the Lwerng troupe visited our farm was our last year on the farm. It was sold to the Sugar Cane Company, Reynold Brothers. We did not know it would be the last visit. Had we known, we would not have been so happy when Obed Oliver, my cousin, two years older than me, asked permission to join the troupe.

To our family, Obed's request was a most natural part of his life.

First, he was the only Leap Year person in the family, from forever. Lwerng herself was momentarily speechless in awe when she was told this by Obed's mother, Ruth. Lwerng could barely whisper her observation that King Shaka, too, was a Leap Year person.

Second, frequently, in the process of a conversation, Obed would speak in language that was unknown to him and to everybody else. It was not always in the same unknown language.

Animals and insects stayed away from Obed. This was surprising if only because Obed never ate meat.

Sometimes, unexpectedly, Obed would slowly rise above the ground. He said it felt as if he was being sucked upwards. The hair on his head would be drawn to stand straight upward. He wore his head hair long, down to cover his ears. It would happen sometimes when he was walking along in the company of others. During farm chores, we were always careful to have Obed do chores that did not require sharp tools. If there were animals around, they would run away from Obed at those times.

I never saw Obed again after that last year. Some family members kept track of the Lwerng troupe, and would travel to celebrate with them, annually. They reported Obed was an especially valuable troupe member because his presence guaranteed their safety from wild animals such as poisonous snakes, and predators like lions and mosquitoes.

And, too, Obed Oliver was being most successful as a drummer, dancer, singer. Visibly and invisibly.

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