The subject of The Cattle Killing is one of the most baffling and controversial events in African history. In the spring of 1856, a teenaged Xhosa girl called Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha river. On her return, she told Mhlakaza, her uncle who was a diviner, that she had spoken with a group of the ancestors. They had promised that if the Xhosa killed their cattle and burned their crops, British settlers at Cape would be swept into the sea, and the ancestors would return to life, bringing fresh, healthy cattle and abundant stocks of grain. Mhlakaza told this to Sarhili, the senior Chief of the Gcaleka, who believed the prophecy and ordered compliance. No one knows for sure how many cattle were slaughtered – perhaps 60,000, perhaps 400,000.

18 February 1857, the day the prophecy to be fulfilled, nothing happened. In the resulting famine, some three-quarters of the Xhosa population died, while others went to work in the Cape. Nongqawuse herself was arrest by the British and held on Robben Island.

This happened at a time when the Xhosa were weakened by eighty years of wars with the British at the Cape, and when their cattle were suffering from lung sickness, probably imported from Britain. It should be remembered that ancestor worship, prophecy, notions of cleansing through sacrifice, and of the resurrection of the dead, all formed part of Xhosa culture – ideas reinforced by the contact many already had with Christianity. For imbongi Phakamile Yali-Masisi, however, there is no rational explanation of these events. It was “a confusion”, “a sham”, “a curse”, “the plight that ruined us”. Nongqawuse was entirely to blame.

The poem was performed by the imbongi Phakamile Yali-Manisi at Khundulu Location, Transkei, December 18 1970.

Letshitshiba (1)
Le-tshi-tshi-ba
There occurred a problem and a confusion.
It puzzled the land of Phalo. (2)
Woe!
It is perpetual lamentation to generations.
It is death to the observer.
It is a problem that befall the land of Phalo.
That in itself was a sham,
A curse to the land of Xhosa,
For a female to emerge
And proclaim she was addressed by the ancestors,
That she spoke to them in person.
Where were the people of this land?
Where were the great men?
Where were the dignitaries?
Where were the men of experience,
Those who danced while others kept time,
Dancing with their eyes fixed on their oxen.
It happened when this woman spoke
That the Xhosa were the original settlers of this land,
A people with traditions and customs.
They started to prepare themselves to receive.
They proceeded to kill their blameless cattle.
The land of Phalo was covered in greenness,
For the grass was plentiful.
The blameless cattle died.
Their corpses were scattered in the valleys with no one to eat them,
For they were exceedingly fat.
The grain-pits were scraped clean.
The food was taken out and it attracted the hornbills. (3)
The birds stuffed themselves.
The rivers became full when the rains came,
Loaded with the seeds of the lands of Phalo.
The rivers swept away and headed for the sea.
Then the trouble began to appear.
People started to roam about.
The day mentioned by the daughter of Mhlamaza arrived.
The sun rose in the east as usual.
It danced on and on up the arch of the heavens.
When it reached the top of the open sky
The sun appeared in the eyes of the old experienced people as if it would turn back.
But the eyes of these old people played a trick on them,
Because the land was now facing a crisis:
The babies were not crying, they were sobbing.
The sun continued to hobble along.
It was drowsy like the chameleon (4)
Staring at the sycamore tree.
The sun travelled on and sunk down.
Then the people said that the date was wrong:
“Let us see what tomorrow has in store.”
But again the following day
Was just as normal.
The sun arose and disappeared.
Then man began to face a problem.
The chiefs grew perplexed.
The men were stunned.
The women strained their necks,
Complaining that they had difficulty with their babies,
Even though they gave them the breast, they did not grip
Because the breasts would not even ooze blood.
Man died, woman died,
Baby died, old man died,
Chiefs died, councillors died,
The land of Phalon was in trouble.
That is the plight that ruined us.

Here is the original Xhosa:

Letshitshiba
Le-tshi-tshi-ba
Yehla ingxaki nengxubaxaka
Yaxakekis’ umhlaba kaPhalo
Awu
Sisimbonono kwizizukulwana
Kukufa kobukeleyo
Yingxak’ eyehlel’ umhlaba kaPhalo.
Yayilishobo kwaloo nto
Ukuqalekiswa kwesizwe sikaXhosa
Kusuk’ umntw’ ebhinqile
Ath’ uthethile namanyange
Uthethe naw’ ewabonile
Azi babeye phi n’ abantu balo mhlaba
Zaziye phi n’ izigwakumbesha
Zaziye phi n’ izidwangube
Babe phi n’ oogxalaba-libanzi
Ooxhentsa besombelelwa
Bejonge kumaxhag’ eenkomo zabo
Ithe ke kambe yakutheth’ intokazi
Athi kub’ amaXhosa ngabantu bomthonyama
Ingabantu bezithethe namasiku
Basuka bakhongozela basingatha
Bangena kuzw’ iinkomo zabo zingenatyala
Way’ umhlaba kaPhal’ uzel’ uhlaza
Kuba yay’ ingeyongca yayiyibhukazi
Zaf’ iinkomo zingenatyala
Zadunduluza kwintili-ntili zingatyiwa mntu
Kuba yayingengomanqatha yayingamafehle
Zathathw’ izisele zaphokozwa
Kwathathw’ ukutya kwajik’ iintsikizi
Zaqal’ iintaka zadimala
Yazal’ imilambo kwakufik’ imvula
Ilayish’ iinkozo zomhlaba kaPhalo
Yakhukulis’ imilambo yakwelel’ elwandle
Yaqala yavela k’ ingxaki
Basal’ abantu bezibhadu-bhadu
Yafika yon’ imini yentombi ka kaMhlakaza
Laphum ilang’ empumalanga njengesiqhelo
Laya laduda lay’duda kamb’ intungo yamazulu
Lathi lakufik’ esazulwini lesibhakabhaka
Langa lingangaphethuka ngokukhangela kwamanyange
Kulokw’ amanyang’ ayeseqhathan’ ukukhangela ngenkozo zamehlo
Kuba lo mhlaba wawusowuxakekile
Zingakhal’ iintsana zijweda
Lesuka lon’ ilanga langcambaza
Lacubhuka laxel’ ilovane
Lijonge kuw’ umthi wekhiwane.
Lahamb’ ilanga laya lee zozolo lo
Bath’ abantu nokw’ iphazamekile le mini
Masikhangel’ ingoma’ ukuba lozala ntoni na
Yesuka yon’ imini yengomso
Kwayona yanjengesiqhelo
Laya lavel’ ilanga laya lakusithela
Wesuk’ umntu waqala waxakeka
Zath’ iinkosi zaziimbunyenge
Ath’ amadod’ aziinyobololo
Bay’ abafazi betsazis’ imixhadi
Besith’ iintsana zibaxakile
Baba ngafak’ iintlonz’ azibambeleli
Kuba nakwiintlonz’ akusatsitsi negazi
Kwaf’ indoda kwaf’ umfazi
Kwaf’ usana kwaf’ ixhego
Kawf’ iinkoso kwaf’ iiduna
Waxakeka umhlaba kaPhalo
Yiyo leyo ke le ngxaki yasenzakalisayo.

from Imbongi Nezibongo: the Xhosa Tribal Poet
and the Contemporary Poetic Tradition
,
Jeff Opland,
(PMLA 90, 1975) 200-202


Footnotes

  1. A common formula, calling for attention.
  2. Phalo ka Tshiwo was paramount chief of the Xhosa from 1736 to his death in 1775. The “land of Phalo” is shorthand for the Xhosa nation.
  3. Hornbills, common in South Africa, will eat anything, and on this occasion “stuffed themselves”.
  4. At the first creation, Chameleon was instructed by God to carry the message to mankind that they would never die. However, he was too slow. Hare (or in other versions, Lizard) overtook him, carrying the opposite message. Chameleons have been taunted ever since for their drowsiness.