African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Shaka

Praises of King Mphande Zulu

Mphande kaSenzangakhona, Zulu king (1840-72), was half-brother to both Shaka (1816-28) and Dingane (1828-40). When Dingane assassinated Shaka in 1828, and seized the throne, Mphande survived the general massacre of Senzangakona’s descendants, a sign of Dingane’s contempt. But after Dingane’s catastrophic defeat by the Boers in 1838 at the Battle of Blood River, Mphande refused to join his half-brother in an attack on the Swazi, instead leading thousands of Zulus into the neighbouring Boer republic of Natalia. The Boers then moved again against Dingane, defeating him at the battle of Maqongqo in 1840, and effectively installing Mphande as king. Dingane was murdered shortly afterwards. It would be wrong to read too much into this. This was long before the days of apartheid, and the Boers then were little different from the other marauding groups – Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Gaza – raiding each other for cattle, land and people. Historians, including Zulu historians, are divided as to whether Mphande was a reluctant king, hating the responsibilities of power, or whether he was a smart operator, successfully manipulating the forces against him in a dangerous world. This izibongo credits him with destroying many Sotho and Swazi enemies, but capable of being smart, as in the incident with the Boers’ cattle. The following poem was recorded & translated by James Stewart, a magistrate in colonial Zululand from 1888. He spoke fluent Zulu and assembled a vast archive of oral recordings, indispensable to modern researchers. The imbongi’s name is unknown.

Mdayi make reply to the land across:
Who is he that can dare to summon Mdayi?…

Lament (Ngoni)

An Ngoni song from northern Malawi, sung at girls’ initiation ceremonies. The Ngoni were driven into exile by Shaka Zulu’s conquests, and this song presents Shaka’s achievements from the point of view of people who suffered from them.

Zwide was the chief of the Ndwandwe whom Shaka defeated in 1818 (see the poem Shaka). Soshangane, who established his own kingdom in southern Mozambique, was originally one of Zwide’s generals. See also the poem The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows.

It is because of Zwide, chief of the Soshangane people
That though I lie down I cannot sleep…

The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows

A lament by Sotho women, said to date from the time of Shaka Zulu’s wars. There are different versions of this song in several southern Africa languages, presenting Shaka’s achievements from the perspective of those who suffered from them.

Weakened and weeping, I remain among the ruins.
Weakened and weeping, I remain amid trackless plains…

Praises of Mzilikazi

Mzilikazi was one of the chiefs who came to prominence in Natal in the 1820s, in reaction to the area’s growing trade in slaves. Shaka (see Shaka’s Praises) was the most important of these, and when Mzilikazi clashed with him in 1822, he led a small group of warriors on an 800km trek, finally settling at Bulawayo in what is now western Zimbabwe. See also The Song of the Assegai and Praises of Lobengula.

The Nbebele version of the Praises of Mzilikazi is inscribed on the plaque marking his grave. The name of the Imbongi or praise-poet is not known. The English translation is by C.K. Cooke.

The varicoloured one with a black mouth, praised in tears of men.
Our short one whose bunches of cats’ skins may not be trampled…


Three extracts from the long Zulu Praise-Poem about Shaka, the Zulu king. Shaka succeeded Dingiswayo as head of the Zulu clan in 1818: by the time of his assassination by Dingane in 1828, he had become King of the Zulu nation.


A Zulu Praise-Poem, in praise of Ndaba, Shaka’s great-grandfather and the first Zulu king.

Ndaba, son of Sonani, they say ‘What wrong did he do?’
Since the people are living with their herds

African Poems