Ukwehla Ngesilulu: Origination in KwaZulu-Natal
The story of the Tree of Life
Our folklore tells us that in the beginning there was ‘Nothing’ which existed in the darkness. The mating of ‘Time River’ and ‘Nothing’ created a sparkle which fled in the quest for its own identity. The sparkle grew bigger and bolder as it fled, and devoured ‘Nothingness’. The River Time then sent out Spirit Cold to fight the flame. They fought intensely, causing white ash to fall down. From the ash emerged the Great Goddess called ‘Ma’. The Great Spirit, ‘Nkulunkulu’, created the Universe and used ‘Ma’ under His direction. ‘Ma’ was granted a companion, a kind of being that was half plant and half animal, the Tree of Life. They married, mated and the first human population was born in the Kalahari. The Tree of Life grew leaves and fruit that dropped seeds onto the earth which sprouted into forestry. From its roots then emerged birds and animals of many sorts. The earth gained life and the song of life began.
We are told that this first human population had no hair and they were all the same with a red-coloured skin tone. They got infected by negative desires and ambition that forced their parents to destroy them. The second population emerged out the few of the first people that had survived. The evil spirit promised them a new life of plenty, luxury and peace. More evil prevailed. ‘The Tree of Life’ set out to destroy once again. ‘Ma’ pleaded with the ‘Tree of Life’ to save at least two of the second people. As their city sank beneath the seas in destruction two figures emerged joyfully riding on the back of a fish-like figure moving towards the rising sun blessed by the Goddess Mother ‘Ma’ and the ‘Tree of Life’.
The creation of Nguni groups
History has it that the indigenous people of the south (of Africa) originated from the north in the forests along the Nile river in Egypt. According to oral historian Senzo “Maswidi” Mkhanyiseni Mbatha as far as he knows the first black person that we hear of is ‘Ntu’, the ancestor of all African people. The plural noun ‘abantu’ is a result of Ntu’s name being used in plural form to categorise his descendants. Ntu was a descendant of Yeye of Godongwana, descendant of Hhamu of Ishmael otherwise known as Abraham who had fathered him to his slave Hagayi. Ntu and his offspring then spread towards the centre of Africa, towards countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and others. By this time they were already led by Mnguni the descendant of Gumede, who was a descendant of Qwabe who also descended from Lufenulwenja of Ntu. Through further movement they then separated into amaNguni and abeSuthu. On penetrating the South of Africa, abeSuthu divided into three groups i.e. abeSuthu of Mshweshwe, amaPedi and amaTswana.
AmaNguni divided into five groups, i.e. amaNguni, amaMbo, amaNtungwa Nguni, amaLala Nguni, amaDebe Nguni and amaThonga. All these were the descendants of the sons of Mnguni. A development of a new group of amaSwazi emerged from amaMbo. Under amaNtungwa a group of amaZulu emerged. Under amaDebe then emerged amaBhaca while amaThonga remained a separate group. AmaLala then gave birth to the Mthwethwa kinship group. The amaNtungwa Nguni were led by Luzimane of Mnguni when they came from these central African countries. They now inhabit areas like Babanango, Nkandla, Msinga, etc. Meanwhile amaMbo and the other groups moved along the coast towards the Bombo, Swazini, Ngwavuma, etc.
Mbatha summarizes Ntu’s lineage as follows:
Ntu Lufenulwenja Mnguni GumedeQwabe Mnguni Luzimane MalandelaQwabe and Zulu.
Zulu’s lineage can be noted as follows:
ZuluPhungaMageba NdabaJamaSenzangakhona and Sojiyisa.
Senzangakhona fathered Shaka, Sgujana, Dingane and Mpande.
It is from the latter that we notably hear of the rise of the Zulu Kingdom as led by King Shaka kaSenzangakhona.
The movement of the descendants of ‘Ntu’.
During the separation of these kinship groups isilulu played a pivotal role. ‘Isilulu’ is a hand crafted boat-like creation made out of reeds and wood stalks woven together in the same manner as one would create a basket. Its original use was to carry and store harvested vegetation on the homestead. It was therefore crafted and placed in a place higher than the rest of the homesteads. It is also called inqolobane, that which facilitated the movement of the people in the same functionality as a ‘flowing boat’ when people crossed rivers and streams to their next destinations.
It appears that the common pattern of movement from the all the groups followed rivers and streams as they not only provided water for the flock, but also guaranteed fertile ground for livestock and agriculture. The rivers and the streams however also acted as a route that could be used when relocating. This is concept most referred to as ukwehla ngesilulu (descending through the isilulu).
Imbongi James Mbhele together with Imbongi “Mehlwemamba” Ntuli take us explain how izibongo of amaNtuli demonstrate the role of isilulu in their kinship group:
OSelulamthwalo osinda amadoda,
OGwabini, Ogogide kaNdlela,
Yithi esehla ngesilulu, (we are the ones who came down using isilulu)...”
In the history of amaBhele, Sompisi and Ndlela rode on isilulu when they fled iLenge. Unlike the common ways in which the isilulu was used where people would descend a meandering river or a stream, Sompisi and Ndlela are believed to have slid down the side of the mountain iLenge, seated on isilulu as they ran away from Sphalaphala.
Sphalaphala had fathered Sompisi who then begat Ndlela whose son was Gwabini. It is said that Sphalaphala had started finding pleasure in devouring human flesh. Sompisi then took his son, Ndlela, and fled. They descended the mountain on the isilulu and made their way towards Mzinyathi where they sought a portion of land from Senzangakhona and planted their own homestead away from Sphalaphala.
On approaching the royal house with their herds of cattle, Inkosi uShaka answered to an enquiry regarding the ‘cloud of dust’ approaching as that of ‘Ntuli’ (meaning dust). From then Sompisi and Ndlela of the amaBhele were referred to as amaNtuli. Mbhele and Ntuli are thus related.
The Reed of All Nations
Is the story of the two figures who were saved by Great Goddess mother ‘Ma’ a remaking of the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve? Perhaps it was Ntu and his unnamed companion who were saved. Whatever the answers are, the story tells us we are here as a result of some form of human creation. However complex the messages embedded within these histories and myths, they form part of our indigenous knowledge. We learn from them to honour, respect and embrace our past, history and present as part of our heritage. To date, the most revered deity throughout Africa is the Tree of Life otherwise referred to as Uhlanga LweZizwe; the Reed of All Nations.
“…[I]t is through these stories that we are able to reconstruct the past of the Bantu of Africa,” Credo Mutwa once stated.
Musa Hlatshwayo is a performing artist and choreographer based in Durban. He holds a BA (Hons) in Performance Studies from UKZN.