Mmegi Blogs :: Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘dombo’ and ‘shaba’
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Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘dombo’ and ‘shaba’

Though in this column I have concentrated mostly on the linguistic roots of the Sotho-Tswana language group, Bantu languages comprise the larger language family wherein such language groups relate discernibly to each other and follow very similar grammar and syntax.
By L M Leteane Fri 08 Jul 2016, 15:29 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Tracing the linguistic roots of terms ‘dombo’ and ‘shaba’

Kalanga, a language spoken principally by the Bakalanga people of southern Africa, is what we will be showcasing this week in light of two principal proto-terms, dombo and shaba.

A proto-term, according to my still-expanding, not-yet-published Dictionary of Protolanguage Terms, is a word or morpheme that harks back to a now-lost universal mother-language that, just as alleged by Genesis 11, we once all spoke as recently as the Neolithic era.

To show that Kalanga is replete with such proto-terms, I will concentrate on a single evocative term that not only combines dombo and shaba, but is the very pride and embodiment of Kalanga history and culture.

Domboshaba Hill is situated in North East district of Botswana, off Sebina village and some 10 kilometres before Masunga where there is a turn to the hill.

Within the hill area there are some impressive ruins consisting mainly of ‘dry’ (i.e. mortar-less) stone walls, which are the unique architectural signature of the Banyayi-Bakalanga Empire and civilisation which stretched from as far north as the Khami Ruins near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

The ruins appear to have been occupied towards the end of the Great Zimbabwe period (1250-1450AD), principally by the Great Chief or Mambo of Bakalanga. Indeed, they are very similar to the Great Zimbabwe or Mwanamutapa ruins. The Mambo’s residence was located at the top of the hill while his wives resided in enclosed structures on the valley closer to the foothills.

Both the hills and the ruins are major historic sites replete with a rich historical background of the Bakalanga people. Unsurprisingly, the area is the site of the annual Domboshaba cultural festival that showcases the unique culture of the Bakalanga.

Dombo means ‘hill’ in both Kalanga and Shona while shaba means ‘red’ or ‘trade’. Artefacts found there (most of which are now housed and exhibited at the National Museum in Gaborone for preservation) indeed suggest that Domboshaba was linked to the Eastern coast trade network stretching as far away as Mozambique, as excavations there have revealed imported Chinese porcelain goods, which delicate items are thought to have been gifts for the Mambo.

It is this interconnectedness that I now treat in terms of language and thus demonstrate that with a little research and much intuition, one can still link Kalanga proto-terms even to Indo-European …something conventional linguists thought to be improbable. 

Let us now look more closely at the proto-term dombo (‘hill’). Fundamentally, it means ‘something that rises above everything else’. With typical Setswana hardening, it is tompo – as in tompola (a swelling or protrusion on the skin). The term relates to the English word ‘dome’.

The actual base word, as Indo-European clarifies, is indeed dom, and the annexure mba /mpa (‘become like, make happen’) is an ancient suffix that relates well to the Indo-European


suffixes ‘mber’ and ‘mper’, as in re-mem-mber, the base word, here, being ‘mem’ as in ‘memory’.

The suffix, through frequent usage, then permanently attached itself to the base word dom and spawned many words like ‘dump’ – where rubbish piles up high.

Since a ‘pile-up’ is often naturally dome-like, i.e. curved at the top, this further shifted to ‘ball’ (which is also curved, but all around) and thus ‘dumb-bells’ are heavy, ball-like weights for use in the gym, and a ‘dumpling’ is ‘a ball of steamed and seasoned dough often served in soup or with stewed meat’. 

Another connotation of dombo, also a semantic shift, is ‘higher/greater than the rest’ – which nuance comes from the elevated nature of a hill as compared to its surroundings. Thus, historically, to distinguish themselves from other tribes that fled the mfecane and other such disturbances further south – for example, the Pedi tribes that were later assimilated into Kalanga language and culture – those of Kalanga-Shona extraction called themselves ‘Bakalanga-dombo’, i.e. the ‘authentic’ or ‘greater’ Kalangas, although this is now, of course, not ‘politically-correct’ as the general zeitgeist in Botswana has shifted considerably over the past 50 years.

Finally, as relates to dombo, let us distinguish its etymology from the English word ‘dumb’ (‘silent, unable to speak’).

Here, its morphemesare tu (silent) +  mba (as discussed above) and we can trace tu to as far back as the ancient Sumerian settlement of Eridu…reputedly the very first of the post-Flood era. (Sumer, now modern Iraq, was the first such civilization to arise in the early Neolithic era, some 10 000 years ago. Note: the Flood date here is 13 000 years ago, not 4300 years ago.) Researcher Zecharia Sitchin translates ‘Eridu’ as ‘[Lonely] Place in Faraway Built’. Not bad…but we can easily see that E-re-tu! means ‘It stands silent [and lonely]’.

Turning now to shaba, I will concentrate on its alternative meaning as ‘trade’. Indeed, in Setswana, shaba means ‘share with’ and that is exactly what trading entails. To what Indo-European terms can we relate this Kalanga word? There is a semantic path it follows that can nevertheless be unbundled.

The term is based on morphemes se (‘of, related to’) and huba (‘prominent, central’), as in mo-hubu (herniated belly-button that protrudes outward).

Thus, dombo and shaba are, primordially, an iteration. So, how does ‘trade’ and ‘sharing’ come in? A ‘hub’, the English equivalent, is literally ‘a great place’, i.e. a ‘chief’ or ‘central’ place where people meet…‘trade’, of course, being the likely preoccupation in a place like that.

Similarly, when people share a meal, they congregate around a table or a bowl, such that it becomes a hub of sorts. Any other perceived meanings spin off from this primordial meaning. Comments to

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Digging Tswana Roots
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