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The Lost Kingdom Of The Mambo

The culture and identity of modern Botswana as a whole, and not just communities in the north-east, has its ancient Ikalanga roots.

They run deep in our soil, having nurtured our evolution as an ideally proud and united nation-state.

These roots have, moreover, not simply been grafted on to our nation through the vagaries of colonial boundary making. If one goes back in time to the pre-colonial context, one finds evidence of significant interrelationships between the Bakalanga and Batswana, as well as other neighbouring peoples, to the extent that it is not possible to speak of any southern African community’s history in isolation.

The Bakwena royal names “Sechele” and “Sebele”, for example, are apparently of Ikalanga origin. Does this mean that the Bakwena royalty were once Bakalanga? In terms of patrilineal lineage at least, absolutely not!

But, the convergence of names does suggest more than casual contact, which in local Sekwena tradition can be traced at least as far back as the the mid-18th century reign of Kgosi Motswasele I, who is remembered as a renowned traveller who brought back stories of pale people known as Portuguese as well as the rich lands of the Banyayi to his north-east.

In the coming weeks we will look at some of the historical traditions of the Bakalanga focusing in particular on the fall of first the Chibundule and subsequent Nichasike dynasties, which together ruled the Bakalanga and neighbouring communities over some four centuries altogether, that is from as far back as c. 1450 until 1842. 

The Chibundule dynasty, which was overthrown during the mid-17th century, is associated with the ‘Balilima’ branch of Bakalanga, while the Nichasike or Changamire dynasty that usurped them is associated with the ‘Banyayi’ branch, which prominently incorporates lineages of the Moyo clan.

More broadly, the Bakalanga will in this series be defined to include any and all communities who have historically identified themselves with Ikalanga language and culture. We will not, therefore, be confined to the traditions of so-called pure or ‘dumbu’ lineages.

In the past Ikalanga, like Setswana, speaking communities have been distinguished by their ability to peacefully incorporate outsiders into their ranks. In this respect what our third President Festus Mogae memorably referred to as our modern ‘omelette’ of multi-ethnic identity is a product of many centuries of interaction.

A prominent example of such multiple past identities is Bakalanga bakaNswazwi. For many, the late She John Madawo Nswazwi VIII, who died in exile 1960, has become a post-colonial icon of colonial era Ikalanga self-assertion.

This has been the case notwithstanding the fact that the She’s not too

distant forefathers were Bapedi.

During his reign his followers were thus known to have praised their ancestors in a language that they did not otherwise generally speak.

Unfortunately like so much of our indigenous past, the history of the Bakalanga has been relatively neglected. Even where it is cited in passing its cultural identity is often obscured through the use of such external labels as Butwa, Changamire, Rozwi, and Torwa or Tolwa.

As a result there has been little popular recognition of the accomplishments of either the Chibundule or Nichsike dynasties who for nearly half a millennia successively united and expanded the domain of Bukalanga into what was for many generations southern Africa’s largest and most sophisticated kingdom.

It was a kingdom, moreover, whose military might, based on the possession of firearms was witnessed and undoubtedly to some extent later inspired Motswasele I’s great-great grandson “Ramokonopi” Sechele and as well as a generation of Bangwato royals.

Of the glory of the Bakalanga king’s, who were known by the title ‘Mambo’, let us begin with a sample of a praise poem from the era of the Chibundules. The text below was originally recorded by the late Masola Kumile, with orthography and translation by Professor P.J. Wentzel:

“Zwitetembelo zwa Mambo Chibundule”:

“Inyike yaChibundule wali! Chipwihe lakapwiha hou nenhema; NaZwikono ungapa mbotana; Vunamukuni unoloba nhema ngeganu, Nyati kakuma ngelupa; NaNkami, nkami wedzisina mhulu, Nkami wamapfumba.

“NdizwakaChibundule wali! Chipwihe lakapwiha hou nenhema. Iye Mangula ngonkaka, vule ina nyungula. Mayile hou, mhuka yezebe hulu.

Mbaki wamakomo asingangin”we ngechita. Iye Chibundule wali! Chipwihe lakapwiha hou nenhema.”

“Praises of King Chibundule”

“Indeed it is the country of Chibundule, a refuge which gave shelter to the elephant and rhinoceros, With Zwikono like a calf in comparison.

Vunakmakuni strikes the rhinoceros with a big axe and the buffalo he reaches out to strike with is shaft. And Nkami the milker of those without calves, the milker who milks before the calves have sucked”    

“They are the praises of Chibundule, indeed! The refuge which gave shelter to the elephant and rhinoceros.

He the one who washes milk, Because of the water having tadpoles in it. The one who honours the elephant, the animal of the big ears. The builder of hilltop strongholds that cannot be penetrated by the enemy. He, Chibundule indeed! The refuge which gave shelter to the rhinoceros and the elephant.”

Yet for all of its grandeur the realm of the Mambos was ultimately overrun and shattered in the early nineteenth century.

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