At the beginning of the 19th century, the Banyayi Kingdom under the rule of the Nichasike dynasty remained the largest and probably wealthiest indigenous state in southern Africa.
Yet by 1840s it had virtually ceased to exist. Its fall came as a result of a series of invasions by external groups, beginning with various Batswana groups united under the leadership of the Bangwato Kgosi Kgari and culminating in the conquest of the core areas of the kingdom by the Amandebele of Nkosi Mzilakazi.
Ikalanga traditions connect this calamity to the failure of the next to last of the Banyayi kings, Mambo Chilisamhulu II Nichasike, to appropriately appease the protector god Mwali (or Mwari). It is not clear, however, whether the Mambo in fact failed to pay proper homage to the Mwali priests, as alleged, or that the story subsequently emerged to provide a cosmological explanation for the kingdom’s fall.
Certain traditions are also suggestive, though by no means conclusive, of the existence of disputes over governing authority between the Mambo and some of his regional overlords, such as the guardian of the south-western frontier, Tumbale, and the Nswazwi leader, Ntsope.
If the Mambo’s authority was being eroded prior to 1840, it may have also been due to his declining role as a middleman in the movement of gold and other commodities to the trading ports of East Africa. Although incomplete, available statistics make it clear that there was a steady decline in this trade between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Whereas up to 1, 500 kilograms of gold was annually exported to the Portuguese ports at the time of the first Nichasike (along with up to 160,000 kilograms ivory), in 1806 the recorded figure was only 51 kilograms gold.
According to Ikalanga traditions and other evidence, Mwali belief amongst the Bakalanga is a relatively recent phenomenon. The religion is said to have originated amongst the Venda (Ikalanga: Bavezha), who introduced it to the Banyayi. It was the 17th and 18th century Banyayi kings who, in turn, promoted the belief throughout much of Zimbabwe and northeastern Botswana.
These accounts differ from some other Chishona traditions that connect belief in Mwali to an earlier supposed migration of the Mbire clan or tribe from east Africa, as well as the Great Zimbabwe civilisation.
Ikalanga traditions of Mwali being brought from Venda are, however, consistent with the genealogies of the Lubimba priests of the principal Mwali shrine at Njelele in the Matopos. The following Ikalanga passage records the migration into Bukalanga from the Venda of the Lubimba, along with the related Honyedzepasi and Sabhaswi clans:
“Ngono ibabo banhu bakaLubimba bakaswika muno, bebvabo kuBuvezha. Ndibo bakaha naMwali muxango ino Bukalanga. Ndibo bakaLubimba bakaMwali unkulu- Bavezha. Bakaswika muxango ino bakwana kubusa Mambo Nichasike
Translation: “Now the people of Lubimba arrived coming from the Venda country. They were the ones who came with Mwali into the Bakalanga country. They were of Lubimba’s of the great Mwali- they were Venda. They arrived in this country and found that King Nichasike ruled over the Bakalanga country. So they entered under King Nichasike and were ruled by him, being his subjects. Those of Lubimba arrived together with those of Honyedzepasi and those of Sabhaswi. They were the clans, which came with Mwali. Their chief priest was Sabhaswi. Another was [according to some sources his son] Npininga, the grandfather of Jenje. The first shrine to Mwali after his coming was built at the mountain called Chizeze to the east of Zamanyoni. The second shrine was that of Njelele. The third that of Chibale; a mountain to the south side of Zamanyoni.”
According to the same traditions Nichasike, who honoured the new god through the annual offering of gifts, built all of the first Mwali shrines. In return Mwali, through his priests, became the King’s main advisor:
“Nichasike wakabe ehwilila Mwali kwazwo; chimwe nechimwe chinolebwa ndiMwali, Nichasike echihwilila kachiyeta. Kene etuma banhu babe bakachiyeta kene kuli kunondiwa, bakayenda belibilidza, beziba kuti batumwa ndiMwali. Ngono nayiye Mwali kaunkudzabo kwazwo-kwazwo Mambo Nichasike, kaunpa masimba ogwa kakunda dzimwe njudzi. Nichasike kawana maha hulu kwazwo ngentha yaMwali, kawana phuti, kayitengesegwa ngemaChihu (Putugezi). Ndibo banhu bakabe tendeleka muna yino xango, betengesa zwinhu, kene nhundu dzabo.
Translation: “Nichasike was very obedient to Mwali; everything spoken by Mwali was obeyed and acted upon by Nichasike. When he was sending his people they did as was spoken by Mwali and when they travelled they made haste knowing that Mwali had sent them. But also he, Mwali, honoured King Nichasike very much, giving him the power to fight and conquer other tribes. Nichasike enjoyed great luck due to Mwali; he found a gun, which was sold to him by the Portuguese. They were the people moving about in this country selling things.”
The Kingdom was thus said to be enjoying peace and prosperity when, c. 1826, Mwali warned Mambo Nichasike of the coming of the Barwa (Batswana) of Kgari.