Ndebele Praise poetry (Izibongo Zamakhosi) is poetry that developed as a way of preserving the history of a clan by narrating how it was founded and what its outstanding achievements were. The praises centred on the leader of the clan. As the clans grew into tribes, it was the leader of the tribe who became prominent and hence his praises were sung.
In the Nguni tradition, to which the Ndebele belong, a special person called the Imbongi recited the praises of the leader of the tribe or chief and later of the king. The task of the imbongi was to narrate the leader's history and focus on his role in the formation of that tribe or nation, hence the poem is referred to as Izibongo Zamakhosi (King's praises). The imbongi salutes the king and addresses him directly referring to him through images that highlight his bravery, skills, greatness and other positive attributes. Praise poetry uses images drawn from the local environment and from the universe. The following praises of King Mzilikazi illustrate this point:
The owner of many books son of Matshobana
Where did you disappear to, Black Rod
That beats cattle and men?
You the big elephant of the forests,
Whereas other elephants leave a trail,
You do not leave even the smallest trail.
You the lion of the forests!
Whereas other lions can be tracked,
But this one of the Khumalo
Moved across without leaving a scent
All men are surprised
And even the 'white dogs' are surprised
About where you disappeared to, Khumalo
You who is as big as the earth you are big news.
You refused to be captured by foreigners
You chose to die a free man
Your grave shall be known by your ancestors only, you who is as big as the earth!
The most significant thing about Lobengula's praises is the reference to "owner of many books". This reference is historical as Lobengula was involved in signing so many treaties with white people that his people regarded him as a man of books. During his reign he captured both men and cattle from the tribes that lay outside his kingdom hence the reference to "the black rod that beat cattle and men". He is described as both an elephant and a lion, the king of the forest. The imbongi continues to give his audience hope for the future by implying that the people must emulate their king who refused to be colonised and chose to die a free man: by emphasising his ability to escape from being captured by the enemy, thus giving this event an heroic interpretation.
In short, for anybody to enjoy and appreciate Ndebele praise poetry it is necessary for them to know Ndebele history. The images that the imbongi uses, although derived from the local environment and the universe, are used in accordance with the role played by the king in the history of his nation. They can only be appreciated and seen to make sense if one has knowledge of that history.
T. Matshakayile-Ndlovu teaches in the Dept of African Languages at the University of Zimbabwe. He may be contacted by e-mail on email@example.com