Keeping family history alive

2009-07-23 00:00

TRACING your ancestors or creating a family tree is a relatively simple matter when one lives in a society where key moments in the life of an individual, such as birth, marriage and death, are written down and recorded as a matter of course. But how do you go about constructing a family tree in a society where, especially in times past, written records were not kept.

In societies, such as that of the Zulu, with an oral tradition, the significant events in a life are also recorded but in different form.

For a Zulu wishing to create a family tree the first port of call is izithakazelo — the clan praise. “For the Zulu people this is a source that can tell them who they are, where they come from, and what are the major incidents — positive and negative — that occurred to them as a tribe or a nation,” says Ndela Ntshangase, lecturer at the School of Zulu Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

Ntshangase points out that the Zulu people are made up of different tribes and clans. “Izithakazelo provide an abbreviated history of the clan,” he says. “For example, the Mkhize izithakazelo will mention the leaders and their great, great forefathers. And they will name them, such as Gcwabe being the forefather of Khabezela. Khaba Mkhize, the well-known journalist, takes his first name from this forefather.”

Another Mkhize ancestor detailed in the izithakazelo is Zihlandlo. “He was a hero during the days of King Shaka,” says Ntshangase. “He was a soldier and we know that he was physically very fit, very brave, and that he killed many enemy soldiers. So we know not only his name, but we also know incidents connected with him.”

Izithakazelo also reveal places associated with a particular clan. “For example, Wena wasembo — tells us that such-and-such lived or lives at the place of Embo. So izithakazelo are able to give us details of forefathers, of names and of places.”

Every Zulu family has its own izithakazelo and these are passed on whenever there is a ceremony marking a significant event in the life of that family. “When welcoming a newborn baby in an imbeleko ceremony, someone will do izithakazelo, usually an elderly person, umkhulu (grandfather) or ubaba (the father), and ugogo (the grandmother) will do this only if there is no elderly male person in the family. It’s not taught formally but passed on by being repeated in rituals and ceremonies.”

Izithakazelo will differ slightly according to the branches of a particular clan or family. “The izithakazelo of the Dlaminis will be similar. They all come from Dlamini but they have settled in different places. So the branch histories will be different.”

With the rise of literacy and with many Zulu people now living in an urban setting there is move from an oral tradition to a written tradition. “This is in full swing,” says Ntshangase. “The Mkhizes have traced themselves back over many generations and they have written books. They trace themselves back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Ntshangase can recite his forefathers’ names and they take his roots back to the early 19th century. And it’s not just forefathers. “The mothers’ names are also remembered,” he says. “Ma- is added as a prefix, so a mother’s surname does not disappear.”

A woman born to the Khumalo clan will be commonly addressed as MaKhumalo ­after marriage and a woman with the maiden clan name Zondi will be known to all her new in-laws as MaZondi.

A woman’s history will be told, for example, when a ceremony is performed to mark the moment a bride leaves her family home. “If a Cele marries a Sithole, when leaving the Cele home someone will tell who she is, where she came from. If she was born out of wedlock and she has taken her mother’s name the person reciting the izithakazelo will use her mother’s name, her biological father’s name too will be revealed publicly — this is information that is necessary, so that her children don’t ­marry into that family because they are close relatives.”

“In that ceremony you hear a family tree with all the names plus the praise names — izibongo — these praises let you know what type of person that was. The system is a complex one and still alive. It’s one way of retaining the genealogy of a particular family coupled with an abbreviated history of the clan or family as well.”

Izibongo or Izihasho are the praise ­poems of a particular individual, says ­Ntshangase. “King Goodwill Zwelethini has his bard, his imbongi, who will sing his izibongo that contain details of his special characteristics as an individual. King Shaka had his izibongo that told you what sort of person he was and how he was seen by the Zulu people.”

Ntshangase says that the izibongo sung for Jacob Zuma prior to his inauguration as president provided much information to those who speak and understand Zulu. “It mentioned his recent difficulties, it spoke of his character and there were also things we hadn’t heard before. Some of us learnt these things for the first time because they were in the izibongo performed at the inauguration.”

Related articles:

Ancestry website

7 steps to researching your family history

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