isiZulu inspiration

2017-07-30 05:51
Thenjiwe Mswane explores Zulu folklore and idioms in her book

Thenjiwe Mswane explores Zulu folklore and idioms in her book

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Phumlani S Langa

Uyasabeka by Thenjiwe Mswane



You may recall the name Thenjiwe Mswane from last year’s #FeesMustFall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Mswane is an anthropology student. For her master’s thesis she chose as her subject matter the decolonising of the literary landscape, especially isiZulu.

The 27-year-old student activist taught herself to read and write Zulu because her school offered the language only in grades 5, 6 and 7.

Having learnt about her culture from every source she could lay her hands on, Mswane has now written and self-published a book that captures the beauty of this language.

Titled Uyasabeka, the book comprises a mix of isiZulu crosswords and eight short stories. It is aimed at teaching young children the basics of the language, as well as the essence of the Zulu nation’s cultural heritage.

Mswane uses idioms and folklore to bring to light the values anchored in the culture that, for the most part, people have unearthed for themselves during childhood.

When asked if she thought that a book like this one would have benefited her as a child, she said: “If a book like this existed when I was of primary school age or even in high school, it would definitely have shaped my grasp of the language and my confidence in articulating in my mother tongue.”

The inspiration for the book, Mswane said, was her nephew, Asanda Mswane.

“Asanda is a seven-year-old little boy who is the ruler of my life. He is my eternal gift from my late brother, Ntobeko Mswane,” she said.

“After Ntobeko died, leaving me to take care of Asanda, I needed to figure out how to raise him. I needed to invest more in teaching him how to love himself and the women who shaped him.

“Those women are black and Zulu.”


In the book Mswane has included basic information on the days of the week and months of the year, as well as a chapter on Zulu queens and princesses, which Mswane felt was particularly important to include to enhance readers’ understanding about the history of the Zulu nation.

“I have been raised a Zulu woman and I know the names of many men who have led the Zulu kingdom. But after researching Zulu identity as part of my anthropological studies, I felt cheated. There is an entire history of women who have shaped our outlook as a people, about whom I only found out when I read colonial books in libraries that must still be decolonised,” she said.

She was baffled that stories of princesses Mkabayi kaJama and Magogo kaDinuzulu, and Queen Mother Nandi kaSenzangakhona and the Zulu rain goddess Nomkhubulwane, were almost nonexistent in the history books.

“I wonder if the next generation of black children, my nephew’s generation, would unlearn misogyny if they knew that we women also laid down our lives so that they could exist,” she said.

Addressing the ever-present elephant in the room, she added that not only was patriarchy an immense part of Zulu culture, it was also a huge part of the cis heteronormative, white supremacist, patriarchal society that defines our world.

So, can patriarchy be destroyed in Zulu culture? “Unfortunately, Zulu culture does not exist in a vacuum. I don’t think we can ever change patriarchy. I think we can create alternative spaces, where patriarchy and all forms of oppression find no expression.

“I am not sure if I am still interested in depleting myself to change systems that have been created to survive decades. I would rather channel my energy to construct alternatives.”


Writing the book presented a host of challenges for Mswane, from getting the words on the page to obtaining funding. She recalled how stressed out she became when planning the chapter dealing with idioms.

“They may have been the most challenging part of the book. Sometimes I would know the idiom, having heard it through my lived experiences, but I didn’t quite grasp what it meant.

“Reading and researching where these idioms came from was exciting,” she said, adding that finding the strength to wake up and believe in the dream, in spite of a lack of resources, was an uphill battle.

Izinganekwane (folk tales) are another strong theme in Mswane’s book. They are anchored in an ancient story that her grandmother used to tell her. It centres on three characters: a young woman named Siphosethu, her grandmother and uNogwaja (the hare).

“My grandmother taught us, her grandchildren, to enjoy our youth. She wanted us to be children for as long as we could – as if she knew it would all crumble when she died.”

The wisdom of elders is a cornerstone of Zulu culture, and what better way to pay homage to this than to channel her gogo and the lessons she instilled.

Asked what steps could be taken to decolonise literature, Mswane said: “My master’s thesis is a bilingual, multiformatted [written and audio] work, told as inganekwane [fairy tales].

“It draws from the music archives of umbaqanga, kwaito, American jazz and umculo wemicimbi [music played at celebrations] to tell the story of umkhosi womhlanga Kanye nomkhosi kaNomdende [the reed dance through the eyes of women who practise it], as well as describe virginity testing,” she said.

To this end, she hopes to capture the essence of isiZulu through its culture and practice. “Decolonising the literary space for me is not just about writing in our languages. It is about questioning the forms of knowledge construction.

“The question of what constitutes knowledge needs to be answered by allowing all the forms in which we have learnt and shared knowledge to enter the literary space.”

Her book is a step in the right direction.

Uyasabeka costs R135 and is available via email at Pick-up points are Johannesburg and Durban, otherwise the book can be couriered


Read more on:    education  |  language

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