Mkabayi: In her defence
September 13, 2010 2 Comments
I never watch an historical play or movie with the belief that subsequent to watching the production, I’d have a better understanding of historical characters. I know that directors and playwrights exercise poetic licence over historical events and characters and they reflect their own interpretation. That is why my gripe with the play “Shaka Zulu: The Musical” that has led me to pen this comment, is not with whether the characterization of Mkabayi is historically correct but rather the sexist association of a woman of influence and power, in the African context, with witchcraft.
In the 1986 movie “Shaka Zulu” directed by William C Faure, Mkabayi is presented as conniving and an enemy to Nandi, that too is not in keeping with oral Zulu legend, however, no link is made between her influence with witchcraft. She is presented as intelligent, a strategist and strong. Those characteristics are what I recognize.
This is what Zulu people who know of Mkabayi know of her. She was born as one half of a set of twins. Zulu custom at the time proscribed that twins were a sign of ill fortune and that to remove this bad fortune one of the twins would have to be killed. Mkabayi’s father, Jama the King of the Zulu clan at the time, refused to allow them to kill his daughter. In time, Mkabayi’s twin died and Jama was unable to have more children. It was believed that this inability to have more children was a consequence of his defiance of the Zulu custom that required him to kill one of his twin children. Mkabayi, recognizing that as a woman, the throne will not pass to her and thus will not stay within her bloodline, orchestrated the marriage between her father and a woman named Mthaniya, she is said to have “wooed” Mthaniya on her father’s behalf. Mthaniya bore a son and Jama is believed to have congratulated his wife and daughter by saying, “Nenzengakhona” “you have done well”/“you have done the right thing” and so the son was named Senzangakhona “we are doing the right thing”.
When Senzangakhona impregnated Nandi out of wedlock, Mkabayi is the one that demanded he marry her and accept his son Shaka as legitimate heir. When Shaka was king of what he had by then turned into a Zulu nation, we know that he was not only a master tactician, but also ruthless in many ways. That upon the death of his beloved mother his ruthlessness seemed to know no bounds. He forbade people from having sex during the time of mourning, he forbade the planting of crops, he forbade the milking of cows and demanded that people weep continuously for Nandi. Those found not demonstrating the required level of sorrow were killed.
It was at this time, when the people themselves were horrified by the conduct of the King, that Mkabayi orchestrated his assassination. Zulu legend holds her as a hero, a savior of her people for this act, not a conniving witch. Mkabayi’s legend is that of a woman who looked out for her kingdom. She is often referred to as being a man in a woman’s body due to her ability to influence, her strategic thinking, her strength and the power she exerted. Without dealing with the sexism inherent in the very belief that such characteristics are male and a woman possessing them is in fact a peculiar woman, I just want it known that Zulu legend recognises Mkabayi for her intelligence and her bravery, it does not attribute it to the typical association of African women of strength and means to witchcraft.
This is a woman spoken of with respect and affection among Zulu people male and female.
This is the Mkabayi of Zulu legend and this is the legacy I wish to hold up against corrosion by popular media. The movies and plays seem to find it much easier to demonise an African woman of aggressive strength and glorifying the long-suffering image of Nandi. It is the role most easily associated with black women, long-suffering, it’s the only strength respected, it’s the only time we are told we are dignified. Well Mkabayi represents another type of strength, based on her depictions, popular media is none too happy with presenting this type of strength in a black woman.