Chapter 12.

Queen Mnandi.

Here, we may be permitted to digress and describe the beauty and virtues of one of King Mzilikazi's wives — the lily of his harem, by name Umnandi, the sweet one. She was a daughter of Umzinyati (the Bison-city) the off-spring of a lineage of brave warriors with many deeds of valour to their credit. Such was the description of her given to the writer by a hoary octogenarian that it reminded him of a remarkable passage in the Song of Songs, namely:-

    “I am black but comely O ye daughters of Jerusalem
    As the tents of Kedar and the curtains of Solomon,
    Look not upon me because I am black
    For the Sun hath looked upon me.
    My mother's children were angry with me
    They made me the keeper of the vineyards
    But my own vineyard have I not kept.”

and when he changed “vineyards” into “cornfields,” he thought he could visualize her appearance in his mind's eye with accuracy.

She had been the favourite wife of the great monarch whose ambition at one time was to make of her the principal Queen of the Matebele; for, not only was she fair of countenance, but the stately way in which she received court guests filled the King with pride, and these visitors to the royal palace, on return to their several homes far and wide, spread news of her personal charms, the excellence of her cooking and the tastiness of her beer. Her reputation so gladdened her regal husband that he often asked with what she seasoned her food — and his other wives hated her.

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In moments of indiscretion his majesty outraged the feelings of his other wives by sending their food to Umnandi to be cooked all over again. Such flagrant acts of favouritism only served to accentuate the hatred of which she was the victim.

Her worst luck was the misfortune of being childless. This in time, tended almost to cool her husband's ardent affections towards her. Her sorrows were not diminished by the attitude of her co-wives who, intolerably jealous of the favours bestowed upon her by the King, constantly sneered and mocked at her. Let but the King confer upon her a token of recognition, and they gossiped about it: “He thinks that this will give her a child,” they would sneer, “let's wait and see if it will.” Every meritorious act of hers was just as laconically referred to by the ladies of the harem: “She thinks that this will give her a child, let's wait and see if it will.” These reproaches she bore with fortitude, but the King's waning interest, in addition to their jeers, was more that she could stand. Umnandi would willingly have given up her beauty and stately mien and forgotten her skill in cookery, in return for the birth of a baby boy as a present to her husband and his people. She would gladly have gone through fire and water if the end of it was to nurse a royal child of her own. She took counsel with famous herbalists from Basutoland, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, and Bopediland; she went through painful and even distressing ordeals on their advice, just for the hope of becoming a mother; but these wizards accomplished nothing, beyond filling her heart with a succession of hopes, each of which in turn proved worthless.

It so happened that after completing her domestic duties one evening, Umnandi sat down by the fire in her

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hut to rest. But though her limbs were at rest, her mind was active, and she could get no ease, thinking over her sad lot. She thought of a noted medicine man who had reached the city two days before from Zululand — a magician of the first eminence. Stories of the wisdom of the new-comer had filled the city and spread to the out-lying villages; and as Umnandi sat cogitating at the fireside and pining for the blessing of the child that would never been hers, she thought of her previous false hopes and wondered if it were worth while consulting the newly-arrived wizard. But Umnandi little dreamed that in one of the huts of the royal enclosure, a plot was at that moment being hatched against her with that same wizard as its agent. Nomenti, one of the ladies of the harem, was bribing the Zulu doctor, promising him ornaments, livestock and other gifts, if he would consent to visit Umnandi's hut and lay at her door a charm that would end her life.

“No,” said the magician with emotion, “a dog of a witch-doctor in my station is not great enough to take the life of a royal wife. Seek some wizard with bluer blood than mine to snatch a wife from the bosom of my lord, the King, and defy the consequences. I am not equal to so great a task as that of putting her to eternal sleep.”

“But you are not pursuing your pleasure, O wise man,” said Nomenti. “It is the will of the rightful wife of Mzilikazi, who sends you to rid our harem of this troublesome upstart. In proof of this I will call another and yet another of the principal wives of the King, each of whom would gladly double and treble your fee if you will but consent to withdraw this 'thorn-in-her-foot.'”

“O, mother,” said the magician, “waste not your breath in wheedling supplications. All the fees in Inzwinyani will not persuade me to slay a royal wife.”

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“Now, listen, O Wise-one, who knows all that stands before your eyes, and all that is happening behind your back. Listen! Perhaps you are not disposed to remove this mote from my eye; but you could do me a lesser favour for the self-same fee. Go to the hut of this lickspittle; offer her your sympathies; pretend to be the sharer of her sorrow, but, in the guise of friendship, give her some poisoned cordial that will sterilize her so that her breasts may never feed a child. Let her suffer every conceivable pain, but never the pain of parturition; let every joy be hers except the supreme joy of child-bearing.”

“You know, O Wise-man from the land of the rising sun, the fame of your wizardry is great, but not as great as Mzilikazi's power. Your charmed decoctions can extinguish by the hundred the lives of men like spears on the battlefield; but they are not strong enough to assuage my husband's wrath. Bear in mind that at this moment I hold your life in the hollow of my hands. Offend me, then I will say the word, and you will not leave this city alive.”

“Now listen a second time. It is but a trifling matter I ask of you; deny me that, and all the charms and spells in your medicine-bag will not save your head from the terrible wrath of this harem. Will you make her barren? Yes, or no?”

“Your orders are confusing, O daughter-in-law of the Great Matshobana. They are uttered in two voices as from the cleft tongue of an alligator. One tongue says to me: 'Rob the King of the brightest jewel in his harem.' The other warns me of the fate in store for anyone who attempts to wrong his majesty — as much as to say, 'don't do it.' Did such conflicting orders ever issue from the

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same mouth in such rapid succession? Indeed, I wish I could kill her, and appease your wrath, but for the reason given in a part of your request. I will, however, injure her as you desire, but cannot persuade myself to take the life of Umnandi. Were she but a concubine, and not a Queen, in this harem, I would not dare kill her.”

“Now you will insult me by calling her a Queen in my presence and hearing, — now, lest the worst comes to the worst, I will order you to her at once.”

Nomenti led the doctor out into the dark and cloudy night, and, pointing to the farther end of the enclosure, she said “Do you see that light? That is the opening to her hut. Speed forth and offer her your sympathy.”

She stood and watched the figure of the doctor receding in the darkness, until he approached and was admitted into Umnandi's hut. Thereupon Nomenti returned to her own, called a principal attendant named Umpitimpiti, and poured into his ears some wicked and untrue statements reflecting on the faithfulness of Umnandi, who, she said, was at that moment busy making love to a strange wizard against the latter's wish, and charged the attendant forthwith to apprise the King.

Now Umnandi was a great favourite in the city. She was a mother to all the attendants at Court, for whenever there was not enough meat to go round, she would always provide for others at her own expense. If one evening an old woman ran short of water or firewood, she never appealed to her in vain. If the daughters of a light-footed mother were heavy-heeled one day, and pounded not enough corn for the cooking-pot, and she wanted a little to adjust the deficiency, Umnandi always had some to spare. These beneficiaries of her bounty literally worshipped her; hence the bitter jealousy of her co-wives,

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who, constantly scheming to bring about her fall, vied with one another in attempting to encompass her ruin. The menials in the harem resented this persecution to which she was perpetually subjected, and Nomenti exploited her rival's popularity among the maids and servants to get rid of her. Having despatched the attendant to the King, Nomenti called a maid to whom she said:

“Nomsindo, my daughter, I have great news for you; the most important since our tribe was forced to flee from Chaka's tyranny.”

“O Mother,” said the maid, “do not repeat it for I know already. The doctors are unanimous that the days of our city are numbered.”

“Nonsense,” said Nomenti, in disgust, “don't speak to me of witches' yarns. I take my orders from the lips of the King.”

“Oh yes, mother, the King knows it too. He said that the army that went to Kunana years ago, exceeded his orders. Instead of avenging Bhoya's death they left the guilty murderers alone and slew the innocent tribesmen and the women, consequently the fate prophesied for us is not unlike that of the Barolong. The magicians have divined that the spirits of the dead Barolong are coming back, some bleached, some reddened in the face through anger — thirsting for Matebele blood. O, Mother, what will become of me should I be called upon to die the violent death of a Morolong woman? It is too terrible. I'd rather be speared by a soldier than by angry spirits.”

“Nomsindo, you are mad, raving mad! But remember that you have not come here of your own accord. I called you here, so listen to me, after which you may jabber about witches and Barolong until your tongue be stiff. Listen, I have just this minute seen the King. Since I

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became the Qeen of the Matebele,” she lied further, “I have never seen my lord so furious.”

“You don't say so, Mother,” replied Nomsindo, “and the cause?”

“I will tell you. The King was on his way to Umnandi's hut, and hearing whispers and clandestine words from within — one voice being distinctly masculine, however much disguised — he approached with caution and found, what do you think? That childless harlot, whom you would serve as a Queen while she is not worthy to look you in the face, leaning on the bosom of a strange man, words of affection flowing from her guilty lips into his equally guilty ears, though the poor man did his best to shun her advances. She lavished upon the stranger such caresses and embraces as I would never extend to my twin brother who sucked the same breast as myself, my caresses now being the prerogative of my Lord, the King.”

“O horror of horrors, Mother! Who was the beastly witch?”

“The stranger who reached this city three days back. Can you conceive of anyone so low in breeding, so wanting in all sense of fitness, as to be willing to raise a grimy, snuffy mixer of medicines to the pedestal of Mzilikazi, ruler of earth and skies?”

“Very soon the young men will be with the King; already they are sharpening their spears at his command to rid society of that misnamed idol of yours, and no victim of Mzilikazi's wrath will better deserve her fate.”

Nomsindo did not wait to hear the end of the story; she darted off immediately to warn Umnandi. Filled with terror, she thought of nothing but to render some last service to so noble a benefactress in the few hours remaining

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before her looming execution. As she approached, she observed in the darkness the new doctor leaving Umnandi's hut and walking in the opposite direction. In fear and trembling she entered the hut with a rush that almost took the owner's breath away; but the cruel climax was to follow the query:

“Yinindaba  1 , Nomsindo; what is chasing you in here?”

“Terror, mother, terror; and oh, why did you do it?”

“Do what?” asked Umnandi in surprise.

“The man — the very man I saw departing hence as I came.”

“What about him?” queried Umnandi again in astonishment.”

The girl was struck dumb. Gazing at the beautiful form of Umnandi, she regarded her beaming countenance illumined in the glow of the wood-fire on the hearth and found it inconceivable that the idol of the court should be capable of any kind of infamy. She had seen the doctor depart and, knowing the tremendous jealousy of the other wives, she feared the worst. Horrible visions of what torture would mean to Umnandi distracted her mind and she dropped fainting at the queen's feet.

Suddenly waking to the full meaning of her perilous situation, Umnandi exclaimed: “But child, I have done nothing, except for the best.”

Nobody, however, heard these words because the girl had swooned.

page 101

Chapter 12.

Queen Mnandi.

Here, we may be permitted to digress and describe the beauty and virtues of one of King Mzilikazi's wives — the lily of his harem, by name Umnandi, the sweet one. She was a daughter of Umzinyati (the Bison-city) the off-spring of a lineage of brave warriors with many deeds of valour to their credit. Such was the description of her given to the writer by a hoary octogenarian that it reminded him of a remarkable passage in the Song of Songs, namely:-

    “I am black but comely O ye daughters of Jerusalem
    As the tents of Kedar and the curtains of Solomon,
    Look not upon me because I am black
    For the Sun hath looked upon me.
    My mother's children were angry with me
    They made me the keeper of the vineyards
    But my own vineyard have I not kept.”

and when he changed “vineyards” into “cornfields,” he thought he could visualize her appearance in his mind's eye with accuracy.

She had been the favourite wife of the great monarch whose ambition at one time was to make of her the principal Queen of the Matebele; for, not only was she fair of countenance, but the stately way in which she received court guests filled the King with pride, and these visitors to the royal palace, on return to their several homes far and wide, spread news of her personal charms, the excellence of her cooking and the tastiness of her beer. Her reputation so gladdened her regal husband that he often asked with what she seasoned her food — and his other wives hated her.

In moments of indiscretion his majesty outraged the feelings of his other wives by sending their food to Umnandi to be cooked all over again. Such flagrant acts of favouritism only served to accentuate the hatred of which she was the victim.

Her worst luck was the misfortune of being childless. This in time, tended almost to cool her husband's ardent affections towards her. Her sorrows were not diminished by the attitude of her co-wives who, intolerably jealous of the favours bestowed upon her by the King, constantly sneered and mocked at her. Let but the King confer upon her a token of recognition, and they gossiped about it: “He thinks that this will give her a child,” they would sneer, “let's wait and see if it will.” Every meritorious act of hers was just as laconically referred to by the ladies of the harem: “She thinks that this will give her a child, let's wait and see if it will.” These reproaches she bore with fortitude, but the King's waning interest, in addition to their jeers, was more that she could stand. Umnandi would willingly have given up her beauty and stately mien and forgotten her skill in cookery, in return for the birth of a baby boy as a present to her husband and his people. She would gladly have gone through fire and water if the end of it was to nurse a royal child of her own. She took counsel with famous herbalists from Basutoland, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, and Bopediland; she went through painful and even distressing ordeals on their advice, just for the hope of becoming a mother; but these wizards accomplished nothing, beyond filling her heart with a succession of hopes, each of which in turn proved worthless.

It so happened that after completing her domestic duties one evening, Umnandi sat down by the fire in her hut to rest. But though her limbs were at rest, her mind was active, and she could get no ease, thinking over her sad lot. She thought of a noted medicine man who had reached the city two days before from Zululand — a magician of the first eminence. Stories of the wisdom of the new-comer had filled the city and spread to the out-lying villages; and as Umnandi sat cogitating at the fireside and pining for the blessing of the child that would never been hers, she thought of her previous false hopes and wondered if it were worth while consulting the newly-arrived wizard. But Umnandi little dreamed that in one of the huts of the royal enclosure, a plot was at that moment being hatched against her with that same wizard as its agent. Nomenti, one of the ladies of the harem, was bribing the Zulu doctor, promising him ornaments, livestock and other gifts, if he would consent to visit Umnandi's hut and lay at her door a charm that would end her life.

“No,” said the magician with emotion, “a dog of a witch-doctor in my station is not great enough to take the life of a royal wife. Seek some wizard with bluer blood than mine to snatch a wife from the bosom of my lord, the King, and defy the consequences. I am not equal to so great a task as that of putting her to eternal sleep.”

“But you are not pursuing your pleasure, O wise man,” said Nomenti. “It is the will of the rightful wife of Mzilikazi, who sends you to rid our harem of this troublesome upstart. In proof of this I will call another and yet another of the principal wives of the King, each of whom would gladly double and treble your fee if you will but consent to withdraw this 'thorn-in-her-foot.'”

“O, mother,” said the magician, “waste not your breath in wheedling supplications. All the fees in Inzwinyani will not persuade me to slay a royal wife.”

“Now, listen, O Wise-one, who knows all that stands before your eyes, and all that is happening behind your back. Listen! Perhaps you are not disposed to remove this mote from my eye; but you could do me a lesser favour for the self-same fee. Go to the hut of this lickspittle; offer her your sympathies; pretend to be the sharer of her sorrow, but, in the guise of friendship, give her some poisoned cordial that will sterilize her so that her breasts may never feed a child. Let her suffer every conceivable pain, but never the pain of parturition; let every joy be hers except the supreme joy of child-bearing.”

“You know, O Wise-man from the land of the rising sun, the fame of your wizardry is great, but not as great as Mzilikazi's power. Your charmed decoctions can extinguish by the hundred the lives of men like spears on the battlefield; but they are not strong enough to assuage my husband's wrath. Bear in mind that at this moment I hold your life in the hollow of my hands. Offend me, then I will say the word, and you will not leave this city alive.”

“Now listen a second time. It is but a trifling matter I ask of you; deny me that, and all the charms and spells in your medicine-bag will not save your head from the terrible wrath of this harem. Will you make her barren? Yes, or no?”

“Your orders are confusing, O daughter-in-law of the Great Matshobana. They are uttered in two voices as from the cleft tongue of an alligator. One tongue says to me: 'Rob the King of the brightest jewel in his harem.' The other warns me of the fate in store for anyone who attempts to wrong his majesty — as much as to say, 'don't do it.' Did such conflicting orders ever issue from the same mouth in such rapid succession? Indeed, I wish I could kill her, and appease your wrath, but for the reason given in a part of your request. I will, however, injure her as you desire, but cannot persuade myself to take the life of Umnandi. Were she but a concubine, and not a Queen, in this harem, I would not dare kill her.”

“Now you will insult me by calling her a Queen in my presence and hearing, — now, lest the worst comes to the worst, I will order you to her at once.”

Nomenti led the doctor out into the dark and cloudy night, and, pointing to the farther end of the enclosure, she said “Do you see that light? That is the opening to her hut. Speed forth and offer her your sympathy.”

She stood and watched the figure of the doctor receding in the darkness, until he approached and was admitted into Umnandi's hut. Thereupon Nomenti returned to her own, called a principal attendant named Umpitimpiti, and poured into his ears some wicked and untrue statements reflecting on the faithfulness of Umnandi, who, she said, was at that moment busy making love to a strange wizard against the latter's wish, and charged the attendant forthwith to apprise the King.

Now Umnandi was a great favourite in the city. She was a mother to all the attendants at Court, for whenever there was not enough meat to go round, she would always provide for others at her own expense. If one evening an old woman ran short of water or firewood, she never appealed to her in vain. If the daughters of a light-footed mother were heavy-heeled one day, and pounded not enough corn for the cooking-pot, and she wanted a little to adjust the deficiency, Umnandi always had some to spare. These beneficiaries of her bounty literally worshipped her; hence the bitter jealousy of her co-wives, who, constantly scheming to bring about her fall, vied with one another in attempting to encompass her ruin. The menials in the harem resented this persecution to which she was perpetually subjected, and Nomenti exploited her rival's popularity among the maids and servants to get rid of her. Having despatched the attendant to the King, Nomenti called a maid to whom she said:

“Nomsindo, my daughter, I have great news for you; the most important since our tribe was forced to flee from Chaka's tyranny.”

“O Mother,” said the maid, “do not repeat it for I know already. The doctors are unanimous that the days of our city are numbered.”

“Nonsense,” said Nomenti, in disgust, “don't speak to me of witches' yarns. I take my orders from the lips of the King.”

“Oh yes, mother, the King knows it too. He said that the army that went to Kunana years ago, exceeded his orders. Instead of avenging Bhoya's death they left the guilty murderers alone and slew the innocent tribesmen and the women, consequently the fate prophesied for us is not unlike that of the Barolong. The magicians have divined that the spirits of the dead Barolong are coming back, some bleached, some reddened in the face through anger — thirsting for Matebele blood. O, Mother, what will become of me should I be called upon to die the violent death of a Morolong woman? It is too terrible. I'd rather be speared by a soldier than by angry spirits.”

“Nomsindo, you are mad, raving mad! But remember that you have not come here of your own accord. I called you here, so listen to me, after which you may jabber about witches and Barolong until your tongue be stiff. Listen, I have just this minute seen the King. Since I became the Qeen of the Matebele,” she lied further, “I have never seen my lord so furious.”

“You don't say so, Mother,” replied Nomsindo, “and the cause?”

“I will tell you. The King was on his way to Umnandi's hut, and hearing whispers and clandestine words from within — one voice being distinctly masculine, however much disguised — he approached with caution and found, what do you think? That childless harlot, whom you would serve as a Queen while she is not worthy to look you in the face, leaning on the bosom of a strange man, words of affection flowing from her guilty lips into his equally guilty ears, though the poor man did his best to shun her advances. She lavished upon the stranger such caresses and embraces as I would never extend to my twin brother who sucked the same breast as myself, my caresses now being the prerogative of my Lord, the King.”

“O horror of horrors, Mother! Who was the beastly witch?”

“The stranger who reached this city three days back. Can you conceive of anyone so low in breeding, so wanting in all sense of fitness, as to be willing to raise a grimy, snuffy mixer of medicines to the pedestal of Mzilikazi, ruler of earth and skies?”

“Very soon the young men will be with the King; already they are sharpening their spears at his command to rid society of that misnamed idol of yours, and no victim of Mzilikazi's wrath will better deserve her fate.”

Nomsindo did not wait to hear the end of the story; she darted off immediately to warn Umnandi. Filled with terror, she thought of nothing but to render some last service to so noble a benefactress in the few hours remaining before her looming execution. As she approached, she observed in the darkness the new doctor leaving Umnandi's hut and walking in the opposite direction. In fear and trembling she entered the hut with a rush that almost took the owner's breath away; but the cruel climax was to follow the query:

“Yinindaba  1 , Nomsindo; what is chasing you in here?”

“Terror, mother, terror; and oh, why did you do it?”

“Do what?” asked Umnandi in surprise.

“The man — the very man I saw departing hence as I came.”

“What about him?” queried Umnandi again in astonishment.”

The girl was struck dumb. Gazing at the beautiful form of Umnandi, she regarded her beaming countenance illumined in the glow of the wood-fire on the hearth and found it inconceivable that the idol of the court should be capable of any kind of infamy. She had seen the doctor depart and, knowing the tremendous jealousy of the other wives, she feared the worst. Horrible visions of what torture would mean to Umnandi distracted her mind and she dropped fainting at the queen's feet.

Suddenly waking to the full meaning of her perilous situation, Umnandi exclaimed: “But child, I have done nothing, except for the best.”

Nobody, however, heard these words because the girl had swooned.


Footnotes & References

#NoteDescription
1YinindabaWhat's the matter?