Peoples of Southern Africa (Part 3)


Actress playing Mma Ramsotwe
Jill Scott, playing the traditionally built detective Precious Ramotswe

The Tswana are also Bantu-speakers; their language branch is called Setsuana and they are also known as Western Sotho. The country’s first president, so beloved by Mma Ramotswe in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was Sir Seretse Khama (1966–1980).

Like many African people, the Tswana revere their ancestors. Before Christianity arrived in 1816, they believed in immortal souls and a supreme creator called Molimo. They still believe in magic, although traditional rain-making ceremonies have given way to prayer days in Christian churches for rain.


It is believed that these people arrived in Southern Africa from the great lakes region of East Africa. They had longbows, which gave them a military edge over the indigenous population.

Unlike Western societies, in which there are no initiation rituals unless you’re Jewish, the Venda culture sponsors a lengthy initial ritual–for girls! It can last anywhere from 3 months to a year. One of the ceremonies of the domba (female initiation society) involves the python dance; accompanied by girls drumming. For boys entering adulthood, sadly, the circumcision ceremony has largely replaced older initiation rituals.


Xhosa people
Xhosa people

Famed warriors and cattle herders of the Kalahari, the Xhosa were led astray in 1856 by a Joan of Arc figure, a young girl who claimed that a vision from the ancestors told her the white invaders would be swept into the sea, the great Xhosa chiefs would return from the dead, and the land would be filled with cattle and crops. They followed her advice into death, hunger, and poverty by slaughtering 200,000 of their own cattle. Survivors of this desperate act of resistance were compelled to work on the invader’s farms. Ugh.

Xhosa storytelling has a healthy oral tradition, followed by written. Important Xhosa writers include the novelist and missionary John Knox Bokwe (1855–1922) and the novelist Guybon Sinxo (1902–1962). Sinxo was passionate in his opposition to the decreasing self-respect of black Africans, and the increase in crime in the townships.

You may also have seen the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, which features a Xhosa man encountering some of the stranger aspects of Western civilization.


Zulu beaded love messages decoded
The Zulu are great fighters, but they also look to be great lovers…

The Zulu have been pretty aggressive about invasion and conquest, but they sprang from being on the losing end of the same. Before 1816, the Zulu chiefdom belonged to the Mthethwa kingdom. Well, King Dingiswayo was murdered and his Zulu general Shaka took over. Shaka founded the Zulu kingdom and launched a series of wars and migrations triggered by the rapid expansion of this nation. This wave of conflict lasted from 1819 to 1839 and unfortunately made the region vulnerable to takeover by white settlers. Oh, and 5 million people died. (Shaka was born to a Zulu chief but was “cast out” by his father. The book doesn’t say why…did he recognize a psychopath in the making?)

The Zulu language has one of the most complex grammars in the world, and contains a lot of Dutch and English words also. Zulu women are famous fro their beadwork. In the past, the beads were crafted painstakingly from bone, ivory, clay, shells, wood or iron. Today the tiny colorful beads are mass-produced in plastic so the women can spend more time on design.

The Rating

Long horned cattleI loved how the information in the book was broken up into small bytes, with photos and graphics and language trees. The only thing that baffled me was how some small words were italicized, like vocab for children, when many more complex words were not. It was a bit annoying, like in the Lemony Snickett books when he patronizingly explains words that I definitely know as a adult but also certainly knew as a 10-year-old. Grr! But whatever.

Five Tswana long-horned cattle!


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