Who are the Kalanga, or Bakalanga, BaNambya and Vhavenda?

Updated: February 13, 2014

by Ndzimu-unami Emmanuel Moyo (repr. from ZimEye)

One day not many years ago whilst passing by the Plumtree District Hospital, I overheard two men arguing about the people bearing the surname ‘Moyo’. The other gentlemen, apparently a Moyo himself, was fiercely arguing that he is a Ndebele, whilst the other one, who apparently believed himself to be the ‘real Ndebele’, argued that the other gentlemen is a Shona, declaring, “vele bonke oMoyo ngamaShona.”

The line taken by this gentleman is common, especially if one is a follower of debates of this nature on Facebook, Online Newspapers and Chatrooms. I have joked sometimes and said that if the Moyo people are really Shona, then ‘Matebeleland’ has to be changed to ‘Mashonaland’ since people bearing the royal surname Moyo constitute perhaps at least 50% of Matebeleland (randomly gather any 10 people in Matebeleland chances are 5 are Moyos).

“The Kalanga are a hybrid of the Ndebele and Karanga”

The above was used just as an illustration of the confusion that exists in Matebeleland in particular and Zimbabwe in general as to the identity of the people known as the Kalanga, or Bakalanga, BaNambya and Vhavenda. This confusion is compounded by the official Zimbabwean history narrative which actively seeks to promote the idea that the Kalanga are a hybrid of the Karanga and Ndebele who only came into being in the 18th century as a result of Ndebele-Karanga intermarriages. It further claims that the “L” in TjiKalanga was dropped from the “R” in ChiKaranga as a result of Ndebele influence.

Of course this narrative falls on itself in three ways. First, it ignores the fact that when Mzilikazi and his Ndebele arrived in what is now ‘Matebeleland’, the Kalanga were already in occupation of that
region. Secondly, it does not explain how the Kalanga are found in Botswana and the Limpopo Province (Brakpan River Saltpan) where the Ndebele never settled, and they have been in those regions for many centuries before the 18th. Thirdly, the narrative ignores the fact that TjiKalanga properly spoken contains no Ndebele words at all. It surely could not only have borrowed the “L” only from IsiNdebele and nothing else.

Why we should answer the question: Who are the Kalanga?

This question becomes more urgent to ask now that the Constitution of Zimbabwe recognizes the Kalanga as a distinct people group separate from the Ndebele and Shona. It also becomes important to ask and answer because, with the new Constitution recognizing the Kalanga as a distinct group, there will be a need to teach their history in addition to the language.

One of the tragedies of the Kalanga is that their history has been parceled out between the Shona and Ndebele. The precolonial history
has been ‘given’ to the Shona (for example, it is falsely claimed that the Shona built Maphungubgwe, Great Zimbabwe, Khami, etc; that the
Shona were the Monomotapa, Togwa and Lozwi Kingdom peoples, etc). Post-colonialism, all Kalanga nationalist leaders – Dr Joshua Nkomo,
JZ Moyo, TG Silundika, John Landa Nkomo, Alfred Nikita Mangena, etc are presented as Ndebele.

The sum of it is that the Kalanga are practically left with no history of their own at all, which obviously negatively affects the self-esteem and pride of a Kalanga child who is made to grow up believing that his or her own people have never achieved anything worthwhile in this world.

So, who are the Kalanga?

It will no doubt take many articles, or a whole book (as in my book, The Rebirth of Bukalanga), to answer this question. But we can briefly
answer this question in this short article to at least give the reader an idea of who the Kalanga are as a People.

The Kalanga originate in the North East Africa region, specifically the Sudan-Egypt-Ethiopia region. Like many Bantu groups, they trekked from the North down South, finally settling in the region now called Southern Africa. The difference with other groups is that the Kalanga settled Africa south of the Zambezi over two millennia ago. By 100 AD, they had already settled in the lands now called Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Botswana, with most groups arriving between 500 and 1700 years later (the Sotho-Tswana about 500AD, the Nguni about 1600 and the ‘Shona’ about 1700).

By the earliest centuries of the Christian era (500AD) the Kalanga had established what archeologists have called the Leopard’s Kopje Culture. It was an Iron Age sequence culture which was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa to practice mixed farming; mine, smelt and trade in gold, copper and iron. By 1000 AD, the Kalanga had become a sophisticated people, establishing the first city-state in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Maphungubgwe City, on the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers.

Here they traded in gold, and indeed so great was this industry at Maphungubgwe that archeologists have found several artifacts made from that precious mineral there. Of course, the most famous is the Golden Rhino, which now forms the Order of Maphungubgwe, South Africa’s highest national honor.

From Maphungubgwe the Kalanga expanded their state, moving to and constructing Great Zimbabwe, and later Khami. In all these areas they carried on their industries and trade. They traded with the Arabians, the Chinese, the Ethiopians, the Portuguese and Phoenicians. It has been suggested by one writer – Gayre of Gayre – that much of the gold
that found its way into the Solomonic Temple and Palace mentioned in the Bible originated among the Kalanga in what later became Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Civilization – epitomized by Maphungubgwe, Great Zimbabwe, and Khami – three of the four man-made UNESCO World Heritage sites in Southern Africa, can be classified as the greatest civilization ever established Africa south of the Sahara. Indeed, barring its lack of a writing culture, it can be classed in the same level with the other great civilizations of the world, from the
Akkadian to the Sumerian to the Egyptian to the Axumite to the Graeco-Roman Civilizations.

The Monomotapa, Togwa and Lozwi Kingdoms

On the political side, the Kalanga established the greatest kingdoms ever established Africa south of the Sahara, both in terms of power, wealth and expanse. They established the Monomotapa Kingdom which swept from the Zambezi to the Makhado Mountains (Luis Trichardt) north to south, and from the Tendankulu (now Pungwe River) in the middle of Mozambique to the Makadikadi Salt Pans on the boundary of the Kalahari Desert, east west.

The Monomotapa Kingdom, which existed for about 500 years (1000-1500) as the greatest polity in Southern Africa, later disintegrated as a result of external attacks and internal decay. It would be succeeded by the Togwa Kingdom which was headquartered at Khami, 22km west of Bulawayo. The Togwa Kingdom, which had been established by Madabhale Shoko/Ncube, later Tjibundule, existed for about 200 years, after which its ruling dynasty, the Tjibundule Dynasty, was overthrown by Mambo Dombolakona-Tjing’wango Dlembewu Moyo, otherwise known as
Tjangamire.

(Tjangamire, a title which originated with the Monomotapa Dynasty when the Arabs still traded in the land, is a combination of two words, the name ‘Tjanga’, and the title Amir/Emir, meaning ‘The Justice.’ The title emir is still in usage in Arab lands, which is why some of them are called Emirates. Tjangamire is not a Shona word as commonly
believed. It is a Kalanga-Arabic word.)

The Lozwi Kingdom of course was to be overthrown after a nearly 30-year onslaught by a succession of five impis – four Nguni and three non-Nguni, these being: the Swati of Mtshetshenyana and Nyamazana, the Ngoni of Zwangendaba, the Gaza-Nguni of Soshangane, the Makololo of Sebituane, the Tswana of Kgari and the Portuguese. This Kingdom finally fell about 1830 with the arrival of the Ndebele of Mzilikazi.

The earliest remembered Kalanga kings are Hee Hamuyendazwa Nkalange Hhowu (Ndlovu) and Malambodzibgwa Nkalange Hhowu (it is from these kings that we take our name – Ba-Nkalange, that is, those of Nkalange (some Ndlovu-surnamed Bakalanga still swear by BaNkalange today. We are told that Nkalanga/Nkalange means “People of the North”).

And of course some of the greatest Kalanga kings to ever live were the likes of Mambo Nhu-unotapa (Monomotapa) Mokomba Hhowu, Mambo Dombolakona-Tjing’wango Dlembewu Moyo, Mambo Madabhale Tjibundule Shoko/Ncube.

The Kalanga Identified by their Tribes and Surnames

Today the Kalanga are divided into 12 major tribes comprising the so-called Bakalanga “proper” (properly BaLozwi), BaLobedu, BaNambya, Vhavenda, BaTalawunda, BaLilima, BaPfumbi, BaLemba, BaLembethu, BaTswapong, BaTwamambo, BaTembe (Mthembu), Babirwa and BaShangwe. They are scattered across Southern Africa from KwaZulu-Natal all the way to
Tanzania, speaking almost all the languages to be in all the countries in between.

Being Kalanga therefore does not mean TjiKalanga-speaking, but it is an ethno-racial identity. Once born a Kalanga always a Kalanga, as long as one carries ancestral Kalanga blood. In other words, as long as one has one or both parents who is or was Kalanga, they are Kalanga too. But how do they get to know if they are ancestrally Kalanga? The answer is to be found in their surname.

The Kalanga, wherever they are in the world, are identifiable primarily by their animal and body parts name surnames like Moyo (variants Pelo, Mbilu, Nhliziyo, Mthunzi, Nkiwane), Ndlovu (Ndou, Tlou, Zhowu, Hhowu), Sibanda (Shumba, Tjibanda, Tau, Motaung, Sebata), Ngwenya (Mokoena, Ngwena, Kwena), Dube (Mbizi, Tembo, Mthembu), Mpala (Mhara/Mhala), Tjuma/Tshuma/Chuma (Ng’ombe, Mung’ombe, Sola), Gumbo, Ndebele (Tjibelu, Phupute), Nyathi (Nare, Mokone), Ncube (Shoko, Mokgabong, Tshwene, Motshweneng, Phiri, Msimang, Nsimango), Mpofu
(Phofu, Shaba-Thuka), Khupe (Shulo, Hulo, Mvundla), Sebele, Kulube (Ngulube, Musele), Nungu (Maphosa), Nkala, etc.

A close look at the numbers of people bearing these surnames shows that the Kalanga Nation is perhaps one of the largest in Southern Africa, perhaps surpassed only by the Zulu.

Born a Kalanga, always a Kalanga. Ndaboka imi n’Kalanga weBulilima-Mangwe ndilikuTitji.

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