Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Living with a Tyrant: Ndau Memories and Identities in the Shadow of Ngungunyana*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Living with a Tyrant: Ndau Memories and Identities in the Shadow of Ngungunyana*

Article excerpt

Ngungunyana was a problem ...

We are called Ngungunyana's people yet we are Ndau.

We were changed into Changana (Shangani).1

- Jona Mwaoneni Makuyana

People who were staying here were called Machangana (Shangani),

but they were Ndau. Their leader was Ngungunyana ...

We are called Ndau, but we are Shangani?

- John Kunjenjema

When speaking about history long ago (kare kare), many Ndau in central Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe recall a past marked by a shifting political and cultural terrain of invasion and domination in the nineteenth century. This turbulent period, known by many as a time of terror, began with the migrations of several northern Nguni peoples, most notably the Gaza Nguni, who first settled in the Ndau heartland in the 1830s and returned later for an extended occupation from 1862 to 1889. Most of the population in this corner of southeast Africa (between Zimbabwe's eastern highlands and the Mozambican coast submitted to Gaza Nguni overrule and came to be known as Ndau partly in response to the presence of these outsiders. This conquest by the Gaza Nguni in the nineteenth century acted as a foil for the Ndau to recreate their identity and assume a sense of Ndauness with a powerful salience that reverberated into the twentieth century. In the shadow of the Gaza Nguni leader Ngungunyana, both women and men were actively involved in shaping Ndau landscapes of memory and giving them meaning.

A wave of common suffering at the hands of the Nguni reinforced a sense of being Ndau as previous exchanges had not. Outsiders, or others, came to rule over the Ndau directly on the eve of colonial rule, and this harsh reality continued into the period of formal colonialism under the Portuguese and the British. Indeed, some would say that aspects of overrule lasted beyond independence, when others who were not Ndau-such as Shona in Zimbabwe and members of ethnic groups from other areas in Mozambique-prevailed over the Ndau living in two independent nations. There were few Ndau in the national leadership of either Mozambique or Zimbabwe after independence. Instead, Ndau speakers were more likely to be prominent members of the political opposition in Zimbabwe or leaders of the Renamo rebel movement that waged a war against the Mozambican government. The Ndau cite a pattern of domination in their history that began with the period of overrule discussed here.3

Over the past twenty years, scholars in African Studies have countered popular notions about tribalism as a static phenomenon by showing how Europeans, with African assistance, forged identities during the colonial period that created tribalism and divided their African subjects. Rigid identities emerged out of earlier permeable ones when ethnic identities were manipulated and fixed under colonial rule. However, this popular "invention of tribalism" thesis does not adequately explain how identifications such as that of the Ndau took shape even earlier. The long history behind ethnic identities reveals African agency in the precolonial period as central to the formation of tribalism. Precolonial rulers, as I demonstrate here, also used ideology to promote group identification. Political and cultural dynamics in southeast Africa prompted the Ndau to craft a collective identity before formal European colonialism.

The history behind the development of ethnic identities is closely tied to debates about tribalism in Africa. The historical relevance of ethnicity, and its tenacious character that "refuses to vanish," deserves further exploration.4 Even though identities are often messy and muddled, the concept of identity expresses a broad sense of group belonging, or being something. This state is relational and opposed to the existence of an "other." Thus, the identities of a particular people exist "in a context of oppositions and relativities" as groups classify others during their own acts of self-identification. …

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