Thomas Mofolo - a fictionalized account of the life of the great African warrior, Chaka Zulu. Mofolo presents it as a study of human passion, of an uncontrolled and then uncontrollable ambition leading to the moral destruction of the character and the inevitable punishment.

Thomas Mofolo- Chaka cover
Thomas Mofolo, Chaka, Trans. by Daniel P. Kunene, Heinemann; New Ed, 1981.
read it at Google Books

This novel is the first of many works of literature that takes the great Zulu leader, king, and emperor as its subject. The story is well-known, partly due to Mofolo but also to the works of literature by Badian, Senghor, and Mazisi Kunene. O.R. Dathorne has said, "The historical Chaka is only the impetus for Mofolo's psychological study of the nature of repudiation." Mofolo presents it as a study of human passion, of an uncontrolled and then uncontrollable ambition leading to the moral destruction of the character and the inevitable punishment.

Chaka (spelt Shaka sometimes) is the famous novel by the writer Thomas Mofolo of Lesotho. Written in the Sesotho language and translated by Daniel P. Kunene, it is a re-telling of the story of the rise and fall of the Zulu king circa 1787 – 22nd September 1828. This historical fiction is considered one of the twelve best works of African literature of the 20th century by a panel organized by Ali Mazrui.
Chaka is the illegitimate first-born son of Senzangakhona, a local chieftain and Nandi, daughter of Bhebhe, the past chief of the Elangeni tribe. His father, fearing ridicule from his wives and people repudiates the boy Chaka and his mother. It is this repudiation that fuel’s Chaka’s uncontrollable and pathological ambition for power leading to the moral destruction of the character and subsequent death. As cited by the O. R. Dathorne “The historical Chaka is only the impetus for Mofolo’s psychological study of the nature of repudiation.”
News of Chaka’s rejection and his illegitimacy spreads through the villages, making him the object of ridicule and persecution. Nandi, fearing for her son’s life seeks the help of her native doctor who strengthens Chaka with potent medicines. After this, Chaka’s exceptional bravery is manifested throughout the land when he kills a lion and a hyena respectively, feats that earns him the adoration of the older women and younger ones. It also earns him the envy and hatred of his half siblings and the villagers and he flees.
Chaka’s spectacular rise to power is due to the black magic/medicine/ or sorcery of Isanusi, the great medicine man whose special medicine imbues Chaka with power and exceptional bravery, creating in him a hunger and thirst for unquenchable ambition which is fueled only by the stark need for revenge, culminating in an incessant flow of blood. After the death of his father, Senzangakhona he comes back to his village in grand style and takes over the chieftain. Subsequently after the death of Dingiswayo, king of the Mthetwas and Chaka’s protector, he ascends the Zulu throne as king and embarks upon expansion and consolidation of his empire with such ferocity and speed born out of a singleness of purpose unsurpassed in South African history. Indeed, the historical Chaka is known as the Black Napoleon by many scholars.
It is worthy to note that other interpreters of the novel Chaka, have suggested that Isanusi was a mythical figure created by Chaka to pursue his agenda of power acquisition and mindless revenge. As is noted by Nana of ImageNations,this tragic epic story, Chaka runs parallel, at some fronts, with  Macbeth. For it was Isanusi who promised Chaka the power he desires, it was he who fashioned him a new weapon and also provided him with a strong medicine that would later make him a great King. And it was within this that his end lay.’
To quote Mark Anthony from Julius Caesar ‘ambition is made of sterner stuff.‘ Indeed, Chaka proves this when he made a shattering decision to sacrifice Noliwa his betrothed and sister to Dingiswayo, on the altar of ambition and absolute power.  Through her death, Chaka becomes an absolute monarch, the greatest, most revered and feared King in all Zululand and beyond. His pathological cruelty also knew no bounds.
“In order to comprehend this fully, we should use the example that the number of people killed by him in the ways we have described, is equal to the number of the Basotho, counting every man, woman and child, multiplied three or four-fold. Imagine them all being killed! (Page 153)
Significantly, the death of Noliwa also marks the beginning of the end of Chaka.
Problems of Facts Versus Fiction
The story is narrated by an omniscient narrator. However, he is the first to admit that he does not know or have all the facts.
“I believe that errors of this kind are very many in the book Chaka; but I am not very concerned about them because I am not writing history, I am writing a tale or I should say I am writing what actually happened, but to which a great deal has been added, and from which a great deal has been removed so that such has been left out and much has been written that did not actually happen, with the aim solely of fulfilling my purpose in writing this book” xv
Again he says, “but since it is not our intention to recount all this affairs, of his life, we have chosen only one section which suits our purpose.”
As N R Thoahlane said in the Leselinyana la Lesotho, “By his own testimony, Mofolo in writing this book, did not intend to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Zulu king, but neither did he intend to tell nothing but exaggerations produced by a facile pen.”
There are areas where facts and fiction are at variance with each other. However, according to the translator, Daniel Kunene, in just about all these, the effect is to build up greater intensity in the plot and to increase dramatic tensions and suspense by creating new juxtapositions of highly volatile events and situations.
An example of the above is Mofolo’s version in the issue of Chaka’s illegitimacy. The historical Chaka was not illegitimate. Mofolo’s artistic triumph here is that since the historical Chaka had a tragic flaw of Archillean stature and proportions, Mofolo had to create attendant circumstances to complement that stature. Another example of divergence comes from the killing of Nandi, (Chaka’s mother) by Chaka in Mofolo’s story. Nandi’s expulsion from Senzangakhona’s household is another area of Mofolo’s variance with history. According to Mofolo, Senzangakhona was very much in love with Nandi and it was only because of pressure from his senior wives that he banished her. But other accounts emphasize Nandi’s volatile temper as the cause of her expulsion.
Thomas Mofolo used the African story telling narrative style in Chaka, with its attendant use of repetition of statements and ideas, directly or indirectly, for emphasis.
The effect of the narrator’s reference to the audience, inviting them to be part of the story telling and the use of the omniscient ‘we’ reflects an identification with the audience that forms an intricate part of the African oral story telling technique in African Folkloric Drama and Literature.
Arguably, the story of Chaka is also a story of greatness, of singleness of purpose, of one man’s heroic achievement in brilliant military strategy. Chaka’s hegemony was primarily based on military might, smashing rivals and incorporating scattered remnants into his own army. He supplemented this with a mixture of diplomacy and patronage, incorporating friendly chieftains, winning them over by subtler tactics, such as patronage and reward. In this way a greater sense of cohesion was created, though it never became complete, as subsequent civil wars attest.
The story of Chaka is also a tragic one; where events built around a figure whose very actions or fatal flaw, that is his pathological quest for power leads to his downfall and his death at the hands of his two half brothers and an aid. Sadly and interestingly his death also marked the disintegration of his empire and the beginning of the incursion of the Europeans into what is now known as South Africa.
“You are killing me in the hope that you will be kings when I am dead, where as you are wrong, that is not the way it would be because umlungu, the white man is coming, and it is he who will rule you and you will be his servants.”  P 167
I recommend this great novel for all lovers of historical fiction. -

Chaka is a historical fiction of the life of the founder of the Zulu Kingdom, Chaka, (sometimes spelt Shaka). As an epic tragedy, the story's arc follows the normal curve or the inverted 'U', where events are built up to the peak and begin to descend uncontrollably ending in the demise of the main character, Chaka. In this very novel, Mofolo mixes facts with fiction to recreate the legendary and wondrous life of one of Africa's most mysterious and highly enigmatic figures whose true life is stranger than fiction.
Chaka born out of wedlock became the first male child of Senzangakhona, Chaka's father. His position, however, became precarious after Senzangakhona's senior wives began to bear him male children even though the chief had quickly married Nandi, Chaka's mother, to cover up any suspicions his subjects and concillors might have. But Senzangakhona's wives conspired and impressed upon him to send Chaka and Nandi away from the palace. Fearing that his taboo deed might be found out, Senzangakhona acceded to his wives' demands. In spite of this, and perhaps exacerbated by it, the news of Chaka's rejection and his illegitimacy spread through the villages, making him object of ridicule and persecution.
These boys were persecuting Chaka because they heard vague rumours that suggested it would be a good riddance if they killed him. (Page 12)
Nandi, fearing that her son might be killed by these unscrupulous people, sought the help of her native doctor who strengthened Chaka with potent medicines. Thereafter Chaka's bravery spread throughout the land and women began to sing to his name after he single-handedly rescued a man and young girl from the jaws of a lion and a hyena respectively, when all others had run away or were afraid to come out. But it was these bravery that made him fled his village. In his wanderings he met Isanusi, the diviner promised him by his medicine woman just before she died. And it was Isanusi who gave Chaka all the medicine that would make him great and fearful. Other interpreters of this novel have suggested that Isanusi was a mythical figure created by Chaka to pursue his agenda of power acquisition and wanton revenge. Whatever interpretation one choose, this tragic epic story, Chaka runs parallel, at some fronts, with  Macbeth. For it was Isanusi who promised Chaka the power he desires, it was he who fashioned him a new weapon and also provided him with a strong medicine that would later make him a great King. And it was within this that his end lay.
Chaka's macabre deeds intensified after she killed pregnant Noliwa, the sister of Dingiswayo - king of the Mthetwas who was Chaka's godfather, who took him in when he had no place to go, who supervised his ascent to the Zulu throne and who betrothed his most beloved sister to Chaka - after Isanusi had requested the blood of a loved one as an ingredient required in formulating the medicine that would make Chaka the greatest, most revered and most feared King in all the land, ruling over territories that have no end. After this, the atrocities Chaka committed were innumerable. According to Mofolo,
In order to comprehend this fully, we should use the example that the number of people killed by him in the ways we have described, is equal to the number of the Basotho, counting every man, woman and child, multiplied three or four-fold. Imagine them all being killed! (Page 153) 
Though the story seems to be narrated by an omniscient observer, throughout the novel we discover that the narrator does not know or have all the facts and in numerous places had to resort to conjecture. For instance, as Chaka started having painful dreams when his end was nigh, Mofolo writes
Three times in that same night he dreamed that one dream, from a certain point to a certain point, but the most amazing thing was that he kept waking up when he reached the point of his meeting with Isanusi, even though we are at a loss to know why it was that suddenly he was afraid of his dealings with Isanusi who was his closest friend. (Page 157, emphasis mine) 
In this way the story follows the oral traditional story telling mode common to most Africans. Another, style adopted by Mofolo in this story that is typical to oral story telling is the repetition of statements and of ideas, directly or indirectly, for emphasis.
Mofolo's story has a specific audience, the Basotho people, to whom he frequently addressed in the story. And this is much appreciated if we realise that the story itself was first written and published in Sesotho, the language of the Basotho people of Lesotho. Consequently, sharp analogies are sometimes drawn between these two cultures as a means of elucidating certain parts of the story (as in the quote from page 153 above). The effect of narrator's frequent reference to the audience, inviting them to be part of the story telling and even sometimes using 'we' to indicate that he is as much a part of the telling as of the listening would have been that responses would have been required from the audience.
Many divergences exist between Mofolo's representation of Chaka and his deeds in Chaka and what historical facts and other fictionalised forms, such as Walton Golightly's AmaZulu, presented. The first and obvious difference is with the spelling of 'Chaka' and its implication in Chaka's story. In Golightly's story Chaka was spelt 'Shaka' and it was the name of an intestinal beetle that was said to have infected Nandi when she told Senzangakhona that she was pregnant for him. It was this that led to Shaka leaving the home of his father. Another point of divergence comes from the killing of Nandi by Chaka in Mofolo's story. Again, in Walton's Amazulu Shaka did not murder his mother. He loved her so much, considering her to be his personal talisman or ubulawu, so that when Nandi died from dysentery Shaka began to lose touch with himself and his people. Besides, whereas Golightly attributed Shaka's greatness to his strength, intelligence and bravery, Mofolo attributed it to the metaphysical. According to Mofolo himself
The events in Chaka's life were overwhelming because they were so numerous and of such tremendous import; they were like great mysteries which were beyond the people's understanding. But since it is not our purpose to recount all the affairs of his life, we have chosen only one part which suits our present purpose. (Page 153, emphasis mine)
Thus, Mofolo took numeorus literary licenses to write a story that follows a set plot and suspense. According to Daniel Kunene, the translator of this edition, this was done to provide a dramatic effect to the story. Hence, the story is just what it is meant to be - a story not an exact biographical representation of this Zulu warrior or a recording of historical facts. Even then there are some overlaps at numerous places.
Perhaps Mofolo's depiction of Chaka, as a bloodthirsty ruler without human compassion, who lives only to kill, this morbid presentation of Chaka might have been influenced by the missionaries, especially Casalis, who worked with him and who helped him to publish his work
There is evidence that the first time Mofolo gave any further attention to the 'Chaka' manuscript since 1909 or 1910, was in the early 1920s, which coincides with the return to Lesotho from France of the Reverend A. Casalis who was the one person who constantly advised and encouraged Mofolo in his effort as a writer. ... Gerard asserts, 'the records of the "Conference des missionaires du Lessouto" clearly shows that Casalis was solely and entirely responsible for  the publication of the book'... (page xiii, Introduction)
It is also possible that Mofolo used Chaka's story as a treatise on choice between good and evil. The first time Chaka met Isanusi, the latter laid bare all his commandments that Chaka would have to follow if he is to attain what he desires. He made it known to Chaka that his medicine is extremely evil but also extremely good and it was Chaka who has to make the choice:
The doctor said that the medicine which remained to be used was one which he did not have with him; he said it was a medicine associated with the spilling of blood, with killing: 'It is extremely evil, but it is also extremely good. Choose!' (Page 43)
Before that Chaka has promised to bind himself with all the commandments Isanusi would give him:
Chaka: 'I bind myself to abide by your commandments in every way in which you will command me' (Page 41)
so that even though Chaka's ruthless spilling of blood was a direct result of the medicine, it was Chaka who made the initial decision, the choice.
This book was listed as one of the best African books of the twentieth century. I recommend it for all those who love historical fiction and who want to know more about different cultures. -


Popular posts from this blog

Steven Seidenberg - a dramatic intensification of Seidenberg’s career-long blurring of fiction, poetry, and philosophy—an accomplishment recalling the literary contributions of Blanchot, Bernhard, and pre-impasse Beckett

Leon Forrest - Fabulous, wildly comic, and Ulysses-like. a huge oratorio of the sacred and the profane, set in bars, churches, and barbershops .

Norman Levine, like no other writer, manages to convey, squarely, through this single, sad, common reaching out at strangers, the horrific fear scarred across the nervous system of the post-Munch, post-Bacon, human condition