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The Story of Nongqawuse, the South African Prophetess of Disaster

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Nongqawuse was born in 1841 as an orphan and was raised by her uncle, Mhlakaza, who served as an interpreter and organizer of her visions. 

She became well-known in the 1850s as a Xhosa prophetess in South Africa, when she prophesied that the spirits would sweep English settlers into the sea if the tribe destroyed their crops and killed all their cattle.

Sadly, the tribe followed her advice, resulting in famine and the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Despite her fame, very little is known about Nongqawuse and her motivations for making these prophecies. 

There are only a few records in colonial archives and oral traditions passed down through generations amongst the Xhosa people. 

This lack of evidence makes it challenging to determine who she was, why she made these prophecies, or even if they were accurate.

According to some accounts, Nongqawuse was the niece of Mhlakaza, who was the son of a councillor of Chief Sarhili. 

After his mother’s death, Mhlakaza went to the Cape Colony and became familiar with Christianity before returning to Xhosaland in 1853. 

Nongqawuse’s parents died in the battles of the Waterkloof, which made her conscious and aware of the tensions between the Xhosa and the colonial forces.

The Xhosa had been under attack by British colonial authorities since as early as 1779, and this conflict had led to significant loss of life and widespread sickness among the Xhosa’s cattle. 

Growing up with her uncle as her guardian, Nongqawuse was heavily influenced by Mhlakaza, who was a deeply religious man. 

Despite her tragic legacy, Nongqawuse’s life continues to intrigue scholars and historians, who seek to unravel the mystery surrounding her prophetic visions and their devastating consequences.

Nongqawuse Prophecy 

In April of 1856, Nongqawuse, a 15-year-old Xhosa girl, and her friend Nombanda were tending to her uncle’s crops in the fields near the Gxarha River when she claimed to have encountered the spirits of two of her ancestors. 

During this time, Nongqawuse was approached by two strangers who conveyed nine ancestral pronouncements to her. 

These included the resurrection of the dead, the slaughter of all living cattle, the cessation of cultivation, the need to dig new grain, build new houses and cattle enclosures, make new milk sacks, weave doors with buka roots, and abandon witchcraft, incest, and adultery.

These were the primary sources of wealth and food for the Xhosa, and the message came at a time when they were already experiencing significant losses due to European settlers and their livestock, who were encroaching on Xhosa land. 

Nongqawuse claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should take these drastic measures to cleanse their land of the “contamination” brought by the settlers and their livestock.

In exchange for their obedience, the spirits promised to sweep all European settlers into the sea and allow the Xhosa people to replenish their granaries with new grain and fill their kraals with more beautiful and healthier cattle.

Nongqawuse reported these instructions to her uncle, Mhlakaza, who relayed them to royal officials. 

Despite their initial skepticism, the officials eventually visited Mhlakaza’s homestead and the Gxarha River with Nongqawuse, and became convinced of her prophecies. 

From then on, Nongqawuse acted as a medium of communication between the ancestors and the people, while Mhlakaza served as her interpreter and organizer. 

She acted as the channel through which the ancestral spirits conveyed their messages to the Xhosa people. 

There are no records of Nongqawuse’s exact words during this period, only accounts of what others observed and experienced through her.

Nongqawuse’s prophecy was initially met with skepticism by many Xhosa leaders, who were aware of the risks involved in such a drastic course of action. 

However, after Nongqawuse’s uncle and other trusted leaders became convinced of the truth of her vision, word began to spread among the Xhosa people. 

Many believed that this was the message they had been waiting for, and they began to destroy their crops and slaughter their cattle en masse.

Mhlakaza, on the other hand, played a critical role in interpreting and organizing Nongqawuse’s prophecies and visions, providing guidance and direction to the Xhosa people on how to fulfill the spirits’ demands.

At the time when Nongqawuse shared the prophecy, the Xhosa herds were suffering from “lung sickness,” possibly introduced by European cattle. 

Initially, Mhlakaza was skeptical of her claims. However, he became convinced when she described the appearance of his deceased brother. 

Mhlakaza then relayed the prophecy to Sarili, the Xhosa king. 

The cattle-killing frenzy that ensued affected not only Sarili’s clan but the entire Xhosa nation. 

According to historians, between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle were killed by the Gcaleka, Sarili’s clan.

Despite the widespread belief in Nongqawuse’s prophecy, not all Xhosa people accepted it. 

Some Xhosa people, known as the amagogotya, refused to kill their cattle and neglect their crops. 

This refusal was cited by Nongqawuse to explain the failure of the prophecy over a period of fifteen months, from April 1856 to June 1857.

After Nongqawuse’s prophecies failed to come true, pressure mounted on her and Mhlakaza to explain why. 

Mhlakaza made excuses, but people started to lose faith in the prophecy, and many Xhosa were left starving due to the destruction of their crops and cattle. 

Nongqawuse was eventually handed over to Major Gawler, who kept her at his home for a while. During this time, her portrait was taken with Mpongo prophetess Nonkosi. 

In 1858, Nongqawuse was taken to the Paupers’ Lodge in Cape Town as a prisoner. 

After this, there is no official record of her, but rumors persist about her whereabouts. 

Some say she was living on a farm in Alexandria near Port Elizabeth in 1905, while others claim she was alive in 1910 under the name Victoria Regina.

 In 1938, a journalist claimed to have found her in Alexandria, where two elders in the neighborhood said she had settled on a farm, married, and had two daughters. 

There are rumors that she is buried on the farm of Glenthorn near Alexandria with her two daughters. 

Jeff Peires, the author of “The Dead Will Arise,” claims to have visited Alexandria and met Nongqawuse’s great-niece and great-nephew.

There are different perspectives on Nongqawuse and her prophecies, and understanding her requires considering the interpretation of her visions, which were not unique among the Xhosa. 

One point of contention is whether Nongqawuse was an autonomous woman or an innocent child manipulated by her uncle. 

Scholars like Jeff Peires view her as a child who was contacted by her ancestors due to her purity and communicated with Mhlakaza, who informed the chiefs. 

On the other hand, Helen Bradford treats Nongqawuse as an active agent, who may have been a victim of incest and orphaned due to colonial conflict. 

Bradford suggests that Nongqawuse was actively condemning immorality in her society, drawing upon ancestry and prophecy to authorize her declarations. 

Conclusion 

However, in Xhosa oral traditions, Nongqawuse is portrayed as a villain or foolish girl who betrayed her people and caused their downfall, with some even speculating that she was manipulated by the colonial authorities who dressed up as ancestors to trick her.

The true identity of Nongqawuse before her encounter with the two strangers remains a mystery. 

It is uncertain whether she was a genuine prophet or a young girl who was manipulated by her uncle or deceived in some way. 

Her motivations and intentions are also unclear, with some believing she was actively condemning the moral decay of her society while others view her as a traitor who sold out her people to colonial authorities. 

Despite the lack of clarity, it is clear that history has not been kind to Nongqawuse, who is often solely blamed for the downfall of the Xhosa nation.

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