Englishing Mqhayi

S.E.K. Mqhayi (1875-1945)

1. At one moment in The Brown Book (1934-35), a preliminary draft of what became the Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein (1889-1951) reflects on the challenges of translation, imagining what might be involved in bringing the language of an fictional ‘tribe’ into English. Part of the difficulty, he insists, is that translation is never simply a matter of linguistic transfer:

Whether a word of the language of our tribe is rightly translated into a word of the English language depends upon the role this word plays in the whole life of the tribe; the occasions on which it is used, the expressions of emotion by which it is generally accompanied, the ideas which it generally awakens or which prompt its saying, etc., etc. (§48, p. 103).

This underpins a key aspect of Wittgenstein’s new thinking in the 1930s, when he began to take issue with the governing ‘picture’ metaphors of the Tractatus (1921), which foreground the relationship between language an the world, shifting to the ‘game’ analogies of the Investigations, which focus on the relationship between language and culture, or what he would go on to call a ‘Lebensform’ (life-form or mode of life) — see ‘Strip Teasy’ post. As this passage indicates, a ‘Lebensform’ for Wittgenstein includes social practices and dialogic forms, the cognitive as well as the affective, and more.

2. S. E. K. Mqhayi (1875-1945), the leading Xhosa imbongi (ceremonial poet), writer, journalist, historian, and language activist of his generation, was acutely aware of these challenges, though, in his case, the strange ‘tribe’ comprised the decidedly non-fictional architects of the British empire. Reacting against the mission-educated intellectuals who switched to English in the 1880s, Mqhayi made it his life project to defend, reform, and enrich isiXhosa, now one of South Africa’s eleven official languages (with an estimated 8.2 million first-language speakers). As he recognized, this inevitably involved much more than a knotty set of linguistic and orthographic issues. He had, in addition, to address an array of historical, social, and political questions concerning the threats to Xhosa culture, given the dominance of English and everything that came with it, first under British rule in the Cape Colony and then, after 1910, under white South African rule in the Union of South Africa. The subtlety and sophistication with which Mqhayi approached these questions, which stands in marked contrast to the prevailing colonialist views of the time, can, as Wittgenstein intimated, be seen through his handling of one key word: ‘Bible’.

3. In the final section of ‘Aa! Hail the Hero of Britain!’, a sardonic ‘praise’ poem he wrote on the occasion the Prince of Wales’s imperial propaganda tour of South Africa in 1925, Mqhayi marked the foreigness of the word and everything it signified for Xhosa culture by using the English loan iBhayibhile

Hay’ kodw’ iBritan’ eNkulu –
Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile;
Yeza nomfundis’ exhag’ ijoni;
Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile;
Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo.
Tarhu, Bawo, sive yiphi na?
Gqithela phambili, Thol’ esilo,
Nyashaz’ ekad’ inyashaza!

Hail, Great Britain –
You come with a bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other;
You come with a preacher assisted by a soldier;
You come with gunpowder and bullets;
You come with cannons and guns-which-bend-like-knees.
Please forgive me o God, but whom should we obey?
Go past, Calf-of-the-big-animal,
Trasher-with-the-feet, trashing us for a long time already!

This passage includes loans for other foreign concepts and things too: ‘kanunu’ from ‘cannon’, ‘ibhotile’ from ‘bottle’ (here a metonym for ‘alcohol’, ‘spirits’ especially), and ‘ijoni’ for ‘soldier’ (an adaptation of Johnny). This is an extract from the 2008 translation of the revised 1942 text by Antjie Krog, Ncebakazi Saliwa, and Koos Oosthuyzen. In the latest version, which appears in the anthology Stitching a Whirlwind (2018), Oosthuyzen and Gabeba Baderoon made other choices. They opted simply for ‘shotgun’ rather than the more poetic ‘guns-which-bend-like-knees’, for instance, and rendered the final line as ‘Trampler who has been trampling forever!’

3.1 The poem itself, or rather Mqhayi’s public performance of a version of it at a mass gathering for the Prince in King William’s Town (now Qonce) on 20 May 1925, supports Wittgenstein’s claims about the intercultural challenges of translation, especially when seen from the perspective of the attendant colonial officials and journalists. For them, Mqhayi was a ‘praise poet’ who, as this honorific suggests, could be relied on to raise the tone of a public occasion, singing the praises of leaders, chiefs, or a figure like the visiting Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII). What they got, however, was a skilled imbongi making the most of the opportunity his traditional role really afforded, which was, as a defender of free expression, to speak truth to power. Hence Mqhayi’s forthright reckoning of Britain’s imperial adventures and his description of the Prince as ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’, part of a long line of ‘dung-coloured’ British ‘tramplers’ going back to Queen Victoria, the original ‘she-buffalo’.

The Illustrated London News noted that Mqhayi ‘wore a vermilion cape’, while ‘the chiefs behind’ him were ‘attired in a queer mixture of European garments.’ Given the significance of the colour red in Xhosa culture, this is a pointed contrast. However, the authenticity of this photograph is debatable. Other accounts have Mqhayi dressed in the full regalia of an imbongi, including a leopard-skin ‘kaross‘ (cloak), and a spear (see below).

3.2 Did Mqhayi’s words cut through the barriers of language and culture on that autumn day in 1925? If the tendentious British news coverage is anything to go by, the answer is probably no. According to the Illustrated London News, ‘the mbongo chanted the Prince’s praises’ and in response the crowd of 10,000 ‘shouted words meaning “Let the heavens drop blessings”‘ (ILN, 13 June 1925, p. 1170). In his most detailed account of the event, Ralph Deakin, the correspondent for the London Times who furnished the ILN copy, repeated this view, calling Mqhayi, whom he never named, ‘the official tribal chanter of praises’  (Southward Ho!, 1925, 91-92). He also claimed ‘the ten thousand voices cheered merrily’, shouting ‘”Imvula Mayine!” (Let the heaven drop blessings!).’ Since the phrase, translated literally, means  ‘Let it rain!’, it is unclear whether the crowd was invoking heaven’s blessings or hoping the Prince might help bring an end to the droughts they had recently suffered. For Deakin, the Prince’s semi-official chanter in print, the event was little more than a mass expression of loyalty to the Empire and so a further endorsement of the tour’s propaganda mission. Yet he noted that Mqhayi ‘sat with a look of dread uneasiness’ before his performance and that the Prince ended the proceedings by cautioning the crowd ‘against tendencies to mistrust those in authority.’ So perhaps someone had intimated that Mqhayi’s ‘praises’ were not all they seemed. Reading the poem in the context of the equally colonialist British Pathé News coverage of the royal visit makes the poetic and political trenchancy of Mqhayi’s performance clearer still. 

The Prince of Wales on his South African tour in 1925

4. A decade earlier, in his classic prose work Ityala Lamawele (The Lawsuit of the Twins, 1914), Mqhayi used a different term for ‘Bible’, focusing on the moment it arrived among the amaXhosa with British missionaries and their military attendants in the early nineteenth century. ‘Aniyivanga n’imbalasane yomQulu ozayo?’, or, in Thokozile Mabeqa’s 2018 translation, ‘Did you not hear the great news of the coming Book?’ (77). Asked by Dumisani, official court imbongi of the historical King Hintsa (1789-1835), this question forms part of the poem that concludes Ityala Lamawele. As the context makes clear, Dumisani is alluding to the visionary speeches the wise elder Khulile had given earlier in the narrative. Among other things, Khulile refers to ‘a Book [yomQulu], a Volume with many parts gathered into it, that will come from the west, carried by foreign nations emerging from the sea.’ This ‘Book’, he adds, will tell of ‘the resurrection of the dead’ (69). A key figure in the story of the lawsuit—he intervenes decisively in the judicial proceedings — Khulile is a vital repository of oral history, including customary law, a prophet who warns of the ‘pandemonium’ to come, and an advocate of creative engagement with Christianity and the new literate order it presages (69). ‘You must look to the Book,’ he insists, ‘study it in the morning and in the evening, because help will come through greater understanding’ (70).

4.1 Mqhayi’s choice of ‘yomQulu’ (‘umqulu’ is the modern basic form) reflects his acute understanding of the relationship between language and culture. In context it means, as Pamela Maseko explains in the introduction to the new Africa Pulse translation, ‘something voluminous, consisting of volumes, the Bible’ (xi). Given its literal sense — ‘roll’ as in ‘a roll of cloth or material’ — Mqhayi may also have wanted the word to signal a precolonial worldview on grounds Wittgenstein would have appreciated. Looking back from a distance of almost a century to a turning point in Xhosa history, he does not have Khulile or Dumisani use an anachronistic loanword like ‘iBhayibhile’. Nor does he have them use ‘incwadi’, the more general isiXhosa word for ‘book,’ another term developed after the arrival of ‘the tribe with the very smooth hair’ (77). ‘Incwadi’ is an ingenious poetic extension of the root word ‘cwadi’, which refers to the Boophone disticha, a bulbous African flowering plant with a brown, papery stem. That the stem looks like the densely packed leaves of a book no doubt explains this figurative elaboration, though other factors may also have been at play. As some of the common English and Afrikaans names indicate — ‘poison bulb’/’gifbol’ and ‘sore-eye flower’/’seeroogblom’ — the Boophone disticha not only has a book-like stem. It is poisonous and bad for the eyes. The precolonial ‘yomQulu’ sidesteps these anachronistic, potentially ambiguous associations.

Boophone disticha
Common names: century plant, poison bulb, sore-eye flower (English); gifbol, seeroogblom, kopseerblom, boesmangif, perdespook (Afrikaans); kxutsana-yanaha, motlatsisa (S. Sotho); incumbe, siphahluka (Swazi); incotho, incwadi (Xhosa, Zulu); ibhade (Zulu)

5. Mqhayi’s sensitivity to the historical and cultural embeddedness of language is also reflected in the inventive way he uses the defamiliarizing device of focalization in Ityala to describe the arrival of the British, their strange language, and mysteriously lethal weaponry through the eyes of early-nineteenth-century Xhosa royal messengers:

It comes from the sea; it is a tribe that looks as though it regularly attacks other tribes. Their language is so complicated, no one understands it. As for fighting, they are powerful people who fight using the heavens; the heavens thunder once, smoke and fire explode, and then something falls in the distance. (Lawsuit, 72-73)

In the original 1914 preface to Ityala, he clarified the stakes involved in his literary-linguistic project, underscoring the inseparability of language and culture, while also leaving no doubt about the broader challenges facing the amaXhosa:

The language and mode of life of the Xhosa people are gradually disappearing because of the Gospel [he used ‘yeliZwi’, literally ‘the voice’] and the new civilisation which came with the nations from the West, the sons of George (Gogi) and his wife (Magogi). (3)

In a note, the editors of the Africa Pulse edition explain the sardonically playful allusion to Gog and Magog, the biblical barbarian hordes who threaten the civilized order of the amaXhosa: ‘The British King George V (Gogi) and his wife, the queen (Magogi),’ father and mother to the trampling ‘Calf-of-the-big-animal’ (80).


I am grateful to Koos Oosthuysen and Pamela Maseko for their advice on various aspects of isiXhosa usage. Parts of this post appeared inLiterary Space/Creative Practice: Reading Ityala Lamawele in English Today‘, Current Writing, 33.1 (2021).

For more on Mqhayi and the Bible, see Ncedile Saule, ‘S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Bible: Traditional poetry and essays in context‘, Southern African Journal for Folklore Studies, 21.2 (December 2011).

For another translation of ‘Hail’, see S. E. K. Mqhayi, Iziganeko Zesizwe, eds. Jeff Opland and Peter. T. Mtuze, (2017), 246-57. This is based on the longer, 140-line version of the text printed in Imvo Zabanstundu (‘Black Opinion’) on 31 March 1925 (note the date), rather than the edited and revised 80-line version which appeared in Mqhayi’s later collection Inzuzo (1942), the source for the 2008 and 2018 translations. As the 31 March date indicates, Mqhayi produced a written address to the Prince in advance of his three-month tour of South Africa, which ran from May to July 1925. It was as forthright as the 1942 version. Exactly what he improvised on 20 May 1925 will never be known, though his oral performance is likely to have borne some relation to the printed versions.

For more on Mqhayi and the imbongi tradition, see Jeff Opland and S.E.K. Mqhayi, ‘Two Unpublished Poems by S. E. K. Mqhayi‘, Research in African Literatures, 8.1 (Spring, 1977); and Jeff Opland, Xhosa Oral Poetry (1983; Cambridge, 2009). And for a photograph of Mqhayi in the full regalia of an imbongi, see the cover of S. E. K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe: Historical and Biographical Writings, 1902-1944, ed. Opland (2009).

David Yali-Manisi (1926-99), Mqhayi’s successor in the imbongi tradition, took up his preoccupation with the oppressive duality of the British legacy, symbolized most powerfully by the gun and the Bible, in a series of performances during the apartheid era, notably at the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) in the late 1970s. See Jeff Opland, ‘The Image of the Book in Xhosa Oral Poetry’, Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, ed. Andrew van der Vlies (Wits University Press, 2012), especially pp. 298-305.

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