"Wife of the former Chief" : the agency of widows in 1840s Natal.

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Seminar Date
November 5, 2008
In Norman Etherington’s seminal work on South African missions history Preachers, Peasants and Politics in Southeast Africa, 1835 – 1880: African Christian Communities in Natal, Pondoland and Zululand, Nembula Makhanya, or Ira Adams Nembula, is one of the first people to confront the reader. His family’s participation in the “civilising mission” is laid out and juxtaposed with the tale of Nembula’s Qwabe cousin Musi, and Musi’s son Meseni.1 This juxtaposition is used as a way into the book, an illustration of the strikingly divergent routes taken by amakholwa (or converts) and "traditionalists" under chiefs in nineteenth-century Natal, following the displacement of thousands from Zululand during and after the formation of the Zulu kingdom.2 On Nembula’s side, we see the establishment of the Adams Mission converts, and on Musi’s, the revival of the Qwabe through the practice of ukuvusa – the purposeful resuscitation or awakening of an extinct chiefly line. This paper takes another look at these two families, and extends the discussion to include the Christian Dubes of Inanda Mission, Natal. I identify a common thread connecting these families: the particular situation, and choices, of chiefly widows; and argue that the stark divergences Etherington describes can be better, or more richly understood by looking at the dynamics around particular women, their possessions or lack of possessions, their roles in homestead production, and their sons.
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