The Zhiiii : excerpt from The Horns

Mostly, he remembered the stories. How he loved and learned those stories, specially those stories of the great Zulu King Shaka.

His eyes were fixed on the lightening of the day as his imagination pictured the oil-shined bodies of warriors, sweating with the excitement of preparation for battle. The King needed more cattle, and he had thrown the spear at the Inxwala so that warriors could blood their spears against a troublesome tribe. He imagined the brave shouts of the amabutho as they told each other “never fear pain”; “die with courage”; “the enemy will fall as water to our feet”. 

He imagined the battle itself – the silence of the ‘creeping’ as the amabutho moved imperceptibly closer to the enemy in the blackness of night, their backs to the mark where the scouts told that the sun would rise. They would creep and stop . . . and creep and stop . . . but not too close – never too close.

The first creeping was the new maShoja – once they were enemy who were hated, then they became slaves. When they were loyal and proved they were brave enough, they became maShoja or aMatcha amaZulu– fighters of the Zulu people.

While the enemy slept, it was time for the second creeping – this time, the trusted warriors, the impi. Even in the dark, their oiled bodies gleamed against the featureless bush.

Then the ‘kneeling’ – with no sound – no moving until the sky behind them washed with early morning red. As they knelt, the strong runners circled, up and round behind the enemy to form ‘iphondo zinkomo– the horns of the bull – running on noiseless feet.

Then – the silence.

Last of all, the backward legs. The a’madoda impi – lookingback and to the sides, keeping eyes wide for enemy attacking from behind. The umfanas were hidden with them, ready to take long shields and iklwa to the warriors when they needed them. 

As the red streaked across the sky just before the sun leapt up bright behind them, he imagined the slow half-standing of the first creeping, with shields turned sideways. Still silence – silence for as long as a big pot took to boil on a wood fire.

Then – the Zhii. Tchzhee . . . zhee. The hissing.

Jabu’s body ached and thrilled to the fear of the zhii. The enemy, hearing and understanding, running, running all over like frightened ants when their nest is disturbed by a big foot. They would hear shouts of “AmaZulu! AmaZulu!”

The awful, inescapable zhii until the horns were in place. The frightened ants – running this way – then that way. Looking. Running again. The zhii, the zhii– louder and louder.

Then – the King shouts.

The first creeping, crack their shields flat in front of them with a loud noise – their iklwa in the other hand – moving slow, steady, strong. Now bending so the enemy can see the second creeping behind as they stand up tall and roar and leap and gyrate and scream, their ostrich feathers making them giants in the early morning.

Jabu’s imagination was filled with the sights and sounds of the battle. The ants flee – into impi horns on the one side . . . then on the other side. The spears grow red. Above the screams and roars, he hears the squelch of iklwa as the warriors pull them from the weak and the dying.

Jabu’s head sank between his knees – he felt exhausted by the intensity of the imagined battle. After a few moments, and as the images faded from his mind, he remembered the Zulu rules.

Strong fighters were tied together, and a chosen clan herded to the Zulu place for punishment. All young children were killed. Women were chosen for strength and beauty – those still suckling were allowed to take their babies with them. Old men and women went too – it was tradition – to bring blessing to them for wisdom and kindness


[1]Inxwala: the Great Dance and the first fruits ceremony

[2]amabutho: Matebele warriors

[3]maShoja or aMatcha: warrior, fighter (single)

[4]impi: once meaning a group of armed men; Shaka changed this to mean a regiment

[5]a’madoda: the old men

[6]iklwa: the short stabbing spear of the Zulus, the name derives from the sound made as the spear was pulled from a body

[7]Zhii: The closed teeth hissing of the regiments before an attack.

Esigodini Anglican church

The Essexvale Church was growing towards completion and it looked as though the consecration would take place just after we got back. Gresham had been asked to train up the choir for the occasion and all the boys involved in building the church were to be present to see the Bishop knock three times on the big wooden doors. 

    The carpentry boys under Roger Malusalila were in the process of designing and carving those doors and they looked as though they would be appropriately magnificent. The church looked gracious and cool with its lofty roof. It was built using an attractive local stone and became another vital project for the boys, as many of them came from areas where there was a lot of good building stone. Their skills had been honed in this process and the stonework was good. The doors were also suitably impressive and fitted together perfectly.

    The whole school turned out as a sort of guard of honour, handing out leaflets and welcoming the guests. Rex Coleman and Trevor Booth would be opening the doors in response to the Bishop’s knock. I was playing the piano for the grand entry and the subsequent hymns and had dressed up in my best finery – flouncy hat and all.

    The church was filled to capacity. Three loud knocks echoed around the stone building. There was hushed expectation as Rex and Trevor moved forward to sweep their respective doors open with a flourish. Nothing happened.  

The way they were made meant that one had to be opened just slightly ahead of the other for either to open. Three times they tried. Nothing happened. Slight panic and a few speculative looks… another three knocks… then Rex pulled his door a fraction before Trevor and thank God, they swung open. 

    The Bishop and his suitably impressive retinue walked in with solemn pomp and unruffled ceremony. The doors now let in a shaft of sunlight so bright that I couldn’t see my music! Someone rushed over with a sunshade and shaded the pages for me, but was so busy watching what else was going on that the spines caught up in my hat.  

    I hung suspended by my hat for the rest of the hymn before my assistant realised what had happened. The rest of the occasion passed without any further commotion! 

    We were very pleased at the level of recognition given to the school, ‘a living memorial to these boys…’ the Bishop intoned.


THE HORNS: the beginning

THE HORNS: the beginning

The pressure was on when I was able to meet up with one of those three in Botswana in 2010. That meeting covered every possible topic - we spoke from the heart, confronted issues difficult to us both, affected as we had been, by a war which saw us on opposite sides.  I found a remarkable man who spoke with generosity and gentleness, and with such acute observations ...