Queen Nandi: The Unyielding Mother of Shaka Zulu

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Queen Nandi, mother of the legendary Zulu King Shaka was born Nandi Ndlovukazi kaBhebe in the 1760s in Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, her life is an embodiment of leadership, and the enduring power of maternal love.

Nandi, whose name means “The Sweet One,” was the daughter of Bhebhe, a minor chief. From an early age, she embraced the responsibilities expected of Zulu girls, assisting her mother with household chores such as fetching water, sowing the land, and collecting firewood. Her life took a dramatic turn during a visit to relatives when she encountered King Senzangakhona Kajama of the Zulu people.

In a twist of fate, Nandi and the King engaged in ukuhlobonga, a non-penetrative act permitted for unmarried couples according to Zulu customs. This ritual, however, led to a breach of tradition, and Nandi became pregnant. Her claim of pregnancy was initially met with skepticism by the King and his elders. Nonetheless, as her pregnancy progressed, the truth became undeniable, and she gave birth to a son named Shaka.

King Senzangakhona eventually married Nandi, making her his third wife. However, their union was fraught with difficulties, as it was considered a forbidden inter-clan marriage. Nandi and her son Shaka faced constant abuse, prompting Nandi to flee back to her people, the eLangeni, leaving Shaka behind with his father. The young Shaka endured significant hardship and mistreatment in his mother’s absence until he was eventually returned to her.

The eLangeni, however, cast out Nandi and Shaka during the famine of 1802, forcing them to seek refuge elsewhere. They found solace with the Qwabe people, where Nandi married Gendeyana and bore a son named Ngwadi. Despite her new union, Nandi continued to face persecution due to the forbidden nature of her marriage. Once again, she and her children were forced to flee, finding sanctuary with the Mthethwa (Mtetwa) people.

Under the protection of Chief Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa, Shaka began his ascent. He joined the ranks of Dingiswayo’s warriors, proving his valor and strategic brilliance. Recognizing Shaka’s potential, Dingiswayo named him his successor, setting the stage for one of the most remarkable reigns in African history.

Upon the death of King Senzangakhona, Shaka seized his father’s throne through force, appointing his mother, Nandi, as his Queen and closest advisor. She was honored with the title Ndlorukazi, “The Great She Elephant.” Despite ruling a people who often feared and disliked her, Nandi’s influence was profound. She rode an elephant and established regiments of female warriors, asserting her strength and authority.

Queen Nandi’s death on October 10, 1827, from dysentery marked a significant turning point. Shaka, in his profound grief, ordered a year of mourning characterized by extreme measures. He decreed that all milk be poured out, no crops cultivated, and all pregnant women, along with their husbands, be killed. Additionally, ten living maidens were buried alongside Nandi to serve her in the afterlife, and 12,000 soldiers were stationed to guard her gravesite.

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