It’s one of the 21 monosyllabic (or, more correctly, monoconsonantal) verbs in isiZulu (which I’ll write more about in another blog post):
*ba, *fa, *ga, *hlwa, *kha, *lwa, *ma, *mba, *na, *nya, *pha, *sa, *sha, *sho, *tha, *thi, *va, *wa, *ya, *za & *zwa
It has 5 major meanings (and countless idiomatic ones), 8 nominal derivations, at least 5 verbal derivations, and makes up about 21 compound nouns.
It is the verb meaning ‘Die’.
Let’s have a look at the 5 major meanings first:
b) Come to an end, be destroyed; be broken; be ruined, devastated.
c) Be ill, be sick; suffer, be hurt.
d) Faint, have a fit.
e) Fade, wither, wilt (as flower).
So it means more than the English ‘die’, although ‘perish’ does satisfy some of the other meanings.
Idiomatically, it has the general meaning of something being done excessively (‘done to death’ pops into my mind, regarding similar English idiom).
Of the nominal variations, the verbal noun (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t in isiZulu) ukufa means:
b) Sickness, disease.
So the idea here is that you die if you’re sick. You don’t get better.
However, the other nouns have differing interpretations
i(li)fa is ‘property left by deceased’, ‘an estate’ or (inexplicably) a swelling or permanent growth under the skin.
imfa is ‘an outbreak of disease in a community’.
u(lu)fa is a ‘crack, chink, fissure, or cleft (in a rock)’ [also called umfantu]
umufi is ‘a deceased person’
isifo is: a) disease, sickness; b) death; or c) a weakness, failing
Of interest here is that metaphorical relationship between a ‘chink in the armour’ and ‘death’ – any weakness, or any potential weak spot, will lead to death. In the course of research with izinyanga and izangoma, conversations around the source of isifo usually centred around the fact that sickness can only enter the body if the protection provided by the amadlozi (the ancestors) is weakened through lack of attention and due reverence to them by the person concerned – through chinks in the spiritual armour.
Moving on to the verbal derivations, in addition to the usual 7 suffixes and their normal meanings, there are 5 derivations which merit a closer look (as they have developed idiomatic or specialised usage):
*fela – a) to die for, on behalf of; to die at a place; b) Long for, desire earnestly, yearn for; be specially interested in; c) contend to the full, put forth every effort (followed by the locative form of the noun); d) 4 idiomatic usages
*zifela – reflexive form of *fela, meaning ‘to be engrossed in, set the whole mind on something’
*felwa – to lose by death, be bereaved of someone (literally ‘to-be-died-for’)
*fisa – cause to die; die like something (not to be confused with *fisa meaning ‘desire, wish for, want ardently, long for or covet’)
*zifisa – reflexive form of *fisa, meaning ‘to feign death’ (with attendant noun umzifisi, a death-feigner), and literally meaning ‘to cause oneself to die’
It seems clear that the hyperbolic idiom of ukufa (to do something excessively) comes through quite strongly here – to long for something, to contend, and to be engrossed all have death at their centre.
Among the compound nouns the metaphor is fairly standard, although they seem to say much more about the culture than one might initially think:
umafavuke – the ‘one-who-dies-and-rises’, a name given to anything (e.g. an annual plant) that habitually dies and rises again, and also applied to persons who survive serious trouble.
isifabume – the ‘one-who-though-standing-is-dead’, an irredeemable person, one on the road to disaster, a habitual criminal.
ufabase – a sole survivor
i(li)fakabili – the ‘one-who-dies-twice’, a person whose body is believed to be raised by witchcraft in order to be used for evil errands, who is said to have a dwarfish stature and the tip of the tongue cut off.
imfakabili – a second death, a double death; torture, torment
imfamadolo – ‘what-is-dead-in-the-knees’, a ‘weakness in the knees’ or a ‘weak-kneed person’
imfambele – ‘one-with-dead-teats’ – a dry cow
isifamona – ‘one-who-dies-of-jealousy’, a jealous person or animal as well as jealousy and envious hatred
umfamona – ‘person-who-dies-of-jealousy’
isifamxhwele – ‘one-whose-desires-have-died’, a listless person, one who takes no interest in anything. Alternatively, an extremely jealous or over-anxious person
umfayindlala – ‘what-dies-from-hunger’, a species of bush (Pavetta geniculata) whose leaves are used for coughs
i(li)feka – either a) a woman whose husband or child is dead or b) an insolent person, a wretch
umfelwakazi – a widow (the-female-person-who-is-died-for)
umfelwa – a widower (the-person-who-is-died-for)
umfelukholo – a martyr (person-who-dies-for-the-faith)
umfelokazi – widow
ubufelokazi – widowhood
i(li)felakhona – ‘what-dies-on-the-spot’, a species of sea-mollusc or limpet, or else a violently poisonous medicine used in witchcraft.
ufelakhona – ‘he-who-dies-at-the-place’, a person who dies at his post
ufelaphakathi – ‘one-who-dies-within’, a person who controls her inward feelings
umfelawafuthi – ‘what-dies-again’, complete destruction.
As with the rest of the derivations of the verb, there is a sense of destruction and bereavement – as one would expect from a word associated with death. However, the psychological language being used is here quite intriguing – the people who are dead inside, or whose desire is dead, or whose jealousy has killed them.