The people of this continent have long been working with metal, as people have in many other parts of the world. The smelting or shaping of metal was often regarded as a sacred and magical act, and is the source of the modern sciences of chemistry and metallurgy. Those who smelted the metal, the Hephaestuses and izinswelaboya, the burly creatures in the smoke with a hammer and anvil, became symbols of invention, ingenuity, alchemical craft and sorcery. In isiZulu, the umKhandi weNsimbi was closely associated with the other spiritual vocations, such as the izinyanga and izangoma – and as with these others, the line between good and evil wasn’t often very clear.

For the amaZulu, the metals found in the earth or in the meteorites had different characters:

Fe / iron is insimbi – the bells cast by missionaries from clear-ringing metal, the characteristic thing about someone (Leyo yinsimbi yakhe = that his his way), and sometimes simply ‘metal’. It is an old word, similar to others in neighbouring languages.

Cu / copper is either i(li)thusi elibomvu or usoklele – either the reddish one that startles by the sound of its arrival or ‘the one who cannot keep a secret’. In either case, the proverb has it that ‘akukho thusi lathetha lilodwa’ or ‘no copper speaks scoldingly on its own’.

Pb / lead is umthofu, the heavy-set squidgy one yielding to touch.

Strangely Gold and Silver have no indigenous terms recorded in the dictionary. The closest to a  word not derived from European languages (igolide and isiliva) is the word imali. imali is either from the English ‘money’ or (according to Bryant) from the Arabic ‘mal’ meaning ‘property’, comparing it to the Swahili ‘mali’ meaning ‘wealth’. So a tentative one here is to follow the words for a silver and gold coin – imali emhlophe and imali ebomvu.

If the usual colour symbolism is followed, then gold has the characteristics of redness and silver has those of whiteness. I’m sensing there is an entire alchemical system waiting to be explored here.

{more on this later, I think. work is calling}