In my favourite isiZulu-English dictionary, there are a few valuable veins of vocabulary, or nodes. I’ve written about them before – amabutho, izinja, imibala, izinyoka, izinyoni, iziphoso, izinhlanzi and izihlobo are the main ones. Today, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been working quite closely with the first of these groups.

I(li)butho has three meanings, all derived from the parent verb, ukubutha. The verb means “to gather together, collect” and “to recruit, enrol in a regiment, take a census”. The noun I’ve been working with a lot therefore means:

1. Regiment, age-grade, band enrolled by a Zulu king (whether of men or girls).
2. Member of a regiment, warrior, soldier.
3. Members of the same age-grade (not confined to human beings).

What’s an ‘age-grade’? It turns out that in order to understand the idea of ibutho, you then also need to understand the concept of intanga:

1. Age-grade.
2. Person belonging to the same age-grade; one of the same age, ability, or attainments.
3. Man’s private hut.

It equates to the idea of cohorts in sociology, and is the same in many cultures (Ancient Athens being one shining example). Basically, boys or girls of the same age would grow up together, become adults together, and then be enrolled together into the same regiment by whomever was the inkosi yesizwe at the time.

So that’s what an age-grade means, and it’s important because of the way that the regiments were deployed in battle – in the izimpondo zenyathi (the buffalo’s horns), the oldest and most seasoned amabutho are placed esifubeni (in the chest), with the younger and less experienced placed in either one of the izimpondo (the horns). This means that a full mobilization of the entire army, an ukhukhulelangoqo, would consist of men aged from 16 to 50, all fighting in a specific regiment in the army and carrying a specially marked shield.

So I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately because I’m teaching Zulu history via the izibongo zamakhosi (the praises of the kings) – Dingiswayo for the Grade 7s, Cetshwayo for my Grade 8s, Dingane for Grade 9s and Ilemb’ eleq’ amany’ amalembe for the Grade 10s.

Reading and reciting the deeds of all of these famous kings is an exhilarating and rich experience, particularly because it evokes my memories of stories that my father and other men have told me about Zulu history. It especially reminds me of one of the greatest moments of the military history of the amaZulu – the battle of Isandlwana.

In this battle, which took place on the 22nd of January 1879, the British force were annihilated by a far superior Zulu impi comprising 13 amabutho, under the overall command of Induna Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza. The king at the time of the battle was Cetshwayo kaMpande, the grand-nephew of Shaka kaSenzangakhona. He and his father, Mpande kaSenzangakhona, were responsible for forming the regiments that fought in the battle. They were named as follows:

In the chest:

isAngqu: formed by Mpande of men born in 1828, these 50-year-old veterans formed the hard core of Cetshwayo’s army. The name is also given to the Orange River, and is derived from the ideophone ngqu denoting “the sound of butting or ramming”, “whiteness”, “pouring over” and “the frustration of coming up against an obstacle”. So their name essentially means “the immovable object”.

uDududu: also formed by Mpande, these warriors were named for their repetitive footfalls, for the thundering sound of their steps as they gallop into battle.

uKhandempemvu: another one of Mpande’s regiments, called the-ones-with-the-white-spotted-tops-of-the-head.

imBube: the Lion, another one of Mpande’s regiments as fierce as its namesake.

uNokhenke: the Trotters, another of Mpande’s regiments.

…. and the left horn:

uNdi: the second regimental name derived from an ideophone. Ndi denotes “flying, floating in the air, or roaming”, as well as “striking a blow on a soft body”, “reverberating” and “drinking or guzzling to repletion”. The other nouns derived from this ideophone are used to denote a high pinnacle or ridge, as well as the brim of something. Their name is a combination of all of these – the flying soft-place-striking resoundingly guzzling pinnacle regiment.

inGobamakhosi: the King-tamers, the first regiment formed by Cetshwayo, after the uKhandempemvu of his father. This regiment is presumably named in reference to the victory that gave Cetshwayo his kingship – where he defeated his brother (and would-be king) Mbuyazi at the battle of Ndondakusuka.

umBonambi: a rather strange name for a regiment – the ill omen. I presume that this is one of Cetshwayo’s regiments, although the exact circumstances of its naming are a mystery.

umXhapho: the Lappers, a regiment formed by Mpande. Their name is also derived from an ideophone. Xhápha denotes “boiling, bubbling up”, “lapping up”, “squandering, waste and carelessness”, “squelching mud” and “abundance”. Its related verb, ukuxhapha, denotes “lapping like a dog”.

… and finally, the right horn:

uThulwana: the Small Hornless Beasts, a regiment formed by Mpande of which Cetshwayo was himself a member.

uDloko: the Savages, also a regiment formed by Mpande, in the year after the iNdlondlo regiment.

iNdlondlo: the Vipers, a fearsome band of warriors formed by Mpande just after the iNkonkoni regiment.


iNdluyengwe: the Leopard’s House, an Mpande regiment formed after the uNokhenke mentioned above.

In total, there were 20000 warriors in these 13 regiments, all camped in
silence on the morning of the 22nd of January, the day of the Dead Moon on which it was ill-omened to fight. But they fought, having been provoked.

They completely annihilated the British forces, and did it so thoroughly that the right horn didn’t get more than a sniff of battle. Their frustration at not being allowed to “eat” in the battle led them to disobey direct orders, attacking Rorke’s Drift Mission on the same day with dramatically different results.