In isiZulu, there is a specific verb for carrying something on your shoulder or head – ukuthwala. Somehow this verb is at the heart of the phrase titling this blog – the translation of the Stark House words “Winter is Coming”. 

Allow me to explain.

Ukuthwala is derived from the Ur-Bantu word -tu denoting a head, which is then made into the verb -tuala denoting “do the head thing”. It’s a stative verb, and it means the following:

1. Carry on head or shoulders, or a load gripped in the hands; act as baggage carrier

2. Be pregnant (euphemistic term for ukumitha)  

There are also over 11 different idiomatic uses of the verb, and numerous nouns (such as umthwalo, a burden) derived from it. As with all isiZulu verbs, it also has numerous izimpambosi – the perfect, passive, neuter, applied, reciprocal, causative, intensive and diminutive – but there’s one in particular which is of interest here. It’s the contracted form of the causative. 

The causative impambosi usually means “cause this action to occur”, and usually involves suffixing -isa to the stem. If a verb ends with -ala, then the causative is contracted to -asa or -aza. Thwala, as an irregular verb, becomes thwesa or, more importantly, thwasa. 

Let’s start with thwesa:

1. cause to carry; help to carry, help to lift a load

2. teach, initiate into a profession

So helping someone to carry a burden is how you initiate them into a profession. Or, more accurately, by getting someone to carry your bags for you, the expert. After all, that’s what interns and appies have been doing forever (along with making tea, of course). 

The nouns derived from thwesa show that this irregular form of the verb focus on one specific aspect of the ‘carrying’ metaphor:

intwesi: a sharp-trained, clever-handed person; one skilful at thought or work

ubuthwesi: smartness, sharpness, cleverness

There are no other nouns derived from thwesa. This is unusual, especially given how commonplace the verb is. Which leads us to thwasa. 

Thwasa seems, at first, to have none of the commonplace about it. Here’s what it means:

1. emerge for the first time (as a season or new moon)

2. become possessed by a spirit (as during divination)

Huh? How do either of those things have to do with carrying things on the head or shoulders? Well, before we jump to conclusions, let’s have a look at the nouns derived from this impambosi:

i(li)thwasa: an isangoma during apprenticeship

intwasa: a change (of season, moon or personal state)

intwasahlobo: spring (literally “summer’s apprentice”)

intwasabusika: autumn (literally “winter’s apprentice”)

So it seems as though Thwasa is the more esoteric causative, where Thwesa stands for the actual “making someone carry something”. An apprentice to an isangoma, an ithwasa, is one who has been burdened with the amadlozi and is thus undergoing a change of state. One might also say that they have been impregnated with the spirit, and once the gestation period is done they will give birth to a new being, themselves in a new form. They even switch between three different noun classes on their way there. Let me show you.

umuntu >> i(li)thwasa >> isangoma

human >> simple fluid >> complex solid

A fully initiated isangoma is no longer regarded primarily as human, but rather as a kind of composite creation altered from his or her original state. And the state that she or he has passed through in order to become isangoma is one of formlessness, burdened by the calling of the ancestors, a kind of liminal state where she has no fixed identity. All amathwasa share common features and are easy to spot. 

When the isangoma in the little shop at the intersection of Osborn and Louis Botha took on a new crop of amathwasa last year, it was actually impossible to tell the male from the female, as all wore the same clothes with the same colours and identical shaved heads.

On this first official day of Autumn, the day after the equinox, it is also clear why the two liminal seasons are sometimes called “the apprentices” to the two main seasons – the weather isn’t clearly one or the other, and even seems to be possessed at times. It’s hot one minute, raining the next, gusty and thundering in the middle of the day. Nobody is sure of anything, except that the season called ubusika (the essence of cutting, Winter) is an ithwasa. 

As Game of Thrones has it, “Winter is coming”. NgesiZulu, what can be said in full is “Ubusika sebuthwese”. This can, because of the concords in the language, be abbreviated to “sebuthwese”.

So there you go – a roundabout journey from carrying on the head to spirit possession and initiation into ubungoma, only to arrive at the single word translating the iconic words of Winterfell.