When I get to this word, in that first explanation of the complex beauty of the izigaba zamabizo, I can barely contain my excitement. I’m sure that people I’ve taught can attest to this. I try my hardest to keep to the Socratic method, and to rely on the learner’s knowledge. This is important. It’s a form of hypothesis-testing.

You see, I’ve been interested in the izigaba zamabizo for a long time now, probably longer than I consciously realise. In my interest, I attempted to work out some sort of understanding of them – the whys and whats that made them what they are. Some were very easy, and others took a little longer. What I discovered is that, usually, there is one word which can work as an exemplar for each isigaba – umuntu, umuthi, amanzi, isimo, ubisi, ubuntu, ukudla. These exemplars were able to explain the criteria for a word’s inclusion in that class. But I couldn’t work out an exemplar for the in- isigaba. It eluded me.

One day, I was teaching a student somewhere in Kensington, and we were running through the noun classes. We got to the in- class and I admitted to him, after many words being fed into it, that I had no clear idea of what sort of nouns this class was for. And then I looked at the word ‘inyanga’ written there, and it began to click into place.

You see, it’s a particular favourite of mine. But on that day, I looked at it differently.

Here’s what it means:

  1. the Moon; a lunar month {2.3-8.8-3}
  2. a herbalist; a diviner; a renowned doctor {2.3-8.9}
  3. an expert, one skilled in a particular profession {2.3-8.}

The tones are noticeably different for ‘Moon’ and ‘herbalist’, but the words are incredibly close to each other. There’s a related verb, which Vilakazi contended is derived from the noun, although it is more probably from an Ur-Bantu root -yañga (apologies for not being able to reproduce the proper phonetics) meaning ‘heal’. It’s tone is 6.6-3. The verb means “do skilled work; be a professional; practise as a doctor; divine; use charms”.

So when I looked at the word, I started to imagine it. The Moon. In many languages, the word for the Earth’s satellite and for the period it takes for one cycle is the same – so it is in isiZulu. For the 28 days of a lunar cycle, one is aware of the following characteristics – it rises and sets at different times on different days; it moves across the sky in a pattern that, while an arc, is not the same relative to time each night; it changes shape in a predictable way, dying and filling again; and it has a noticeable effect on flora and fauna.

This last aspect of the moon is what links it to the idea of healing. When I was doing my MA and interviewing izinyanga and izangoma, I had a long conversation with one particular inyanga in Durban. He knew our family, and had been to visit us on my father’s birthday. He was the man who led me around the garden, pointing out the remedies available to us in its limited scope. What he told me was that, while an inyanga gains some inspiration from the amadlozi, and some from the knowledge handed down from parent to child, that he (and other izinyanga) had a special sense of when to harvest medical material from the environment. He spoke of how the trees communicate with people, and how grass communicates with the herbivores that feed on it, and how there were certain times of the night when that communicative and healing energy would be at its strongest. He mentioned the effect of the moon in this, and at the time I was not fully aware of its significance.

You see, the moon itself is a focus of mystical energy in many cultures because it is complex. That complexity may have been one of many patterned things which contributed to the growth of human knowledge and culture – in solving the mysteries of the Moon’s passage across the sky every day, humanity became able to apprehend other mysteries. At first, those mysteries were truly cosmic – Stonehenge is a shining example of the mystical power of observing Sol’s pattern of movement across the sky over the solar year. Those who were able to decode the patterns of the heavenly bodies became ‘experts’, ritually recognised as healers and diviners because of their knowledge.

Enough diversion – all of this was apparent to me at that moment, sitting at that table in Kensington. And it became clear to me – that the in- isigaba was one where the dominant metaphor was ‘moon-like’ or ‘seasonal’ or even ‘phasic’. I’ve tried it out since, and even used my experimental method on unsuspecting conservationists, who have since confirmed my initial hypothesis.

So, next time you look at the moon, think of that.