Word Route: Dábu

reeds_02 Dábu is an ideophone – a part of speech which in isiZulu has the rather usage-oriented name of ‘isenzukuthi’. What this means is ‘the thing that works using ukuthi’ – so-called because ideophones are used much like the English phrases ‘it goes bang‘ or ‘they always go pop like that’, where the ‘to go…’ is ‘ukuthi…’ in isiZulu, and the words in bold are ideophones.

No, they’re not always onomatopoeic- ideophones are words that use a certain sound to denote the carrying out of an action, so they are adverbial or descriptive in that sense. They are also the root of many nouns and verbs, through fairly standard paths of derivation, e.g. ukuqhuma (to explode) and umqhumuko (a bursting forth of people or things) are derived from the ideophone qhúmu (denoting ‘bursting open’ or ‘crushing something that bursts or breaks noisily’).

Today’s word is dábu, denoting tearing or cracking. There are 6 pure nouns, 3 compound nouns and 3 verbs that derive from this one ideophone.

In terms of 6 pure nouns, there are the following:

umdabu  is a) origin (as of a tribe); b) an inyanga’s name for the intolwane plant,   Elephantorhiza burchelii, a dwarf Mimosa shrub, whose roots are used as an emetic for love-charms, as well as for stomach and chest complaints

umdabuka is a) a crack in the skin; b) original inhabitant of a place

isidabuko is a place of origin, an original source or original custom

indabuko is a) source, origin b) inherited custom

umdabuko is a) source, origin b) original custom, inherited manners

The 3 Compound Nouns are:

indabulaluvalo: literally ‘fear-cracker’ a) a species of marble, which is used ground up as part of any medicine for causing unusual power (as by young men when courting, or to induce favour); b) species of trees, whose bark is used for chest and heart complaints, Spermacoce natalensis, Panicum maximum or Senecio bupleroides

ilidabulambizo, literally ‘pot-render’; Young bullock with tender flesh (the swelling of the flesh on cooking is supposed to burst the pots)

udabulizangciliterally ‘one-who-rends-like-a-wild-dog’: Love charm medicine

Finally, having been led into the metaphors of rending and cracking and tearing, here are the 3 verbs (each with a number of suffixal derivatives):

dabukaintransitive verb: a) get torn or rent (as a garment); b) crack, become cracked (of earthen vessel, of the skin), become chapped; c) become heart-broken, saddened, grieved; be sorry, contrite; d) die, draw the last breath; e) originate, have origin (as a tribe); f) idiomatic uses, such as: ‘ukudabuka indlebe’ (be unsettled, be in a state of alarm and anxiety) and ‘ukudabuka kokusa’ (the break of dawn).

dabukelaapplied form of ‘dabuka’:  a) get torn for, crack for; b) be sorry for, pity; c) have origin at, originate at

dabulatransitive verb: a) tear, rend; cleave, split down, saw through; chap (of cloth); b) pass through, cut across; c) survey, divide off plots of land; d) cause sorrow, cut to the heart; e) bring into being, originate, create; f) Unsheathe, draw weapon (as if from bundle)

These are the different aspects of dábu – an ideophone having quite interesting effects on things like the creation myth of the amaZulu. In this myth, it is said that

abantu badatshulwe ohlangeni

people were cleaved off from the bundle of reeds

reed ceremony

The reeds occupy a central part of the creation mythology of the amaZulu and the amaSwati. And so the reed ceremony celebrates the young and supple, reedlike young men and women in a series of fertility rituals. The amabutho in formation, about to attack, stand like a rustling stand of reeds with spears to the sky. And it is that first cleaving which is remembered every time one of us dies, or one draws a weapon.


What do you mean, ‘White Zulu’?

Some might be offended by the way I talk about myself, and some might even go so far as to say it’s impossible for someone to be White and a Zulu at the same time. So, this is a blog to explain what I mean by the name ‘White Zulu’.

If you don’t know anything about the amaZulu, then there’s a lot of explaining to do. If you do, skip to the next paragraph. The amaZulu are a people traditionally living in the south-eastern portion of South Africa, between the Indian Ocean to the East and the Drakensberg mountains to the West, and between the Ubombo mountains in the North and (arbitrarily) the umTamvuna River in the South. The boundaries of their traditional homeland have shifted over time, whether because of the colonial expansion of European empires, the wars between them and other groups of people, or the arbitrary boundaries drawn up first by white and then by black governments. When colonists from England and other European nations first came to this part of Africa, the amaZulu were organised under the paramount chieftainship of uShaka kaSenzangakhona, an inkosi of the Zulu household. They were pastoralists, herding cattle and engaging in agriculture. As a result of the various forces already mentioned, the amaZulu way of life has changed dramatically over the 180 years since the first contact between them and the European colonists. Some of this change will become apparent over the course of this blog and my other blogs.

The language of the amaZulu is isiZulu. It belongs to the isiNguni language sub-family, along with isiXhosa, seSwati, and isiNdebele (which is a fairly recent dialectical derivation of isiZulu compared to the other two). More broadly, it is part of the Bantu language family, spoken in one form or another in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The features of this language are very different from the Indo-European language family, to which English, French, Hindi, Greek and Russian (to name a few) belong. These differences will also become apparent over the course of this blog and my other blogs.   

So, knowing all this, how do I have a right to call myself a ‘White Zulu’? 

My father was raised speaking isiZulu, and learnt to speak English when he went to school. He has always been more comfortable in isiZulu than in English, using it in every facet of his life – making speeches in parliament, mediating land disputes and other conflict situations, farming, telling stories and making jokes in isiZulu. He is uMashinashina, Inkunzi ‘kayihleli, uSinqunte, uMasikisikisind’isilo sakhe. He raised me in isiZulu, growing up on a farm in eNtumeni, near eShowe in Zululand. 

My mother grew up in Johannesburg, and as a young woman became very involved in Women for Peace and the struggle against Apartheid. For driving medical supplies and other necessities into Soweto during the 1976 riots, she was given the name uKhanyisile (the one who brought the light). She met my father at the 1979 centenary of the Anglo-Zulu war at Ondini, the royal kraal of the Zulu household. She had already begun to learn isiZulu in Johannesburg, and this was accelerated by her marriage to my father. When she was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1999, she preached and conducted services in isiZulu. 

When I was born, I was taken home and presented to the people living with us on our farm, and the induna (village headman or foreman) gave me the name uMabhengwane, the wood owl. I grew up in a house where isiZulu was as common (and sometimes more common) than English. I traveled to political meetings and traditional events with my parents from when I was very little, and drank in the culture of the people around me. 

When the choice came for me at school, between isiZulu or Afrikaans, I immediately chose it. We were part of the first group given the opportunity to take isiZulu to Matric, and our ‘guinea-pig’ class was a wonderful place filled with the freedom of learning a language that had previously not been offered. 

When I left school, I began doing freelance translation work, both from isiZulu to English and from English to isiZulu, while studying Latin and Greek at University. My bilingual upbringing made my mind very receptive to new languages. 

So that’s the short answer as to why I’m calling this blog ‘White Zulu’ – you’ll have to read the rest to find out more.