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.


Word Route: -vuma

This is by no means a simple word route today (not that they ever are, really) – 23 separate derivations from the original stem, which itself has over 11 subtly different meanings.

The history of the word is important – it’s derived from the ur-Bantu root -lûma, meaning ‘to roar’ and ‘to allow’. For its primary meaning, this word means ‘agree’ – but it also means many other things:

a) agree, assent, consent, be willing

b) accept (as a person for work or as a proffer of marriage)

c) admit, plead guilty

d) approve, admire

e) acknowledge a salutation

f) answer encouragingly to the isangoma when divining, by saying Yizwa! and Siyavuma!

divination tools

g) Express the feeling of a player (as an instrument when being played), or of a dance, or a poet (as in a poem)

It has the secondary meaning of

Thrive, grow well (of plants or crops)


Turn out well (as from a mould or a baking, brick-making, pottery, cooking, a hide in dressing – also applied to persons)

Finally, it means ‘to fall down’ – although only used with the word phansi in the phrase

ukuvuma phansi – to fall on the ground (lit. to agree downwards)

There are so many interesting aspects of this word-route – the first being the way that playing music or performing a poem or a dance is regarded as a conversation, where the performance agrees with what the performer is feeling.

Secondly, of course (knowing my proclivities towards the occult and supernatural), there is the use of the word as ‘an encouraging answer’ to an isangoma who is divining. This is a way of assenting to the power of the diviner, as well as the words being offered through the medium to the people gathered, from their amadlozi (ancestors).

If we move past the root meanings of -vuma, and into its derivations, the situation becomes slightly more complicated.

There are 7 different simple nouns derived from this stem, and one compound noun.

imvuma – a) goat or ox slaughtered by the prospective bridegroom on accepting the girl who has run to him; b) payment in proof of an agreement, earnest of a contract

imvume – permission

imvumi – a good singer, one who acts chorus well (see the second meaning of ‘vumela’ below)

umvumi – consenter, one who agrees

umvumo – low-toned chorus singing, generally of people sitting in the hut while certain ones get up and dance (see the second meaning of ‘vumela’ below)

i(li)vumo – tune, chorus

imvumo – low-toned accompaniment of a song


uvumazonkecompound noun from vuma and -nke (meaning ‘all’) > one who assents to anything, a credulous person; a weak-willed person, one who has no mind of his own

What’s interesting about these nouns is the fact that only 3 of them pick up on the primary meaning of the verb – to agree or assent. The rest seem preoccupied with the ‘answering’ of choruses in singing – the antiphonal style often adopted when large groups are present. So what happens to all the legal and cultural stuff associated with -vuma? To explain that, I must first explain the suffixes.

Every single verb in isiZulu can have (at least) 8 different suffixed forms, which alter the manner in which the basic action takes place:

vuma              agree

vumile            agreed (perfect)

vunywa          be agreed by… (passive)

vumeka          agreeable (neuter)

vumela           agree to/for… (applied)

vumana          agree together / agree with one another (reciprocal)

vumisa            cause to agree (causative)

vumavuma     agree just a little bit (diminutive)

Sometimes these forms stick closely to the meaning of the original stem, but sometimes they have vastly different meanings. In the case of -vuma, only -vumela has a specialised set of meanings (and further derivations, which is where the legal and contractual stuff comes in most strongly):

a) to allow, permit (as an action or person), to agree to something

b) to sing the low accompaniment or second part of a song; to sing the chorus

So here you can clearly see where the ‘antiphonal singing’ gains its basis from the -vuma stem. But of more interest is the fact that -vumela has 8 further derivations (both into nouns and verbs) – and they (almost) all have something to do with legal and contractual agreement:

umvumeli – a noun meaning “a supporter, a seconder of a motion”

imvumelo – a noun meaning “permission” (much like imvume, above)

i(li)vumelo – a noun denoting “approval, assent (to a man although he is doing wrong); support (to a wrong deed)”

vumelana – a verb meaning: a) agree with one another, permit one another, make a contract with one another, support one another; or b) tally, match

imvumelano – a noun meaning “a mutual agreement, a contract, a covenant”

isivumelwano – a noun denoting: a) mutual agreement, legal agreement, contract for sale or work; b) a covenant; or c) a grammatical concord

umvumelwano – “accompaniment”


isivumelwana – a noun meaning: a) beast presented by bridegroom’s people to bride’s father before the legal lobolo: today money often takes the place of the beast (also called imvulamlomo); or b) a mutual or legal agreement

So, to sum up – to agree is to sing in a way which accompanies the dancing or singing or divining of others, to make a covenant through stating things in the same key (or, at very least, in harmony with them). To agree is to support, to match, and to accompany.

But it also has the disturbing meaning of ‘giving approval to someone even when they are doing something wrong’. I wonder how often this had to be the case, for the concept to pass so clearly into common usage with a word like ‘i(li)vumelo’.