Sitting here scraping away the last vestiges of bright pink and orange from around my nails, I realise that I’ve neglected this space for a bit. I think it’s okay, though, because land and sheets of paper (however metaphorical or metaphysical) need to be left to lie fallow every once in a while. The cane must be burnt at night in a howling roaring frenzy of escaping animals and jubilant hunters, then harrowed in the slippery ashes ngocelemba and left to lie, to let the heat do its slow work in the sharp sweetness of the moba’s heart.

And I’ve been living this past week, especially while umakoti wami and abantwana bethu are on mid-term break.

But now it’s back to business, with a list of things I’m going to do – daily headlines from @isiKhovana, lessons to plan for my clients, more translations coming in, and a string of small household to-do’s unfolding in the hours and days ahead.

Before I dive in to the pile of work, though, I want to explain uMsombuluko.

Monday is the day of unfolding. It is also the day of regaining consciousness. It is the day of gaining wisdom and intelligence.

The ideophone sómbu can denote unrolling and loosening and unravelling, but it is also the sound of letting out something pent up deep inside you.

So let it out. See the day unrolling before you like a field of cane ready to be harvested, and go to it. If you haven’t screamed in a while, do so.


izinSuku zeSonto – Days of the Week

Dambuza (my step-son) is learning the days of the week in isiZulu. So, in the heat of a late Friday evening, unable to sleep, we’re sitting on the floor of his room. And I have my left hand up, the palm towards me.

“So, siyaqala ngesandla sobunxele. We start with the left hand. Specifically, we start to count from what isiNgisi calls ‘the little finger’. And we count – ?”

“kunye, kubili, kuthathu, kune, kuhlanu”

“Ehhe! Yebo. Now, what does counting have to do with the days of the week?”

“I dunno.”

“ngesiZulu, four out of the seven days of the week are named using numbers – uLwesibili, uLwesithathu, uLwesine, and uLwesihlanu.”

“I can hear the -bili, -thathu, -ne and -hlanu in there. What does the ‘Lwesi’ bit mean?”

“Well, it’s two things: the lwa- is different from the -isi- part. The isi- makes the number into a position or ordinal number – ‘the second’ is ‘isibili’, ‘the third’ is ‘isithathu’, ‘the fourth’ is ‘isine’ and ‘the fifth’ is ‘isihlanu’. The lwa- part is from another word entirely, u:suku. Are you following?”

“Yebo. The isi- part makes it a position-number. So what does u:suku mean?”

“U:suku means ‘a day’. In full, it’s uLUsuku – that’s important, because otherwise you’d be wondering where the -LWA- bit comes from. Lwa- means ‘the-ULU-noun-belonging-to-x’. In this case, it means ‘the-day-belonging-to-x’.”

“Is it like i:gama LAmi? the-name belonging-to-me?”

“Yes. There the full form of i:gama is iLIgama, and so the bit showing belonging is LA.”

“Okay. So the days of the week mean ‘the-day-belonging-to-the-second’, ‘the-day-belonging-to-the-third’, like that?”

“Yebo! Nakho-ke! You’ve got it. A cleaner translation would be ‘the second day’, ‘the third day’, etcetera.”

“So that’s four of the seven, Tuesday to Friday. What about Monday, Saturday and Sunday?”

“Their names are umSombuluko, the day of unrolling; umGqibelo, the day of covering over, of burial and completion and weddings; and finally i:Sonto, from the Afrikaans ‘Sondag’ or English ‘Sunday’.”

“I like ‘the day of unrolling’.”

“It’s cool, hey? The days of the week in English are all taken from the names of Gods, whether Roman or Norse. isiZulu  didn’t have weeks, but they did have a complex lunar calendar”

“A calendar that went by the moon?”

“Yes, just like ours is based on the sun. Do you know how many moons there are in a solar year?”


“No. 13. My lucky number. I’ll explain them to you next time. They all have cool stories as part of them. Now it’s time for bed. Lala kahle, Dambuza.”

“You too, Cullen. Thanks.”