24. The Ishe Kwandu

By Peter Fraenkel

Abridged from “Wayaleshi”, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1957.

“You’ll have to go and see the Ishe Kwandu” said the District Commissioner. “The Ishe Kwandu” confirmed the missionary, “he knows more about the history of the Lozi people than any man alive. But it’s not an easy journey – certainly not at this time of the year.”

Who was this Ishe Kwandu?”?

“That’s not a name” explained Edward Lubinda “That’s his title.” Lubinda was my colleague from the CABS – the first radio station in Africa to concentrate on broadcasting in African vernaculars – seven different languages at that time.

“The court of the Litunga, the Paramount Chief of Barotseland at Lealui, has an unwritten constitution with an elaborate system of checks and balances, but balanced against the entire court is a second court at Nalolo, further south in the valley.” Lubinda was referring to the Zambezi valley. “Here a princess reigns, the Mulena Mukwae. She is regent over the south of the country, usually a niece or aunt of the Paramount Chief and often at loggerheads with him. Her husband’s formal position is fairly humble, but the present Ishe Kwandu has a great reputation as the historian of the tribe”, Lubinda continued, “he is old and frail and, they tell me, he is blind now. If we want to interview him we had better do it this year. Next year could be too late.”

It was, as we had been warned, not an easy journey: six hours canoeing in the broiling sun in a hollowed-out tree trunk. I had been determined to travel light and wore only a short- sleeved bush shirt and shorts. I got a fearful sunburn. Hour after hour we balanced precariously on camp chairs that had been placed in our canoe. Our approach disturbed flocks of birds. Sometimes we pushed through tall grass that grew out of the shallow flood waters, sometimes through delicately coloured water lilies, pink and yellow and pale mauve. Our canoe filled with fat little spiders that had been clinging to grass stalks. We passed abandoned villages on mounds. Once we saw several snakes hanging in a half-submerged bush. Before I could protest one of our paddlers beat at them with his paddle. Fortunately they were too somnolent to respond.

The district commissioner had advised us to ask for accommodation at the Paris Evangelical Mission on a mound a short distance from Nalolo. We crossed the choppy river and called there but found that the missionaries had departed for the escarpment a few days earlier as the waters rose. They had left an old African caretaker behind. His house stood on stilts. He was most hospitable and promised to arrange one of the mission houses for us as best he could. Unfortunately no sheets or blankets had been left behind.

It was a dark, dank house with sagging ceilings and broken mosquito-gauze. They certainly did not live in luxury, these missionaries!

We sent a messenger across the flooded plain to Nalolo. He returned a short while later to invite us over. We canoed across in the late afternoon sun and were met by an excited crowd. They led our way to the princess’ residence. We were ushered through a series of palisaded courtyards and came to a large barn-like building with wide double-doors.

An old man stood in front, tapping his way towards us with a stick. He had a warm, handsome face but was blind. This was the Ishe Kwandu.

He led our way into a large and high audience-chamber-cum-living-room. The thatched roof was carried on heavy wooden rafters which reminded me of baronial halls back in Europe. On a faded settee sat the Mulena Mukwae. Her legs were bandaged and rested on an easy-chair. She apologised for not coming out to welcome us but her legs were swollen and she was in pain.

She was obviously pleased to see us. So was her entourage. Visitors seldom came to the inaccessible second capital. The courtiers feel neglected and forgotten – hence the long list of complaints I was asked to take back to His Excellency the governor.

I tried to explain my very limited influence without undermining my status too disastrously, then explained the purpose of our visit. She gave her approval and the Ishe Kwandu added he could record for us – both ancient history that he had learnt from the ancestors and some more recent events he had seen himself. Yes, seen! He had not always been blind. But there was a problem: He could not see our microphone and kept directing his voice “off-mike”. I asked the two or three courtiers present to keep silent and placed the microphone between the old man and Lubinda, our interviewer. He punctuated the old man’s recitation with the traditional Lozi hand-clap of respect. After that the old man addressed his remarks to his polite listener – and our microphone. The clapping on the recording added to the atmosphere.

The Ishe Kwandu started by describing the complicated negotiations between Rhodes’ BSA Company and King Lewanika which led to the protectorate treaty. He summarised the speeches of the anti-treaty indunas, then the pro-treaty speakers; what the prime minister had said, what Coillard, the missionary had advised. His voice echoed the anger, the suspicion, the cajoling – he seemed to capture the tones and the gestures of all. I had never before come across such a dramatic story teller.

Later he described how as a young man he had been a steward to the Paramount Chief and had accompanied him to England for the coronation of Edward VII. He re-enacted the gracious waving of the king, the cheering crowds leaning out of windows, the clatter of horses’ hooves.

It was getting dark. Someone brought a hissing pressure lamp but I waved it away. The hissing was interfering with the recording. We continued by the light of a few candles.

By then I felt I was running a temperature because of my sunburn. Perhaps that was why the scene assumed a dreamlike appearance. The flickering candles only hinted at the high expanse of the hall. The resonant voice of the blind old man lost itself among the rafters. I knew only a few words of Lozi yet I seemed to understand what he said, so great was his ability as a story-teller.

Once I took my eyes away from his expressive face and was surprised to see the hall was filling … was almost full of quiet barefooted children who were creeping in and sitting down on the floor to listen. A little later others were crowding the open doors and windows. Their large white eyes in black faces were reflecting the candles.

A small child, perhaps a great-grandson, crept up to the old man and he patted the child as he spoke. He must have sensed the hundreds of eyes upon him. He chanted the archaic praises of some long-dead ruler. His voice rose. He described battles in swamps, flights, pillaging, massacres. He imitated the sharp report of rifles and the groans of men stabbed in battle. He made us see the courageous man who jumped into an enemy canoe and did great slaughter.

It was late at night when we bade him farewell. The princess lent us a hurricane lamp to light our way. It was only a mile across the waters to the mission station but we lost our way and floated over the flooded plain in the dark. The cool air was pleasant on my burning skin. The paddlers, too, remained cheerful. They could not stop praising the liberal hospitality they had been accorded in the outer courtyards.

At length we saw the lights that the old caretaker had lit in the mission house and found our way to our beds – beds without sheets or blankets.

As I lay down I realised |I had never enquired whether the old man could read or write. But upon reflection the question was pointless. He had recited the genealogy of rulers and pretenders, of heroes and villains all long dead and buried before he, himself, had been born. Men burdened with literacy do not develop such memories.