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date: 08 December 2022

Ndau Identity in Zimbabwelocked

Ndau Identity in Zimbabwelocked

  • Emmanuel SitholeEmmanuel SitholeFaculty of Humanities, North-West University


Ndau people (popularly identified as VaNdau) possess a rich but largely under-recorded history. Notwithstanding that the etymology of “Ndau” as a collective ethnic term is the subject for much debate, some documental archives suggest that the ancestors of Ndau people arrived in a series of migrations and settled in the areas between the Pungwe and Save rivers during the early centuries. The existing archaeological and historical evidence attests that there were interethnic and interracial contact between “Mandowa” (local Indigenous people) and Swahili and Muslim merchants at Sofala Bay during the 8th century. They had trade networks that were developed several centuries before Portuguese traders’ arrival, settlement, and control of the trading of gold, ivory, and, much later, slaves in that part of the East African region. Early Portuguese explorers and writers, some of whom had intermarried with Mandowa women, realized that VaNdau had developed political, linguistic, social, and cultural identities in the 16th century. As reported in early Portuguese literature, VaNdau shared kinship ties, similar social and cultural beliefs, and spoke the same language (albeit with several regional varieties) that helped in the negotiation and assertion of a collective sense of Ndauness across centuries. Ndau identity became even more asserted and concretized during the 19th century when VaNdau were exposed to extreme persecution at the hands of their Gaza Nguni conquerors. Forced conscription of VaNdau into Gaza Nguni social and military ranks, however, resulted in a renegotiation of the nature and meaning of an Ndau identity. Interethnic marriage with Gaza Nguni warriors culminated in the emergence of a dual Ndau and Gaza identity represented by a permanent accommodation of Gaza Nguni clan names, among other cultural and linguistic elements among VaNdau in the late 19th century. Meanwhile, White colonial and missionary (mainly American Board Mission) activity exerted significant influence on the cultural, social, religious, and political aspects of Ndau society in the 20th century. Colonial and postindependent policies in education, media, and the greater society encouraged the assimilation of Ndau people into a newly created linguistic Shona identity in Zimbabwe. From 1931, young Ndau speakers began to gradually accept Shona as their primary identity. However, Ndau’s constitutional recognition as a separate official language in 2013 contributed toward the reclamation of the ChiNdau identity in Zimbabwe, especially across virtual platforms such as Facebook and other social networking sites. Thousands of Ndau-speaking people converge on virtual platforms such as Rekete Chindau—Leave a Legacy to reassert and reshape their identity through speaking and writing about it in Zimbabwe.


  • Southern Africa

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