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How dangerous can a prophecy be? And what happens to a prophet who turns out to be wrong? The story of Nongqawuse and the prophecy that led to the deaths of thousands of her fellow Xhosa in the mid-19th century is an important morality despite being so little known outside of South Africa.
Even in the early days of British colonialism in southern Africa, the various tribes that made up the Xhosa nation were one of the largest ethnic groups in what would eventually become the Eastern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. Though apartheid policies still lay in the future, the Xhosa were largely shut out of most businesses and depended on their cattle herds and crops for food and trade. Despite a major outbreak of cattle lung sickness that had struck the Xhosa cattle herds between 1855 and 1856, the economic disaster that would devastate Xhosa society came from another direction entirely.
According to historical records, the Xhosa girl at the centre of the crisis that would follow is believed to have been born in 1840. After losing both of her parents at an early age, Nongqawuse was raised by her uncle, Mhlakaza, a prominent spiritualist. There is very little information about Nongqawuse except that her childhood appeared otherwise normal.
Everything changed in the spring of 1856 when Nongqawuse and her friend Nombada went to fetch water from a nearby river. After returning, the fifteen-year old girl Nongqawuse told her uncle that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors who were using her to relay an important prophecy to her people. The prophecy instructed them to destroy their crops and kill their cattle as a sacrifice to the ancestors who would rise up and drive all the white settlers into the sea. After the settlers were gone, the sun would turn red and a new golden age would come for the Xhosa.
To read more, check out this post I wrote on the JREF Swift blog.
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