There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of the Zulu tribe, which is the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Their culture is well known for their beautiful beadwork, craft-making, and pottery.
What you may not know about the Zulu tribe is the story of Princess Mkabayi KaJama, who is credited as one of the most powerful and influential women in Zulu history.
Princess Mkabayi was born in 1750, along with her twin sister, Mmama. Mkabayi and Mmama were born to the king of Zulu, Jama, and his wife.
In those days, it was believed in Zulu culture that the birth of twins was a bad omen. Therefore, it was custom that one twin was sacrificed to avoid a curse. But Jama and his wife loved their daughters too much and spared their lives.
Because of the bad omen, the Zulu people resented Mkabayi and her sister. If anything ever went wrong, the twins were blamed for their misfortune.
The resentment towards the twins grew stronger when their mother died without giving birth to a male heir.
Tensions grew as Jama became older and hadn’t yet had a son. Mkabayi took it upon herself to find her father a new bride and paired him with Mthaniya Sibiya, who eventually became the next queen.
Sure enough, she gave birth to a son named Senzangakhona, which translates to “he who acts with a good reason.”
Without Mkabayi’s efforts, Jama may have passed without an heir to the throne. However, her work redeemed her in the eyes of the Zulu people, and she became very influential in the kingdom’s political future.
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When Jama passed away, Senzangakhona was too young to lead the Zulu kingdom. Mkabayi became a regent, so she could advise the king on how to rule and make decisions for the kingdom.
A woman becoming a regent to a king was unheard of at the time, but Mkabayi was a reliable source to the young king as he grew older. A
ny attacks made against the young king were shot down by Mkabayi, who stepped down as regent once he was old enough to rule on his own. Although she was no longer regent, she still was a close advisor.
When Senzangakhona died years later, it was time for one of his sons to assume the throne. Mkabayi advocated for his son Shaka and gathered political support for him.
During Shaka’s reign, Mkabayi founded a tribe and created social reforms throughout the land. Although Shaka was the king, it was Mkabayi that did a lot of work that made the Zulu kingdom thrive.
She was considered a Zulu feminist, and although she was eventually banished under Mpande kaSenzangakhona’s rule and died in 1843, her story lives on within Zulu culture.
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