Notes on the Nzinga Project

From Dr. Moses L. Howard
An excerpt from the Author’s Notes, Nzinga, African Warrior Queen

This project began as a personal overriding need to know what life was like for Nzinga, a woman at that time, with so many barriers set in front of her, even before her birth. How did she dare? What motivated her to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds? What sustained her over the long years that she pursued the goals of freedom for herself, for her people, and for her country?

As far as I know, Africa is my place of origin. Africa is an immense and varied continent with many countries and many different peoples. I have no idea where in this vast continent my ancestors belonged or from what part they were taken. I do feel and have always felt, as far back as I can remember, that I belong somewhere in Africa. When I was selected as a Fulbright Scholar and Teacher, I came to Uganda, then a Protectorate under British rule, not a colony. Some months after I arrived, I was walking along a road with two of my students who had invited me to visit their homes and meet their parents, which began for me a journey of discovery of self. In our travel to their homes, as the road wound through verdant farms of bananas, cassava, pineapples, and maize, we passed many villagers. Some places were uncultivated bush, some long swaths of high elephant grass, and now and again ancient trees lined the way. People moved along on this road, some carrying loads, others standing, talking, or working in their fields and gardens.

As we came nearer to the village where the students lived, more and more people greeted them in passing. One group of three women, after inquiring after their families and their progress in school, spoke directly to me, wanting to know why I refused to speak or communicate with them. I did not understand the language, and so I was unaware of the content of the query or that it was directed to me until one of the students, smiling, turned to me and said, “This old mother wants to know why do you not speak? Are you so proud of your life in the city and your European clothes that you no longer remember that you are an African?”

The school boys laughed as I spoke to the women in English. But the women, all three, stepped backwards in surprise, their hands flying up to cover their mouths as they said to the boys, in their language, “You see what pride education can bring. I hope you boys don’t grow up to despise your people and your language as this man does.”

The boys explained this complaint to me, and then they told the women that I didn’t know the language. This surprised the women even more. They came nearer, wanting to know why I did not know the language.

“Then who is he?” the women queried.

The school boys explained, “He is a Negro, you know, one of those people who was stolen years ago and taken to America.”

They wanted to know where was America, and one of them, a very old woman, was quiet for a time during the discussion, watching me, moving around me, looking at me curiously as if I interested her immensely. Then she pointed at me with her nose and turned her head toward a giant tree some distance from the road. And she said, in a flood of words, that she knew about people like me because she lived in a village near that tree where very many years ago sellers of people used to chain people to the tree to be sold and taken away. It was long, long before she was born and before her parents and their parents were born, but people still knew it and talked about it and told stories about it to children when they were bad. They told children that if they wandered away from their homes they would be taken and sold. There were stories about it, and there were signs on the tree left by those people sellers, she said.

We went to the tree. It was tall and very old. Its trunk was thick and the bark was healthy and smooth except in places where the tree’s trunk was scarred and gnarled with knots. There, jutting from one was the rusted end of an iron ring, its last visible flakes of rust crumbling against the bark. I stood for a time staring in amazement, then, instinctively, I turned my back to it, measuring myself against the tree. I held my hands behind my back as if they were tied there. I stood on the soil covering the tree’s roots, and I lifted my hands behind my back, touching the last of the rusted iron ring.

More people had gathered about us now, talking with the women and uttering phrases that showed surprise. The people were very excited, and as more people came, speeches were made. I did not understand much of what was said. People begged me to stay, and we ate goat’s meat, plantains, and cassava. And amid drumming and celebration, we drank pineapple and passion fruit juices, and my students interpreted my conversations with African villagers.

It was as though I myself was a stolen one who had been taken three hundred years before, and now that same one, me, had returned home. I felt accepted, but I did not deserve all of the attention. I was not worthy when there had been so many African-Americans before me who had done so much, and so many over the past three centuries who had begun the journey in their hearts and minds and yet were not fortunate enough to arrive. Besides, who knew if any of my ancestors had ever in the history of time passed this way?

I set to discovering Africa. I explored the roads, the forests, the animals, the trees, the rivers, the villages, and the people. Everywhere I went, I studied the people and their problems. I discovered that the ones who had remained in Africa had something that the children of slaves did not have. I saw it in the people everywhere. They had a sense of belonging and they had a great sense of self. You felt it in their talking, in the complacent way they worked and knew that every day belonged to them. You heard it in their unrestrained talk and their laughter of abandonment, and in the way both men and women related to each other. I taught in school, but I learned from the students and their families much more than I taught.

I went from one country to another, feeling the heat of the land and basking in the glow of the sun and greenness of the land, the fresh air, and the large bright moons and dark nights with torrents of rain and yellow streaks of lightning on dark stormy nights. I studied history. I caught again the words from my anthropology class where it was noted that to become acculturated, you had to know the language, you had to see how people were born, how they grew, how they passed through stages of life (rites of passage) from child to adult, to middle age to old age, how they ate, how they married, how they grew old, and how they died. I went into villages and went through life as an African experiences it. I went through a courtship, paid a bride’s price, married there, and fathered children. I remained in Africa eleven years. And my wife and children are all in America with me now.

I came to the study of Nzinga through a course I taught in a Seattle school in Great Explorers and Their Explorations. Working with my students on the study of such leaders led me to the intense study of the first contact the Portuguese explorers made with the people of Angola, and finally to Nzinga, a great leader of her country that was then called Ndongo. I was again drawn back to Africa through the study of these ships and their travels along the west coast of Africa, from which many Africans forcibly embarked for lives of slavery.

I had been in some West Africa countries. On school holidays, I made study visits to Senegal and the island of Goree. I spent time in Accra and Ghana, with longer stays in Nigeria. However, Senegal was under French influence, and Nigeria and Ghana were former colonies of England. I had seen a bit of English Africa in Uganda and Kenya, and had seen a little of the past of Portuguese influence when I viewed Fort Jesus at Mombasa. But I had never been to the land of the Black Mother, which I took to allude mostly to Angola, as described in the work of that name by Basil Davidson.

I renewed my study of Africa, paying particular attention to Angola. A brief history mentioned Nzinga and how she had disrupted Portuguese attempts at domination of Angola. Jan Vasinna’s Kingdoms of the Savanna had a more insightful perspective of Nzinga and Angola. James Duffy’s Portuguese Africa showed that she was a force difficult for the Portuguese to conquer. Then, by chance, in a bookstore one day, I opened a volume called Africa: History of a Continent. In the index, I found “Nzinga” and the page number. Searching the designated pages, I found a drawing that depicted her sitting on the back of a servant at the court of the governor of Luanda after being refused a chair. I sensed two things at once: here apparently was a great leader, and also, this woman was one of the vital missing links in the history of Africans everywhere.

In 1982, I started a card file and a notebook with a list of references. Then I tried to get a visa to Angola, but it was not allowed, because a civil war was raging in that country. Cuban soldiers were supporting one faction while the United States and South Africa were supporting the insurgents. I reasoned that if I went to Portugal, I might have a better chance to get a visa. I traveled to Portugal in 1984 but was denied a visa by the Angolan Embassy there, because they determined it unsafe for travelers. Being in Portugal, though, was a huge opportunity to research Angola and Nzinga in Lisbon. For two weeks, with the assistance of two Portuguese librarians who spoke English, during the day I went to the libraries and museums. During the evenings, I walked the broad avenues and observed the architecture and the people. I met a number of Angolans who were students at the university in Lisbon. Sadly, they could not tell me much about Nzinga, only that she was a Jaga. One said she was Kimbundu, but he was from a tribe in Cassange, a part of Angola separate from the old Ndongo where Nzinga’s family of Ngolas ruled.

In 1996, when I worked as an assistant principal in the Seattle School District, I joined the Union Institute. There I made a decision to immerse myself in studying Nzinga to understand and write about her as a leader. I set to work in earnest: I reread everything I’d accumulated about Nzinga, finding new trails of information. I came across a biography of Nzinga written by a Jesuit priest who traveled to Angola shortly after her time. The biography, though it presented many bits of information, did not agree totally with other sources. It had many gaps, and there were parts that showed the priest either was not familiar with African philosophy or preferred not to honor it or report it accurately. It was published in Flemish. Since I do not read Flemish, I searched the universities until I reached one department of languages that had a student who agreed to translate it into English. He read the translations onto cassette tapes. Although the book gave much information, it had many errors and numerous assertions that did not conform to other historical documents. Also, it lacked basic information, such as the definite tribe to which Nzinga belonged, details about her birth order and her mother, details about her trip to Luanda, and her exact relationship with the governor.

I wanted to write a biography, but the information for a definitive rendering was absent. I had a choice. I could write a shallow biography or use the information I had to construct a biographical novel. I had uncovered information about her childhood, how her father taught her by example, how she had contact with a Jesuit priest and learned the Portuguese language from him. There was information about her brothers and sisters, and the seer whose vision of white birds on the water foretold the coming of the Portuguese. I could study the European mindset of the times and the African response from other regions such as Congo and Nigeria. And since this was a time of upheaval and roaming, and since the people of Ndongo were roamers also, I could make use of things they learned and taught as they hunted elephants. Information is on record about the gods, the ancestors, and their secret place. I had only to think of day-to-day happenings. I had to listen to the Bantu languages that I know and that would tell me how to phrase dialogue. To start, I wrote a personal abbreviated biographical outline for Nzinga based on what I knew.

There is also evidence of development in Nzinga’s early life as well as the adult years, and I have made use of this information in writing her psychobiography. Nzinga’s personality and her beliefs came through clearly from her early years as well as the later ones. From evidence given, I could almost tell from who Nzinga was what actions she would take, and what she would do in certain circumstances. I was confident that when I didn’t know, I could just “ask her” and let her and the evidence of her life point the direction. I let her do that in the writing.

While I was working, I was reading African philosophy. At odd times that later contributed to writing the mystical parts about Musungu and iron making and about Sufalu the seer who was the “arm of the Ngola,” I was building a clear understanding of how seers and mediums work, especially in this setting. I began to understand their functions in Ndongo.

From my research, there was much more material and evidence than I could possibly use for one book. It was impossible to record every battle she fought with the Portuguese, or use every bit of evidence about her mother, the markets, her uses of weapons, or how she looked or dressed on most days.

As a final note: the most difficult part for readers in English is, of course, the names. Many research sources showed names that mixed Angolan and Spanish from the Portuguese habit of baptizing people near the coast and giving them Spanish names. If I used Portuguese or Spanish names, the reader would not discern the nationality of the character. So I have used Bantu names, but I did not want to mix local tribal names.