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Miss Tirivashe Jele
South Africa
Study Abroad Studentship
2022

Journeying through the Mfecane

Tirivashe Jele critiques the Eurocentric scholarship of the Mfecane, redressing the power imbalances, offering an alternative Afrocentric lens by which to study the period 

Men in full Nguni traditional dress.
A family photograph belonging to the Jele family: back row, second from right, is Chief Benson Jele (c. 1899–1902 – d.1966), dressed in full regalia and carrying a shield for protection called ‘Isihlangu’, staff called ‘Nthonga’ or ‘Nduku’ and on his head is a ‘Njukula’ made from ostrich feathers. Traditional Nguni dress was important for social occasions, yet would also be worn when going into war.   

The late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century was a tempestuous time in the regions of Southern and Eastern Africa. This period of unrest has been described as the Mfecane. Mfecane is of Nguni origin and translates as the ‘crushing’ in Nguni languages, including isiZulu. It is also known by the Sotho name Difaqane or Lifaqane, which both mean ‘crushing, scattering, migration and or forced dispersal’. The Mfecane can be described as a series of conflicts, wars and migrations amongst Southern and Eastern African Bantu-ethnic groups (also known as tribes or nations) during the years 1790–1850, with its apex in the years 1820–1850.

Many social, political, economic and demographic changes occurred during this period. The Mfecane had a profound impact on Southern and East African states through state formation, empire and kingdom building, political instabilities, and the advancement of military strategies. It began in Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, affecting places as far as Southern Tanzania. 

My project takes an interdisciplinary approach to tackle critical questions surrounding the history and historiography of the Mfecane. Past scholarship, written from the perspective of settler-colonialists and European historians, had limited understanding of the Bantu tradition of orality, the ways of life, languages and views of the various ethnic groups. I will use oral histories to focus on the perspectives of the Southern and Eastern African people, de-centring Europeans. 

The Mfecane is a people’s history. Through this project, I aim to further the reach of pre-colonial African history more broadly and the Mfecane, specifically. To inspire young people everywhere – and Africans and people of the African diaspora – to have pride in their history, to provide a context in their contemporary struggle for identity, and to shape their material condition.

As this project involves travelling across the region, it will be rooted in the people’s lives, cultures, languages and artistry beyond academic boundaries. Beyond representation, I believe there is a need to be part of the changing narrative of African stories, old and new, as part of the re-Africanisation of African history.

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