Once upon a time, or rather as the Shona say, paivapo, there lived a mad king who was bewitched by the whispers of an even madder woman. He was a sickly king who by all accounts should have died fifty times over, but somehow he had managed to repeatedly cheat death and remain fixed on his throne.
The mad king had copious wives and an unknown number of concubines, but they had all failed to bear his children. Whispers circulated in his kingdom and abroad that he was impotent and perhaps even cursed, but no one dared voice such treacherous words out loud. Every time one of his women was with child, the midwives would mask their premonitions of another stillborn with vigorous dancing and ululations. The drums would beat frantically and the people would shout for joy, making the mad king believe that he finally had an heir to his throne.
In the dusk of his life, he could no longer bear the disappointment and shame. As was the tradition in the kingdom, the mad king had a Council of Seven to help him wrestle with difficult decisions. But against convention, the mad king had selected lowly women of common blood to be his advisors. This was unheard of in all the realms south of the Sahara. But he was king and his whims were law. The mad king was paranoid that the men of his kingdom, both young and old, were plotting to overthrow his rule.
With the “consent” of a Council that was too terrified to disagree with him, the mad king decided to consult Chapungu about his predicament. Chapungu was rumoured to be a spirit medium of the ominous variety, despite the fact she was named after a bird believed to be a good omen. It mattered not that the Council had never actually spoken to her nor seen any of her multitude of fabled powers in action. And absolutely nobody in the known history of the kingdom had ever been so brazen as to approach her home. She was part woman, part myth, and they all believed that she possessed a supernatural authority that they did not dare speak of.
Chapungu lived at the edge of the village in a hut made of sticks and an assortment of animal hides. No one knew where she came from or who her people were. They could not remember a time when the south-east corner of the village was not cloaked in fear and shadow. Whenever she was spotted – from afar of course – Chapungu wore a curious headdress allegedly made out of eagle feathers, hence the village had given her the name Chapungu. As legend proclaims that the chapungu is a bird that never drops its feathers, it cannot be said how she acquired enough to make her crown. Some speculated that she had massacred a mother bird who was nesting her eggs bringing upon herself an ancient and most terrible curse.
A sinister darkness fell upon the village that night, menacing and full of terrors. The whole kingdom came to witness this unprecedented event. Children peeking out of the skirts of their mothers, frightened but unwilling to be left out. Unsure of how to behave in such a situation, the throng that had gathered resorted to the age-old African custom of beating the drum and singing into the night.
“Usiku. Usiku. Changamire vaenda kunaChapungu. Vadzimu,vachengetei. Vachengetei.Tizovaona kana zuva rabuda. ”
In the night. In the night. The king has gone to Chapungu. Ancestors, keep him safe. Keep him safe. That we might see him again at the rising of the sun.
Their woeful dirge, rose, and rose, and rose. Ever more frantic as the mad king followed the dirt path, down the hill, and into Chapungu’s territory. He held his head high as he hobbled along, but deep down, he was petrified. He knew in his heart that he was not Chapungu’s king, for who could rule a woman like her?
The mad king wanted to turn back, but he could not afford to lose face in front of his subjects. And so he soldiered on, muttering to his forefathers to intervene on his behalf. When he entered the hut of hides, an eerie stillness fell upon the valley. Even the stars seemed to shine a little less brightly as the crowd dispersed to wait for the rumours that morning would bring.
We will never know exactly what happened in Chapungu’s hut the night that the mad king visited her. But, as some things are better left shrouded in mystery, perhaps it is for the best. The only concrete evidence of the people’s suspicions was that approximately nine months after the infamous rendezvous, blood-curdling screams were heard from Chapungu’s hut and then a silence that was even louder than the screams.
The men were confounded, but the older women in the village could not mistake the sound of birthing cries. No-one had known that Chapungu was pregnant. When word got to him, the mad king was hysterical. He screamed at his Council to go and investigate. They entered Chapungu’s hut of hides filled with trepidation. Chapungu lay dead on the floor. And tangled between her legs lay a girl-child monstrosity that did not cry but hissed like a snake instead.
Even though he never owned up to it, everyone knew that the mad king had planted the child in Chapungu’s belly. It turned out for the best that the mad king’s Council was made up of young women who were terrified of him. They knew they could not let the child die. And so they took turns taking care of her. She had no name other than the mean-spirited nickname the village children gave her.
They called her Cobra Mamba and so she was.
Rumour has it that cradled in the mad king’s feverish embrace Chapungu threw the bones and saw the future. Her war-mongering tongue murmured to him that his kingdom was in very grave danger.
“Chenjerai Changamire! Beware my king! Beware a fiery menace from across the sea in the south. Vachauya! They will come! A scorching peril that will bring desolation to everything you have built. Vachauya. Vachauya.”
The mad king was exceedingly wealthy. His kingdom was a trade centre for cattle, grain, gold, and ivory. It was a multicultural marketplace for people from as far as the Middle East and China. Insane as he was, the mad king was a shrewd businessman whose thriving empire impressed all who visited it. He guarded his kingdom jealously, wanting nothing more than an heir to pass it on to.
After her death, Chapungu’s portentous words became the mad king’s bane. “Chenjerai! Beware a fiery menace from across the sea in the south. Varikuuya! They are coming!” The fortunes of a kingdom were shaped by one woman’s lunacy. An evil in his mind that did not sleep. A legion of voices howling in the night, haunting an already haunted mind.
The mother of madness came to him in the dark and dread of night. “Tarirai kugomo! Richakuponesai. Answer the threat with the power of the mountain. Zvivakirei dzimba dzemabwe. Build for yourself a city of stone. A kingdom that cannot be breached with neither spear nor flame. Build for yourself a city of stone.”
And so it was, that in the middle of a wooded savannah in southern Africa, the first of the houses of stone was built. Little did the stone masons know that the king’s madness would stretch over hundreds of acres. For into this project, he poured all his insanity, all of his foolishness, and all his fury. He summoned the most skilled of their trade from the farthest reaches of his kingdom. He promised them gold and they came in droves.
“Take apart the mountainside!” he roared. “Ndivakirei dzimba dzemabwe! Fashion for me great houses stone!”
Those architects of old poured out their genius into those rocks. For no mortar was to be used in accordance with the mad king’s venerated vision. No supporting structures but the stone itself. All were shocked when as if by some dark enchantment the buildings did not fall. An uncanny hush fell over the kingdom as the mad king manically demanded walls ten times as tall as a man. And so the stone masons continued to place one granite block on top of another until they had erected a Great Enclosure.
“Do not rest and do not stop!” The mad king screamed and shrieked. He was not content to keep only his family safe. He ordered the masons to keep building the houses of stone, until every man, woman, and child in his kingdom had somewhere to hide.
In the valley and upon the hill, stone upon stone, they built and built. Unending complexes, winding, winding, winding.
A legacy of stone in place of a legacy of blood.
Cobra Mamba inherited a double dose of madness. The scandalous daughter of a crazy father and an even crazier mother, there was no telling what she would become. At the age of nine, never having uttered a single word since she was born, she moved into Chapungu’s hut of hides. And there she lived in silence and solitude. Sitting under the tree where her mother was buried, she watched the rising of the houses of stone, until her time dawned and she volunteered to do what no man in the kingdom had the courage to do.
The year Cobra Mamba turned fifteen, the building stopped. The time of testing was upon them. The mad king had another of his fitful dreams. Stone versus fire. An epic war. In his last vision, the mad king saw eight figures about sixteen inches tall, part avian, part man, standing watch over the houses of stone. They were a sign to him from Chapungu that the time had come. At the rising of the next full moon, the battle would begin.
The mad king ordered the stone masons to carve the figures he had seen in his mind’s eye. And as in his dream, he had them placed at strategic locations around the enclosure. For he believed that the spirit of Chapungu would inhabit them and keep watch over his kingdom of stone.
The years had caught up to the mad king, but stooped and frail as he was, he insisted that the traditional war ceremony be held the night before the rising of the next full moon. A warrior had to be selected to lead them to victory.
In those days, no occasion was as revered as the war ceremonies of old. After many decades of peace, the entire kingdom was frantic in its preparations for the night that they believed would decide their fate. The wood pyres were stacked for the bonfire, the dancers rehearsed the customary steps, and as far as the Kingdom of Mutapa, whispers were heard in the wind of the impending doom.
The blazing light of the bonfire competing with the stars; the frenetic thrashing of drums echoing in every soul; feet pounding on red soil as if overtaken by some unseen force. Cloaked in the suffocating heat from the flames, on the night of the war ceremony, it was time for the Dance of Spears.
Seemingly willed from beyond the realm of earth, the crowd formed a wide circle around the bonfire, their feet thumping to the steady pulse of the drum. The official dancers who had inhaled the smoke of the leaf of spirits emerged from the crowd and entered the circle, spears in hand. Their faces painted in the colours of war, glowed red and white in the light of the fire.
As the dancers leapt in the air and brandished their spears, the people waited for their warrior to emerge. It was believed that during the Dance of Spears, the forefathers would choose a man to inhabit, and to him they would imbue all the skill and the fierceness of warriors from generations past. The Dance of Spears grew increasingly frenzied, but after an hour, no warrior had been chosen. If the crowd was worried, they did not show it. The drums continued to beat, feet continued to pound, and the drug-inspired dancers continued to wave their spears in circles around the fire, growling and grinning and grinding their teeth.
Then, just as despair was beginning to take hold of the mad king who had been watching the dance with more than a hint of insanity in his eyes, Cobra Mamba seemed to appear from nowhere. She pushed through the crowd and entered the circle, a spear raised high above her head. For a brief moment the astonished drummers stopped playing and the dancers stood and stared. The Dance of Spears was man’s domain. But, Cobra Mamba was not deterred by their cynicism. She began stepping, and leaping, and laughing to the song in her heart until the drums beat again and the crowd cheered her on.
Kissed by fire, she was damned and she was beautiful. A wild thing, dark and dangerous, casting a spell with every step, every gyration. A great beast of a woman driven by something dark and unseen. She wielded her spear like a woman possessed, leaping and cutting through the air, defying gravity. Making history as an army of one.
Never before had a female warrior been chosen by the ancestors. Yet, seeing Cobra Mamba wield her spear, baring her teeth like a rabid dog, heaving and hissing, with Chapungu’s crown of feathers on her head, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was their chosen warrior. The Dance of Spears had conjured her metamorphosis into a warrior-princess that no one could defy.
Gasps were heard from the crowd as the mad king stood up and entered the circle. With his walking stick raised above his head, he joined Cobra Mamba, shuffling, and stepping, and half-leaping around her. United in madness, it was a father-daughter dance like no other. It was a fated fellowship that could not be breached. A moment in time that would be recounted through the ages from generation to generation with wild embellishments that made many forget that the underlying story was true.
As the embers of the bonfire died and the village cocks crowed heralding the inauspicious day foretold, the whole kingdom hid behind the granite walls that the mad king had built for their protection. Cobra Mamba alone stood outside the walls, high on a hill on the lookout for the enemy her mother had envisioned. What she would do when the enemy attacked, nobody knew. But they believed in her and held their breath.
Even when the sun rose high in a clear blue sky, and as afternoon faded into dusk, Cobra Mamba did not falter. She stood tall and unwavering upon that hill, spear in hand, ready to fight, to die if need be. But, neither spear nor flame came their way that day. The grass continued to wave in the wind and the birds continued to sing in the trees, and late into the dark and dread of night, the mad king drew his last breath in a fitful sleep.
A great cry was heard as far as the Limpopo River echoing from the kingdom of stone. In place of the drums of war, funeral drums beat day and night without ceasing for a full week as the men whispered and the women cried. What of the fiery threat from the south? What would they do with a kingdom of stone?
At Cobra Mamba’s request, the mad king was not buried in a conventional grave. She demanded the Council to bring his body to the Great Enclosure. She ordered the stone masons to build a tower over and around him. Fat at the bottom and thin at the top. A conical construction that would stand the test of time.
As she supervised the building of the mad king’s grave, Cobra Mamba did not shed a single tear. Whether driven by something sacred or something sinister no one could tell. She did not sleep and she did not eat, until it stood ten metres into the sky.
In the midst of their grief, the entire kingdom stood on edge, uncertain of what the future held now that their ruler was dead. Cobra Mamba had yet to speak a single word about her intentions and no one dared to ask her if she would ascend the throne. Women rulers were unheard of, but so were female warriors. The ancestors had chosen her in the Dance of Spears. Would they also select her to take her father’s place?
All waited in agonizing anticipation, but when her watch had ended, Cobra Mamba took off her mother’s crown of feathers and laid it on top of the elliptical tower. She left the village that night to destinations unknown, leaving her father’s kingdom to be overtaken by civil strife and greed.
The houses of stone were never tested against the fiery threat from the south, and as such, few now live who remember the true origin of what is known today as Great Zimbabwe. By the time the white man from Portugal stumbled upon its ruins, tales of the mad king had faded into obscurity.
Early European archaeologists could not fathom that the Bantu people could build such a magnificent edifice. Some mistakenly attributed the houses of stone to the Queen of Sheba, or to ancient Arabs from the north, while some claimed that it is a riddle that cannot be solved. And yet still, on Southern Rhodesian currency, a mystifying image of a soapstone bird was incongruously placed opposite the image of a foreign king named George.
Only in the shadowy recesses of the indigenous mind is the true tale of the dzimba dzemabwe still known. Upon independence from colonial rule, the native elders who remembered the truth of those ancient times chose to put an image of the chapungu bird on their flag, in memory of Cobra Mamba and her eccentric mother. And they named their glorious country Zimbabwe, in honour of the mad king, whose psychosis gave birth to an enduring kingdom of stone.
Tendai Machingaidze is a writer from Harare, Zimbabwe whose debut novel was published in 2014 by African Perspectives Publishing. Tendai’s work has appeared in Africa Book Club, The Kalahari Review, Munyori Literary Journal, Weaver Press Zimbabwe, Open Road Review among others.