The (Ndebele) King & I

By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2004

"Ngwen-YAAA-ma!" I cry, my eyes cast respectfully downward to the dusty ground. This is my first encounter with royalty, and I want to get it right. No matter that this royal personage is dressed like a golfer, with a baseball cap crowning his head. He is a king, nonetheless, with nearly 2 million royal subjects.

So, for my audience with Mayitjha III, king of South Africa's Ndebele people, I've learned the official lingo for royal groveling: ngwenyama ("lion"), bayede ("your majesty") and ndabezithi ("Your people are listening"). These are all to be uttered with earnest enthusiasm, while never making the horrifying faux pas of establishing eye contact.

The king resides northwest of Johannesburg, in KwaNdebele, a "tribal homeland" created during the apartheid era. To reach his royal personage, my husband, Paul, and I had been picked up at the Jo-burg airport by tour operators Titus Ncongwane and Khobongo "Petrus" Mahlangu, a walking Ndebele encyclopedia.

On the 100-mile drive, Petrus told us the Ndebele (n-day-BAY-lay) people originally split off from the Zulus and make up 3 percent of the South African population. They were once fierce warriors who fought off the Boers (Dutch-descended South Africans) for eight months in the late 1800s. The Ndebele language contains some of the percussive clicks that so fascinate foreigners. For a little comic relief, Petrus tried to teach us to say "Coca-Cola," which sounds something like, "CLICK!-o CLICK!-a CLICK!-o la." Thank goodness this is not a royal praise word.

The two Africans drilled us in kingly etiquette, and I was a bit miffed at Petrus's recommendation that Paul, as "head of the family," should introduce us to His Majesty. But, then again, you don't mess with royal custom.

The king's kraal ("corral") is a multibuilding palace surrounded by a high fence. Vivid geometric paintings splash across the walls, which are traditionally made from mud and cow dung. As we enter the compound, out of the corner of my properly downcast eye, I spot Mayitjha III and five of his "men" sitting in simple chairs under a massive tree. We're ushered to chairs facing them.

In the Ndebele language, Petrus humbly greets the king and explains who we are, throwing in plenty of "ngwenyamas!" and "bayedes!" Titus whispers the translation in my ear. "I am most honored to present to you two distinguished visitors from the United States . . . " By the time Petrus is finished, he's practically bestowed ambassador status on us.

For the first time His Majesty addresses us. He gestures upward, speaking in English. "This marula tree could tell many stories. It has been here 50 years and has heard everything." Paul and I nod solemnly. "Ndabezithi!" Titus cries out, and nudges me. "Ndabezithi!" I blurt.

King Mayitjha asks if we'd like to introduce ourselves. Paul lays it on thick. "Ngwenyama, my wife and I have never had the privilege of encountering so great a royal personage. We are just humble commoners from Washington, D.C." It's as if he's channeling Dorothy's "small and meek" speech to the Wizard of Oz.

The king seems pleased. "Do you have any questions for us?" he asks.

"Bayede, what are your goals for your people?" Paul begins.

"For the children to get an education," the king answers. "My generation had no opportunity for education."

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