Nongqawuse

ca. 1840–ca. 1900
Xhosa prophet

Nongqawuse was a young woman whom the XHOSA people of SOUTH AFRICA regarded as a prophet who communicated with the spirit world. She urged them to kill their cattle—advice that proved tragic for her people and their kingdom.

An orphan, Nongqawuse was raised by her uncle, a Christian convert, in South Africa’s Transkei region. In 1856 she claimed that she could see and talk with the spirits of the dead. The communications she relayed from the ancestors made no sense, so her uncle interpreted them for the Xhosa. The spirits ordered the Xhosa to kill all their cattle, destroy their corn, and throw away their magical devices. Soon the dead would rise, bringing a perfect new world. Cattle and corn would be plentiful, the blind would see, the old would grow young, and no one would suffer again. These prophecies offered hope to the Xhosa, who were suffering from a long epidemic of cattle sickness and from conflict with white settlers over their land.

Nongqawuse

After 15 months of cattle killing, about 40,000 Xhosa had starved to death, including Nongqawuse’s uncle. Another 150,000 had abandoned their homes to search for food. For 80 years the Xhosa kingdom had blocked the advance of the British Cape Colony. However, the disastrous cattle-killing movement devastated the kingdom, and white settlers snatched up much of the Xhosa territory. Colonial authorities held Nongqawuse for a time in Cape Town. Details of her release and later life are not known, but she is thought to have spent the rest of her life with relatives on a white-owned farm. (See also Prophetic MovementsReligion and Ritual, Southern Africa, History.)