Glossary of Ndebele building terms

APOKORWAN - Eaves overhang


AMAKAPA IBALELO - Timber roof rafter

AMAOBA - Enclosed room located in the verandah

AMATHURI - Verandah

IBADI - Door

IBALELO - Used to signify a roof timber spanning from post to post, or from roof beam to roof beam, and could mean either a batten, or a ring beam

IBODA - The drum wall of a cone on cylinder dwelling

  • IFESDIRI - A window. The term has probably been derived from the Dutch venster, also meaning a window opening
  • IKHUPHU - The clay plaster on a wall
  • IMBHEJUNI - Decorative mouldings or sculptures on a wall
  • INDLU - Can be used to mean a home, or just an indoor residential space, or room
  • INGODO - Timber posts supporting the outside perimeter of a verandah
  • INTUTHI - The tie-beam or tie-piece at the indoor apex of a roof. This is usually used to hold in place a central post supporting the roof apex during construction. After thatching has been completed, this is removed, leaving the tie-piece behind
  • ISANGO - Can be used to denote either the doorway, or the threshold to the doorway
  • ISIDLOGORWANA - The capping at the roof apex
  • ISITUPE- External perimeter seat surrounding the external perimeter of a dwelling
  • ITHURI - The low wall enclosing a verandah room
  • IZIKO - The hearth
  • NGENDLINI - The raised floor inside the dwelling
  • UBULONGO - The clay and cow dung finish to a floor
  • UMSAMO - An internal seat located at the rear of a dwelling, on axis with the doorway and the hearth

Dwelling forms

Current archaeological evidence indicates that, up to the late 1800, South Ndebele homes and settlement patterns were very similar in both form and construction to those found in their old homeland in northern KwaZulu. Their dwellings were probably built in the form of a thatched dome, and were set in a circle about a central cattle byre.

During the 1860s they came under increasing pressure from immigrant white groups who were attempting to force them off their ancestral lands. As a result they entered into an alliance with their more powerful neighbours, the Pedi, whose territories were likewise threatened. It is probable that at this point their architecture began to adopt increasingly the forms, textures, construction, and even the decorations of the Pedi. It may be that this was an inevitable result of social interaction between the two groups, but it is also possible that this was a conscious decision taken by the Ndebele for political reasons, as the Pedi were never defeated by the Dutch and had managed to steadfastly retain control of their lands in the face of a strong white settler presence.

After the 1880s the Ndebele began to build their dwellings in the form of a central drum, some six to eight metres in diameter, surmounted by a conical thatched roof. The front of the unit was faced by a narrow enclosed verandah about 150cm wide, which ran from about 4 o'clock to 8 o'clock on the floor plan. This was used as a storage area as well as a sleeping space for young children. The central circular space was used by the parents as a sleeping area, with the left-hand side being deemed the side of the woman, the right the side of the man. Thus the left was called the side of life, where a woman would give birth, while the right was the side of death, where a body might be laid out prior to burial. At the back of the dwelling, on axis with the doorway, was the umsamo, a residual feature from the Ndebele's ancestral architecture. Among the Nguni of KwaZulu the umsamo consists of a semi-circular raised shelf located at the back of the dwelling. It functions primarily as a storage space for food and household utensils, but is also reputed to be the home of the family's ancestral spirits, or shades, and thus also serves a spiritual space for the men.

It appears that during the transition from the Nguni thatched dome to a Pedi cone-on-cylinder structure, the original function of the umsamo was lost, and although its name remains, it no longer functions as a household storage space. Instead it has now been converted by the Ndebele into a formal seat built in clay against the back wall. This change in function was further emphasized by a move of the hearth off its central position and to the rear of the dwelling, closer to the umsamo.

The dwelling was accessed through a walled front courtyard, which was used by the women of the household for a variety of social and household functions. Additional units, usually a kitchen and sleeping quarters for the children were located off a rear courtyard, which was accessed via a side passage.

The practice of decorating the walls of the Ndebele home probably originated from their Pedi neighbours whose monochromatic "union jack" pattern survives among the Ndebele to the present day.

Settlement patterns

The similarities existing between the domestic architecture of the Ndebele and that of the Pedi was also extended to their settlement forms. Historically the larger Ndebele settlement was built in the shape of an open fan, with a large circular space containing the cattle byre and the gathering place for the men being located at its center. The dwelling of the first wife of the senior man was located at the head of the settlement, on axis with the main entry to the central space. Other wives of the senior man were then allocated homes on either side of the first wife, on a left-and-right basis in alternating order of status. The homes of his brothers, or other members of his retinue, were located alternatively to the left and right of his abode, in descending order of status. Where such men also had polygamous families, their own homes were also structured according to an internal left-and-right ordering. Married male children were usually allocated dwellings behind that of their mother, and they too followed a left-and-right ordering. However, by the third generation the demand for space rendered all such pretense for hierarchy nonsensical, and the settlement was either reformed, or it divided into two separate homesteads.

By the 1940s most Ndebele settlements had changed to a linear pattern. The homes of individual family members were still laid out according to their status in a left-and-right hierarchy, but the homestead now followed the land's lines of contour, an arrangement which made better use of their farming resources. The cattle byre, although still central, was now in a square shape, and was located opposite the home of the senior member of the family. This was the pattern followed by the Msiza at their home at Hartbeesfontein, which they then reproduced when they were relocated to KwaMsiza in 1953.

In time, however, the village began to develop along new and innovative lines, quite different from those followed by the Ndebele previously. The original settlement at KwaMsiza was laid out in a shallow V-shape, with the Msiza family setting out their homes along one arm, while the Bhuda and Skosana took up residence along the opposite arm. The settlement was north facing and located out roughly parallel to the main road some 200m to their north. Their agricultural lands were situated behind their homes, downhill and towards the river. Consequently, when their male children began to marry, they could not be settled on land behind their mothers, as this was too valuable a resource to be used as residential space, but rather were given land north of the original settlement, opposite their parental homes. The land between the two sides was left empty, to be used in common. As a result, the two parts of the settlement come together to enclose a village common, giving rise to a space unique in Ndebele architecture.

Although the developments recorded in Ndebele architecture over the past century are in themselves exciting, they also need to be read in the wider context of socio-economic and political changes in the southern African region. They took place at a time when this group saw the loss of its military and political power; the dispossession and occupation of their lands; the placing of whole families into indentured employment on white-owned farms; and the channeling of their men-folk in to a migrant labour system which separated them from their families for years at a time. The latter began to establish some of the preconditions for the undermining of Ndebele patrifocal patterns and their replacement with some elements of matrifocality. Ndebele women thus responded to these forces threatening the survival of their families and of their larger Ndebele polity. They established firm controls over local resources and family structures, and reinforced the identity of their group by devision and promulgating a language of decoration which has since become identified as being uniquely Ndebele.

Their architecture therefore stands as a denial of white racist and colonial preconceptions which saw Ndebele society as being governed by "indolent, lustful and sexist polygamous males" to be broken up and channeled into a labour market for their purported "common good"; it stands as a tribute to the ability of Ndebele men and women to come together and combat the combined threats of colonialism, capitalism and apartheid; and it stands as a symbol of their spirit and their political power, their ability to take the initiative and, in a pacifist manner, reconstitute Ndebele group identify.

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