Mai Vembada

National Geographic

THE GIRL CLIMBED THE LAST FIFTY METRES to the top of the ridge. Sweat shone on her arms and ran down her face, but she breathed deeply with pleasure. Coming from the deep woods to the north, Murapi was not used to the brilliant sunshine that baked everything all day. Or the lack of tree cover to shield her from potential enemies.

The leopard jumped from one spot to the next, easily staying alongside the girl as they climbed. The big cat probably was less impressed with the scenery, and more worried about the exposure, but her coat matched the terrain better than the girl’s anthracite skin and green-and-brown clothes. Even without facial expressions, Murapi knew that the cat shared her excitement and pleasure in her own cat-like way. Such was the bond between them. Such had been the bond between the girl’s grandmother and her two leopards, and her great-grandmother before that, when the clan had lived in the jungle that covered the continent north of these savannahs and woods.

At the top, she stopped, and exclaimed in a sound halfway between a growl and a word, “Ingwe! It’s the sea!” The leopard paused, too, intent on scanning the thinning trees and the shining white sands for signs of movement.

Neither of them had ever seen an ocean. Murapi had heard about it from her grandmother and her father, but they had not prepared her for its vastness, the immensity of the water, and the curve of the horizon. She took it in with awe and delight as she caught her breath.

A slight chuffing noise from Ingwe brought her attention back to land. Just inland from where the horizon met the coast to the south, she saw dust rising and blowing to sea. Not herders and not cattle, she thought. Warriors, trained not to kick up much dirt. The dust cloud from a tribe on the move would have resembled a sandstorm.

A forest of evergreens grew along the coastline, extending to her left out of sight, and ending about halfway to where the army or whatever it was marched north. Not as good as a jungle, but better than standing up here like an idiot! She moved quickly down the side of the ridge and vanished into the forest…


The next day, they watched the men setting up camp, drilling in combat with knives and assegai, the long spears used by these southerners. The cat drew back and went in search of supper. The girl remained in the trees, listening, watching, and matching what she saw with what she had learned from her father and grandmother. She felt a familiar stirring, admiring the warriors’ physiques, their grace as they jabbed and parried, and swung their shields into position. Even in a drill, a mistake in their dance could kill or maim.

The men spoke Nguni, similar to her own Bantu language. She had travelled among the Ndwandwe and the Mthethwa. These men were Mthethwa. Her father and the Mthethwa king, Dingiswayo, had known each other for many years, although her clan was far enough away from the other chiefdoms in the Mthethwa confederation to be left alone.

An officer came out of his shelter and berated a pair of young warriors for not holding their knives properly and not attacking vigorously. He then turned to their instructor and ordered him to punish them. From the beadwork that hung on his neck, she knew he was a lieutenant, and of royal blood, though not in line for succession.

Her father had described this man: Sigidi. His younger half-brother was king of the Zulu, a minor tribe in the confederation. Sigidi himself was a lieutenant in Dingiswayo’s Mthethwa army. He had a reputation for cruelty and a quick temper, but also for his intelligence and for innovation in military tactics. He was shorter than the girl, built powerfully, with lighter brown skin than most. Her father had told her that Sigidi was touchy about his somewhat flat nose. She recognized a sore on his arm. He had probably brushed up against a naboom tree.

Beyond the military drills, she saw women setting up cooking fires. Near them a man and a woman worked with herbs, grinding them into paste. Healers. These were the people she wanted to meet.

The girl had seen enough. She retreated into the woods to consider how to introduce herself to these strangers…


With a final deep breath, the girl squared her shoulders and glanced to her left. The leopard rested like the Sphinx, with a clear view of the camp from the bushes. The girl was not accustomed to fear, and she did not like the feeling in her chest and gut.

She stepped out of the trees and walked boldly toward the camp. A pair of guards converged on her. She stopped, her arm in a gesture of greeting. She knew that the sun reflected off her knives and the blade of her short spear, certainly distracting anyone from noticing the medicine bag over her shoulder.

“Greetings, warriors, and peace.”

“What do you want, girl?”

“To meet your healers – and to heal your commander.” They looked surprised and pointed their spears at her. “Do not touch me. I can walk well enough on my own.”

“Who are you to give us orders?”

“A healer among my people, and at least the equal of your lieutenant. I would speak with him first.”

They charged her at the same time, as she expected. Her short spear deflected one assegai, while she pulled on the other spear, yanking the guard toward his partner. She spun so that they crashed together to her right. As they tripped over her right leg, she took the assegai from the nearest man, whirling it around so that the guards each found themselves looking up at a spear point before they could get up.

“What is going on here?” The guards scrambled at the sound of Sigidi’s voice, but she pushed the spears toward them. They stilled.

“Greetings, lieutenant. These two charged me when I explained that I came in peace to offer my services and to exchange notes with your healers.”

The officer paused to consider the scene before him. His expression alternated between surprise, annoyance and humour. Finally, he laughed.

“But you are a mere girl.”

“True, but also a healer.” She moved her bag with her elbow. “I can treat that sore on your arm so it vanishes without a scar.”

“Why are my men in this condition?”

“I could hardly undertake a walk alone without some way of defending myself, could I?”

“You are the cheekiest girl I have ever met. I should have you flogged.”

“It would be entertaining to watch someone try, but then who would heal that sore, or teach you better approaches for guards challenging strangers?”

“What is your name, girl who speaks in questions?”

“Murapi, lieutenant.”

“That simply means ‘healer’.”

“So it does, but it is the name of my coming of age.” The final, grown name often reflected a person’s role or reputation in the society.

“Come, I want to hear more – if you will release my guards.”

Murapi stepped back, nodded to the men, and whirled the assegai to present it handle-first to its owner.

“Thank you, lieutenant. There are things that I do not want to say out here.” She smiled.

“I will deal with you two later.” He scowled at the guards.

Inside the shelter, Sigidi turned toward her. He did not sit, and neither did she.

“You speak as someone accustomed to command. Who is your father?”


“I have heard the name. You are far from home.”


“Why have you come here?”

“I have come to see the great ocean and to visit what other people I may find. I exchange knowledge with healers in the tribes that I meet. This will help my people after I return.”

“Why us?”

“Because you are marching north. Had you not come here, I would have turned inland, and we might never have met.”

“You did not know that we were here?”

“Not until I saw your dust cloud yesterday. By now, everyone in the hills knows you are marching north and not herding cattle.” He frowned. She could tell that he was bothered by the shortcomings of his imbutho lempi, and impatient to shape his unit into something better.

“Is everyone here as observant as you are?”

“I can’t speak for the Ndwandwe or the Mthethwa, but if it were my people, scouts would have been quietly tracking you for some time. Do not worry about them; they live far from here.”

“Do you know who I am?”


He made an impatient noise. “Well?”

“Sigidi kaSenzangakhona. Lieutenant in the Mthethwa army and vassal of Dingiswayo.”

“How is it that you know me, but I don’t know you?”

“For one, I’m a girl. Would you have paid any attention?” She smiled. He smiled back with reluctant humour. “For another, we would not have enjoyed peace for as long as we have without paying attention to what was happening beyond our borders.”

They stared at each other for what she felt was an eternity. She wondered if he would not suddenly call for his guards and have her executed right there. Such was his reputation.

Sigidi turned to the short table, where a skin of milk and some flat bread rested on a tray. “Let’s eat something while you tell me about this sore on my arm.”

Murapi set her spear against the wall and joined him on the hides around the table.


A week later, the sore on Sigidi’s arm had healed almost completely. Murapi had insisted on having the sangoma and the inyanga of the unit join her, so she could teach them how to make the muti paste that she used, and to assure them that her medicine was white magic and not witchcraft. She swapped samples of some of her herbs and roots with them for specimens from the coast that she had never seen.

She asked Sigidi to let her share the tent of the healers so they could exchange notes. He reluctantly agreed. Murapi had seen that look before and was grateful that he did not say anything more out loud. She was also grateful that no one ever suggested disarming her, as she walked among them with the Zulu healers. Each night, she slipped out of the healers’ tent and spent the night with Ingwe in the forest.

On her second day among them, she heard shouting at the other end of the camp. She walked toward the noise. The warriors gave her a wide berth. The two guards that she had disarmed were bound together, surrounded by a crowd. Sigidi stood before them, with armed sergeants on either side. He saw her and stopped what he was doing.

“Murapi, I am glad to see you. These are the two who failed to stop you.”

“I see. And how have you decided to deal with them?”

“I will kill them, of course.”

Murapi walked up closer to him. The warriors near him slipped their assegai under their arms and put their hands on their knives. He motioned them to be still and relax. Murapi spoke in a low voice into his ear.

“That would be a waste. If you kill every young warrior who makes a mistake in training, you won’t have anyone left to train and take into battle. Think about it.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Teach them how to challenge one who approaches them without being dropped and teach them how to use their spears better.”

“Do you think you could do better than my sergeants?”

“I know I could.”

Sigidi raised his voice to address the unit. “The healer here has interceded, and I like her plan. Since she defeated you two, she will teach you what you should have done. The rest of you watch.”

For the next hour, Murapi sparred with a dozen different warriors, deconstructing each encounter, until it became clear that they needed to stay separated, providing backup to each other.

“Practice that, until you instinctively avoid standing too close when fighting in pairs. If you are not actively attacking or parrying, you should be out of reach of the enemy.

“A guard post is not a battle line. You don’t provide support the same way.”

This ran counter to what the young soldiers had learned about fighting, but the sergeants understood immediately. For the rest her time among the Mthethwa, she felt a kind of respect that she had not experienced anywhere else.


One day, Sigidi sent for her.

When she entered the shelter, he said, “You have not talked about weapons, but you clearly know more about fighting than a healer or a girl should.” He pointed to her spear. “Do all your people fight with such short spears? You can’t throw them very far.”

“We never throw them, and we rarely can use the assegai. Consider that we live in the jungle and the woods. Where could we throw a spear?”

“But why not just knives?”

“The spear still gives us a reach. In close combat, we fight with a spear in one hand and a knife in the other.”

“No shields?”

“Too cumbersome for the woods. Probably easier to duck behind a tree.”

Sigidi considered her in silence for a long time. “Let me see, please.” He reached out. She gave him her spear and stepped back, a hand on one of her knives. She watched him as he studied the weapon.

“Show me outside.”

“Do you want me to fight someone?”

“Yes. Me.”

“In front of your men?”

“No. Let’s go into the woods you walked out of.”

She followed him out of the shelter. A half dozen warriors followed them out of the camp, but Sigidi told them to wait at the edge.

“Don’t come in unless I’m not back in an hour.”

Murapi led him to a clearing. After she successfully parried his attacks with assegai and knives, he took a break.

“Let me feel that.” She gave him the spear. Again, she stepped back, hands on her knives.

He tried throwing the short spear, then whipping it around. He ran at her, the spear held high. She dropped below, parrying his downstroke with her knife on the spear.

“In a serious fight my other knife or my short spear would go through your heart, lieutenant.”

He smiled and tossed the spear to her.

“I like you, Murapi. Stay with us and be my wife.”

“No, Sigidi. I have my people, and I intend to return to them. You have Zulu and Mthethwa wives.”

“They can’t heal and fight like you.”

“But you have fighters and healers. Use them.”

“I could take you anyway.”

“No, you couldn’t.”

“You are alone. Your people are far away.”

“I am not alone, Sigidi.” She made a noise like a soft growl. “Turn around.”

He jumped at the sight of the full-grown leopard crouched next to a bush, not two metres away.

“Come here, Ingwe. Meet the big, bad Zulu warrior.” The cat rose gracefully and eased over to Murapi’s side. She scratched Ingwe’s head as the leopard nuzzled her side. “Sigidi, meet Ingwe. She has been out of sight but following my every move.”

“You are a witch!”

“No, but Ingwe has grown up with me. Soon she will mate with some leopard in the jungle, and I will raise one of her cubs, too. Four generations of women in my family have done this.”

Sigidi was silent as they walked back to the guards. Ingwe disappeared before they reached the edge of the woods.

The next morning, Murapi had vanished. Sigidi did not order a search. He knew that they would not find her.


Six years later, twelve men arrived at the council-house almost at the same time and gathered inside. While they waited for their leader to arrive, they discussed cattle, their favourite subject when not fighting. The mild winter and gentle spring had led to early crops, easy pasturing, and half again as many calves as usual. When the people were not hungry or miserable, they were usually peaceful, so there had not been any raiding this year, for which everyone was grateful.

One man, considerably younger than the others, spoke rarely, and tried to take his cue from the older man next to him. They were from the farthest village of the clan, and the young man had been elected chief of the tribe only the week before. He stood with confidence, a chief among his peers, but he was personally aware that the other chiefs had expected his companion (now his adviser) to be elected.

Conversation stopped when the door hanging rustled, and a woman stepped in. At two metres, she stood taller than any man in the room. Their skin was black, but hers shone like anthracite. She wore the short tunic of a warrior, and a pair of knives.

Murapi paused, scanning the room and instantly noting and recognizing everyone in it. She caught the movement of the new chief’s jaw as he closed his mouth quickly.

She smiled and relaxed as she crossed the room. These were her people.

“Thank you for coming. I don’t take these meetings lightly. Isn’t this only the first one this year?” She looked at the oldest chief, who stood to her left.

“And you have held fewer than three in any year, my queen.”

“We have only one issue to discuss, but first, let me welcome our newest chief.” She walked to the new chief and placed her hand on his forehead. “Mandla, congratulations. Mlungisi lived up to his name and secured our southern borders for many years. And I know that many expected our friend Kagiso to be elected. Personally, I am pleased with this arrangement, and we should all admire Kagiso’s wisdom in nominating you. Heed his advice, Mandla, and you will not stumble.”

“I will, my queen.”

“Good.” She walked back to the blanket opposite the entrance and sat cross-legged. The men sat at their places in the circle. “Is there anyone here who is not aware of the trouble to the south?”

After a short silence, Kagosi said with a grin, “which trouble, my queen? I know of three kings fighting the new upstart and two different sets of Europeans pressing from the west toward them.”

“It does appear that Shaka Zulu will succeed in consolidating his kingdom, but I am mainly concerned with the British and the Voortrekkers. In the end, they will subjugate the Zulu and the older tribes.” Murapi looked around. “The question before that happens is, ‘where will Shaka take his impi when he conquers everyone else?’”

“Would he want to come this far north?” asked Kagosi. “Our mountains are up against the desert. Even the Portuguese have shown little interest in us. I am happy with that.”

“Mandla, have you and Kagosi spotted any new movement?”

“Yes, we have. We have reports from traders that there is fighting perhaps a three-week march away.”

“How long ago?”

Mandla looked down and frowned. “Three weeks ago.”

“Have you deployed scouts and guards?”

“Yes, we did that before coming here.”

“Good. Before long, we should know if they are at our borders. Last week, they were still a two-week march away, but often marching double-time.”

“How do you know this, my queen? We are between them and you.”

“I have my own scouts, Mandla.” She looked at the entrance. “One of them is coming now.”

The hanging moved and a full-grown leopard eased into the room. Mandla leaped back with a shout, but the other men sat still. Mandla took his seat again, embarrassed and aware that the other chiefs were trying not to grin or laugh. Every one of them had experienced a first encounter with the queen’s leopard.

“What have you for us, Ingwe?” she repeated the question with a short purring sound as the big cat nuzzled her face. Ingwe made a sound like could have been a purr or a growl. The chiefs watched in silence as the queen communicated with the animal.

“They are a day out from your village, Mandla.” The young chief stood quickly, but Kagosi grabbed his arm. “Sit. I need your counsel on this before you leave.”

“Speak to us, my queen,” said the oldest chief.

“I propose to convince Shaka Zulu to take his impi south and to leave us alone. I want your support, and I want you to be ready for my plan not to work.”

“We have marched with you before,” said Kagosi. “We are ready to fight again.”

“Not against the impi of the Zulu. Apart from their numbers, I don’t want to spill our blood to feed Shaka’s pride.”

“I hear that he expects complete, unconditional subjugation.”

“And he kills anyone who seems weak or disagrees with him.” This from a chief on the western border.

“I have heard the same,” said Murapi. “But this is not my first run-in with Shaka.” She raised a hand to calm the burst of surprise. “He was a silly boy at the time. Remember when my father sent me south?” The older men nodded. “Ingwe and I went to the coast and came back through Zulu land. Shaka was a young officer, and I could tell that he had natural leadership. He was also extremely vain – still is, I guess – and was thirsty to learn everything he could.

“He had a festering sore from a small wound, which his inyanga were unable to heal. I recognized it, and I had some of our local herbs in my kit. It cleared up.

“I was there for a week, and I observed how he related to his men.”

“Did he know who you were?” asked Mandla.

“He knew me as a passing healer, but he enjoyed my company, because I could talk about things his people did not know.” She held up her spear. “Remember how my grandfather drilled us with this?” More grey heads nodded. “I showed Shaka mine. He was impressed.”

“Where was Ingwe?”

“In the jungle. She would meet me every night.”

Kagosi asked, “Are you thinking of going to see Shaka Zulu alone again?”

“Things are different now, but yes. I’d like to take a very small party – no more than six men – to his camp. I would meet him out of sight of the others, so he won’t be embarrassed. I think I can convince him that we would help his cause better by securing his northern border than by an alliance or a conquest.”

“Are you talking of feminine wiles, my queen?” Kagosi looked nervous as he said it.

Murapi’s eyes flared, but she kept calm. “Good for you, Kagosi. You have always spoken what others were afraid to say. No, no wiles, and I do not intend to join his harem in a political marriage. I will speak to him ruler-to-ruler.”

“What if he wants conquest?”

“If my plan works, it won’t come to that. I will see him alone first. Of course, he may be at something of a disadvantage when we start talking.”

“Oh, no, my queen. You wouldn’t!” Kagosi said in a loud voice. The others seemed confused.

“I would. If I don’t succeed, the six men will bring word back, and you can prepare for the invasion.”

The leopard raised her head and growled.

“And Ingwe?”

“She will probably retreat to the jungle after killing Shaka – or die trying. You won’t have to worry about her.”

Mandla said, “The Zulu fight close like we do. Their numbers alone worry me.”

“In fact, no other tribe fights that way. We also have the advantage of the mountains. They are not used to our jungles and hills.” Murapi looked around. “Any other ideas?”

One middle-aged chief raised his hand. “From what I have learned from you, my queen, don’t take just six men.”


“No. Six men is fine but take two healers – or one healer and two bearers to help.”

“Good for you, too, Takunda. We will leave no one behind. Anyone else?”

They spent the next hour agreeing on who would supply the guard and the healers, and about deploying additional warriors to Mandla’s village. They left quietly.


The moonless night was as dark as the jungle can get. Murapi and Ingwe led the small band through the woods smoothly and noiselessly, as only they could. Murapi had them tie a line to each other, so she could move quickly and only lead the first warrior.

Just before dawn, they stopped and ate an uncooked breakfast of berries and fruit. Then they climbed into the trees to sleep and rest – and to take turns looking for Shaka’s scouts in the jungle.

Late in the third afternoon, they smelled smoke, and knew that the Zulu war party was just out of sight to the south. They watched a pair of scouts reconnoiter the ground beneath them. When the scouts turned back toward the camp, it was almost sunset. In the dark, Murapi gave her final instructions, and led her team toward the Zulu bivouac.

Just over a ridge, they saw the glow of campfires and heard the conversations of several hundred warriors. About a hundred metres from the camp, Murapi’s warriors and the two healers climbed back into the trees.

Ingwe disappeared, but Murapi could sense where the big cat was as the two of them slid noiselessly through the dark. The feeling of moving undetected among the trees and vines was exhilarating. On a night this dark, the world matched her skin perfectly, and she eased through the jungle like a wraith.

It was not hard to pick out Shaka’s shelter in the camp. It was bigger and had more guards than the others. Murapi walked around the camp, observing from the darkness. She spotted Shaka by the fire nearest his tent. He was berating one of his officers, who then turned to a young man to his right and drove his short spear into the man’s heart. Still as wasteful as ever, she thought, and just as ugly as I remember him. She backed deeper into the jungle and went around behind Shaka’s tent.


Shaka stepped into his tent and laid his spear against the side. Without having to maintain a front, he sighed and massaged his temples.

He crossed the shelter to the table near the center and blew some life into the small fire. Setting his knives on the table, he began to loosen his belt.

“Don’t undress, Shaka. I don’t need to see it.”

He whirled around as Murapi stepped from the side of the shelter where his clothes hung. She stood taller than he, and her shining black skin made his brown skin look pale.

The look of surprise on his face lasted only a second before he reached for a knife. He recoiled in pain as Murapi brought the flat side of her spear down on his arm.

“Sshh! Let’s talk, you and I.”

“Who are you?” The Zulu chieftain stepped back and assumed a stance for unarmed combat.

“You have heard me called Mai Vembada, or perhaps Umama Wezingwe.” Mother of leopards.

“That’s a story our nursemaids use to terrify their little ones.” He reached for the table.

Her spear flashed again, this time drawing blood on his forearm. “Don’t move! If wanted to kill you, you would be dead already. If you call out, I will slash your throat and disappear before your guards can react.”

His eyes grew wider as he realized that she really could kill him that fast. He had drilled his warriors in the short spear until they tired of it, and this woman held hers more confidently than any of his men.

“What do you want?”

“First, to make a bargain with you. Second, to let you leave here alive and in full command of your little army.”

“You expect me to bargain with a woman?”

“Perhaps not, but with the reigning queen of the clan you intend to attack tomorrow, yes.”

“Why do I not know you?”

“But you do, Shaka, or should I call you Sigidi kaSenzangakhona? Who taught you to use the short spear – which, I notice, you have taken credit for inventing?”


“The same.”

Shaka Zulu sat cross-legged on his bed blanket. “You have me at a disadvantage. I thought you were a healer.”

“I am, but also the queen of my people.

“What do you want?”

“My father had an arrangement with your mentor, Dingiswayo. I want you to honor that agreement and leave us alone.”

“The Ndwandwe murdered Dingiswayo. I will have my revenge on them.”

“But not on us. We had nothing to do with the Mthethwa or your enemies the Ndwandwe.

“What was this agreement, then? Dingswayo should have told me.”

“He probably thought you would continue south and had no reason to mention us.” She still held her spear at the ready. “We have guarded these mountains for generations. Leave us alone, and the Ndwandwe and the Portuguese will need to come down the coast to fight you. They will not come through the mountains.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because we are one with the jungle and the mountains. I told you before why we use the short spear. Trust me: the Ndwandwe have not come south through these mountains because we don’t let them in.”

Shaka Zulu sat in silence.

“How will we seal this agreement, if we do?”

“Simple. I will take your word for it and leave. I have warriors watching this shelter. If you go back on your word, you will not leave this hillside alive.”

“If I called, my guards would kill you, even if you killed me.”

“Not likely. Your guards are as good as dead now, if you call.”

Shaka considered her position in silence.

“I think I should call your bluff.” He stood.

Murapi made an almost inaudible noise. Shaka felt the night air come from behind him and turned to see a full-grown leopard staring at him. Ingwe crouched, ready to spring.

He backed up – into Murapi, who grasped his neck and kicked his knees to force him down. She pressed the point of her spear into his back. He remained still.

“It is not a bluff, and my leopards are not a fairy tale,” she said into his ear. “No one need ever know we met.” She shook the spear so the point drew a small bit of blood. “Do we have an agreement?”


“Good. Tomorrow, I want you and your impi gone.”

“I’ll need to explain this. I outlined plans.”

“Since when must a king explain himself? You have easier enemies to pursue along the coast. Just leave.”

“When I avenge Dingswayo, I’ll be back for you.”

“No, you won’t. By then you’ll be busy with the English and the Dutch. If you think of me at all, think of the gift of the short spear – and the quiet on your northern borders.”

Murapi placed a carefully aimed blow near his ear. The Zulu king collapsed gently. She laid him on his sleeping blanket. He would wake in a few hours.

Through the slit in the back of the shelter, she and Ingwe vanished into the night.

© 2022, JT Hine

Author’s note. My stories are fiction, but Sigidi kaSenzangakhona, better known as Shaka Zulu, was a real person, considered by some the most brilliant military commander on the continent, ever. Historians agree that he was quick to learn from others and to import ideas about weapons, tactics and strategy. Some say that he did not invent the short sword; others say he did. Women held positions of leadership in some tribes, so the idea that a queen who escaped the scrutiny of European reporters might have introduced him to the short spear is not far-fetched. I have simply created a pleasant story that fits the known details. I hope you enjoyed it.

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