Chaka

by Thomas Mofolo

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The novel Chaka was written by Thomas Mofolo, an author from Lesotho. The novel tells the fictionalized and mythical story of the rise and fall of Zulu emperor Chaka. Throughout the novel, Chaka is portrayed as a man of both courage and power, as well as a man of cruelty and violence. He is a deeply flawed character, and the reader learns more and more about these flaws as the story progresses.

The novel begins by recounting Chaka's youth, introducing the historical and personal context during which he was raised. After being impregnated out of wedlock by Senzangakhona, a tribal king, Chaka's mother faces jealousy and hatred from others in her community. After Chaka is born, the two of them are banished to another village, where Chaka grows up as an outsider.

As Chaka grows up, he becomes stronger and braver; he eventually attains a heroic status in his village after killing a lion and a hyena that had been threatening the people. This status is short-lived, however, as Chaka soon finds himself in the midst of a battle for succession to the tribal kingship. Chaka learns that his father has called for his death to mitigate the disagreement, and Chaka is then sent on the run from assassins.

It is while running from the men who seek to kill him that Chaka meets Isanusi, a witch doctor who assumes the roles of magician, con man, sorcerer, doctor, and killer all in one. Isanusi inoculates Chaka with "the medicine of blood," explaining,

If you do not spill blood, it will turn against you and kill you instead.

He convinces Chaka that he needs to be able to kill without thought in order to clear a path for himself to become powerful. This situation marks a clear change in Chaka, who shifts from a justice-loving, but persecuted, character to a ruthless killer seeking vengeance and power.

As Chaka gains more and more political power, he begins to build his empire. He first gains status among the Dingiswayo village, where he becomes a hero after assisting them in war. It is there that he meets a beautiful woman named Noliwa and, with the help of two of Isanusi's friends, marries her.

Shortly after his marriage to Noliwa, Chaka learns that his father has passed away, and the chosen heir, Mfokanzana, has claimed the throne. Chaka returns to his home village to fight Mfokanzana and is successful in killing him. At this point, Chaka is granted kingship over his father's village; from there, he begins to conquer other territories, including the villages of Dingiswayo and Zwide. He combines the three villages into one kingdom.

Even with all of this new power, Chaka is not satisfied; he wants more. Isanusi promises Chaka that if he continues to follow his orders, he can rule even more land. This power-hungry side of Chaka is what turns him into a tyrannical leader. He becomes so lustful for power that he kills his own people without hesitation. Eventually, Isanusi's orders lead to the destruction of all that Chaka has gained, a point that is emphasized by the fact that he kills not only his mother but also his beloved wife Noliwa on the Isanusi's instruction.

The novel draws to a close as Chaka becomes ill and starts having dreams during which he is visited by the ghosts of those he has killed. He begins exhibiting symptoms of what medical professionals today would likely diagnose as schizophrenia. The story finishes with men from Chaka's own kingdom coming to kill him. Chaka accepts this fate and does not try to fight them. Fittingly, Chaka's story thus ends with violence.

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