The Birth of Shaka

Oswald Mtshali

‘The Birth of Shaka’ by Oswald Mtshali is a free verse poem about a South African warrior and ruler by the name of Shaka.

Oswald Mtshali

Nationality: South African

Oswald Mtshali was a South African poet who was born in 1940.

He is known for his work written in both Zulu and English.

‘The Birth of Shaka’ by Oswald Mtshali is a free verse poem about a South African warrior and ruler by the name of Shaka. The poem is constructed almost as if it were a history lesson focusing on paying respects to Shaka’s life. Mtshali puts Shaka on a pedestal as he describes the circumstances of his birth and death, clearly idolizing him. Shaka was a ruler that displayed extreme strength and capability, causing his people to view him as a gift from the gods.

The Birth of Shaka by Oswald Mtshali

The Birth of Shaka Analysis

First Stanza

His baby cry
because he was fatherless.

The first stanza of ‘The Birth of Shaka’ introduces Shaka as a baby. This is significant as Mtshali is taking the reader back to experience this warrior from the moment he arrived on earth. This stanza is centered around the topic of the cry of the baby, emphasizing that he was great even in the event of his birth and cry. Shaka’s baby cry is described as that of a cub trying to bring attention to the fact that he was not like any person, rather was much more fierce and that is why he is associated with an animal. Line three really amplifies things as he is not only described as a cub but a cub who is “Tearing the neck of the lioness/ Because he was fatherless”; these two lines expose that Shaka was extremely fierce in demeanour as well, the reason being that he was fatherless. Lion cubs will usually practice pouncing and hunting with the lioness whilst the lions are not very active in “child rearing” and are absent for the most part of the cubs life. This is a parallel to Shaka’s story as he was born “fatherless”, he was raised by his mother and grew to be a warrior. Line three suggests that he was born aggressive and angry and so took it out on his mother. Overall this stanza paints Shaka’s childhood as fierce and wild with him having a strong will and a tendency to be aggressive/ violent.

Second Stanza

The gods
to course in his veins.

In the second stanza of ‘The Birth of Shaka’, the narrator is building up Shaka’s personality to be one that is specially crafted by the gods. Line five is significant because it relates to the reader that paganism is given some value in Shaka’s life. It is not a Christian story of the one god creating or fashioning his creation to be unique and grand; rather it is a story of the “gods” who created this warrior or hero specifically for his people. Line six illustrates that the gods “boiled his blood”, meaning that he was going to be born with a hoot temper, mainly a very aggressive temperament. This is the second time the reader is being informed about his ferocious personality’ which is supposed to imply that he was born strong and capable of a good fight. Line seven continues to describe the manner in which he was put together by the gods: “In a clay pot of passion”; this highlights Shaka’s passion as a traditional one for the reason that Zulu common practices include using clay pots and pans on a daily basis.  The use of clay pots to boil his blood shows that his aggressiveness was brewed in a passion that was quite customary for the Zulu. Line eight reinforces his connection to the Zulu traditions by stating that it runs through his veins. The reader is informed that his aggression and his passion were built to be a permanent part of his existence because the gods ensured that these things took “course in his veins”.

Third Stanza

His heart was shaped into an ox shield
to foil every foe.

Here in the third stanza of ‘The Birth of Shaka’, (which is actually a couplet) Mtshali is imprinting an image of intense strength for Shaka. The strength mentioned in this couplet is focused on his emotional strength. Line nine presents the idea that “His heart was shaped into an ox shield”, meaning that he was protected from harm. An individual’s strength is determined by how much he can avoid getting hurt, whether through skill or tactics. An ox shield is a traditional defensive shield and by stating that Shaka’s heart was shaped into it, Mtshali is implying that he was able to stay strong because he could shield his heart from emotionally connecting to anyone or anything. By being so defensive of his heart, he was able to progress in his status as a warrior. Line ten exposes the reason behind his hard shield over his emotions, “To foil every foe”. If a man is not emotionally invested in anything it becomes harder to break him. His enemies could not find a way to shatter and destroy Shaka unless and until they physically attacked him.

Fourth Stanza

Ancestors forged
his muscles into
as sharp as
syringa thorns.

Stanza four heaves the reader into a detailed description of Shaka’s physical strength. Line eleven opens the stanza with ancestors; this is important as it allows the reader another glimpse into what is important in the Zulu traditions. It is obvious that the Zulu have high regard for their ancestors and give them great importance; the reader can assume that based on the fact that this stanza discusses how they played a part in building the infamous Shaka. Lines twelve through fourteen explore the description of Shaka’s muscles being shaped and put together as a weapon would be forged. His physical skin is depicted as thick leather that cannot be penetrated. Lines fifteen to seventeen continue to describe his physical strength by discussing his nerves, and how they are extremely “sharp”.  Interestingly enough the syringe doesn’t actually have thorns, so what exactly is Mtshali implying by saying Shaka’s nerves were as “sharps as / syringe thorns”? Well, since the syringe is poisonous its thorns are the poison it carries. Shaka’s nerves are being described to be so forceful and strong that they injure anyone who collides with him.

Fifth Stanza

His eyes were lanterns
His cry to two assassin brothers:

The fifth stanza of ‘The Birth of Shaka’ continues to carry the conversation of Shaka’s physical attributes. Line eighteen illustrates his eyes as “lanterns”, this is significant for the reason that lanterns were used to keep the flame or light going for longer, protecting it from being put out easily. Connecting Shaka to this idea portrays that his eyes did not let his vision and mission be put out, he brought light where there was darkness and then protected that light, giving people hope. Line nineteen provides a little context to this great individual being drawn out for the reader. The reader is informed that the “valleys of Zululand” were dark, and that Shaka brought light to them. It appears as though Zululand was going through times of hardship and Shaka had a big hand in relieving the people of some of the difficulty and/or hardship; after all, he was a warrior. Lines twenty and twenty one reveal that Shaka was fighting an enemy who was coming from “across sea”, and is interestingly described as “white swallows”; an attention-grabbing note here is that swallows are birds that migrate to Africa from Europe. These lines are heavily implying that Shaka shone a light on the struggle of the Zulu against the Europeans who were coming across the seas. There was obviously conflict between the two and Shaka seemed to play a role in the conflict. Line twenty-two expresses that Shaka’s brothers were interested in assassinating him to take over the strength and power that he owned. At this point in the poem, it is quite clear that Shaka held a very high position amongst the Zulu (king to be exact). His strength and nature lead him into a position of leadership over his people. He had half-siblings who wanted his position of authority and came to kill him, Shaka was aware of their attempts and confronted them.

Sixth Stanza

“Lo! you can kill me
but you’ll never rule this land!”

The last stanza of ‘The Birth of Shaka’ is also a couplet that not only concludes the poem but also Shaka’s life. His brothers were able to finally assassinate him; but before they succeeded Shaka warned them that they may be able to kill him physically and take over his position but they will “never rule this land!”. This is because Shaka knew that in order to rule Zululand, you needed to be strong from the inside out and assassination was a sign of true weakness. The people saw Shaka as a powerful figure fashioned by the gods, they would not accept anything less than that for future leadership.

Noor Rehman Poetry Expert
Noor has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English Literature and History. She teaches elementary and high school English, and loves to help students develop a love for in depth analysis, and writing in general. Because of her interest in History, she also really enjoys reading historical fiction (but nothing beats reading and rereading Harry Potter!). Reading and writing short stories and poetry has been a passion of hers, that she proudly carries from childhood.

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