by Herbert Moyo

Pronunciation – [úḿ̩séɓéⁿd̥zi̤]/ /úm̩seɓêːnzi/

This is a word that the Nguni, especially the Zulu and the Ndebele use to refer to specific rituals. The performance of a ritual is umsebenzi. In direct translation the word of umsebenzi means work. Ukwenza (doing/performing) umsebenzi (work) in this context means performing a ritual. The Nguni perform rituals for both the living and the living dead as contextual needs. The concept of umsebenzi has been overshadowed by the use of English words such as worship and veneration.

Of course, the little about the umsebenzi that is written was authored by church/Christian theologians from a Christian western frame of reference hence the distortion of umsebenzi to worship. The most criticised aspect of umsebenzi is the rituals performed for the living dead. Christians use their won term, worship, to define umsebenzi. Translation is problematic as we do not k now for sure how the words as meaning the same practice. The ideal example is the umsebenzi of ukubuyisa (the bringing home of the spirit of a deceased person).[1] This ritual has been recorded academics as worshipping the ancestors.[2] Some Nguni scholars and other African sympathisers have argued that Africans do not worship ancestors, but they venerate them. The problem is that the word veneration is a synonym of worship. The two words belong together.

This is related to the concept created by missionaries which they named African Traditional Religion (ATR). ATR is viewed as the religion of people who believe and worship ancestors. Their belief system is visible when they perform worship services. It is that which the outsider views as worship services which is umsebenzi. Offering a service to ancestors in as much as the ancestors also offer a service to the living by protecting them from witches. The process is reciprocal. Ancestors are in the spiritual realm and therefore can offer a service to the living living who are in the physical realm and therefore cannot operate in the spiritual realm. Ancestors then protect the living from spiritualities and bless the living living. Similarly, the living dead cannot brew beer or slaughter for themselves in the physical realm. The living living then offer a service to them by doing umsebenzi at the physical sphere.  

The word believe is an import brought by missionaries to the Nguni. In the Nguni way of life, there is no believing. Isintu is a way of life made up of taboos, rituals and observances performed in community.  The word belief is translated to kholwa. It is the same word that is used when people drink water, and they are satisfied they also Kholwa. The word kholwa means being satisfied. The believers are called ama-kholwa (those who believe). People who go to church are ama-kholwa. Religion is called inkolo (the belief). This fits well in Christianity because there is need to believe. However, in isintu there is no conversion and no believing, therefore isintu is not inkolo (religion) as there is nothing to believe in. It is in inkolo where there is worshipping when relating to the deity. In isintu there is no worshiping as there is no deity instead there are people with mutual respect who live in community. The community is composed of the living living, the living dead and the yet to be born. The living do umsebenzi of a physical nature for the living dead while the living dead also do umsebenzi of a spiritual nature for the living living. When the Nguni perform rituals to appease the living dead or during ukubuyisa, is doing umsebenzi.


There is so much of umsebenzi I have observed among the Ndebele. The most common one or the publicised one is ukubuyisa. In preparation for ukubuyisa there I umsebenzi which involves informing the ancestors about ukubuyisa. Usually, a goat is slaughtered to communicate with the ancestors. Another umsebenzi is the informing of the one to be brought home. The burial of a dead person is also called umsebenzi. The performance all forms of rites of passage according to isintu is umsebenzi.  Umsebenzi is the mirror of what amakholwa have called ukukholwa.

[1] See the work of Edwards, Steve. “Some southern African views on interconnectedness with special reference to indigenous knowledge.” Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 14, no. 2 (2015): 272-283.

[2] See Hammond‐Tooke, W. David. “Who worships whom: Agnates and ancestors among Nguni.” African Studies 44, no. 1 (1985): 47-64. See also Wanamaker, Charles A. “Jesus the ancestor: Reading the story of Jesus from an African Christian perspective.” Scriptura: Journal for Biblical, Theological and Contextual Hermeneutics 62 (1997): 281-298.


by Herbert Moyo

Pronunciation – isíːntu/e—see-ntuu

Isintu is the totality of socio-economic, political and religio-cultural self-identity by the Nguni of Southern Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe and Swaziland). There are traces of the Nguni in Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. The Nguni speak mainly four languages, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swati. The distribution of the languages is largely as follows: South Africa (Zulu; Xhosa; Ndebele; Swati), Zimbabwe (Zulu/Ndebele; Xhosa) and Swaziland/Eswatini (Swati). Since context transforms cultural patterns, there are some minor isintu variations amongst these Nguni. To avoid unsafe generalizations, I use examples mainly from the Ndebele of Zimbabwe[1], but also give some examples from the Zulu of South Africa and the Nguni in general. I do this because there is a tendency by people from other continents to treat Africans as culturally and linguistically monolithic yet there are over 1000 major languages and cultures in Africa.

As a philosophy of life, I refer to isintu as Isintuism. That which is normative is Isintu. Isintu also refers to that which the Nguni people have not lost despite the onslaught by imperial religions such as Christianity and Islam. Isintu has been affected by civilisation and globalization. Isintu has been affected ever since the colonial and missionary ‘globalization’ era. Therefore, those who continue to practice some Nguni rituals (Ndebele), speak isiNdebele language (use idioms and proverbs), observe some taboos and respect the Ndebele way of doing things are said to be doing Isintu. In fact, in everyday life if one does things according to the traditional way, then it is said “Uyenza Isintu sakithi (doing/living our isintu).”[2] This may be a ritual or being dressed in what is viewed as traditional attire (unxibe/ugqoke Isintu). Sticking to what is viewed as customs and traditions is Isintu. This is the same as what the Shona people of Zimbabwe, especially the Karanga would call Chivanhu (Isintu) chedu (sethu). The word Chivanhu is a direct translation of Isintu and the word chedu translates to the word ours. In the Shona worldview people who practice what is viewed as traditional are doing Chivanhu. What is of note is that in situations of sickness or difficulties in life, people who turn to traditional ways to solve such are said to be turning to Chivanhu. This is a philosophy that can be referred to as chivanhuism. The Chivanhuism just like isintuism is a worldview that embraces the indigenous way of life of the Shona.

In addition to the above understanding of isintu, the Zulu refer to all people, all Zulu people as Isintu or the human race as isintu. This is comprehensive us of the word as it means that all people in their being, their totality are Isintu. If understood this way, then isintu means the identity of the Zulu. This identity captures the socio-economic, cultural and political being of the Zulu.

Isintu is a normative Nguni way of life. Isintu is the living out of one’s life as a continuous practice of beliefs, customs and culture. Isintu involves the economy, dressing, respect for the living and the dead, socialization, growing up, taboos, marriage, death, building homes, celebrations, language and food. As per the Zulu understanding of isintu, it means the totality of being, religio-cultural realities, cosmology/worldviews. Isintu is life lived through a variety of rituals, observances and behavioural patterns that can be referred to as customs, tradition, culture or “religion”.

Isintu and or as a religion

In Isintuism, ideally, everyday life must always be pleasing to the living and to the living dead. This is a way of life through actions, relationships and words. It is this way of life that the Christian missionaries referred to as African Traditional Religion (ATR).[3] My development of isintuism is a response to this reference to isintu as ATR. The Nguni never claimed to have a religion until the advent of Christianity and Islam. ATR was invented by missionaries for Africans that had not converted to Christianity.[4] The Nguni lived their lives practicing all the above as they saw fit as per contextual needs. If others see this fitting the definition of what is called a religion, then that is fine. However, naming it in general terms as ATR has connotations of despising the practices as backward hence the onslaught on isintu by missionaries. The word ‘traditional’ in Africa connotes lack of civilisation. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism[5]are also traditional religions yet they have specific names and not named as Traditional Religions. Because of the history of colonialism, it becomes offensive to refer to the lifestyle of the Nguni as ‘traditional religion’ hence the preferred use of Isintu. In Isintu there is no conversion, believing or worshipping (veneration), people are born into the system and live in the system. Others then decided to define this ATR. We debate on the use of veneration for what the Nguni do for ancestors. The synonyms for veneration are reverence, worship, respect, honour and adoration. The problem is the translation of these terms to Nguni languages and vice-versa, which dilutes the life practices of the Nguni with the mindset of the Christian which is full of these words in relation to God. The Nguni do umsebenzi[6] for their ancestors.

The individual in isintuism

In Isintuism, the individual ‘is’ because there are others. “I am because you are.”[7] Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.[8] This means a person is person because of other persons. A human is fully human in relation to others in the community of the living, the living dead and the yet to be born. One cannot be human alone. The concept of individual derives meaning from the community. In isintuism the individual is very important as we cannot have a community without individuals that make up the community.


If the way of life of the Nguni has characteristics of a religion, then those who want to talk of the religion of the Nguni must talk about isintu. The Nguni religion is isintu and not ATR.

[1] The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe are Zulus from South Africa that travelled to Zimbabwe in the late 19th century because of conflicts.

[2] Moyo, Herbert. “The Death of Isintu in Contemporary Technological Era: The Ethics of Sex Robots Among the Ndebele of Matabo.” In African Values, Ethics, and Technology, pp. 123-135. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2021.

[3] Ushe, Ushe Mike. “God, Divinities and Ancestors in African Traditional Religious Thought.” African Cultural Personalities in a World of Change: Monolithic Cultural Purity and the Emergence of New Values (2018): 1942.

[4] Shaw, Rosalind. “The invention of ‘African traditional religion’.” Religion 20, no. 4 (1990): 339-353.

[5] Yao, Xinzhong, and Hsin-chung Yao. An introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[6] This is my 3rd word for the purposes of this presentation.

[7] Idoniboye-Obu, Sakiemi, and Ayo Whetho. “Ubuntu: ‘You are because I am’ or ‘I am because you are’?.” inform 69 (2008): 70.

[8] Mbiti, J. S. (1971). African traditional religions and philosophy. New York: Doubleday. See also Shutte, Augustine. “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu: an African conception of humanity.” Philosophy and Theology 5, no. 1 (1990): 39-54.