Ntsikana founded the first African Christian organization in about 1815. He was also the first great Xhosa hymn-writer and his ‘great hymn’ appears in many of the modern hymn books.
Ntsikana was born in about 1780 of the Ngqika tribe and became a hereditary councillor to Ngqika, Paramount of the Rharhabe chiefdom. He lived at a time when white settlement of the eastern frontier was increasing and there was conflict between the Xhosa and the new settlers. Ntsikana’s father, Gaba, was a polygamist, as were most of the Xhosa before they were converted (Bokwe 1914, 4). His mother, Nonabe, was the second wife. Because the first wife was jealous, she accused Nonabe of witchcraft and Nonabe had to flee for her life. A few months later Ntsikana was born.
When Ntsikana was about twelve years old his father sent for him. As Gaba had only a daughter from his first wife, Noyiki, she adopted the boy as her own. Ntsikana grew up tending his father’s herds and learning to hunt.
When he was an older teenager, Van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society came to the area where he lived. From 1799 to 1801 the missionary tried to evangelise but met with little success. From him Ntsikana first heard the Christian message. Van der Kemp left Ngqika’s territory and went to live in Graaff-Reinet. A time of war followed on the eastern frontier between the leading Rharhabe chiefs, Ngqika and Ndlambe. This ended with the Battle of Amalinde where Ngqika was defeated. Ndlambe’s warriors then attacked Grahamstown in 1819 (the Fifth Frontier War) and a buffer zone was declared between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers.
It was not until 1816 that the next missionary came to Ntsikana’a area. He was the Rev. Joseph Williams, who opened a mission station near the Kat River.
After Ntsikana had gone through the ceremony as an Amakweta and was accepted into manhood, two wives were found for him, Nontsonta, who became the mother of Kobe, and Nomamto, who was the mother of Dukwana and two younger brothers. When his father died, Ntsikana inherited his property.
At about this time Ntsikana had a vision. He had a favourite ox, a large dun-coloured animal, spotted with white and with long horns, which he named Hulushe. One morning he went to the kraal and noticed a ray of the sun, brighter than the others, strike the side of the ox. He went into a trance. When he asked Kobe who was standing by if he had seen what had happened, the boy replied that he had seen nothing. Ntsikana continued to puzzle over what had happened. Further strange happenings took place at a wedding celebration that day. Ntsikana took his family home and on the way washed off his red ochre. Nobody could understand what had happened to him.
During the next few days Ntskana started humming a chant that eventually became his ‘round hymn’. He told the people that they should all pray and from then on he held regular services. He said that they must not listen to Nxele, the ‘witch doctor’. This was the start of his ministry. Ntsikana did not settle at the mission station but visited Williams and, after his death, the missionary Brownlee regularly. He had been considering moving to Chumie Mission when he died in Thwatwa in 1821 (Hodgson 1981, 6).
Ntsikana wrote four hymns, the best known of which is his ‘great hymn’. This is still found in modern hymnbooks. Years later Alan Soga wrote a tribute to Ntsikana:
What ‘thing’ Ntsikana, was’t that prompted thee
To preach to thy dark countrymen beneath yon tree’?
What sacred vision did the mind enthral,
Whil’st thou lay dormant in thy cattle kraal?
Ntsikana’s hymn praises God as the Great God of the heavens. Much of Ntsikana’s theology came from his personal experience and he is remembered as the first important Xhosa convert.
Ulo Tixo omkulu, ngosezulwini
(The Great God, He is in heaven.
Thou art thou, Shield of truth.
Thou art thou, Stronghold of truth.
Thou art thou, Thicket of truth.
Thou art thou, who dwellest in the highest.
Who created life (below) and created (life) above.
The Creator who created, created heaven.
This maker of the stars, and the Pleiades.
A star flashed forth, telling us.
The maker of the blind, does He not make them on purpose?
The trumpet sounded, it has called us,
As for His hunting, He hunteth for souls.
Who draweth together flocks opposed to each other.
The Leader, he led us.
Whose great mantle, we put it on.
Those hands of Thine, they are wounded.
Those feet of Thine, they are wounded.
Thy blood, why is it streaming ?
Thy blood, it was shed for us.
This great price, have we called for it ?
This home of Thine, have we called for it ?)
J. K. B.
J. A. Millard
Bokwe, J. Ntsikana. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1914.
Hodgson, J. “The Genius of Ntsikana.” Paper read at the Conference on Literature and Society. Cape Town, 1981.
Hodgson, J. “Ntsikana - Precursor of Independency?” Missionalia, vol. 12 (1), April 1984.
Holt, B. Joseph Williams and the Pioneer Mission to the Southeastern Bantu. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1954.
Ntsikana, B. The Life of Ntsikana. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1902.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.