Money and the pursuit of wealth: Part 17…the rise of the ‘Mambo’ institution


THE Kingdom of Mapungubwe (a colonial corruption of its original Korekore name Mapungu Ebwe – Eagle’s Rock) was the first in a series of sophisticated Korekore trade States developed and began to dominate the region trading in gold, ivory and copper for cloth and glass.  

From about 1250 until 1450, Mapungu Ebwe was eclipsed by the medieval Shona Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe, which further expanded upon Mapungu Ebwe’s trade and refined its stone architecture to become the largest kingdom and stone-built structure in Southern Africa by the time of the first European explorers from Spain and Portugal arrived. 

Archaeological examinations reveal sophisticated architecture of built-up areas of circular, sometimes terraced, artificial platforms encased by dry stone walls with open areas in the valley occupied by the commoners. 

The complexes included a royal enclosure or Hill Complex on higher ground occupied by the royal family, stone walls and platforms for dwellings and other platforms and/or retaining walls believed to be cattle pens.

The Shona cultural design sensibility of the architecture of these edifices took into account a number of typical Shona social etiquette. 

The design of this edifice prevented anarchic behaviour or forced intrusions from outsiders; movement of people in and around the establishment was intrinsically governed by the design of the fortresses using both elevation and restrictive entrances and passageways.  

For example, in Shona culture, people cannot walk side-by-side unless they are of equal cultural status, hence very narrow passages were constructed. This also limited possible intrusions.

According to Dr Tony Monda: “The notion of who built Great Zimbabwe assumes that the male conceptualised, designed and constructed the building for the purposes of fortification and grandeur. There are, however, other qualities that can be seen in the architecture that alludes to a strong female influence and the idea of protection and procreation… as well as evidence of grandeur and wealth.”

In the early 11th Century, people from the Kingdom of Mapungu Ebwe had migrated and settled on the high central plateau where they established the Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe around 1220.  

It was a natural stronghold, dominating the valley it was meant to defend.  

It was cooler and afforded a measure of protection, for both people and cattle, against mosquitos. Although the Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe was formally established during the medieval period, later archaeological excavations in the region suggest that State was considerably more ancient.

The rulers brought with them the artistic and stonemasonry traditions from Mapungu Ebwe. 

The construction of elaborate stone buildings and walls reached its zenith in this kingdom along with the institution of ‘Mambo’ and an increasingly rigid three-tiered class structure, which came with wealth, initiated at Mapungu Ebwe.  

With the expansion of trade, they established rule over a wider area and taxed other rulers throughout the region; a kingdom that was composed of over 150 tributaries headquartered in their own minor States but developed on the architectural form that emerged, first at Mapungu Ebwe then at MaDzimbahwe

The Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe controlled the ivory and gold trade, initially with Arab traders from the interior to the south and eastern coast of Africa.  

Asian and Arabic goods could be found in abundance in the kingdom. 

Economic domestication, which had been crucial to the earlier proto-Shona States, was also practiced. 

The people mined minerals, like gold, copper and iron; kept livestock and were, in fact, renowned for their cattle and beef as well as minerals, ivory, wood and other trade goods. 

The Kingdom of MaDzimbahwe kept livestock and were, in fact, renowned for their cattle and beef.

From around 1450, for about 200 years, the State of Khami, located 22 km west of present-day Bulawayo, was the capital of the Shona Kingdom of Butwa.  

The settlement was a development of the architectural form that emerged at MaDzimbahwe in the 13th Century AD.  

The development of the Shona State of Khami, a Shona Leopard’s Kopje culture that built platforms of rough walling on which they constructed dwellings, marked an innovation that recognised the environment in which it was built. 

The laminar granite stone found at Khami was different from that found in other areas (biotite). Mixed with dolerite, this stone was harder to quarry and produced shapeless building stone; over 60 percent of the stone produced at these quarries was not of building quality. 

The blocks needed to be shaped, but the stones were not suitable for building free-standing dry-stone walls, thus builders then made innovations and produced retaining walls instead.

As with other Shona settlements, the walls at Khami are gravity-retaining walls built without mortar. But unlike MaDzimbahwe, some walls have foundations built with huge blocks that required several workers to lift.  

Excavations revealed well-planned buildings, especially at the Hill Complex occupied by the king. 

The complex was first built up by creating stable terraces of rough walling that were covered up by quality walling of ‘dressed’ stone blocks. 

Each terrace was highly decorated with either a checkerboard herringbone or cord pattern. 

To prevent collapse, the terraces were inward-leaning and had wooden poles for the guards to hold on to as they walked along the high and steep walls.  

The beautifully decorated 6-m-high retaining wall of the precipice bears a checkerboard design along its entire length. 

Other platforms, rising 2-7m above the ground, carried dhaka (clay) huts and courtyards where those of lower status lived. 

There are ruins on the eastern side of the Khami River and other ruins are scattered across western Zimbabwe and east Botswana – all indicative of progressive people striving for wealth.

Being riverine, the area around Khami is hot and had problems with mosquitos. 

Thus, building platforms made the dwellings cooler inside than those in the open areas. 

It also eliminated the problem of malaria, especially for the royals who occupied the built-up areas.

After 1683, Khami was ransacked by Changamire Dombo who led an army of rebels from the Mwene Mutapa State and made Danamombe (Dhlo-Dhlo) their new capital. 

In the 1830s, they were displaced from Khami and many of the other sites they had established by Ndebele invaders from the south.

Circa 1430, Prince Nyatsimba Mutota travelled north from MaDzimbahwe to the Dande region in search of salt and established his dynasty at Chitakochangonya Hill. 

It became the Kingdom of Mutapa.  

Within a generation, Mutapa eclipsed MaDzimbahwe as the economic and political centre and by 1450, the capital and most of the kingdom was abandoned.

The end of the kingdom resulted in a splintering of proto-Korekore power. 

Two bases emerged along a north-south axis. In the north, the Kingdom of Mutapa carried on and even improved upon MaDzimbahwe’s administrative structure. 

In the south, the Shona Kingdom of Butwa (c.1450-1683) was established as a smaller, but nearly identical, version of MaDzimbahwe.  

Both States were eventually absorbed into a new and powerful empire located in south-western Zimbabwe  —renowned as the source of gold for Arab and Portuguese traders who were in search of wealth.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:


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