Obstruction in Romantic Love Narratives as Postcolonial Universal: The Case of Thomas Mofolo’s CHAKA

F. Fiona Moolla, University of the Western Cape (Republic of South Africa)

Love stories would appear to be one of the most universal genres of literary tale-telling. In fact, Patrick Hogan wrily observes that attention to literary representations of romantic love might have obviated “extended” ethnological debates on the cross-cultural and transhistorical prevalence of love (98). Hogan suggests further that the sub-genre of romantic tragi-comedy is a universal narrative structure since “it appears that every tradition tells tales of conflict in two areas – love and political power” (23), and may be found in the drama “from Greece, Rome India, China, and Japan, and in stories from other regions as well” (23). This essay will consider one such tale of conflict between love and political power in Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, an “epic” novel about the formation of the Zulu nation in southern Africa, arguably one of the earliest African political expressions of modern state formation.

The focus on Chaka occurs in the context of a broader survey of African cultural expressions of romantic love[1]. Africa possesses a vast range of cultures, languages and traditions, but, for the purposes of this essay, only sub-Saharan cultures have been considered through their symbolic representation in oral narratives. The study thus has excluded the oral and written traditions of Arabophone North Africa, as well as that of Ethiopia. The impediment this survey faces at the outset is that published sources of sub-Saharan oral culture, given the multiple mediations of their production involving transcription in artificial settings and translation into European languages, become artefacts, in part, of the modernity which seeks to preserve them. The second obstruction faced by this study is the newly-confirmed recognition that hardly any sub-Saharan oral traditions about love have been recorded and archived. Where love is referred to at all in the folk tales of various cultural groups, it often occurs in an interspecies context signaling cosmogonic myths of primal origin times where the lines between human and animal were still fluid. Yet oral love narratives would appear to have abounded and continue to flourish in contemporary popular forms and media. The now-canonical Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo, whose work is dominated by considerations of love in transforming contexts, in the introduction to African Love Stories, suggests that: “… Africa, like all the other regions of this earth, has been and is, full of great love stories” (viii). She speculates that, by contrast, in twentieth-century African literature, the love theme has not been foregrounded since this literature was preoccupied by other social and political questions which appeared more pressing. This does not, however, explain why love stories were not recorded by early anthropologists whose archives for the most part include proverbs, folk tales and epics. Given the dearth of love narratives in folk tales, this study turns its attention to African epics.

The African epic, in the context of the study of world epics, for a long time was a neglected form (Kesteloot 203). Depending on how one defines the epic, the list of African epics may be quite long, running into hundreds, or could be reduced to a limited number divided into “feudal” and “clan” epics (Kesteloot 205), or divided linguistically into epics of Mande-speaking and Bantu-speaking groups (Biebuyck 6). With the increased prominence of African epics in the frame of world literature, probably the most well-known of these, for varying reasons, are the Sunjata epic of west Africa, the Mwindo epic of central Africa, and the Chaka epic of southern Africa. While love may be a prominent theme in many epics, as the example of the romantic interludes in Homer’s Odyssey underscores, love is not foregrounded in the well-known African epics, except for a single complex and interesting case occurring in one of the narratives of the legend of Chaka, king of the Zulu nation.

The context of the emergence of the Chaka epic is not unlike the emergence of text forms of the oral expression of many other world cultures. The historical Chaka, born in 1795, founder of the Zulu kingdom which swallowed up the territories of many surrounding groups, became the stuff of legend, perpetuated especially in izibongo or Zulu praise poetry. The oral tradition which developed around the historical Chaka, augmented by research of other sources, shaped the first script narrative of Chaka’s life and achievements in Thomas Mofolo’s fictionalized biography, Chaka. Chaka which straddles the line between life narrative and novel was written in Mofolo’s first language, Sesotho, in the first decade of the twentieth century, but published only in 1931. This prose narrative was followed by Mazisi Kunene’s 1979 Zulu verse narrative, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, which, no doubt, was influenced by Mofolo’s novel, but which adheres to the historical record more faithfully than Mofolo’s text. This study considers, specifically, the tragic love story that Mofolo invents in the heroic tale about the founder of the Zulu nation in relation to the concept of obstruction, the sine qua non of the romantic plot. Denis de Rougemont, author of Love in the Western World, a seminal study of romance, identifies the intensification of obstruction as unique to European romance. This essay looks at obstruction in the broader context of the idea of the “postcolonial universal”, deeply explored by Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne. This idea occurs, however, in the analyses of many comparativists, including Lalita Pandit’s study of Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, whose “nonimperialist, abstractly utopian idea of universalism … based on the principle of empathy” might be seen similarly to test notions non-hierarchically, assuming a background of commonality which makes lateral testing culturally comprehensible. This essay turns now to obstruction in the romance presented in Mofolo’s Chaka, testing it against De Rougemont’s assertion of the dynamism created by the centrality of obstruction in European romance, imparting a dynamism to the culture of European modernity.

Love in the Western World, De Rougemont’s landmark 1940 study of eros in Europe and, by extension, Europe’s settler colonies around the globe, proposes that obstruction to romantic union is the paradoxical desire of true lovers. The desire for that which thwarts satisfaction in love, so perpetuating desire, generates a drive, which De Rougemont describes as the “demon” (37) of love. The demon of love for De Rougemont is expressed also in the boundary-breaking restlessness of the novel, for many, the cultural form par excellence of European modernity. Shifting to an economic paradigm, the restless dynamism found in love and in the novel, has been regarded also as the unique momentum which drives capitalism (Berman). Obstruction which keeps desire in play thus is presented by De Rougemont as a continental and civilizational particular which through imperialism, colonization and in its current manifestation, globalization, has spread to the rest of the world. The question asked in the context of African orature and literature is whether obstruction in the love narrative is an absolute universal? If it is not absolute, then is it a statistical universal? Or is obstruction not universal at all; in other words, is it wholly particular to the socio-cultural development only of Europe? De Rougemont makes the claim about obstruction based on an interpretation of the archetypal medieval European myth of romantic love, namely, the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The pattern of mediation and remediation of the Chaka legend and Tristan and Isolde  is similar: stories of the historical lives become the material of folklore through fluid oral circulation, which then get fixed in the text narratives of individual authors, which then, in turn, spark a plethora of intertexts. Béroul’s and Bédier’s medieval Tristan is the inspiration of Wagner’s operatic Tristan and many other literary and cultural forms, as Mofolo’s and Kunene’s Chaka is the inspiration for Léopold Senghor’s lyrico-dramatic text, “Chaka”, and the inspiration in the production of many other artists, writers and intellectuals (Gérard).

This study focuses on the love stories in the Chaka narratives. The one love story, which is common across historical and literary narratives, is the story of Shaka’s parents, Nandi, his mother, and Senzangakhona, his father. Both Mofolo’s and Kunene’s texts present Chaka’s parents as being smitten by each other at their first meeting. In both cases, however, the focus falls not so much on the love affair and obstacles that may have existed in the lovers’ path to union. Rather, narrative concentration falls on the couple’s premarital intimacy which results in Nandi’s pregnancy. The issue at stake here is Chaka’s legitimacy, for which various opinions exist on the social acceptance of premarital sexual relationships in the culture at the time, and whether the rules for royalty were different from the rules for commoners. This love story will not be considered here since attention in both “founding” text narratives, namely that of Mofolo and Kunene, falls on the question of Chaka’s legitimacy, rather than the intimate relationship of Nandi and Senzangakhona.

Instead, this essay will consider the second love story, which occurs only in Mofolo’s “factional” representation of Chaka’s life. Mofolo’s novel is remarkable for its complete invention of Chaka’s love affair with the fictionally created heroine, Noliwa. Chaka is born to Nandi, whom Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, marries, but, nonetheless, is spurned by Senzangakhona’s other wives, forcing Nandi to flee to live with relations. But even in her new home, in Mofolo’s representation of history, malicious rumors about Chaka’s illegitimacy pursue him, making him a despised pariah in the community where he is raised. His strength and bravery, however, result in the admiration of the young women of the village, make him the enemy of the young men whose cowardliness he indirectly shows up. His predestination for greatness is foreshadowed by his encounter with a diviner, Isanusi, another of Mofolo’s fictional creations outside of the historical record. Isanusi allows Chaka to see his persecution as part of a test for the acquisition of hitherto unknown power, giving him the strength to resist his abuse by the village. Because of subsequent threats to Chaka’s life, he is forced to flee, this time to the realm of a neighbouring potentate, Dingiswayo, who immediately is impressed by Chaka’s martial prowess. Mofolo invents a sister for Dingiswayo, namely, Noliwa, who is the one true love of Chaka’s life, aside from whom he generally is dismissive of women.

Noliwa is the favorite sister of Dingiswayo, the king who has taken Chaka under his wing, recognizing his exceptional military prowess. Noliwa is infatuated with Chaka and is disappointed that he never joins the lovers’ games which allow young people to declare their affection. Noliwa employs the “fool” Ndlebe also known as “Mr Ears” (71), one of Chaka’s allies, who deploys the techniques of surveillance suited to an oral community to spy for Chaka. Ndlebe gets Noliwa to declare her love for Chaka, whereupon he gets Chaka to declare his love for Noliwa, unarticulated by Chaka since he assumed that Dingiswayo would never allow him to marry his sister because Chaka is an outsider.  As the “goddess” and “god” of the group who stand out for their nobility, their physical perfection as woman and man, and their embodiment of the gender ideals of the community of feminine grace and masculine valor, Noliwa and Chaka are made for each other and appear to be destined for each other. Ndlebe expresses their mutual enamorment by saying to Chaka that Noliwa loves Chaka “with a love that surpasses your love for her” (74 emphasis in original). Noliwa makes the depths of her feelings known to her brother, Dingiswayo, by hinting that her passion for Chaka is inevitable and inalterable, like death: “I die utterly! I am unable to give you any idea, to find words to make you understand, the manner of my death!” (73). Dingiswayo’s approval of the union is implied, and the couple exchange necklaces, making their affection public, after which they are formally betrothed. Upon the death of Chaka’s father, Senzangakhona, Chaka, by far exceeding the legitimate princes in bravery, is installed on the throne. He also avenges the death of Dingiswayo by a pretender to Dingiswayo’s throne, and rises to the ultimate seat of power of Dingiswayo’s territory also, with the promise that he would marry Noliwa. Isanusi, the diviner, visits Chaka to test his commitment to acquiring power and renown without precedent:


Isanusi: “I understand that you are betrothed to Noliwa. Tell me, do you want to marry her?”

“I love her with all my heart, and I will marry her. But also I am bound to marry her, even if I did not wish to, because I have promised Dingiswayo’s armies that I would.”

“But if they had not bound you with that promise, what were you going to do?”

“I would still have wished to marry her because I love her, and, after all, they spoke to me in that manner after I had already become betrothed to her.”

“If I were you, I would not marry. Marriage splits kingdoms apart, because it always leads to quarrels in one’s house . . . .

Isanusi spoke these words like one who was merely jesting, yet they became a seed which began to grow in Chaka’s heart, especially since he had never really been very fond of women. (98-99)


Isanusi inflames Chaka’s ambition further by suggesting that he could have power greater than the power he had, which already was greater than the greatest kingdom known among their people. To obtain such power would require “medicine” for which Chaka would have to make a sacrifice:


. . . if you want such a kingship, every time you go to meet the enemy, your warriors must eat food mixed with medicines containing the blood of someone you love most dearly, one who is constantly in your thoughts, who is in your heart day and night, whom you love more than all the people in this entire world. It is by means of the blood of such a person that you can obtain the kind of kingship I have just described: I know no other way beside that one. (100-101)


Since Noliwa is his soulmate and the one closest to his heart, Chaka agrees to sacrifice her: “To tell you the truth, in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war and commanding armies. Therefore I will give you [Isanusi] Noliwa in order to remove any stumbling block from the path leading to my kingship. I have considered this matter and concluded: the medicines will be mixed with Noliwa’s blood” (102).

Paradoxically, the love story is the invented centerpiece around which Mofolo constructs Chaka’s actualization, but it is the crucial heart of the narrative which must be abjured as romance gives way to the epic. While the Tristan myth holds fast to the conventions of romance, Chaka embeds in the narrative (ultimately obstructed) romance as testament to the ruthless ambition of its finally, morally ambivalent epic hero. De Rougemont suggests that European culture, and its imperial-colonial offshoots, are distinct for inventing “passionate love” through the emergence of courtly love in the twelfth century. The heart of passionate love is obstruction, typified in the archetypal myth of Tristan, who invents obstacles where none exist. Obstruction gives love its existential drive.

The love story dimension of Chaka presents a romance with numerous obstructions, leading to the ultimate obstruction in death. Before it becomes patently clear that Chaka is going to sacrifice Noliwa, Chaka has intimate relations with Noliwa, resulting in her pregnancy. (The novel leaves Chaka’s knowledge of the pregnancy in productive indeterminacy.) But true union, as in the Tristan myth, is represented by marriage. What are the obstacles to the love between Chaka and Noliwa? First, it is Noliwa’s uncertainty whether Chaka is attracted to her, and then Chaka’s uncertainty whether Ndlebe’s intimations of Noliwa’s attraction are true. Thereafter, Dingiswayo’s potential rejection of the liaison, since Chaka is an outsider, is presented as an obstruction – but one which again is quite easily overcome. Significant obstacles which delay the union then come into play. Chaka’s father dies leaving him to negotiate the intricacies of succession. Dingiswayo is assassinated, requiring Chaka to avenge his death and ascend to his throne. These obstacles, which delay the union of the lovers ironically also kindle Chaka’s parallel love for power, manifesting in the ultimate obstruction, namely, Chaka’s overarching ambition. Chaka’s ambition leads to his sacrifice of Noliwa. Death of Isolde in the Tristan myth and death of Noliwa in Chaka is the obstruction which apotheosizes love as passion, thriving as it does on barriers, rather than apotheosizing the lovers themselves. However, while it is love of love which is the catalyst of love as passion in the European myth, it is the love of power which generates love as passion in the southern African heroic romance. Thus in both the European and the African narratives we see the emergence of love as passion.

The centrality of love as passion in Mofolo’s novel is underscored by Chaka’s emotions when he kills Noliwa and Noliwa’s response when she recognizes she is being sacrificed to consolidate the power of her lover. Before the killing, the narrative dwells on Noliwa’s infatuation with Chaka, heightened by her pregnancy, and Chaka’s love for her:


Chaka, too, loved Noliwa very much. If Chaka ever loved a woman with true love, we believe that Nandi (sic) was the woman upon whom that love was lavished. All beautiful and worthy things which a true wife might do for her husband, and which Chaka ever experienced, he received from Noliwa. And even as he betrayed her like that and planned her murder, his conscience ate him up and gave him no rest; it told him he had strayed from the straight path of human compassion. Yet, because of his desire for kingship, he suppressed it and pushed ahead, and walked about carrying death on his shoulders. (121)


The significance of love as passion in Mofolo’s narrative is made manifest again when it presents the diviner, Isanusi, giving Chaka one last chance to opt out of the course that will strip him of satisfaction in love and make him suffer emotionally, even as he climbs the ladder of power. Isanusi asks explicitly: “What do you choose for yourself, Noliwa or the kingship? to which Chaka again confirms, “The kingship!” (123). The significance of passionate love is foregrounded also by the fact that it is Chaka himself who kills Noliwa, rather than any of his henchmen, whose obedience to their leader is absolute. Chaka is struck again by Noliwa’s ethereal beauty when the time comes for the murder, and he is struck above all by her eyes: “They were eyes which revealed a message which said: ‘I am yours with all my being, Chaka; I am yours in life and in death” (125-126). Chaka kills Noliwa surreptitiously, using a thatching needle pierced into her underarm, to disguise her murder as illness. Noliwa, however, dies knowing that it is Chaka who has killed her, and, nevertheless, with her dying breath refers to Chaka as her “beloved” (26). Noliwa’s death thus preserves love as passion in the epic narrative about the founding of the Zulu nation.

The status of Mofolo’s Chaka as, in many respects, a liminal text makes its offsetting of passionate love problematic as an assertion of the universality of the principle of obstruction as central to love as passion. For De Rougemont, the contention that passionate love is an invention of European culture, of course, is a claim for much more than merely the “technology” of the romance narrative. It is an assertion of the fundamental dynamism of European culture, which, by implication, is absent in other world cultures. (Even though De Rougemont acknowledges the influence of Andalusian court poetry and sufi mysticism on European medieval culture, nonetheless, the breakthroughs of courtly love are deemed the origins of European exceptionalism in the sphere of the personal relationship which, more than any other personal relationship, embodies European socio-cultural transformations. It is hard to hold Mofolo’s Chaka up as a challenge to De Rougemont since Mofolo as a Christian mission-school-educated writer may have invented and incorporated the Chaka-Noliwa love story as a consequence of cultural influence, or an orientation to European culture acquired at the Morija mission. However, it is salutary to recall that Mofolo was writing about a Zulu legend in Sesotho for a Sesotho audience in the first decade of the twentieth century. His novel would have had to have been persuasive to his Sesotho audience, an audience less culturally influenced by mission Christianity and European culture than he had been. The conclusion one might draw from this is that it is precisely the existence of some form of universal which makes this form of intercultural communication possible.

Diagne extends the idea further: Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Diagne suggests that “[t]he postcolonial universal, the non imperial universal is … lateral” (16). The lateral universal is “no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (16). What we see in Mofolo’s African articulation of love as passion, where obstruction is central, may thus more productively be viewed as a lateral universal testing the concept of love as passion across languages, cultures and the epistemologies they intimate.


Works Cited

Aidoo, Ama Ata. African Love Stories: An Anthology. Ayebia, 2006.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Verso, 1983.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. (1940) Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Princeton UP, 1983.

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir. “On the Postcolonial and the Universal?” Collège international de Philosophie, vol. 2, no. 78, pp.7-18. https://www.cairn.info/revue-rue-descartes-2013-2-page-7.htm. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Gerard, Albert. “Rereading ‘Chaka’. English in Africa, vol. 13, no. 1, 1986, pp. 1-12. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40238579. Accessed 10 June 2022.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Kunene, Mazisi. Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. Translated by Mazisi Kunene. Heinemann, 1979.

Mofolo, Thomas. Chaka. (1931) Translated by Daniel P. Kunene. Heinemann, 1981.

Moolla, F. Fiona. “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s Early Anglophone-Igbo Novels.” Routledge Handbook of African Literature, edited by Carli Coetzee and Moradewun Adejunmobi, Routledge, 2019, pp. 290-304.

—. “In the Heart of the Country: The Auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Social Dynamics, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020, pp. 150-163.

—. “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels.” Journal of the African Literature Association, vol. 10., no. 1, 2016, pp. 118-130.

—. “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World.” ARIEL – A Review of International English Literature, vol. 48, no. 1, 2017, pp. 71-96.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. State U of New York P, 1995, pp. 207-233.



[1] Until recently, the cultural, literary and philosophical significance of romantic love has not been a focus of attention of African scholarship. It has, however, been my interest for a number of years where I have considered African oratures, popular cultures, and literatures across the genres of poetry, novel and drama. Some areas of concentration include a focus on love in representations of monogamous and polygynous marriage, the role of love under oppressive regimes, and romance as national allegory. These studies have been published as journal articles and book chapters, such as: “The Polygynous Household in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives: A Haven in a Heartless World”, “Foundational Fictions: Variations of the Marriage Plot in Flora Nwapa’s early Anglophone-Igbo Novels”, “Love in a State of Fear: Reflections on Intimate Relations in Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Novels”, and “In the heart of the country: the auto/biographies of Ayesha Dawood and Fatima Meer.” Lynda Spencer and Martina Vitackova have directed their attention to African popular romance, in particular, and are currently co-editing a special African popular romance issue of the Journal of Popular Romance.