Nandi was the daughter of Bhebhe, Chief of the Langeni clan, and her mother who was of the Quabe clan, the close relatives of the Zulu, and she born c.1760 in modern day South Africa.
In 1787, Nandi became pregnant by Senzangkhona, Chief of the Zulus. At first, he refused to acknowledge that Nandi was pregnant with his child, and he claimed that she was infected with an intestinal beetle that had disrupted the course of her menstrual cycle.
After she gave birth, however, Senzangkhona could no longer deny the truth and he sent for Nandi and the child, a son, and made her his third wife.
Despite her marriage to the chief, Nandi and her son were ostracised by the Zulu’s and her relationship with Senzangkhona was tempestuous. She returned to her people, the Langeni clan, but once again faced abuse and so she settled with the Mthethwa people.
As her son grew older, Shaka rose to a high position in the army of Chief Dingiswayo. In c. 1815, Senzangkhona died, and Nandi returned with Shaka to the Zulu people where her son fulfilled the position of Chief. Whilst he was building his empire, Shaka did not marry which meant that Nandi executed considerable influence and authority in her role as queen mother. She became known as Ndlorukazi, “The Great She Elephant”.
Nandi died in 1827 of dysentery and the extent to which Shaka ordered mourning across the Zulu’s reflected how important his mother was to him and his rule. Nandi was buried three days after her death with ten of her handmaidens alongside her and thousands of men ordered to stand guard around the tomb.
It was said by Henry Francis Fynn, a British traveller and trader who was acquainted with the Zulu, that Shaka ordered many executions, declared that no crops were to be planted for a year and no milk was to be drunk by anyone, and ordered the killing of all pregnant women after the death of his mother.
Annette Madden, In her footsteps: 101 remarkable black women from the Queen of Sheba to Queen Latifa (Newburyport: Conari Press, 2000)
Guida M. Jackson, Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide (Santa Barbara: ABC_CLIO, 1999)
Henry Francis Fynn, The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn eds. James Stuart and D. McK. Malcolm (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter, 1950)
James W. Fernandez, “The Shaka Complex,” Transaction 29 (1967): 10-14
Jennifer S. Uglow, Frances Hinton, and Maggy Hendry, eds., The Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography, third edition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999)
Mazisi Kunene, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (Nairobi: Heinemann International, 1979).