Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba

Can you believe I only have a few more of these novels? I have enjoyed the Royal Diaries so much more as an adult than as a kid, when I thought a lot of them were kind of boring.

Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595, Patricia McKissack, 2000.

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My first complaint with my specific copy of this book is that the library pasted a huge sticker of the world with some reading-around-the-world challenge nonsense on it, and….why would you make that permanent? You know other people will read this book after the challenge ends, right? But that’s my own specific complaint.

Anyway, Patricia McKissack is a great writer, so my first complaint is that this book is so short. Some of the Royal Diaries books are behemoths and some of them are skinny little things, and this one clocks in at just eighty-six pages of story. That’s barely anything! That’s not enough! The tricky thing with some of these books that are about women in cultures without a tradition of writing is that they have to come up with a gimmick to make it work (some are better than others—when I get to Weetamoo, you’ll see), and this one works particularly well. Nzingha is being taught to read and write in Portuguese from Father Giovanni, a Portuguese captive in the royal court of Nzingha’s father, Kiluanji, the ruler of the Mbundu kingdom. The Portuguese have begun to make dramatic inroads in what is now Angola in an effort to conquer more land, and while Nzingha hates what they stand for, she thinks it isn’t a terrible idea to know more about what they’re thinking.

Nzingha, like a lot of YA heroines, is more interested in being outside and learning to fight than learning about women’s work. She’s in a difficult position—women aren’t generally leaders in Ndongo, but the oldest seer in the village told Nzingha’s mother that Nzingha had a future as the Ngola. So she learns to write, even though she’d rather not, and tries to learn what she can. While she has many siblings from her father’s other wives and concubines, Nzingha is the eldest of all of them, although her brother Mbandi is only a couple of weeks younger than she is, and is destined to be the ruler after their father—but Mbandi is useless and cowardly.

The Chosen Ones are the royal guards, and Njali is their leader—Nzingha is particularly close to him and he has been teaching her to use a bow and spear. But when her father is away Njali goes with him, so things are lonely for Nzingha with only her sisters for company. When they return, they bring back stories and tributes and captives, and Nzingha brings up that she doesn’t fully trust the captive Father Giovanni, but both Njali and her father brush off her concerns and tell her it’s fine.

Nzingha gets herself into trouble by continuing to needle and needle about him, and while her mother is both proud of her for speaking her mind and frustrated with her for not listening like she was told, her father sends her away for four months to think about what she’s done. But the next day she asks for his forgiveness, and they have a little talk about the difference between bravery and just being undisciplined—this is the first time her father has spoken to her like an adult instead of a child, and she realizes that they’re very much alike in nature.

Some weeks later, Nzingha and her sisters are pardoned and brought back to court in time to meet Azeze, a prince from a country to the south, who impresses Nzingha by refusing to sit on the ground in front of Kiluanji, which would be a position of weakness. Instead he calls a servant to form a bench with his back, which seems to me to be wildly uncomfortable for both parties, but I have a feeling when royalty is involved discomfort is probably part of the order of the day. Azeze brings word that his father has decided to unite his own clans and asks Kiluanji to be their military leader, and Kiluanji asks him to stay for a while, so it seems like things are going relatively smoothly.

That fall Nzingha comes of age, so there’s a huge feast and dance held for her, and then she’ll be eligible to marry. She’s convinced that one of the Chosen Ones, Atandi, will ask for her hand, but Azeze is the one who talks with her at the feast and spends time with her instead. He goes home after that, and Nzingha says she doesn’t feel like a woman yet—just in-between. Njali manages to get Nzingha and her sisters to join their father on a hunt by making it seem like he stumbled upon them on purpose—Njali is more cunning than he seems. Nzingha is able to go hunting with him for months, but she worries that Njali seems more and more distant all this time. He even disappears for weeks, and tells Nzingha on his return he was visiting his mother—but she knows his mother is dead.

Nzingha and her sisters capture two Pombeiros—men whose mothers are black and fathers are Portuguese, who are slave traders. They bring them to their father, and they declare that the Portuguese governor has sent them to negotiate a peace agreement. Convinced that it’s a gambit to capture him, Nzingha’s father decides to send her instead, accompanied by Njali and Father Giovanni and the captives, to Luanda to meet with them.

They make their way to the palace at Luanda, which takes weeks of travel, and there Nzingha isn’t even allowed to go around the palace at will. So she waits in her room, with only a Portuguese slave for company, who manages to introduce her to a Mbundu man who’s traveled to Brazil and back. He tells her about the slave ships—how they’re held captive in the belly of monstrous ships, then forced to work until they die and are replaced by more slaves. Horrified by this, Nzingha vows to not allow anything like that in Ndongo.

Father Giovanni finally bribes someone to get Nzingha an audience with the governor—and when she gets there, there’s nowhere for her to sit but on a mat, so she asks a guard to be a bench for her like she saw Azeze do—showing that she may be young but she is no child to trifle with. Turns out the Portuguese want a thousand slaves per year, and says nothing about Brazil, and also wants to build forts along the river and asks that priests be able to travel freely through the kingdom. Nzingha says she’ll take the offer to her father, but no more, and when she brings it up with Njali he says the profits are much too good to be ignored.

Just before she’s set to leave, Nzingha is captured by Pombeiros and guards—and Njali is with them! They put a sack over her head, despite her trying to fight, and Njali says it’s just business and his loyalty must go to the highest bidder. But who manages to rescue her but Father Giovanni? Nzingha is so confused—Giovanni says he has been looking out for her thanks to the kindness her father showed her, and says Njali was working with the Portuguese all along in a plot to sell her. He escorts her most of the way back home, and Nzingha returns to her home confused and saddened by everything that’s happened.

Who does she find in her father’s quarters but Njali? She calls him a traitor—but no! It was all a trick! Njali had been working as a spy for months to make the Pombeiros think he’s on their side, to learn who else is spying and what their plans are. But Giovanni’s rescue of her was very real—and Nzingha was never in any danger at all. Nzingha tells her father about the governor’s plans, and he agrees that they will not sell slaves to the Portuguese, and makes her a trusted advisor—and then marries her off to Azeze, which means that she will be able to continue hunting and advising her father for a long, long time.

Rating: B-. This one had a lot going for it—it’s an interesting time period and Nzingha is an interesting character and there isn’t a lot of fiction for young people in this place and period. I think the biggest issue here is that there’s not enough of anything—the book itself is so very short, there’s barely enough time to get into anything! I would have loved to see more details of life, the story of Nzingha’s trip to Luanda being fleshed out more, more details about her relationship with her siblings, more of everything. Most of what you get about Nzingha is that she’s headstrong and smart and loves to hunt, which is interesting, but there could be so much more development there. So…I enjoyed it, but mostly I just could have enjoyed it so much more if it had been, say, 50 pages longer.

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