A while back, a friend wrote me about an Anglican indaba in Canada, going on to explain to me that an indaba was a conference with a serious purpose and that the term originated in South Africa. Then the September 14th Princeton Alumni Weekly arrived, with the story

Princeton ‘indaba’ supports effort
to develop new African leaders

So now, a few words about indaba and its spread.

It’s in OED2, with the definition:

Originally: a Zulu or Xhosa tribal gathering, consultation, or council meeting; (later also) (S. Afr.) any conference, meeting, or discussion.

and with cites from 1894 to 1989, all in a South African context:

1894    Pall Mall Gaz. 26 Dec. 3/2   A message was therefore the King, inviting Umtassa to come in to an indaba at Umtali.

… 1989    Sunday Times (Johannesburg) 12 Nov. 28   Mme Danielle Mitterand, whose invitations to an indaba in Paris fluttered through selected South African mailboxes this week.

This context is preserved in the Princeton indaba:

Nearly 200 students, alumni, donors, and trustees of a South African school converged on Princeton in August for the first African Leadership Indaba, a daylong conference designed to prepare a future generation of African leaders through networking and discussions.

(Note on the morphology of the Zulu word indaba: it has the class prefix in- in combination with the root -daba ‘subject, topic, matter, affair, business, doing’. It’s singular; the plural has the class prefix izin-.)

Now from the Wikipedia entry:

An indaba is an important conference held by the izinDuna (principal men) [you will now recognize the plural class prefix izin-] of the Zulu and Xhosa peoples of South Africa. (Such meetings are also practiced by the Swazi, who refer to them using the close cognate indzaba.) These indabas may include only the izinDuna of a particular community or may be held with representatives of other communities.

And then on its spread:

The term has found widespread use throughout Southern Africa and often simply means gathering or meeting. It is also used in the Scouting movement. The World Scout Indaba was a gathering of Scout leaders.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, used the expression when he announced, in April 2008, a move away from plenary meetings voting on formal resolutions for bishops attending the 2008 Lambeth Conference. He introduced “middle sized groups for discussion of larger issues”, saying:

“We have given these the African name of indaba groups, groups where in traditional African culture, people get together to sort out the problems that affect them all, where everyone has a voice and where there is an attempt to find a common mind or a common story that everyone is able to tell when they go away from it. This is how we approached it. This is what we heard. This is where we arrived as we prayed and thought and talked together.”

It may yet spread to other contexts, outside of South Africa, Scouting, and the Anglican Church.


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