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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter II. The Country and the People


THE physical features of Ngoniland may be denoted in a few words. Situated about 4000 feet above the sea-level it has little or nothing to suggest its being in the tropics, save the daily course of the sun and the periodic rains. There are no broad sluggish rivers whose muddy banks are covered with mangrove thicket, above which rise giant trees and stately palms such as are usually associated with pictures of tropical scenery. Leaving Lake Nyasa at an altitude of 1500 feet we have to cross the broken mountain ranges, rising in some cases to 7000 feet, which form the eastern boundary of Ngoniland. From the heights we behold hundreds of square miles of open undulating country, whose low wooded hills run north and south for most part, the broad valleys being traversed by streams which become roaring torrents during the brief rainy season, but at other times are small and easily forded. Looking over the country at our feet, we are struck by its treelessness, save on the crowns of the low hills. Here and there we find single large trees and, at intervals, dark green patches which look like fields of green corn, but which are in reality patches of bush composed of fresh shoots from the roots of trees cut down, which features denote dry unfruitful soil not worth tilling. It is evident that, at one time, the whole country was covered by dense forests of large trees, which have been ruthlessly cut down for fire-wood, or, as is more frequently the case, to be burned on the ground as manure for new gardens. The intervening ground, if viewed in the dry season, appears as bare, whitish, or yellowish-red soil, as the extensive gardens are then empty and the grass burned up. It is not easy to pick out the villages as the colour of the dried thatch accords with that of the bare ground and renders them not readily visible. The most conspicuous feature of the district is the innumerable anthills scattered over the plains. Seen from a distance they resemble stacks of hay in a field. They are the product of the white ant, the most destructive pest we have, a full account ot which is given in a most interesting way in Prof. Drummond’s “Tropical Africa.” The ant-hills in Ngoniland are larger than any to be seen elsewhere. They are not the turret-shaped variety to be seen in the low countries, but are huge mounds in many instances 50 feet in circumference at the base and 20 feet in height. The clay composing these mounds is very suitable for brick-making, and from even one ant-hill a whole Mission station could be built.

The villages are situated near the streams or fountains. The native has no idea of bringing water to his town save by the usual beast of burden—woman, and so the presence of water decides where the village is to be built. He can drive his cattle far enough to pasture, or go miles and cultivate his garden, but water which is needed every day has to be carried, and the women who have to do that have some voice in the choice of a site for a town. The low hills form natural divisions between chiefs’ and subchiefs’ districts, and consequently, while Ngoniland is perhaps 100 miles long by 60-80 broad, the villages are mainly in groups around the large town of the chief or sub-chief, and are easily overtaken by district schools and evangelistic agencies.

The towns and villages are not permanent locations. Every three or four years the inmates find it necessary to make new homes, and a fresh start in life as regards domiciliary comforts.

The white ant attacks the wood and grass of the hnt; the bugs, tampans and jiggers, disturb the peace of the inmate; and the accumulations of filth around the village make life unbearable even to the native; he is forced to seek a new home.

Removing a village to a new site was one of the great events in the history of the people. It marked a division in his calendar and became a point by which he could locate events. It was one of the occasions when he had to be religious, and so the removal was inaugurated by certain religious rites. The cattle are the sustenance and the bond of the family, the village, and the tribe. The care of the cattle in the new town was first seen to. The size of the fold having been decided upon, and marked off by making a circle, it was built of trees and shrubs, at first of a temporary nature, because by tradition it had to be begun after sunrise, finished, and the cattle folded before sunset, on the same day. When the cattle were driven in, the religious ceremonies conducted by the divining doctor were further developed, by selecting a certain beast as a sacrifice to the village ancestral spirit. This beast would ultimately be killed for the spirit, and eaten by the people when the village was occupied. Although many religious rites of the people appear to us grotesque and unreal, yet a close examination of them proves the existence of their belief in a Providence, a Judge, and an Almighty King, but we cannot stop to unfold the matter here. The huts of the people are built in circles around the cattle-fold. Like everything the native makes they are circular, and he points to the sun, moon, and horizon as a reason why they should be so. A few sticks set in the ground and plastered inside, with a wattled roof covered with grass, constitutes the native hut. He does not use it as a shelter from the sun but from cold, and its circular form reflects heat and renders it comfortable in the cold nights which are experienced on the hills.

The size of the hut depends upon the position of the master; it is from 10 to 20 feet in diameter, but the walls are not more than from 4 to 8 feet in height. The roof comes down nearly to the ground, and so a cool verandah is formed, under which the inmates can enjoy their siesta, or congregate on wet days to indulge in their favourite pastime—gossip—or perform their toilet, the women requiring a long time, owing to their manner of dressing the hair. The huts are single-roomed of course, the inner part being the storehouse for seed, corn, pots, and other utensils required in the daily round. The fire is made in a circular depression in the middle of the floor, and the cooking-pot is set on three stones above the fire, which is always of wood. The smoke finds an exit by the door or through the roof, and the rafters are covered by soot which protects them from the attacks of white ants. One can tell the direction of the prevailing wind, by the colour of the outside thatch being browned by smoke on the leeward side. In days by-gone the floors of the huts of the better classes were like polished ebony. Clay was beaten hard and smooth while drying, and after being polished by rubbing with smooth stones, the floor was smeared with ox-blood and polished again. In ordinary cases the floors and open space in front of the hut were smeared with fresh cow-dung subsequently scraped off by hand; this left a clean and cool floor free from dust in which fleas could breed. The brick floors of many Mission houses are regularly treated in the same way, and it is found to be a good plan for preserving the floors intact. In the days when every Ngoni was a warrior, it was the work of the women to build and repair the huts, as well as cultivate the gardens, but now the men share the work, and all that the women do is to collect grass for thatch, plaster the walls, and make the floors.

But before the huts are built—as the village is always built in autumn—the grain-stores have to be erected for the crops to be reaped. They are made by plaiting reeds into huge baskets 5 or 6 feet high and as many in diameter, which are placed on platforms a foot or more from the ground. Sometimes they too are plastered, but only on the outside, and when the mealies or millet stored in them have been well dried, a grass roof is put on prior to the rains. These grain-stores are built between the huts and the cattle-fold. The huts are arranged in groups walled off from each other by reed fences, so that each man with his wives’ huts, and those of his slaves, if he has any, has a distinct locality in the village. The huts of the headman or chief and his seraglio and slaves, are situated always at the opposite side from the cattle-fold gate, from which a broad road leads to the watering or pasture. The space at the kraal gate is the public room of the village where anyone may go, and where we usually have our services, but inside the cattlefold all indabas (cases) are talked, and the village dances take place.

Such is the description of a native village. Around the huts the smooth beaten ground is swept every day, and when once inside the village, one’s sensitiveness is not offended, but the serious matter is the approach. Good for the natives is it that their bodies cannot always endure the incessant attack of certain insects inhabiting the huts, and that they are compelled every three or four years to build a new village and burn everything connected with the old one. There is not the slightest attempt at sanitary arrangements. The ashes from the fires, the refuse of maize, the sweepings of the village, and filth of all kinds find their place just round the village behind the outer row of huts. The state of filth around is indescribable. After a year or two the tampan, one of the greatest and most prevalent pests of Africa, multiplies in the huts, and so at length, more from that than because of the general collapse of the village, the natives have to make a new one. The tampan is a thousand times more annoying than the bug of which also there is usually a good supply. It is larger when full grown than a sheep-tick, of a dirty-grey colour, and so tough as not to be easily killed by crushing. The sight of them, even before one has experienced their bite, is most repulsive. They are not to be seen during the day as they enter the cracks in the roughly-plastered huts, or hide in the roof, but no sooner has one lain down, than they come out and feed off him. Their bite is very irritating, and has the reputation of producing fever, dysentery, and other troubles. The effect of the bite appears to be dependent on the physical condition of the individual at the time of the attack. I have been bitten when there have been no effects perceptible except the discomfort locally. At other times a night or two in a native hut has almost completely laid me down—the feeling of malaise and tendency to sickness were very pronounced. The tampan seems to be common all over Africa, and a species from Egypt is named Argas savignyi, with which those in Central Africa are closely allied. The sleeping-place of native servants on the stations cannot be kept free from them. The boys bring them from the villages in their clothes, but ordinary care prevents their entrance into the missionary’s rooms. Indeed from that and other commoner organisms, whenever I returned home from a tour on which I had to reside in native huts, I was put in quarantine as a precaution.

When the natives leave their old village the huts are burned down, except those belonging to deceased persons, which are left to fall to pieces, as the spirits are supposed still to visit them. On the site of an old village for many years they sow maize, and I have seen it 12 feet high and growing so closely together as to be scarcely penetrable.

Let us spend a day in such a village. The native is an early riser. Ere the sun has appeared, men and women are out of doors. The cow-herds have gone to milk the cattle before driving them out to the bush, where they browse all day and are brought home at sunset, when they are again milked. The women set off to the river with a big earthen pot on the head, and return with it full of water—such-like exercise giving the native women that grace of carriage which would be the envy of ladies in civilized countries. The native woman can carry twice as much as a man on her head. If the village is dependent on water from a fountain it is “first come best served.” I have been marching through a fountain country at four o’clock in the morning, and seen women and girls running to the fountains at that hour, in hope of finding sufficient water before the others come. Then the woman has the firewood to gather, the maize to pound in a wooden mortar and grind into flour for the evening meal. She has to find the umbido (green herbs) which, in the absence of meat, is required as a relish with the stiff maize porridge which is the staple diet of man, woman, and child. She has a large part of the day in the dry season in which she may gossip with her neighbours, or lie down and sleep in the cool verandah of her hut. As evening comes on she has again to visit the river with her water-pot, and cook the food for the men, who eat apart, no woman venturing to eat along with her husband or in the presence of a man. In the rainy season she has hard work indeed, having to work in the gardens in addition to her household duties. The one thing a woman tries to excel in, and gain a reputation for, is the making of beer. Brewing is solely woman’s work. She is privileged to preside at the beer-drinking, and usually ends all by becoming intoxicated. She may not eat with her husband or his friends, but she may get drunk along with them. At other times she has to reverence her husband by not pronouncing his name, unless she swears by it, but at beer-drinkings no rule binds her save that her beer ought to make those who partake of it drunk. These beer-feasts end in quarrels and evil of every kind.

A very bad custom obtains in connection with planting and reaping which produces much drunkenness. The meagre hoeing given to the ground necessitates the cultivation of vast stretches of garden ground, in order to plant the year’s supply of food. To get the ground hoed and planted, householders, who have many gardens, invite labourers by carrying large pots of strong beer to the garden. There is no lack of willing workers who drink and shout and, in the end, quarrel and fight, sometimes laying each other s heads open with a blow from their hoes. These scenes are utterly degrading and nothing but a heartier desire for honest work by each owner of a garden, and thoroughly cultivating a smaller tract, will put down these scenes. Then when hundreds of baskets of maize and other grain have to be carried home, or the beer crop cut stalk by stalk and gathered, help is again required, and a beer-drinking brings together the workers. Our teachers have set their faces against this vile custom and have instituted a feast—mutton or goat-flesh and porridge—when help is required, and thus a step towards a better state of things has been taken.

The work is done principally by the inferior wives, if a man has more than one. The head-wife, however, is the overseer and, in a polygamous household, if her favourites are not for the time being also her husband’s favourites, she makes it hot enough for those whom she considers to be too attractive to him. There are frequent brawls, but should a man strike a wife or any woman he is branded indelibly as a bad man and may as well go and hang himself. The multitude of his wives do not bring him peace.

The wordy warfare is often sharp and long and, in a measure, he has to guard his words lest a wife be driven away to her father’s house, in which case, if the cause was sufficient, she may remain away having as her portion the cattle that were paid for her when she was betrothed. I have seen a man hurrying after a raging wife who was en route for her father’s house, and it was anything but a dignified position even for a native to be in. On one occasion a man came to beg cloth from me to settle an indaba he had. On enquiring I was told that one of his wives had been offended at some scolding he gave her and had gone to her former home. She had now repented and was willing to return to her husband, but her father’s people would not allow her unless he first paid something for having caused her to run away. I enquired how many wives were left to him and he said he had still five. I advised him to let the run-away one stay where she was, but the great matter for him was that she represented so many head of cattle and he could not lose them as, by having children by her he could give them out in marriage and so get his cattle-fold restocked. There was no room for the sentiment of love. It was purely a mercantile transaction. Here is a native’s description of a household squabble :—

“This is a story about wives. A man had five wives and they were quarrelling among themselves. One said to another, ‘ You are all right since our husband loves you only. As for us he does not love us at all.’ So they seized each other and fought, one of them being greatly hurt in the quarrel over their husband. The husband said, ‘I love you all, my wives.’ One replied, saying, 'You just love one of your wives.’ Others said, ‘What did he take us from our father’s house for, seeing he only loves one?’ There was war very often.”

When evening comes the principal meal of the day is eaten. It consists of maize flour made into a very stiff and very partially cooked porridge, which is accompanied by a relish composed of meat with a little salt, green vegetables or dried herbs. What bread is to us this porridge is to the native. It matters not however freely he eat, for instance, of flesh and vegetables, he will complain of hunger unless he has had his quantity of porridge. At meals the women and girls eat by themselves in one part of the family compound or open space, and the men who are usually to be found in the cattlefold may have theirs along with the boys there. When the meal is over there is not much labour clearing the table or in the scullery afterwards.

The porridge has been cooked in one huge pot, and the portion for the women put into a broad flat dish, with the relish in a small earthenware pot, and that for the men and boys has been served up in the same way. They all sit round and, dipping the fingers in the heap of porridge, take a little which they roll into a ball, dip it m the relish and literally pitch it into the mouth. They do not chew it, and hence the mandold digestive disturbances the natives are liable to. The delicacies of civilisation are said to have made men more unhappy and unhealthy than is the simple untutored savage. My experience is that civilised people have not so much sickness as natives. Their splendid ivories are made much of, but, as I have seen a few hundred mouths, the front teeth are usually the only ones preserved.

When the evening meal is over, if it is the dry season and a moon present, the youths and maidens of the village go to the cattle-fold to the dance, which is a recreation much liked by the natives. The Ngoni, unlike the Tonga and Tumbuka peoples, have no obscene dances, and on a clear evening, when all around is still, it is very enjoyable to listen to their song accompaniment (from a distance). It is then that the glamour of native life is thrown over the casual visitor, and perhaps it is excusable that he goes away filled with the idea that the native spends an idyllic life, has no care, and is always happy and free. True, there is apparent peace and joy in the village as the young people, not infrequently joined by many of the mothers with babies on their backs, join in song and dance for an hour or two after sunset. But it is only one phase of native life, which does not, to those who are behind the scenes, cover the unhappiness, the slavish fear of evil spirits, the often cruel bonds of heathen customs, and above all the secret immorality, lying, stealing, and often murder, which abound in every native community.

The song is the principal thing—not the dance. The dance is the accompaniment of the song, and not vice verse. Their songs are well-nigh unintelligible to a stranger, as they consist of short statements relating to some incident in the everyday life or history of the people, and without a knowledge of those incidents one cannot understand them. From them, however, one may obtain a very minute record of the people’s history. The men, with dancing-sticks in their hands, held erect, form one line, and the women form a line some distance apart from, and opposite to, the men. All sing heartily, and the dance consists in merely striking the ground with the feet, while the sticks are waved overhead, with certain movements of the body and head carried out in unison, the whole combined forming a not unpleasing, although unrefined exhibition. The song, as heard from a distance, is not without artistic effect as the high-pitched voices of the women, usually very musical, and the deeper voices of the men rise and fall in the evening stillness in musical cadence. In some of the songs there are dialogues, the men and women speaking to each other in rhythmical notes. In these dialogues the music is not unsuited to the subject. In some songs the maidens take up, it may be, a taunt against the young men concerning some war exploit, domestic fracas, or playfully assert that the young men of their village are inferior to those of some other village. To this taunt in song the young men reply in notes suited to their indignation at the charge. Thus the song goes on, while the rhythmic gestures and beating of the ground with the feet add zest to the subject. At certain stages in the song the words are dropped, and the women continue the tune in a low, humming voice, while the movements of the men are continued; and then, at another stage, the women clap hands in unison, but always in two parts, with a slight interval of time, so that the sound is doubled and accentuated. The dance forms a suitable occasion for the youths of the village to show themselves off in front of the young women, whose favour they may be anxious to obtain.

Such is the village dance; but in the dry season, after the crops have been reaped, there is a kind of competitive dance engaged in between two villages. Without warning, the young people of one village will come to another village, dressed in all their best things. They enter the cattlefold singing, and begin to dance. Those of the village visited who are within call are quickly summoned to engage the strangers, and they are prepared to begin to dance when the other party stops to rest, the desire being to out-dance the other by holding the field as long as they can, as well as to have the best singing and most perfect movements. Thus they go on, one party after the other, during the whole day, and when the sun has well declined, the strangers return home, singing gaily all the way.

The daily life of the men is soon described. They have usually no work to do. Their day is spent in talking, taking snuff, and drinking beer. They may do a little hoeing in the busy season, and cut the trees where a new garden is being made, but that is about all. The introduction of labour by the Mission has effected a great change, as the men who were wont to go out raiding other tribes during the whole of the dry season, are now found eager to obtain work. Some few are found who, of their own free will, devise work, and are always busy since there are trades found among them.

The men’s place is the cattle-fold, where they spend their day, and a stranger visiting a village goes to the gate to await the salutations of the people, and to be enquired of as to his business before he is conducted to the house of the party he may have come to see. There is a well-defined etiquette observed throughout the community. It is a great offence for one to sit down opposite the door of a hut. A native’s house, as well as a Britisher’s, is his castle, and no one dare enter uninvited. Neither may one sit down near the house without giving warning by a cough, an exclamation, or by salutation, as eavesdropping is a crime which is abhorred by the natives.

One of the pretty sights about a native village in the evening is the folding of the cattle. As the sun sinks the cattle begin to turn homeward. The boys who tend them have reeds which they cause to emit a not unmusical sound—the different cattle-herds having differently pitched reeds —by manipulating the open end as they blow through, and all sounded together produce a simple, sweet music. The cattle collect together where they have been grazing as the boys blow their reeds, and wend their way home for the evening milking and to rest over night in the open fold. The old Ngoni were wholly a pastoral people, and only in recent years have gone in for agriculture to the extent they now do. Before the cattle plague the herds were numerous and large, but now there are only tens where before there were hundreds. The cessation of war raids also accounts to some extent for the decrease in the number of cattle owned, as cattle-lifting was a constant occupation in the dry season.


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