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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter III. Native Customs and Beliefs


IT is a mistake to suppose that even among barbarous tribes, such as the Ngoni, all their customs are bad. There were, before Christian teaching began to influence them, many things which were admirable. Those traits of character and customs so readily seen by strangers, the observation of which has so often led travellers to believe that the state of the untutored savage was happy, free and good, are nevertheless found alongside lower ways of living, and a grossly immoral character, which are not only the obstacles to Mission work but its raison d'etre. It is not our purpose, meantime, to state or explain fully the customs of the people, all of which have an interest from the anthropological point of view, but to present a brief sketch of those which stood out as hindrances to the progress of our work, and which, being bad, had to succumb to the influences of the moral and spiritual teaching of the gospel. There are many customs so grossly obscene that we cannot enter upon a statement of them. I avail myself of a letter from my colleague, Rev. Donald Fraser, which he recently sent home, describing what he witnessed in an out-lying district of Ngoniland in connection with the initiation customs at the coming of age of young women.

“Leaving these bright scenes behind, I moved on west into Tumbuka country to open up new territory. But scarcely had I turned my back on Hora when I began to feel the awful oppression of dominant heathenism. For a few days I stopped at the head chiefs village, where we have recently opened a school. The chief was holding high days of bacchanalian revelry. He and his brother and many others were very drunk when I arrived, and continued in the same condition till I left. Day after day the sound of drunken song went up from the village. Several times a day they came to visit me and to talk : but their presence was only a pest, for they begged persistently for everything they saw, from my boots to my tent and bed. The poor, young chief has quickly learned all the royal vices—beer-drinking, hemp-smoking, numerous wives, incessant begging. I greatly dread lest we have come too late, but God’s grace can transform him yet.

“When we left Mbalekelwa’s we marched for two days towards the west, keeping to the valley of a little river. Along the route, especially during the second day, we passed through an almost unbroken line of Tumbuka villages. At every resting-point the people came to press on us to send them teachers, and frequently accompanied their requests with presents. When at last we arrived at Chinde’s head village, we received a very cordial welcome. Chinde (a son of Mombera) did everything he could to convince us of his unbounded pleasure in our visit. For three or four days we stayed there, and were overwhelmed with presents of sheep and goats, and with eager requests for teachers. Leaving this hospitable quarter, we had a long, weary march through a waterless forest, in which we saw the fresh spoor of many buffaloes and other large game, and heard a lion roaring in front. Late in the afternoon we reached Chinombo’s and remained for other three days. Here again, we were well received and loaded with presents.

“This whole country to the west is still untouched. That the people are eager to learn is evident from their urgent requests. That they sadly lack God, and are living in a dreadful degradation, became daily more and more patent. I cannot yet write as an inner observer. Tshi-tumbuka, the language spoken there, I am only now beginning to learn. Yet the outer exhibitions of vice and drunkenness and superstition were only too painfully evident.

“Often have I heard Dr Elmslie speak of the awful customs of the Tumbuka, but the actual sight of some of these gave a shock and horror that will not leave one. The atmosphere seems charged with vice. It is the only theme that runs through songs, and games, and dances. Here surely is the very seat of Satan.

“It is the gloaming. You hear the ringing laughter of little children who are playing before their mothers. They are such little tots you want to smile with them, and you draw near; but you quickly turn aside, shivering with horror. These little girls are making a game of obscenity, and their mothers are laughing.

“The moon has risen. The sound of boys and girls singing in chorus, and the clapping of hands, tell of village sport. You turn out to the village square to see the lads and girls at play. They are dancing ; but every act is awful in its shamelessness, and an old grandmother, bent and withered, has entered the circle to incite the boys and girls to more loathsome dancing. You go back to your tent bowed with an awful shame, to hide yourself. But from that village, and that other, the same choruses are rising, and you know that under the clear moon God is seeing wickedness that cannot be named, and there is no blush in those who practise it.

“Next morning the village is gathered together to see your carriers at worship, and to hear the news of the white stranger. You improve the occasion, and stand, ashamed to speak of what you saw. The same boys and girls are there, the same old grandmothers. But clear eyes look up, and there is no look of shame anywhere. It is hard to speak of such things, but you alone are ashamed that day; and when you are gone, the same horror is practised under the same clear moon.

“No; I cannot yet speak of the bitterness of heathenism, only of its horror. True, there were hags there who were only middle-aged women, and there were men bowed, scared, dull-eyed, with furrowed faces. But when these speak or sing or dance, there seems to be no alloy in their merriment. The children are happy as only children can be. They laugh and sing, and show bright eyes and shining teeth all day long. But what of that? Made in God’s image, to be His pure dwelling-place, they have become the dens of foul devils; made to be sons of God, they have become the devotees of passion.

“I have passed through the valleys of two little rivers only, and seen there something of the external life of those who can be the children of God. The horror of it is with me day and night. And on every side it is the same. In hidden valleys where we have never been, in villages quite near to this station, the drum is beating and proclaiming shame under God's face. And we cannot rest. But what are we two among so many? 0 men and women, who have sisters and mothers and little brothers whose daily presence is for you an echo of the purity of God, why do you leave us a little company, and grudge those gifts that help to tell mothers and daughters and sons that impurity is for hell, and holiness alone for us!

“How long, 0 Lord! how long?"

“I send you this account of a missionary journey. Would that my pen could write the fire that is in my soul! It is an awful thing to sit looking at sin triumphant, and be unable to do anything to check it. Calls for teachers are coming from every side, but we cannot listen to them at present—our hands are more than full.”

The letter refers to the custom as it obtained among the Tumbuka and Tonga slaves, and it presents an awful picture of moral degeneracy which was all too commonly seen on such occasions all over Central Africa. Although the Ngoni practice was less openly obscene yet the occasion was onž of unspeakable evil, extending over several days, on which both sexes were accorded full licence for every unholy passion.

In like manner in connection with marriages —especially of widows—and the birth of twins ; when armies returned from war and the purification ceremonies took place, practices which are not meet to be described were unblushingly engaged in. What in Christian lands is held sacred in heathen lands is too often the common property of young and old, and where public opinion is devoid of the moral sense we cannot look for elevation from within.

One of the greatest social and moral evils among the tribe is polygamy. The evils are seen among all classes, for as the tribe existed by raiding other tribes, all who could bear arms might possess themselves of captive wives. Among the upper classes the rich held the power to secure all the marriageable girls in the tribe, by purchasing them from their parents for so many cattle. The practice of paying cattle was not in all cases wholly bad, but the tendency was to outrage the higher motives and feelings, especially in the women who often were bargained for by tbeir parents long before they entered their teens. The cattle paid to the father of the bride formed a portion which she could claim and have as a possession, in the event of her being driven away by the cruelty of her husband, and, in the absence of a nobler sentiment, it was in some degree a safeguard of the interests of the wife. But upon no grounds, social or moral, could such a practice be defended. It is inimical to the true morality of marriage, and consequently to the progress of the race. It is no uncommon thing to find greyheaded old men, with half-a-score of wives already, choosing, bidding for, and securing, without the woman’s consent, the young girls of the tribe. Disparity of age, emotions and associations, make such unions anything but happy, and nowhere do quarrels and witchcraft practices foment more surely than in a polygamous household. A man’s wives are not all located in one village. He may have several villages, and from neglect young wives are subject to many grievances and temptations, so that it is no wonder they age in appearance so rapidly. They are often maltreated by the senior wives, who, jealous of them, bring charges against them, and, in the hour when they should have the joy of expectant motherhood, they are cast aside under some foul charge, without human aid or sympathetic care. On more than one occasion I have been called by a weeping mother to give aid to her daughter in such circumstances, when, if a fatal issue resulted, she and her family would have been taken into slavery and their possessions confiscated. Only those who spend years among them and are their trusted friends can tell of that and countless other unholy and inhuman things, which result from the custom of polygamy as it exists.

Flippant writers on such customs, especially some travellers who had not the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the people, state that polygamy is, in the savage state where there is an absence of higher motives, a safeguard of morality. It is, however, far from being so. Men with several wives, and many of the wives of polygamists, have assignations with members of other families. I have been told by serious old men that such is the state of family life in the villages that any man could raise a case against his neighbour at any time, and that is one reason why friendliness appears so marked among them—each has to bow to the other in fear of offending him and leading to revelations which would rob him of his all.

The belief in witchcraft is the most powerful of all the forces at work among the tribes. It is a slavery from which there has been found no release. It pervades and influences every human relationship, and acts as a complete barrier to all advancement wherever it is found to operate. No matter whether it be master or slave, chief or subject, parent or child, he has to bear this yoke which may at any moment crush him. He lives in fear. If he is sick it is not a question of how he may be cured, but of who has bewitched him ; or if his plans are frustrated what evil spirit has been moved against him. The reason for his apparent laziness is the feai that, if he become possessed of goods, his circumstances will excite jealousy and bring on him accusations of witchcraft, and death as a result. It is productive of unrest, cruel treatment, and great loss of property and life.

The itshanusi or witch-doctor lives upon the credulity and slavish fear of the people. He is either self-deceived or a base impostor, but his power for evil in a tribe is unlimited. He is reverenced by all classes, and although one may hear whispers of a want of faith in him and his incantations, no one would dare to oppose him in public. Wicked men and chiefs make use of him and his immunity from punishment to “remove” any person who is disliked or whose possessions have rendered him opprobrious to them, and a chief or headman’s unjust demands may be bolstered up by an appeal to his easily-bought action. They aid despotic chiefs in governing a discontented people, and from the deep religious feeling which the people have in regard to the presence and power of the ancestral spirits with whom the itshanusi is believed to be in communication, they are ready to acknowledge even that which may be to their hurt.

As to their belief in witchcraft I might refer to what I have observed in the course of my practice of medicine among the people. No sooner is it concluded that a person who is sick has been bewitched, than the friends around talk of it without constraint in the presence of the patient. Sometimes they may carry him about from place to place in the hope of cheating the charmer, but the effect on the patient is very marked. He seems to conclude that he is to die, and he evinces no fear or anxiety in view of death. He assumes an unnatural stolidity, despair, and what might be termed resignation. Although his imminent death is talked of freely before him he has no fear or complaint. He shows no desire to fight for life, but with an inhuman want of hope or desire for recovery he awaits the end. The thought that he is bewitched seems to deprive him of all natural clinging to life. Even among the youthful of both sexes there is that want of hope, when once the elder people have declared they have been bewitched.

In connection with charges of witchcraft, the poison ordeal is the final and too often calamitous sequel. Before the light of Christian truth came to them, and has, even where the doctrines are not wholly embraced, done away with this great evil, the number annually killed by drinking the muave cup cannot be estimated. Anything a man possesses, about which there is any mystery, may give rise to a charge of witchcraft. If a man is found walking near a village at night he is charged with evil intentions. If one possesses himself of an owl or other night bird or animal, he is supposed to work evil by means of such, and is charged forthwith. When sickness or death comes into a house or village someone is blamed. Theitshanusi is called, and there are not wanting those who in their talk reveal in what direction the thoughts of the people lie, and so he names someone, which decision at once appears reasonable to the people and is accepted. Often the witch-doctor has emissaries secretly employed to find out what he wants, and, acting upon information thus obtained, he appears to the people to be acting upon communications he has received supernaturally. Sometimes he does more to influence their imagination and make themselves name someone than by himself doing so directly. I have known several witch-doctors, and have come to regard them as shrewd individuals, certainly more given to thought than the community generally, and who traded on the superstitious fears of the people, who seldom exercised their reason in connection with ordinary occurrences. On many occasions men and women have sought refuge at the Mission station when accused of witchcraft and under sentence of death. On one occasion, during a trial which took place at a village near the station, when the itshanusiwas performing his incantations and condemned a man, he broke away from the crowd and ran towards the house. He was followed by a crowd of men and boys clamouring for his life, and being overtaken, was clubbed to death before our eyes; his body was ignominiously dragged back to the scene of trial, where it was subjected to gross indignities.

On all occasions of administering the poison cup we tried to stop it. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we were not. Sometimes we were able to prevail upon them to substitute dogs or fowls for the human subjects, and then it was possible for us to watch the proceedings. These were occasions on which the whole community turned out. The friends of the accused were very few on such occasions, and the people jeered the unhappy wretch and engaged in song and dance while he had to stand alone and prove his innocence by vomiting the poison, or, by death from the poison, confirm the truth of the charge against him. When the poison began to take effect, as seen in the quivering and collapse of the culprit, it was the occasion for wild demoniacal behaviour, jeering and cursing the dying man, unawed in the presence of death. Then his body was ignominiously cast into the nearest ravine to be food for the hyenas at night.

Not only was the poison ordeal resorted to in cases of supposed witchcraft, but the Tonga and Tumbuka, with whom and not with the Ngoni the practice originated, were incessantly using it. In nearly every hut a bundle of poison-bark would be found hid away in the roof against the need to use it. Family and other quarrels were finally adjusted by resort to the ordeal. The women were the mainstay of the horrible practice, and most frequently made use of it. Numberless cases were treated at the dispensary, when more sober reflection made them seek an emetic. Sometimes cases were brought by others.

A husband might come home and find a crowd about his door and learn that his wife had taken muave. He would bring her to me at once. Sometimes the patient has died while being brought, or even at the dispensary door while 1 was making an effort to save her. Frivolous as were the reasons for resorting to such extreme measures when quarrels arose, there were often dire results therefrom, and sometimes one met with a case which appeared ridiculous even to the native mind. A strong young man came to me one day saying he had drunk muave, and desired an emetic. On enquiry I learned that he and his wife had quarrelled during the night in the secrecy of their own hut. Failing to agree after the usual amount of talking characteristic of native brawls, they agreed that at sunrise they would drink muave. When the sun rose they proceeded to the ordeal and the cups were duly mixed. The wife, with a cunning not suspected by the pliable husband, who, with a faith in his innocence, was determined to go through with the business, said, “You made the charge, so you shall drink first.” He did so, but the wife, hurling an imprecation at him, refused to drink her share, and fled to a village several miles away. The poor man, amid a crowd of natives derisively cheering him, came and sought relief, which a liberal use of sulphate of zinc and water gave him.

The poison ordeal is an outcome of their belief in the supernatural. It is an appeal to a power outside themselves to judge the case, reveal the right, and punish the wrong-doer. It is part of their religious system and appears to them to be right. The witch-doctor is to them the visible and accessible agent of the ancestral spirits whom they believe in and worship, and from whom they think he derives his powers. If there is a tendency to error in what they believe, the witchdoctor by his shrewdness and making bad use of it, pretending to know more than what will ever be revealed to man, favoured the growth of lies, and juggled with the truth of things. The characteristics of the witch-doctor are a pretended superior knowledge to discern the affairs of individuals and communities, and ability to hold intercourse with the ancestral spirits. It is not a hereditary craft such as that of other kinds of doctors, e.g. medicine men who have a knowledge of herbs, and blacksmiths who have the secrets of working in iron. The knowledge of medicine and handicraft are considered to be heirlooms. The witch-doctor is supposed to be chosen by the ancestral spirits, by whom they may communicate with the world. A man who is chosen presents certain features or symptoms. He becomes “possessed” and excludes himself from society. He may have a peculiar sickness, characterised by lowness of spirits. It may be he is the subject of fits or has peculiar dreams. When he recovers from this and again enters society he is looked upon with awe by the ordinary people. He places himself in the hands of some old witchdoctor who tests his symptoms of “possession,” and if found good he is instructed by him in various practices. He is not allowed to graduate, however, until he has discovered some medicine which is potent in some way, and given public proof of his ability to discover things secreted by those assembled to test his powers. There is doubtless a measure of both self-deception and imposture in the matter. The practice of the witch-doctor is closely connected with the worship of the ancestral spirits. Each house has a family spirit to whom they sacrifice, but no one ever sacrifices to the spirit without first waiting upon the itshanusi. He pretends to have found out the reason for worship, and directs the applicant how to proceed.

Without asserting that it is complete, the following is a correct statement of the religious beliefs of the natives. Although they do not worship God, it is nevertheless true that they have a distinct idea of a supreme Being. The Ngoni call him Umkurumqango, and the Tonga and Tumbuka call him Chiuta. It may be that the natives, from an excess of reverence as much as from negligence, have ceased to offer him direct worship. They affirm that God lives: that it is He who created all things, and who giveth all good things. The government of the world is deputed to the spirits and among these the malevolent spirits alone require to be appeased, while the guardian spirits require to be entreated for protection by means of sacrifices. I once had a long conversation on this subject with a witchdoctor who was a neighbour for some years, and the sum of what he said was, that they believe in God who made them and all things, but they do not know how to worship Him. He is thought of as a great chief and is living, but as He has the ancestral spirits with Him they are His cimaduna(headmen). The reason why they pray to the amadhlozi (spirits) is that these, having lived on earth, understand their position and wants, and can manage their case with God. When they are well and have plenty, no worship is required, and in adversity and sickness they pray to them. The sacrifices are offered to appease the spirits when trouble comes, or, as when building a new village, to gain their protection.

With such ideas native to the mind of these tribes, how is it that the materialistic writers and unbelieving critics of Missions affirm that the high moral and spiritual truths of Christianity cannot be grasped by them? In beginning mission work among them, one is not met by anything in their mental or spiritual life which is an insurmountable barrier in communicating to them spiritual truths. However erroneously at first they may conceive the truths and facts put before them, they have no difficulty in finding a place for them in their thoughts. To talk of spiritual things is not to them an absurdity, much less is it impossible for them to conceive that such things may be. The native lives continually in an atmosphere of spiritual things. Almost all his customs are connected with a belief in a world of spirits. He is, consciously or unconsciously, always under the power and influence of a spiritual world. In preaching, we have not first to prove the existence of God. He never dreams of questioning that. We have in our instruction merely to unfold His character as Creator, Preserver, Governor, and Father of us all. As He is revealed to them they do not question His sovereignty, but bow to it. While we meet with many obstacles in their life and thought, yet as they are we have in them much that is a help—a basis on which we may operate. However dim their spiritual light may be, we have but to unfold truth to them and it is self-evident to their minds. No preparation by civilization is required, as their spiritual instincts find in the truth of God what they are crying out for. The cry is inarticulate and unuttered, save in their unrest and blind gropings after spiritual things.

Regarding the origin of life and death, all natives have the story much the same as found throughout the Bantu tribes, how that in the beginning God sent the chameleon to tell men that they would die but again rise. Afterwards He sent the grey lizard to say that they would die, and dying, would not return. The lizard, being a swift runner, came first, and afterwards the chameleon; but men said, “We accepted the word of the first, and cannot receive yours.” The natives hate the chameleon, and put snuff in its mouth to kill it, because they say it delayed and led to their acceptance of death.

They believe in the presence of disembodied spirits, good and bad, having the power to affect men in this world. Their sacrifices to them, their fear of them, and their assigning sickness and death to their agency, testify to this.

There are different terms applied to spirits, each of which is explanatory. The native thinks of the shade or shadow of his departed friend, and denotes the life-principle, and the term is even applied to influence, prestige, importance. They use it in reference to his life, as when they say, “His shadow is still present”; meaning that though on the point of death, his spirit is still in him. When I began to take photographs, the same word was applied to a man’s photograph, and they evinced the greatest fear lest by yielding up their spirit to me they should die. I have shown photographs of deceased persons known to them, and they invariably turned away, some even running away in fear. When a native dreams, he believes he has held converse with the shade of his friend. Another term applied to spirits has reference to their supposed habit of wandering about. The hut of a deceased adult is never pulled down. It is never again used by the living, but is left to fall to pieces when the village removes to another locality. They do not think the spirit always lives in the hut, but they think it may return to its former haunts, and so the hut is left standing. Spirits are thought to enter certain snakes, which consequently are never killed. When seen in the vicinity of houses, they are left unmolested ; and if they enter huts, sometimes food and beer are laid down for them. Some time after a chief died, some of his children saw a snake near his grave close by the hut in which he died. The cry of joy was taken up by all the family, “Our father has come back.” There was great rejoicing, and the family went and spent a night at the grave, clearing away the grass and rubbish that had accumulated. They were satisfied that it was the spirit of their father in the snake.

If a journey of importance is being taken, such as an army going out to war, or a man going on important business, a snake crossing the path in front is considered to be an omen—the spirit giving warning against going on. The army or party interested would not dream of going farther, without consulting the divining-doctor so as to learn the meaning of the omen.

Their belief in spirits appears on many occasions. I have been engaging workers when only a few out of a crowd could be chosen. It was not an uncommon thing to hear from the disappointed as they walked away, “I have an evil spirit to-day,” meaning that luck went against them, and they were not engaged. A man who has perhaps narrowly escaped from danger exclaims, “What did they take me for?” meaning that some inferior spirit had been caring for him, and only barely saved him. Such a definite and operative belief in the presence and power of spirits gives rise to their practice of offering sacrifices, which are almost always propitiatory, save when a new village is made. Hence their religious exercises are called forth by sickness, death, or disaster. A man speaks of a sacrifice as offered to make the spirit pliable and obedient to his request, and in sacrifice they offer cattle, or beer and flour.

Although the Tumbuka are a much more degraded people in morals, they are more religious than the Ngoni, and are freer in their sacrifices. An elephant-hunter, for example, when the beast falls, always cuts out certain parts, and at the foot of a certain tree offers them in sacrifice to his guardian spirit. Their beliefs and worship are essentially those of the Ngoni, except that they have a wider variety of objects. Certain hills are worshipped, also waterfalls, ancient trees, and almost any object which appears unusual, may to them embody the spirit they worship, while certain insects, such as the mantis religiosa are supposed to give residence to an ancestral spirit, are not interfered with under any circumstances, or even handled. Each house has its own guardian spirit, and the tribe worships the spirit of a dead chief.

The natives believe in Hades — the region below, where disembodied spirits dwell. They do not speak of it as a sensible locality. Now and again women are found wandering about the country smeared with white clay and fantastically dressed, calling themselves “chiefs of Hades.'’ They are greatly feared as being able to turn themselves into lions, and other ravenous beasts to devour any who may not treat them well. Hence their advent in a village leads the people to give them whatever they ask, that they may go away and leave them undisturbed. There is a medicine in use as a protection from lions, which cunning men sell at a good price. One of the largest and most attentive meetings I had in the open air was when, on a Sunday morning, I came upon a crowd of natives of both sexes and all ages, submitting to be anointed by a deceptive old man with an oily mixture, which was reputed to give protection from the lions at that time infesting the district. At my request he ceased his practice and I preached from the words: “The devil goeth about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” Before the close of the sermon the old man took his departure with his oily mixture, leaving me in possession of the crowd.

Much more might be said of the life of the people, but what has been stated will enable the reader to understand the nature of the soil into which the seeds of Christian truth have been cast, and how great have been the results. Frederic Harrison’s New Year Address to the Positivist Society ten years ago contained these great swelling words of man’s wisdom:—“Missionaries and philanthropists, however noble might be the character and purpose of some few among them, were all really engaged . . . in plundering and enslaving Africa, in crushing, demoralising and degrading African races.” I have but faintly touched upon the moral and spiritual, as well as the temporal state of the natives as we found them; let the reader, when he has gone through the succeeding chapters, say for himself whether the plan of God’s redemption of Africa or that of the Positivist Society succeeds best, and take no rest until all Africa receive the light of God’s Word.


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