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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter V. My First Visit to Mombera


CAPTAIN BURTON says, “It is always a pleasure, after travelling through the semirepublican tribes of Africa, to arrive at the headquarters of a strong and sanguinary despotism.” Only those who have lived in Africa can understand how it is so. Journeying inland from Quilimane, I passed the then powerful Matshinjiri tribe at war with the Portuguese on the Shire river, and met a detachment of their army under the famous Raposo, a man of great dignity and valour. Further on I passed through the Makololo remnants of Livingstone’s caravan, established as the powerful chiefs on the Shire river. These were fine specimens of humanity and raised one’s enthusiasm for work in Africa among such noble people. Getting up to the highlands above the Shire, and meeting with the very mixed people, “a people scattered and peeled,” it became at once evident that slavery and war had crushed the spirit of the remnants of Yao and Mang’anja peoples living there. Every tenth man one met might be set down as a chief, and the usual results of a few people and many chiefs were very evident. The life of the people seemed to consist in a talking mirandu. Petty quarrels of petty chiefs were abundant, and those Europeans who had people living on their ground were oppressed by their attempts to settle their quarrels. It was a thankless business, certainly, where the people delight in talking, and can conveniently keep the questions open over many years and even for generations. For such people one of the greatest blessings which have come to them in recent years is that the British Government has become their chief and united all.

Further on one was able to find at Mponda’s a powerful chief, and from a native point of view a happy and prosperous people. Around Bandawe, again, almost every village had a distinct chief, and as one of these was sure to be trying to become paramount, petty quarrels and wars were common. Though all were of one tribe in reality, there was no union among them, even against their common foe, the Ngoni. Had the missionaries engaged to settle disputes no other work could have been done ; they wisely espoused no one’s cause, but remained the friends of all, had access to all, and saved disaster to their work. The bane of the district was the multitude of petty chiefs, and they were thus an easy prey to the ravages of the Ngoni war parties.

But it was when I came into Ngoniland that something like Burton’s feelings were experienced. The great expanse of country—hills and valleys and plains—dotted over with numberless villages built without regard to safety from attack, but located where the best gardens and pasturage were to be had, made one realise that here was a people powerful and free, whom to settle among, and win for Christ, was a work worthy a man’s life. Elsewhere I saw the people huddled together in small, dirty, stockaded villages, the sites of which were frequently found to be surrounded by marshes in order to give protection with the least amount of work on fortifications, and the people of one village ready to make war on the next village a few yards off. But here in Ngoniland there was one royal residence, one ruler and he in touch by means of the head-men in the different parts of the tribe, with all the people under him. Standing on the hills on the eastern boundary of Ngoniland, and having pointed out to me the various sections of the tribe all under the one chief, Mombera, I remembered the remark of a member of committee when I was leaving home. He said: “If you have faith and patience to work and win the Ngoni, you are going to the finest field in Livingstonia.” The full truth of that remark is only now becoming evident.

But now to my introduction to the chief and his advisers and head-men. No one who has visited Mombera at his home will forget the discomfort of the ordeal. I had been duly warned as to his piercing gaze; his questions as to age, family, and whether married or single; his criticisms of one’s personal appearance; and, what would never be wanting, his barefaced begging for whatever he might fancy at the time. So, to have the ordeal past, I set out with Messrs Koyi and Sutherland to visit Mombera. He was not in his customary place in the cattle kraal, but we found him in the small house where he received visitors and heard cases pleaded when he was either too drunk or disinclined to go to the kraal. The hut was enclosed by a neat reed fence, the space within being smoothly beaten down and scrupulously clean. Here we found several parties, who were no doubt waiting to plead some case before him, and not a few hangers-on looking for the crumbs which might fall to their lot when the beef and beer on which Mombera subsisted were brought in. Having taken a present for him, I found that several of his wives were attracted to the place in hope of sharing the same with their lord. No sooner had they seated themselves and saluted the stranger, than a loud voice, half angrily, half jokingly, asked them what they wanted, and ordered them to be gone. Mombera, with nearly thirty wives, evidently had not a plethora of devotion for them. He said, “You have seen the white man with his bundle, and you come here expecting something. I am here every day, but you leave me alone if there are no goods to divide.”

When we had been invited to enter the hut, we did so by going down on our knees and crawling in through the doorway, which was only a couple of feet high and about the same in width. As each entered, the royal salute had to be given by raising the voice, and saying, “Bayete.” The joker of our party, who was evidently on very familiar terms with Mombera, shouted, “Be quiet,” which was not objected to. On entering the hut, it was some time before the eyes became familiar with the semi-darkness, and then what one saw did not betoken much splendour of royalty. The hut was a round, low-roofed erection, with a well-laid and polished floor of clay. In the centre a round depression in the floor contained the fire composed of logs of wood. To the right of the doorway, on a reed mat, sat Mombera himself. Beside him was a huge pot of beer, with a calabash ladle, over which one of his wives presided, and tempered the beer with hot water. A smaller pot, made of grass deftly woven so as to be quite water-tight, was held by Mombera, who took frequent draughts, and sometimes handed it round to the people in his presence. If he did so, or rose from his mat, all shouted, “Bayete.” When he received back the pot, or came in and sat down, the company shouted, “Bayete.” If one rose to go to another part of the hut, or to leave the royal presence, he shouted, “Bayete.”

To describe the royal dress is not a difficult matter. The chief part of Mombera’s dress was the numerous beautiful ivory rings which he wore on his arms, and the rings of plaited brass wire on his legs. In his ears he wore the usual heavy knobs of ivory, about an inch and a half in diameter, and his clothing was completed by a few yards of coloured calico, carelessly thrown over his limbs as he sat, consuming his beer or talking over the cases brought to him for judgment. When not in state at home, his clothing consisted usually of his leg and arm ornaments.

It was to a new-comer a strange and trying ordeal to have to sit and be stared at by Mombera's one eye visible over the beer-pot; to know that his remarks about one’s appearance were causing amusement to all in the hut, and not to be able to speak, or, indeed, to have permission to speak; for until one has been greeted by the chief, he must be silent. It was the custom for the chief to refrain from greeting one for some fifteen minutes after he came into his presence. This was considered the best welcome to give, and however trying to one’s patience, it had to be borne. On one occasion, when my wife and I had gone to visit a head-man by invitation, we were kept sitting at the kraal gate for over an hour before he came to greet us, and point out a place whereon to pitch the tent. I knew it was the custom to delay thus, and on speaking about it to our host, he said, “Why should I be in a hurry when you come to stay? If a man comes to your house, and you instantly say, ‘Good-morning,’ that would mean, ‘We have only hunger here, so I need not delay you. You may go.”

The Ngoni salutation is “Tikuwona,” “we see you,” a slight variation from the Zulu which is, “We saw you.” When Mombera had greeted us thus, all in the hut were then free to do so too, and one after another did so in a graceful manner, and to each the proper reply was “Yebo,” signifying “Yes.” Immediately the tongues were loosened and Mombera plied his enquiries, and passed his judgment on me. Comparisons were made between Mr Sutherland and myself,—who was the elder, were we brothers, why had we straight} hair of the same colour, when did we come out of the sea? for the natives thought the white men were spirits who had left their proper dwelling in the water to come and trouble the people. When a convenient opportunity could be got, Mr Koyi informed the chief who I was, and that I had come to ask permission to stay in the country to teach the people the Word of God, and, being a doctor, that I would attend to all who sought help and medicine.

On this an old toothless man, who may be called the chiefs mouth, repeated Mr Koyi's statement to the chief. Then the chief replied and his words were taken up by the “mouth” and repeated to Mr Koyi. They were to the effect that he himself was only the chief and the country did not belong to him but to the people. If his head-men agreed to my staying among them he would be very glad and would not offer any objections. He was thereupon thanked for his words and requested to call together his counsellors so that I might meet them and get their permission to stay. This he promised to do at an early date.

On his rising to leave the hut all shouted “Bayete" and when he was outside a rush was made by those present for the beer-pot, and a hearty draught was taken. When Mombera entered he accused them of having drunk his beer, but no one of course had touched it—who indeed would dare to touch the chiefs beer, and who of those present had need to steal, when they were already bursting with what he had so freely given % The one predominant feature in native life is the flattery and insincerity of the people. In the chiefs presence it reaches a climax.

The present for Mombera consisted of some coloured calico, brass wire, beads, and a few trinkets such as would please children at home. He looked at it and demanded a kind of bead of which we had none. With the most barefaced impertinence and incivility, he replied saying he would not like to insult the new white man by refusing what he had brought, but as there was nothing to be seen, he would ask me to bring something with me another day. The trinkets, however, took his fancy and he adorned his “crown” with some small lockets and chains, and handed the other things to those who were in the hut.

Leaving the royal presence, not very favourably impressed by Mombera and his drinking and begging, I was conducted to the seraglio where the numerous wives of the chief were lying about sunning themselves, or were engaged making beer or cooking meat for their despotic lord. Each greeted the stranger and begged for cloth, beads, and brass wire. Idleness seemed to be the bane of the women and one can imagine that many quarrels and jealousies would arise, demanding the attention of the queen or head wife, whose sphere it was to rule the harem and regulate the number and position of the wives which were constantly being added to, or put out of the way. Mombera had his favourites; these improved their chance and sometimes inveigled him into a union with some near relative of their own. His wives were distributed among his principal villages, either as properly dowried wives, or as the handmaids of such to do their work, and be ready to entertain their husband and his guests whenever he happened to reside at their village. This custom of having several establishments kept up, is the only valid excuse I could ever get for the practice of polygamy. A man would say, “I have gardens and a village at so and so, how can I have only one wife? Who will cook my food and hoe my gardens there?”

The lot of many of Mombera’s wives, and of many wives of others, was not altogether a happy one. In one instance a principal wife—the chief wife in fact—was slighted by Mombera for some reason and was discarded altogether, and only on his death could anyone be got to espouse her cause, and to put her in her proper position. In another case a wife residing at a distant village at which he had not lived for several years, was, rightly or wrongly, accused of adultery. The chief, whose neglect of her had been matter of common talk and reprobation in the tribe, sent his executioner and killed her and her children. Immediately after that, he sent a messenger to inform us that he had married another wife—the twenty-sixth. When Mr Koyi remonstrated with him and said he thought he would be afraid to increase his troubles in that way, he laughingly replied, “I do it for peace; this sets them on each other and they leave me alone.”

Mombera had a dual character. He was at his best in the early part of the day, before he became intoxicated, and so by sun-rise people with cases to be judged went to see him. Then his affability and generous behaviour were pleasant to see, but toward afternoon when the beer he continually sipped began to act, his civility was at an end for the day and he was foulmouthed and quarrelsome. When he was sober lie delighted to play with his children, and manifested a very pleasing interest in them and their mothers, but when drunk he drove them from his presence with obscene curses. He had a great interest in old people, of whom he had always a number living in huts within the seraglio. He treated them with respect and provided for them from his own table. If he was shown anything new and strange he would generally have it shown to the old people, and while they knelt before him in due respect, one could notice with pleasure their trustful attitude and how he would heartily respond to any observation of wonder they might express. On one occasion he sent for my wife’s sewing-machine that the old people in his village, who were unable to walk over to the station, might see it at work before they died. He said they would have to report to the ancestral spirits how many new and wonderful things had now become known to the people. When I went to exhibit its working, from some cause or other it could not be got to sew at all. In vain I tried to put it right, and Mombera, who had sat looking on with unusual patience for some time, unceremoniously rose and walked away, saying, “You need not try. You told your wife where you were going.” As a polygamist ruler with many strings to hold in his hand, he believed that success is impossible if the wives are taken into confidence, and he supposed the same of us.

I have been a witness of some of the sweetest of life’s incidents in the behaviour of Mombera to children and old people, just as at other times he has exhibited some of the darkest phases of heathen corruptness. But he was neither cruel nor bloodthirsty as many chiefs of the Zulu tribes have been. He discountenanced the poison ordeal which was adopted from the Tonga slaves, believing rather in their own trial by boiling water, which at most only maimed the person and did not destroy life as the muave did. He was considered to be “too soft” by the more degraded and fiery dispositions, and had no delight in condemning to death. Only two instances of the death-penalty being inflicted by Mombera came under my own observation, during all the years 1 lived under him. In one case he caused a man to be put to death for cattle-stealing, after having before pardoned him for the same offence. He hanged him from a tree near our house as a warning to those who about that time were stealing from us, and the body hung for three days before the white ants ate the rope and let the hyenas get it. The other case was where a member of the royal family killed a slave, who had run away from him and put himself under the protection of another master. Mombera by his action was esteemed more highly by the slaves, and he knew what would conciliate those who were the great majority of the tribe.

But despotic rule is often the only kind suitable among uncivilised people. Until the people are governed by higher principles than those common among “nature peoples,” a despotic ruler is a divine institution required to keep in check greater evils. I have been told by thoughtful old men that under Zongandaba, the father of Mombera, the Ngoni were purer, more truthful and more honest. Fornication, adultery, stealing and witchcraft were punished by death, whereas, under Mombera, capital punishment rarely followed these offences. The custom of the Tonga and Tumbuka of settling such cases by payments of goods had been adopted, and immorality had increased, while the respect shown by children to their parents and seniors had decreased.


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