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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter VI. Meeting with the Head-men


A WEEK after our visit to Mombera a messenger arrived to say, that next day we were requested to come and repeat our words to the head-men of the tribe. We had heard various rumours in the interval, which had caused us no little anxiety as to what would be the result of the meeting. It was said that I had come with many loads of calico, beads, brass wire, and all the many things the Ngoni desire, and at the meeting I was to enrich the people and make them great. Great was the excitement of the people over this piece of news. How such an idea came to them takes us back to the first meeting of Dr Laws with them, when the subject of war was referred to. Dr Laws had said that by obeying “the Book” and giving up war and plunder, they would become richer and greater than they were. The spiritual sense in which the statement was made was not perceived by the Ngoni, and from that day many were the theories expressed of how “the Book” was to bring riches and greatness to them. The native lives only for the present and could not be expected to see the force of such a statement, but it served to emphasise the special work we, unlike trading Arabs who were the only foreigners they had seen, had come to do. We were “the people of the Book” and not for trade. The Book was talked of, near and far, and became a source of wonder and enquiry, so that even from the start, while no systematic mission work was allowed, not a day passed on which some information was not given and seed sown, which, as we now view our work, has borne good fruit. It was no uncommon occurrence to see a group of strangers from a distance, at the house with the request to be shown the Book,—they had heard of it and wished to see it.

On the morning of the great council of ama-duna we were in the chiefs cattle kraal at eight o’clock, and the whole day till three o’clock in the afternoon was occupied in talking. The cattle-fold is the centre of every Ngoni village. At the royal kraal, where we met, it was a circular space about eighty yards in diameter fenced with young trees. Around it in ever widening circles the huts of the people were built. The gate was at the side nearest the river, and at the opposite side was a smaller gate leading from the chiefs quarters, which were fenced off from the houses of the ordinary people. In the centre of the cattle-fold there was one of the huge ant-hills which are so numerous throughout Ngoniland.

Soon after our arrival, troops of warriors fully armed marched in and took up their situations in the enclosure. There were eventually several hundreds present, but perfect order and quiet were observed. When all the warriors had assembled, the chief councillor, Ng’onomo, and the others came in. There were eleven present that day. Accompanying the councillors was a large number of men of inferior rank but possessing certain powers in the tribe. The councillors seated themselves in a semi-circle near to us. After the usual delay each saluted the Mission party, and then Mr Koyi rose to open the business. They were told I had come desiring to stay among them, and to teach them the Word of God, and to heal the sick. Several of the councillors spoke, and all were very warm in their expressions of welcome and readiness to give permission to my staying. All went smoothly until Ng’onomo got to his feet. He began by performing a war-dance, which, being accompanied by the war-shouts of the warriors present, and as I could not understand its meaning, discomfited me not a little. I was reassured when I caught the broad smile on Sutherland’s face as he looked at me.

All the nice bits of native politeness and flattery had been said, and Ng’onomo, bent on the one question of war and conquest, desired to give the meeting a more practical turn. He finished his war-dance, and after recapitulating the speeches of the others, he plainly said that they were not to give up war; that they were accustomed from their infancy to take the things of others and could not see any reason why they should change their habits. He said, “The foundation of the kingdom is the spear and shield. God has given you the Book and cloth, and has given to us the shield and spear, and each must live in his own way.” To emphasise this utterance, he again danced. We had adopted the plan of replying to anything said when the speaker sat down. Mr Koyi replied, saying that the Book was given to all mankind, and that as we were all the children of God it teaches us that we ought to live in peace with each other. Here I may say that there is no word in Ngoni for “peace.” They now use an imported term,—their own expression which comes nearest the idea being “to visit one another.”

No new question was raised at that time, but two crucial matters with the Ngoni in those days were brought up. They had been brought up when Dr Laws met the council, and for many a day constituted posers for us. One was the flight of the Tonga to Bandawe, and the other was their desire to have the exclusive right to the presence of the white men in the country. Mr James Stewart in 1879 visited Mombera, and wrote thus—“The next day, Saturday, we reached Mombera; but when I enquired for the chief, I was told he was ‘not at home.’ It was soon evident that he was either designedly absent, or that he simply denied himself. We saw only inferior head-men, who expressed dissatisfaction that we had not come to settle among them, and that they did not understand why we should visit other chiefs before doing so. I have no doubt that they were sincere in their desire to make friendship with us; but an exclusive alliance would only suit them. We heard that they were tired of waiting for us, and intended now to take their own way, which, I fear, means war before long. They have lost both power and prestige within the last two years, and may now be resolving to regain both. I heard later that there are two parties in their council. Mombera and Chipatula and their head-men are desirous of peace and to invite us still to come among them, while Mtwaro and Mperembe wish to keep us at a distance, and to recover their power by force of arms.”

Ng’onomo asked what I was to do to bring back their former slaves, the Tonga, who had revolted and carried away some of their wives and children, their war-songs, and their war-dances. So long, he said, as we would not restore these, so long must they war to bring them and all other surrounding tribes into subjection, and if I would not in a peaceful way bring back the Tonga people, they would do so by war or drive them into the Lake. It required not a little caution to answer this statement, so as to still the excitement of the crowd of people present by whom such words were applauded. I directed Mr Koyi to say that no doubt they had many questions in which they were deeply interested, but as I had only just come among them, it was scarcely fair to demand of me a means of settling them before I had become acquainted with them and had learned their language.

My remarks had the effect of drawing a very sensible speech from an old councillor. He said I was only now like a child, unable to speak or walk, and as they did not call upon their children to go out to seek strayed cattle, or give judgments in the affairs of the tribe, so they should not call on me to settle their great matters while I yet eould not speak or walk. That statement turned the discussion into more favourable lines, and although the other question of leaving the Tonga and Bandawe and settling among the Ngoni exclusively was brought up, we were able to satisfy the people without exciting their jealousies, or agreeing to take sides with them against their runaway slaves. Ng’onomo afterwards returned to the war question, and endeavoured to show that their war raids on other people were not a bad thing. He said they were surrounded by people whom he called slaves, and that it was not their desire to kill them, but they endeavoured merely to chase them into the mountains, and when their food and flocks were secured, to say to them, “ Come down now and let us all live together.” It was conquest and not murder they pursued, as they could not bear the idea that any people should point the finger at them, and say, “X” (a click, expressive of contempt). He made an original proposal which was not less impossible for me to carry out. If we would agree to countenance one more raid on the people at the north end who were rich in cattle, and would pray to our God that they might be successful, they would, on their return, give us part of the spoil in cattle and wives, and would proclaim that the Book was to be accepted by the whole tribe. Here there was no place for parrying, and the reply was given emphatically enough that we were not the framers of the words in the Book, but merely the teachers charged to tell all men the words which were God’s and binding on us as well as on them, and that when God said, “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not kill,” we had no power to change the command, and could not in any way countenance their wars. Then Ng’onomo asked if we would shut the Book and not pray against them if they went out. I said I had come to teach these words and could not but do so.

An interesting statement was made by one old man. He had evidently watched the life and character of Koyi and Sutherland, and considered its bearing on the practical things of daily life. He began by saying they were glad I was a doctor, and hoped I had medicine to make Mombera live long. He went on to speak of other medicine which he thought we possessed of which they had no knowledge. He said, “We see you white people are not afraid to go about all over the country, and you settle among different tribes and become the friends of all. How is that?

You have medicine (natives think everything is done by medicine as charms) for quieting people’s hearts so that they do not kill you. We cannot do so. We are not even at peace among ourselves. We speak fair words to each other, but that is not how we feel. We have also noticed that your servants are ‘biddable,’ and when ordered to do anything at once do it. It is not so with ours. We tell a slave to do a thing, and he says, ‘Yes, master, I have heard’; but he does not do it unless he chooses. We hope you will give us medicine to make our slaves obedient, and to quiet our enemies.” A better opportunity there could not have been for giving them a little plain instruction, and for putting in a word for schools which had been proscribed since the Mission began. Koyi, whose speech was as clear and pointed as theirs, made good use of his opportunity. He told them we had no medicine in their sense, but the words of the Book were stronger than medicine when taken to heart. He quoted the golden rule, and said, “That’s the medicine for quieting enemies everywhere, and was that which made all tribes the friends of the white men.” Then as to making servants obedient, h.e said the Book had words for both servants and masters. It told servants to be obedient and honour their masters; and masters to be kind to and patient with their servants, and give them their due in all things. He added that our servants were obedient and happy because they were being taught the Word of God, and because they were not our slaves, but were paid their wages regularly. He advised them to try it among theirs, and it would have the same happy results. Then he attacked once more the stubbornness of the people in refusing to allow schools. He said in doing so they were refusing the medicine which they were crying out for. As a native only could, he ridiculed them, and by happy and forcible illustrations made them hesitate in the position they held in refusing to allow schools. He said, “You are like a sick man in distress, who sees others being cured and cries for the same medicine, but refuses it when offered.” One replied by saying, “If we give you our children to teach, your words will steal tbeir hearts; they will grow up cowards, and refuse to fight for us when we are old; and knowing more than we do, they will despise us.” That was met by saying that the Book had a command for children which they must allow to be good, viz., “Honour thy father and thy mother.” They would not be taught anything wrong, for all men are taught to fear God and honour the King. The school question was not discussed further; but no doubt some good was done, and the solution hastened by what had passed, although it was, as we shall see, two years after this ere liberty was given to open schools.

One other point it was necessary to refer to, as only the district immediately under Mombera was open to the Mission, so I requested leave to go about the country, as my desire was to help all. The districts of Mtwaro, Mperembe, and Maurau, brothers of the chief, were closed to us, not more by the hostility of these sub-chiefs, than by the jealousy of Mombera and his advisers, who desired to have the white men all to themselves, no doubt in view of the riches which were expected to come through them.

I was advised to stay with the others, as all were not favourable to our presence in the country; and while we would be guarded if in their midst, they could not tell what might happen if we went beyond Mombera’s own district into that of any of his brothers. This was not satisfactory, and as it was probably from jealousy, we pushed for liberty to go about. It was denied by the councillors, who repeated their reasons.

It was, however, clear in all that was said, that the real object of our presence among them was made manifest. However mistaken their ideas were as to the teaching of the Book, we were understood to be men with a message to be received, and they were honest enough to say they did not want it. No advance on previous liberties was made, but our position as neither wishing to bear rule over them nor to work for their overthrow, but to teach the Word of God, was made plain once more.

Then came the not very agreeable business of presenting the gift which we had taken for the councillors. There was considerable excitement visible generally, as each was presented with twelve yards of red cloth, a kind much valued by the head-men. As each had his portion presented to him there was an ominous silence for a time, and then a burst of derisive laughter. Some turned it over on the ground as if afraid to handle it. Some got up and measured it. One man took his and flung it among the crowd of warriors. One came over and said he did not want cloth. One only had the grace to thank me. They were reminded that we could not attempt to enrich them with goods, but had merely, according to their custom, brought “something in our hand” as a visible token of the friendship our hearts desired. One replied saying they saw we were not bent on enriching them, but it was good to remember that they had great hunger for various kinds of cloth and beads, and another day perhaps they would receive more. If I had come among them expecting the grace and politeness of civilization, instead of their proud indifference and sovereign contempt for the offering of friendship, my feelings would have suffered more than they did, but I was heartily glad when they rose up to go, and that the wild rumours of their expectations which we had heard for some days, found no more pronounced substantiation than their contemptuous treatment of what I thought was a sufficient gift for the purpose in view. The armed warriors, who appeared to have come as the bodyguard of the head-men, quietly filed out of the kraal and we were left alone.

Mombera was not present, and the councillors went to his hut to report to him the matters which had been talked over. Mr Koyi was called, and it seems the chief had enquired the reason why war dancing had been engaged in. He was angry at Ng’onomo and told him that the object of the gathering was not to discuss tribal matters with me, but to hear what I had to say. After a little the rest of us were called into the chiefs hut, where Ng’onomo and some of the other councillors were being regaled with beef and beer. The stiffness and formalities of the kraal meeting were absent, and no disappointment was visible. Mombera delivered a long speech bidding me welcome among them, and expressing joy that I was skilled in medicine. He himself was often sick, he said, and doubtless I had noticed that there were few old men present that day, the reason being that they were all dead, and if I could give them long life it would be good. He did not say how many never reached old age because they were killed in battle. If there were any doubts as to the full security of our position in the tribe, they were accentuated when Mombera repeated the warning of the councillors, that I should settle along with the others and not go into other districts. No doubt there was some desire to have exclusive possession of the white men, but it was noteworthy that although word had been sent to all the sub-chiefs to come to the palaver none had come, and none of their head-men were present.

With too great eagerness, perhaps, I pressed for permission to visit his brother, Mtwaro, at Ekwendeni, saying my desire was to become acquainted with all in the tribe and be of use to all. He and Mtwaro were not on friendly terms at that time, but as Mtwaro was heir-apparent it seemed advisable for the permanence of our work, in the event of Mombera’s death, to become known to Mtwaro and his head-men. Not since 1879, when Mr John Moir visited Mtwaro and had opened the way for others by friendly dealings with him, had anyone communicated with that sub-chief, and he had only once visited the Mission station. His armies were known to be out towards the Lake very frequently, and we all thought an attempt should be made to gain Mtwaro’s influence as Mombera’s had been gained.

After my statement had been interpreted to Mombera and he had consulted with some of those in the hut, he gave permission to visit Mtwaro and was thanked. He seemed to think that that would soften my heart, and so he plied his begging and his demands for cloth, beads, brass wire, big guns, little guns, gunpowder, dogs, bulls to improve his breed of cattle, needles, thread, and, above all, an iron box, with lock and key, in which to keep his valuables, which he said his wives and his councillors were in the habit of stealing. He said he would come over to see me when I could give him these things. It was hard to take all in good part and be at ease under his gaze over the beer-pot, and gracefully excuse our non-compliance with his overwhelming demands. Nothing but a desire to be a means of blessing to such a chief and tribe, would prove an inducement to live the life and experience which may be said to have begun that day. Forgetting the things not agreeable to flesh and blood, we soon after took our departure, feeling that some advance had been made in the work which we had come to take part in.

It was one advantage having to deal with a council rather than a single individual, and be continually subject to his capricious mind. As the Ngoni ha,d a settled council who were not without dignity and caution in their deliberations, it was evident they had reciprocated our words as far as they could, as, not being over-anxious to allow us all we asked, they were prepared to make good all they allowed. The occasion was very similar to that on which Augustine came to Ethelbert as the first papal missionary to Britain. When he sent word on landing that “ he had come with the best of all messages, and that if he would accept it he would ensure for himself an everlasting kingdom,” Ethelbert would not commit himself, but answered with caution. When at last a meeting was convened, and Augustine “had preached to him the Word of life,” as Bede says, Ethelbert replied, “Fair words and promises are these; but seeing they are new and doubtful, I cannot give in to them, and give up wliat I and all the English race have so long observed.” But unlike Augustine, who was accorded the privilege of bringing any one of the people over to the new faith, we were told that the chief and council would first have to be taught, and if they considered our message safe, they would give us full liberty to teach the people.

It may here be noted how different has been the introduction of the Mission to all the other peoples in Livingstonia. In all the other districts the missionaries were hailed as the friends and protectors of the people. All were subject to stronger tribes, by whom they were constantly harried, or were trying to maintain an independent existence surrounded by their enemies; hence they gladly welcomed the missionary, hoping that his presence would prove their safety from their enemies. In no single case did they welcome him on account of his message; and the trouble in those early days was that he was pestered for medicine, guns and powder to kill their enemies. The Missions in those districts had the preparatory work to do in making the people understand the reason for their presence, just as we had of another kind in Ngoniland. Through the faithful testimony of Messrs Koyi and Sutherland, the Ngoni had by the time of my arrival come to understand clearly what our message really was. They needed not our protection from their enemies, as they were masters of the country for many miles around; and, indeed, their pride would not have allowed them to think that in any way a white man or two could be of any profit to them. They knew our teaching would strike at their sins of uncleanness, lying, war, murder and stealing, and they were, unlike the so-called deceitful, vacillating African, at least honest in their treatment of our words. There was great good in having got their ear so far; and even distinct refusal was far better than ready compliance, to be as readily retracted when occasion arose. It is far better to have to deal with an opposing council of head-men with power than with a chief himself, even although he agrees at the time.

If before leaving home I received one bit of advice more often than any other from Dr Laws, who had experience, along with Mr James Stewart and Mr Koyi, of the dangerous and trying work of gaining an opening among the Ngoni, it was that I should proceed gently and push nothing beyond what was a wise point. On such occasions as the meeting referred to, the judgment and caution of Mr Koyi were invaluable, and he was of opinion that we should not endanger our position with Mombera at that stage, while not sure that we would be received by Mtwaro. We sent a reply that we had no desire to act contrary to the chief’s wishes in the matter, and that until he could send someone to introduce us to his brother, we would refrain from going. It must be remembered that we were merely in the country on sufferance at that time. We did not even own the site of our house, and were not by any means assured of a permanent residence among them, so that we would not have been acting wisely had we been more anxious to assert our independence, than to improve the, as yet, slight hold we had on Mombera and his councillors. There are three special qualifications necessary in every missionary, viz., grace, gumption, and go. Prayer and the exercise of it will ensure the first; where one may get the second, I know not, but the want of it is accountable for more failures in the foreign field than anything else; and the third, although invaluable, can only be right as the outcome of the former. To spend years among the Ngoni and be denied many liberties may, indeed, be an undignified position for a free-born Briton ; but mere questions of dignity ought not to trouble the slaves of Christ in the work to which they have been called. Little by little, as we shall see, our position was improved among the Ngoni, and the years of apparent unfruitfulness were necessary preparation for the intelligent acceptance of the Gospel.


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