(A TRIBUTE TO MY GREAT NGONI TRIBE: THANKS TO MR. PETER MITUNDA FOR HELPING US APPRECIATE OUR TRIBES. CULTURE: IT MATTERS!)
By Richard Chirombo
When did Ngoni culture die? Is it when some of the tribe’s strongest members died at the beck and call of pure greed when, in that moment of temporary madness, they pounced on partially-cooked wild beans (locally known as Kalongonda) left by the Lhomwe in the latter’s fright for dear life, or the moment they abandoned their bows, arrows, and war-mongering and quickly adopted the traditions of the very tribes they conquered? For 98 year-old Donarta Maziya of Kauye Village in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Kamenyagwaza in Dedza, suggestions that Ngoni culture is dead are a fallacy: the eleven beauty marks marking the length and breadth of her wrinkled face being a mark of the invincibility of that culture. Just last year (2009), she lost her younger sister and mourned her for four months using the Ngoni sorrowful cry for women ‘Muyene wame muyene’. Soon, she takes that same path (to the grave), but is convinced that she will go in full Ngoni honours, moarned the Ngoni way; in fact, she is convinced that, to a large extent, inter-marriages and settlement among other tribes of Malawi has left Ngoni culture unscathed, and this is evident in such Ngoni strongholds as Ntcheu, Dedza and Mchinji in the Central region, Mzimba in the North and Bvumbwe, Thyolo, in the Southern region. Ngoni remnants pay strict observance to ceremonies signifying the progression of a child from one stage of life to another; stages still marked by colourful rites. A visit to T/A Bvumbwe’s court in Thyolo revealed that the Ngoni still attach strong meaning to birth, puberty, the post-puberty period, marriage, senility, death and ancestral worship, though contact with Western and Asian religions has drastically reduced their emotional attachment to their ancestors.
Birth is not the beginning of life; it is the continuation of Ngoni culture. This principle applies everywhere; whether it is among the Ngoni of Zungendaba in Kasungu, or Mputa Ngonis at Domwe in Dowa, in Ntcheu or Dedza1- the child is more than just another life, and deserves maximum attention and protection. This begins with the maternity hut, which is ‘fortified’ by herbal medicine to prevent witches from casting a bad spell on the mother, leading to still-birth2.Access to the hut is restricted to elderly women and community birth attendants (even the husband is denied entry), until after discharge of the umbilical cord, which marks the official completion of the labour process. A female child is given a small pillow filled with herbal medicine and charms, and attached to a string the child wears around the waist, while the male child is given a small herbal medicine-saturated pillow wore around the neck for protection from spells of bad luck, misfortune and disease. The mother is given advice on how best to take care of the child, and her growing role in the family and society. In cultures where bride pricing (dowry) is still valued, such as Mzimba in the Northern region3, the husband’s side reserves the right to name the child, while in areas where dowry is out of date- either because of intermarriages with other tribes or lack of resources1, members from the paternal and maternal side consult each other on what name to christen a new born4. The child is ready to face the world.
Puberty is the cross-roads of life. This is the most crucial time in the life of a Ngoni child, the time an individual progresses from fantasy to reality; in fact, Ngoni elders vouch that this is a time a child either makes or breaks in life, and that, because it is a defining moment, children be introduced to facets of culture in their entirety and wholeness5. The concoctions into responsible adulthood come in the forms of initiation, circumcision, advice, and introduction to basic Ngoni tools, including the arrow, small (thorn, because it was originally used for plucking out thorns lodged in the body) knife, axe, hoe and bow6. During initiation, the head of clan (mwinimbumba) invites elders (in case of boys) who gather in an initiation hut (often, one of the houses in the parents’ compound) and offer advice on wide-ranging issues. In the case of girls, the head of clan is merely informed by elderly women, who also gather in an initiation hut within the village and offer advice on life’s realities, including sex and relationships with members of the opposite sex. As for circumcision, the practice is not practiced among the Ngoni of Ntcheu, Dedza, Bvumbwe, Mzimba and Dowa, ostensibly because it has never been part of Ngoni culture (as traditional warriors) to circumcise the youth: what if enemies suddenly attack you?7 Generally, the words advice and initiation are used interchangeably, while circumcision is not regarded as Ngoni culture and is thus best dismissed.
If puberty introduces an individual to the ‘wholesome’ world7, then post-puberty activities determine the worthiness of an individual to remain a human being. Getting out of the initiation hut represents one’s readiness to face the world; a world where people sometimes cry (when a member of the family, distant relative or community dies), in which case the individual who has been accepted into the adult world is expected to play a contributory role according to established gender roles. For males, it means putting a hoe on the shoulder and heading for the grave yard to help others dig the final resting place. When burial has taken place, he is expected to quickly sweep the hoe over fire prepared for the task to ‘kill’ evil spirits that may cling to the grave-digging implement and ‘kill’ one more ‘innocent soul”8. Females have their roles, too, and these revolve around domestic chores like cooking, washing, fetching water and firewood, and comforting bereaved members of a family or clan. During times of cerebration, such as marriage, ceremonial beer, among others, females engage in their usual chores: cooking, fetching water, ululating, clapping hands for chiefs and other village elders, rearing children, nursing the sick, tendering crops, among others, while men are expected to become experts at beating the drum for such Ngoni dances as Ingoma, Ziwedewede (a jovial dance in Dedza and Ntcheu) and Mganda. It is during the post-puberty period that boys and girls are allocated their own small huts (called gowelo or mphala), located within their parents or guardians’ compound for loose monitoring of their behavior and sexual tendencies- for girls are advised to stay away from members of the opposite sex while, at the same time, being encouraged not to ‘keep their distance’ from their cousins (as these are treated as their husbands in districts such as Dedza, Thyolo, Dowa and Ntcheu. Thus sexual intercourse between cousins is indiscreetly sanctioned).
Marriage is the concrete curtain that separates men from boys. In other words, Ngoni tribesmen and women believe that real honour, derived from the complete enjoyment of privacy and the ability to look after other people, is attained after marriage, and this explains why three-quarters of current Ngoni chiefs are married, while those who are not married are either acting in that capacity, are widowed, or have been installed while pursuing further education (such as T/A Gomani of Ntcheu, where Swazi, a boy of less than 20 years, was installed last year after his father’s death)9. Otherwise, the bushy path towards marriage is paved by the same processes, namely: courting, engagement, marriage, child bearing (if possible) and child rearing. A Ngoni tribesman will not propose (ask if a woman of his heart will marry him) someone he has been courting (the way Westerners do); he proposes someone he either falls in love with at first sight, or has been observing for a time. That is real love, the Ngoni way, not the way Westerners get it all wrong: to propose your own woman is a weakness9. When a man finds a woman, and seeks her hand in marriage, he informs his uncle, who goes to the woman’s side to meet her uncle, after which engagement (which until recently meant marriage) preparations take place and, subsequently, marriage. In Mzimba, the children belong to the father’s side because of the tradition of dowry- which means that, in case the husband, or wife, dies, the children remain in the hands of their father’s relations; in Ntcheu, Mchinji, Dedza, Thyolo and Dowa, both sides discuss and decide on who takes care of the children- meaning, inheritance and adoption issues are mostly amicably settled. In cases of chieftaincy, the eldest son to the deceased chief’s wife (for Ngoni are by tradition polygamous people, though that is not common in the Central and Southern region) inherits the kingdom.
Ngonis neither die, pass away nor pass on. This belief has sustained the culture of burying important Ngoni figures, including chiefs and senior counselors, in a life-like position (principally, in a seated position)- a tradition adopted from Zululand (Kwazulu Natal) in South Africa and Swaziland, the original homes of the Ngoni. Ngoni people burry their leaders in a seated position so that they may ‘observe’ (actually, spy on) enemy armies, perpetuating the belief that Ngonis never die but live on to play watchful roles over the living. When suspicious deaths occur, some Ngonis still consult witch-doctors to establish the ‘real’ cause of the death. Among other rituals still observed is the practice of throwing dust into the grave of the deceased (this applies to children, specifically) to prevent the problem of nightmares as well as speeding up the process of recovering from shock associated with the death, apart from the process of mourning the departed personality (kukhuza maliro- where female relatives of the dead wake up as early as 4 O’clock in the morning to perform ceremonial mourning) for a period of between two to four months 10. Relatives of the deceased are also encouraged to rub medicated water in their faces to wash away bad spells that might have been cast by ‘evil-minded’ individuals wishing the family bad luck, after which the head of clan and other senior members of the family sit down to discuss the fate of children, wife (if the deceased is a husband) and property; issues such as education and medical care for children are also taken care of, with one of the senior relations allocated the responsibility11.
Old age (senility) is for women. A true Ngoni man will avoid two ‘womanly’ things: crying (though at funerals he screams ‘Mayi wawaye’; it is just a plastic cry because a real Ngoni man sheds no tears), and getting old. It must be noted that while it remains a fact that human beings reach a stage in life where their physical strength fails them, and they succumb to old age, what the Ngoni mean by claiming that men never get old applies to the mind’s abilities and experience; meaning, ageing Ngonis still maintain the will of a warrior and never lose their experiences and skills, accumulated through long days in the sun and many years of combat. This perception might have developed during their early years of war, combat, conquest, invasion and destruction of feeble tribes. However, the eventuality of old age has finally come to be accepted as normal, now that Ngonis have settled peacefully among other tribes, and tactics of warfare have changed with the advent of modern weaponry. Nevertheless, there are no specific rites attached to one’s passage into old age, though the accepted norm is for village elders or clan heads to take advantage of the death of a bread-winner, gather all relations over a gourdful of beer and remind them of the responsibility they have in taking care of ageing members- which generally means the provision of farm inputs and clothing. In Ntcheu, Dedza, Mchinji, Dowa, Thyolo and Mzimba, community members also take turns to assist the aged by organizing beer sessions (commonly referred to as mowa waudzu, mowa wamunda, mowa wa dzuwa, according to the purpose of the occasion: community members either contribute in cash, when they buy the beer, or in kind, when they provide the wanted materials like grass for thatching the house of an aged person, or supplying manual labour in the senile member’s garden). Old people have also established an enviable role for themselves in Ngoni society: they act as history and folklore tellers, advice givers, and custodians of culture with the effect that they rarely sleep alone in their huts as children (grandchildren) find a place for a night’s rest in their huts. Like all Malawian societies, however, ageing has its own problems, topping which being the fact that old people are often accused of practicing, or teaching children, witchcraft- an unfounded accusation that has occasioned into cases of victimization.
Ancestors are never barren. Even if individuals leave no children or property behind, they become rich, caring ‘guardian angels’ after their death, even endowed with the power to communicate with early ancestors who “sit on the rain clouds”12 and bring rains in times of drought; even if they were a paramount chief, they become voluntary watchmen, watching and warning the living of possible danger. If need be, the dead even pick up their war instruments and throw an arrow at invaders. To that end, dead people are regarded in high esteem. When a deceased individual appears to a close relation in a dream holding something (for instance, a curtain, or beckons with stretched hands), it is translated as a gesture of want. The individual who beheld the dream thus informs the head of the clan, and a party (accompanied by locally-brewed beer) is thrown with the aim of ‘settling’ the spirit of the deceased ‘down’ (locally known as Kugoneka mizimu pansi)13. Others also believe that when food falls down from a plate or an individual’s hands, it is a sign that ancestors’ spirits are hungry; members of the tribe are thus advised not to pick up, or gather, food pieces that have fallen down so that, when ants devour such food stuffs, it is widely regarded as an acceptance gesture by the spirits.
In the end, it is clear that various aspects of Ngoni culture remain intact. Though the Ngoni of Malawi have largely lost touch with their original language, they continue to value many aspects of their culture by still observing requisite rites during various stages of life. This is seen, to a large extent, during occasions marking the birth of children, puberty, marriage, senility, death and ancestral worship. Ngoni cultural displays, observed during the installation of chiefs and such events as Um’theto in Mzimba (Northern region), are a giant step towards maintaining crucial aspects of Ngoni culture, and stand to enrich Malawi’s cultural diversity.
Bvumbwe, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (4)
Ganya, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (12)
Kamenyagwaza, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (6)
Kanchindamoto, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (7)
Kanduku, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (5)
Kanjuli, Village Headman. In an interview. (10)
Kauye, Vilage Headman. In an interview. (2)
Kwataine, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (11)
M’mbelwa, Imkosi ya Makosi. In an interview. (3)
M’n’gona, Group Village Headman. In an interview. (13)
Mkanda, Traditional Authority. In an interview. (9)
Mtwalo, Imkosi ya Makosi. In an interview. (8)
Philip, K.,D,. (1955), Onani Angoni. Blantyre: McMillan Malawi Limited. Pp., 29-40 (1)
1. Kamwaza, H.,J., Senior Comprehensive History of Central Africa,(2007) Blantyre: Claim Publications
2. Philip, K., D., Onani Angoni, (1955, 1998). Blantyre: McMillan Malawi Limited
3. Phiri, D., D., From Nguni to Ngoni, (1982).Lilongwe: Likuni Publishing House
4. Shillington, K., History of Africa (Revised 2nd Edition), (2005). Blantyre: McMillan Education