Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/March 1893/East Central African Customs I

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THE following account of a few of the customs common among the tribes of east central Africa, in the region of Lake Nyassa, has been gathered from many sources; most of the statements have been revised and corrected by missionaries and others who have, during the past twelve years, been resident in the lake region.

As early as 1586, Don Santos, writing of the natives of eastern Africa, inclines to the belief that they once were acquainted with true religion, and that they had degenerated to such a degree that it, and all idea of a former civilization, had been entirely lost. This opinion he based upon the existence among them of trial by ordeal, which he regarded as having its origin in Scripture, and that from this source they must have first obtained it. The worthy Portuguese, had he lived in our day, would hardly have attributed customs, dating perhaps thousands of years before the Exodus, to the Mosaic legislation. One fact he does record which is of deep interest, if his account can be fully relied upon, and that is, that near Teté, on the Zambezi, men and women were confined in regular pens like cattle, and slaughtered for food as required. These were prisoners taken in war, and who could not, there being a large number, be "used up at once."

Of all central African customs trial by ordeal, which is universal, is that which is most revolting to a European brought for the first time into contact with savage life. When a man is accused of any crime, as theft, arson, murder, witchcraft, or the like, evidence is brought against him in the way common throughout the whole continent. This, however, is never final. The accuser's witnesses swear to anything required of them without the slightest compunction of conscience, and as the prosecutor must produce his evidence first, the defendant's witnesses are ready to swear, and do swear, the opposite of all that has been said. Trial is invariably in open court, and nothing said by the witnesses for the prosecution can be concealed from those that are to follow. There are no affidavits, thus making contradiction at once simple and safe. If rebutting evidence were allowed, the most paltry trial would be interminable. For a witness to be called a liar is, in such a case, a compliment. It proves that his evidence told, and that he, by inference, is a very clever fellow. If the same man were accused of bewitching he would regard it as a foul libel and demand the poison bowl without an hour's delay.

To remedy the defects of trial in court, that by ordeal is adopted in all kinds of causes, both civil and criminal. As the case proceeds before the council, the accused at intervals demands the mwai, and this demand his friends, if they believe him innocent, persistently press. The accuser resists the demand as unnecessary, knowing that should the culprit, even if caught red-handed, recover, he will be placed in a difficult position. He will in that case have no claim to compensation for an injury, and may in turn be successfully sued for willfully seeking to destroy another man's reputation. The belief in the absolute certainty of trial by mwai is universal, and the beginning and end of reasoning is thus: "If he is guilty, he dies; if he does not die, should the stolen property be found on his person, he is not guilty; another put it there, or he was bewitched."

The life of an African properly begins at puberty. Then he is no longer a child, and discards both the work and amusements of boyhood. There is no great difference between the customs in central Africa and those in the south as regards infancy and childhood.[1] The seclusion of the mother, purification by the magician, sacrifice to ancestral spirits, wearing of charms to ward off evil and to promote growth and strength, are all customs with which we are familiar among the better known tribes bordering on the Cape Colony. In the lake region the rites of initiation into manhood do differ considerably, but as this is a subject which has not been very fully investigated, what follows is in a measure tentative. The rite of circumcision is general, and, though many observers trace this to Arab influence, there seems no sufficient warrant for the assumption. Few, if any, Arab habits have been universally adopted, and why this one rather than others? At circumcision it is customary to isolate the neophytes and treat them generally as is done by Zulus and Kaffirs, the close of the ceremonies being marked by dancing, feasting, and riot. The young men have arms put into their hands and are harangued by the elders, bards, and magicians. They are now men and men's work is to be theirs. Herding, hoeing, reaping, and all domestic duties in which they assisted their mothers, they have no longer any concern with. War, hunting, and hearing causes must now occupy their thoughts, for they are to take the place of the fathers, and on them will depend the defense of the tribe and the maintaining of its honor. They must defend their chief, avenge his wrongs, wage war at his word, and obey his commands if that should imply death; "a man can die but once," with which philosophy they are launched into the new life of full manhood.

Young women are initiated into the mysteries,[2] as the ceremonies are called, by rites and ceremonies nearly akin to intongane in the south, and are then taught, in actual fact and by experience, much that would be regarded as immoral and not to be named among "Western nations. The details of these ceremonies I have not been able to obtain and verify with that degree of accuracy that would justify publication, as it might tend to mislead and confuse. One thing is certain, that in the case of both young men and women separating into pairs with persons of the opposite sex is deemed essential. If this were neglected in the case of girls after the establishment of the menstrual function, they would die. There is a second ceremony when a woman is for the first time enceinte. Her friends gather and make preparations as for a marriage feast; her head is shaved; the matrons in attendance sing songs and give the neophyte much advice, finishing with a glorious revel at night.

Taking the people as the traveler meets with them, the first thing to be studied is village life and personal rights and liberties. From that we may conveniently advance to the study of tribal life and national institutions. When a Yao or Wanyasa leaves his home to form a new village, he wishes to strengthen his position by every means at his command. This he can do in several different ways. Free men may be induced to join him and form the nucleus of the proposed settlement; he may purchase slaves and many slave wives, or, if able, make a raid and capture slaves to do the work necessary during the initial stages. When the village is recognized by the chief, it becomes subject to the general laws of the territory. There is the same council, presided over by the new headman; the same intercourse between the headman and chief by special "messengers"—that is to say, confidential advisers; the same system of land distribution and tenure, with the yearly tribute, as in older settlements. Petty cases are tried by the headman, graver cases are reserved for the hearing of the council. The head of a village may, under African law, kill his slave,[3] but only a fool would do so, as he would simply impoverish himself by the value of his chattel in the open market. Besides, should a man kill a slave unjustly, he himself would "wither away and lose his eyesight." Domestic slaves have a quasi right to any property they may accumulate while they remain with the master under whom they gather it, but if sold the property remains the master's. Most Africans like to see their slaves become rich. "Are they not," say they, "our own children?" When the Fingoes left the Gcalekas, whose slaves they were, to come under British rule, they brought with them numerous droves of cattle which they were allowed to possess in the land of their captivity. A slave's wives and children belong to his master and may be sold at any time. A headman who is in debt[4] sells first his slaves, then his sisters, next his mother, and finally his free wives, after which he resembles the proverbial Highlander; there is nothing more of which he can be stripped.

Closely connected with personal rights and liberty is the law of inheritance.[5] A man's heir is his brother, the son of his mother, failing that, his sister's son; his own children are excluded. This, as will be easily understood, is to make perfectly sure, in a land where every married woman has a lover, that the heir has the family blood in his veins. The succession to the chieftainship is based on the same principle, which is curious, considering the terrible severity with which known cases of adultery, in the case of chiefs' wives, are punished. A man succeeds to his deceased relative's wives as well as to his property and rights; they are a part of the estate. And here it may be mentioned that wives are obtained by inheritance, by purchase as slaves, by presentation, or by raiding and theft. Generally one wife only is free. An infant a few days old may be bought and betrothed, or even an unborn child, conditionally of course. In the case of infant betrothal the suitor provides her with clothes, which is the token of his pledge.

At an African village the work is done chiefly by the women;[6] they hoe the fields, sow the seed, and reap the harvest. To them, too, falls all the labor of house-building, grinding corn, brewing beer, cooking, washing, and caring for almost all the material interests of the community. The men tend the cattle, hunt, go to war, and, curiously enough, do all the sewing required on their own and the women's garments. Neater tailors than Africans it would be impossible to find anywhere. By means of an awl and tendons from animals of the chase they can sew small squares of skin together so as almost to defy an expert to find a seam without looking at the reverse side, nor are they mean artists as regards cut and fit according to African notions. Whether they would satisfy those who wear only "tailor-made gowns," is a question which the ethnologist is not called upon to solve.

The African can not always remain at his own village; he may be called upon to undertake a journey on his own account, or at the behest of his chief, and in either case it is necessary to take precautions to insure success. There are places in Africa where three men can not be sent on a journey together for fear two of them may combine and sell the third. But that by the way. When a man has determined on a journey he must consult the oracle by means of divination. The methods most commonly employed are as follows: The magician takes a quantity of flour and lets it fall in a steady stream on a flat stone placed at the head of the traveler's bed. If it forms a perfect cone as it falls, the omen is good; if not, there is an end of the matter at that time and by means of the flour cone. Sacrifice must now be offered to propitiate the offended spirits. When the cone is perfect it is covered by an inverted pot and left for the night. In the morning the pot is removed and the cone examined; if it is still whole and in the exact state in which it was left when covered, there is nothing further to be done beyond presenting a thank-offering of rice, flour, or fowl to the ancestral spirits and set out on the journey. Should there be a falling of the cone, even a small slip down its side, it is a sign not to be disregarded, and the oracle, after propitiatory sacrifice, must once more be consulted. The flour cone is now abandoned. The magician takes a pot of beer which he pours out upon the ground. If it sinks in one spot the gods are propitious, but should it run along the ground their faces are averted in anger or grief.

Another common method of divination is by means of small stones, claws, teeth, bits of snake-skin, and other odds and ends which the magician keeps in a calabash or gourd, and which are shaken to be thrown as is done with dice. He examines the position in which the contents fall, and as claws, teeth, or stones are to right or left he gives his responses, always with Delphic ambiguity. It is not necessary to have a magician present in order to consult the oracle, though this is desirable. The recognized diviners sell bits of prepared root which travelers carry. These, three in number, are in cases of difficulty placed upon the ground, two side by side, and the third across those lying parallel. The owner, after placing them in position, retires, and after an interval of some hours returns to examine them and learn the response. If they are in the position in which he left them, the oracle is favorable; if not, the reverse.

But even after the responses have been favorable and the sacrifices and offerings made, the departure of the travelers may be delayed. Should the leader, during the first day's march, hurt his toe against root or stump, they must return and begin the process of divination de novo. A rabbit crossing the road they are following denotes the death of the leader should they persist in the enterprise. A certain species of snake found on the path bodes evil to the whole party. When fairly on the road they must observe certain time-honored customs. They must not use salt; if they did, and their wives were not behaving in their absence, the salt would act as a corrosive poison of the most virulent kind. Few Africans would take this risk.

The magician is in requisition in connection with every detail of life. In a case of illness an offering of flour is made to the ancestors. This is placed by the patient's pillow,[7] where the spirits come to regale themselves with its essence. If there is no improvement the magician is called, who may simply direct the patient to change his residence for a time and then take his departure. At other times he practices the art of cupping by means of an inverted horn, in which case he professes to "extract" the disease, as is done in the south, in form of bug or beetle. Counter-irritation, by means of incisions, into which ashes and pounded roots are well rubbed, is termed "killing" the disease. A charm may be given which the patient must wear as a means of cure and as a talisman against evil.

By far the most common method of cure is "smelling out" the person bewitching the patient by means of sorcery, and this is done both in cases of protracted illness and when a person dies suddenly.[8] The magician may simply "mark" the person who is causing the disease, who at once goes with a present to the sick man and a fee to the magician. It is, however, much more common to find the wizard put to death as a sacrifice,[9] and in this the custom differs from that observed in the south. There the culprit is always put to death as a criminal, and only after a tribal council has met and heard him "named" in the most formal manner. In central Africa the magician has the power of summary condemnation, when execution may follow immediately. The custom of human sacrifice accounts for the difference where, on the whole, the customs are the same, and regulated by the same usages. Any one may be accused of bewitching, and in the case of sudden death a traveler as readily as a resident. Dr. Elmslie, while traveling among the Angoni a year or two ago, came to a village where he halted for the night. He had three days of forest travel before he could reach the next settlement. The morning of his intended departure threatened rain, and his men, as always happens in such circumstances, were determined not to move. Again and again he tried to get them together, but without success. When he was about to give the case up as hopeless, a wailing and howling was set up in one of the houses and taken up by the villagers in chorus. His men came flying to their loads, which they picked up and struck into the path, adjuring him by all the gods they knew to follow instanter, as some one had died and they might be accused of bewitching. The doctor followed, nothing loath to get on the road so easily.

The magician, when answering questions, shakes his gourd and examines the claws, teeth, and pebbles it contains.[10] From these he receives his oracles, and according to their position his answers are satisfactory or the reverse, but generally shrewd advice if somewhat ambiguous. It is they who prepare war medicine and doctor soldiers for the field; they, too, prepare the poison bowl and administer it to those who are to be tried by that means. At births, deaths, and marriages they are in constant attendance, and, while the chief derives his revenue largely from voluntary gifts, the magicians receive fees which are rigidly exacted.—Journal of the Anthropological Institute.

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  1. The Yao, Makololo, Makuas, Machingas, Angoni, and many other tribes observe substantially the same customs at birth and during childhood.
  2. Wanyasa—south end Lake Nyassa ceremonies. Boys do not pass through them, but Yao, Makua, and Angoni boys do.
  3. Yao, Anyasa, Awisa, etc.
  4. Notably among the Yao.
  5. Yao, Malemya's people at Zomba, Machingas, and many others.
  6. This is universal.
  7. Yao, as observed by Rev. Duff Macdonald.
  8. Angoni, Notes by Dr. Elmslie.
  9. Rev. Duff Macdonald, Nyassa Region.
  10. Auyasa, Yao, Mauganga, Wanasomba, etc.