Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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POISON ORDEAL ON A ROYAL SCALE (CHIKUSE AND MWAVI) 1880s

  • Tuesday, September 28, 2010
  • Samuel Kadyakale
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  • A chapter from the book, 'After Livingstone: An African Trade Romance' by Fred L.M Moir, founder and director of The African Lakes Corporation Ltd (Now known as Mandala Group of Companies whose headquarters was and is still in Blantyre, Malawi.)

    TRIAL by ordeal is practised by many kinds of primitive peoples. The common form among East Africans in our time was mwavi, bark poison. If a man or woman were accused of any crime or misdemeanour, protestations of innocence were usually accompanied by an offer to drink mwavi. Among natives near our stations it was often resorted to, usually at night, lest the white man should interfere and insist on investigations and a proper trial, with examination of witnesses.


    Some years after my first visit to Mombera I was an involuntary spectator of a wholesale administration of the poison ordeal at the village of Chikusi, the chief of another branch of the Angoni tribe, some fifty miles south of Lake Nyasa. Raids had been taking place as far east as the Shire, and even across it, and I therefore determined to go up and visit the chief with offers of trade and peace.

    When about fifteen miles from his village we had great difficulty in securing guides and porters. We hoped to get Palali, a big chief, to accompany us, but while he was friendly he would not appear. We appreciated his reluctance when we learned that in the previous year Nyamuka, a neighbouring friendly chief, who had introduced strangers and had given them a small tusk in rhad been called up by Chikusi on the pretext of having tried to procure medicine to bewitch him. I le had to drink mwavi and died. Palali had also to undergo the ordeal, but recovered.

    We sent on two village chiefs to announce our arrival. They returned to say there was mourning at headquarters that day, but we might come on the next. That evening we heard terrible stories of Chikusi's cruelty. He was specially hard on chiefs with the characteristic Zulu ring headdress, probably because he deemed them possible rivals for the chieftainship. Only the previous morning five such had been summoned by Chikusi and killed the death drums were still beating.

    Next day our guide took us within a mile of the village, pointed it out, and then decamped. We pitched our tents and waited. On the morrow five elderly headmen came to interview us and learn our business. We were invited to camp nearer the village, and many palavers ensued.

    On the afternoon of the second day a general helter-skelter of onlookers attracted our attention to the approach of a very portly dame, the king's mother, while from another set of houses emerged a very fat man—the chief. He squatted down about thirty yards from my tent ; the royal lady came a little nearer. Every one in sight, ourselves excepted, was now squatting in a most reverential manner. After a moment or two I sent one of my men to invite the king to my tent. This invitation Susi conveyed to the principal of half a dozen councillors, sitting twenty yards behind him. The latter crept forward to Chikusi, and, kneeling, whispered the invitation. In a moment he returned and by a movement of the lips signified the king had assented. But royalty must not hasten, so the chief sat another five minutes in solitary dignity.

    Then the queen-mother made a move towards us, and with five attendants pretty well filled the tent. Shortly after, his majesty entered, and was seated. No portable chair or couch would have stood his enormous weight, and we had prepared a special seat by rolling a hair mattress in a thick waterproof cover. From his appearance, and the age of his mother and his children, I guessed him to be about thirty-three years old. He was clad in a common blue calico sheet. While he watched some of the white man's curious ways, I got a snapshot photo of him, which showed his enormous size. By promising to get a shirt made for him I obtained his net waist measurement, which was four feet seven inches.

    Long palavers followed, and my presents were sent on next day. Friendship towards the whites was promised, no raids to be allowed east of the Upper Shire River, and he would be glad to see us back. There was much delay before he sent down a small tusk as a return present, and several days more were spent endeavouring to begin a trade in ivory.

    It was during this period that the mwavi drinking took place. An order had been sent round the country summoning all the chief's wives from the various villages and a large number of villagers to come to prove their innocence of irregularities. Within sight of our tents a booth for Chikusi and his headmen : thousands of natives thered in the open plain to witness the proceedings.

    We recognized the medicine man as one who had been sitting near our tent the day before. Now he was arrayed in an enormous headgear of I eathers, standing out fully twelve inches from his head and down to his waist behind. Round his shoulders he wore a long cape of tails of skin and fur. He had on a loin-cloth and the usual bracelets and ornaments of a headman, and two attendants carried bags made of goat-skins. Near him sat die king's mother and about forty of the chief's wives. A little later Chikusi arrived with twenty followers. Seeing us in the distance he sent for some sweets, for which he and his mother bad developed a great partiality.

    Six of the wives approached the medicine man and sat down. Chikusi was then asked by him if these women were to take the ordeal, and he referred them to his mother. She asked the women if they wanted to drink, and they all replied "Yes." Had they refused they would doubtless have been speared on the spot as confessedly guilty. The next step was to ask the king to give cloth that the medicine bags might be opened. He gave two yards. The bags were accordingly opened, and several pieces of bark three or four inches square were chosen by the pounder, and put into an ordinary wooden mortar.

    The women—two old and four young—were accused of having taken goods belonging to the chief, and also of adultery. Chikusi was asked if they would have to drink twice on the separate counts, but intimated that once was enough. All the time he was laughing and joking with his men. Some of the women who had fasted since the previous day were greatly agitated, and one was laughing so hysterically that water was brought and given to her.

    The pounder pounded the bark for several minutes, added a handful of water, and resumed pounding. He did this half a dozen times. Then the principal medicine man began to address the mwavi. In his hand he held a neat thin stick two feet long, surmounted by a small ball, and with this he gesticulated and struck the mortar. " If the women have taken their master's goods," he cried, " let the mwavi kill ; if not, let them go home to their villages." The words were repeated in regard to the second offence of infidelity. In his invocations he pranced about between the women and the mortar and worked himself into a frenzy.

    Adjuring the mwavi again to do its work, he fell back, and his assistants, taking a couple of drinking gourds that might hold half a pint, plunged them into the mixture and gave them to the women as they came up two by two. As the woman who had been so frightened took the stuff she called out to another in the crowd. " If I die, take the baskets of goods in my but and give them to the chief." He callously responded, " Let her die. I will not take the goods, they belong to the medicine man."

    Some drank eagerly, others falteringly, but drink they must. When all had partaken they were guided to a place in the plain where they were allowed to lie down and rest or wander about. Two of the six women died, and their bodies were left exposed, and parties of young men armed with spears and clubs immediately dashed off to kill their relatives and seize their property. That night the plain resounded with the yells of hyenas as they fought over the corpses.

    Contrary to my expectation, the hysterical woman, who willed her property to the chief, recovered. I saw her later ; a goat had been killed to celebrate her innocence. So far as I could judge, the mixture on this occasion was doled out impartially. If fear or excitement tended towards absorption of the poison and consequent death, this woman should have died. But these mwavi drinkings were doubtless attended by much knavery. If any man accumulated cattle or goods, those who envied him or feared him (often his chief) would get up a charge of witchcraft against him and his family. If any died, the relatives would be killed and the property annexed, while none would dare to cast doubt on the ordeal.

    Another day intervened, and in deference to our expostulations no drinking took place. Late at night some women, returning home after feeding the mwavi drinkers, passed my tent. On my expressing sympathy, their pent-up feelings broke forth, and in hurried whispers, watching to see there were no eavesdroppers, they inveighed against the frequency of these orgies and themwavi, but had vomited. This was said with pride, and showed their belief in the ordeal. Of course, if an innocent man drank and recovered, the mwavi " told true," and he believed in it all the more. If an innocent man died, all believed him guilty ; and, being dead, he could not contradict the allegation.

    Two days after the last ordeal I saw twenty- nine women—chief's wives, and twenty-three young men, his followers, being marshalled to the drinking- place. After them about seventy more wives, and a single man later on. In the afternoon the plain was covered with groups of those who had drunk and their sympathizers. It was a horrible spectacle. One young man died early, and another seemed far through. The latter had brought down a tusk for sale from the chief the previous day. We encouraged him to try and walk about, and were told later that he recovered.

    We heard that there was to be a drinking on a larger scale still, and refusing to remain, we left Chikusi, protesting against his cruel customs. He listened quietly, but would not delay the drinking, though he promised to keep his bargain about not raiding our neighbours ; and, so far as I remember, he kept his word. Shortly afterwards a branch of the Livingstonia Mission was opened in his country.

    As we struck our tent, we saw the plain full of new victims they came down in long lines. We estimated that there were two hundred in sight, and more were to come later on. It was with a feeling of deep thankfulness and relief that I and my little party of half a dozleft the scene of these horrible proceedings which we had been powerless to prevent.

    Thanks to the teaching of the Missions, the enlightenment of the natives, and latterly the laws of the British Administration, the mwavi ordeal is now a thing of the past. It may, at times, be practised surreptitiously, but any native has now access to British Courts of Justice, and such wholesale tyranny has disappeared, to return, we trust, no more.

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