Wednesday, June 9, 2010



  • Wednesday, June 9, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
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  • By Margaret Read

    It is notably difficult to get people in so-called primitive communities to discuss concepts and ideas of an abstract nature, partly I think due to our peculiar patterns of thinking and the form in which we put our questions, partly to the fact that in African society there is a wide common field of philosophy and ethics which is so much taken for granted that it is rarely referred to.1 Generally the key to their ideas on abstract subjects is just the right word which suggests to them a train of thought, and that preciseterm one may stumble on by pure chance, especially if a great many synonyms and euphemisms are used, as among the Ngoni, in describing sexual behaviour.

    We have seen what were the main incentives and sanctions in their old morality, and the training in sexual behaviour which was designed to impress on individuals at successive stages of their growth the standards and demands of the community. Implicit in this training were certain ideas about the sex instinct which I can only indicate here, and which became clear by the finding of certain key terms which, when used on the right occasion, produced some of the abstract ideas which in ordinary conversation were seldom evident.

    In the first place the Ngoni recognized the sex instinct as une chose donnee. 'Is it we who know how to do these things ? We alone ? No, It is the one who made us.2 How could we know?' It was to them part of the nature of man, something which they found in themselves- in our terms, part of the biological equipment of human beings. Nevertheless, they recognized that it was not uniform either in its strength or in its expression. They noted that individuals differed in this respect and that one person would be filled with consuming desire3 and another be known as a gentle person.4 This latter quality they respected highly. When at the building of a new village two people were chosen to make a ritual 'beating of the bounds' and to cut the first tree, their choice was a young girl either immature, or just past puberty 'who is not always thinking things', and a man'who is not always snatching at things'.5 These were to them the ideal temperaments for maintaining peace and orderly living in the village.

    Reference has already been made to the statement that newly married men were not allowed to go to war. As among many other communities, the Ngoni required temporary abstention from sexual intercourse before undertaking any hazardous pursuit such as war or hunting. The reason they gave was that a person who was having normal sexual intercourse was ' hot' or dangerous, and one in a state of abstention was 'cold' or safe. They were perfectly clear that the man or woman who was 'cold' was not so by temperament but only because he or she was observing a ritual taboo which was requiredby society. Similarly, some one who was referred to as 'hot' on some particular occasion might also be a 'gentle one'.6

    The present confusion. The leading Ngoni of to-day,non-Christian and Christian alike,deplore the present situation as regards sexual morality. Their courts are crowded with cases of adultery and divorce and unlawful pregnancies; the peace of their villages is threatened by matrimonial disputes and quarrels;their young people are growing up without restraint or teaching. To describe the situation in detail would involve an analysis of present-day Ngoni society-too large a task to attempt here. We have therefore to admit a great confusion, and to ask its causes. The Ngoni sum up the causes in one word: Azungu. The advent of the Europeans caused such an upheaval in their political and social life that sexual morality, so intimately bound up with the needs of the community, was torn up by its roots. In this uprooting the following results of European contact have had directeffects, roughly in proportion to the order given here.

    1. The prohibition of tribal warfare involved the disbanding of the regiments. Hence cattle herding leading to military training ceased to be the' school' for youth. Thus not only was much of the essential training in self-control and discipline done away with but also the sanctions for sexual morality imposed by warfare, and the normal occupation of the young men.

    2. The substitution of Direct Rule by Europeans for Ngoni tribal rule took out of the hands of Ngoni chiefs the ultimate responsibility for order in the villages. Though this responsibility was still maintained up to a point in speaking their own cases, the chiefs could no longer claim nor exercise complete control over the lives of their subjects as formerly. They could not, for example,a dministert he death penalty as a punishment for adultery. They could not prevent the break-up of the large villages which meant a decreased central control.In short, the structure of the community was externally so much altered that the previous sanctions on sexual morality based on community life were no longer operative.

    3. The demands of the Europeans for labour and then for taxes led to an exodus of men from the villages, which to a great extent upset the balance of the sexes and the former regulation of marriage and family ties. Young men also grew up away from the control of their seniors, whom they gradually began to respect less as they found themselves with money and other forms of wealth which the elders did not possess.

    4. The advent of missions with their schools hastened on the process of alienating the younger generation from their elders. A new form of culture and knowledge which had no roots in the old tribal life began to grow up, and those who possessed this new 'wisdom' began to despise their seniors who did not. In some parts of the country giving lobola for a wife was forbidden by Church law, and to those under this law it involved some lessening of the father's authority in favour of the mother's relatives. The preaching of the Church on monogamy both added to the upset in the balance of the sexes, and by cutting out the system of inheriting of widows by a man's younger brothers left women unprovided for or put extra
    heavy burdens on non-Christians.

    5. The Europeans in general maintained an impartial attitude towards all tribes. Hence the Chewa living in Ngoni country began to regard themselves no longer as conquered people and slaves, but as potential equals. The Ngoni also began to moderate their attitude towards their former slaves, no longer looking down on their women as inferior wives and allowing some of their customs to creep in. Some weakening of the aristocratic tradition was inevitable, and with the fading of the former exclusive pride of race went also the incentive to keep to a more rigid moral code.


    1 This is well illustrated in their folk-tales and proverbs whose meaning is oftenfar from clear to the European, but which need no explanation to the African because they illustrate an accepted truth.

    2 Nkulunkulu-Mulungu.

    3 Ludzu, lit. thirst.

    4 umunthu ozikuzayo, munthu wodziletsa, lit. a person who restrains or checks himself. Ukukuza and kuletsa mean to check or prevent.

    5 'Things' in this context mean the satisfaction of the sexual instinct. This is an example of Ngoni use of euphemisms.

    6 Actual frigidity in our sense of the word they recognized and did not call'cold', but 'refusing to do these things'.


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