Saturday, September 18, 2010


Fetish worship among the Ngoni of Ntcheu and other Tribes

  • Saturday, September 18, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
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  • A letter from ALEXANDER HETHERWICK. The Blantyre Mission, British Central Africa. March 4th, 1903.

    I have to hand the Editor's letter, per Mr. Lovett, with inquiries regarding my note on Fetish-Worship in Central Africa, which he read before the Folk-Lore Society [10th December, 1902]. I reply to these queries in their order.

     1. [Are remote ancestors worshipped, or only the recently dead ?] 

    Worship is confined to recent ancestors almost entirely- generally to those of the generation immediately preceding. Among the Yaos and the Angoni, the chief or headman who has recently died, steps into the place occupied by his predecessor, and is worshipped in turn. The chief whose spirit hitherto was the object of worship is now for the most part neglected, and all homage is paid to the spirit of the man recently dead.

    For example : there is on the top of Mount Soche, three miles from Blantyre, the grave of an old Mang'anja chief called Kankomba. He was the chief of the country when the Yaos came into it in Livingstone's time and drove out the original Mang'anja owners. He died in his old village and was buried on the top of the hill where he lived. The incoming Yaos worshipped his spirit as the previous chief of the district. This they did till their own chief Kapeni died, when his successor left off making offerings to the old Kankomba and paid his worship to the recently dead Kapeni. This he will continue to do till he himself dies and becomes to his successor the next object of worship.

    Occasionally, however, one finds that some old chief may be remembered for more than one generation. This is especially the case if he should belong to a family which continues to have influence in the country and whose members, instead of joining in the worship of the recently dead chief, prefer to continue their offerings to their own old ancestor. Sometimes a dead chief is believed to have influence in the spirit world, and has been success- ful in securing a copious supply of rain or other benefit to the country. His spirit will continue to receive offerings for a much longer period than his less influential neighbours in the spirit world. This is the practice among the Yaos, the Angoni, the Mang'anja and the Anguru tribes who live in this part of Africa.

     2. [Were " the ancestors of Chikusi, the last chief of the Angoni, supposed to be located in " a particular bull, or in bulls generally ?] 

    When Chikusi's predecessor died, his spirit was located by Chikusi and his headmen in a bull, a particular bull, which was from that time set apart and thus considered sacred. The bull was chosen by the headmen and the spirit was by them enshrined in the animal. To this bull, or rather to the spirit that took up his abode in the bull, all the offerings of Chikusi and his headmen were made. If the bull died another was chosen and put into its place, and so on, till Chikusi himself died, when his spirit was located in an animal in the same way and the worship of his pre- decessor from that time forward ceased. N.B.-The animal in whom the spirit takes up his abode is fixed on by the headmen and the chief, and the spirit of the dead man is asked to accept the animal as his abode. 

    3. [Are the spirits of all the members of a particular tribe or family " supposed to be located " in the same species of animal ? Are the family named after it ? and does the species receive any particular honour on that account ?] 

    The chief Chikusi was honoured by being located in a bull. But a headman or smaller chief would have to be content with a goat or a fowl. Still lesser spirits are consigned to a basket, or to a fetish doll such as the one that was exhibited by Mr. Lovett. No respect is paid to the species of the animal in which the ancestral spirit is located, and the family never take its name. Even to the consecrated animal itself no special privileges are given, except that it is recognised as belonging to the spirits and is never killed for food. 

    4. [When you say that the spirits of the dead are the objects of supreme worshiz, do you mean that they are the principal objects or worship or that they form the natives' highest conception of Deity?] 

    Your last question I will try and answer as briefly as possible. When I said that "among the Bantu tribes the spirits of the dead are the objects of supreme worship," I meant that offerings are made to no others save the spirits of the dead. And these offerings among the Yaos and the Angoni are never made to the spirits in general but only to some individual spirit whose name is called during the ceremony.

    As to their belief in a Supreme Being, the subject is one for an article rather than a letter, and I fear I would only land myself and you in a mist if I tried to deal with it briefly. But I will allow myself to say that I believe, at any rate among the Yaos, with whose system of thought I am most familiar, the Spirit world in the aggregate occupies the place of the Deity, and that apart from the ancestral spirits there is no Supreme Being. But if this subject is of interest to you I may send you at another time a further note on it. For twenty years I have been trying to get inside the native mind on the matter and to see it as he sees it, and sometimes I feel I am as far from it as ever. Latterly I have set the natives themselves to fix their own original native beliefs on these points, and I think in this way there is greater chance of success.

    ALEXANDER HETHERWICK. The Blantyre Mission, British Central Africa. March 4th, 1903.

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