Friday, October 22, 2010



  • Friday, October 22, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
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  • By Margaret Read, Ngoni of Nyasaland (1956)

    Ngoni clans had a particular role in their political and social organization. These clans had certain characteristics which distinguished them from the clans of the local peoples, and which they had in common with the Nguni group of the South-eastern Bantu. The use of the clan name in address and in thanking for gifts, the strict exogamy in the clans, and the hierarchy of rank among the clans—these were all of southern origin. Mrs. Hoernle,1 writing of the social organization among the northern Nguni, said that the clan was called isibongo, 'a word referring more particularly to the name of the group'. The Ngoni spoke of their clan name as their cibongo, and they generally added 'that is my thanking name'. Dr. Kuper2  used the term clan for 'the furthest extension of kinsmen traced through the father or the mother'. She referred also to the sub-division of clans among the Swazi—a process of fission by which a
    section of a clan was known by a double name, so that the Nkosi clan became the Nkosi Gininza, the Nkosi Mamba, with other sub-divisions. These divisions eventually became recognized as separate clans, so that marriage could take place between them, and so that the heads of the sub-clans could achieve independence from the head of the original clan. It is possible that some development of this kind took place after the Ngoni left Natal for, as we shall see later in this chapter, there were among the Ngoni a number of clan names which they said emphatically were Swazi but which were not among those noted by Dr. Kuper3  or by Bryant.4 In tracing the early history of the Swazi Dr. Kuper5  distinguished between two periods: the first, when small patrilineal clans were migrating southwards, and the second, when rival clan heads became petty chiefs having non-clansmen among their subjects. At the beginning of their northward march Zwangendaba and Ngwana, in addition to being military leaders, were petty chiefs of this type, each including among his followers members of his own clan as well as others.

    The Swazi became a heterogeneous nation composed of people from over 70 clan descent groups, of which one-fifth were true Swazi, one- seventh were prior inhabitants of the territory, and the rest were migrants into the kingdom. The clan hierarchy which was part of the structure of the nation showed, as Dr. Kuper6  pointed out, 'some connexion between the rank of a clan and the period at which it was incorporated into the nation'. This, as we saw in Chapter I of Part I, was what took place in the Ngoni kingdoms. By the time they settled in Nyasaland, a hierarchical relationship had been built up between the clans based on the length of time they had formed part of the Ngoni kingdom. As the Swazi had their true Swazi, 'those found ahead', and late comers, so the Ngoni had their 'Swazi' clans, others from across the Zambesi, those who joined from this side, and the local peoples.

    Dr. Kuper7 summarized her description of the Swazi clan hierarchy by saying that it was 'neither precise nor static . . . a certain degree of mobility is recognized amongst the elite'. The Ngoni too had their own ways of adjusting a somewhat rigid system to suit their needs in spite of their recognition of the ranking of clans, and the fact that in the 1930's the kingdoms were ruled by an aristocracy. As among the Swazi, officials were appointed who did not belong to Swazi or trans-Zambesi clans. Much importance was attached, as also among the Swazi, to `marrying up' and a number of instances of this were recorded, particularly in the central kingdom. In such cases a man, when explaining who he was, often gave the name of his mother as well as that of his father in order to impress upon the inquirer that he came from Swazi stock on one side, though his clan name, being his father's, did not show it.

    Since some discussion of clans comes into every section of this book it will be useful to summarize here the main characteristics of the Ngoni clans in the two kingdoms. We shall be referring exclusively to the Swazi and trans-Zambesi clans, except when others are specifically mentioned.

    Each clan was primarily a group of people with a common name. The families bearing this name might be found throughout the Ngoni kingdoms and states, in the towns and elsewhere, as the census figures quoted in Chapter I, Part I show. Their kinship was recognized firstly through clan exogamy, and secondly through the fact that when Ngoni people met a fellow clansman, they greeted him with particular warmth and both individuals were prepared to render each other mutual service. I met a number of the younger educated Ngoni who set out on a journey in Nyasaland, or to Northern or Southern Rhodesia, with the express purpose of looking for fellow clansmen, getting hospitality from them, and inviting them to visit Nyasaland and receive return hospitality. I was present at one or two such meetings in Nyasaland between Ngoni from the two kingdoms and the conversation began by establishing what branch of the Moyo or Gama clan they belonged to, and where the head village was situated. Within each kingdom each clan had a head village, and the head of that village was the head of the clan. In most of the Swazi clans the head of the clan was acknowledged as a mulumuzana. This correlation between being head of a Swazi clan and being a mulumuzana was not invariable. Some informants said that alumuzana were appointed by the Paramount. Others said that if the ancestor of a Swazi clan was known by name to have crossed the Zambesi with Zwangendaba or Mputa then his descendant in the direct line was always a mulumuzana.

    It was the criterion of having a known ancestor and knowing the genealogy of the clan that was most widely accepted in acknowledging the head of a Swazi clan as mulumuzana. At the clan head village prayers were addressed to this ancestor, his cattle were sacrificed, and the names recited as far back as tradition and memory could recall. Later we shall see that there were said to be about 25 Swazi clans in the northern kingdom and 29 in the central. Among these about 15 in the northern and 12 in the central kingdom had head villages where the ancestor cult was performed. In the central kingdom several of the leading clans had their head villages in Portuguese territory, and therefore did not carry out the cult in the central kingdom.

    In the hierarchy of the clans the Swazi clans were the acknowledged leaders. In village and national life this leadership was accorded to the royal clans and the clans of the chiefs, and was the reason for the respect shown to alumuzana who had no direct political power. Only the heads of Swazi clans possessed izithokozo (honorific epithets) which commemorated events in the past history of the clan leaders. On all ceremonial occasions heads of Swazi clans, whether in national or in village affairs, took precedence over the rest when walking in procession, standing for dances, taking part in ritual, or sitting down at feasts. Certain forms of burial, such as the use of a sheep-skin, and placing the corpse on a shelf in the grave, were observed only for members of the Swazi clans.

    In arranging marriages, there was, in addition to strict exogamy within a clan, a prohibition on marriage between clans which had cibale (brotherhood) relations. In the central kingdom the royal clan, Maseko, had cibale with the Ngozo clan which provided the royal shadow, and with the Nzunga clan. The Nzunga and the Maseko clans shared the same taboos, notably elephant and fish. As well as prohibited marriages between certain clans, there were preferred marriages between certain others. In general there was a preference for marriage between the families of leading Swazi clans. In the northern kingdom the Nqumayo clan had a preference for marrying into the Thole, Nhlane, Maluleka and Pakati clans. It was alleged that formerly they could marry only into these clans, but in the 1930's exceptions were found in a number of villages.

    The following lists of the names of Swazi clans were collected from informants in the two kingdoms, who were questioned closely about which names should be included under the title of Swazi. This was the grouping claimed by the Ngoni in both kingdoms. They said emphatically 'These are Swazi clans.' The first set of names on each list, 17 in the northern kingdom and 12 in the central, occurs in the lists of clan names given by Kuper8  and by Bryant.9 Very few, however, were enumerated as names of actual Swazi clans either by Kuper or Bryant, and they related, in fact, to several tribal groups which were found in the early nineteenth century in Natal. The Ngoni made no attempt to separate these so-called Swazi clans into constituent tribal groups, as they did the Karanga, Tsonga and Venda clans. I have therefore accepted this classification of these clans and used the name of Swazi as it was used by the Ngoni.

    Swazi clans in the Ngoni kingdoms occuring in the lists of Kuper and Bryant

    Swazi clans not occurring in the lists of Kuper and Bryant
    Northern KingdomCentral Kingdom

    The Ngoni were, as I have said, emphatic that the names on this second list should be included among the Swazi clans. It was headed in the northern kingdom by the royal clan and in the central kingdom by one of the most honoured clans, and all the clan names were in fact held in great respect. There are three possible explanations for their non-occurrence in the Kuper and Bryant lists. One is that the clan name and the isitakazelo, the ceremonial or address name, may have been interchanged, and the original clan name forgotten. Another explanation may be that fission of the clans took place on the march, and as a result new clan names appeared. Both these were likely and may account for some of the omissions. The third reason may be that on the march and after settlement the Ngoni may have forgotten the correct pronunciation even of their famous clan names, and the anthropologist may have made mistakes in transcribing them.

    Reference was made earlier in the chapter to the fact that social mobility was found among the Ngoni aristocracy. One form in which this took place affected the position of individuals belonging to the royal clan. In the northern kingdom the chiefs as well as the Paramount all belonged to the royal clan, and descendants of the sons and grandsons of Zwangendaba and his brothers were found all over the kingdom. In the central kingdom, where none of the chiefs were of the royal clan, the descendants of Cidyawonga, the brother of Cikusi, were in the secession state under Chief Kacindamoto, and the children of the brothers of Cikusi and Gomani I were most of them living in the Portuguese Ngoni kingdom. Thus there were large numbers of the royal clan in the northern kingdom, some in the family groups of the chiefs, others living in their own or other villages; while in the central kingdom members of the royal clan were comparatively few in number and were excluded from all political power unless they were of the Paramount's immediate family. Members of other Swazi clans in the north felt they had to assert themselves against the dominance of the royal clan in social as well as political life. In the central kingdom it was the royal clan who asserted themselves socially because they had no political rights in the chiefdoms.

    There was a general opinion that individuals bearing the royal clan name who were not of the immediate family of the Paramount or, in the north, were not among his subordinate chiefs, ought not to trade on their name. This meant in effect expecting to get hospitality and other formal recognition when visiting other villages. As one informant said 'If they come to a village they like people to tremble and say "A chief has come".' They wanted to be recognized everywhere as makosana, children of chiefs. The popular resistance to these claims came from two sources. One was the general public who did not see why an ever- increasing number of people bearing the royal clan name should get free food and beer—gifts which they would not hesitate to give to pion came from the heads of the Swazi clans who saw their claims to recognition threatened by large numbers of these makosana. When such a person was announced a mulumuzana might comment to bystanders 'Who is this man? We do not know his father.' Then to save his face as well as that of the visitor, he would send a greeting to him and order beer to be supplied, while avoiding any elaborate form of entertainment. This subtle form of resistance to what were considered undue claims from lesser members of the royal clan was found everywhere.

    In both kingdoms the Paramounts and chiefs, especially after 1933, appointed as officials for the kingdom and for the royal village, members of Swazi clans, but also, and increasingly, members of cis-Zambesi and local clans. This practice brought together in the royal villages and in he chiefs' villages men of the ruling aristocracy and men of the lesser Tans, to share administrative responsibility, to assist on ceremonial occasions, and to take part on an equal footing in giving and receiving hospitality. This mingling on the official level was one of the reasons why marriages became more frequent between girls of Swazi clans and men of non-Swazi clans whose fathers had been promoted to official positions. The marriage of Paramount Gomani II's daughter to the son of his treasurer was an illustration of this. The daughters of families of Swazi clans were also sought in marriage by men of non-Swazi clans who, through their education, had got well-paid work in the Government or in commercial firms, and could therefore afford to give cattle lobola for the girls. These were two instances of the type of marrying people which in the 1930's was lessening the sharp division in social life Between Swazi and other clans. We shall see in Chapter IV, pp. 137, 14o) that Ngoni fathers of daughters married to non-Swazi clansmen found a way of keeping their married daughters, as well as their sons, in their villages, particularly in the central kingdom.

    Though the Ngoni clan system in the 1930's was, in Dr. Kuper's phrase, 'neither precise nor static', it was an integral part of Ngoni social organization. It was closely related on the one hand to the ruling aristocracy, and on the other to the social hierarchy. Both in the villages and in the national life of the kingdoms individuals belonging to Swazi clans played a leading part in social and ceremonial life, and carried on those distinctive Ngoni practices which their ancestors had brought with them from the south.


    1. Hoernle, A.W., 'Social organisation', in The Bantu-speaking Tribes of South Africa, p 80.

    2.Kuper, H. An African Aristocracy, p. 11.

    3. Op. cit., p. 11.

    4. Olden Times in Zululand and Natal, pp. 681-97.

    5. Kuper, H. op. cit., p. 11.

    6. Ibid. p. 113

    7. ibid. p. 233.

    8. op. cit. p. 233

    9. op. cit., pp. 681-97.

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