Saturday, November 6, 2010



  • Saturday, November 6, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
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  • From the book 'Totenism and Exogamy,' 1910.

    The population of the Nyasaland Protectorate includes many tribes belonging to different stocks and speaking different languages, but they are all members of the great Bantu family. Of the various stocks the Nyanja-speaking the Bantu peoples are the most numerous and important. They include many tribes, amongst whom are the Amananja, the Ambo, the Anyanja, and the Achewa. The Angoni, who give their name to Central Angoniland, a district of the Protectorate lying at the south-west end of Lake Nyasa, are a Zulu people, who having rebelled against the despot Chaka were defeated by him and fled northward, crossing the Zambesi in 1825 and settling in the country to the west of Lake Nyasa. They have intermarried with other tribes, particularly with the Achewa, so that they are now a mixed race; but the northern Angoni still speak the Zulu language, though with some dialectical modifications. At present the Angoni are not so much a separate people as a ruling caste dwelling in the midst of British Central African tribes whom their ancestors conquered.1 The natives of British Central Africa live chiefly by agriculture. The chase is a subsidiary pursuit, and except among the Wankonde, at the north end of Lake Nyasa, the keeping of cattle is an accident or an appanage of chieftainship. Among the principal crops raised by the natives are maize, millet, rice, beans, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, and tobacco. The arts of weaving, pottery, and basketry are practised by the people, and they are acquainted with the working of iron and copper. Their houses are for the most part circular in shape with walls of wattle and daub and thatched roofs.2

    The Nyanja-speaking natives of Central Angoniland are divided into exogamous and totemic clans, some with descent in the male and others in the female line.Generally children take their clan from their father, but in some cases from their mother. The name of the clan is nearly always that of an animal, but sometimes it is that of a plant or other thing.3 The following are some of the animal names of clans :—4

    Nguluwe, bush-pig.
    Ngondo, hartebeest.
    Nsamba, fish.
    Mabvu, wasp.
    Nkoma, coney.
    Duwe, zebra.
    Pofu, eland.
    Nyati, buffalo.
    Nyuchi, bee.
    Soko, baboon.

    Among the names of clans derived from plants or inanimate things are the following :—5

    Gumbo, water-melon.
    Manda, mushroom.
    Manzi, water.
    Mvula, rain.
    Minga, thorn.
    Churu, ant-hill.

    Among the clan names are many old words, which are longer used in common speech to designate the objects they formerly denoted. For instance, the old word for a zebra was duwe, which is still the name of the Zebra clan, but the modern word for a zebra is mbidzi. The old word for an eland was pofu, which is still the name of the Eland clan, but the modern word for an eland is nchefu. Again; the old word for a baboon was soko, which is still the name of the Baboon clan, but the modern word for a baboon is nyani6 It is possible that in these and similar cases the old names may have been disused and new ones substituted out of respect to the sacred animals ; and a like cause may perhaps explain seeming discrepancies in other totemic tribes, among whom the clan not unfrequently bears a different name from that of its totem.

    The natives of Central Angoniland generally shew a  regard for the animal, plant, or thing which gives its name  to their clan; in short, they respect their totems. A person of Angoni may not kill, eat, or destroy his totem; and if it is an animal, he may not wear its skin. For example, a man of the  Elephant clan was not supposed to benefit, even indirectly, by the barter of an elephant's tusks, though he might give the calico, beads, or whatever he got for them to his wives and friends. The taboo on eating the flesh of the totem animal is called kusala. If a person violates the taboo by eating, whether knowingly or not, of the meat, it is believed that his body will break out in spots, which is called kuwenga. The remedy for this eruption of the skin is to bathe the body in a decoction made from a bone of the animal, the eating of which caused the malady.7 Thus here again the totem furnishes a homoeopathic remedy by healing the harm it did.8

    Some of the tabooed objects or totems are not whole animals but only parts of them. Thus there is a clan called Moyo which means " life " or " heart "; and its tabooed object or totem is the heart of a goat. Again, there is another clan called Mpumulo, which means "nose," and the members of it may not eat the face and nose of an ox or cow.9 Such totems I have called split totems.10

    It is polite to address a person by his or her clan name; indeed in addressing a woman it is the clan name which is always used. But certain clan names of chiefs might not be spoken after dusk; any one who wished to address a chief in the dark had to use some other and common with their name, such as Phiri, the clan of the Hills. Among some objects of the clan names borne by chiefs are the following :-

    Maseko (a Zulu word). This was the clan name of the Angoni chiefs who settled in what is now Dedza district. Maseko in Chingoni (the Angoni language) means a pebble, also a kind of bird; but the tabooed objects, in other words the totems, of the clan are fish and elephant's flesh, fowls, and rhinoceros' flesh.

    Jele (a Zulu word, meaning a bangle). The tabooed object or totem of the clan is fish.

    Njobvu, the elephant, the name of the Elephant clan. The tabooed object is elephant's flesh.

    Phiri (a word of Achewa origin), the Hill clan. The tabooed object or totem of the clan is the baboon. The Achewa have a legend that all their people formerly bore this clan name of Phiri, till their chieftainess Nyangu called them all together and, in order to prevent the evils of close inter- close interbreeding, gave each family a new name, which was to descend to the children and children's children. In this tribe (the Achewa) children belong to the clan of their mother, not of their father. The reason alleged for the practice is that in the far past the chiefs were women, and so their children took their clan names from their mothers to mark their royal descent. This legend of the origin of totem clans is interesting, because, like similar Australian traditions, it points to the deliberate institution of exogamy as a means to prevent the marriage of near kin.11

    Both the Angoni and the Achewa believe in reincarnation. Some say that after death they turn into the thing from which they take their name, that is, into their totem, as their fathers and kinsfolk did before them : others affirm that they turn into other animals, not into their totems.12 Thus their theory partly confirms and partly disagrees with Dr. Theal's view that Bantu totemism rests on a belief in the transmigration of the souls of the dead into their totem animals.13 Connected with this belief in metempsychosis is a certain dance called Zinyau, which is danced to songs as animals, with a weird cadence all over the Angoniland plateau. It is always danced after a funeral on a moonless night or before the moon is up. The dancers are members of a secret society disguised as various animals. Women are allowed to be present at it. The intention of the spectacle seems to be to make the people think that the dancers are real animals, and that one of them is the dead man risen from the grave and reincarnated in animal shape. The secret society which furnishes the performers for this dance has a cryptic language and a password with a countersign. Candidates for admission to it in old days had to undergo a variety of ordeals, some of them revolting, some of them cruel, which sometimes ended fatally. Amongst other things the novice was set up on very high stilts. Intruders on the society were instantly killed.14

    No man may marry a woman who bears his own clan name, though she may be of another race and live in a distant country, for all members of the same clan are in the relation of brother and sister. In other words, the totem clans are strictly exogamous. The rule of exogamy appears to hold good among all the tribes, whether they trace descent in the male or in the female line. On the other hand, the rule of taboo as applied to the totem is seemingly unknown or ignored among others.15 Among the Achewa, Maternal as we have seen, children take their clan from their mother, not from their father ; and the same rule of exogamy with descent, maternal descent is observed by the Yaos, another tribe of British Central Africa.16 In this tribe the chieftainship as well as the clan descends in the female line; a chief is succeeded, not by his son, but by his sister's son.17 On the other hand, the Angoni apparently trace descent and transmit the chieftainship in the male line, following in these respects the Zulu custom.18 First cousins may marry each other provided that they are the children respectively of a brother and a sister, because in that case their totems will be different. For example, a man of the Zebra clan has a son and daughter who are both necessarily Zebras. The Zebra son marries a woman of another clan, but his children will be Zebras like himself, since among the Angoni the clan descends in the male line. But the children of his Zebra sister will not be Zebras, since she must marry a man of another clan, say the Eland clan, and her children will take their father's clan, not hers; if the father is an Eland, the children will be Elands too. Thus the Zebra brother and sister will have respectively Zebra and Eland children, and these first cousins will be free to marry each other, since they belong to two different totem clans. But first cousins who are children of two brothers may not marry each other, because they are necessarily of the same totem clan. For example, two Zebra brothers have a son and daughter respectively, but these first cousins may not marry each other because they are both Zebras like their fathers. First cousins who are children of two sisters may marry each other provided that their mothers married men of different clans, for in that case the, two cousins will have different totems. For example, if two Zebra sisters marry two Eland men, their children, who are first cousins, will all be Elands and therefore cannot marry each other, since
    they have all the same totem. But if one Zebra sister marries an Eland man, and the other Zebra sister marries an Elephant man, then the children of the two sisters will be Elands and Elephants respectively, and these first cousins may marry each other, since their totems are different. On the other hand, in tribes with exogamy and female descent, first cousins, the children of two sisters, may never marry each other because they must always be of the same totem ; but first cousins, the children of two brothers, may marry each other provided that their fathers married women of different clans, for in that case the two cousins will have different totems. First cousins, the children of a brother and a sister respectively, are as free to marry under a system of exogamy with female descent as under a system of exogamy with male descent, because in both cases the cousins have necessarily different totems.19

    A man's social position with regard to his wife's mother changes immediately after his marriage. The two avoid and his each on every occasion, and should they meet by chance they cover their faces and run away from each other. "All this," we are told, "is from some sense of shame and modesty which hardly finds a counterpart among civilized nations, and has, of course, nothing to do with the fact that the son-in-law has to perform various menial acts of service for his wife's mother and relations."20 Among the Anyanja and Yaos it is the universal custom for a man at marriage to go and build a house at his bride's home. The practice no doubt is connected with the rule that in these tribes the children belong to their mother's kin, not to their father's. "One of the new husband's first duties is to hoe a garden for his mother-in-law, though he is bound by the rules of propriety to avoid her to a certain extent. He must not eat in her presence nor see her eat, and there are various other restrictions, all of which come to an end when he has brought her the first grandchild, with a present. The same rules apply also to the father-in-law, and to the maternal uncles of both ; while the wife has to observe them with regard to her husband's parents, and their uncles."21

    These tribes appear to possess the classificatory system of relationship; for we are told that a man applies the name of father not only to his real father but to all his father's brothers ; and that similarly he applies the name of mother not only to his real mother but to all his mother's sisters. Further, there is no single word for "brother" or "sister" in general, but there are distinct words for "elder brother" and "younger brother," and similarly for "elder sister'' and "younger sister." There is a word which means "sister" when used by a brother, and "brother'' when used by a sister, but which is never applied to a person of the same sex as the speaker.22 All these are marks of the classificatory system of relationship.


    1. Sir H. H. Johnston, British Central Africa (London, 1897) ,  pp. 389-392; A. Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa (London, 1906), pp. 24 sqq., 208 sqq., 278 sqq.; R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja (London, 1907), p. viii.

    2. Sir H H Johnston, British Central Africa, pp 424 sqq.,  pp. 430 sqq., 435 sq., 457 sqq.; A Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa, pp. 176 sqq,

    3.R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, p.174.

    4.R. Sutherland Rattray, op. cit. p. 176.

    5. R. Sutherland Rattray, op. cit.

    6. R. Sutherland Rattray, op. cit. p.176

    7.R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, pp. 174 sq,

    8. See above, vol. i. p. 22.

    9. R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, p. 176

    10. See above, vol. i. p.10.

    11. R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and songs in Chinyanja, pp. 175 sq., 177.

    12. R. Sutherland Rattray, op. cit. p. 178.

    13. See above, pp. 388 sqq.

    14. R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and songs in Chinyanja, pp. 178 sq.

    15. R. Sutherland Rattray, op. cit. pp. 177, 202

    16. A. Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa, p. 252.

    17. Sir H H Johnston, British Central Africa, p. 471; A Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa, p. 254.

    18. A. Werner, op. cit. pp. 253, 258; R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, pp. 188 sq.

    19. R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja p.202. Compare A. Werne, The Natives of British Central Africa, pp. 252 sq/

    20. R. Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Stories and Songs in Chinyanja, p. 204. The Wankonde in British Central Africa "have that curious custom by which a man is practically forbidden to speak to or even look at his mother-in-law. This also obtains amongst the A-nyanja to some extent; yet here the son-in-law has to hoe his mother-in-law's garden and assist her in many ways" (Sir H H Johnston, British Central Africa, p. 415).

    21.A Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa, p. 132.

    22. A Werner, op. cit. p. 254.
     R. sgq., 435 sg., 453 sjg., 457 sgg. ; A.
    Sutherland Rattray, Some Folk-lore Vietnei, The Natives ofBritish Central
    Stories and Songs in Chinyanja Africa, pp. 176 sgg.


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