Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Maseko Ngoni: Cattle As Security For Religious Ritual

  • Tuesday, June 14, 2011
  • Samuel Albert
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  • by Margaret Read, 1938.

    In this last respect which is least apparent to the European, as he seldom, if ever, sees ritual performed in times of sickness or of general calamity, such as drought, and the Ngoni are reluctant to tell outsiders about their religious rites. I was fortunate enough to be in a village where an important old lady was taken ill. The diviner was consulted announced that prayer must be made to the spirits of the great chiefs from whom the old lady was descended. In a deathly silence, in the dim light before dawn, a few men and a few cattle were gathered by the kraal. The prayer rang out to the spirits:

    O thou Gumede!
    O thou Mputa!
    O thou great chief!
    Here is your beast.
    That your child may be healed
    Look on what is yours.
    May you remain well1
    And your child recover.
    We do not know,
    We do not know.
    If you say that she will die,
    She is yours, this child of yours.
    It is your affair2
    As for us, we long that your child may recover
    If she dies, this child of yours,
    We can only speak your names
    We cry to you for her.

    Beasts and men faced south-east, in the direction whence the ancestors came. The chosen beast was watched while the prayer proceeded. It pawned the ground with its feet, and finally lay down with its back to the south east. The spirits had 'refused'; they had turned their backs, and would not help because they saw someone with a white face, of the tribe who snatched the ngoni cattle long ago3. But following day (when the white person was securely hidden the same ritual was followed, and during the prayer the beast urinated. That was a sign of the spirits being willing to accept a sacrifice. They  had answered through the cattle. the beast was killed with one thrust of a spear, falling as it dies facing south east. In the house of the sick woman where the ritual vessels to the spirits were kept meat was offered in those vessels to the spirits, and they were praised and asked to accept it.

    The meat and the sick woman were sprinkled with the juice of the gall bladder. That evening , when the spirits had "tasted" the meat, it was cooked and eaten by the invalid and her relatives and other important people.

    This rite which I saw and have described here in outline was closely parallel to other sacrifices in times of sickness and drought. The grouping  of a few great people by the kraal where everyone else stayed  silent in their houses and not even a dog barked nor donkey brayed; the signs of response or refusal by the spirits; the form of prayer; the killing , the offering of meat to the spirits, and the final eating; the use of ritual vessels whose presence in the hut4 signified the guardianship of the spirits-all of these are repeated in every form of supplication to the spirits.

    All the aristocratic Ngoni, are buried in the skin of a beast newly killed on the day of the burial. Thus the dead bodies are finally associated with a dead beast whose flesh is eaten by the mourners, and the spirits of the dead speak to their living descendants through the living cattle. This is the basis of the statement that cattle are and essential link between the dead and the living.

    Nearly a hundred years have passed since the Ngoni first came into the area after crossing the Zambezi and losing all their beasts save two in the tsetse fly belt5. But the horror of the time, when it seemed there would be no more cattle to be the ritual link between them and the Spirits, is vivid still, and old men speak of it with bated breath even though it is only tradition to them. Until they followed Sosola's doubtful lead6 and crossed the Lake to Songea they had to use sheep for ritual purposes. Inspite of the fact that sheep than and now play an important part in the Ngoni ritual, they were inferior to cattle. It was only the shadowy hope of renewing their herds if they trekked farther which tore them temporarily from Domwe, the country they had set their hearts on, and impelled them towards still further travels and hardships for another quarter century. For they were uneasy lest the Spirits to whom they they always said, 'Heres is your beast' would ignore  the silly sheep, and failing to see their cattle, might turn their backs on their descendants forever7.

    Herein, I think, lies the determined resistance of most of the Ngoni to take up land and settlements where no cattle can live. Other tribes may be able to invoke their ancestral spirits forund their graves or by some tree or mountain sacred to the Spirits. The Ngoni, perhaps because of their wanderings, have no such links with any particular places in the land and they declare the sites of graves are unimportant because they bear no relation to the habitation of the Spirits and the ritual for making prayers8. It is definitely by means of cattle that the ritual must be performed which can assure the help of the spirits. I have been in areas where the Ngoni have lost all their cattle through tsetsefly. There they show uneasiness and suscipicion, which can be partly accounted for by the loss of this security in religious ritual. Forced to use the despised goat, they descend to the level of the conquered tribes. Morever, the loss of security and consequent fear of witchcraft can be seen in their turning desperately to all kinds of magical resources scorned by the real Ngoni9.


    1. Muhlale kahle, the usual greeting.
    2. Indaba yakho
    3. Reference to the removal by the British troops of about half the herds after the Ngoni war of 1896.
    4. It was the privilege of the 'big woman' to 'guard the spirits' by keeping in their huts the ritual vessels for sacrifing. Thus these 'big houses' which were the huts for economic organisation were also the focus points for religious ritual
    5. This is the accepted tradition.
    6. Sosola , a Chewa chief, was anxious to move the Ngoni out of his area, so he sent them a parcel of dung, saying 'there is more where this came from.' Actually it was buffalo dung, but the Ngoni took the bait and crossed southern end of Lake Nyasa not finding any cattle, however, until they reached Songea.
    7. This is the substance of my conversation on this subject with accredited informants.
    8. These Ngoni cremate their paramount Chief and other notables, men and women, are buried on the edge of the cattle kraal.
    9. "For we know that these things [i.e. witchcraft and magic] cannot cause the life of man to fail nor can they preserve it but they are all worthless and therefore to be despised (From a Ngoni text on magic used by the conquered tribes)

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