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MBONA (sometimes also spelled MʾBona or Mʾbona) is the name of the patronal deity of a famous shrine near the township of Nsanje in the Republic of Malawi (southeastern Africa). Although he is usually referred to as a rain god, Mbona is also invoked on the occasion of locust plagues, floods, epidemic diseases, and other acute threats to the productive and reproductive capacities of the land and its population.

Mbona's is a territorial cult, which may be defined as a cult whose constituency is a territorial group identified by common occupation of a land area, so that membership, in the final instance, is a consequence of residence and not kinship or ethnic designation. The cult is supervised by local chiefs and headmen under the chairmanship of a high priest and a chief administrator. In addition to these officials, there is also a spirit medium, a man or woman who on occasion claims to be possessed by Mbona and who comments on a variety of urgent political issues while possessed. Formerly, the cult also maintained a spirit wife, a woman consecrated for life to Mbona's service, who was supposed to receive revelations from the deity in her dreams and was regularly consulted by chiefs and other important people. There no longer is a permanent spirit wife, but on ceremonial occasions her place is taken temporarily by a local woman. Although the oldest known written documents on the cult date only from the middle of the nineteenth century, it is much older, predating even the Portuguese penetration of the southeast African interior in the first half of the sixteenth century.

According to oral tradition, Mbona was a celebrated rainmaker who, on account of his great popularity, came into conflict with the secular and religious authorities of the day, who in the end had him killed. Following his death, the local populace is said to have erected a shrine to his name and thus to have initiated the cult. The story of Mbona's life and death is known in many versions, but all follow a common structure and can be reduced to three streams or clusters depending on whether the events of the narrative take place in a stateless setting, an emergent state, or a highly centralized kingdom. The mightier the state, the more Mbona is portrayed as a marginal person. Mbona's diminishing status therefore seems to symbolize the increasing subjection of the commonalty to the aristocracy at successive stages of state formation.

As stated before, there are no known written documents on the cult prior to the middle of the nineteenth century; nevertheless, certain names and events referred to in the Mbona legends are also found in Portuguese documents pertaining to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From a comparison between the legends and the historical texts it can be inferred, among other things, that the cult underwent major organizational and theological changes about 1600 and that, probably under Portuguese missionary influence, Mbona was attributed certain Christ-like traits. After this radical transformation, the cult gained its widest geographical acceptance and became one of the most influential religious organizations on the north bank of the Zambezi. In the twentieth century, however, its importance diminished to the extent that as of 1985 the cult had little more than local significance.


Discussions of various aspects of the Mbona cult can be found in essays I have contributed to several special collections. Among them are "The History and Political Role of the MʾBona Cult among the Mangʾanja," in The Historical Study of African Religion, edited by T. O. Ranger and Isaria N. Kimambo (Berkeley, Calif., 1972); "The Interaction of the MʾBona Cult and Christianity, 18591963," in Themes in the Christian History of Central Africa, edited by T. O. Ranger and John Weller (Berkeley, Calif., 1975); "Cult Idioms and the Dialectics of a Region," in Regional Cults, edited by R. P. Werbner (New York, 1977); "The Chisumphi and Mbona Cults in Malawi: A Comparative History," in Guardians of the Land, edited by J. Matthew Schoffeleers (Gwelo, 1978); and "Oral History and the Retrieval of the Distant Past: On the Use of Legendary Chronicles as Sources of Historical Information," in Theoretical Explorations in African Religion, edited by Wim van Binsbergen and J. Matthew Schoffeleers (London, 1984).

New Sources

Schoffeleers, J. Matthew. River of Blood: The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi c. a.d. 1600. Madison, Wis., 1992.

Schoffeleers, J. Matthew. Religion and the Dramatisation of Life: Spirit Beliefs and Rituals in Southern and Central Malawi. Blantyre, Malawi, 1997.

J. Matthew Schoffeleers (1987)

Revised Bibliography