Nyakyusa Religion

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NYAKYUSA RELIGION . The traditional religion of the Nyakyusa-speaking people and of the neighboring Ngonde (who speak a dialect of the same language) was closely observed from 1934 to 1938 and again in 1955. The Nyakyusa occupied the fertile Rungwe Valley of what is now Tanzania, 9º south longitude, 34º east latitude; the Ngonde occupied the adjoining plain in what is now Malawi. Together they numbered perhaps half a million. They were settled cultivators and herdsmen, rotating crops and sustaining banana groves with manure from the byres. Groups of thirty to fifty age mates, with their wives and young children, lived together in villages. The religion of this distinctive people was expressed in two cycles of rituals, one concerning families, the other chiefdoms and groups of chiefdoms. Celebration of these rituals involved acting out dramas that expressed the proper relationships among humans and between humanity and divinity; in essence, they were intended to both regulate human behavior and to mediate between human and divine realms.

There was little elaboration of dogma, though the family rituals were shaped by a conviction that kinsmen, living and dead, were inextricably bound together, by the definition of kinship and by marriage law. Communal rituals were shaped by a mythological charter concerning the coming of certain chiefly lineages which had brought fire, iron, and cattle to a people who had no chiefs, no iron, and no cattle, and who ate their food raw. Theological speculation was expressed through a general awareness of symbolisma "common symbolic language" of which poets speak. Fire was recognized as representing "lordship" and authority; "eating food raw" was the mark both of a witch and of a person without culture. A detailed interpretation of symbolism was provided by specialistspriests and doctors (both men and women) and by elderly people in general. The associations given here are not the product of guesswork, but rest on the statements given by participants in the rituals. In a rapidly changing and diverse society much of ancient symbolism may become a forgotten language.

The occasions for celebration of family rituals were death and birth, especially abnormal birth; maturity and marriage; and misfortune. The essence of each ritual was a purification, the participants washing and shaving with medicines; a "speaking out," for any individuals who came to the ritual with "anger in the heart" must admit that anger openly and cease to nurse any grudge against those with whom they celebrated; and a communion feast in which living and dead kin shared beer, the staple foods (which varied with altitude), and, at a funeral, beef. Each ritual implied a change in status for the chief participants: spouse, parent, sibling, and child, at a funeral; parents if twins were born, or the mother alone at an ordinary birth; a girl at first menstruation; and her groom as she moved from the confinement at puberty to marriage. But kinsmen also celebrated and were obliged to do so, the range being further in the father's than in the mother's line and varying with the type of ritual. The explicit reason given for celebrating was that the chief mourners, parents of twins, or nubile girl would go mad should the ritual be neglected, and indeed the "actions of a madman" were mimed in the death ritualmimed and rejectedfor the ritual was directed at ensuring acceptance of a new life, a new place in society for a distraught widow, a girl who had grown up, a young mother, or a man bereaved, married, or fearful as the father of twins. In every ritual the chief participants symbolically died and were reborn, and while in the world of the dead they were "brooded over" by the shades. This was something terrible, for the shades, though kinsmen, were numinous, and the awfulness of divinity oppressed humans, who sought to separate themselves from it.

Celebrations for a chiefdom were of various sorts. The first was the coronation ritual during which two heirs (for a chiefdom should split each generation) were secluded with the commoners chosen by the older generation to be their village headmen, instructed in their future duties, and treated with medicines to make them respectedmen of authority. At a given signal the young men burst out of the seclusion hut and rushed out to the pasturage, where each chief and his senior headman made fire by friction. All fires throughout the country had been extinguished, and each new fire had to be lit from that of the chief. Each of the heirs established authority in one half of the country and planted two trees and a stone commemorating his coronation and royal marriage. Land in the chiefdom was reallocated, with the older generation moving aside to make way for the younger. The old chief was expected to "die soon," for fertility in people, land, and cattle was believed to be dependent upon the vitality of the chief, and an old, ailing chief was unacceptable. He was smothered and buried beside the trees planted at his coronation.

The second sort of celebration for a chiefdom involved the slaughter of a cow and prayers offered to a former ruler in the sacred grove that had sprung up around his burial place. There no one might chop wood or cultivate, and, as a result, the vegetation in such a sacred place would eventually grow into a forest.

Third, a general purification was held at the break of the rains after the dry season or in national emergency. All the old ashes from homestead fires were thrown out, and grudges between people were openly admitted.

Regional celebrations concerning a group of chiefdoms were directed to a founding hero in his grove. Prayers for rain, fertility, and health for the whole region were then offered. The two greatest of the heroes, Lwembe and Kyungu, had living representatives who were thought to exercise power over rain and fertility, and they too were honored. Lwembe's grove contained a great python (a creature held to represent the hero) that was believed to lick Lwembe's priest, who spent a night alone in the grove, protected by a wicker cage.

The name of one founding hero, Kyala, to whom offerings were made in a cave, was used not only for the hero but also in the sense of "the lord," and it was used by the first missionaries (in 1891) to translate the Christian conception of God. As traditional Nyakyusa religion interacted with Christianity, the idea of a god wholly distinct from the heroes became more and more clear: In 1934 old men still spoke of Kyala "beneath" with the shades, but to most young mentraditional as well as Christianhe was "above" (kumwanya ), and "above" implied then "in the sky" rather than "on earth" (as opposed to beneath the earth).

The celebrations for Lwembe crossed language as well as political boundaries. Priests brought iron hoes and salt, commodities from the mountains to the east, as gifts to the shrine. People in the rich Rungwe Valley traded grain, pulses, and bananas for these commodities. Kyungu was sent iron hoes and ivory from the mountains surrounding the Ngonde Plain, and unlike Lwembe, he gradually developed secular power and became a chief with subordinate chiefs under him.

Besides celebrations for the shades of a family, chiefdom, or region, Nyakyusa speakers had a lively belief in witchcraft, a mystical power thought to be exercised by certain persons (for selfish purposes) to injure others. Witches were spoken of as greedy, envious, and as consumed with jealousy and anger against their neighbors. They killed men and cattle and caused grain to diminish and cows to dry up by reason of a "python in the belly" that worked evil. So real was this python in imagination that it was sought in autopsies, which were performed both to discover the mystical cause of death and to prove whether the dead person had been a witch.

Witchcraft was wholly evil, but a power akin to it was thought to be properly exercised by village headmen and others to protect a village against the attacks of witches. People known as abamanga ("the strong ones") were said to fight witches in dreams. Commonersthe ordinary peoplewere thought to punish an inhospitable chief or one who had given an unjust judgment in court, or any member of their village who was mean, inhospitable, too conspicuously successful, or who committed some breach of customary obligation such as neglecting a ward or insulting a father. The "breath of men"murmurs of outraged public opinionwas believed to fall on the miscreant and cause him or her to fall ill of a fever, pine away, or become paralyzed.

There were also "medicines" (imiti ), chiefly vegetable substances thought to be used for both good and evil ends: to kill or cure, to destroy or promote crops, to murder or to maintain constituted authority.

The moral aspect of religion was constantly stressed: A man who was good was protected by his shades, and his family, stock, and crops increased; a chief who loved and cherished his subjects and ancestors attracted followers; if the founding hero and his living representative were duly honored, the region would be blessed with gentle rain. The good person gave no cause for offense and hoped never to arouse the anger of a neighbor who was a witch or sorcerer. Evil was personified in witchcraft, but any sort of power might be misused. A father who cursed his son or daughter so that the child became sterile should forgive and bless the child when he or she begged pardon with an appropriate gift, even if the anger was justified. The angered father might say, "I forgive you now" and spit on the ground, and all the anger that was in him would come out like spit. Rituals had to be celebrated, correct in every detail, but if participants nursed anger in the heart no ritual could be efficacious. Anger was the root of misfortune.

Like other societies, Nyakyusa society has never been static. The coronation rituals and offerings on behalf of chiefs and regions explicitly celebrated a change that had once occurred: the coming of heroes who brought fire, iron, cattle, and the institution of chieftainship. This was pictured as a single event that had occurred ten generations back. Archaeologists are now tracing the spread of iron and of cattle in Africa, and the first hearths are being sought. Chieftainship, including the secular power of the Kyungu, is known to have spread within historical times. The myths therefore recall real events, but they telescope time. Events such as the domestication of fire and first forging of iron, separated perhaps by a million years, are fused with the coming of cattle and the institution of chieftainship as symbols of the beginning of civilized life.

From 1891 onward, with the coming of Christian missions, trade, and colonial rule, the pace of change accelerated greatly. By 1938, 16 percent of the population in the Rungwe Valley and more on the Ngonde Plain were professing Christians and had largely abandoned traditional rituals; by 1955 even those who did not profess Christianity had curtailed or abandoned some of the rituals, notably that on the birth of twins; and after the independence of Tanganyika in 1961 the institution of chieftainship was abolished in Rungwe Valley and coronation rituals lapsed.

Two trends are clear: first, a growing importance to most people of the idea of God (Kyala) distinct from shades and heroes, and of prayer and worship directed to him; second, a lessening of fear of contamination in death and birth. A sense of the awfulness of divinity and of biological processes in which divinity was manifest have decreased.

Celebration of rituals may be observed and accounts of dogma and myth recorded, but evidence of religious experience is difficult to document. Many people spoke of a sense of presence of the shades in dreams and waking moments, and if a wife or child were ill a man might go to his banana grove with his calabash cup at dusk and blow out water, expressing himself in love and charity with all, living and dead, and calling upon his shades for blessing; but repeated dreams of the dead were feared as an omen of death, and the period of seclusion during a ritual, when the participant dwelt with the shades, was felt to be deeply distasteful. Christian converts, familiar with the traditional patterns, asserted that they valued a sense of presence and communion with God in a different manner from any traditional communion with divinity. All were aware of the destructive power of evil within humans and sought to purge themselves and others of it.


Park, George K. "Kinga Priests: The Politics of Pestilence." In Political Anthropology, edited by Marc J. Swartz, Victor Turner, and Arthur Tuden, pp. 229237. Chicago, 1966. Compares Kinga with Nyakyusa priesthood.

Wilson, Monica. Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-Villages. London, 1951. An account of Nyakyusa and Ngonde people, particularly of age-villages and accusations of witchcraft.

Wilson, Monica. Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa. London, 1957.

Wilson, Monica. Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa. London, 1959. Descriptions of rituals and interpretations of their symbolism based on associations made by participants.

Wilson, Monica. For Men and Elders. London, 1977. Change among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde from 1875 to 1971, with particular reference to marriage and relationships between generations.

Monica Wilson (1987)