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A Politics of Fear, a Religion of Blame

A Comparative Study of
Kinga, Pangwa, & Nyakyusa Peoples
in Southwestern Tanzania

George Park
© 2002

Communications: Dr. George Park: Prosit Anthropology

73 Lewis Point Rd, Charlottetown PE Canada C1E 1M6

Ph. (902) 368 2018 email


Introduction 1

<1> The Matter of Authority

Malatan politics 8
Protostates 15
Sanctions 17
Animism 18

<2> A Politics of Fear

Concessions to fear 20
Malatan specialties 25
Four Kinga-Nyakyusa analogues 33

(1) The client-ruler strategy 34

In Kinga context 34
In Nyakyusa context 37
(2) A tempered aristocracy 43
In Kinga context 44
In Nyakyusa context 47
(3) Bachelor warriors—late marriage 51
In Kinga context 53
In Nyakyusa context 57
(4) Amity over kinship 59
In Kinga context 63
In Nyakyusa context 64

<3> Sowetan protostates in regional context

Origins of the political archipelago 67
Acephalous communities in the regional culture 76
A premise of imparity 83

<4> A Religion of Blame

Honour’s underworld 94
Uses of a bush religion: the social contract 100
Uses of a bush religion: the politics of fertility 104
Uses of a bush religion: ancestors & neighbours 113
Uses of a bush religion: embodied danger 126
Imaginary theatre 137
The politics of dishonour 147
Witch and state 159

<5> Priests and their Princes
Histrionics of belief 168
Credos and credibility 177
Witchcraft, statecraft 180
Chiefly prince or princely chief? 187
Arena politics—’African despotism’ held in check? 200

<6> A Malatan Cosmos

The mischievous ‘medium’: an extended case 210
Sifting premises 226
Konde/Kinga cosmology in perspective 236
Kinga/Konde uses of ritual 242
The viability of incongruous frames 258

<7> Taboo and Law

The Everyman narrative 264
Picturing the Pangwa world 282
Performative and dramatic ritual 284
Intimacy and avoidance 286
Pangwa particulars: intimacy and avoidance 289
Konde particulars: intimacy and avoidance 298
Kinga particulars: intimacy and avoidance 306

<8> Given Terms of Existence

About the deepstuff in history 319
Deep divergency: Kinga/Pangwa 322
Pangwa particulars: life cycle and life style 324
(a) Sharing 326
(b) Sexuality 336
(c) Gender-peer relations 344
(d) Sanctioning rights 350

<9> Kinga/Konde: Logics of Political Ascendancy

What marriage implies 355
Logics of the age-village system 360
Logics of autonomy 367
A Profusion of Priests 376

<10> Implications
About regional cultures 380
How are taboos learnt? 381
Fear, anger, blame 388
Blame, taboo, and the problem of order 394
What grounds social identity? 400
Least polities 403
Logics of the Least Polity Rule 408
The management of intimacy 414

Source notes 431

References 451

Index [461]


A Politics of Amity

Kinga use surnames but don’t usually suppose a surname will

tell much about a stranger’s social identity. That is not because too
many individuals bear the same patronymic (although in the case of
the surname ‘Sanga’ they may seem to do) but because kinship by
itself says little about where a person stands on the social map.
Dialect and residential experience say more. But since loyalties are
more dependent on amity than kinship claims, questions of social
identity are easy to leave open-ended. In the colonial era (six
decades ending with Independence in 1961) schooling, office-holding,
and migrant labour brought in new career patterns. A man’s personal
history was often written in his clothes, speech, and bearing. But in
earlier times a man hoping to carry personal status credits with him
into a new community would have been dependent on making or
finding friends there. The important social boundaries marked
political loyalties, not local descent groups. While surnames were
passed on patrilineally by rule, they could sometimes be politically
bestowed or self-bestowed for political reasons. Nomenclature
distinguished ego’s kin by generation and gender, and cousin terms
were behaviourally coded. But beyond the immediate family, kin ties
scarcely organized Ego’s deepest loyalties. Exogamic rules were
bilateral. If you discovered you shared a great-grandparent with your
intended, your marriage plans were forfeit; and sexual dalliance
followed the same rule, making a heterosexual incest taboo and
exogamy one institution. In ‘kinship societies’ properly so-called, the
scope of an exogamic taboo generally goes well beyond local defini-
tions of incest. Where ‘incest’ is bilaterally extended, it goes well
beyond the sphere of intimacy.

A Kinga man in a new area may spend the better part of a

morning trying to establish a putative kinship link with a stranger,
but the satisfaction of success in that endeavour is not in knowing
what mutual privileges they may enjoy but in the mutual good will

established in making the effort. The talk is for making friends. From
four or five, after weaning, a child of either gender will be domiciled
with age peers, apart from his mother’s house. The little cabins built
and managed by the boys or girls of the hamlet were spatially set
apart in whatever manner the self-builders chose. At herdboy age
and wanting no further company but their goats, youths were only
expected to build (for safety) within hailing distance. In old times
and often enough more recently a father would spend only short
periods in middle life sharing the house he built for his wife, since
conjugality was for reproduction first and (quite often) last. The
family system as a whole was not focused on close emotional ties,
although dyadic bonding was stressed. An elder should love and
shelter a (same sex) younger sibling into early adulthood, and in later
childhood a girl will be as close to her mother as to her older sister or
best friend—though certainly less open.

Significantly, Kinga choose their own personal names and may

add or switch to new as they please. I say ‘significantly’ because the
custom, which I observed particularly in boys and young bachelor
men, accords with a tendency to relegate family origins to
background in the way reciprocal social perceptions are managed in
community life. Unlike the girls, boys eat from many fires. Personal
qualities, even though seldom sanctioned by open criticism, matter
very much and continue to matter throughout a person’s moral
career. I found boys and girls especially aware of that, both in
themselves and in friends. Blind solidarity, whether with kinsmen or
of the factional sort, was not in evidence. On the other hand, should
a man stand in peril and witnesses dare not intervene they would
know to call his next brother: not because kinship in itself would lend
him strength but because no dyadic relationship was thought to be
closer than the love of older and younger brothers.

Where amity is the basis of most important social ties, it

must be appropriately sanctioned. Both Kinga and their Nyakyusa-
speaking neighbours managed this through new political institu-
tions. They developed statelike systems of authority, establishing
fighting forces to protect their power, and effective court proce-
dures for handling internal trouble. To establish and fortify a position
of authority in an individualistic society, no Sanga or Nyakyusa
prince could afford to fraternize. This states the essence of their
political systems, which could marry a culture of egalitarianism with
a politics of fear. While his court must never fail to attract adven-
turous youth, and always be hospitable enough to keep them in
service as long as they were fit, a major court had to be disciplined
by the presence of revealed power—power dramatically revealed in
life-giving ritual and in the uniquely sacral person of an anointed

prince. The moral architecture of the court had to satisfy the human
equations entailed in a new pattern of careers for men, as well as all
the new requirements of subsistence and social reproduction which
the building of a protostate brought with it. Placed spatially
between the Pangwa, who remained stateless, and Nyakyusa
boasting a particularly vigorous and trickily balanced politics, the
Kinga are structural cousins of both. The circumstance invites a
regional study of social transformation. I know of no better case for
exploring the uses of kinship and amity in the elementary game of
building power from scratch.

The special character of Sanga protostate politics is hard to

grasp until one looks at the typical moral career of the
barracksman—the long bachelor period in a big-men’s circle at court,
eventual late marriage and re-rustication, the continuing salience of
amity on a par with near-kinship in the domestic constitution. The
Sanga recruitment system drew ambitious youths from the bush
communities of a local domain, trained them as ‘king’s men’ for the
whole of their young adulthood, then sent them back out, at last
with a wife, to homestead some new place in the bush. In this way it
became the task of a small sodality of court-educated settlers
(now bearing the earned surname Sanga) to dwell, clear land, take
charge of any bush hamlets in the area, and generally secure the
place for the crown. A lay apostolate was in this way kept busy
expanding Sanga rule; and it was this system of meritocratic circu-
lation which required putting amity ahead of kinship as a grass-
roots basis for social alignment among men. But extended bache-
lorhood for both genders carried with it the implication of same-sex
intimacy extending from late childhood to early middle age, since the
female career so far as it was tied into court life was paced to be
compatible with the male. The private sphere of life came so to be
shaped to suit the special demands of the public sphere. The
personal experience and outlook of Kinga men and women took on a
distinctive caste only partially matched by their neighbours.

The importance of amity for Kinga is only matched by the

Nyakyusa-speakers in the Great Rift Valley (below the eastern
escarpment from Kingaland) who segregate boys and young men off
from a parental village in bachelor settlements of their own. But
while the Nyakyusa ‘age village’ bears a clear family resemblance to
the Kinga youth pattern, the eventual career patterns of Nyakyusa
males and females are shaped to a different ethos in the public
sphere. The lifetime labour of a Kinga woman from early girlhood is in
cultivation and food preparation, whereas the Nyakyusa woman
leans heavily on boys and men for work in the fields as well as herding.
This Rift Valley division of labour suits a highly organized, centripetal

village system. There is no matching settlement in Kinga country.
The mountain slopes are hard to tame, supporting rather a
centrifugal pattern of scattered hamlets, and indeed a centrifugal
daily life. Women gather in the dawn along the paths by appointment,
heading to faraway gardens as if to devotions. Men in pursuit of
their multifarious errands greet or join friends more casually—the
whereabouts of a man are never easy to predict. In short, space is
organized not by clustering so much as by networking.

The concentrations of settlement are relatively small even at

the great central courts. Still, looking beyond the Nyakyusa claim
that all their princes originated in Kinga lines, what the two political
systems do share is much: there is a common pattern in the
structure of power, balanced as it is between secular-but-dangerous
princes (the ‘chiefs’ of colonial times) and unheroic priests. These
last are the people’s established intermediaries with those
punishing divinities—throughout this region mythically conceived as
belonging underground with the ancestors but as beings of extraor-
dinary scope and sweeping powers over nature—and royal ancestors
to whom political leaders and troubled commoner groups regularly or
irregularly turn with grave offerings. Looking at this in the frame of a
‘regional culture of rules’ the difference between the two systems is
at the level of corollaries not principles; but in a narrative frame the
business day of a typical Nyakyusa prince is quite different to the
one you might observe at a Sanga court. The show there was run by
the trustee group of courtiers at each capital, acting as a team co-
ordinated with respect to many particulars by an inner coterie of
priests. By contrast, Nyakyusa priests were chronically divided
against one another, and practical decisions of state were scarcely
theirs to take. In the crosstalk during shared rituals at Lubaga,
Kinga and Selya (Nyakyusa) priests were sensitive to differences of
setting—Kinga could remark on a prevalence of witches in their
hosts’ country—but found themselves deeply agreed on their
cosmic problematic.

Family resemblances: Kinga-Konde

Whereas the differences between Kinga and Pangwa can be

dealt with by adding bits here and taking away there (such that
Pangwa becomes Kinga sans Sanga, i.e. a ‘bush Kinga’ variant), Kinga-
Nyakyusa relatedness is deeply structural—to demonstrate it you
must turn to the kind of transformational logic which can deal with
‘family resemblance’. One example is what I call the ‘antipolitan ethic’,
the idea of conditional loyalty to the ruler and his (always personal)
authority. For Kinga it is the stuff of folklore to unload blame on the
ruler yet withhold any tolerance of mutiny—there is an unspoken

license to escape authority by moving on to a new place and new
loyalties. For the Nyakyusa of Selya the initial situation of a
malcontent is similar, and the outcome much the same. But
contrary to Kinga practice, the process can take the form of
banishment, as if it were unthinkable for an individual voluntarily to
leave his fellow villagers. Officially, he goes only to escape the stigma
of witchcraft. Implicitly (and only implicitly) that applies also to a
Kinga malcontent, but that difference in sanctions is not superficial.

Another family resemblance is to be found in the procedures

followed by the two societies in recruiting and training young men for
raiding and warfare. Kinga rely on wargames at court, Nyakyusa open
the real political arena to warlike competition among young
leadership candidates for cattle, wives, and followings—the
celebrated ubusooka or ‘Coming Out’ process which must precede and
eventually legitimate any princely succession. Every princely domain
in Nyakyusaland calls the ubusooka in its own time, inaugurating a
period of aggressive cattle raiding on its neighbours. Actual military
schooling activities are more comparable to the Sanga schools,
comprising initially far-flung raiding parties, later on the settling of
scores through token battles staged as lively confrontations in full
parade dress. It is the organizing ideas, the underlying plot not the
warlike action itself, which is peculiar to each cultural community.

When we turn to the character of a fully established prince the

case for a clear difference is harder to make. Anecdotal evidence
from the Western Sanga realm leaves no doubt a prince could be as
darkly charismatic as any in the documented history of the Sowetan
region. The two Kyelelos, father and son, who were both known to the
Germans, seem both to have earned the surname mkali ‘the cruel’ or
‘fierce’. They were magnetic leaders, quite in the best Nyakyusa
style, and believed to own the special supernatural gifts of a tyrant.
Informants can’t always tell you which Kyelelo was the hero of which
tale. But folklore in the same realm still recalled a princely court of a
contrary style, where the incumbent was secluded from ordinary
secular contacts, only partly for his safety from enemies. The
peculiar dangers pertaining to his status made him dangerous in a
godlike way to the mundane life around him. Lwembe, the divinity of
Sanga blood propitiated by Kinga and Nyakyusa in common, was
thought by Kinga to harbour just such powerful anger against his
descendants. How far Nyakyusa princes, in finally undergoing the
unnatural death of a ‘divine king’, shared in that quality and handed it
on to a successor remains an open question. The death of the High
Prince of the Kinga was of a distinctive kind, befitting the inherent
danger of his carnal presence. For a month his realm lay in a
leaderless, liminal state. But in both societies it was the priests

who conveyed powers proper to the throne from its last incumbent
to its new. In both cases though by quite different dramatic means
the political theatre of the priests reinformed their world of its one
source of stability.

These are the topics of this volume. It is hard to ignore

evidence that the two protostates above and below the Great Rift
escarpment developed interdependently over several centuries.
Doubtless, the two bush cultures in place in a.d. 1600 were more
distinct than the court cultures became, as they developed on
convergent paths later on. But the importance of amity vis à vis
kinship is deeply characteristic of both cultures and special to each. I
find the political lessons of Sanga courts achieve a more credible
time depth when they are linked to the Nyakyusa, and vice versa.
What is shared and what isn’t shared of myth and cosmology needs
to be discussed before much sense can be made of either political
world. The main evidence for the beliefs must be the snatches we
have of their ritual theatre, and those comprise rather less than a
single and coherent system for either of these two court-centred
peoples. Ultimately I think we must conclude that here, as so often
elsewhere, the cultural heritage we tend to group under the heading
of religion can be the most eclectic, imaginative, and prone to
contradiction of all the departments of a culture. But where religion
and politics (or read ‘social function’) do connive we have found an
order of social reality we can know something about, and we owe
ourselves the chance to explore it. At this remove in time the light I
can hope to throw will not dispel all mist. But I like what I’ve found. It
has more general significance than its local scale would suggest.

Kinga occupied high mountain slopes in the Southern Highlands

of Tanzania, tilling intensively and herding (mainly goats) in broken
country looking down from a mile higher on the northern shores of
Lake Malawi. As the particular boundaries drawn by outsiders on
modern political maps offer slight clues to native history or
demography, I find it convenient to draw ‘Kinga-centred’ lines of my
own. I refer to the country they share historically with a handful of
neighbour peoples in Tanzania (eastward in Iringa and westward in
Mbeya districts) as the Sowetan region. It forms a good part of
today’s Southwest Tanzania but, considered as a culture region,
must spill over the modern nation-state boundary to include the
Ngonde district of northern Malawi. This is because the people of
that district belong ethnically with Nyakyusa-speakers of Tanzania,
who share important religious observances with the Kinga, as well as
comparable political institutions. The shape of this book, with its
concentration on Nyakyusa and Pangwa comparisons, owes much to
the excellence of the ethnographies available on those two peoples.

As the coherent part of the Sowetan region I mean to explore
includes the three major ethnic groups hugging the north end of Lake
Malawi, and since for the project in hand this part-region wants a
name, I’ll call it the Malatan. Both these neological names properly
reflect place. But where these bearings are ‘modern and political’ the
rationale for this book is placing the Kinga where they belong in a
much older history. Kinga are linked politically westward with the
Nyakyusa-Ngonde communities, and historically eastward with
Pangwa-Bena-Hehe communities. This agrees as well with Kinga oral
testimony about migratory origins, which always posits a westward
movement and claims to have fostered chiefly rule down in the valley
and lakeshore by sending political emissaries that way to teach and
colonize—and aggrandize themselves beyond all expectation.

Everything about the traditions of a ‘westward movement’

takes its colour from heroic myths. But they hardly touch the real
history of population movements which brought Bantu settlers into
the high valleys of the Livingstone mountains in the first millennium
of the present era, and by quite another movement brought Bantu
into the Rift Valley. These two streams must have initiated the
histories of, respectively, the Kinga and Konde. The name Konde is the
broad tag Europeans first used to designate the whole ‘Nyakyusa-
speaking’ people. It can be taken retrospectively to identify the
acephalous population ancestral to today’s Ndali and Nyakyusa
speakers. We know little in detail about their culture. But for the
Kinga before the Sanga ascendancy I have the advantage of a
detailed ethnography of a ‘tribe without rulers’, the Pangwa, in the
highlands just bordering on the Kinga Eastern realm. In consideration
of the detailed affinities between the two peoples, I dare let the
Pangwa case stand-in for the earlier condition of the Kinga. Linguisti-
cally, Pangwa are to Kinga what Ndali are to Nyakyusa. The main
exercise consists in ‘subtracting’ Sanga chiefly institutions from
Kinga culture, then asking how well it compares with Pangwa.
Something more may come eventually from archeology, concerning
dates and artifact distributions. Today’s retrospect has to draw on
the subtle but voluminous evidence of ethnography, padded with bits
of early European documentation, and probabilistic reconstruction.

As I must assume few readers will have access to the two

monographs (in German) of Fr. Hans Stirnimann on the Pangwa, I have
taken the liberty of translating key passages. This enables me to
discuss (in outline, in Chapter Six) the putative ethnohistory of a
proto-Kinga community which evidently lived by such rules as Fr.
Stirnimann records, but which was politically transformed in a
fashion which the known facts now allow us to grasp in principle.


The Matter of Authority

Malatan politics

In the Malatan region, comprising a crescent around the north

shores of Lake Malawi, our best chance for a clear view of a preco-
lonial world is in Nyakyusa country. This people occupied, under a
hundred-odd ‘chiefs’, the floor of the Rift Valley. We have detailed
knowledge specifically of the chiefdoms in and adjacent to the Selya
area where Monica and Godfrey Wilson did their fieldwork in the
thirties, and where the earliest missionaries left some lively records
of contacts even before the German military government was
installed on the lakeshore. The Wilsons worked on the classic suppo-
sition that there was one Nyakyusa-Ngonde cultural community
which had lately been given certain local twists in response to special
pressures. In effect, they set aside the possibility that the
extended Nyakyusa language area could have developed through the
mutual assimilation of various bush cultures in situ, such that
cultural roots throughout the region might still feed on diverse

I make a somewhat contrary judgement to the Wilsons’. In this

book my premise is that protostate politics and assimilative social
policies account for the spread of one language over the diverse
natural settings of the Rift Valley country at the north end of Lake
Malawi. I give weight to the linguistic kinship between Nyakyusa and
the Bemba, a Western Bantu people of equivalent population
occupying a high savannah forest region west of the Rift. Here is
Audrey Richards on the people she studied in the 1930s:

The Bemba occupy the high plateau land of [Zambia] stretching

from Lake Bangweulu on the west to the [Malawi] border on the east,
their empire formerly including the territory between the four big
lakes, Tanganyika, Nyasa [Malawi], Bangweulu, and Mweru. The tribe
numbers now roughly 150,000, sparsely distributed over an area
roughly equivalent to the size of Scotland and Wales, giving a
population of about 3.95 per square mile. (1951:164)

The corresponding density for Nyakyusa-speakers was over
50 persons per square mile at the time referred to. It is my premise
that the linguistic connection dates to well before the storied
founding of royal lines in uNgonde and uNkyakyusa by migrants from
uKinga. Those traditions indicate an eastern rather than western
migration source and place the beginnings of state-building at about
a.d. 1600. But what is indicated prior to that was a long period of
eastward migratory movements into or through the Corridor. If only
a fraction of the evident Bemba-to-Nyakyusa rise in population
density had occurred by 1600, we have to suppose that quite new
forms of settlement and social organization would have been
prompted by the overall fertility of the Valley floor, and the
migratory traffic there. Monica Wilson properly paints the lands of
the Nyakyusa and their Valley neighbours as an important north-
south Corridor.‡

Since my focus will be on longterm political processes in the

region, and since the continuous development of political society in
the Corridor after 1600 is mirrored in uKinga and the Sowetan
political archipelago more generally, we are left with as much as four
centuries of what was at least in its later stages armed history. It
was not a history of conquest, though, but of sparring for
advantage among small local polities, acting increasingly within a
framework of alliance and mutual respect which allowed for the
practice of intensive agriculture and peaceful community life. The
Nyakyusa political system was idiosyncratic and obviously home-
grown, under conditions of ‘recruitment expansion’ comparable to
the well-known case of the Nuer in the wholly different ecological
setting of the southern Sudan. Success in recruiting cattle, women,
and fighting men to your ranks gives you an accelerating rate of
apparent expansion in a given ecozone, at the (demographic) expense
of your neighbours. From the viewpoint of anthropology, and specifi-
cally of ethnohistorical studies, the special significance of the
Malatan region is the scope it allows for understanding political
growth from egalitarian, acephalous political beginnings toward
statelike structures. We have this advantage because our infor-
mation begins while the regional story is in-process, allowing us close
to the springs of change.

For the Kinga, my fieldwork is supplemented in several

pertinent ways by official colonial documents and German
missionary reports from the first decade of occupation. Most of
this is too superficial or particularistic to build a clear picture of
precolonial politics, but it gave me eye-witness accounts which have
helped a fieldworker’s mind to form pictures of places and events of
a sort to stir recognition after half a century. In particular an

occasional remark about quarrels among local rulers in the Central
and Western realms confirms my suspicion that political life was
livelier than old men recalled—or than they were prepared to share. I
was not so fortunate as to have any of this documentary infor-
mation to work with in the field. Like most anthropologists of my
generation I entered and left with virtually no valid historical infor-
mation on the region beyond what I could get by ear. This volume
attempts, as my earlier volumes could not, to deal not just with oral
history but prehistory, reconstructing probable paths of change
from localist to translocal politics in three historically related

What makes this project feasible is the wealth of documented

evidence from uNyakyusa, most particularly the published work of
Monica Wilson. There is less direct sociological work to consult on
uNgonde, and although Owen Kalinga has dealt in detail with the oral
history I have no keen, close-up sense for the details of stylistic and
structural differences which may have arisen between the two major
Nyakyusa-speaking communities. Still, that the constitutional
difference is profound is clear and interesting in itself, particularly in
view of its rather recent (if precolonial) development. The fact that
something describable as a close-knit ‘theocracy’ arose from what
elsewhere in the language area remained a turbulent rivalry amongst
innumerable localized ‘chiefdoms’ forces us to recognize how near the
whole region had come to owning the basic institutions of

The Wilsons’ ethnography has been supplemented since my

field years (1961-3) by some historical and critical work, most
recently by Peter Weber’s fieldwork on their ritual life. This has helped
clarify conditions in the Malawi-Tanganyika Corridor in the several
centuries before the pax. We have skeletal reconstructions of the
major migrations comprising the great Bantu expansion which began
two millennia ago, re-peopling East, Central, and much of South
Africa. It was a hugely successful human expansion on a continental
scale entailing the sustained mobility and mixing of peoples, evoking
deep currents of cultural creativity. It is apparent that continuous
assimilation of diverse parties of Eastern (and some Western)
Bantu herders and cultivators occurred on-scene in the heart of the
Corridor region to form the proto-Nyakyusa community. The
evidence suggests ages of largely peaceful mixing by small groups,
some always on the move in search of space, wealth, and secure
alliances in an unusually verdant, uncrowded region. All this would be
taking place from Early Iron Age times, as the technics and practical
knowledge associated with the main cultigens and livestock in the
ecozone were being honed, and the land tamed to the new agriculture

of the Later Iron Age, after about a.d. 1400. By that date banana
cultivars of appropriate type would have been well established in the
Valley zones, inviting a growing population density, and out-migration
from this Rift Valley community would have slowed in favour of more
intensive agricultural practices. In all this, smithing would have
played its part, first with iron tools for clearing and turning soil, and
eventually with the iron weapons a developing chiefly system of
authority could put in the field.

Nyakyusa lacked direct access to iron but specialists in

reforging could turn worn tools into weapons; Kinga were the major
suppliers to some parts of uNyakyusa. They stood fairly well out of
harm’s way in their high mountains but were scarcely isolated. Trade
enjoyed important sanctions—we hear much of cattle rustling but
little of the hi-jacking of a tradesman’s goods.

It is likely the human and livestock numbers in the Rift Valley

increased steadily before and particularly during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, toward the density levels of historic times. As
this was happening I take it the distinctive institutions for which
Nyakyusa are known took form, since these seem to comprise the
developing structural basis for protostate politics, not the heritage
of an ancient Valley or small inmigrant culture. I further suppose the
unsettled, fissive, yet combinative nature of chiefly politics in the
region is a fundamental, not an accidental or dispensable feature of
the new politics. That is, rivalry is a prime virtue of the system.

The reasons for positing an ‘assimilative’ history at the north

end of Lake Malawi are several. There is the ‘corridor effect’ which
Monica Wilson first pointed out to us. Terrains, microclimates, and
major watercourses conspired to funnel migrations through this

This wild belt of country, stretching from high and healthy uplands
to the stifling lake-shore plains, therefore lies in the very heart of
Africa. It has been a meeting point of invasions from East and West,
and North and South. [1958: 1]

Probably the next-most important reason is the relative

importance of amity over kinship as a building strategy in Nyakyusa
social organization. This feature is shared with the Kinga and all their
neighbours in the highlands lying eastward, and to a greater or lesser
degree with the locally-organized peoples in highlands to the north
and west. A much stronger emphasis on kinship would suggest a
‘power migration’ pattern instead of the migratory drift I assume,
which has a fragmenting and recombinative effect. Associated with
amity is a minimal bilateral exogamic rule. Second cousins will not

marry if the relationship is known. Beyond that point, kinship is no
hindrance and bears no onus of mutual obligation. Only special patro-
nymics indicate a putative common descent, stemming presumably
from a small group of inmigrants uncounted generations back. The
exchange of wealth in cattle for brides is not associated here with
any definite pattern of exchange-alliance between local and kin
groups. The stabilization of lineage groupings promoted by social
contracts of such kind would have worked against the radically volun-
taristic trend of the Nyakyusa social system, which convenes the
scattered men of a lineage only for the funeral of a member and
disposition of the estate.

There are also softer indicators supporting an assimilative

history. Delayed marriage for men is facilitated by an easy tolerance
of homophilia and the instant friendships which tend to come with it.
The traditional rite of passage for girls at the approach of marriage
was employed to introduce a local group of boys and girls to an
omnidirectional heterosexual life by secluding them, away from
everyday contacts and duties, in the small isaka (the sleeping hut
traditionally shared by a local group of girls) for an extended period
of sacralized eroticism. Along with this celebration of not-for-keeps
healthy youthful narcissism goes a love of individual display, evident
in the theatrical war-pattern and eroticized dancing at funerals.
These and the much-remarked Nyakyusa love of personal cleanliness
and good housekeeping reflect in a similar way the omnidirectionality
expected of youth. Strict kinship societies can’t afford such

Peter Weber has shown that a cult centre’s (quasi-territorial)

sphere of influence served as a prime basis of political identity. That
is, congregation conferred attributes of citizenship. The connection
is that any inmigrant’s destiny, once he was settled in, was thought
to depend on the success of local rituals. It was not expected to be
his own ancestors but locally ascendant ghosts who might be
putting demands on him. So, in effect, descent is by-passed, and
assimilation involuntary. But that also means you won’t be long a
stranger wherever else you may move. And it means that the
heightened in-group ethic—Monica Wilson’s ‘good company’—of a
peer village of men is a mute sign of the frangibility of the peer bonds
it celebrates. The balance of amity and kinship is different for each of
the three Malatan cultures but in turn separates them as a group
from their neighbours. The license to move about in social space is a
fundamental attribute of personal existence here and an ethical
claim of voluntarism in a person’s political allegiance. This ethic is
thus anti-political, and will be referred to as ‘the antipolitan ethic’. ‡

Where a special value is put on amity, individual moral careers
are pursued within looser institutional limits and the limits which do
apply may not be grandfathered on the young to the extent one
might expect in a traditional African lifestyle. At the same time
there is a gender dimension. Freedom of association may be far more
tangible for males than females, particularly in uNyakyusa. The
political life and active concern with the definition of rights through
court procedure is, as so often elsewhere, mainly for men. Women
can usually rescue a good measure of personal freedom by developing
moral strategies which maximize the rewards of a ‘woman’s world’.
Monica Wilson has shown how difficult this can be for a Nyakyusa
matron, who must follow strict rules of submissiveness. I have found
the Kinga woman’s world an effective refuge. It is made possible by
an extended bachelorhood in the high style of youth, and after
marriage a triadic devotion to food production, sisterly amity, and
the extended nursing of infants (limiting pregnancies to four)
followed after midlife by domestic privacy. But again as so often the
world over, a discussion of political process can be tied up without
more than a whisper about a woman’s role in it. In this respect, I
admit Malatan politics is like any other. A man’s world joins a
woman’s at evening meal, in the conjugal act, and in the ungovi. This
last is the festive breaking of ground for new planting, in which a
women’s team vies with a men’s, and all join in a lively beer party in the
evening. These are the main episodes in which men and women
interact on a common footing. For the rest, their spheres intersect
without joining, and each man or woman must pursue the good in life

My analytic strategy is to use comparative gambits to achieve

what straight ethnographic description can’t. Perhaps what this
comes down to is that unless you have a clear notion as to what you
didn’t find—but might credibly have been expecting to—you don’t
know as much as you need about the activities you observed. One
dimension of your ignorance will be narrative: you have discovered an
interesting standard practice (x) but are unable to put it in a proba-
bilistic time series (xt1....xtn) to indicate its likely origin or future. The
experience is like a child’s who falls in love with a tune but can’t place
it in a genre. Critics earn their keep by writing liner notes to help
adults know what they have just heard. Another dimension will be
morphological, putting (x) in a line-up of parallel institutions found in
similar/dissimilar societies featuring what in our usual fuzzy logic we
regard as ‘the same institution’—e.g. polyandry, age-sets, rank, law,
sacrifice, and the like. Getting somewhere by working on a time
series will lead predictably to getting along on pertinent morpho-
logical series as well, and vice versa. In short, one is able to work one’s
way into a kind of historical depth and semiotic breadth of under-

standing one could not otherwise have reached. If this seems a mere
form of words now, I trust it will take on substance as I proceed.

What Fred Eggan called ‘controlled comparison within a region’

is key to studies of this kind. Where the comparative method is
under discussion, ‘going global’ is often a disservice. Soup may have
something to do with nuts but not much. Comparing peanuts to
peas and garbanzos, or soups to juices and infusions brings you
closer to the real world. The strategy is essentially qualitative, only
quantitative when a qualitative gain is in sight. I prefer this
distinction to the science/humanities dichotomy for quite a number
of reasons. One anthropologist who has managed being ‘global’
without ceasing to be ‘qualitative’ is Claude Levi-Strauss, but I have
no idea where to place his work on a ‘science—art’ continuum. A global
structuralist of quite another stripe was George Peter Murdock. At
once masterfully quantitative and singularly qualitative, he might be
scorned in both camps, hard and soft. My sense for these two
models is that, though they may too often have had to shorten
Procrustes to fit a bed they’ve made, you will get a better sense for
the real world of ethnological study by reading them both once than
you can expect from reading either one of them twice. But if you
want a sense for that world which will stay with you, you should turn
from reading ‘global’ stuff to the particulars of a fairly coherent
ethnographic region—as you turn in this case to the Malatan.‡

My special subject is the rise of political authority from a type

of social system which can manage well enough without it. Unless
you are willing to call a pecking order a political system, the field of
the political is scarcely attributable to any non-human world. It
appears gradually in the history of human kind, as ‘bossing around’ in
small groups and eventually as systematic control of collective
action in an effort to achieve ‘policy’. A large, well-controlled family is
an effective political community in that some members are sacri-
ficing private potentials to the benefit of ‘policy’—that is, the set of
rules which makes the family ‘well-controlled’. The traditional Kinga
family was hardly a political unit at all, though some dyads within it
would qualify. ‘Authority’ is always part of the mix, but not neces-
sarily a defining part: for instance, a mother and her young daughter
may work together remarkably well without any ‘bossy’ episodes.
Two boys may be enamoured and get on splendidly without evincing
inequality in making decisions for set acts. ‘Authority’ develops
where such inequality reigns openly, and ‘political authority’ begins
where bossing is a transitive phenomenon—A controls C through B.
Let us assume this is a nearly universal feature of groups of triadic
scope and more. But let us simply say our interest here is in big and

obvious examples, such as can be identified without resort to
splitting hairs.

I’ll be using the terms ‘protostate’, ‘sanctions’, and ‘animism’ in

special senses, discussed in the following sections.


A series of interesting models have been used by anthropolo-

gists to explore the formation and working of statelike African
polities. The best models treat tyrannical systems as artifacts of
contact with extra-territorial threat and draw attention to
‘pyramidal’ features in the way translocal structures may form in
face of what we may call perennial or ‘resident’ threat, distinguishing
that from traumatic encounter. Aidan Southall’s revised statement
on the ‘segmentary state’ is offered define the segmentary state as one in which the spheres of ritual
suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The former extends
widely toward a flexible, changing periphery. The latter is confined to the
central, core domain (1988: 52).

The Malatan examples discussed here are (excepting perhaps

the Ngonde) unfinished by this yardstick. Where their ‘segmentary’
structures are clear, the notion of ‘suzerainty’ suggests a hand-in-
glove relation between a central throne and a centralized priesthood.
This might be confirmed in one version of the Sanga system in
uKinga—that is, the four realms as seen from the Central court at
Ukwama. But it would be rejected with feeling by priest or prince
elsewhere. The makings of a ‘suzerainty’ are not there. Kinga priests
were a brotherhood, and a jealous one, with quite variant ideas as to
who might be primus inter pares. As for uNyakyusa, where princes
abound but there’s none to claim headship among them, the same
lack of fit to the ideal model is present in spades. As will appear, the
Kinga have compromised their animism more radically than the
Nyakyusa have, though the two societies share at least one estab-
lished ritual centre in Lubaga, the seat of Monica Wilson’s ‘divine king’

As for central direction among priests, the Kinga could claim

to have more of it than the Nyakyusa. The truth seems to be that
while neither group found agreement easy, Kinga were prepared to
work harder at it. The key to understanding either of these
protostates is that they know only one level of boundary. There is no
relationship of political incorporation. Each local domain (‘chiefdom’
of pedestrian scale), including what may be one of the acknowledged

prime domains, is politically self-conceived as an island to itself. In
uKinga it has been convenient for me as an observer to use the word
‘realm’ to mean the inclusive alliance of domains centred on a princely
ruler, as if it were thought of as a political unity. My reasoning is that
it was such in practice, if not in the language of discourse, since it is
unthinkable a satellite would fail to answer the call of a prince to
fight real external threat. But in ordinary speech there is no such
lumping. Each domain is known by its name, and terms like ‘satellite’
or even ‘central/ peripheral’ are not terms of native discourse.

The ties which create a Sanga realm are radially drawn between
one or more local rulers who agree to claim only the title and privi-
leges accorded an untwa (my ‘local ruler’ or ‘lord’) and a pivotal domain
whose ruler is accorded the title and privileges of the higher office,
unkuludeva (my ‘prince’ or ‘high prince’). In the retrospect of the
1960s there were ‘always’ four avakuludeva and hence in my terms
four realms, albeit one of them lately in a state of civil war. But Kinga
elders had no need for separate terms other than the untwa/
unkuludeva distinction of rank. This was a difference that made a
difference, and was jealously guarded by a ruling prince. Ambiguity
never arose because the political universe was small and familiar to
everyone. Every domain was called by a proper place name and every
ruler called by the personal name he had chosen for himself. This
applied even to Mwemutsi, though that name was hallowed by long
tradition for the ruler at Ukwama. But I would note that Kipole, the
woman ruling at Ukwama when the Germans came, was never to my
knowledge called ‘Mwemutsi’. As for the other princes, the name
most hallowed was Kyelelo. The eponymous figure was the regicide
surnamed ‘the Cruel’ who reigned in the West only a generation
before the pax. The name in that case was deliberately tied on
account of its strength to the office rather than the man.

Secular unity a realm does have, then, in plan, though repre-

senting the fact of unity directly would hurt the cherished sense of
autonomy at the heart of Sanga politics at the level of domain. The
fact of ritual primacy for one centring domain and prince is particu-
larly clear for the Central realm, where the old structure persisted
intact through colonial times, and the ritual claims of the Princely
court were there to be observed. The planting of locally ancient
grains was cooperatively controlled by priests for the realm as a
whole. First fruits in due time were born to the centre as beer. But
secular tribute was less regular. A few goats would be sent in from
time to time, the number and timing negotiated by shadow-boxing—
the necessary court-to-court communication was through the
peripatetic priests, who were masters of the kind of indirection
wanted for keeping the peace. Just as any local ruler must be jealous

of his warrior-following lest he lose too many to a rival, so must each
realm keep jealous watch on a satellite which might harbour inten-
tions either of challenge or secession. In uNyakyusa the same sort
of contingent autonomy, with the rivalry and indirection implied, was
openly sanctioned by constitutional principles.

All known human societies have a place, broad or narrow, for

amity as well as kinship. A few societies have reduced kinship to a
bare minimum, others manage to expand familism virtually to the
point of eliminating amity as a structural factor. What particularly
characterizes the Malatan cultures is an easy balance between kith
and kin relations, allowing something close to a maximum scope for
voluntarism. The sexual angle would be hard to miss, at least for
males, as homophilia is the normative initial orientation for both
Kinga and Nyakyusa boys. Perhaps less obvious is the connection
between easy friendships and high morale in youth—again, particu-
larly where the bachelor life, sweetened by unproblematic sex
relations, extends well into adulthood. Aren’t friendships everywhere
easily made in youth? But friendship unconfirmed over time decays
as kinship does not. Young men confronting new peers at a funeral in
uNyakyusa were fractious not friendly. Older men in uKinga feared
the envy of erstwhile friends. But to the extent that a highly struc-
tured kinship system makes for rigid loyalties it makes against a
universalistic politics. Amity allows the more flexibility, and the
Malatan protostates can be seen to optimize its advantages.


A distinctive feature of human societies is an explicit set of

rules for right behaviour. The rules are in any case supported by a
combination of three sorts of sanction, but there will be uniqueness
in the balance found. I call the three types transactional, mechanical,
and authoritative. Durkheim long ago tried to express the contrast
between the traditional microcultures ethnographers were beginning
to study, as against moderns, by asking how rules are sanctioned in
each case. I think he correctly saw that leaderless societies relied on
‘mechanical’ sanctions: control is diffuse (everyone sanctioning
everyone else) and so in effect agentless. It is a mechanical system
because it runs itself without ‘human intervention’. Malinowski, with
the benefit of personal field experience, soon added what he called
‘reciprocity’: if you don’t cheat me I’ll deal with you again. Further
fieldwork enlarged this idea. Many anthropologists encountered the
occasional use of violence in the enforcement of rights—breaking the
peace to restore the peace—in what ordinarily seemed a well-
ordered pattern of life. This is ‘transactional’ sanctioning: it is

neither ‘diffuse and mechanical’ nor top-down. The main agent is the
party which has been victimized, and the sanctions a man and his
family or friends may impose can look like revenge. It works for
restoring the peace if and only if people generally regard it as
justified action. That is, the new peace rests again on mechanical
sanctioning. But this is the peace of a broadened circle of friends, a
pedestrian community where everyone is known, if only at second
hand, to everyone else and knows how to put in a claim for redress of
a wrong. When outsiders to such a circle are involved in private
conflict with members, and a resort to force spoils the peace
between two communities, the eventual solution may be a resort to
some sort of oracular or otherwise ritually sanctioned referee of
claims. Anthropologists will think of the ‘leopardskin chiefs’ of the
Nuer of the southern Sudan, who were certainly not quite ‘chiefs’,
but also not quite priests. But there the variations are many, and as
trouble cases accumulate there will be a strain toward reorgani-
zation. A new beginning then might lead to the constitution of
political authorities and the pre-legitimation of unilateral sanctions.


‘Animism’ is one of those terms which eventually has to be

wrenched free of the confusion bequeathed it by its inventors—or
simply left alone. But the case against abandoning ‘animism’ is
strong. Though it certainly has been doing some mischief, there is no
polite way to extinguish a word. And for that matter, the original
insights which gave the word currency were only subtly wrong.
Animism is very nearly universal to folk societies, even where ritual
theatre (ceremonialism) has begun to develop, and it is wise to tie
the term to belief in a multiplicity of spirits intervening in the
individual moral careers of the living. Like the word ‘family’, unless you
know a lot about the variability of cultures you get in trouble using
‘animism’ as though you had resolved the question of how to gloss it.
But the main reason for keeping the word is to revive the argument
about how religion can work without worship.

Animists propitiate, they don’t pray to, praise and glorify, or

worship the invisible spirits they address. Like the religion of a Great
Tradition, animism addresses the fear-inspiring experiences an
individual meets in the pursuit of a good, extended, rewarding life. In
the classic case a parent whose child is ill has turned to a diviner to
discover the cause and thereby the cure. If a spirit being is
addressed, its motive is resentment of the living, generally for
neglect not of the child but the spirit. Where in a worship-centred
religion the neglect would be in failing a religious duty (breaking a

hallowed rule), for the animist the failure is personal because the
spirit addressed is apprehended particularistically, in a social
relationship patterned on the dyadic relationships of family and
closed community life. A step toward the exaltation of a spirit is a
step over the ideal categorical boundary of animism, but it is likely to
be a small step. Animists will always know how to accept new spirits
without pushing out the old.

The idea of witchcraft is at home in animistic worlds—as it

could hardly be in a less particularistic religious world—and can be
seen as another small step across a conceptual boundary. The same
diviner who indicts an ancestral or other custodial spirit for causing
misfortune in one case may indict a witch in another. Wherever
animism has developed into a religion of blame, and mutual suspicion
interferes with amity within a closed-community setting, this
egoistic option of blaming a living soul can’t surprise. But crossing
the further boundary, toward veneration of the spirits, goes against
the essential thrust of animism, which knows no exclusions.
Consider the plight of a diviner whose findings always pointed to one
‘God’. Unless he is in fact an established priest—as it were, hearing
confessions—he won’t be worth his fee. What this points to is the
salient structural feature which characterizes any system of
animism. It is ‘cellular’ not ‘organic’, ‘granular’ not ‘sectional’, ‘popular’
not ‘ministered’. Life in each cosmic ‘cell’ is quite like life in another,
though the names of important spirits may differ. You may not even
have to bring your divinities with you when you move. Peter Weber has
reminded us that Nyakyusa divinities work in parallel territories,
each cell equipped with a full round of ritual services. An exception
would be personal ancestral sites. A man may have traveled far
before he is called to visit one, and may need to retrace his father’s
path in time and space as well as his own. These considerations bear
in turn on the question, what departures from the ideal type of
animism can serve as clues to the level of politicization in a society.
Further on, we stand to learn why religion and politics may seem
closely linked in the early stages of protostate development—the
subject of this volume.‡


A Politics of Fear

Concessions to fear

A protostate wants a light but effective superstructure. It

lacks the grip on a people’s loyalty toward which it is seen to be
steering. Assume the home-ground is not obviously more fertile or
otherwise desirable than a lot of unsettled land nearby—a hard
master will keep no men. The horizontal ties or personal bonds on
which a community’s political coherence can depend must be a simple
transform, a mere twist, on the normal extrafamilial ties of kinship
and amity accepted in a pre-existing regional culture. Unless
imposed from without, new social forms are the offspring of old. But
the protostate’s power to flourish and grow will only derive from
politics in the strict sense: some individuals must be conceded the
right to command collective action on a panoramic basis. In most
cases the spur to this concession of rank by ordinary people will be
chronic insecurity associated with a new demographics. The folk are
increasingly pressed by outsiders to their local pedestrian commu-
nities, putting claim on the woods for hunting or firewood, taking fish
or roofing grass from the river bend, looking to court their women.
The isolationist system of self-help sanctions isn’t serving well.

The sense of sharing a common fate defines the referents of

community everywhere, whatever the size of the group. For each
type and each particular case, community has a signature style,
because community is the product of human intelligence, whether we
look at a dyad sole or a hamlet, at a ship’s crew or a widespread
ethnic front. This distinctive subjective phenomenon lives behind the
face of political growth of any kind, as it lives in the plans for a
children’s drum dance or a daring night raid on a stranger’s cattle.
Political rhetoric everywhere has to strike notes of common concern.
I assume that in the formative stages of Kinga or Nyakyusa
protostates the fear of violence from strangers had become real
enough to generate a political response of defensive alliance among
some clusters of intermarrying pedestrian communities, and I
assume that eventually the core strength of these protostates did
turn out to be military capacity. But if this suggests we should
expect a pragmatic ethic to inform protostate politics, our premise

is wrong. The pragmatic or practical strain—the famous social
contract—is bound to be there but, if it’s not quite hidden, it will at
least be well camouflaged. A main causal string in the rise of
statelike political systems is that the original concession to allow
one person a command rank creates a system of power, and any
enduring power must know the best way to watch its back is to grow.
But a prime requirement for that outcome is disguising its arbitrary
character as a negation of individual freedoms. So power, if it will be
entrenched, will by direction and indirection present itself as
necessary. Modern nation states have war machines and a stunning
cult of monumentalism to make the point. Protostates, being pre-
bureaucratic, are apt to depend for cover on a more oblique and
colorful kind of ritual camouflage or inventive political theatre than
fully developed states require.

Statelike polities have arisen in many parts of Bantu Africa,

and the process is often seen as evolutionary change from kinship to
politics as a basis of social organization. What was special in the
history of the Sowetan (SW Tanzania) political archipelago is that in
at least three cases the organizing principle which set the stage for
the rise of translocal politics was not kinship but amity. The initial
mix of organizing principles for Bena, Kinga, and Nyakyusa peoples
set amity at least on a par with kinship as a basis for lateral bonding
among men. Bena men, while they merged with Hehe in war, are
portrayed in the ethnographic literature as almost immune to the
envy and distrust of peers which has been remarked for Hehe. Kinga
and Nyakyusa, the two cases I propose to compare in detail,
explicitly de-emphasize kinship ties in favour of amity. ‡‡

A separate consideration is this: to flourish, statelike polities

require a broad code of civil peace which permits the extension of
reciprocity beyond the limits of personal networks. This code is
usually something which must grow slowly—it won’t be forced. Trade,
intermarriage, pilgrimage, and an open pattern of migratory drift
through the region will promote civility and help to limit the impulsive
spread of quarrelling. Each of these institutions has deep roots in
the Sowetan regional culture; it is likely they all antedate the archi-
pelago’s politicizing movement. But the association of this civil pax
with self-conscious ethnicity can be and presumably was accom-
plished politically. There are two important ways in which this would
be done. One is habituating a population to relatively tolerable proce-
dural interventions, marking and shaping the seasonal round or a life-
cycle transition. Ritual regulation of the agricultural sector is found
worldwide and everywhere wears the face of benevolent authority.
The other, shorter road to ethnic solidarity is making regular use of
political mobilization. Success in either case presupposes effective

sanctioning authority. The Sanga court’s imongo ‘marriage tax’ is an
apt example of life-cycle intervention in a society patterning
unusually late marriage; and the strict regulation of seasonal
planting, though heavily cloaked in ritual, was sanctioned by force,
banking on the everpresent fear of losing a crop. The court’s annual
war-games employed the still more radically political tactic of mobili-

In a crisis, fear may be the motor and belligerence the vessel of

political mobilization; the task of a political entrepreneur is then to
attain a practical monopoly on the use of force in the public arena.
But if the developing system is to be self-stabilizing, the course of
choice will be to sublimate some of the crude modalities of war in
favour of an outreach politics. For the Sangu and Hehe in the larger
region of the Southern Highlands in Tanganyika, state-building in the
nineteenth century was quick and brutal. So far as scholars have
reached a consensus on the reasons, both mobilizations occurred in
response to perceived threat and a newly perceived balance of
opportunity in the use of military force. Coastal Arab ivory traders
were accelerating their use of a long-distance route through the
Ruaha valley and sparsely populated central Tanganyika plains during
the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and had established a
port and trade terminus at Ujiji on the lake by 1831. Ivory had become
an increasingly competitive and bloody business in west-central
Tanganyika, mobilizing hunters armed with guns and introducing an
entrepreneurial dimension to chiefly politics. Few individuals living in
the high mountains which look southward down the length of Lake
Malawi had seen elephants, Arabs, or guns but all of them knew
about such things, and most of the men had more than a passing
acquaintance with the large armed forces Ngoni, Sangu, or Hehe
could muster.

Though none of this imported business had by the century’s

end produced a profound direct effect on the course of life in the
Sanga domains, there is reason to suppose that it would have done,
given only a little more time. Ngonde, on the lake’s northwestern
shores, met the assault from the south, and reconstituted its
political institutions in the act of self-defense. In the Plains area
particularly, and to an extent in Selya, the Tanganyika Konde were
beset regularly from the south by pillaging Ngoni, and in the early
1870s from the north by the Sangu, but proved no quarry for either.
A fair weight must be given to the effectiveness of the three
protostates (Kinga and two Konde) in fending off intruders. Peoples
to the north were devastated and scattered by the same Ngoni
squads whose effect on the two Nyakyusa-speaking communities
and the Kinga was transient. Arab traders were slow in making

inroads either from the south or north. Had penetration been easier
the region’s history could have been as tumultuous as it was for its
northern and southern neighbours. I think it important for our under-
standing of the early stages of state formation that this western
end of the political archipelago did hold together through the
nineteenth century. Had it not there would have been little left to
show what intricately off-beat political systems had once been
fashioned there. Militarily, though, the region’s experience in the
later nineteenth century was clearly hardening. What we have to ask
is what fate the Kinga and Konde escaped—What are the lessons for
state-building of the Sangu and Hehe cases? Both of them exhibit
the politics of fear in its immoderate posture.

First the Sangu, then the Hehe were in the thick of the fighting
for wealth and majesty, and a stake in the region’s perhaps
overvalued future. An earlier understanding was that the critical
stimulus to militarism had come from the south with the
expatriated Ngoni bands, who were living by rape and pillage as they
moved northward. They had reached the Lakes region, it was
estimated, about 1840. But the Sangu insurgency was up and
running, it now seems, at least five years before the Ngoni actually
appeared in the Corridor, and Zwangendaba’s Ngoni band settled for
a time in Ufipa, a fair distance northwest of lands the Sangu then
occupied. The critical stimulus to war was temptation not alarm.
Sangu were leading a scramble for custody of the Great Ruaha
trading route into Tanzania’s interior. Coastal Arab merchants were
taking out ivory in exchange for exotic goods like cloth, glass beads,
and guns. The Sangu until 1830 would have been a relatively small but
independent pastoral community in the lowland plains. But they were
nicely suited to the task of squeezing the traders, and it’s likely they
expanded very largely by recruitment from the several neighbour
communities they overran in their scramble. Shorter (1972) calcu-
lates that they were the great power to be reckoned with in the
Ruaha area by 1837. Ngoni weren’t there to challenge them until
1842. When they did arrive, having no use for trade or for guns and
the hard-to-get powder needed to work them, and still disinclined at
the time to provoke a powerful enemy, the Ngoni seem to have held
off from seriously engaging the Sangu. ‡

Slaving had been an export business for the coastal Arabs

from the first decades of the eighteenth century, and its increasing
importance in the nineteenth, along with the now-ubiquitous ivory
trade, accelerated exploitation of the interior populations. The ivory
trade had become a stimulus to political entrepreneurship and the
dissolution of borders. The slave trade as such never did put the
burden on the southern highland area which it put on other regions.

But it is not to be thought that lurid accounts of this bloody
business and the powers behind it failed to spread in all directions
between the Zanzibar coast and Lake Tanganyika. Permanent
enslavement of captives is reported, though hard to date, in tradi-
tions recorded by the British at Tukuyu, Iringa, Njombe, and of course
Songea, with its generations-old Ngoni settlements.

That the Sangu ecosystem favoured pastoralism and a mobile

form of settlement must partly explain the impermanence of their
‘empire’. In the forty years between 1835-1875 the Sangu remained
a power in the region which only the Ngoni were in position to attack
or ignore. Sangu warriors doubtless learned tactics from these
encounters, but the Sangu were pursuing a different game to the
Ngoni. Did Sangu leaders establish some sort of ‘protostate’ in the
forty years before their crucial defeat by the Hehe? Hardly more, I
think, than the Ngoni had created a statelike polity during the same
period: clear lines of authority and continuity in power were certainly
there in both cases, but these were armies encamped where they
found themselves, holding court in a fortress without a country to
defend. Where they subdued a chiefdom in their pursuit of tactical
gain the Sangu hegemony was an empty one. It quite disappeared at
the end.

It was as if Sangu knew only how to expand, not to prosper. The

rise of the Hehe had a more solid base, but events moved quickly for
them. Paradoxically, it is only after his defeat and death in a final
battle with the Germans that Mkwawa’s statecraft came into its
own. His story, like that of his father before him, is not one of
overrunning, sacking, and dispersing ill-defended countrymen but of
the pragmatic conquest and political assimilation of rival chiefdoms.
Hehe were ruthless plunderers where they were facing an external
enemy—Sangu or Ngoni—but their spoils were cattle and women,
and a Hehe warrior made proud with his share. The two great Hehe
leaders, father and son, had each his round of rivals to suborn, and in
the process their statecraft grew with their military successes.
What set apart the Hehe polity, as it finally was, from the rest of
the archipelago was the fact that it had passed the point of no
return by devolution into its original autonomous segments. The
ethnic mix was irreversible—a state in the rough, perhaps, but it had
by-passed the segmentary phase of development. How far had
there ever been known in its territory the pyramidal links of a typical
protostate, formed among some of its ‘distinct’ peoples? What we
do know is that a round dozen of distinct ethnic groupings were
twice incorporated into a single political system; that with the
death of the first tyrant the system did devolve into its ethnic
parts; but that the successor system which Mkwawa put together

and led against the Germans was taken over intact and remained so.
That we can’t know much more reflects the tenuous, even
evanescent personal-political nature of the structural links which
make a tyranny work. Supported by frail roots in tradition, an
overnight empire to exist at all can require a tangible future. Ironi-
cally, it is perhaps because the German conqueror, Colonel Nigmann,
was such a fitting, in fact admiring, successor to Mkwawa that the
Hehe moral identity survived the infliction of peace. ‡

Authority by its nature favours monopoly. What gave the

politics of fear its radical civility in the Malatan communities was
the antipolitan ethic limiting a ruler’s monopoly of power. To preserve
the principle of amity, there had to be room within the larger league
of chiefdoms for free movement of a self-armed man who found
himself prejudicially treated by his ruler. But the politics of fear
among Hehe (and presumptively among Sangu) was the monopoly of
a single tyrant ruling over available civil space. It is a distinction
crucial to the modern idea of statehood, but I think it required
chronic warfare—cold or hot—to feed its legitimacy. Neither the
Sangu nor the Hehe polity was organized primarily by kinship. Amity?
good fellowship? civility? in the political circumstance of a tyranny
these sentiments breed expectations which have to borrow trouble.
The Malatan protostates appear to have been built on a more
flexible, more politic politics of fear. We have to ask how it was done in
each case, as the situations were quite different.

Malatan specialties

Since our understanding of Konde culture in past time will

always derive mainly from reviewing and rethinking Monica Wilson’s
detailed ethnographies, my focus will often fall on the people and
local customs of the Selya area. As it happens, this is the place
Kinga visit in their main propitiatory rite, and the Wilsons’ records of
those visits in the 1930s represent the earliest entry of Kinga onto
the ethnographic stage: Godfrey Wilson was able to sit in while
priests from the two communities haggled over protocol. Since a
protostate process is generated through translocal dealings
between separate, autonomous local domains, the degree of overall
homogeneity is a function of history and local circumstance. Selya
may seem in the literature to be the ‘heartland’ of the Rift Valley
Konde settlement—it was certainly in no way ‘peripheral’. But the
protostate process as we have been able to glimpse it was collec-
tively evolving in circumstances of open rivalry and opportunism.
There could have been no single blueprint for the hundred-odd
chiefdoms the Germans found there. Early missionaries and later

British administrators, to whom we owe many important records,
distinctly preferred an upland climate to the hotter plains, and
accordingly took their local orientation from that subregion. With
that in mind I have gone back to the broader (and now largely
discarded) label ‘Konde’ for an inclusive reference to speakers of the
Ngonde-Nyakyusa language in both Tanzania and Malawi. This allows
me to say, for instance, that there were several, interlaced
protostate processes going on among Konde chiefdoms in preco-
lonial times. There wasn’t the strain toward a centre of the political
field which, for all the belligerence of Prince toward Prince, the Sanga
system cultivated. To the extent that Monica Wilson’s enchantment
with the ‘divine king’ figure may have implied the living Lwembe at
Lubaga provided a central political figure for the Konde world, I think
we have been misled.

It is crucial for this kind of study—dealing as it must with the

origins of translocal politics—that the communities surveyed be at
or still very close to ground zero in respect of occupational differen-
tiation. The domestic institution should continue to provide a
livelihood to everyone—the economy remains cellular. That means
ruler, priest, and peasant families alike hew wood, draw water, and till
the earth for their own consumption. This is the most essential
distinction to be made between ‘protostate’ and statehood. But we
have to deal with a transitional or ‘evolutionary’ process and can’t
afford to discuss it in frozen categories. Do we call the Konde ruler a
chief (Wilsons) or a prince (Charsley)? Are the Sanga courts in
Kingaland three-tiered or two? Have we prince, lord, and lieutenant or
chief, subchief, and headman? And shall we picture ‘priests’ or
‘ritualists’ or ‘councilors’ or ‘courtiers’ or ‘trustees’ or even
‘enforcers’ in action when the same man may be playing any of these
different roles? Should we use the indigenous terms, peculiar to
each of the three (and more) political cultures we have to consider? I
have been eclectic. Especially in comparative analysis I have simply
tried to use the set of terms which would be least likely to puzzle or
mislead a reader. The network of specialized roles making the rise of
political authority possible continues throughout the protostate
process to overlay a cellular (peasant) socioeconomic structural
plane. Consider the protostate even at its zenith remaining a
society which can fall back to its politically acephalous groundplan
without having to reinvent its world. We have to deal in the Kinga and
Konde cases with two examples of entrepreneurial politics not with
two entrenched political establishments.

One stimulus to rethinking the Wilson’s work has been a number

of historical studies, some in the field, to which a good many refer-
ences can be expected. In consideration of the bulk of sometimes

conflicting matters of record with which a Kinga-Konde comparison
must deal I shall also have resort to paragraph-length citations as
the best way to make clear my construction of the facts as it is
drawn from a particular documentary source. My intention from the
beginning of this ethnographic project has been to work through a
comparative analysis of the several statelike polities in the Sowetan
region, always with the aim of learning how their institutions must
have worked in late-historic times, and what the region has to teach
us about the origins of large-scale political life.

What I particularly suspect, but can’t in any way prove, about

the Sanga system is that over the many generations (a dozen, at
least) of its development the ultimate resort of political discontent
among strongmen of a ruling Sanga lineage was flight to the Valley
floor. Two features of Kinga-Nyakyusa relations suggest this possi-
bility: the shared Lwembe myth of a magically gifted ‘younger brother
of the prince’ who had to be chased down the escarpment to Selya;
and the tradition there that (presumably renegade) princes from
Kingaland had founded a number of the (hard to number) major
Nyakyusa ruling dynasties. All this is implicit in the widely-held oral
history of the ‘Nguluwe migrations’ from a sacred place in uBena to
the Konde-speaking Valley floor. The willingness of a host society to
accept such emigrants is not altogether mysterious. Just as a
prophet is not honoured at home, so with an ordinary commoner who
would be king. The readiness of the ‘donor’ society to eject such a
person, along with armed retinue and some paraphernalia of rank,
would spring from this: that any petty ruler displaced, any aspirant
looked over in a succession to high office, or indeed any ambitious
but thwarted ‘younger brother’ to a ruler might quite well know that
setting up anew in the more open atmosphere of Selya was going to
be easier than doing so at home. Colonizing political missions of this
kind are finely documented for the Alur of the Interlacustrine region.
If something like this hypothesis sounds realistic for the Malatan
region, we are closer than before to understanding the way ‘amity
politics’ could have come to coexist as it clearly did there with an
unperturbed politics of fear.

Another clue is this: an actual ruling prince unless active in war

lives remote from the bulk of his people. In the Nyakyusa case it is
partly because commoner villages greatly outnumber royal, and tend
to be jealous about their autonomy. As I shall be at pains to argue
later on, it is also because the most powerful Konde chiefs are those
who have already devolved their work as hands-on rulers to their
presumptive successors—‘chiefs’ of a younger, aspiring generation.
An ‘old chief’ is in fact quite properly called a Prince, as I call his
counterpart ruler in one of the four realms of the Kinga. In the Kinga

case a like remoteness is achieved for these Princes in two steps:
within the high court domain, only the trustee families live in the
immediate vicinity of (and have limited entrée to) the seclusive royal
court; while the affiliated ruling court which centres a client domain
typically rules less sanctimoniously and does not hide its own ruler
from regular eye contact with his people.

What I particularly see in the Selya-centred ‘age village’

ethnography of Monica Wilson is a set of rules for transforming Rift
Valley cultures by translocal political action. Nyakyusa political life
enjoyed and thrived on greater turbulence—if perhaps with no loss of
very-long-run stability—than either Kinga or Ngonde. As unique and
important as their age-village innovation was, two other features of
their political system are needed to support a balanced view of
Nyakyusa history: they seem to have lived in ‘villages’ so moveable as
to bring the very use of that English word into question; and most
appear to have lived in chiefless—effectively egalitarian—village
communities clustered in political space around a central ‘aristo-
cratic’ one charged with (inegalitarian) princely charisma. Though
each of these clustered commoner villages had a spokesman-head,
there are no records suggesting that this ‘Great Commoner’ could
boast princely or chief-like authority. The rules precluded it.

The likely result of such arrangements in a male-dominated

society would be a fragmented pattern of loyalties and a
substantial measure of volatility built into the typical male’s
personal identity. If a ‘steady state’ is your standard for judging
political development, Nyakyusa are only in early stages. But the
reason for that is decidedly not a lack of political entrepreneurship
or sophistication. Their political arena—the life-space allowed them
by nature and their social surroundings—was vast and indeed politi-
cally dense compared either to Kinga or (I surmise) Ngonde, and not
easily tamed. When I speak of political density in a pedestrian
community I have in mind the sheer probability of meetings at cross-
purpose among adult men, and the consequent likelihood of side-
taking episodes.

To put the Ngonde case in a nutshell, this third protostate can

be viewed as a Konde-speaking population separated by a geographic
barrier from the rest, and thereby achieving some closure. They
responded during the nineteenth century to external threat by
pulling together into a ‘theocratic’ version of the less pyramidal
Konde protostate model found north of the Songwe river. In
theocracy the central office is not only remote but non-confronta-
tional, allowing for a ‘soft’ form of central direction—Southall’s
suzerainty—where a hard one might fall apart. The Sanga political

system had meanwhile created a ‘Kinga’ people united rather by the
spreading acceptance of a ‘court culture’ which colonized (not
uprooting or resettling) the ‘bush’ communities of their mountain
slopes and hidden valleys, and maintained the pyramidal organization
of ruling offices typical of a segmentary protostate through the
fiction of fraternal amity among leaders and the regular passage of
token tribute. Recall that Southall redefined his ideal type of the
segmentary state as a blending of political authority and ritual
theatre. ‡

But ‘ritual suzerainty’? Something approaching that is

attained by the Sanga court, where in particular the High Prince is
warranted to embody ritual danger of high order by his collateral
agnatic ties to the apotheosized Lwembe, externally propitiated by
representatives of all major Kinga courts. The propitiated being does
not dwell, though, at Ukwama in the actual person of a ‘divine king’,
nor can that actual person speak for the divinity. Indeed, the high
prince at Ukwama exhibits a majestic mask of fear instead. Again,
Lwembe in Nyakyusa society, where the priest-medium representing
him claims no right of descent only of calling, strangely lacks both
secular power and majesty. These two Malatan protostates exhibit
such un-draconian formulae for ritual unity exactly because they are
committed to limiting the monopoly of power which their constitu-
tions, written into their ritual custom, assign to a seated prince/
chief. Crucially, the position of the priest in both cultures is that of a
tertium quid, counselor to the throne but equally a councilor or
tribune of the people. In each case priestly consensus is required to
effect the installation of a successor to secular power, and in each
case this fact is signalled by the priest’s control of the medicines of
power-transfer containing body parings from (at least) the most
recent in a series of incumbents to achieve majesty. ‡‡

I have felt the lack of a close account of Ngonde political

culture, comparable to that we have for their Nyakyusa cousins, as
that would have allowed case-based inspection not only of the
Kinga-Nyakyusa systems as ‘transforms’ each of the other, but of
Nyakyusa-Ngonde congruency as well. What particularly distin-
guished the Sanga system from many Eastern Bantu examples of
the type was the importance given to a ritual theatre of solidarity—
political, agricultural, and propitiatory. Kinga court culture didn’t
share the ethos which made the (typically divisive) celebration of
their kinship and communal rituals so important to Nyakyusa. Sanga
war-games were set up between two sides randomly chosen but so
biased that fast cliques were divided, and kinship seems to have
carried no claim to exemption. The difference to Nyakyusa is clearly
that there all intrasocial (within-village) competition was allowed to

play itself out, as it were, after dark. How far this preference for
witchcraft might apply to Ngonde I don’t know.

However sophisticated it may be, a political culture confined to

a single pedestrian community—for Kinga my ‘domain’, for Nyakyusa
the Wilsons’ ‘chiefdom’—doesn’t meet criteria for civility of the kind
state-building requires. In effect, what is needed is the replication of
a new political style in several (3 + n) domains, and the emergence of
translocal linking institutions strong enough to foster a panoramic
sense of common political identity. African ethnography presents
two broad alternatives for linking a series of autonomous pedestrian
polities while each continues to occupy its given patch of land. In local
descent-group societies the links may be produced by simple rules of
‘clan’ exogamy which, in effect, bring it about that “we marry our
enemies”—a situation of political self-help which serves to maintain
(among the several domains linked in a marriage circle) a condition of
parity and mutual understanding at the level of rules, but without
sparking the institution of a political superstructure or a statelike
peace-keeping orientation to territorial government. Using this and
similar devices you can model most of the well-known African ‘tribes
without rulers’.

The alternative route is political. A ‘culture of rules’ as wide as

the sphere of societal coexistence is wanted to nourish any
statelike institutions, but one which can leave to each people the
maintenance of its own characteristic ‘culture of sentiment’ (the
deepstuff). A shortcut version of the political route was taken by
the Sangu and Hehe in the formation of their state-like military
régimes. But the basis of stability for these quick-and-dirty despo-
tisms was in a continued income through the spoils of conquest.
History in their part of the southern highlands political archipelago
couldn’t wait for evolution but took a shortcut from a mosaic of
rivalrous petty chiefdoms to a despotic territorial state in which a
sense of common ethnicity precipitated from the common enter-
prise of predatory ‘nation building’. The Corridor peoples, though
subjected to many or most of the same intrusive forces which seem
to have triggered the Sangu (in the 1830s) and later Hehe mobiliza-
tions, proved less vulnerable. The Kinga and Nyakyusa political
systems seem to have kept a less hurried pace; the Ngonde moved
more boldly forward, still on track, toward a form of theocratic
state. About differences at a deeper level between Ngonde and
Nyakyusa cultures of sentiment we know too little. I regard these
three ‘protostates’ as moving, each on its own zigzag path, toward a
receding horizon of statehood. Each was caught at some point along
its path by warlike intrusions and the subsequent colonial freeze.

Can I describe the paths? Can you reduce a history to
narrative? There is no need in any event to go so far as to drown the
tale in dogma. Inside all three communities, important intergroup
linkages were effected politically and ritually. This entailed the
invention of an aristocracy with (fictional) bloodline relationships
linking the major rulers of the whole region as an hereditary class set
apart, and the development of a priestly presence with strong
professional ties across political boundaries. The sources of this
structural change, like the sources of a river, were many and
concurrent—none need be given temporal priority. The ancestral
figure for prince and priest was the three-in-one ‘most respected
elder’ of earliest-remembered times, who was vested with the
oversight of political, ritual, and jural services within an autonomous
face-to-face pedestrian community. As the settlement pattern
within a given ecological niche matured, trans-local trouble cases
became more frequent, and resort to arms called for a programme of
policing the peace. With the gradual appearance of secular authority,
the scope of ritual action came to include the explicit sanctioning of
entrenched political power. Moots gave way to authoritative law
courts for civil dispute settlement. In the mystical trade,
independent ritual practitioners largely gave way to politically
responsive priesthoods. But local factors affected the degree to
which a pre-existing ethnic mosaic resisted assimilation. The social
situation and character of prince and priest want separate consid-
eration in each community.

As might be expected in Eastern Bantu civilization, the

founding fiction for an aristocracy played on the myth of a lone male
immigrant, a ‘hero’ with implied special powers and gifts. The burden
of the tale is that his descendants alone are inherently fit to rule. In
regional prehistory the nearest analogue or archetypal experience of
ethnic overlay is the coming of Bantu migrants with the arts of the
iron-smith and a significant intensification of agriculture. But the
provisional dating for this would be a period starting before the
middle of the first millennium of the present era. There is no
indication that the actual emergence of a ‘ruling class’ was so early.
But linguistic-ethnic dualism may well have persisted in the region
through the Iron Age and into the centuries of political expansion
(the ‘African middle ages’ are here assumed to begin in the East
African interior about AD 1400). The institutional feature matching
the myth, pronounced in the Kinga ethnography but endemic to the
region, is a device which initiates a court-bush interface. It entails
the ‘sending out’ by an established court of Sanga avatsagila (client
rulers) to colonize and extend the court’s dominion over peripheral
settlements. This same ‘sending out’ becomes in Selya the famous

ubusooka or Coming Out, which culminates a chiefdom’s growth and
instantly decentralizes it.

More easily grasped than the development of a political role

system is the quieter evolution of a priesthood. It begins with an
earlier level of ritual specialization associated with ‘territorial
shrines’ whose salient boast was an ability to control rain. They are
‘territorial’ in the same (ecological) way that rain is—that is,
covering whole reaches of an ecozone and affecting a host of
contiguous if politically autonomous communities. Local ‘chiefs’ in
many parts of German Tanganyika were sometimes berated as ‘old
rainmakers’ without enough secular authority to serve as effective
tax collectors. In the Corridor region, rainmakers always had
divinatory paraphernalia, and might be sought to by a private person
on any sort of victim’s errand. They were wizards and occasionally
would achieve charismatic fame through the whole ‘territory’ they
served. Before state-building began they were local to one pedes-
trian community and active agents in supporting and regulating a
religion of blame. This state of things still prevailed in some parts,
generations after prompting a German district officer’s frustration
with ‘old rainmakers’ posing as chiefs. Extraordinary circumstance
may promote a mushrooming political superstructure, but the
ordinary course of political growth is extra-ordinarily slow and its
fruit not predictable. ‡

In the Sowetan political archipelago I find evidence that the

politics of fear, which informs military action and the disciplinary
procedures of the law courts, is generally balanced against a politics
of blame. I refer to a politics of blame in order to focus on the manipu-
lative aspect of a religion which begins to be centred at a court. I see
the allocation of blame as a companion to the court’s commanding
power to allay fear. This is a power which can’t survive the loss of its
mystique. Quite simply, the responsibility for trouble can’t be
allowed to stop at the top. Blame must be deflected. If we look at
the matter in light of the secular/sacred distinction, so important
to early anthropologists, the manipulation of fear belongs to the
secular arm, that of blame to the sacred arm of government. The
notion of a ‘court’ nicely embraces both: when discourse finds no
conclusion, it is time for the dramatics.

When danger is apprehended, to name a source of fear is to

place blame. Should this lead to a witchcraft trial or ordeal, an
accusation can be rendered lethal. In what we might view as a ‘civil
case’ it can be enough to blame a witch; where the trouble is wider
and vaguer you might want to blame a shade (divinity) considered
somehow ancestral to your whole ‘people’. Either way, the political

theatre entailed reifies the perceived cause for fear, dramatizing it
as incorporeal animus, but giving it the fanciful intensity and
definition which allay skepticism, enlisting public concern. The Sanga
court presumed to deal equally with pragmatic-legal and ritual-
metaphysical determinations, and seems to have succeeded fairly
well in controlling both spheres—although bush-Kinga patterns of
self-help in civil cases were certainly not everywhere eradicated; and
diviners, curers, and unattached claimants to mystical power were
not always brought under the court’s umbrella. Witchcraft beliefs
remained a bastion of ‘mystical democracy’, as did spirit possession
among Nyakyusa. This is because anyone, of either gender, might
have secret powers of the very kind claimed by the court. I discuss
these matters, and assess the politics of belief, in Chapter Three, “A
Religion of Blame”. But to find the place of beliefs in the two political
cultures, I want finer-grained modeling of structural differences.
There are four basic questions to ask.

Four Kinga-Nyakyusa analogues

In the circumstance of a small-scale society the several major

institutions have to fit nicely together. There isn’t room for many
options at the deeper levels of fit. The four institutions I consider
here are functionally alike in both societies, though formally distinct.
Each of the four is necessary to the working of the others—they
constitute a distinctive organizational complex. In that sense a
good part of the core institutional structure of the two societies is
approximately ‘the same’. This is not the sort of statement which
would bother a sociologist or an analytically inclined historian. When
you apply an easy concept (say, ‘the middle classes’) to a handful of
different locations, and notice no distortion in doing it, you are
making the same assumption of functional identity. You know it is a
molar, not in any sense a molecular, identity. This play works
reasonably well when there is a fairly close historical connection
among the societies so compared. It works, for deepening under-
standing on both sides of the equation, for Kinga and Nyakyusa

Formally the two systems are quite distinct, and for

descriptive ethnography that remains the important part. The
wonder lies in how near the two systems come to homology when you
adopt an analytical mode and consider function. For comparative
(analytical) ethnography that is the point, though the argument
actually turns against ‘functionalism’. The premise is that many
kinds of cat can have the same insides. It points to the importance
of intercultural contacts on the level of social thought; and for

anthropologists of other-than-humanistic persuasion, to the impor-
tance of noticing ideas even when they are not floating on the
surface of life.

(1) The client-ruler strategy.

In Kinga context

Kinga oral histories I got for several domains record the exile of
a local wizard during early days of setting up the Sanga court, only
to call him (which is to say his official descendent) back some gener-
ations later. These oral records refer to and clarify the transition
from a pre-political system of governance to the Sanga court
system. The business of a wizard is reading signs not commanding
action, but wizards do deal in consensus, and that can be good
enough when the problems of governance are of quite limited scale.
When things were going wrong for a man in pre-political Kinga culture
the ultimate move was quitting his community for another. That is
the way things still worked for Ndendeuli when Gulliver was with
them in the early 1950s: movement there was free of risk and imper-
sonal constraint. It is a proverbial characteristic of the wizard that
his stature and influence is magnified by social distance from his
client, and that means in effect that close local groups don’t have
their own wizards. Clients come to seers at need and scarce need
heed them otherwise. Still, the kind of wizard we are dealing with is
not a loner or an entrepreneurial professional of the sort we find at a
later or more turbulent stage of social complexity.

The simplest version of a sacred grove is a rain shrine, and the

earliest wizards the Kinga know were rainmakers. This was a
profession to which men gained entry through apprenticeship not by
any formal succession to office. So a wizard with his postulants and
lesser associates would always belong, in the classic manner of
artisans everywhere, to a circle not a local settlement. What we
learn from the oral record is first that a would-be Sanga ruler had to
contest the power of such a circle and banish its main protagonists;
and second that, once established in his own right, the Sanga ruler
would find reason to bring back the local wizard, complete with his
kitbag and support group, to merge them with the new court. This is
the best explanation I have as to how we get the office of ‘priest’. A
full-fledged court must have wizards of its own so the people will
want to bring all their trouble cases to court. But to make this
happen you have to reinvest the wizard as priest, conceding his

association with authority, and look to him as master of ritual—not,
as before, the inspired stranger.

The most relevant Kinga terms for office at the court are
unkuludeva (prince), avanyivaha (the court’s trustees or strongmen),
unteketsi (officiant at sacrifice), and umotsi (rainmaker). Where the
first three roles are anchored in a royal court, the rainmaker is not.
He is a self-employed wizard to whom a Sanga ruler would be seen to
apply as client. The rainmaker’s trade and his kitbag antedate the
court and can survive without it as long as the belief persists that
his ministrations are needed to bring on the rains after a dry season.
As for sacrifice, any elder is competent to propitiate an ancestor;
the unteketsi deserves the name of priest because he is keeper of
the medicines of the court, host of the sacred grove, and necessary
as officiant at communal rituals. This puts him in the category of
unyivaha, companion (trustee) of the court. The priests lived hard by
the ruler’s enclosure in daily contact with him and other companions
of the court (avanyivaha). They were engaged as a group in managing
the ordinary business of government.

Where the prince himself was no leader, a suitable man would

emerge among the company of avanyivaha. The High Prince at Ukwama
in historic times had come to play a reclusive, ‘sacerdotal’ role. But
at a small court (that of an untwa or local ruler) the only senior
ritualist might be the umotsi, master of the rainstones. As any sort
of court would require a more-than-military presence he would
doubtless be drawn into various official—priestly—functions as well.
In discussing such a person’s status, no one Kinga term suffices; and
the same applies to any court regulars. Their company was contin-
gency-oriented. Within it role-differentiation had to be situational
not categorically generated. In accepted social memory, and in
popular conception, the highest court’s avanyivaha were not a class
of oligarchs but were seen to be a company acting both for the crown
and, as intercessors, for the people. Call them power-brokers.

What most distinguishes the Sanga polity from the Nyakyusa

is this gathering-in of influential individuals and their integration as a
governing executive. As a group, this company stood between ruler
and people, embracing the double duties of tribune and enforcer. The
weight this gave to a well-established royal court allowed it to play
the feudal game of fealty and tribute with a handful of satellite
courts. How many of these were actually ‘founded’ by a Sanga client
‘sent out to rule’ we can’t know; but when it was convenient to say
so, a long-dead ancestor could be named. Whenever a little band of
goats was driven from satellite to centre as tribute, the para-
mythic untsagila, a lieutenant of long ago sent out from a mother

village to colonize a mere bush area of settlement, was being invoked
at once by the client and the higher court, affirming the nature of
their political ties.

The affirmation was wanted because centrifugal forces always

pulled at the political tether. A princely court was in no sense a
command centre for the realm. By the time a client-ruler line could
have matured to the point of setting up a court in its own right, able
to boast a military, jural, and ritual presence on the Sanga model, its
independent identity would have been made a matter of plain fact.
But its symbolic clientship to the Prince, expressed in explicit acts
of rank concession by untwa to unkuludeva, would have been equally
well established. The social construction of the client-ruler figure,
untsagila, grounded the untwa-unkuludeva relationship in a history of
colonizing expansion.

The father of all stories about banished wizards is the Lwembe

myth—Kinga version—which pertains to the senior Sanga court, at
Ukwama. The wizard Lwembe, banished to Selya in Nyakyusaland,
can’t be allowed to return. As source of the greatest afflictions of
nature the Kinga have known, he is too dangerous. His return would
destroy the Sanga system of rule by disarming the secular power,
whose tools are admittedly mundane. It is in this myth we see the
key constitutional mandate of the Sanga court: secular power is its
driving force, guided but never governed by ritual wisdom. It is a
builder’s mandate, allowing for the recruitment of a trustee group on
the basis of individual ability. The client-ruler strategy in its Kinga
version allows for the gradual growth of a network of courts, each a
replica of the original, founded by royal ‘brothers’ originally sent out
as client-rulers with the mandate to extend Sanga rule over a broad
country. In the ideal model which still governed Kinga political thinking
in 1960 three of the client courts had grown to represent rival
realms to Ukwama, and each of the four realms had in turn sent out
client-rulers of its own to build up satellite courts. But even while
formal battles as well as tactical raiding between princely realms
went on, the client-ruler construction continued to be invoked.
Tribute, though it was famously irregular, still was owed by the
‘younger brothers’ to their senior prince, and in a general crisis the
priestly companies of the realms concerned would join to discover
the ritual irregularity at fault in some failure to render tribute due.

Oral historical evidence indicates that a client ruler could take

with him (or send back for) a suitable member of the mother court to
serve as ‘chief priest’ in the new court setting. In the one case for
which I have name and dates the new priest came into a turbulent
situation and was put straight to work as witch finder-executioner.

His further task (but for German intervention) would have been to
build there a new branch of the priesthood, so assisting eventually in
the establishment of a new autonomous local domain under the
Sanga umbrella. In this latter-day example we can perhaps see an
historical analogue to the mythical practice of bringing back the
banished wizard whose local credibility was a precious asset. With
the firm establishment of the Sanga protostate, it may be the
prestige of a Sanga celebrant had become the only asset required.
Alternatively, we may speculate that an aggressive witchfinder-
priest had more than once been in the vanguard of a Sanga coloni-
zation programme.

In several local domains in the 1960s I found the court ritual

specialists bore local rather than Sanga surnames. But in the oldest
princely courts the priests, though I supposed some of them would
stem from pre-Sanga founders, all identified as Sanga. I took this at
the time as evidence of a growing ascendancy of the political,
perhaps linked to the climate of external colonial rule—so not “pure
Kinga”—and the question remains unsettled for me. It is likely
enough that the solidarity of the avanyivaha as a power group, and
the principle of recruitment to position through apprenticeship and
ability not heredity, would have combined in the bigger courts to turn
over the (rhetorically ‘ethnic’) claims of a priest to be ‘tribune of the
people’. If he was able at need to curb a ‘tyrant’ Sanga prince it was
more as vizier than tribune. The head priest at Ukwama showed me
his imatsi, the ivory-like shell badge of high authority. It was big
enough for a prince.

In Nyakyusa context

The client-ruler institution took a distinct form in Nyakyusa

culture, where chiefdoms competed fiercely for followings, jockeying
about for position both in spatial spheres of influence and in the
military-reputational game, and depended more on charismatic than
sacerdotal theatre for the retention of power. While important
chiefs might be given a full divine-king mortuary treatment, there
was no sacerdotal option—that was reserved for the perpetual
wizard-king seat at Lubaga in the Selya region, serving various
chiefdoms but with slight secular power. The interment spot of an
important individual chief would in future be a place of propitiatory
sacrifice but not a shrine of such danger and secrecy as was
Lubaga’s unapproachable sacred grove, Lwembe’s seat from mythic
times. The role of territory in Nyakyusa chiefly politics is puzzling as
Monica Wilson presents the evidence from testimony only one long
generation after the pax. But a careful reading and comparison with

German records (so far as known to me) shows that the basic Kinga
system of bounded domains, aligned as contiguous territories in
four bounded realms, had no parallel in Nyakyusa political thinking.
This means that client-rulers could not be ‘sent out’ quite as (in the
model realm of Kinga social memory) they were by a Sanga prince,
with the mandate to rule a named territory and all who lived there.
The initial task of the cadet Nyakyusa ‘chief’ on being sent out was
rather to recruit than rule. That is, he must gather men, cattle, and
women, pretty much in that order of priority.

In fact, the Nyakyusa institution reads to me in the Wilsons’

presentation as something closer to an opening of the gates, a long-
awaited liberation of a warrior age-class, than to a pragmatic state-
building move. The pragmatic version is, in my judgement, a
textbookish confection so far as it is to be taken as a portrait of
traditional times. It was presented first by Godfrey Wilson in an
early summation of field data. Here is the fairy tale in brief:

(i) An established chiefdom comprises (say) twelve senior

villages each with three or four satellite junior age-villages. Two of
the senior villages belong to the chief, who keeps wives in both. The
satellites are dormitory villages for all bachelor male offspring of a
senior village. The boy/youth herds, does the heavy gardening, and
learns spear-work for his father. He is fed by his own and/or a
companion’s mother with food he and his friends have helped produce
from the paternal gardens.

(ii) About thirty years after the chief’s Coming Out he will be
ready to retire from active leadership. He and his whole generation of
village leaders are feeling a ‘push’ from a frustrated younger gener-
ation of males aged 30-35. So the commoner villages, each in the
person of its head, go together with the chiefly villages to stage a
grand Coming Out. Two young chiefs and as many young heads from
each senior commoner village are designated rulers of some (say,
twenty-four) newly franchised cadet villages which the ceremonial
organizers map out. The older generation bows out gracefully and
passes power onward. In a grand ceremonial drama, a whole new
political arena is opened up with fanfare and much excitement.

By putting this custom on a par with the Kinga counterpart,

and associating the institution with a ‘client ruler’ strategy, I am
denying one crucial facet of the Coming Out which was dear to the
heart of Monica Wilson. It was her notion that ‘the old chief would
soon die’, and the stage was now set for a ‘divine kingship’ death by
strangulation. I doubt this. I see it as fairy tale. I can’t conceive that
the political entrepreneurs who managed to set up so marvelous and

so political a structure as a Nyakyusa chiefdom would just blow a
whistle and say, ‘new game—start over’. The ‘graceful withdrawal’
(especially one to be accomplished through strangulation) reads like
one of Malinowski’s ‘just so’ stories. ‡‡

Monica Wilson renews the pragmatic, orderly view in her

tellings, so that the Coming Out (ubusooka) looks more like a
communal rite of passage than the political tsunami I take it to have
been. She definitely did not see the acquisitive elders’ age-villages as
beneficiaries. The ubusooka rite is portrayed on the granters’ side as
benefaction but can be otherwise seen by a skeptic. As tradition
gives it, it seems an utterly reckless, unpolitical act. For my part, I
see it as the culmination in power of a maturing chiefdom, which has
produced a potentially powerful new generation and is ready to
expand aggressively in political space. I see the Nyakyusa chiefdom
as a loose confederacy of autonomous villages. The one close Kinga
analogue to a Coming Out is the case of Kyelelo the First stepping
back in favour of a son in order to continue consolidation of a
Western Realm seated at Luwumbu. ‡

All the same, if Monica Wilson’s analytical emphasis on the

theme of ‘rebirth and renewal’ be taken à la Durkheim—as invoking a
collective representation of social solidarity in the very act of
seeming political dissolution—we stand to learn from the exercise.
She makes clear the breaking out of long-smouldering resentment
toward the elders, of license for displaced violence against brothers
as well as strangers, and the confounding of old and rigidly
protected property rights in cattle. There is a paradoxical mix of
peace with turmoil in all the descriptions we have of Nyakyusa
political life in free-tradition years. We are told the client-ruler
strategy marches to its own drum in each chiefdom, beginning with
ritual seclusion of the new power-holders and finally a ceremonial
send-off (the ubusooka ‘Coming Out’) from the ruling village. This
enacts a stripping away of all the junior adult age-villages from each
of the senior villages of that chiefdom. In the roster of these senior
villages there are likely to be eight or more of commoner rank, each
with a headman (‘Great Commoner’) in charge, in addition to the
chief’s two. Ironically, the Coming Out celebration may typically have
been the moment of greatest unity within a chiefdom.

The ceremonial sendoff and (alleged) voiding of the old power

pyramid is realized only once in a long generation (about thirty years)
and always after much delay. Two or more young aspirants to
chiefship—already aged thirty to thirty-five—are sent out in this
way, each with a mandate to marry and command a new chiefdom
comprising a full share of the young men stripped away from the old.

A good handful of spares, cadets ready to take over leadership at
need, are put through the rite as well. Perhaps in the 1930s when the
Wilsons’ fieldwork was being done, or in 1953 when Monica Wilson was
on revisit, this affair could pass for an orderly ‘communal ritual’, a
sort of biggish, long-delayed bar mitzva followed by youthful exploits.
But before the colonial pax the sequelae would have been a fair mix of
braggadocio and real violence. The competition among cadet leaders
can’t have been quite unbloody, but should be imagined higher on
death-defying than death as such.

The new young chiefly contenders (client-rulers) depart each

with their wonted male followings and a few women and cattle.
Apparently these cadets have no mandate but to seek their own
destiny—build a new village where they can, and there hustle
themselves the new cattle, women, and gardens a real chiefly future
requires. This account of the passing over of the torch of power to a
new generation is the scenario their most reliable informants gave
the Wilsons in the nineteen thirties. Assuming that the actual
number of successful chiefdoms is either static or grows only
gradually over time, about half the aspirants to glory must fail; and
it follows that the other half must succeed by gaining a competitive
advantage. This would be done directly by warfare or by otherwise
exceeding them in recruiting men from opposition ranks and/or
neighboring bush cultures, and in the regular business of taking or
inheriting women and raiding for bridewealth. For ‘warfare’ a Kinga
observer would use his word for ‘war games’: pre-arranged and
ritually prepared contests between companies of men from each
‘side’ as decreed at the Coming Out, refereed battles ending with
the first serious drawing of blood.

We could all wish some scribe had been around only the one long
generation earlier to observe an actual case and record how all this
worked on the ground before the pax made the ubusooka a mere rite
of passage. We have one picture of an older generation ceremonially
sowing turmoil, and another of accomplished tropical paradise. But
between the anthropology and early missionary accounts we do have
an interesting body of evidence for reconstructing a credible model
of the social system our ‘scribe in time’ would have found. I find the
cadet generation a set of rivalrous client-rulers. I think the five key
elements of the model would be these:

(a) The physical life-expectancy of a thirty-year-old bachelor

male would have cut back the likelihood of even one of the two chosen
favorites living to become a major power. The system was open to
ambition on the part of others in position to claim ‘aristocratic’
status. Only a few chiefdoms in any generation would achieve the

size and majesty to make their Coming Out a map-changing event.
Splitting a weak chiefdom could only produce two weaker ones, and
this must have been a common result. These assumptions allow for a
realistic fit of the model to probable rates of demographic and
political expansion. But by the same token, the sense of expan-
siveness would have been in the air. It was indeed a world renewal, as
new villages and cattle byres were springing up and a fresh gener-
ation of men settling in to marriage and rivalrous begetting.

(b) Patronage by a powerful chief of the older generation was

important and put a premium on the client’s ability to subserve
without losing credibility as a leader. A young political entrepreneur
might play one patron against another. But patrons could do the
same. I am presupposing a political game in which force was not the
universal instrument but was one in which immoderate success was
unlikely and moderate degrees of failure tolerable.

(c) A fair proportion of the lesser client rulers could eventually

decide for retreating to ‘frontier’ situations, at least on a
temporary basis. With subsequent success in seeking their needed
followings of women and men, a few such ‘colonizing’ leaders would be
in position to move back at option into the mainstream politics of
chiefly aggrandizement. The likely stage of ‘greatness’ for an
individual chief would be but a decade or two; but by inheriting (with
the usual priestly help) the name and office a skin-changing
successor could extend the rule as long again. Thus a younger
brother or son moving up to the office would continue its name with
all the debts and credits attached thereto. This model stresses the
entrepreneurial aspect of chiefly careers. It accepts the 30-odd
year periodicity. When ‘things are going well’ the kind of change the
ubusooka implies would be unwanted. But the unrest would have been
shared by both generations of men, and the ceremony welcomed by
both. ‡‡

(d) Warlike manners were put on for the occasion. Ever ready to
psych themselves up for war, Nyakyusa men other than the chiefs
were not deeply macho, not inner- but peer-directed. Peer relations
being artificially dense and omnilateral, losing a comrade was not
structurally traumatic. The obverse of the Nyakyusa emphasis on
‘good company’ within an age-village was the ease with which a
deserter would be taken in by another such group. The model takes
account of the antipolitan ethic so evident in Nyakyusa testimony:
peer loyalty may even be negatively associated with loyalty to a
chief. Having friends and most of one’s kinsmen in other villages
leaves a man his own boss in the politics of commitment.

(e) What especially energized and maintained the prestige of
the ‘Coming Out’ institution was the high-spirited style of youth and
young adulthood, stemming particularly from the high morale
generated in the age-village system for boys. Observers might be
expected to assume that delayed marriage would produce
frustration and dissension; the sexual equation in the Nyakyusa
case appears to have been more like that of the Kinga, where
homophilia is not thought in any way unnatural, than Monica Wilson’s
informants intimated. Less like the Kinga experience was the oppor-
tunity every Nyakyusa youth seems to have had to form brief
liaisons in bachelor years with (married) women of their own age. This
risk enterprise was by all accounts a feature of their young lifestyle.
It was ritually infused into the careers of boy-men and maiden-
women by their special days and nights of intimate seclusion before
a girl’s nubility, friends with friends, learning about love-making by
show and tell. This idyllic interlude—what Monica Wilson describes as
their ‘initiation-marriage’ rite—was arranged for a self-selected
group whenever one of the maidens in a circle was preparing to wed.
Taken for granted: the groom (who was not invited) would ordinarily
be a stranger. While Wilson’s informants stressed an educational
rationale, it is hard to doubt two further implications: that the
possible trauma of a wedding night was finessed, and that the
radical exclusivity of marriage rights was mooted. Quite obvious is a
third implication: a bridge was fashioned, whatever else the young
people did in their private interlude, from homophilic to heterophilic
sexual orientation. By the time of Wilson’s fieldwork the original
African morality play was outdated: homophilia was being played
down, the interlude itself finessed, and a maiden’s transition to
adult sexuality was being eased by a few night visits with the
husband-to-be, who was expected to have ‘external’ sex relations
with her. That is, if the missionary mind has not unduly influenced our
information on sexual matters. ‡

The colonial mind was set on taming the other specialty of

youthful males, and in this was more certainly effective. The pax
meant warfare ceased to be a viable alternative to (or extension of)
litigation in the pursuit of justice or the reward of ambition. But in
the real world of tradition the political consequences of the Coming
Out in a major chiefdom—letting all cats out of their bags at once—
was a triumphalist kind of world renewal. It appears to have worked
by sowing trouble on a scale large enough to keep the political arena
in business for another generation. Further discussion will be wanted
in later chapters, where the Coming Out is discussed in relation to
the militaristic mandates and situational logics of princes in these
two protostates.

(2) A tempered aristocracy.

Morton Fried gives us (in his Evolution of Political Society) a

thoughtful and undogmatic discussion of the range of political
complexity anthropologists have met in the field. As for interpre-
tation, his main independent variable is social complexity. The range is
from egalitarian to stratified societies. Between them, in the mid-
range of social complexities wanting political management, are
Fried’s ‘rank societies’, and I expect it is at this stage of institu-
tional evolution we might find the kind of protostate politics I’m
concerned with. But Fried is no Africanist, and his mid-range
examples are certainly not protostates. None of them shows the
tendency toward central direction characteristic of the pyramidal
polities of the Sowetan archipelago. What I do find relevant in Fried’s
middle category is the appearance of rank differences without
socioeconomic differentiation. This is a vital point if we are to avoid
misunderstandings when ‘aristocracy’ is applied to Kinga or Konde
social organization. Read no implication of class or caste. If Kinga
rulers do collect more wives than commoners, near kinsmen of the
rulers, having no court life to maintain, generally don’t. If Nyakyusa
know an overclass it is rather a gerontocracy than an aristocracy.
Elderly Nyakyusa commoners are as keen on polygyny and wealth in
cattle as are their village peers whose patrician claims have not run
out. On the other hand, it is doubtful that old men ever enjoyed a
different or better diet or free time than the young. Social
complexity? Perhaps it follows after political complexity.

Even within Eastern Bantu civilization taken as a whole, the

only cases of true stratification which come to mind are ethnic: in
the best known of these dual societies, the Hutu-Tutsi (ethnically
Bantu-Nilote) in Rwanda, it is arguable that prior to the foreign
interventions of the later nineteenth century, civil patron-client
contracts maintained this rank society in such good order as to
preclude the development of protostate politics with its integrative
moment—and in consequence opened the way to caste hierarchy in
colonial times and a post-colonial government destined never to
achieve legitimacy. Nothing comparable belongs in any critique one
might draw up on colonialism (and most particularly the British
period of indirect rule) in the Sowetan region. The Sangu and Hehe
despotisms left no heritage either of stratification or (apart from
the usual passage of chiefly office to a son) rank differences.

Both the Sanga system and the perpetual turbulence of the

Nyakyusa produce a significant slope of dominance: some men are
more important, have more influence, get to initiate more action

than others. At any given time, only a very few men at a Sanga court
have an expectation of joining the dominant group there. Most men
will return with marriage to the peasant life at middle age. Most
Nyakyusa live in commoner villages and have no expectation of joining
a chiefly court. Yet these are not ‘bush’ villages. Even in a ruling village
only a few men have more than a nominal connection to dominance,
and since each commoner village has its own dominant group there is
no instantly obvious difference in rank among the several villages of a
chiefly domain. What is important to notice is that access by birth
or merit to political ascendancy in either society would be seen by
ordinary men to have the same conditional sort of permanence or
preordination we associate with ‘aristocracies’. I qualify the local
example as ‘tempered’ to reflect its subtle blend of the realized
aristocracy constituted in a set of loosely hereditary offices and a
nominal one constituted in a set of hereditary ranks. In either case, if
many are called few are chosen to enjoy real personal influence, and in
the competitive atmosphere of Nyakyusa politics the devil can
expect to take the hindmost.

It is to the point that the Malatan status differences directly

of concern in politics are those among adult males, and limit but
don’t determine access to office. Without an endogamous elite. and
as a rank society can’t in a polygynous world proliferate ranks in pace
with its proliferation of male offspring, claims to high birth could not
easily flow along agnatic descent lines in the way nominally possible
in a stratified society. Wealth in the form of cattle and wives is a key
value in a masculine career among Nyakyusa. It is much less
important for the moral strategies of Kinga men, but in neither
society is the inheritance of wealth a source of great expectations.
In various ways in the Malatan protostates, men concede rank to an
office holder and with it concede him—by way of privilege—the
capacity to hand on to offspring some of those moral qualities by
which access to rank positions may be justified. But beyond that the
people are jealous of according credit beyond its due. This is their
main guarantee of quality in an officer who will hold his position for
life, and life-tenure is in turn the key to stability of office itself.
These polities have their strongmen, but they comprise a tempered
aristocracy—something closer to a Jeffersonian standard, when
seen in perspective, than the untempered situational power they
nominally cede to the man in high office.

In Kinga context

In the Kinga case, court-bush circulation was managed by

cheapening the Sanga identity to the point that the name

warranted a man’s acceptance by and loyalty to the court and its
élites, and little more. Consider the scene. When bush youths are
recruited to the royal courts, they replace senior warriors recruited
in the same way a generation ago. These seniors, according to the
Kinga model, are each awarded a mature princess of the court, and
with her the Sanga name to assure them status in the new off-
centre settlement the group is to make its own. The best of the
senior warriors, in particular, is so awarded and made group leader,
charged with carrying the Sanga banner into frontier country. This
man has now become untsagila (‘lieutenant’ perhaps) to the royal
court. But internally—within the new frontier community—the role is
better translated as ‘client-ruler’. In matters local, he is going to be a
ruler responsible to his own people not the high court. As client to a
princely patron he owes and is owed nothing until a specific, situa-
tional compact be made.

Success in establishing authority will be slow work in the bush,

but with it the client or his successor can aspire to taking on the
rank and trappings of a local ruler, untwa. That will take building up a
clientele of around a thousand households—not a simple under-
taking. There must be a broad, unchallenged network of loyalties and
an effective peace-keeping force. Maintaining men in barracks wants
meat, gardens, festivities, beer; this in turn wants women to work
the fields, and these must be the segregated royal wives and their
full-grown bachelor daughters. There is also the duty of affirming
loyalty to the royal court through nominal tribute, in order to ease a
transition to near-parity in rank. Expansion of the Sanga proto-
state is not being done in ‘aristocratic’ mode, though it may be fated
in retrospect to be so pictured. A new court is being built in and from
the bush, its politicians yet unborn.

It is also the case that any such pushy new political estab-
lishment needs in turn to develop its own staff, the avanyivaha,
priests and magistrates and their chosen assistants. So a client
has a long path to climb before he (his part now played by a lineal heir)
could hope to see himself established as part of the Sanga ruling
élite. But that is the way Kinga of the final precolonial generation
thought it had been done—not how realms had been made, as they
were somehow all there ‘from the beginning’, but how local domains
would have been formed within the realms. It started with a small
party, a handful of men with their new wives. Most of these parties,
with average luck, would settle a new hamlet and survive there, or
perhaps go to replace a less competent local establishment in
already settled country. A very few leaders, cultivating old ties with
others settled near, would eventually set up as petty magistrates,

settling small disputes, sending hard cases further to the court of
the realm.

The territorial size of the domain one local ruler could manage
would depend on qualities of the land and landscape. The
demographic size would be a function of that and the natural limits
affecting a pedestrian community disposed to affiliate. Most of
this, in any event, was already stuff of the misty past in the extant
domains the Germans were coming upon in 1900. We are left to
extrapolate farther backward toward Sanga ‘beginnings’ and the
emerging idea of (four) realms in perpetual ‘fraternal’ league. System
change was ordinarily slow, and social memory kept alive not the
past but a code-like reconstruction of it.

But there is ample evidence in the variant versions of an event I

recorded at different courts, and in the German and British records
of claim and counter-claim, that nothing political ever was so rock
solid as public statements made it out to be. Only a popular ruler, for
instance, could carry the role in the theatrically appropriate ‘African
despotic’ style, and only the generous ruler remained popular. Kinga
theory took no notice of what we see as role strain and ‘double bind’
or the aberrant behaviour we’d expect to result. We can say that the
Sanga protostate was ruled by a small political class. We can’t say
this class co-opted any but its ablest offspring. A few clear cases
show that very able men from humble beginnings could achieve power
and distinction within the political class. Priests managed their own
fraternity. We can’t say how far in historic times they reached
outside that fraternity for apprentices, but the rule favoured in-
group youth. Of the men actually born at a Sanga court, the great
majority were royals, first-generation offspring of the ruling prince
or his predecessor. These were the avapapwa, brothers and half-
brothers the prince could remember as infants carried on their
mothers’ backs. They rated their own barrack house, and carried
prestige above other Sanga, but could have no careers at court.
Their futures were their own to achieve, as the prince wouldn’t have
brothers near once their bachelor-warrior days were done. They
would be moved off with friends. As with the Konde, the wisdom was
that commoner stars were safer trusted with devolved power. The
rules of marriage meant the avapapwa would have to find wives
elsewhere. The royal heir (unkinga) was early chosen and succession
was in the hands of the avanyivaha. There could be no contest for the
throne. The only ‘aristocracy’ the Sanga courts were generating was
that of the court culture itself, and this (as a disinterested
observer must call it) was an open class—aggressively open, in fact,
to recruits.

In Nyakyusa context

Nyakyusa, like Kinga, honour the idea of aristocracy as a prop

to the political establishment, but apply it hardly at all in social
relations. When pushed to explain who would and who would not have
claim to aristocratic standing, the Wilsons’ informants focused on
first degree kinship to an hereditary ruler (prince or chief: omala-
fyale). But the practical test is more liberal. A man must have no
recognized kinship of any kind to the ruling line, if he will qualify as
candidate (at the Coming Out) for the headship of a commoner
village. It is an office second only to the chief’s but is not hereditary.
It is coveted but not dangerous like the office of chief, and not
mystically guarded.

The most economic way to model the phenomenon of

aristocracy for Nyakyusa is to start with the myth of charismatic
immigrants from Kingaland who founded the first chiefdoms. Then
take the Coming Out ceremony as a re-enactment of this founding
transformation of the political order. It is easy then to follow the
logic of the Coming Out. It calls for a fresh beginning with a new set
of chiefdoms, starting from scratch and with the improbable project
of building a large and prosperous society just as was done in illo
tempore. Thus among Kinga the royals, bearing a rapidly devalued
Sanga name, quickly merge with the common folk and enjoy at court
no more than a modest measure of ‘primacy among equals’, while
among Nyakyusa the case is different only by reason of its formal
coloration. High office must be seen in both countries to be inacces-
sible to all but a chosen few.

To put this into the form of a practical rule you have to take
office into account. Anyone in high office is an aristocrat in the
telling sense that he is thereby presumed to be the heir of a solid line
of men holding that office. Blood lines and primogeniture play a less
cogent part in the continuity of this aristocratic thread than the
ceremony of investiture itself, which is enacted in the fullest
religious sense by the old prince-priest-chief. So predictable is it
that the Wilsons would have been told succession to this highest
office was by primogeniture, pure and simple, that I feel obliged to
take it as a Just So story. The Kinga said the same about their
succession but then made it clear on enquiry the heir unkinga must be
deemed by the gathered avanyivaha to have met their every test of
aptitude for the office. As in the Kinga case, in the Nyakyusa it is
only in the very act of seizing the man and ritually investing him that
the court elders announce a succession. Two chosen sons, each
putatively by one of the old prince’s two chief wives, represent the

two ‘sides’ of the old chiefdom sectioned out before their births, and
are fully proven adults at the time of the investiture.

Since the whole chiefdom (both the elder community and the
several new) must have faith in them, it is unrealistic to suppose
unhealthy or uncharismatic individuals would make the cut. Younger
brothers, in any event, inherit an office before sons if a chief dies in
the decades between these political ceremonies of renewal; and a
first-born who died young or otherwise failed to make his mark would
never be remembered in a royal genealogy. When the whole idea of
aristocracy is to strengthen the charismatic aura of high office,
when the crucial time for this is the occasion of a coronation, and
when the time and circumstances of the devolution of power on a
chief’s heirs are most carefully controlled by a gathered host of
elders, commoner rulers and priests, then politics can hardly fail to
temper its rules with pragmatism. In short, primogeniture is the
model rule: just so. Everyone knows if an ill-suited man is made chief
the story has a dead end.

Nyakyusa numbered in the 1930s about 150,000 and

comprised about 100 chiefdoms ranging in size from about a hundred
persons to three thousand. The many ‘minor chiefdoms’ were dead
ends. They would hold no Coming Out, take no new cattle, and hold
little land even while perhaps surviving for several generations. The
Wilsons do not try to explain why chiefdoms still in the 1930s
consisted in a group of age villages bunched close in space, with wide
open (“empty”) country separating them from neighbours. But
worldview is a basic condition: the saying, ‘a village consists in men,
not in land’ (B: 45), is a prime clue to the way a chiefdom must be
built. Nyakyusa forty years into the pax were only beginning to move
into the open lands. A chiefdom in past time was the project of a
single man and the achievement of a single generation, destined
after its glory time to end in fission and new beginnings. The fledgling
chiefdoms created would be led by two (or possibly more) young
upstart chiefs competing for followings, cattle, wives, and the land
which such prosperity can bring under cultivation.

The Wilsons were told that at the Coming Out each new chief
was told just where to settle his two wives and build his two stem
villages. Doubtless this worked out in the 1930s under the pax. But
before 1893 the Coming Out was the start of a new power game and
a turbulent reorganization of space. The best plans of the elders
could hardly amount to more than a starting drumroll. Mwaipopo’s
chiefdom, which the Wilsons knew well, began as four, with the
Coming Out of four chosen ‘brothers’. Mwaipopo conquered the
other three and reduced them to dead-end subordinates of his own.

Had they not been seen as brothers it seems they would not have
been treated so well.

Throughout their accounts, the Wilsons make clear that

defection was a constant concern of any chief; and the obverse of
that concern would have been the countervailing ambition to recruit
men by defeating their leaders. We know the anticipated prize for a
Nyakyusa raiding party was cattle to be traded for wives; but a
continuing deficit in cattle would mean a deficit in morale, and
greater risk of defection. Nyakyusa men born in a stem village grew
up from before puberty in (branch) age-villages—most of them
consensually governed under a few older peers, their intimates—and
were expected to work and fight through early adulthood for the
primary benefit of the generation of their fathers clustered apart in
the stem village. We know the active chiefs over a wide area were
competing for a lion’s share of the same wealth. The masters of this
game were the group of fathers. Their grown sons worked their fields
and, where things went well, augmented their herds in order to bring
them more young brides. This is the kind of game in which nothing
succeeds like success and, the obverse, failure can be total. In the
early stages of his political career a faltering chief would have to fear
losing not just a few men but the loyalty of whole commoner villages
he had failed to keep on close rein. Hence the spatial organization of
the mature chiefdom was to surround its tree-shaded village-
clusters with open country: as much a semiotic enclosure, I think, as
a military defense. Hence also the importance of depending on the
bachelor men to work their elders’ fields (where Kinga depend far
more on women) and take food from the women of their paternal
stem village. But a big, successful chiefdom at its height would
sprawl far beyond the close-knit, concentric unit of its earliest
stage. The sprawl is one of political influence and alignment not rule:
no one village rules any other. But the key to understanding this
picture is to have in mind that overall demographic expansion in a
chiefdom, if there was any, was not what drove the Coming Out of
client-rulers in the explosive manner it was managed. The reason for
the explosion was structural. The institution of the age-village, with
the prolonged bachelorhood of men it fostered, made this sort of
explosion unavoidable. What the Coming Out did was make the
explosion a controlled one: a ‘restructuring’.

The Nyakyusa prince, like the Sanga, was bound to overproduce

offspring. But this was not a technique for expanding his realm
through colonization. A chiefdom as described in the ethnography
comprised the ruler’s own pair of stem villages and (at the height of
his administrative career) eight or a dozen satellite villages, all of
these ruled by commoners. Commoner villages also would have by

that stage each its own group of younger age villages gathered
around. In a chiefdom matching the model of the Wilsons’ infor-
mants, all the established villages would date back to the last
Coming Out, and all would be on the same ‘careers’ track as the prince
and his commoner village counterparts. Their strategy was to
collect women and prosper, holding the next generation of males in
thrall—extending as long as possible the social dependency of
bachelorhood. With the next Coming Out ceremony, after thirty
years and more of ascendancy, a now-reduced generation of male
elders will grudgingly contract to ‘retire’ in favour of a more
numerous and energetic generation, the greater proportion of these
new men still unmarried. This is a deep generation, ranging in age from
about ten to forty. They have to be re-sorted and their villages
relocated, to make up two or more fledgling chiefdoms. This means
stripping all the old villages, chiefly and commoner, of their satellite
age villages. This pools all the men (say) between fifteen and forty
into one ascending generation. What remains then of the old princely
realm is an odd set of ‘retirement villages’ peopled by mainly old men,
each with a spate of wives, young and old, and a host of children
under the age of puberty. We are left to imagine how these old polyg-
ynous clusters, left now without the steady support of a young
bachelor set, will break up. Odds-on, this part of the process will be
erosive, not explosive.

Most of the women with young children will be needing new and
younger husbands prepared to do their heavy gardening and house
building. The model seems to say the old husbands ought now to
oblige by dying off quickly, but the model can’t be trusted on such a
call. What can be trusted is the informants’ constant refrain: every-
thing begins over again. Men of the right age and character, this
suggests, will be ready for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They
won’t just stand around waiting. I should be quite surprised to learn
either that the rate of adulterous elopements did not take off with
a Coming Out of young men, or that an eloping couple in the new
circumstance did not find safe haven in a chosen young man’s new
village. Turbulence of this kind stands in strongest contrast to Kinga
social life, where domesticity, though structurally minimal, is
paradoxically stable.

There is no evidence at all that the rampant polygyny of the

Nyakyusa prince produced an aristocratic class or directly
contributed (in the way princely polygyny at the Sanga court did) to
an overall expansion of courtly political culture at the expense of
‘bush’ neighbours. Indeed, the court-bush circulation of the Sanga
system is missing; the near-equivalent is a constitutional rule
relating ‘royal’ politics to ‘commoner’: it is a rule of the ‘conflict-of-

interest’ type. It seems a born aristocrat cannot beget the future
headman of a commoner village. That is, any young man with demon-
strable aristocratic claim is ineligible to lead any but one of the two
royal villages of his realm. Nyakyusa women like the Kinga spaced
their births generously, and would have done so in monogamous
unions quite as easily. The many male offspring of a wealthy and
successful prince were in fact ruled ineligible for leadership office, as
were their offspring in turn. But the prince’s polygyny did set a
pattern for his peers. Where the magnified heterosexuality of a
Kinga prince had no resonance in the moral strategies of ordinary
men, the climax of the good life for ordinary Nyakyusa men was
always polygyny, though it always started late and might continue
so long as to become an obvious burden.

The two decades of young manhood preceding his still-busy but

settled life as an elder are the ‘political’ decades of a personal life-
cycle, during which a new chief must establish his own sphere of
influence. Nothing in the records from the missionary period or the
ethnography suggests the morale of these young men was not
consistently high. Married young women with their under-aged
children will be moving by inheritance or otherwise from the old men
to the young. Cattle will be passing in and out of private byres. When
the Wilsons are told young men were kept in the bachelor state to
keep them fit for fighting, it is a stretch to interpret the remark as
a reference to sexual repression. It is more likely, at least, their
prowess as fighters owed something to being unattached and
unburdened with home duties, and something more to the well-known
social rewards of manliness. High levels of testosterone mark the
front-line fighter everywhere through history, as does sexual oppor-
tunism and a certain creative naivety about how power is won and
held in the world. If there is an overclass in the Nyakyusa world it is,
as we have seen, a compact local gerontocracy always specific to its
village, not a nobility. The decisive evidence against a Konde
aristocracy is the conspicuous autonomy of the ‘commoner’ villages
and the opportunity they represent for meritocratic careers in
politics. That village headmen are, in their own community, everything
a chief is in his—war leader, judge, and ritual celebrant—makes every
village its own player in the pyramidal polity of a Konde chiefdom.

(3) Bachelor warriors—late marriage

Both Kinga and Nyakyusa rulers had at their disposal

something very close to a standing army. In both societies most
men remained bachelors, living hard by the chiefly courts, right
through their fittest years. As the season or occasion demanded,

the court’s men cooperated in clearing or working fields and in the
various tasks of maintaining court properties. In both cultural
locales the rationale for late marriage was political: military and
more. Whether the men were living (seasonally) in barracks or in
segregated age-villages, there was a clear political advantage in
having a compact, mobile workforce close to the court. The typical
peasant division of labour gives structure to the household; among
households the structure (even in the classic ‘kinship society’) is
uneven and for political purposes may prove unmanageable. Kinga and
Nyakyusa societies with their systems of delayed marriage added
within the ‘peasant’ system a political division of labour centred on
the village rather than the household. This allowed for de-politici-
zation of kinship, and prolonged political socialization of the men to
the advantage of central direction. Formally, the two societies used
rather different institutions to achieve this result, and the sexual
side of bachelorhood in the two social schemes differed accordingly.

I know of no reliable rules for reconstructing the sex life of any

human community on the basis of hearsay. Unless there are signs to
the contrary, I assume in any case that unmarried adults will be
accorded acceptable alternatives to going without sex. I expect
such alternatives to be standardized, and the kind of inquiries which
normally yield information on covert institutions to suffice for
finding out in principle what these legitimate alternatives are.
Beyond that, whatever one is apt to learn will usually have a specu-
lative feel. Intimate sexual information, the matter of which tends
to defy verbal formulation in any event, is generally guarded or
misrepresented, leaving us with no reliable informants on the norm.
But the quality of gender relations in public is normally observable.
Unluckily, my gender was wrong for easy relations with Kinga women,
and Monica Wilson’s wrong for chatting up Nyakyusa men. The area of
uncertainty in both cases is the one least accessible to direct
inquiry: for me, lesbian relations among Kinga maidens and married
women; for Wilson, homophilic relations after the earlier years of a
man’s bachelorhood. As for Kinga, intuition told me at the time that
close attachments were as important for sleeping arrangements
among young bachelor women as men. But for a married woman while
nursing a child I found it credible enough that “a woman needs no
more.” Many or most women marry to a new community away from
old girlfriends of the isaka. Always when the four or five years of
nursing a small child are done, and begetting a new one is on the
domestic agenda, a Kinga man must prepare himself for the
challenge. That is when a wife wants his best effort and will show her
keen interest in the quantity as well as the quality of his perfor-

I hesitate, of course, to borrow from the Kinga to fill the
lacunae in their neighbours’ account. What is especially clear on the
hearsay evidence when coupled with observable gender relations is
that Nyakyusa men turn on to women more vigorously in young
adulthood than Kinga men do. It seems likely this was especially so in
precolonial times, when a young man’s strength and vigor gave him a
stronger hand in wrenching cattle and women away from his father’s
to his own byre and bed. But I see a special implication in the ‘initi-
ation-marriage’ custom of secluding a friendly group of boys and
girls in an isaka (“girls’ house”) all to themselves for a few days and
nights of self-education. Both genders, it seems, want that infusion
of heterosexual eroticism.

In Kinga context

A Kinga person of either sex will have a ‘vagina’. Whereas in

women they are found under the pubic arch, men have them in the
backside. This is an important matter with implications for each
major facet of Kinga culture. I have discussed the subject at length
and in various connections in Twin Shadows and Four Realms, and
refer the curious reader to those earlier volumes.

Late marriage was a condition of the military stance of the

Sanga courts, which depended on a standing crew of unmarried men
living in barracks and comprising its all-purpose political workforce.
While readily countenancing marriage in mainstream fashion as a
universal institution sponsoring the legal and moral identity of
human offspring, Kinga were distinctive in keeping adult men and
women sexually apart through the whole high-libido curve of their
physical life cycles. The rarity of such systems outside the
urbanized world is not hard to explain. In the Kinga case, since
‘delayed marriage’ affects both genders, the puzzle for ethnography
is the other way around: if they can do it (as indeed they did)
without backlash, why don’t many other societies do the same? The
best short answer might be that very special conditions are required
for building up to such a system, and the same applies to maintaining

I find it most fruitful (as argued in Twin Shadows) to consider

the matter in the light of individual moral strategies. This is a
question of feeling one’s way, now gropingly, now planfully, toward a
rewarding life. The process begins with dawning adulthood and
continues to the end. The governing conditions for Kinga are special,
since neither gender is domiciled through childhood as part of a
‘family’. Well before adulthood begins a boy is at home sleeping skin to
skin with peers of about his own age. The same applies to girls, and

individuals move smoothly into rewarding sexual relations within
these same-sex peer groups. Sexual frustration as such is not a
factor in these lives, though libidinal dynamics of course pervade the
period of youth. When I deny that peer relationships were possessive
I don’t mean they weren’t warm, only that the obvious shine of a new
relationship was soon normalized as friendship—a personal
involvement wanting good will, not demanding fidelity.

For Kinga, it is important that most men exposed to the tradi-

tional court culture chose to accept its norms and had little
interest in either early or plural marriage. The main inducement to
marry was the need for a self-reliant existence after one’s youth
was spent. The gender division of labour meant that a middle-aged
man without a wife had no career as an independent householder. He
couldn’t feed himself or brew beer for entertaining friends. He would
have no hearth of his own. His stature and self respect could not be
maintained. His former bachelor life with age-peers would feature in
the lives of his now-married friends as so much fallen fruit. Before
the pax there was no migrant labour to fall back on. The example of
the polygynous prince or local ruler presented a reasonably positive
prospect in marriage: Kinga wives are prodigious providers, and their
husbands have lots of free time. For women in the traditional court
culture the propriety of marriage was more important. Conceiving a
child meant marriage. Bachelor women would have grown up under
the tutelage of their older peers who, as married women, continued
to monitor and school them in more formal ways on the specifics of a
woman’s destiny. The moral lesson was unambiguously in favour of
fertility, and marriage was the means.

The Sanga ruler was interested in plural marriages and plentiful

procreation. Sons would become the privileged men of his barracks,
daughters the most productive segment of the daily workforce in
his fields. Only by making his royal village obviously strong and
productive could a prince or local ruler keep it attractive. Good
political theatre can’t be produced on the cheap. Extending the
bachelorhood of royals of either gender required extending it for
both, and for both this entailed institutionalizing homophilia. This
was the case for a royal village, whether on the scale of the Realm or
the smaller Domain, and the centripetal attraction of young men
away from outlying hamlets meant much the same economic logic
would apply to the age of marriage for women in the peripheries. The
men who courted them would most often be seeking a long betrothal,
and I was assured by young men that this was readily accepted
among the maidens. Everyone knew that with marriage the bachelor
life was ended for both partners: a man must settle down to
clearing, owning, and tending fields, keeping animals, and maintaining

a household for his wife. Domesticity itself was less complete for
Kinga men than women, but marriage for both was a break—and for
women a pretty clean one—from bachelor ties and bachelor ways,
beginning a new phase of the life cycle. At the same time, delaying
marriage was (at least, away from the court itself) a voluntary
pattern not a prescription, and there is probably no knowing what
the statistics would have been. The main thing to have in mind is that
premarital pregnancies were systematically avoided, the first
conjugal embrace legally enacting the marriage. Her maidenhood lost,
a woman dared not—for she and her girl friends had always lived in
the shadow of this taboo—return to sleep that night with her peers.
Her commitment to a heterosexual life had a measure of the
seriousness of trauma.

Two queries arise about this picture when it is compared to

other Bantu marriage systems. Did women really keep their virginity
for a decade or so past the menarche? And supposing they did, how
did they manage to keep up a sufficient level of fertility to satisfy
the equations of population survival and growth? As to the first
query, both the housing and working arrangements of women
favoured peer control over their sexual contacts; and unless we
contradict the uniform testimony of male and female informants we
have to accept that pregnancies outside marriage were at least as
rare in the past as they were in the communities I knew in the 1960s.
There none of my informants could produce an actual case. In face of
a weak cultural emphasis on the consummation of heterosexual
desire, and quite general approval of non-exclusive, non-possessive
homophile relations for both genders, I find it easy to drop my own
folk skepticism on the matter of long-preserved virginities. So I find
the second query the more interesting of the two.

It has been a rule of thumb that anthropologists should expect

an average spacing of births in the range from 18 to 30 months.
Typically, a husband is expected to press for early resumption of
intercourse after a birth. Natural conditions impinging on survival are
quite often supposed to be severe—nature itself is thought to call
for very high rates of reproduction to maintain effective fertility in a
human community without ‘modern conveniences’. Yet there is the
Malthusian view: if the fertility rate is moderate, the need for
‘positive checks’ such as warfare will be less—and so on. Kinga moral
strategies meet Malthus half way. A Kinga woman aims to space her
pregnancies at about 60 months. When she has produced four
infants and brought them to full weaning she is reckoned to be
finished with the conjugal relationship. Weaning waits until after the
infant’s fourth anniversary. The rationale is not (as one might
suppose) that a woman loses her fertility at this stage or risks her

health with a further pregnancy, but that her conjugal duty to her
husband is finished. Heterosexual relations in marriage are for both
partners mainly about reproduction. Erotic satisfaction is an
important by-product. There are no reliable statistics to clarify
questions about life-expectancy for men or women, or survival rates
for children in traditional times, but I think it unlikely a woman would
have passed child-bearing age before her mid-forties. Menarche in
the nineteen sixties still came rather late (17 or 18 was a typical
expectation, 15 was thought early) and women in their thirties
commonly showed impressive youthful vitality. In the Sanga court
culture I doubt that many women quit the bachelor life before their
mid-twenties, though in the full bush culture (or in the Kinga-Pangwa
overlap region) marriage would normally follow a few years after
menarche. I think the point to take here is that the Sanga proto-
state created a healthy moral and social environment by extending
the life situation of youth as it did, and limiting births. The general
good humour and good heart for life of Kinga men and women,
regularly attested by observers, reflects this.

To this picture it must be added that Kinga women devote

themselves to a nursing infant virtually to the exclusion of those
already weaned. These older children no longer live with their mothers
but are cared for by elder peers by day and (in a children’s sleeping
house) by night. A visitor from Ulaya might suppose that parental
neglect of a child, once weaned, would threaten its survival. But Kinga
evidence supports a contrary view: the undivided attention of the
mother during most or all of the precarious ‘first five years’ seems
to make a greater (and positive) difference. It is also important to
the fertility of the Kinga that daughters, a few years after weaning,
have begun to spend more and more time, when they aren’t caring for
small siblings, in helping their mothers with food preparation. In my
observation, the mother-daughter relationship during a girl’s pread-
olescent years is the closest of all family ties among Kinga. I found
the feeling-tone more sisterly than motherly. The next-close family
tie is that between older and younger brother—certainly not that
between father and son. A boy is expected to ‘grow wild’, fend for
himself, and thrive on risk. Usually the near brother will be five or ten
years ahead and inclined to be his brother’s guide to what comes

The male role in mammalian procreation can require, in its

minimal form, next to no distraction from other duties. In a human
social order the problem is to make room for paternity in a man’s
conception of those ‘other duties’. Kinga do this, as most other
societies do, primarily through the institution of marriage. But the
motivational context of Kinga marriage doesn’t include that

dramatic heightening of or conversion to heterosexual values in early
adulthood, which anthropologists so often find elsewhere. Much
world and time is wanted for conjugal arousal. The comfortable
domicile a non-Christian man built for his marriage in 1960 was still
regarded as hers, not theirs.

For men wherever the court culture prevailed, the bachelor

sexual adjustment was complemented not replaced by a monog-
amous marriage. A woman saw to spacing her children at four-to-five
year intervals, and in that interval didn’t expect to sleep with her
husband before she was ready for another pregnancy. The more
Spartan quarters of a men’s dormitory (barracks) suited him, in any
event, when there was a nursling about the private domicile. As for
women, it was the man’s story that nursing mothers were satisfied
without a sexual partner and only displayed their prodigious sexual
appetites after weaning the child. Lesbianism after marriage, where
it became explicit, was painted as a refuge for women afraid (from
traumatic experience) of pregnancy. I find the deep bond of nursing
was set up for a Kinga woman by absence of a deep-reaching, self-
possessing, sex-reinforced relationship of reciprocal dependency in
the marriage bond.

In Nyakyusa context

Where the age-village system was in operation among

Nyakyusa, delayed marriage for men was a function of the value
placed on polygyny and control of bridewealth cattle by a senior
generation. Girls in the 1930s were allowed no extended youth but
did in more-traditional areas enjoy at least an abbreviated
‘courtship’ phase. This was a time of closeted license which put a
pleasant end to childhood. Before the pax young bachelor men had
been at once protectors of their own and raiders of distant herds,
so standing in a position to constrain their elders’ monopoly tactics
in the bridewealth game. Though we know young men felt relatively
powerless as the game was being played two generations later, we
can’t quantify the difference pacification actually made in the
typical marriage age for men. The Wilsons estimated men normally
would be thirty to thirty-five before they were done working for their
fathers and able to set up as married land-holders. Calculating on
that basis, this would mean the older ruling generation was then
twice that age, and the Wilsons’ evidence suggested this would have
held for traditional times. So the change the colonial peace made
was to take their leverage away from youth and make gerontocratic
control of the women air-tight. We know Nyakyusa shared the Kinga
institution of a girls’ house (isaka in both languages), and the
Nyakyusa-speaking Ngonde retained the institution, delaying a

maiden’s marriage in more nearly Kinga fashion at the time of the
Wilsons’ fieldwork. But there is no evidence from Selya that a girl’s
bachelor phase was ever expected to last more than a few years into
her full adulthood. In fact, the ample evidence of male dominance
there in adulthood indicates a pattern distinct from the Kinga, as
does the Nyakyusa man’s strategic career interest in plural
marriage. But the arithmetic of the calculations about marriage age
has to be challenged.

The Selya ethnography seems to give us a nearly used-up

generation of men in the stem villages, by the time they are willing to
turn over power. But at the same time the age-depth of the new
generation runs from (say) 15 to 35—twenty years. Applying this
depth to the senior generation we get men in a range from 45 to 65.
They are sectioned into age cohorts, of which only the eldest would
in any sense be ready for retirement. Given the inheritance rules, a
fair number of the men even in the eldest cohort would be younger
brothers replacing a deceased founding member, and the process of
replacement would be continuing. All this gives us a new arithmetic,
and the gist of it is that the new generations setting out at a
Coming Out have to be seen as planting satellite villages to grow up
beside and among others still firmly established and still far from
ready to ‘step back’. It seems we will have to be satisfied with our
own mental sketches of the ground-plan of a chiefdom about five
years after a Coming Out. All we really know is that the more senior
of the bachelor age-villages of the chiefdom have been reallocated,
and there will be a flow of energy from the new sites and a flow of
cattle and women to them. We have a ‘world renewal’ by installments.

Unless we assume that homophilia persists in an age village,

though scorned as childish, right up to the point of its Coming Out,
we should be asking how these young men achieve their high
quotients of success in heterosexual enterprise, which is so evident
later on in their lives. An obvious implication of the Nyakyusa
arrangement would be that mature bachelor males were able to
hustle themselves informal access to married women. It is difficult
otherwise to understand their evident relegation of homosexuality
to youthful insouciance. By all accounts, young Nyakyusa of both
genders honoured public evening occasions in a euphoric and convinc-
ingly heterosexual style. By many accounts, aging polygynists had
no personal magic for satisfying the sexual requirements of young
wives, who normally spaced their children four or five years apart and
had rich opportunities for dalliance. The facts as we know them give
no confirmation for the notion that the young warriors of yesterday
were compliant in being frozen out of the heterosexual game to the
degree that, forty years later, even Christian young men still were.

Kinga women lived more fully within their own world than Nyakyusa
women could in theirs, and Kinga women went about within their
world with a far more autonomous air as individuals. Kinga men fully
accepted their moral exclusion from that world on any terms short
of marriage. Since attention to good manners is, but docility is not,
characteristic of Nyakyusa masculinity, the point to take is that as
long as bachelor men in their age-villages were seen to be compliant
the system would work.

It is a corollary that the peculiarly explicit moral emphasis on

peer solidarity, without which the whole age-village system could not
have worked, begins to make more sense when we see that the
bachelor life was undeniably a good one, maximizing and prolonging
the best rewards of youth. In this the two social systems of the Rift
Valley floor and the Livingstone Mountain slopes are matched again.
But you have to go far, to a region with developed age-class
systems, to find a similar treatment of men’s youth and young
adulthood. And that age-class system fits into a quite different
political nexus.

(4) Amity over kinship

The kinship-friendship balance in any human community is apt

to be a delicate one, even where the slant of public rhetoric is one-
sided. I have discussed the importance of amity for Kinga and some
neighbours in Twin Shadows, and the structural importance of the
two kinds of personal tie in The Idea of Social Structure. Here I am
concerned with the prominence of amity in Malatan political history. I
believe the kinship ethic as such was a weak force in the region from
early times. The main reason would have been continuous ethnic
mixing under a slow pattern of migratory drift into and within the
Rift Valley Corridor and associated Tanganyika highlands. The social
fabric there is loosely woven. Individuals pursue their own moral
strategies, their careers not fore-ordained or steered by group-
think. Neither men nor women live their lives out in the group they are
born to. In any case, the unit of local solidarity and military power is—
when you focus on actual membership—no proper ‘kin group’ at all.
Students of African social organization will see the significance of
this in relation to the rise of a Sowetan political archipelago.
Throughout the broader region, the emergence of chiefly authority is
associated with small local communities lacking clear-cut ethnic
identities. What is foreign to Sowetan society is the phenomenon of
clanship, where the clan is taken as a political building bloc deriving
its strength from pyramiding, bred-in-the-bone lineage loyalties.

That means the classic problem of achieving a transition from the
particularism of kinship to the pragmatism of political authority is

There was no easy way the prepolitical egalitarian communities

could have developed a translocal scale of organization through
‘filiation’ and ‘marriage rules’ when they had no solidary local or
translocal unilineal kin groups. Clans, even of the decidedly impure
sort we have learned to anticipate under the rhetorical surface of
life in ‘tribal’ Africa, were not available in a population area settled by
filtered-in, small-group colonization and imbued with a restless and
individualistic antipolitan ethic. I don’t argue George Peter Murdock’s
conception of Subsaharan Africa, with its social dynamics ever tied
to rules of descent, inheritance, and marriage, is irrelevant here.
Kinship is in the mix, though more important elsewhere in the region
than among Kinga. But friendship is the prime mover and main
bulwark of political loyalties. Consider the implications of an
antipolitan ethic: the man without friends in the community will
move away from trouble there, but where a man has many friends a
ruler can’t afford to lose the one for fear of losing many. Rulers must
be seen to be strong, but can’t afford it at the cost of being found

There are reasons for my readiness to read backward from the

cultural importance of amity ‘today’ to the regional culture of those
misty times when the ‘African middle ages’ were new. A direct
transition from kinship-organization to political is difficult to model.
Starting from the kind of kinship-friendship balance we find in the
regional bush cultures makes the modeling easier—the shift
becomes more credible. Taking a very broad view, the main historical
variable in accounting for differences between one Eastern Bantu
region and another may be the settlement pattern. In some regions
there is a history of ethnic consolidation on a large scale, often in
response to organized external ethnic pressures. There have been
fairly massive migrations. Then a pyramiding ‘clanship’ politics can be
the mechanism for the rise of a ‘primitive state’. But in the Corridor
region there was a continuous percolation of small parties into and
through the Rift Valley, mainly but not exclusively seeking
southward. Though the earliest movement of Bantu groups into and
within the region are believed to have been eastward, oral traditions
concerning later political colonization and the origins of local ethnic
mosaics point to a subsequent drift of small groups westward
(notably through what became Kinga country) toward the Rift valley.
The comparative turbulence of Nyakyusaland’s politics, and the
multiplex quality of its social and religious life, owe much to its

If Eastern Bantu peoples in less than 500 years spread three
thousand miles southward through sparsely settled lands from the
equatorial interlacustrine region to the Transvaal, it was not in
surges, waves, or mass movements. We aren’t dealing with conquest,
invasion, population displacement. In one form or another, the original
Bantu pattern of settlement in the Sowetan region would have been
migratory drift: discontinuous, purposive movements by small
groups toward proximate goals. The dominant motive for this kind of
migration is scouting good living conditions, and this kind of
pragmatic trial and error cumulates over many generations, given a
thin population of indigenes spread over a vast area. This is the
pattern of another well-known migratory settlement of continental
scale, the peopling of the Americas: after a first, thin peopling of the
continents by foragers, a gradual repopulation occurs through
migratory drift by carriers of more effective technics. The extent
and speed of movement is explained in the Bantu case not by finding
empty country but more likely by colonizing already lightly-settled
areas with the right tools and techniques to exploit them more

The result in the varied geography of a continent will be regions

of migratory cross-currents, backwaters, and mainstreams of
movement. The last may eventually see larger, concerted migrations
in force; but for Eastern Bantu that would mean in their Late Middle
Ages. For the Malatan region specifically, it is now pretty clear if only
on linguistic evidence that there never was a north-to-south
mainstream flow through the Corridor, and that pressure on the
resources of nature was still moderate at the time of the pax.

What seems to have happened in the Sowetan region after a

period of light settlement is continuation of migratory drift to,
across, and through the region of the Rift valley and its flanks, much
of it favouring hill country. The period I have in mind now is an era of
gradually developing availability of locally produced iron tools and
experience with new cultigens, from about 500 a.d. to 1500. I take it
to have been a long period of gradual and mainly peaceful change,
while new tools and technics were making more intensive agriculture
possible, specially adapted to the region’s ecological microzones.
Cattle and small herd animals were supporting new prosperity
wherever they could multiply; and this was true over the whole
extent of Bantu civilization. In the Sowetan region, relatively
isolated from major (Bantu and non-Bantu) ‘tribal’ movements, I
take it political development after 1500 a.d. until the middle
decades of the nineteenth century was evolutionary, not forced, but
increasingly led by the spear. Much of the old freedom of movement
continued in the Malatan subregion, and while transmuted by the

local political cultures was not replaced by ‘tribal’ boundaries, until
the pax.

The politicization of friendships supports a kind of individu-

alism rare in kinship societies. Kinship systems, whether patri- or
matrilineal, are important as rules for handling friend/foe relation-
ships among men. Where kinship is weakly sanctioned (depoliticized)
those relationships will hinge on other factors. One consequence will
be that a man’s personal standing depends less on birth, more on
proven character. This is the reason I must doubt primogeniture can
be used as a reliable key to the actual pattern of succession to high
office in Malatan communities. It is the very softening of birthright
that allows Kinga to proliferate the Sanga surname to favour new
lines of political loyalty without creating an unwieldy new dominance
order, and the Nyakyusa in similar fashion to have an ‘aristocratic’
rank which fades away with disuse.

Important members of the two élites, the (aristocratic/

exogenous) political and the (commoner/ indigenous) ritual élite,
could each maintain some distance from lesser kinsmen, and so
generally operate as independent agents unbeholden to factions
within their community. Professional priesthoods emerged which
were linked on a non-military professional basis and enjoyed a reach
across political boundaries comparatively unencumbered by political
jealousies. The political career of a Kinga prince could begin in peer-
democratic intimacy, moving through the collegial life of the
barracks, to overnight ritual elevation to a status out of ordinary
reach. In like manner, the Nyakyusa chief, after a life half spent in free
intercourse with bosom peers, could be anointed successor to a
mystically magnified office: henceforth, he will cultivate the respect
due a man who is known to carry a python in his belly. Men will
hesitate to cross him. The three cultural solutions (Kinga, Nyakyusa
as of Selya, and Ngonde) worked out by the two élite professions are
remarkably distinctive and, for that, the more instructive. In the
Ngonde case, we find that traditionally all close kin-peers to the
chosen successor to the Kyungu (theocratic) throne must be put to
death by the priesthood. This could hardly be required only to
protect the new ruler from hostile rivals, since the priests alone had
the wherewithal of bestowing office. More likely, it was to cut the
Kyungu away from his friends and his secular past—to execute an
apotheosis. ‡

It is the difficult social engineering required of priests and

princes in this formative period before the European pax which we
must have in mind as context, if we’d understand how the politics of
fear came to play out so distinctively in each cultural community. The

methodological problem is ‘archaeological’: reconstructing from
fragmentary texts we chance to find still strewn like shards about
the field of play. The idea is to reconstruct what is still knowable of
their context, the once-living world from which they survive as
scattered relics. Reconstruction is interpretive not demonstrative,
and may be seen to rest on fuzzy logic, but without context none of
the evidence can be assigned clear meaning.

In Kinga context

The metaphor of ‘social engineering’ becomes appropriate

(replacing the blander, autotrophic ‘social construction of reality’) as
soon as political power is seen to have a centre. Amity is engineered
in the Sanga court by eliminating competition among young men for
females, substituting kudos; and by condoning non-possessive
homophilia. Kinship loyalties are undermined in several ways but in no
way disgraced. The system of recruiting young men to the court,
even renaming them, reshuffles men (in a nominally patrilineal
society) without regard to paternity. Land allocation is not by
filiation but by a nominal contract of clientage wherein the linear
representative of the original settler of a locality enjoys privileged
status; but the term of his privilege is short, as land once granted
does not revert to him, and the right of a patron is expressed rather
in an economic than a political idiom. Ritual avoidance of intimacy is
required between father and son, quite in the style of an add-on
incest taboo; and there is no expectation that sons will settle by
their fathers, though intimacy between brothers is specially privi-
leged. In general, personal loyalties are to peers not parents. After
weaning, a growing boy’s ‘mothers’ (women from whom he can expect
nourishment) are so many he need hardly fear being orphaned,
though the same does not apply to a girl. As the male life cycle turns
around peer alliance but without featuring exclusive dyadic ties, so
does the female. Kinga of either gender are expected to be open to
new friendships yet faithful to old throughout their active years.
Loneliness is deplored. Suspicion of betrayal by a friend is known
especially to men and deeply disturbs them.

I deem the royal court’s proliferation of ‘Sangas’ to have been a

major strategy for damping the fires of kinship. There is a certain
irony here, as the nominal function of bestowing one’s name on an
‘orphan boy’ would be to give him important rights in a kin group. But
in this case the court in effect is making the person an orphan by the
same move. He ceases to belong to his putative birth-lineage.
Moreover, the massive production of male offspring at court, all of
them calling one man their father and few receiving any tangible

career advantage over the talented ‘orphan boy’, dilutes the kinship
value of the Sanga name in favour of a political meaning. The spatial
dispersion of the settlement pattern for men still belonging to non-
Sanga surname categories, when combined with a de-emphasis of
kinship ceremonies, further dilutes kinship to the point that chiefly
politics has little to fear from kin sodalities which might oppose it.
This is a point of radical difference between the Kinga and Nyakyusa

In Nyakyusa context

Monica Wilson’s first account of Nyakyusa age villages, Good

Company, takes its name from the insistence on amity among male
peers who were expected to live in political community from boyhood
to age. We are told that a man accused of veiled hostility might be
exiled as a witch, though after prolonged residence elsewhere might
return. How much circulation of this kind took place we can’t know,
nor what mixes of motive may have been entailed in such roving. But
taking an overall view I find two clear facts suggesting the internal
movement of men and women had been persistent from the very
start of the state-building centuries. A fair level of linguistic
homogeneity characterizes the whole of the Ngonde-Nyakyusa
territory; and the advanced political-ritual culture, which by the
nineteenth century extended throughout, everywhere shows
morphological continuity: the family resemblance of these institu-
tions from chiefdom to chiefdom bespeaks their shaping by a trans-
local community of priests. Further, the wide political dispersion of
agnatic kinsmen, persisting still in the 1930s, speaks for itself.

Boys of a village in Selya worked together in their fathers’

fields and engaged together in raiding and warfare. But in the model
life cycle there was (unlike the Kinga) little mixing about. Where
individual Kinga would have each his different set of special friends,
amity for Nyakyusa men was rather (in a quasi-political sense)
comradely. Monica Wilson describes it as obligatory, enforced by ‘the
breath of men’, which is thought to act (as a sort of floating
mystical sanction) against secretive antisociality. All of this is
pretty foreign to the Kinga way of thinking, which openly condones
eccentricity and leaves grumblers to grumble alone.

Peer solidarity in the age village does resemble kinship

solidarity in its sanctioning of primary loyalties, and the father-son
relationship is decidedly authoritarian among Nyakyusa though its
local context is no ‘local kin group’. Kinship itself, however, is richly
sanctioned by ritual—something quite missing from Kinga

experience, where a funeral is closer to a moot than a rite, and
generates no festivities. Only a kin group with ‘central direction’ (e.g.,
an authoritarian family or minimal lineage) would possess the
sanction of ostracism. For the most part, kinship societies depend
on interlacing ‘loyalty networks’ not an authoritarian hierarchy, and
the rights which come with membership are inalienable. Nyakyusa kin
groups are of this sort: finite but unbounded. The age village, having
no kinship nexus at all, only augmented amity, exiles but does it in a
manner which tags it voluntary. A man begins to be seen as a witch.
The ‘breath of men’ leads to confrontation. The man moves off to a
far chiefdom. Years later he may return to his home village—he has
not lost his claims there. This favours the antipolitan ethic of the
region, which justifies a person moving on to escape from trouble. It
also bears analogy to the tight sort of family system we know from
the parable of the prodigal son.

But as elsewhere, a witch can be formally accused when the

allegation is hard meant. Then the accused will ask for the poison
ordeal, which will be licensed but never initiated by the chief. To be
exonerated a person must vomit. As the accuser also must take the
poison, and as the dose is a harmless one, the innocent will know no
fear. The chances then are better than even that one or both
contestants will be found guilty and will be driven out. Losers must
usually leave a cow or two behind, confiscated to feed and cool out
the community injured by all this unfriendliness. In true exiles of this
kind there is no voluntarism, and the exile is unlikely ever to return.
Since blame has been fixed by a mystical truth-finding procedure,
the bonds of amity can be terminated without leaving a legacy of kin-
like ambivalence behind. ‡

The great lesson of this jural procedure concerns the

structure of Nyakyusa society: exile is sanction enough (though men
may say a witch ought to be speared) because the social world of
the Chiefdom is the world in which amity must reign. Other
chiefdoms of the country we now call Nyakyusaland (and think of as
some sort of political unit) were always politically out of bounds.
Though kinship crossed those lines, politically sanctioned amity
didn’t. Games of intimacy and claims of right in the name of amity, as
played among peers, belonged to the village itself, extending (as one
may sense from behaviour at funerals) to other age-graded villages
of a chiefdom under somewhat more formal rules. Brothers and half-
brothers were systematically scattered among all these villages,
and a functionalist will easily find support in the ethnography for the
thought that this diffusion of fraternal ties through the whole
chiefdom would have been a major source of its unity.

Amity and kinship combine almost seamlessly in a society
which gives primacy to the former. Parties of young men from other
chiefdoms had access through kinship to important funerals, and
would be expected to pick fights there. Agonistic encounters like
this were probably as important as formal battle in strengthening
political identity within a fully established chiefdom, but would have
shown up the weakness of others. In times of turbulence, when the
inner moorings of social identity and loyalty are not strengthened by
stress they are weakened. As in kinship societies, where the puzzles
of social history so often lie in explaining why some lineages thrive
while others wane and disappear, so with Nyakyusa chiefdoms. The
politics of amity is as dense a subject as kinship itself. It is only too
easy to forget, in reading what Nyakyusa say about themselves,
that every chiefdom was destined to split before its generational
cycle ended, pitting brother against brother. This applies not just to
the chosen leaders of each new ‘side’ of the old community but all
the way down the line, for brothers generally grow up in separate age
villages. All this is in spite of the fact that at death a man’s next full
brother is the legal heir to his place in the world. Here as elsewhere
kinship apparently survives betrayal better than mere amity.

Analysis in these terms discloses a steep contrast between

the moral careers of Kinga and Nyakyusa men. If Nyakyusa favoured
letting a younger brother follow his elder brother into the same peer
circle the result would be sexual intimacy between the two. This
would entail deep moral dissonance in a relationship where inher-
itance rules allow an older son to move, on the father’s decease, into
paternal authority over a younger son. To avoid this, Nyakyusa use
the age village system to prevent such intimacy developing between
brothers. The moral maze within which a Kinga boy pursues the good
life features rather a father one must avoid—even avoid serving—
and an elder brother one must love. So far as I am aware, this
arrangement is unique to Kinga culture within the Eastern Bantu
world, and fairly accounts for the uniquely transitive nature of a
Kinga man’s privileged intimacy with a brother’s wife.


Sowetan protostates in regional context

Origins of the political archipelago

The physical setting of the Sowetan political archipelago is the

large inland sector of Tanzania still conveniently called the Southern
Highlands. There is a relatively high rainfall area describing a broad
crescent running south and west from the town of Iringa, curving
finally further westward to sit over the northern end of Lake Malawi.
For the most part the lands included in this sweep are high, ranging
between 1000 and 2500 metres, but the lakeshore is lower at
about 500 metres and the Rift Valley floor which Nyakyusa occupy
rises as you move northwest from the lake to about 1500 metres.
Apart from uNyakyusa, most of the developed political centres are
high enough to be relatively cool and malaria-free. The highland
vegetation as typed in the early twentieth century includes grass-
lands, especially wooded grasslands, woodlands, and forest. Rains
range from moderate to heavy and the seasons from December-
March to November-May. The better cattle areas are low-lying, the
better gardening high. I speak of a ‘political archipelago’ rather than a
‘political belt’ or ‘crescent’ because protostate development
appeared (and remained into documented times) in separate ethnol-
inguistic centres, island fashion, with buffer zones of independent
bush cultures between. Historically, none of the five protostates I
include in this regional study were ever cut off from one another. A
simple proof of that is that Kinga smiths dealt with all of them.

Communication from one end of the archipelago to the other

was for the most part indirect. But information moved through
plains as well as highlands; intermediaries were of various types; and
the region as a whole was in touch with commercial centres on the
far coast, and southward or westward with shore peoples on the
two great lakes of which all these peoples were aware. I consider it
certain that political thinking in the archipelago was influenced well
before the nineteenth century by news of Arab and Portuguese
commercial activities to south and north, and by tales inspired by
coastal towns and great kingdoms as far away as Zimbabwe or the
Interlacustrine region. The movement of political news from within

the archipelago would obviously have been of a more businesslike
sort, but specifically political contacts were probably few, or of no
great moment, before the nineteenth century.

It is apparent that each case of political development calls for

its own history and reflects both local peculiarities of place and
culture. Events are precipitated interculturally by a dual process of
social differentiation within and political expansion outward, which
characterizes the chiefly organization of power. The same principles
apply at higher steps of magnitude when you broaden your historical
horizons, toward the ‘evolution’ of (say) Eastern Bantu civilization:
the evolution of a cultural system is only history seen obscurely. A
theoretical possibility still exists that we might acquire more
cultural information bearing on the political past of each of the
Malatan peoples, but the possible sources are rapidly narrowing to
retrospective linguistics and archaeological studies. The more
specific understanding we can hope to gain from ethnographically
based comparative analysis is presumably going to be limited forever
by what is already on record. While our ignorance is therefore, and will
remain, abysmal, that does not excuse our applying what general
knowledge we have of ‘social evolution’ (how things have gone
elsewhere) to interpreting the texts we are given.

Working on that premise, and working out perforce from my

own fieldwork area, I have wanted to explore the political processes
which have carried a series of bush cultures out of an egalitarian
existence in separate pedestrian communities into what I call
protostate patterns. These are systems of political organization
from which a full turn back is unlikely. They lead on, or would if we can
imagine them continuing so long uninterrupted, to the kind of large-
scaled human societies we know as statelike and ultimately as
urban. There is something special to learn of human history (apart
from the likelihood of interruptions) from such a case: we stand
closer in time to the real circumstances of state formation with an
Eastern Bantu people than with most.

I offer no special suggestion as to why the archipelago arose

where and when it did. It seems to me enough to have in mind that
Eastern Bantu civilization some half-millennium ago had been
reaching the stage where translocal trade and political development
could be expected to occur in most suitable areas between the
equator and Zimbabwe. I find it more appropriate than postulating
general propositions about the evolution of all political culture to
examine the hard evidence we have of how very different these
nascent protostates can be, while arising contemporaneously and
interactively within a single regional culture and in the larger context

of a remarkably homogeneous civilization. The Eastern and Western
Bantu-speakers, taken together, comprise a recent overlay on
diverse earlier African peoples, the product of a phenomenal
migratory spread beginning hardly two millennia ago. The overlay
process was one of assimilation and economic development not
displacement. Within the continental latitudes we are considering,
only a few islets of pre-Bantu settlement remained unassimilated
when the ‘colonial freeze’ began. I found, to give an example, a little
community of little people—somatically San (Khoisan), linguistically
Kinga—continuing under Sanga rule.

Archaeology will in its own good time tell us of many islands

which had not held out so long, and perhaps of other such sweeping
movements of rapidly increasing, ethnically linked, and technically
advantaged peoples like the Bantu in Africa. What we can say for now
is that there has rarely been such a long, wide spread of ‘stirring
times’ and never so close in time to the rise of an empowered global
curiosity able to investigate it.

Considering the different paths this particular array of

neighbour peoples pursued toward social complexity, I think the
defining condition for the birth of a protostate process is not suzer-
ainty or hegemony but authority of translocal scope: not a merging
of one basic, pedestrian-sized community with another but their
pyramidal alignment through indigenous rulers. The politics of suzer-
ainty come later. The condition is neither allodium or feodum, since
there is no comprehensive legal infrastructure against which the
pertinent system of rights could be adjudicated or modified. The
adjective ‘domanial’ does apply, since the ‘inward’ autonomy of each
pedestrian community is primal, but applying the term doesn’t help
explain the pyramidal alignment. In the protostates I describe there
can be no presumption that the central domain a (ruled by a ‘high
prince’ for Kinga, or a superior ‘chief’ or unrivaled ‘prince’ for
Nyakyusa) can count on the support of domains b, c within the realm
for help in putting down a rebellious lord d, who has refused to offer
his wonted tribute. The boss is the boss because he can and will do
the police work himself. Should he fail, the pyramid would persist only
in modified form, even over time to budding off or accommodating to
a new centre: it will not dissolve because it will continue to have
recognized exterior rivals of a matching translocal order. In short, a
set of translocal polities has evolved within the territory of an
extended ethnic community; a founding premise is universal political
rivalry among the pedestrian domains comprised, with higher-tier
rivalry emerging among segments; and in each domain a legitimate,
unrivaled ruling authority vested in a chosen person. The translocal
authority is emergent, construing a constitutional past in light of

apprehended future needs for alliance, and only as strong as the
practical expressions of such use, in the symbolism of tribute or
inclusive tributary rites addressed to higher than mortal authority.
‘Divine kings’ if we have them at all among Kinga and Nyakyusa are not
addressed as living gods.

In the Nyakyusa case, the formative process will be rerun in the

manner already discussed for each major political segment (realm,
chiefdom) with the promulgation of a fresh set of local domains at
about thirty-year intervals. This procedure is an accommodation to
the absence in Konde constitutional thinking of a ‘demesne’, land
attached to a domain, such that the polity can reproduce itself in
the reproductive lives of descendent governments and their publics.
Instead, failing the ‘natural’ route to corporate perdurance, new
fledgling domains must be founded at appropriate intervals, centred
in new cohorts of male descendants of the realm, whose careers will
overlap, backward and forward, the old and the next subsequent
political cohorts. In the Kinga case the situation becomes fluid (if
much less regularly) whenever the dominance order within a realm is
successfully challenged, and this inaugurates an expansive or refor-
mative mode as new local rulers seek to recruit and accommodate
new followings. In either case, the power-adjustments are inherently
turbulent, but now in a warlike, political mode as the power to recruit
becomes essential to establishing legitimate rule on the new plan.

In either case, too, it may seem that turbulence must readily

turn into chaos. It does not because the fighting is fundamentally
intrasocial. Failing to understand that, with its premises and impli-
cations, has long been a stumbling block to our understanding of the
role of force in political evolution. One reason is that a highly
developed kinship politics with a rhetoric of its own has masked the
control of turbulence under the guise of ‘tribalism’. That is, while
‘uncontrolled warfare’ could be seen to prevail at the margins of
‘tribes’, segmentary rivalry within any such community, being
‘intrasocial’, was limited in ferocity in accordance with the degree of
‘kinship’ entailed. What we have found in the Malatan cases under
scrutiny unmasks the strategic nature of intrasocial temperance.

In the case, at least, of Eastern Bantu civilization, an early

expansive settlement process was effected by migratory drift and
piecemeal colonizing stratagems, not by pushing forward an ethnic
frontier or otherwise extending domination on a territorial basis.
The Bantu ‘peoples’ involved in and resulting from this process were
at any time loose alliances of intermarried clusters organized on a
flexible or shifting network basis. The model which best fits the
facts as we can know them would not presuppose ‘tribal’ or ‘band’

loyalties, or stress a pyramidal structure of ‘unilineal descent
groups’. The emphasis would rather be on a type of network ties
making use of both kinship and amity, and creating clusters rather
than bounded localities on the ground. Network ties of this kind are
not cut off by common boundaries, since no two individuals (unless
we think of newborn twins) are structurally placed quite alike. It is as
local populations increase and shifting movements become less free
that political units begin to form and stabilize as ‘local domains’ of
pedestrian size with a recognized centre.

But this first step toward the building of a protostate would

happen, especially in broken terrain, only gradually and unevenly. The
first appearance of translocal structuration would be in the familiar
‘tiling’ pattern (stretched and warped to fit a terrain) of settle-
ments on the ground. The Sanga protostate was by most measures
one of the stablest in the archipelago by the end of the nineteenth
century; but German maps show its northern and eastern marches
inhabited by peoples (Mawemba and others) too scattered and
uncentralized to have earned administrative recognition under
either Germans or British. Wherever there were not roads, missions,
native courts, and colonial government stations, to the day the
British gave up power in Tanganyika there remained a bush culture
hardly touched by foreign contact. Within a day’s walk from the
Sanga capital of Ukwama, scores of small hamlets had survived,
hidden by the bush and terrain from all the amenities, indignities, and
novel experiences of the twentieth century. All this is despite best
estimates which put the origins of the Sanga courts and their un-
bush-like political system back four centuries.

The survival in this mountainous country of a hidden bush

culture is possibly the only real basis for admitting that Kingaland
under the British was, as Boma officers at Njombe were prone to
say, sheltered and ‘conservative’ by reason of its remote setting.
Mountainous regions are famous for this sort of thing. Granted
that these Livingstone mountains have no local ‘yeti’ myth, they are
widely known for their flying python (dragon) divinities. It is true
enough that the Sanga courts were spared the coming and going of
traffic which so affected the main centres of Hehe and Bena life
under the pax. But Kingaland was mightily disrupted by the 1914 war.
Missions with their schools, government courts of record, and
roads-in from Njombe town insured afterward that the main centres
of Kinga population were far from fully sheltered. The peculiar sophis-
tication of those centres, and the individualism fostered there,
meant the decline of the old power system was matched by rising
interest in the new. Young women, in particular, were drawn to the
missions. Then with the growth in British times of tea and wattle

estates (far away in warmer parts of the extended region) bachelor
men of the court centres took to migrant labour as a substitute for
the old barracks life, whose rationale had disappeared. By 1960 this
meant the great majority of adult men were fluent in Swahili and well
acquainted with town life. Ironically, this left the defense of native
conservatism to the fully disarmed old male power élite, uncon-
verted women, self-secluding smiths, and well dispersed bush

The importance of Sanga sophistication to the Kinga

experience of the colonial decades stands out when you consider the
Pangwa, linguistically and culturally the nearest of Kinga neighbours.
Fr. Stirnimann’s two-volume ethnography of the Pangwa, concen-
trating as it does on folk custom not ‘deep culture’, virtually supplies
my need for understanding the principles which would have informed
the economic adjustment, the organization of community life, and
the ritual practice of pre-Sanga Kinga. I don’t suggest ‘Pangwa
culture’ replicates ‘pre-Sanga culture’ in detail. To begin with, that
would mean reifying the idea of culture as applied on either side:
Kinga are not made to a template, nor are Pangwa. Families, hamlets,
sections, domains, and realms have each their own peculiarities on
the Kinga side; and Fr. Stirnimann reports just such internal
linguistic and cultural differences on the Pangwa side as well. But the
greater absurdity would be assuming four centuries of Pangwa
history would have passed without change. What can be supposed to
have continued, as any archaeologist will bear out, is a basic
ecological and demographic plan, a pre-medieval level of adjustment
associated with acephalous politics and pre-intensive or shifting
agriculture, and with open patterns of settlement. I have described
this elsewhere as ‘level one’ in a developmental scheme for the region.
Many sorts of change can accrue in a ‘level one’ community without
any escalation. ‡

All the same, Kinga and Pangwa as partners in a persisting

regional culture were in close contact all through the medieval and in
particular the early-colonial period. Pangwa usages, as recorded in
the 1960s on the basis of living recall by aging male informants, do
match the Kinga similarly recorded then, and match them
remarkably well when Sanga-specific elements are set apart. The
match in this pairing is system-wide but is much spottier for Kinga
when paired with other acephalous neighbours: Mawemba, Wanji,
Magoma, and Kisi. Three reasons may be adduced and are perhaps
equally relevant: The regional culture at the dawn of the medieval
period, before the rise of a political archipelago, may have shown a
similar areal pattern of variation following ecological clines; the
Livingstone Mountain area shared by Kinga and Pangwa may have

better protected these two peoples from disruptive external
contacts through most of the period; and (turning to regionally
internal disruptions) only the Pangwa among these Kinga neighbours
escaped being drawn—always marginally, always to some limited
extent—into the transformative state-building processes of the

One can point to low population densities and the slow rate of
change prevailing in these highlands. It was the British boma
(bringing to bear a mandated government systematized only when
the colonial era was half done) that saw an arbitrary Kinga-Pangwa
boundary laid down, leaving at least one ‘Kinga’ community (per
earliest German maps) alienated to a Pangwa court of adminis-
tration. Boma documents say nothing of this. The Kinga-biased
history I got was that Sanga rule was in process of establishment
across the Mgiwi river before the Maji fighting erupted. If so, this
account would confirm the southward direction of Sanga expansion
from the Eastern Kinga realm, which a concerted oral history claims.

But Pangwa were not so fortunate as to survive to the eve of

the twentieth century in a quiet backwater. Where the Kinga were
able to make the Ngoni invaders convincingly unwelcome, the
thoroughly decentralized Pangwa were caught militarily unprepared
and suffered radical disruption and displacement over the two
generations before the pax. The best way to understand the Kinga
role in these forty years of invasive disruption is to say the Sanga
princes were able to meet attacks by Ngoni and later Hehe forces
well enough to feel themselves safely in control of their mountain
slopes region. While their spokesmen didn’t say so, knowing and
believing in their story in heroic terms, the Sanga courts must have
been greatly strengthened by popular fear of external invasion from
the 1840s onward.

The Wanji (north from the Kinga but still at the high-plateau
level) during the same times of troubles were drawn inadvertently
into alliance with the Sangu (another full step northward and
downhill) in wars with Hehe, though it seems the fighting never quite
moved up the escarpment into Wanji country itself. The Wanji
economy may simply not have been fat enough to divert a loot-
seeking enemy. The Wanji communities farthest from the turmoil of
the 1870s, and removed from the missions and schools set up in
German times, came through the pax itself largely self-sheltered by
their native isolationism from acculturative contact.

The Magoma as they came to be under the pax were a bush

community marginal to Mahanzi and Kinga, but had been politically

colonized by a small party of refugee Sangu warriors shortly before
the pax. The Kisi on the lakeshore were potmakers and fishers who
traded primarily northward along the shore with Nyakyusa, but
traded also with Kinga. These three Kinga neighbours, Wanji,
Magoma, and Kisi, were small ethnic communities assigned for
administrative convenience to the Kinga Native Administration and
its courts when Indirect Rule was set up (1926) by the British.

As for the fifth and final of the acephalous peoples encircling

the Kinga, one group of the Mawemba were also assigned to the
Sanga court at Ukwama but managed to get themselves realigned
as Bena subjects on the ground that communications eastward
were less difficult. The Mawemba people have never been the subject
of a systematic count, were never treated as a distinct ethnic group
by the British, and have never been systematically studied. Like the
Pangwa, they were always thinly distributed over large areas. Unlike
the Pangwa, they were marginal to two developing protostates, the
Kinga and the Bena, in circumstances which allowed them to play a
‘boundary man’ game. Still in 1960 they identified as Bena to the
Kinga and as Kinga to the Bena, so hoping to be left alone. My Kinga
informants assured me this had always been practice, and what bits
of harder evidence I found did confirm the possibility. But the
clearest benefit of their boundary-man status emerges when we
compare their story with that of the Pangwa during the long period
of turmoil initiated by Ngoni invasions. Mawemba country compared
to Bena, Kinga, and even Pangwa is ecologically marginal, lacking the
occasional verdant valley lands which can support extended settle-
ments and some intensive agriculture. Pangwa country, which was
virtually undefended, offered such lands, and the stronger invaders
soon found them. For Ngoni, settling in the ambiguous lands (i.e.
Mawemba) between two armed protostates could have been no real
alternative even if some bits of the country had looked especially

Will the full history of Ngoni adventures in the southern half of

Tanganyika, when it is as fully known as can be, bear out my suppo-
sition that the Sowetan political archipelago was quite well
developed before 1840? My reasons for supposing so are both
morphological and narrative. Narrative in that my account of Ngoni
fortunes, from their first entering the Corridor region to their
eventual rassemblement in what became the Songea District under
the pax, presupposes their settling perforce in marginal country
among acephalous peoples—failing, that is, to hold their own and
hold together in competition for living space with Nyakyusa, Kinga, or
Bena just as they are known to have failed in their contacts with
Sangu and Hehe armies. Morphological evidence for the time depth

of the Sowetan archipelago is discussed in Four Realms and
elsewhere. The Sanga political system is a close cousin to the Bena
and to the Hehe system described by Ernst Nigmann. The Sangu, as
nearly as one can tell, are not of the same tradition; and what the
Kinga have in common with the Nyakyusa is somewhat less on the
plane of political than social organization. This leaves the Hehe-
Bena-Kinga chain in the archipelago an historical entity linked by
overlap to another, the Kinga-Nyakyusa-Ngonde chain.

Hehe were first brought together as an amalgam of more than

a dozen independent peoples of indefinitely related cultures spread
about the eastern part of the Ruaha river basin in south central
Tanganyika. This massive alliance was brought about by a program-
matic series of intraregional wars of conquest waged during the two
decades after 1855, and reflects the success of one Munyingumba,
who parlayed a small hereditary chiefship in the south into a regional
military alliance in which he played the tyrant’s role. To interpret the
few bits of the puzzle we can be sure of, it is important to know that
all this consolidation within the region was achieved before any
sharp, warlike external pressure would have been felt. We have to deal
with a response to news of danger and high adventure. Partly, the
goal would have been a rassemblement in favour of caravan raiding or
taxing, in the manner of the exploitative front being formed even
then in the Western region under Mirambo (the ‘corpse-maker’) of
the Wanyamwezi. Munyigumba did not famously engage the Sangu
until 1875-7, and had a final standoff with the Ngoni in 1878-9
shortly before his death. Yet the Hehe by that time were a coherent
regional force not a loose alliance of local commands, and were
engaged in the accumulation of booty by slaughter of their African
neighbours in all directions. They were even then preparing to
compete with the Masai for pickings from the caravan trade in ivory
and slaves passing to their north between Ujiji and the coast. ‡

A long struggle for the succession followed Munyigumba’s

death but actually ended with the emergence of a second tyrant of
instantly heroic stature in the person of a favoured son, Mkwawa.
The short work he in turn made of welding the quarrelling parts of a
kingdom into a single nation suggests that war and the business of
building a lifestyle on booty had become the focus of the new gener-
ation he led. Hehe military enterprise was in a class with the Sangu
and Ngoni. Although the Bena, living between Songea Ngoni (to their
south) and the Hehe, were swept into the wars, it was not by would-
be tyrants of their own, and the effect was far from unifying their
several chiefdoms. Explanation may lie in the character of Bena
political culture. There as with Kinga the politics of fear seems to
have tended in style more to the symbolic than the savage. I have

elsewhere discussed the way political theatre was able to sublimate
neighborly aggression between Kinga realms, and the Culwicks report
Bena sentiments to match: war “was the king of sports and the road
to wealth and honour.” Whereas eyewitness reports from the
Malatan region and from Kinga folk memory make this credible,
another chapter of the same folk memory concerns blood and gore
with no relief. This was from external wars where the ethical infra-
structure we call community or a common culture was set aside, and
the sporting metaphor quite lost. ‡

Acephalous communities in the regional culture

An adequate study of the ‘bush cultures’ of the whole region,

had it been done in time—centuries ago—would likely have shown a
more even pattern of family resemblances, institution for insti-
tution, throughout the region than we can posit on the information
we have. That is one speculation. Others come to mind if I pose the
interesting question as to how populous these boundary-straddling
settlements may have been in the special conditions of a medieval
Eastern Africa—how far did some of them form as refuges from (for
example) Sanga politicking? Then there is the difficult business of
taking into account a factor which goes by such names as ‘cultural
intensity’, ‘sophistication’, or ‘complexity’. This factor has been basic
to my conceptual modeling of Kinga culture as having the two poles,
court and bush. The metaphor of a ‘political archipelago’ makes little
sense if we do not assume that institutional complexity in the
organization of power brings with it a like complexity in the other
major spheres of culture, so transforming the condition of a people
with respect to its future—a transformation we are apt to measure
on a scale of ‘emergence’ or ‘evolution’.

The Pangwa, stateless and untransformed into the 1920s,

compare for social complexity rather with the ‘orphaned’ commu-
nities of the bush cultures peripheralized by the rise of the Sowetan
political archipelago than with Kinga court culture. What is special
about the Pangwa is that both ecologically and socially they consti-
tuted a securely established and self-confident population but
never an integral people. They numbered (most probably, about
1840) between twenty and twenty-five thousand, politically decen-
tralized and scattered often thinly over an area larger than the
combined lands of uKinga and uNyakyusa, which bore a tenfold
population. The Pangwa had not been marginalized by history, only
left pretty well alone. But this ended with invasion at the midpoint
of the nineteenth century.

The official position on Pangwa in 1960 at the British colonial
Boma at Njombe was that the name applied to an extensive, under-
organized, and underpopulated area rather than to a distinctive
people. The missionized Pangwa studied by Fr. Stirnimann were
descendants of a half-century of turmoil beginning about 1850,
brought about by Ngoni scavenger bands who scattered settled
populations throughout the country, appropriating stores, livestock,
women, and boys. Ngoni here and there set themselves up as rulers,
exacting tribute in food and beer. Only in the early decades of
German contact does Ngoni dominance disappear from the carto-
graphic record on the northern (Pangwa) side of the Ruhuhu river. By
then the still-unassimilated Pangwa who had been carried off
southward as slaves and warriors had begun their return and were
reestablishing their communities. Two Ngoni groups had reached
uPangwa through uKinga, where Sanga forces had out-fought or out-
bluffed them. Pangwa had never been disposed to defend their terri-
tories; like ‘bush Kinga’ and Mawemba their strategy of defense was

Kinga settlements south of the Mgiwi-Nyangara river, which

became the official (British) border between the two peoples, appear
on the early German maps, where Pangwa locations are also marked.
It is certain that Pangwa were disrupted and displaced throughout
the land by Ngoni; in some parts it is certain that there was much
loss of life, and many boys were taken as recruits; but most Ngoni
moved on southward to another frontier and then to full-scaled
warfare (especially over cattle) with Hehe and Bena. Oral evidence
makes it clear the Kinga in what came to be called Pangwa country
were settlers (colonizers) before all these troubles began. Later on,
early in the 1905-7 uprising against the Germans, virtually all spear-
carrying men of the Sanga Eastern realm were massacred and the
land devastated. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of refugees
escaped across the rivers to Pangwa country where they were safe,
and where some children grew to maturity before they dared return
to reclaim the land. It is as well to review this history if only to re-
emphasize the extent to which the heritors of colonial thinking have
overcommunicated the integral nature of the Sowetan ‘peoples’ by
supposing they were ethnic groups with territorial identities and
hard-edged borders. The main difference between the Kinga of the
Eastern realm and the Pangwa with whom they had always easily
intermixed was the importance of the Sanga courts to men on the
Kinga side of a (seasonally traversible) river.

But a history of troubles almost always misleads by dwarfing

the importance of social and cultural continuity. Time and the pax
have turned matters around, and Pangwa culture looks seamless in

Fr. Stirnimann’s study, just as that of Lupila ( just across the
northern ‘tribal’ border of uPangwa) was for me. For all the past
devastation on either side of the dividing river, the people who put
things back together were or became mainly Pangwa on the one side
and mainly Kinga on the other. The last time of crisis was already half
a century back when our fieldwork was done, and the British adminis-
tration had pretty well levelled the political scene for the region as a
whole. Only our eldest informants had known the pre-pax cultures
directly, and they mostly as children. Fr. Stirnimann’s Pangwa have
reduced the Kinga settlements and incursions (about which we know
from hard records) to a story in the very style Sanga tellers favour—
there is a Kinga figure, a sort of demi-prince, who came to teach and
lead, and whose line the British came to favour when they found the
great Pangwa District they had laid out contained no chief. The whole
‘founder-hero’ tale is there, only lacking the hero’s gift of seed he had
carried in his hair.

How far should we suppose that earlier Kinga colonization may

have affected the social organization of some Pangwa communities?
Probably the modest Kinga settlement south of the Mgiwi river
helped to broker some mutual influence; but that had always been a
feature of the regional culture, since ethnic boundaries where
tangible at all had always been porous. In the end, the main change to
Pangwa circumstance was probably better access to the big,
efficient Kinga hoe blades. There was no sign, in any event, that
translocal politics had taken hold. The political summit was simply at
the centre of any pedestrian community then; and only two or three
of the larger Pangwa settlements would have been strong enough to
regain a coherent identity after the Ngoni incursions were past. If I
may judge by what I learned from Wanji and marginal Kinga, the
strength of the ‘anarchic’ bush community was its ability to
disperse before external threat. Everyone then lived close by some
forests and knew how to lose an enemy and find safety there.

Pangwa by 1960 were as profoundly affected by mission

schools and the secular changes of the pax as Kinga were. But
among the three mountain peoples—Wanji, Kinga, and Pangwa—I
know from my own walkabouts that the first two harboured many
unmapped ‘bush’ communities jealous of their immunity from these
sources of modernizing change. I suppose that, given the size of the
Pangwa area and the sparse pattern of settlement, and given the
picture afforded by British tour reports, the same should apply
there in spades. Should an observer-stranger pass by chance from
such a community on the Kinga side of the District line into one on
the Pangwa, would he or she find they spoke differently, told
different stories, raised and ate different foods, and organized their

domestic lives categorically according to ‘Kinga’ and ‘Pangwa’
templates? I think not. When it comes to cultural distinctions of
this order—what one finds in a few days’ visit—the best predictor of
difference would be the distance by footpath between the one
community and the other. Crossing an arbitrary ‘tribal boundary’
counted for little even as late as 1960. The surnames, the greetings,
the temper of life wouldn’t change. In that respect, descending from
Kinga to Nyakyusa country is a far more drastic step.

The Sowetan peoples were living in a radically decentralized

regional culture before the protostates began to develop, and many
communities remained at the start of the pax more firmly based in
that culture than in the culture of the nearest court. Yes, this is
truer of the hilly lands (Bena, Kinga, Pangwa) than of the plains; but
no, it isn’t impertinent to Hehe or Nyakyusa conditions.

Looking at inter-political sensitivity, Kinga bordered on

Nyakyusa, Bena, and Pangwa in that order. It was the Sanga chiefs
who established the Kinga identity through a gradual process of
political colonization and recruitment among Pangwa-like bush
communities. As always in these cases, the pattern of development
was to build outward first and foremost, building upward only as
translocal ties grew firm. When time stops for the Sanga epoch, the
ideological focus of their courts is to the west—the prosperous
Nyakyusa-Ngonde subregion. At an earlier stage, the Sanga focus
had been to the east. Their royal lines claimed the same mythical
point of origin as the Bena lines did, the sacred grove of Nyumba
Nitu. Nyakyusa and Ngonde royals made the same claim: their
founders were said to have come directly from Kinga country and
originally from Nyumba Nitu. That sacred site lies in Bena country at
a point from which a hawk could reach any of the old Bena or Kinga
capitals in about half an hour. A comparison of the ‘rituals of kingship’
among Bena and Kinga is enough to confirm beyond doubt that they
belong to one tradition. As between Kinga and Nyakyusa the matter
is not so clear. One of the small mysteries of the region, which has to
be a clue to the cultural matrix of its politics, is the question why
the myths of origin of these four chiefly lines remained anchored in
Nyumba Nitu. It is a matter which ought to yield to further study of
that cultural matrix. It is unlikely to be a recent invention diffused
from one political elite to the next—which way would it have moved?
If it is old, it is likely coeval with the movement of ‘chiefly politics’
through the archipelago, as the tradition claims, and suggests the
regional protostate movement began in what we now call uBena.

I can say nothing more final for a bigger mystery, the grand
puzzle the Sowetan region presents to history. This is the matter of

learning what scholarship can educe about the human past from my
‘political archipelago’, the series of five Sowetan protostates,
running from the Hehe to Ngonde. Morphologically, each is a
transform of its neighbours in the series: a family resemblance runs
right through the archipelago, bridging the many important differ-
ences. The problem is to get a clearer sense as to how these social
systems are related and how and why they have diverged. My
intention in this, the final of my three volumes, is to build on the
descriptive and analytical base set out in the earlier monographs. As
usual, it is the Kinga I hover over most, and my own field experience
which supplies most of the regional verities. This is not because I
propose my findings needn’t be questioned, only that I’ll have done
what I can on that score. My main field intuitions on the Kinga stand
radically rethought. I do confess I have wanted to make a (to me)
coherent portrait of the people, the place, the past time. But to
place the Sanga political achievement in its context in time and
events I have to see it in its regional aspect—which just means
rethinking all the other fieldwork as well.

The only really probing comparison with the Sanga court

system which recorded information allows is with the Nyakyusa, and
that is why I turn so often to them. The Bena, had the ethnographic
work been ampler and otherwise focused, might have served as well.
But Bena rulers, in the descriptions we have, are certainly ‘chiefs’ not
‘princes’: the element of inherent majesty is missing, as it is with the
Hehe. Bena chiefdoms are a set of equal and independent polities
without the mystical bond of the royal Sanga or the hallowed aristo-
cratic provenance of Nyakyusa princes. I am much taken with this
unifying mystique. Hehe unity is of the Napoleonic type, based in a
triumphalist past. Bena unity was always opportunistic. Both the
Hehe at one end of the chain and the Ngonde at the other were
exposed to rapid structural change in the generations leading into
the colonial pax, which Kinga and Nyakyusa (and some Bena polities)
reasonably well escaped. What fascinates me about the Nyakyusa is
an intrepid commitment to turbulence in preference to stability, one
which seems only to strengthen their political identity as a people.

My comparative approach turns at this point away from

matters of like and unlike usage to problems of reading the social
mind and dominant patterns of motivation from a people’s institu-

The purpose of the Kinga-Nyakyusa study which follows is to

illuminate their worlds as they were at the height of their politicall
achievement. Afterward, to explore the historical depth of the world
the Sanga régimes built, I turn to a different sort of comparison. The

Pangwa studies of Fr. Hans Stirnimann constitute one of two
ethnographies which can serve as reference models for the world of
the pre-Sanga communities in what came to be ‘Kingaland’. My other
reference model is Gulliver’s searching work on the Ndendeuli, a
seemingly still less ‘political’ people colonized (and, like the Pangwa,
terrorized) by the Ngoni. Stirnimann’s Pangwa are presented under
the dependable rubric of old-style ethnography. The folkways and
mores, the organizational schemes and rituals of times past are
described to us just as they were described by competent infor-
mants to the investigator. Gulliver’s work is a sociological study of
the way Ndendeuli ran their daily lives and dealt with others. The
fieldwork was done only a few years earlier than mine and Stirn-
imann’s. ‡‡

Of all the Sowetan cultures on record, Nurse found Pangwa is

by careful linguistic measures the closest relative to Kinga; and
comparison with my parallel work shows the linguistic measure of a
two-thirds lexical overlap reflects well the degree of homology
between the cultures more generally. If asked to predict how much
lexical divergence would be found by applying the same techniques to
dialects in the twelve local polities under the traditional Sanga
courts, I would expect the least-similar pair to be on a par with the
Kinga-Pangwa pairing of Nurse; at least, a finding of that much
difference would not surprise me. But that least-similar pair would
not include courts in the Sanga heartlands. It is worth reporting
here that some informants at Lupila (Eastern realm, bordering
Pangwa) held their Sanga ruler, who locally claimed the title of ‘prince’
unkuludeva, was in process of sending out client-rulers to the Pangwa
when the Ngoni troubles erupted. This is in questionably perfect
accordance with the picture of the past preferred in all the Sanga
courts. The truth-value is unclear. But all oral history in that domain
of the Eastern realm is only such as was able to survive the scorched
earth of 1905. Their prince in death became a hero of mythic
proportion, fated one day to return in full vigor even after half a
century had passed. It is particularly to be noted that an attempt
was made in the 1905 uprising to wipe out all Lupila males from the
age of mischief upward. The Lupila I found in 1962 was reinvented yet
deeply local.

Linguistic evidence aside (and it was not available in convincing

form until the mid-1980s), Kinga-Pangwa parallels in social organi-
zation and ritual were striking. The methodological difficulty I had
had in dealing with my own field notes on ‘custom’ before Stirn-
imann’s work came out was resolved as I read his two volumes. It
allowed me to sort out what belonged to the Sanga system and
what to the pre-existing cultures on which the Sanga protostate

was integrally overlaid. I can turn to the Pangwa to explicate that
and to confirm the degree of continuity between the culture the
Pangwa recall and my own reconstruction of the developed Sanga
court culture.

What the student of any regional culture which is at peace

must keep in mind is that ease of movement in that social space is
at once a reflection and a condition of the quality of peace being
kept. Breaches of the peace are sanctioned by self-help, keeping
trouble localized. Variations in speech form and culture are granularly
distributed, not gathered in discrete political packages. The pre-
Sanga population of Kingaland was not, in the political sense which
has tended to dominate ethnographic studies, ‘one people’ with ‘one
culture’. What the Sanga revolution did was to create the semblance
of such a people and culture in the social imagination. The
segmentary or ‘nesting’ structure of a protostate begins by giving a
greater sense of unity to the local pedestrian community, and
proceeds by raising the symbolism of unity to the more inclusive
levels of structure. As everywhere in human history, the objectives
correlative—the concrete acts and spectacles symbolic of unity—
were in the Kinga case always ahead of the social facts they were
meant to inform. My use of the Pangwa ethnography is analogical not
comparative, in that their political system pre-pax, so far as it can
be reconstructed, offers no significant parallels to that of the
Sanga court.

I can use Gulliver’s sociology of Ndendeuli analogically as well,

though they are more distant—neighbours of neighbours—to the
Kinga. Gulliver supplements the Pangwa material with observational
notes on a regional group still living an acephalous political life in
scattered hamlets. This window on a simpler, ‘anarchic’ social organi-
zation was still open to a sociologist in the 1950s because this
people had been subjected and ruled over by the Ngoni. The British
left the Ngoni in charge, and the Ngoni had no plans for bringing the
Ndendeuli into more modern ways. Neighbours and Networks repre-
sents, for the larger Southern Highlands area of Tanganyika, a
credible model for the freedom with which individuals and households
might have moved about in quite early times on both sides of the
Ruhuhu river which divides Ndendeuli country from Pangwa. I can
presume but can’t know that this freedom of movement lies
dormant in the ‘bush’ heritage of all the Sowetan protostates, and
manifests itself in their antipolitan ethic: their readiness with
censure—countervailing blame—for a ruler who fails to safeguard his
people from hunger, sickness, and personal loss.

A premise of imparity

Godfrey Wilson found in the chiefly priest Kasitile a matchless

guide to the wisdom of his people. When the priest spoke of the two
classes, commoner and chiefly, he was not thinking in secular mode:

For us it’s taboo to accuse a man of witchcraft, but the

commoners accuse one another...

If a rich commoner dies and the heir buries him with only one cow,
the shades are angry and the people also...People are angry...But the
oracle says, ‘The shades are angry.’

We chiefs have bodies which are different, the commoners arrived

first in the country, they ate raw food, we fear them saying, ‘They
eat raw food.’ It is we who followed and brought fire. To us they
confess (their witchcraft); to each other they say: ‘It is your father.’
Because if they confess to a fellow commoner saying, ‘It is we’, he
says, ‘You are “eating” me, drink the ordeal’. The witch is driven out.
But to us they admit saying, ‘It was we who were angry.’ They do not
fear us. Commoners are the seniors in the country; they arrived

I fear for the ritual, I fear hunger, the hunger of the people. For I am
the food of the country, I am the maker of food. ‡

Kasitile is saying the two kinds of Konde are two separate

confessions with deeply different outlooks on the world. His is a
premise of fundamental imparity. Chiefly persons are and must be
few, yet without them the Konde people would be uncivilized. The
distinction he is making is that between congregation and priest,
‘folk’ and ‘intelligentsia’, a people and its prophets. It is not easy to
explain then that the commoners have their own priests, and that, in
effect, they also have their own kind of chief-like heads who rule their
villages and enjoy the supernatural power amanga allowing them to
ward off aggressive witchcraft. These village heads, it appears, live
on when their village has passed through its warlike stage to become
the ‘commoner priests’ who feature so largely in Monica Wilson’s
portrayal of priestly business. Commoners can’t ‘fear’ chiefly men,
but not because of trusting them. The reason is, chiefs live in an orbit
outside the close circle of envy, the village, where aggressive witch-
craft incubates. Kasitile tells us that the two Konde confessions live
side by side, each comprising a separate domain of responsibility.
The key difference between them is in the definition of that sphere.
Headmen have powers limited to a local sphere (the one pedestrian
village), chiefs operate in a congruent manner trans-locally. There is

one pervading difference: appeals to the shades are impossible in the
village locale. The appeals the Konde make to ancestors are trans-
local; and chiefly ancestors respond to trouble among any and all
residents of the chiefdom. That is why when in the village it is said
‘the shades are angry’ (and not ‘your neighbours are angry’) the case
must go to the chief, whose decision relieves any villagers of respon-
sibility for the sanctions imposed. The buck is passed to the chief as
if to a scapegoat.

A reader will quickly see that the chief must not be tied (by
culpability, by blame) as neighbours are tied to one another in a
commoner village. That he has two villages, one on each more-or-less
self-contained ‘side’ of the chiefdom, allows him leeway. Each of
these villages is ruled, hands-on, by a ‘senior headman’ who with age
and a successful career will take on a priestly bearing once he and his
peers have become the arbiters of right. The political scope of a chief
is larger. He must be free to judge those neighbours without
prejudice. Specifically, when trouble arises among the households of
a chiefly village, he cannot be put in the position of referring an
appeal to his own court. Several of the special attributes and rules
which apply to a chief appear to be designed to meet such embar-
rassments. There is the majesty of his wrath, which needs no
argument to give it the force of truth. There is the supra-local
ambience a chief begins to carry with him as he judges appeals from
commoner hearings. Every chief had men in his own villages to handle
local cases, doing what they could to settle them without appeal.
There is the ordeal, which an angered chief will order when a man
thought guilty by his peers will not confess and make amends—since
the ordeal is most convincing when it only confirms the public’s
sympathy, a man who feels ‘outnumbered’ is likely to confess before
demanding it. And there are special hearings a powerful chief may
set, to settle issues which apply beyond the sphere of responsibility
of any single chiefdom.

It is common practice for a man whose illness has been

ascribed to witchcraft to sleep away from home. A night-flying witch
is that easily foiled:

This is a common precaution in case of illness, for witches are

thought not to have power ordinarily outside their own village and
never beyond the chiefdom.

The fact that it is within the village that witchcraft is thought to

operate is shown by the way in which one fearing witchcraft, or
accused of practising it, moves to another village. Sometimes he
goes to another chiefdom, but often he only moves to another village

in the same chiefdom—the chief himself may feel safe in one village
of his country and not in another. ‡

It is the very vulnerability of a chief to witchcraft (or some

other mystical power) which warns against supposing that a clean
sort of secular authority has been achieved. In the Kinga case, a
ruling prince was vulnerable to the extent that he might become
immured in his stockaded compound. Kinga preferred to think him in
danger of poison (sorcery) and kept a meticulous watch on his food
and drink. But enemies could arise within the family, and powerful
wizards consulted in uPangwa, whose occult powers could not readily
be apprehended and foiled by the court priests. In the Nyakyusa
case a chief, far from immuring himself, would only be careful where
he slept, for witches’ habits were well known. But in either case we
have to ask how well a Western idea of political authority matches
the situation of a Malatan chief or ruling prince before the pax.

The Wilsons were at pains to be clear about the nature of

chiefly authority in precolonial Selya. Here is Godfrey Wilson summa-
rizing a position which Monica Wilson subsequently echoed. For his
‘great commoner’ in each case, read her ‘village headman’—the less
puzzling, though also less comprehensive, usage I have usually

Within the whole chiefdom the political authority is vested in a

chief (malafyale), whose position is inherited, and in the appointed
great commoners, who have all originally been appointed not by the
chief but by previous great commoners. The chieftainship has always
been, as we should say, a constitutional one, since the chief can never
make any important decision effective without securing the consent
of his great commoners for it. The chief and great commoners
together take all political decisions, try cases between members of
different age-villages, and hear appeals from the decision of any
particular great commoner. ‡‡

This picture is built around the idea of a chief with ‘constituted’

authority. But if Western terms must be used, I expect the ‘chief as
scapegoat’ is a better fit to the situation. The chief in fact seems to
have no business directly judging cases. A defendant is brought to
him already judged by his peers. What is lacking is only his own accep-
tance of that judgement. The case must be rehearsed again. It is in
being prepared to break the standoff that the chief assumes
responsibility. If the matter is not witchcraft the facts should now
be clear, and the chief can deal quick justice in form of compensation
and a fine. For witchcraft or an another unprovable offense there is
the ordeal. As I read this, contra the Wilsons’ position, the chief’s
authority is not muted by the participation of village headmen in a

case, but stands clear of them as the sole source of judgement lying
beyond popular blame. A good chief kept his own counsel and wore
the mask of power in all his dealings. ‡‡

When Kasitile insists ‘they do not fear us’ he has in mind that
members of the chiefly confession, since they cannot be envious of
commoners, have no cause to use mystical powers against them.
Commoners would not suspect envy in a person of the chiefly kind, or
the witchcraft such envy spawns. A chief, in his night thoughts, is
not biased by personal involvement in the quarrels of his people. But
couple this with the consideration that strong-minded chiefs have
been known to confiscate a commoner’s cow or his wife quite
arbitrarily. So it is not that chiefs are blameless but that the blame
of a commoner cannot touch them. This I take to be Kasitile’s theory
of the two confessions. What is problematic in his world is that the
unchiefly multitude should be insensitive of the moral burden carried
by the few.

But have hubris in mind: Kasitile has no admiration for the

commoner priests he works with. He is talking about the structure
of Nyakyusa society ‘as it was ordained’. If this is not quite the
structure we find implicit in the way he and his colleagues actually do
things, it offers a clue to what they are thinking as they do them. It
pictures a society in which a chosen few are privileged with authority
over the others. But it is well to consider this informant’s model as a
formulaic one, not in itself descriptive. The problem it can help to
resolve is the nature of political authority in a society where no man
is likely to take orders from any other.

Don’t suppose the Konde mind is not acquainted with

authority as such. Women are elaborately obeisant to men, and privi-
leged seniority either in kinship or political role-relationships is
widely recognized among men. Monica Wilson said it plainly enough in
the title she chose for her retrospective volume in 1977: For Men and
Elders. What we must look for is the kind of authority which works
across established networks—translocal, self-dramatizing, the kind
born of taboo, spontaneously honoured. Kasitile is probably right in
supposing that without men of his ‘chiefly’ confession there could
have been no high politics for Konde. But he is demonstrably wrong in
supposing the bearing of sufficient authority is a privilege of birth.
The proof is in the great catalogue of cases Monica Wilson can
supply. They give us chiefs in hiding and reticent, and commoner
rulers who would set them an example.

Here I offer an ‘extended case study’ based entirely on Monica

Wilson’s work, of a senior headman acting in what appears to me a

sufficiently chiefly style. Mwambuputa was born 1880, is listed for
1938 as ‘the greatest in the country’, and later on in 1955 when he
was in his seventies he had become ‘the senior priest in the country’
with 30 wives. His is the first of two senior villages of Chief
Mwankuga. Though he is a commoner he knows how to act the chief.
He took charge of a recent Coming Out (1930s) and there exhorted
the young chief Mwanyilu, “Listen to the people: they are the real
chiefs! Be hospitable! Greet people politely! Don’t beat your men!” ‡

We look back at him now in his fifties, wealthy, able, and forceful.
He is having trouble with an assistant, Nsekela:

Nsekela was an assistant headman in the village of Mwambuputa,

appointed by Mwambuputa himself. Nsekela’s child cried by night and
Mwambuputa was angry with him because he did not report the
matter. “Why did you not tell me that your child was ill here? Why do
you hide it? Indeed, you are bad, it is you who are making the child ill,
get out of our country!” ...Nsekela denied the charge [of bewitching
his own child] saying, “It is not I. No!” Then he went away to Selika
about a case. While he was away his neighbours barricaded his
doorway with thorns. On his return he found them, and he moved to
Mwaihojo’s country (the adjoining chiefdom). ‡

Nsekela’s reaction on confronting the arrant use of authority

is to go away on an errand and let the storm blow over. He knows
more about this affair than we, but let us suppose this incident is
just the culminating one of a series of incidents which Mwambuputa
may have resented. Withdrawing is a culturally typical way of
handling direct confrontation with authority—don’t slam the door,
just let things cool. But when Nsekela comes back he finds his neigh-
bours have sided with the chieflike Mwambuputa. They are letting
this big man act in self-righteous anger, like a chief. Nsekela moves
away. Still, eventually he may return in all innocence. What sort of
game is being played?

Mwambuputa himself had moved away from this same place all
the way to uNgonde some years back. One story is that he moved
into an inheritance there. More convincing is the story that he
moved because two of his children had died—he moved in fear:

Eating fine food alone is said to kill a man. ...It is said that
Mwambuputa grudged his fellows certain food, so they were very
angry and two of his children died at home. When he found that
sickness was spreading at his homestead he fled to the lakeshore
plain (MuNgonde), but there also he found that death pursued him,
and he returned home again. It is said that sickness pursued him to
the plain because he went off without performing the death ritual

for the children who died. So when he returned he found two bulls and
killed them, saying: “Friends, I have come. I did wrong because I did not
perform the ritual for your children with you.” ‡

We have perhaps discovered why a crying child could so upset a

man of Mwambuputa’s stature. He was driven from a position of
importance as surely as if he had been a witch himself, for he dared
not try to blame one of those he, with his ritually given amanga, was
empowered to rule. But we need to move closer to the scene to judge
what it says on the matter of authority and power. Three political
generations are in play: (i) that of chief Mwaipopo and his younger
brother Mwaipopo II who succeeded; (ii) that of chief Mwankuga, son
of Mwaipopo I, and Mwankuga II who succeeds; and (iii) chief Mwanyilu.
Mwambuputa belongs to the second of these political generations,
and at the summit of his career it is he who will play the patron to
the young chief Mwanyilu at his Coming Out. Years before, at the
Coming Out of the young chief Mwankuga I, it had been Mwansambe,
the most senior of chief Mwaipopo’s headmen, who had taken charge
of arrangements for the new chiefdom, particularly selected
Mwambuputa as a client. This implies a continuing relationship
between the two. Judged a promising young commoner, Mwam-
buputa is installed as the primary senior headman of the new chief
Mwankuga, and has an ulupando tree ritually planted in his name. The
tree will mark the centre of a new political domain. The tree will grow
with the new political generation as living confirmation of
Mwambuputa’s important office—senior village headman, presiding
over a new chief’s first village. But the site of that planting made for
later complications. You may centre a new domain where you like at a
Coming Out, but as there is no demarcated boundary people will suit
themselves on that score.

Mwansambe’s choice of a site was in Bujenga, where his next-

senior colleague Mwakalembo resided. These two men are of the
Mwaipopo generation, which already in German times has begun to
step back and cede space over to the next (Mwankuga’s) political
generation. It is because Mwansambe was the senior headman for
the chief Mwaipopo that he was able to overstep Mwakalembo, a
person of his own generation, to favour one (Mwambuputa) of the
next. In private, most people were agreed the land was
Mwakalembo’s, even though he belonged (like Mwansambe) to a
retiring political generation, and might have been expected to step
back with good grace. Mwansambe eventually found, as if recognizing
Mwakalembo’s right, a different place for Mwambuputa and his peer
group. The corrected site was on Mwansambe’s ‘side’ (reckoning now
in terms of the obsolescent geography of Mwaipopo’s retiring gener-
ation) but not this time in Mwakalembo’s back yard. Meanwhile the

ritually planted ulupando tree has grown tall at Bujenga,
Mwambuputa has retreated to uNgonde, and the matured new
generation (ii) of Mwankuga’s age-peers is taking centre stage.
Seeing that and seizing the occasion of the death of Mwankuga I,
Mwambuputa makes his move to return from abroad. ‡

It will help to review the double generational status of some

principals. The Mwakalembo who saw himself diminished with the
planting of that ulupando tree for a new, take-over generation (and
who subsequently felt reprieved) was certainly of the senior political
generation to Mwambuputa and senior as well by generation of birth.
But the Mwakalembo who half a lifetime later appears to be
threatened with losing he same place to a returning Mwambuputa
was only politically the senior, having inherited name and status
from his father. Even the Mwansambe who undertook the
reinstatement of Mwambuputa was of matching age, having likewise
inherited a father’s position and name. Seniority is an absolute of
Konde political thought. It is the basis of Konde social organization
as it is expressed in the age-village principle of peer solidarity, and it
is the basis for the inheritance of position and wealth. But while age-
of-birth seniority may be a given, it is only one of the ingredients of
seniority as a social mechanism. An age-senior woman kowtows to a
lad on the path because gender is a more powerful ingredient than
age. The question we have to ask is what part such subordinated
ingredients might play in a situation of emotional involvement.
Suppose Mwansambe’s son in the scene we are tracing, the man who
has succeeded to his father’s place, encounters the aging
Mwakalembo, not yet replaced by his heir. The young man, to push his
claim to precedence—political seniority—over this Mwakalembo,
must push against a tangible preponderance of experience and
personal alliance. But as soon as Mwakalembo himself is succeeded
by a young heir, won’t the same move to bump him have more weight?

Mwambuputa had been long gone, his perks naturally fallen to

others, his political services supplanted. But his claim to
reinstatement had the ritual sanction of taboo, in the living
presence of the ulupando tree at Bujenga. Three men, age peers, have
to agree on the project of reinstating Mwambuputa as a senior
village headman under Mwankuga-II. We are looking now at the
politics of flexibility: the system must adjust.

In the event, Mwakalembo dug in his heels and made it apparent

that, just as he (his father) had won this land by defeating a
previous headman-owner in battle, so must there be a fight if he
were dislodged in turn. The political priorities lined up to a stand-off.
Mwakalembo had the inherited rights of a ‘father’ to Mwambuputa

and his peer group. Mwansambe could not count on support from his
own chief Mwaipopo, who was keeping his distance. Mwakalembo-II
(having built himself up as a man of Bujenga) would have had the
popular support which neither Mwansambe (an absentee ruler) or
Mwambuputa (with no current following) could expect. On the other
hand, Mwambuputa by coming in at the funeral of Mwankuga-I could
expect the patronage of the successor (a younger brother), chief
Mankuga-II. The wrangling over claims and counterclaims was several
times renewed without a decision, as Mwaipopo (with a full life behind
him and now a salaried chief under the Rungwe Boma, and nothing if
not circumspect) saw the risk of open dissension. ‡‡

Who will sort out the impasse? While the decision hung,
Mwambuputa put up temporary houses in Mwaipopo’s along with the
older generation. But Mwansambe had properly made the first move,
and as a good patron like his father would have done, in time arranged
Mwaipopo’s sanction for a major ceremony of reinstatement,
attended by all the commoner priests and headmen—no chief, not
even Mwankuga-II. It was commoner business. They took over the
village (Igembe) where Mwankuga-I had come out, and with much
feasting at Mwambuputa’s expense they installed him as senior
headman of the new Mwankuga’s first village. All the commoner
‘politicians’ were there to witness an act of contrition. Mwambuputa
(it appeared) should have sacrificed two bulls in the long-ago, to
demonstrate atonement after the death of his two children. Now
this had been done, and the people’s concern about the meaning of
those long-ago events was cleared away. Here are some things that
were said at the ceremony:

[Of Mbuluko, who was being bumped:] “At first he refused, but
they pacified him. He cannot refuse, he will move. They just
considered where it would be best for the village headman to be.”

[By Mwansambe to the senior men as they came together:] “Look

after Mwambuputa in the war by night, look after him in dreams.”

[About the legitimacy conferred on Mwambuputa:] “Before

Mwambuputa killed the bulls we did not see that he had come back;
now he has returned.” ‡

Can a headman have authority without power? That is being

primus inter pares, managing not making decisions of importance.
This is the situation the Wilsons construed as a ‘balance of power’.
That is fair enough but not particularly revealing. There is a game of
power playing out but it is not a contest of two sides. It is a game of
placing blame where it will stay. It is a game with as many sides as
men with stakes in the outcome. The scapegoat has come back, an

old case reopens. Now it appears it was the shades who were angry
back then. Mwambuputa should have seen that, should not have
thought witchcraft, should not have grudged his fellows the meat of

We have a detail from Mwambuputa’s later career after he was

re-established, which lets us see something more of a senior
headman’s situation ‘on the ground’. The case concerns a certain M.,
who was angry with his neighbours. He felt wrongly accused of
bringing trouble on a child. They drove him from his home by word of
mouth. No one consulted Mwambuputa:

Mwambuputa brought him back to a different part of his village...

Then his neighbours grew angry asking why Mwambuputa, who
himself had forbidden murmuring, had brought back one whom they
had convicted of witchcraft! So they went to Mwambuputa’s place
and expressed their anger to him. Then he agreed to go and expel

When we reached the house...the assistant headman of M.’s old

section...stood out and said: “I have a word to say to my father
Mwambuputa. I am astonished that you received back M. after I had
driven him away because he is an evil man who does not like to have
friendly dealings with us his neighbours.” Then Mwambuputa replied:
“When I fetched him back I did not know you had convicted him of
witchcraft, I thought he was simply moving.” “Yes,” replied the other,
“that is why I have followed him, for your house is my home! If you love
M. you too will be expelled!” And the others said: “Had you known
about the case, we should have expelled you both!” “Let us tell him
then,” said Mwambuputa... When he came Mwambuputa said: “Your
neighbours have followed you saying that they have expelled you.”
...They said, “You knew yourself to be a witch, why else did you not
show indignation and surprise and take your friends to Mwambuputa
to be tried? Now you’ve given them power, and they have followed you
here!”...Then Mwambuputa said: “No more words, leave the village,
your fellows tell you to go!” ‡

For ‘Now you have given them power’ let us read, ‘See how you
have turned our suspicions into certainty.’ The matter began with
the illness of a child, which became a matter for alarm and an
unfocused presumption of witchcraft. M. became the target when he
showed signs of defensiveness, a suggestion of guilt. This increased
to the point that no one would side with M. The child’s agonies flared
up, and M. was driven out. For ‘He is an evil man’ let us read, ‘He is
resentful and wishes harm to our child.’ His former friends are now
saying he ‘knew himself to be a witch’ or he would not have been
acting so defensively. From this I infer that it is possible for a man’s
resentment to cause harm (because he is a witch) without his

intending it (because he is unaware of his magical powers). The people
seem in their rough way pleased to have found the scapegoat they
needed if they were to restore the peace broken by fear of death and
a child’s mysterious seizures. If their culprit had chosen the route to
Mwambuputa and the ordeal, they are saying, they would have
believed its decision and thought better of him even if he failed the
trial. In the other event, this tale would have no ending.

Witch belief in this little drama appears as the safeguard of

trust. In a peer village, the vertical dimension is absent which might
have given peace-keeping authority to respected elders. Through the
drama of scapegoating one member, the community achieves a ‘world
renewal’ in microcosm. The excitement has been cathartic, blame has
cancelled fear and must be held to. Nothing has been done, you might
say, for the child. People knew of nothing that could be done but find
the mystical cause of the illness and remove it. As it happened, the
child didn’t die, but the drama was over in any event. The problem the
community successfully addressed was not the problem of ‘our child’
but ‘us’.

A credible psychological reading of the incident would be that

M. set himself up for an outburst of hate through his own paranoid
‘murmuring’. Where amity is the nexus the breath of enmity won’t be
welcome. The first instances we are given show M. refusing to share
his friends’ food. Then he openly chides them for borrowing a bit of his
firewood to heat their beer. Things had got to this point when the
child’s screams alarmed the whole company. They instantly knew but
couldn’t openly name a culprit—that would expose them to the
charge of ‘murmuring’ themselves. They had to wait for a bold
denial—“It is not I. No!”—for until that happened each of them was
unsure of his own impunity.

And how then to read “We should have expelled you both”? It
clearly says “Don’t presume on our good will!” More than that it can
be taken to say “We don’t need leaders” or even “We have better men
for the job.” Mwambuputa has heard that before, when his own
children were dying. He heard in the way one hears what is not
spoken, and at that time he was unwilling to brush it aside. He has
since laid down an impressive record as a settler of cases and local
information manager. Interviewed about witchcraft he came back
with an indisputably sophisticated judgement, adopting the view
that openness about ill-feeling can always lead the way back to
amity. “It is when he lets nothing out and stays silent, though angry
in his heart, that he comes in dreams to throttle me.” As long as he
keeps to his therapeutic perch above the fray, it seems a man like
Mwambuputa can settle cases and grow rich. The key, I think, is

Kasitile’s insight: don’t be reached by their blaming and they will let
you understand them. ‡

Shall we conclude our Mwambuputa has set out to govern the

ungovernable? His is a society which cultivates amity at the local-
community level as a condition of political health. The breach of amity
is accordingly treated as psychic contamination, isolated, and
purged. Recruited now to the ‘chiefly confession’, is Mwambuputa
yet no more than a half-willing signatory to the dictates of mob rule?
Men recruited to his confession learn to shed blame and keep their
heads. An effective ruler, watching the power of consensus generate
an impasse, is able to intercede, define the trouble, and pack it off on
a (re-usable) scapegoat. Let chaos come out, and it is not quite as
Mwambuputa would have it, that ‘therapy happens’. There must be
an orgy of vilification abrogating the fiduciary status of at least one
group member, who is in this way driven out. The ‘chiefly’ act is
plausibly necessary to steer things toward this end, and so toward
the redemption of amity. Can it be that all the chiefly man really need
do is have no ‘real’ friends himself—none he can’t betray—and a good
deal of meat on the hoof?

I would rather argue from the evidence that politics among the
Nyakyusa has become a profession surpassing the mere settlement
of cases. Men who find themselves charged with authority quickly
come to know they may as easily be discharged from it. It is an
entrepreneurial game, in which the players put up the stakes and
each defends his turf against rivals. May we suppose Mwambuputa
might have admitted to favouring M. against the general will, and
might have been expelled with him? The reason it didn’t happen was
that Mwambuputa has learned to cover his back and play the
political game, turning fear into blame and blame, perhaps, into
kudos. In this view, it is the commoner village ‘chiefs’ who make a
Konde community governable. The hereditary chiefs are involved in a
game of their own, at a translocal level, with much the same rules.
There is a balance kept. Show me a politics which doesn’t revolve
about off-loading blame. Show me the chief in an antipolitan world
who was never made scapegoat for local troubles in which he had
taken no part. The strongest among the hereditary Nyakyusa chiefs
stood high, as any reader of the literature will know. But they were
many, not few. They hoed their own land, boasted many wives, and
kept their own counsel. In a world where the deeper kinds of political
involvement are local, the prime requisite of an appellate authority is
keeping distance.


A Religion of Blame

Honour’s underworld

In discussing the Malatan cultures it is best not to trouble

with the distinction, so useful elsewhere, between ‘witch’ and
‘sorcerer’. Kinga don’t resort to autopsies to understand a death,
Nyakyusa do. Kinga will blame a sudden death on poison, an
undetectable objective device, not on witchcraft, which kills slowly, is
known from dreams, and is subject to remedies. Nyakyusa may have
obsessive fears of hereditary witchcraft; men, women, and their
offspring are so branded. Kinga say a person can just reform, agree
to get rid of his paraphernalia, and resume life without prejudice on
parole. But when you ask further you find the paraphernalia of true
‘sorcery’ would never be found in the possession of an ordinary Kinga
person. They are useless without the occult knowledge of a profes-
sional doctor umavi, who would have been consulted and employed but
who would not be the ill-willed ‘witch’ within the victim’s personal
circle. The suspicious stuff our Kinga ‘witch’ might have in his
possession would presumably be charms for protection and good
fortune. Most men are likely to have some, and with charms a good
defense can easily be received as an offense. So witches may have to
use sorcery to do their work, but that is because they are not inher-
ently powerful. The difference between inherent powers and instru-
ments of power which have to be consciously sought for—and may be
forsworn—is a real difference, and distances the Kinga from the
Nyakyusa mind. But Kinga don’t make the difference between ‘witch-
craft’ and ‘sorcery’, and while Nyakyusa do they may use the terms

As for enhancing political power with the mystical, Kinga and

Nyakyusa agree on their python lore. If a prince has a python ‘in his
belly’ it gives him witchlike powers, but there is no way you could
prove anything about a python. Spirit pythons are no more tractable
and no less prodigious than the giant serpents whose plain tracks
and traces are said to litter the sacred groves.

In the literature, witchcraft transpires in three distinctly
conceived frames. In today’s account of the Salem witch-hunt we
have ‘the witch as victim’. In post-medieval Europe the witch was
presented as a human embodiment of evil. The frame I’ll be exploring
here may be called ‘the witch as creature of misfortune’. My
approach will be interpretive. I take it that the high seriousness of
the witch belief has to be understood dramaturgically, as it derives
from a critical reversal of fortunes in the moral career of the person
who will come to feature as a witch’s victim. There are three formal
considerations which help to show how the invention and the
persistent reinvention of witchcraft can be explained from the
ordinary experience of misfortune in the context of a worldview
common to Eastern Bantu peoples. The first point is the distinction
between divination and prayer as a response to misfortune. Prayer is
not available to the victim of accident, infection, or deep personal
loss in the prepolitical, precontact Sowetan regional culture. When
you go to a diviner with your trouble, you may discover you have
offended an ancestor or incurred the envy of a witch. In either case,
the matter of the enquiry is not to question your moral character or
state of grace but to discover what small neglect of duty or show of
pride has angered someone, living or dead, within your private circle.

Divination is a prescribed procedure, and that very fact says

personal misfortune is no one’s clear concern but your own. Consider
the Biblical tale of Job and you will see that comparable cosmic
concerns with justice are not invoked, theodicy and its ‘problem of
pain’ have not been invented. The story of Job is nothing where no one
is his brother’s keeper. This is my second point.

My third point concerns the nature and uses of divination. The

diviner’s client comes with his own agenda but without the needed
degree of certainty as to a means for achieving it. The client is aware
of risk. An ill-chosen path may jeopardize his future. He would not be
going to the diviner if he did not sense danger in his situation. When
the client is a victim of misfortune and senses that an act of
unnatural hostility has caused it, he will be suspecting witchcraft. If
by going to a diviner you always confirmed your suspicion and always
continued straight on to confirming the identity of a witch of your
choice, the formal procedure would scarcely have any real weight in
the public eye. Your supposed enemy is Somebody’s brother, friend,
or main support. Divination is the prime instrument of indirect action
in most of the non-Western world. It is taken over gradually, with the
evolution of jural institutions, by reliable courts. But divination,
where it commands credibility, is a quicker, more private, and more
efficient device. It gains its credibility by seeming to be objective,
where obviously unbiased chance mechanisms are employed in the

‘choice’ between equally likely alternatives; or from the accepted
disinterestedness of the seer, where the client’s anonymity is seen
to be protected, as in some of the Greek temple oracles or a
Sowetan witch ridder’s performance; or theatrically, when a god-
voice seems to speak through the diviner in trance, or is ‘cast’ by the
ventriloquist’s art. Systems of indirect action are virtually identical
with what we call ‘civilization’ just as direct action, the quick resort to
force and violence to gain one’s ends in a world devoid of polite proce-
dures, is our prime criterion for ‘barbarism’. But diviners don’t deal
easily with shades of doubt, and this leaves them best suited to
cases which won’t come to proof against hard evidence: if there were
no witches the diviners would have to invent some.

Dramaturgical explanation ought not to depart from the path

of common sense, but common sense observation can miss vital
markers. In the study of witchcraft what can be missed is the
special cast of animism, considered not as ‘belief system’ but
worldview, an integral set of unexamined premises about the human
condition. (So far as your ‘belief system’ is an ‘ideology’ it is a set of
‘examined premises’.) This distinction is important for under-
standing why a new ‘belief system’ like Christianity or Islam can fail
to crowd out witchcraft. When a spirit world has no centre but
projects instead the acephalous secular lifestyle of local traditions,
it won’t be instantly centred by introducing a new and powerful spirit
being. However attractive the new divinity, the old are not easily
banished. The rhetoric of monotheism rests on a mystical
cosmology which the traditional Malatan thinker can readily
comprehend as an addition to his own, but would require profound
conversion to realize as a substitute for it. Nor is the new rhetoric
even a century on in history attuned to the specific nature of the
philosophy it would replace.

As if to accept this limitation from the start, Christian

missionaries chose to bestow on their own chosen divinity the
proper name of a locally important spirit, one among an indefinite
number of haphazardly individualized divinities known by name
throughout the Sowetan region. For Kinga the Christian divinity was
cast as one of these (Nguluve), for Nyakyusa another (Kyala).
Automatically, since the whole region is a seamless community for
news, the newcomers’ premise of monotheism was annulled. For
priests of either people, who were of course aware of an indefinite
number of pre-existing (mythical) or heroic (legendary) divinities, it
would not have seemed strange that the missionaries in the valley
were representatives of one divinity while those up in the highlands
spoke for another. Though the several identities of the handful of
spirits the missionaries found in any local community must have

seemed ill-defined in the minds of their informants, the sheer
existence and power of these beings had been massively established
in the common knowledge of the people. Their (unrecorded) folk
history surveyed a people’s timeless struggle to appease them. The
typical Christian convert was focused well on a new belief system,
but it was one framed within a well known cosmos.

The same distinction—belief system vs. worldview—is

important as an interpretive criterion for understanding the politici-
zation of witchcraft in societies like those Kinga and Nyakyusa were
building before the missionaries came. Mass ordeals and the
execution of witches at the Sanga courts didn’t suddenly double the
depth of the moral life for Kinga. But by taking some cases of witch-
craft out of the sanctioning sphere of self-help and incorporating
acts invisible by nature into their authoritative justice system as
high crimes, the Sanga brought a fuller religion of blame into being. It
didn’t greatly alter the ‘bush culture’ pattern of recourse to a
diviner, which still called for the victim privately to prevail on the
chosen ‘witch’ to revoke an awful curse. But witch-ridding became a
standard part of the political theatre through which Sanga rule
regularly refurbished its secular mandate. Had the system of the
Sanga courts achieved a radically more substantial central direction
in politics, I expect the spirit world as well would have taken on a
steeper pyramidal structure. This shift is visible in the Sanga courts
when they are compared to the Nyakyusa. But witchcraft as a belief
system remains an ideology for ‘democrats’: if anyone, anywhere, can
own the secret personal power to threaten the state, then tyrants
beware! The antipolitan ethic lives on.

The animist’s worldview is best known to students of theology

for its inclusion of innumerable invisible spirits with mystifying
powers. When you compare animism to Olympian doctrines like
Hinduism or Pueblo or Kwakiutl ceremonialism, and then of course to
monotheism, you can hardly escape the implication that the
quantity of gods is quite apt as a criterion for sorting religions. But
if you look more closely at the animist’s world you will notice that the
only proper gods therein are sheerly mythical. They made the world
and perhaps mankind but left them, once fashioned, to fend for
themselves. They live within the ‘human origins’ frame. There are no
shrines at which men and women can hope to communicate with
these few ‘otiose gods’. Animists’ shrines are meant for less
majestic, even hapless spirits who want—demand—attention and
are continually bothering people for it. Their scope is always bounded,
their style particularistic. Any of the standard tribulations of life,
minor and major, may be read as signals of discontent from the spirit
world. Animists live in a world watched over by small minds. These

may belong to a household, an extended kin-group, or a locality.
Whatever the basis of their ties to the living, they are locally but few
in number. Yet these spirit-minds are nonetheless many, as their
spiritual clones are spread throughout the country in cellular
fashion. Wherever you pass from one social group to another, if it is
an easy passage, you find yourself in a parallel universe, familiar but
not convergent with the one you left. Animism is the ground for all
religions of blame, each being special to a regional culture. It is where
blame can be shifted from autonomous spirits to hidden shades of
the living that you have witchcraft. In its special fashion, it is an
empowering system of belief.

High religions, aiming at universality, sometimes succeed in

displacing ancestor spirits because in kinship societies both the far
and near ancestors, having particularistic identities, can only be
maintained by the very closed groups whose powers a universal
church will need to break and disperse. Animism is at its best and
purest where ‘congregation’ would be a dead wrong word for the
group of believers in Spirit X. Burmese ‘nats’ offer a well studied
example. Eastern Bantu seem less inclined than some of the well
known (precontact) West African states to politicize kinship in the
form of clanship as a grandscaled basis for social control. Sowetan
protostates, not based clanship, do not conflate a ruler’s ancestry
with a people’s. Kinga legend goes so far as to bury a dissident
divinity (Lwembe) in the ruler’s ancestral line as an irrepressible
Trickster. So far as ordinary households are bothered by ancestral
spirits, they are near kin, spirits of the recently dead remembered
and ‘feared’ by only a few. The most general term commonly used by
my informants in reference to other dangerous spirits is the Swahili
shetani (from the Arabic and cognate with Satan). In comparative
religious studies a usual term is from the Greek daimon—daemon or
demon. For that matter, the english term ‘fairy’ didn’t always refer
only to the diminutive and generally unfrightening sprites kept on
the children’s shelf today. ‡

Shetani and ancestors are not often foremost in a Kinga

person’s mind, though when they are there they are being taken
seriously. Still, it is hard to say that even the Python class of spirits
is dreaded in the Sowetan world. The salient attitude is fascination.
Animism offers spirits of many kinds and magnitudes, but generally
does not teach that invisible beings are morally superior to the
visible—or indeed that they are morally impressive as embodiments
of evil or of wisdom. In general the spirits are amoral in the measure
most mortals are most of the time—busy with their own concerns
and mindful of others only when crossed or neglected. By contrast,
the Greeks’ Olympians were hugely magnified and understood in

passionate terms, found fickle with a favorite, ruthless tricksters
otherwise. Not quite a matter of intimacy, any approach to divinity
entails moral proximity and awareness of danger.

Given, when witchcraft takes place in worlds informed by

animism, that the accused witch won’t be seen in the lurid terms of
premodern European demonology, still Kinga can’t be said to have
trivialized witches even in 1960. First of all, the wonders of witchery
are much admired by youths. And after hearing many tales of dire
doings and narrow escapes I saw I was meant to take the witch
scene seriously. But then, I confess, I was taken aback one evening
during a fireside discussion of some legal court cases which had just
been heard: I noticed a man in the circle with the telltale marks of
Kyiganga, the Ngonde witch-ridder who had already been famous in
the region for a decade or two. The seer’s signature razor-cuts leave
three parallel scars right across the forehead. Looking for the signs,
they are plain to see by firelight though in ordinary daytime
contacts I’d missed them. I started looking at once and found fully
half my little group of elders bore those marks. The main point to
hold is that witches cause about the same kind of trouble ancestors
do, and have to be dealt with in a similar, indirect way.

I never heard of a victim who, once sure he had found his witch,
attacked bodily. Every move in the game boasts of indirection. The
first reason for refraining from violence is the obvious one: witches
are dangerous. Witchcraft is a fine leveller, but only as a six-gun was
in the old American West. If only one man is secretly armed, the
playing field isn’t level. The problem is one of honour, squaring
accounts at once in a public and a mystical frame. Compare theft.
When a thief is caught in the act, public moral indignation takes hold.
A thief threatens everyone. Procedural intervention is not wanted,
justice should be quick. But witches can’t be ‘caught in the act’. An
accused witch and his victim could travel comfortably enough
together on their two-day journey to the favoured curer in uNgonde.
We need to look over the social maze witchcraft has to work in.

One of the topics is ‘honour’—it lurks in cultures which don’t

put it forward as moral ideology. The special brand of honour which is
pertinent here needs explanation. The Swahili proverb is: ‘Asiye na
bahati habahatishi: When your luck is out you don’t push it’. A fatal-
istic sense of honour is the mainspring of much of the subsurface
action in societies which manage the gap between intimacy and
public order largely through a religion of blame. Honour is not a
phenomenon of psyche but perceived biography, and so not of your
continuous inner life but episodic—the memorable features of your
exposure to others. Another person can observe that experience

but only in a dramaturgical frame. This takes following your moral
career as ‘situational theatre’. Social interaction is seen as it
appears in story: episodic and moved by circumstance, a rivalrous
game with protagonists and antagonists, confrontations and
dodges, stratagems and alliances. As you fare well your sense of
honour builds—it is nothing to flaunt, only your ego’s nestegg. Kinga
always hid their treasure, hating to be thought rich. But when
suddenly your luck is out the moral capital you hoarded seems to be
gone like so much stolen gold. The moral significance of honour and
its loss is coded into the central mystery of the ‘high cult’ of a
Sanga court.

Kinga of court culture have been taught to place blame for

crop-threatening weather and pestilence on Lwembe, the quasi-
ancestral trickster figure whom they elaborately propitiate. I dealt
with the Lwembe cult in the final chapter of Realms, and there is a
small literature on this royal wizard, who is shared with the
Nyakyusa. His storied place is near the beginning of the Sanga
period—the beginning of Kinga political time. In the lore, Lwembe’s
uncanny powers frightened his older brother the king (prince, chief),
who banished him. But some time after his death in exile at Lubaga in
Nyakyusaland Lwembe began to act like a typically neglected and
resentful ancestor toward all the Kinga. In keeping with his royal
lineage and the high drama of his banishment, his powers of
harassment were great and godlike in scope. The fate of all crops and
all people seemed to be at stake. An elaborate cult of propitiation
developed as a ceremonial centerpiece to the Sanga court culture.
At the sacred grove in Lubaga this godling’s living spiritual heir was
handled as a sacred being in whose body Lwembe could present
himself, venting his discontents and prescribing the conditions for
assuaging his damaged honour. The myth projects onto a high
political plane the ordinary person’s encounter with ajali, doom. What
the cult builds upon the myth is mystery: Lwembe is at once the
victim and the witch. As a simple proposition this may not be very
impressive. But dramatically stated instead, it proposes a mystery
of the kind which can draw out a religious mind. Though rooted in an
animistic world, as a feature of the Sanga protostate the Lwembe
cult is an institution which magnifies its world.

Uses of a bush religion: the social contract

The site of interest for now is the Malatan region. I deal here
with the way Kinga, especially, and Nyakyusa used elements of a
preexisting bush religion in building their systems of political

authority. Of uNgonde, the third Malatan protostate, and its sacer-
dotal ruler the Kyungu we have a constitutional outline and a rich
history but not enough of the all-important sociology one may glean
from an ethnography based in direct and participant observation. I
assume what I find most probable, that a traveler in the early 1600s
would have found a Sowetan culture area and within it hundreds of
autonomous local communities occupying dozens of distinguishable
dialect zones. Some borders, especially where they coincided with
natural barriers to easy movement, would have been marked by
stylistic differences in certain artifacts. But trade in essentials like
salt, unhafted iron tools, and pottery would have distributed
through the region whatever portables were not in short supply, and
significant functional differences in material culture would have
reflected local ecological adaptations—not ethnic or otherwise
political alignments. As with material culture, so in good measure
with practical activities—the division of labour, the kinship-amity
balance, marriage and domestic arrangements, and ‘bush religion’.

The one major divide within this culture area would have been
the Rift Valley escarpment between the lands now occupied by Kinga
and those of uNyakyusa. Evidence suggests the cultural heritage of
the Valley ecozone significantly differs from that of the mountain
slopes eastward. Two items are particularly striking. In gardening,
Nyakyusa men historically put in far more regular work than women—
the reverse of the traditional Kinga pattern. This may reflect a
different heritage from prepolitical times, but not one Nyakyusa
shared with their Corridor region neighbours. In religion, the Valley
peoples know spirit possession and inherent, heritable witchcraft.
But everywhere stories about witchcraft float free. They are
feather-light folklore of a sort which knows no boundaries but
language itself. What deserves the name of religion is belief grounded
in praxis, and the Kinga-Nyakyusa difference here is fundamental. It
firmly sets the cultural heritage of the Valley zone apart, and lends
special interest to high-level ritual cooperation between the two
protostates, which bridges the deepest moral divide within the
Sowetan regional culture.

The evidence is clear that Kinga court culture evolved from,

quite as much as it was imposed on, the prevailing culture of the
bush. The objective part of the evidence relates mainly to the
qualities of homology and variance among the five protostates of
the Sowetan archipelago. Oral history has it otherwise, however. It is
sometimes premised, on the strength of parallel local traditions,
that a westward movement of chiefly politics (the ‘Nguluve
movement’ of leaders descended from one Nguluve, an ‘Adam’ figure)
started at a sacred grove (Nyumba Nitu) in uBena and had progres-

sively taken over egalitarian bush communities in uKinga and
Nyakyusa-Ngonde country. The oral sources on which the premise is
based even seem to imply that the original bush communities would
have been overrun and absorbed in this movement. But a myth is
often easier to tell than play out in the time and circumstance
careful historical inference can allow. Are we to imagine a full-blown
political system (unexplained and unknown to tradition) somehow
lurking in that proto-Bena sacred grove at the outset? The party
would of course move quickly, with the pace of mythical beings,
sowing political seeds and moving on? Or do we posit an exotic alter-
native to this African magical account, featuring small parties of
alien movers (Arabs) settling in with the gift of civilization
(Sultanism)? You may find a dozen versions of this ‘aliens’ myth
explaining Bantu accomplishments in (say) Great Zimbabwe at any
bad library.

But the likely source of African tellings about travelers with a

mission to rule is the diffusion westward from uKinga of a stereo-
typed ‘royalty’ claim invented by early Sanga leaders to set their
name and progeny apart. Sanga is a patronymic. The claim to a
special and mystically privileged origin would have been important
once heritable authority was established on a small scale and the
idea of translocal politics was in the air. The claim of a sanctified
origin for a brotherhood of rulers would nicely suit the needs of an
ambitious chief wanting recognition as primus inter pares among his
political neighbours. The Sanga origin of this stereotypical claim is
ticked by the fact that only Kinga informants even in 1960 could
pinpoint Nyumba Nitu, the grove from which in myth the leadership
teams spread out, each to rule a country. The client-ruler pattern of
‘sending out’ a lieutenant (K. untsagila) is widespread and clearly
older in the region than the Sanga system as such. It harks back,
presumably, to the period of regular migratory drift, when a small
migrant group would keep in touch with ‘home’ and provide a
beachhead for others wanting to join them. But while in court culture
the client-ruler role is securely secularized, the ‘Nguluve migration’
myth is a charter for a kind of sacerdotal authority centred in a
princely figure, an heroic ruler, and not a reclusive god-king. So far as I
can judge, missionaries were the first to take Nguluve for a deity.
Kinga elders would chuckle about his name (“pig”), suggesting it
might have to do with skin colour—Nguluve was perhaps an Arab who
settled in. The magical living divinities (chosen successors to the
names Lwembe and Kyungu) are peculiar to the Malatan subregion
and belong to an historically later overlay. Why such further develop-
ments should have taken place constitutes a major project of this

A realistic view grounded in archaeology and ethnohistory
would presuppose roughly concurrent developments in each of the
five homelands under consideration, with stimulus diffusion
accounting for some parallels, and local idiosyncrasies—whether of
heritage or fresh invention—to explain deeper differences. Three
centuries are, by a common reckoning, no more than ten political
generations. I count ten full reigns no more than enough for the
more-than-minimal chiefly institutions of these three protostates
to have developed and, while showing so many subtle parallels and
deep local divergencies, stabilized within the region. A great deal of
what the protostates have in common with their neighbours can
also be found among the less chiefly folk of the broader region,
bearing all the marks of what is integral to tradition. I have elsewhere
shown this in detail and noted certain constitutional provisions the
several protostates share with less-political neighbours—provisions
of the countervailing sort which no authority would have imposed.
They are safeguards against the abuse of power, and would have been
maintained by entrenched local groups jealous of their autonomy.
You don’t impose a social contract. So far as it is real and so long as
it endures, a constitutional contract is a bargain about the balance
of power. ‡

Kinga myth does not claim otherwise—far from bringing civili-

zation with him, the first Sanga had to trade his daughter for the
secret of fire. The same applies broadly to Ngonde and Nyakyusa
ruling institutions. Each of these three ‘chiefly’ or princely societies
remained into British times political islands bounded by bush
communities. Each in its own fashion had institutionalized an
expansive procedure designed to colonize peripheral communities
and incorporate them into one roughly pyramidal political system.
Historically, what we have to consider in each case is the transfor-
mation of a relatively egalitarian and localistic type-society into one
which has erected an authoritative establishment toward which the
egalitarian ethic stands only as a countervailing (‘antipolitan’)
principle. I suppose the main creative force behind such a transfor-
mation must have been conscious and political. I have in mind the
open and consensual conversion of ‘leadership’ into ‘office’ through
routinization and substructural innovation. The elaboration and
differentiation of supporting roles seems to be best conceived as a
semiotic process, and symbols do not pop up out of whole cloth.
Nyumba Nitu emerges from myth and hadithi as the shrine of a
vaguely remembered, apotheosized ‘Adam’ figure, Nguluve. To call him
a hero is to confuse matters. There are no hero tales, and Nguluve is
known by scores of peoples in the same way, as their own. But the
principal source of the symbolic front of kingship is necessarily
religious, and in this the Malatan cultures follow a general rule. Each,

however, has had to find its own way to a working system of trans-
local authority, and it is by understanding their differences we are
likely to learn what we can of their separate political histories.

Uses of a bush religion: the politics of fertility

I have to depend mainly on the two (out of three) Malatan

chiefly societies for which there are ethnographic field studies. But
Kinga and Nyakyusa differences are instructive and throw light on
the Ngonde variant as well. Though united in sharing the territorial
shrine of Lwembe at Lubaga, Kinga and Nyakyusa contrast in the way
bush religion was incorporated into their protostate systems. There
were three main departments of the religion on which an early Sanga
leader, with his priestly accomplices, would have had to draw: garden
and reproductive fertility ritual, the ancestor cult, and witchcraft. I
take up fertility first. It is the classic focus of ‘agrarian religions’. If
there is such a thing as an ‘agrarian mind’ it must brood most on
fertility and growth. Sowetan peoples had markets but no ‘market
mentality’. Theirs was also a focus which takes in the importance of
human ecology. The conditions of survival and reproduction are
necessarily different for Kinga in their high hills compared to
Nyakyusa on the more populous, verdant, and ethnically varied valley

Intensive crop cultivation was coupled with cattle herding

throughout most of the Sowetan region. But cattle, being hard to
keep in the higher mountain slopes ecozone, played no important role
in the rise of Sanga politics in uKinga. For Nyakyusa, cattle were the
prime form of mobile wealth, and responsible as a predictable conse-
quence for a good deal of political mischief. Without them, and the
bridewealth system of marriage which made wealth of women as
well, it is hard to conceive of the Konde social scene developing as it
did. Modeling it as a sort of ‘factory system’ you have a chiefdom
which at the high point of its developmental cycle comprises up to a
dozen ‘human production centres’ each densely inhabited by a (non
kinship) group of polygynists with their many wives and children.
Peripheral to each of these production centres you have the
‘bachelor closes’ which are home to (non kinship) peer-groups of
youths or young adult men comprising the workforce and fighting
capability the production centres require. Scores of such chiefdoms
comprise the country of the Konde—the linguistic community of
Nyakyusa in Tanzania and Ngonde in Malawi. A certain degree of
symbolic unity was affected in traditional times in the Selya area by
virtue of the territorial shrine located at Lubaga. Local priests in

troubled times cooperated with Kinga in ritual address to Lwembe.
His anger was thought by Kinga to be the cause of irregular,
widespread (‘territorially’ inclusive) troubles. But where Kinga made
a politically unifying thing of seasonal plantings, localism prevailed in
the Nyakyusa approach to hydrological mysteries. Rainfall in the
Valley does have visibly local patterns, and the regular seasonal
round of garden crops was a local concern of each chiefdom and its
rainmaker. Nyakyusa ‘rainmaking’ devices are the usual set for all of
the Eastern Bantu civilization and certainly antedate chiefly
politics. For the chiefdom we know best (Mwaipopo’s in British
colonial times) the rainmaker was the hereditary priest Kasitile, who
claimed collateral chiefly descent. A few samplings from the Wilsons’
fieldwork will elucidate some of the techniques and suggest the way
this particular bit of lore fitted into the pattern of Konde social life.

[Godfrey Wilson on the more centralized practice in uNgonde:]

Kyungu M. had his rain-makers...Mugoma was a slave, Komanga a man
of Ngonde. When the sky was hard he sent a message to them
saying: “Put them into water.” If there was too much rain he said:
“Take them out.” Each had two potsherds with two stones for each.
To make rain they rubbed the stones with mutton fat and a medicine
called ilifugo (fertility) and put them into the sherds and poured
water over them.

[Godfrey Wilson went with Kasitile to see his rainstones:] There

was a large broken pot and three stones, two of them with holes an
inch or so in diameter. There used to be five stones—two had been
stolen by the Ngoni...When he wishes to make rain, water drawn from
a waterfall is brought by Kasitile’s wife and left overnight in the
grove. Then he pours it into the pot and puts in the stones... ‘the
water bubbles; it is cold, but it seems to boil and the ifula go whirling
and knocking against the sides of the pot’...The bubbling of the water
is compared with rain. Kasitile did not know where his stones had
come from. Mwakisambwe his great-grandfather had them first,
then his grandfather, and father.

[Kasitile is interviewed:] In theory the rain-maker always works

under the direction of the political authority—the Kyungu or a
chief...But when Kasitile himself was angry...the weather grew bad. ‘I
thought, “It is not the custom with our forefathers for the tax
collectors to come at all to men like me.” I grew angry and
prayed...When I was in MuNgonde the country suffered from hunger,
all their children were in trouble... Then I came up, and began to
prepare my rain, and made the country good. Food started to be
plentiful. Why should I be treated thus? I asked. And the shades and
Kyala [a divinity] heard me, so it rained heavily (too much). Do I grow
angry by my own power? I do.’ ‡

I suppose garden rituals since early Neolithic times have been
co-opted everywhere to some sort of political use. Just here, the
puzzle is what, in the historical situations of the Kinga and Konde,
should be held to account for one particular cultural difference: the
continuation of localist ‘bush religious’ praxis in respect to crops
among Nyakyusa, as compared to the fuller cooptation of traditional
rainmaking into a centralizing court culture among Kinga. It is useful
to have Godfrey Wilson’s information on Ngonde praxis: here are
rainmakers clearly subordinated to a centralizing monarchy with
traits of ‘divine kingship’ absent in the Sanga ‘high princely’ courts.

The association of ritual calendars with authoritarian control

in the primordial agricultural civilizations of the Old and New worlds
is well known. But in the absence of an élite theocratic class the
weaving of ritual into the political order is sure to have been less
than wholesale at the stage we have to consider for the Malatan
region. Globally, garden ritual—grass roots religion—among decen-
tralized cultivators is often associated with lineage or affinal
politics. Where local descent groups prevail in combination with
ancestor propitiation, the lineage elder typically plays the part of
priest-officiant. In mixed-lineage communities such as we have in the
Malatan region seniority in respect of local land rights plays a similar
role. In the right circumstance, the intensification of a chosen
person’s authority is predictable, and he becomes a pop-up
spokesman or adjudicator whenever one is needed. As folk learn to
defer to him, a conspicuous elder can find himself empowered to
represent his community politically, whether in mending a broken
peace or building an alliance where self-help (reciprocal use of force
as a private, transactional system of sanctions) is not doing the job.

In the Kinga case, one may guess, priest and warrior were from
the start separate roles. But that surely would not have been the
case with the Konde, where we see the two callings everywhere
partly merged. Thus Kasitile calls himself chiefly and has hard things
to say about the ‘commoner priests’ who are only aging village
headmen. Konde chiefs also are felt to grow stronger spiritually as
they grow weaker physically, and there are points in her monographs
where Monica Wilson is clearly in favour of viewing secular chiefs as
‘divine kings’ in the manner of their death. I don’t find myself
convinced, but I find the ring of truth in the notion that ‘still growing’
body parts (hair and nails) would have been taken from a powerful
chief’s body in traditional times, to renew the chrism priests used in
the inauguration of a successor. Why would not Konde priests, like
Kinga, conceal the death of a powerful ruler until the stage was fully
set for a successor? But ordinarily this would be unnecessary, as

ordinarily a chief would have spent his charisma and seen the
identity of his successor assured long before death came.

In the standing literature the presumptive course of devel-

opment for a chiefly political system starts with some sort of
social and economic leverage accruing to a central personage within
a sizable pedestrian community. Sometimes there is a (seasonal)
surplus of storable food, and the political leverage develops through
the emergence of a ‘redistributional’ system centred in an authori-
tative office. Looking at such a system in simple secular terms there
would have to be a flow of storable food to a centre, from which at
need it would flow out again. This could make economic sense if it
would hold down waste in ‘times of plenty’ by transferring supplies
from private to ‘public’ hands, in favour of relief in a season of
scarcity. But it only makes political sense—and proves workable—if
this kind of skeletal redistribution is dramatized in the form of
ceremonial feasting. This gives us a social-contract model for chiefly
politics: moveable wealth, centrally stored for the whole pedestrian
community, is defended there under a chief who maintains his power
by feasting the people on a regular basis. The Sanga system can
perhaps be fitted to this model, but the Nyakyusa chiefdom not—it
is something else. ‡

What both Malatan political cultures do have of this model, and

have in spades, is the ideal of the generous chief. It is his own wealth,
though, in the Konde world, which he is asked to share. A Konde chief
has two main wives and, with the rest of his peers, a continuing influx
of ever-younger wives. He has sons galore to do his gardening and
see to the expansion of his herds. His wealth is inherent in the
system. But at the same time he must be ready to spend his capital
wisely. Nominally, this may mean no more than placating his shades
when they grow restless, but practically the bull must be dismem-
bered and beef shared about to all the usual support groups.

For the Sowetan region the advent of chiefly politics would

have come in the Later Iron Age and propagated the lifestyle we
associate with the ‘medieval’ period of Eastern Bantu civilization.
New crops and techniques have filtered in. The presence of ample
grains and pulses, easily desiccated for storage, opens the possi-
bility of redistribution, but in most cases would not be enough.
Where every household has hardworking cultivators, can store its
own food, and regularly supplements by hunting or trading, even
seasonal scarcity is rarely an emergency. Herd animals introduce a
new set of concerns, inevitably ‘political’. Seasonal consumption
gives way to longer term considerations. If a herd, with continued
luck, will reproduce in geometric proportion to the years invested, so

does the risk of loss and the intensity of any future expectation of
wealth. Herds are wealth as few crops in a subsistence economy are,
and the presence of alienable (redistributable) wealth begets a new
politics, quite likely armed. Without cattle, can we offer a set of
equations which would account for the Konde age-village system?

Cattle, sheep, and goats are important in the Malatan region.

Hehe-Bena peoples into the nineteenth century were organized as
scores of autonomous chiefdoms with more than passing interest in
one another’s herds. Nyakyusa expansionism was traditionally
focused on cattle raiding. Once the (deeply political) decisions had
been made as to whose wealth a mixed group of youths had brought
home, further decisions must be made as to whose new brides the
new cattle might be traded for. Nyakyusa chiefdoms can be shown to
be structured around the problem of keeping a large cohort of young
men available in every village cluster, all prepared to work their
fathers’ fields and defend their fathers’ cattle. They won’t do that
when they have wives and kitchens of their own. For adventure, in the
spirit of young men without women, they were groomed to enjoy
undertaking dangerous raids on far off herds, to increase their
fathers’ wealth in cattle and wives. Both kinds would eventually
trickle down to them. But this was, as Monica Wilson reports at
length, a formula meant to please men, and among men, elders. For
our concerns here, it was a culture of affluence. Staple crops, partic-
ularly banana sorts, were abundant in all the favoured parts of the
country and predictable enough to be of comparatively minor
concern in Nyakyusa religion.

In effect, ritual attention to crops was either left to the rain-

maker—the same specialist the ‘founding chiefs’ would have found on
their arrival in the country—or it was left to routine, being incorpo-
rated en passant into chief-centred rites. The first case is a little
ambiguous. The Wilsons’ rainmaker, Kasitile, was, as one might
expect in the region, a priest who had inherited his rainstones
through agnatic descent and learnt his arts through apprenticeship.
As such, his claims (though accepted by Monica Wilson) to the bona
fide half-chiefly status of ‘younger brother’ to a ruling line are
probably best considered fictive. The claim refers to a connection
remote enough in time to lie beyond the reach of evidence. I read it
here as I read similar claims from Kinga priests at Maliwa. The claim
to a ‘royal’ connection had in colonial times become something you
could scarcely deny in uKinga without seeming to deny a distin-
guished social position. At ordinary rates of reproduction,
thousands of Nyakyusa and Kinga have grandfathered claims to
royal blood. But the Wilsons’ rainmakers are wanted to act on a
chief’s behalf, not their own. And though it is clear on evidence that a

Nyakyusa priest ‘of chiefly line’ was far from enjoying chiefly privilege
in his community, it is just as clear that he was socially aligned with
aristocratic interests to a point that justified a ‘chiefly’ or ‘princely’
demeanor. When must a lion tamer hide his pride?

Sacrifices are made to chiefly Nyakyusa ancestors at the

appropriate sacred grove. Commoner priests alone actually enter
the grove, excluding the chief—he is inherently inadmissible in spite
of his claims of descent. Then (whatever the occasion of the
sacrifice) blood, bits of the dedicated meat, and beer will be spilt on
the earth (and in the frame of religious mystery, right down through)
at the shrine-stone in the wood, for the shades to feast on. Always
there are “petitions for rain, fertility, and health”. The occasion for
such a sacrifice might be an omen or a dream. Often the pressure
would be fed by personal anxieties and sometimes by more than just
a bit of bad weather; but always the bullock of sacrifice would have to
be wheedled from a chief. These were the projects of priests, and any
priest would be in position to touch more than one chief. Quite often,
it was the quarreling of priests and chiefs which was blamed for a
drought or too much rain, or for garden pests. That way a priest
himself could become the occasion for the needed sacrifice, though
he would obviously be blaming the chief for the trouble. Comparing
the two cultures in this frame, the Nyakyusa look like a bunch of
omnidirectional entrepreneurs. Kinga rely less on hustling, more on
ritual theatre. Their priests, taken realm by realm, comprise
compact groups. Whatever the internal differences, the group wants
to move in one direction. It aspires with some success to solidarity
with sister groups in other domains and realms.

While Kinga youths were concerned as much as Nyakyusa with

protecting their fathers’ herds, goats are a different animal from
cattle, quick to scatter, safer by nature from predators, and
marginally worth less as wealth. Herding was left to young boys.
Easy come, easy go—goats had only nominal importance for the high
purpose of marrying. And goats are very hard to steal. Older Kinga
youths liked the adventure of a cattle raid, but (apart from any
cattle which might be taken by chance in pitched battle with Kinga of
a neighbour realm) preferred stealth and the magical arts to a
bellicose style in their long-distance forays. As for gardening, nine-
tenths of the gardening work you would see done by young men in
Nyakyusa country is done by women (of all ages) in Kingaland. On the
other hand, in both cultures everyone eats alike, and Kinga depen-
dence on fallible staple crops was always greater. The garden accord-
ingly enjoys a loftier place in Kinga religion.

Though gardening for Kinga remained an individual enterprise,
only cooperatively pursued through the customary ungovi work bee,
the seasonal timing of a few traditional crops was calendrically
regulated, as if to set apart these staples as the foods at risk of
mystical punishment. When particular plantations were affected by
pestilence the event would be treated as witchcraft or ancestor
neglect, and as such would not be a political concern. But the kind of
pestilence or drought which might strike the whole of a domain or the
larger realm was the kind which could merit political blame. So the
mechanisms of political-ritual theatre are called upon to exonerate
the high court in advance. Any court claiming to possess a counter-
vailing mystical power of defense against divine anger has exposed
itself to blame when its powers are deployed in vain. The dramatic
task of an elaborate Kinga planting ritual, buttressed by strict
taboos on early planting, is accordingly to tag the danger to the
advantage of priest and prince. If these taboos have not been
broken, the buck passes upward. But blame must fall not on neglect
by the Court. Some other, diabolical mischief must be discovered
which only the Court with its priestly diviners could hope to identify
and neutralize. Theodicy is the central contradiction in a religion of
guilt. If a perfect God made us as we are, why did he intend us to
know evil? A religion of blame derives from the great tradition of
animism and does not have to account for inscrutable or in any way
perfect gods, as all the evils of the mystical sphere are quite
naturally inherent in the imperfect beings which command its forces.
Kinga priests were the lawyers of a mystical arena in which these
forces must be dealt with. Or we may think of them as lion-tamers.

Python-tamers would be more exact. Nyakyusa say the snake

in the belly of their chief is only the match to snakes in the bellies of
witches he must fight in the community’s defense. The important
ancestors whom the priests propitiate are those of their great
chiefs. Hair and nails taken from these chiefs allegedly before death
are key ingredients in the medicines a priest has hoarded away for
use in the protection of the living. And the forces he must protect
his people from are, more than likely, writhing in the bellies of just
those chiefly ancestors in their underworld. The central contra-
diction in this religion of blame lies in the powerlessness of a living
chief—a future godling—directly to intervene with those of his own
blood who, having gone before him, endure only in ill-tempered envy of
his own more robust living state. But it is a contradiction on which a
priest must insist at any price.

It is a special Sanga feature that, while the calendrical

regulation of the gardening season (since it must be suited to local
circumstance in each case) was carried out on the level of the local

domain, a fiction was developed that each sacred garden belonged
not to the court of the local Lord [Untwa] where the garden lay but
to the Prince [Unkuludeva] who ruled the inclusive realm. Considered
as a stratagem, the effect was to pass the buck of blame along with
the mystical burden of (dare I say?) ‘crop insurance’ to the higher
court. It is not a trivial advantage of translocal authority as Sanga
organized it, that blame is removed from the personally accessible
to an inaccessible ruler. Ultimately, and it seems in traditional times
pretty frequently, the great Sanga procession to Lubaga off-loaded
the blame—accumulated at the courts of all the domains and
realms—on the master Kinga troublemaker, Lwembe.

High political theatre was the perk of a princely court. When

the royal harvest was carried there in ceremonial procession from an
outlier domain, the accepted meaning was not imongo (tax) or the
rendering of a rent-like tribute but recognition of the mystical incor-
poration of this peripheral community as part-society within a
greater realm. If that message was sometimes lost on an ambitious
local ruler, the annual ceremonies which acted it out were vital in the
popular mind and (if only in view of the human energy invested)
unstoppable. At Maliwa the royal garden was devoted to sorghum
(planted in January, harvested in August) because finger millet, the
‘original Kinga’ grain, did not thrive there. The procession would
comprise some fifty persons. The Ukwama prince’s reciprocation was
to present them with the makings of a true feast, a cow and suffi-
cient beer, which they were to carry home. The meaning of this trans-
action is not at all what it would be if so large a contingent from
Maliwa were to stay and feast at the Ukwama court. The two
domains in such a hegemonic relation can’t be allowed to merge under
a princely patron. This show is not about Sanga politics but about
access to redemptive mystical intervention—access by the one (the
lesser) autonomous polity, made through the more learned and
powerful ministers of a sacred grove located in the other. But the
people of Maliwa, no doubt, know how to read the subtext, which can
only reinforce a hegemonic order in the realm. So far as the fertility
of the royal gardens somehow contains, implies, and assures the
fertility of all the others, hope can be seen to ride on the back of the
prince. But in this drama the role of a secular ruler is by no account
that of demiurge. Inspired ‘defender’ though he be, his special powers
are those of an extraordinary, headstrong colleague whose
existence endangers the cosmic order even as it lends its strength
to it.

Human fertility in the bush culture was not in itself a religious

concern but was addressed by implication in rituals meant to assist
in childbearing and childhood survival. For Kinga, as the ambisexual

ethos of the courts evolved, the tendency of the priests was to
magnify the princely harem and press the incumbent prince to
consider it his real workplace. Once installed, a new prince was
abruptly removed from the homophilic world of ordinary manhood.
The dangers of that world were not mystical: the problem was
poison. As men grew older they learned to fear their friends. A ruler
took no food or drink without seeing his official taster survive it; and
a ruler slept only with women. In this way the heterosexual principle
was given its champion, and the court was eventually magnified by
the presence of his many comely daughters, the new set of
princesses to whom men must defer. Picture these maidens going
about always in groups, always light-heartedly tilling the family
gardens in sisterly teams. Picture them singing as they worked, but
don’t see Ophelia—perhaps rather Atalanta. When a princely court
was well enough established, even a youthful ruler would not lead in
warfare but let a local champion wear his kingly gear for the day. The
prince should be dedicated, as his priests would assure him, to the
work of the harem. It became the right of the throne to see that the
avapapwa, the non-inheriting sons or ‘younger brothers’ of the royal
line, and any of their barrack mates who would accompany them,
were suitably married when the time came to send them away from
life at court to settle and ‘rule’ disputes in some part of the
periphery. In this way the work of food production, storage, and
preparation at court was principally done by bachelors—maidens
full-time, barracks men part-time. It was only with a man’s and his
(royal) bride’s removal to the bush that their own delayed fertility

There are parallels to this pattern in Nyakyusa tradition. There

was delayed marriage for men (if hardly for women) and a massive
‘sending out’ of young men and women, a redeployment in space of
the whole new generation, when it came time for the passing on of a
right to rule from their elders. While Nyakyusa knew no ‘court and
bush’ distinction, they lived in small, internally close-knit villages not
spread out in hamlets. Each chiefly village would be surrounded by
eight or a dozen commoner villages each with its own commoner
head. So (as with Kinga) only a fraction of the population was politi-
cally close to a ruling prince and the ‘python in his belly’ which gave
him sway. To be effective, political theatre requires this provision of
aesthetic distance. The details of the passage of authority—how
the Nyakyusa Coming Out ‘must have worked’—have been a favoured
subject for term papers in anthropology since the system was first
described by the Wilsons. For the present purpose it may be suffi-
cient to have in mind two results: (1) Women, cattle, and fertility
were concentrated in the polygynous families of men past their
youth, all gathered in the stem villages of the chiefdom while their

sons, living in satellite villages of their own, did most of the work in
the parental fields. (2) While the orderly royal genealogies made up
for Monica Wilson belie it, every chiefdom really was painfully regen-
erated from a near-inchoate state every thirty-odd years with the
formal abdication of governing authority by all the village officers.
This was not a succession of new men to old offices but a managed
secession of young men, moving from the chiefdom of their birth to
one cloned from it, with a full structure of new offices. A Konde
chiefdom unambiguously consisted in people, not the ground they
happened at any particular time to occupy. It is important to see
that it was not only the chief and his two villages of peers who
passed over their powers and responsibilities relating to political
reproduction to a new chiefdom, for as part of the same operation
all the headmen of commoner villages comprising the body of his
chiefdom did the same, stripping themselves of their young male
workforce. This made for a combination of energy and social turbu-
lence unequaled in Kinga country even in the two ‘frontier’ realms,
East and West. Remarkably, as judged by the high morale and good
life found there by Germans on their arrival in the 1890s, the
Nyakyusa system of literally liberating youth at periodic intervals
appears to have worked. The puzzle of the Coming Out is the Wilson’s
great legacy to anthropology. Reconstructing it at closer range will
be a project of later chapters, building on a fuller understanding of
the Nyakyusa world.

Uses of a bush religion: ancestors & neighbours

It is important to see some of what is implied in saying the

Kinga protostate was not based on ‘kinship politics’—and why
substituting an alternative ‘politics of amity’ only improves the
focus slightly. A kinship constitution produces a segmentary
society. If it has an apical office, its single occupant can only belong
to one or another segment, and to hold the office he is virtually
obliged to use tyrannical means. At his death, you must expect odd
and problematic mechanisms of succession. At the death of the
first Hehe tyrant Munyigumba, his military state fell instantly back
into its original components. A ‘divine king’ can perhaps provide an
escape from the particularism of a segmentary society but can’t
give it secular unity. Kinship politics is also burdened by its inherent
gerontocratic tendency, since the ‘natural’ leader of a kin group is its
senior member of proper gender. Entrepreneurial politics of the kind
we find both in the Sanga courts and the Nyakyusa chiefdoms would
be stifled.

The Lwembe figure (Monica Wilson’s divine king) when seen from
uKinga does serve to raise popular expectations above the level of a
particular domain or realm. The great ‘pilgrimage’ of priests from all
the Sanga courts to Lubaga in the Rift Valley evidently lumped the
ethnically distinct Kinga and Mahanzi communities together,
probably from the time in the nineteenth century when they were
chronically fighting, and perhaps from before that. The same figure,
seen from the Wilsons’ uNyakyusa or as a feature of the larger
Konde community, being one amongst several rival divinities, can
perhaps be regarded as a politically ‘neutral’ resource but hardly a
unifying one. The formerly parallel figure in uNgonde, the Kyungu, did
so evolve politically in the nineteenth century as a supra-segmental
unifying force but had to do so, in good part, by shedding his tradi-
tional mystique—his implicit, not-visible powers.

When a Nyakyusa man shifts from one chiefdom to another, as

many do, he is turning to a new set of chiefly shades for his spiritual
concerns. It is a move on the chessboard of personal destiny. Old
men, it is true, are often found muttering to shades of their own.
But a young man’s moral strategies are laid out on a wider
gameboard. It is a lesson of the influential cults of chiefly ancestors
that the welfare of a chief’s people is watched over by his shades,
rather to the exclusion of their own. Thus Konde are supposed to go
through chiefly ancestors to divine the reasons for troubles they
share with their neighbours. Or to put it more succinctly, discontent
can be blamed on the displeasure of dead chiefs. Kinga use of Lwembe
as the butt of blame runs parallel to this but on a more inclusive
scale and with a special twist. Lwembe is not a dead chief but his
too-magical younger brother—a dead tyrant’s victim. The worldview
which supports this kind of rhetoric about life and death and its
meaning is older than the Sowetan political archipelago, and reflects
exactly the transformation from an acephalous to a chiefly philo-
sophic context.

It is the differences between Kinga and Konde institutions

resulting from that transformation which concern us here. My
premise is that the differences between the two (bush) religions
lying back of these two protostates were less before the political
escalation began. That would be because the bush religion in the time
of acephalous politics gave importance ‘democratically’ to
Everyman’s dead, whereas in the new contexts we have to deal with a
magnified ‘sacred ire’ ascribed to the shades of high office. While we
may use such terms as ‘chief’ or ‘prince’ or ‘noble’ in reference either
to Kinga or Konde officers, their political systems developed each in
its own way.

No one studied the Kinga in the 1930s, or we should perhaps
have had cases comparable to those the Wilsons offer, from which to
judge the relative importance—frequency and severity—of witch-
craft accusations in the two cultures. As it is I can only proceed,
having uttered this caveat, on a basis of what I know. I find a greater
prevalence of witches in Konde than in Kinga culture, and offer these
cursory explanations: (i) The stresses of domesticity are distinctly
less in Kingaland, for the reason that domesticity there is minimal. It
is mystical (and mystifying) personal hostility which explains witch-
craft, and this comes to the surface within close personal range. In
particular, kinship ties are maximal-claim ties. You carry them around
wherever you go, you can’t move away. Emotional involvements within
this sort of tie are deep, complex, and ambivalent. By minimizing
them, Kinga reduce the neurotic load they carry. (i) Where it comes
to peer relationships, there is an important difference between the
two cultural settings. Kinga amity is built very largely through a
network structure. The older a Kinga male becomes, the freer (and
usually wider) his pattern of association. The pervasive Konde amity
structure on the other hand is collective: it is based in ‘compulsory
voluntarism’—if you are not convincingly friendly you are asking to be
named as the witch whenever untoward events break the brittle
surface of village amity. (ii) Then there is the pervasive muttering of
old men in the Nyakyusa setting. Each has pursued his moral career
between kith and kin. Over time the volatility of ‘kith’ (village peers)
impresses itself on a person who cannot himself confront the
invisible masters of his destiny. He sees things falling apart. Perhaps
he has had to admit he’s had witches for friends. We see him
muttering where he sits facing the ground, not just to himself but to
some other. ‡

Nyakyusa men’s moral strategies must rely on intense but

fragmentary kinship loyalties. Local descent groups were rigidly
disallowed, to the point that own brothers (for presenting the
threat of dyadic combination or withdrawal within the new peer
village) were never sent to the same close. The solidarity of the
Nyakyusa village is that of propinquity not prescribed dependency.
The ruling ethos is amity, rigorously maintained. Kinship does, all the
same, pay off by giving ‘vertical’ structure to a chiefdom. If lineage
had no credible value, wouldn’t even father-son filiation drop away?
Then how would fathers, so busy collecting wives in their polygynous
mother-village, manage their grown sons well? Nyakyusa had no
translocal military arrangements. The sons (though not quite as
among Kinga) live in their own small peer groups, not with brothers or
cousins as such but friends. Yet they are all prepared to do the
fighting to win cattle for their fathers’ new child-brides, and do
most of the stoop work in all the parental kitchen gardens as well.

Nyakyusa couldn’t afford to let the mystique of agnatic inheritance
pale. In going so far as to divert inheritance of wealth and wives down
the full list of a deceased’s younger brothers, until finally reverting
to his eldest son, they balance the structural weight of descent
with that of sibling seniority. This offers a distinctive way of
mapping a man’s social identity in light of his longterm expectations.
The kinship map comprises an overlay on the collegial map of day-to-
day life in a world where men grow up in peer-groups, not families.

Mature men are important on the Kinga scene. They certainly

run the courts of law and generally support each other. Around 1960
they were fast learning how to use bridewealths to get rich, and
money management to get status. But they are not, like their Konde
counterparts, a visibly wealthy class. Even as fathers in the long-
ago, amid scenery now lost, their moral careers led into none of the
domestic grandeur of a Nyakyusa polygynist. For a Kinga father it
was good enough to say ‘a boy’s work is roughing it’. That is, after a
boy is seven or eight a father loses control and, with it, responsi-
bility. By the time a Kinga son is ready to marry, his father has quite
finished with the work of marital relations. If old men still hold
centre-stage in a Kinga community it is mainly in and through their

A Nyakyusa boy knows the cattle he needs are in his father’s

keep. They will have to pass through the hands of all a father’s
younger brothers (normally in the same chiefdom but not the same
village), then through all the boy’s older brothers before coming to
him. It may well seem to him his best hope of jumping queue is playing
the dutiful son or nephew. Monica Wilson devotes a full volume of her
ethnography to the rituals of kinship which are put on to teach that
lesson. It is one Kinga know little of. Their animals aren’t milchers. The
few cattle-keepers I knew kept a byre in the spirit of herding goats,
doing it half as a gratifying hobby, half as cash business. Everyone
said that before the pax cattle were rarely seen unless at a royal
court. A goatherd has no great expectations. ‡‡

The Malatan peoples are decidedly not ‘tribes without rulers’,

nor could their constitutions easily have descended from any nicely
segmented kinship societies. ‘Tribe’ is in fact a misleading word to
use anywhere in the Malatan or the broader Sowetan region. All
three major peoples have convincing traditions of receiving and incor-
porating immigration without segregation on the basis of ancestry.
As this has been the source of some uncertainties concerning the
Nyakyusa, who do emphasize and celebrate lineage loyalties, and
since comparison on this point will help to clarify reasons for the
eclipse of the shades among Kinga, I’ll first approach the topic of

Kinga ‘ancestor religion’ as a variant of the Malatan pattern. It is not
accidental that Kinga share their ‘high god’ Lwembe with the
Nyakyusa, and can claim to share their line of ritually sanctioned
rulers with both Nyakyusa and Ngonde.

The Nyakyusa age-village constitution cuts across their

lineage system, scattering cousins and siblings into different local
groups. Though the highest offices are considered hereditary in the
agnatic line, the system of accession at the chiefdom’s Coming Out
ceremony is bizarre enough that some anthropologists won’t believe
what Wilson has described. The institution proves worth circling
back to from time to time, so different facets can be seen. The point
just here is that the Coming Out anticipates the disengagement of
the older generation of leaders from active politics, and does so by
reproducing itself in a new generation. The new chiefdoms (for two at
least are produced) are parented by the old, which retains its forms.
Every chiefship is doubled, every headman below a chief must be
chosen on merit from among commoners with no traceable
connection to a chiefly (princely) line. Neither of the two new chiefs
automatically inherits a father’s political weight. Charsley stresses
in his review the absence of a ritual conferring office to the old
prince’s sons, suggesting (in an “extreme formulation”) that the
Coming Out only qualifies a new princeling to “seek to establish a
ruling position for himself in competition with other princes of his
own and of preceding generations.”

It is because a Nyakyusa chief’s power is so personal, depends

so on the appearance of ‘pythons in his tank’ or the mantle of
charisma, that I suppose his magnetism would have tended to
overreach the talent of a young successor. From that I take the view
that, at least in many cases, the Nyakyusa Coming Out must have
been the moral equivalent of the Sanga prince’s “sending out” of
parties of braves with their new brides to establish new settle-
ments affiliated to his own. The magnetism of a strong central court
leads to demographic disproportion, political cross-currents. and a
need to recirculate many members of the oncoming generation. It is
probably true enough that most of the men a Sanga prince ‘sends
out’ take a humble or at least a humdrum role where they settle—
only a few become rulers or sire any. It must be true also that many
Nyakyusa who Come Out with grandiose expectations are later
found settling for the quiet life wherever they may find themselves.
But probably a few do ‘colonize’ and so extend Nyakyusa politics a bit
beyond its former boundaries. In each case slow growth would follow,
though the political rhetoric may call for much more. As soon as we
accept ‘entrepreneurial politics’ as the fittest model for the
Nyakyusa case, these distinguishing consequences seem to follow.

Nyakyusa princes ranged from rich to poor in land and cattle
holdings. The wealth of their local states varied radically because the
rivalry of their realms was multilateral and intensely antipolitan—
and all this despite the bias toward ascriptive agnatic alliances
celebrated in their kinship rituals. Kinga by contrast lack any such
histrionic occasions for the assembly of lineage members, except
for funerals; and at these (as in fact at Nyakyusa funerals as well)
the vast majority in attendance are not kinsmen but neighbours.
Each society in its own way demonstrates the clash between
politics and kinship. Neither culture can be said to have integrated
the two. But it is the appropriation of the worldview and religious
beliefs of the bush, turning its rhetoric and structural norms to
political use, which allows the developing courts to give fresh form to
the societies which cradled them.

The business of politics is often conceived to be the allocation

of public goods. But looking at politics along with kinship suggests
the particular importance of allocating social identities. Kinship
plays on the strings of family to net in uncles, cousins, ancestors,
and descendants up to a given degree of relationship as the group to
which ego ‘belongs’ and on which he or she must depend for social
sponsorship of any important kind. More purely political systems of
allocating identity must depend on some other basis for social
alignment than kinship, and the tendency is to substitute kith for
kin, propinquity for fraternity, locality for ancestry. This means we
have to deal with two systems of dual identity, the one (Kinga) fuzzy
and flexible, the other (the Nyakyusa with their lineal inheritance
ladder and tightly bounded peer villages) quite clearly delineated. The
main implication for our understanding of Malatan religion is that
individuals in both these populations will have to deal with some
added existential uncertainty in their dealings with the dead. With
or without the imposing institutions of princely politics, most people
most of their lives are deeply involved in efforts to control their
individual destinies. Collective representations premised on political
solidarity may have limited relevance to these concerns but can’t
avoid stealing fire from the shades.

Monica Wilson lists a series of offenses, all of which may be

described as family quarrels, which are “directly punished by the
shades.” But she concludes:

...The Nyakyusa speak of the danger of angering senior relatives,

but they attribute most of their misfortunes to their neighbours,
and they say that more misfortunes are due to neighbours and
fewer to the shades than is openly admitted! ‡

Attributing misfortune to neighbours means witchcraft. In
Nyakyusa culture, which is heavy with kinship ritual and ancestral
lore, it is easy to see this as displacement. In fact, Nyakyusa shades
are always thought to bring trouble on a younger person for disre-
spect of an elder. This man “mutters over the fire”—the shades hear,
and are moved to punish with a disease or an accident. If there is a
propitiatory sacrifice, it is not the shade but the living elder who
must be reconciled. Such dense facework within a family is
unthinkable for Kinga. Their bush culture, alive but often
overshadowed in the neighborhood of the courts, seems to have
struck the rough (if logically opaque) balance, typical for Eastern
Bantu peoples, as between the ‘neighbours’ and ‘shades’ schools of
thought in the placing of blame for misfortune. The initial appeal to a
diviner calls for a choice between grievance and repentance. If the
shades are angry the client should repent a neglect of duty and
make amends. But if a neighbour has sent the trouble the injustice
fixes automatically on the other. That is, a victim always earns the
ill-treatment he gets from a ghost, but never deserves the mystical
cut he may get from a wife, a brother, or a friend. The diviner’s call as
between ‘neighbour’ and ‘shade’ decides the path a client will take in
his quest—accepting or deflecting blame. If the client is inclined to
accept the diagnosis, he will act on it, but need accept no responsi-
bility for so doing. He has paid someone else to do that, and this was
a disinterested person who acted as catalyst for an oracle.

Under Sanga court culture the diviner was one of the prince’s
men, avanyivaha, and made a similar choice, but in a new political and
administrative context. Let a threatening illness befall the royal
house itself, and the diviner must find either for hunting out a witch
within the fold (which entails using the ordeal and can wrench the
ties which bind a small élite together) or for propitiatory work in the
sacred grove, which has broader implications than the ancestor cult
of bush religion. It is just here that, for Kinga and perhaps for their
Malatan neighbours, the exact character of the mythical shade
Nguluve can be defined. He is the bridge between bush and court
religions. When an ordinary Kinga man ties a goat at home in the
morning and prepares a trip to the place where he can sacrifice it to
an ancestor, that is usually where his own father was buried. At
least for the second-generation ‘Westernized’ men I knew, there
might have been little need for divining a specific ancestral

When a subject is experiencing the spongy kind of reversal of

fortune we associate with ‘depression’, he will have learned to blame
neglect of filial duty. The trip to an ancestral site will bring him ‘home’
in a spiritual sense, and the feast he will host there will find him

among friends, old and new. In his supplication he will simply offer
food, drink, and greeting to the shade(s) he addresses and ask that
his gesture be shared with a few (named) ancestors of his mother’s
agnatic line as well as his own, then to certain (named) friends he
lost in boyhood “and all the other children,” and finally to Nguluve, who
is understood as the apical ancestor of all the living persons present
at the feast. They may be his own real or fictional kinsmen, or simply
folk now living at this place. What the address to Nguluve implies is
that all the shades a Kinga man knows comprise one face-to-face
community, and this community includes as well all the shades these
named persons would have known, and so on to the beginning, which is

Kinga royal genealogies do not begin with Nguluve (as do the

syncretic genealogies of Nyakyusa chiefly lines put together by
Monica Wilson). The reason is that Nguluve is conceived as an
ancestor far more remote than the first of the Sanga line.
Antedating the division between court and bush cultures, he is no
hero and was no ruler of men. As such he embraces, if not all
humankind, at least all in the subject’s own world. He is certainly the
‘Adam’ figure not just for Kinga but for Bena, Hehe, Sangu, and other
Corridor peoples going back to earlier Iron Age times before intensive
agriculture with efficient earth-turning tools had begun. When a
priest in the sacred grove at Ukwama deals with the shades of the
royal line, he addresses the whole community of the shades in much
the same way a commoner would at his own temporary, home-made
shrine. Apart from some obviously Christian versions of the matter, I
never heard a suggestion that Nguluve ‘rules over’ that community
or possesses any unusual powers. Protostates do tend to recreate
the invisible cosmos in the new image of the visible, but Nguluve
belonging to all belongs to no one. The sole implication of the rituals
we are given is that among shades Nguluve merits the universal
respect he is shown by the living. He is cast of a different metal
entirely to Lwembe. A man would not ask Lwembe to greet childhood

But beyond saying this, I have no idea how the priests at

Ukwama would have characterized the godling figures for which we
lack mythic support, or played them off against one another. The
last man reliably reputed to be master of that sacred lore died very
early in my residence in the field. What we will see is that Lwembe,
though ‘younger brother’ to the Sanga princes of Ukwama, is indeed
an exile who belongs to the Nyakyusa scene. It is Lwembe the Sanga
court explicitly used, adapting a kinship fiction and a descent-based
mode of religious thought so as to magnify the court’s importance
and redefine its mystical potential. It can’t surprise us that both

Kinga and Nyakyusa rulers are supposed to have witchcraft in their
bellies. Witches and shades share with the invisible agents of other
animistic religions a reluctance to settle for what they have, an
implacable sense of grievance. The grass, as it must seem to the
uninitiated looking across to the world of the shades, is only browner
on the other side. The shades are, in today’s parlance, ‘under stress’,
and it makes them ‘demanding’. In their own terms, if not in ours,
Kinga and Nyakyusa commoners recognize the syndrome also in their

The argument that witchcraft was entrepreneurial magic in

the bush culture and elevated to religious standing by the Sanga
courts is plausible, perhaps, but not compelling. Witches are no more
or less the objects of religious belief and ritual control than
ancestors are, and neither has ever actually been seen. It is here
that the witch/sorcerer conflation gives trouble in Malatan ethnog-
raphy. The ‘witch’ you can pick out and bring before a court or doctor
is quite generally described as an ordinary human being within or
beside whom a sort of shadow or spirit-witch is alleged to hide. Any
crimes and any witch-flights are done while the visible person sleeps,
monitoring (it is supposed) in the same way one participates in the
drama of dream. For Kinga, the usual evidence that Fulani ‘is’ or at
least harbours a witch (and knows it) is his uttering of a ‘veiled
threat’. This is not very different to the way most of us discover a
friend is harbouring a grudge. Yet the witch accused and condemned
in the traditional court procedure—assuming, as we probably must,
that some were—becomes something more. Denial becomes defiance.
When the highest drama of the court is reserved for the execution
of a witch, know that he is possessed of a power to threaten the
Prince himself.

For a prince or other strong ruler in public drama to point an

accusing finger is a sort of magisterial witch-threat: the recipient
should not be surprised to fall sick or have an accident soon after.
This offers a glimpse of the very engine of a religion of blame. It is
tangible in just the episodic way high drama is. And there is high
irony: a prevalence of witches has no appreciable effect on the level
of amity prevailing either in a Kinga or a Nyakyusa community.
Readers of Evans-Pritchard’s wonderful work on Azande practices
will doubtless recall pondering how so much hereditary witchcraft
could be proven without blowing the community apart. Under-
standing this in the Malatan context is a key to understanding the
way order is kept there, and its relation to the culture of intimacy.

Antipolitan values, placing independence before loyalty, are

congenial to witch beliefs. Any worldview which gives a prominent

place to witches is biased, after all, against monopolies in the
mystical trade. The Sanga courts adjusted to this feature of bush
culture with the logic of a redistributional chiefdom. The court, in
this scheme, trades on its magnetism as much as its discipline. But
the give-away programme is balanced by another kind of theatre in
the ordeal and the public execution of convicted witches. Nyakyusa,
in their age-village programme, found a way to use discipline in the
control of antipolitan tendencies, and retained kinship solidarity to
the same end, though the two principles of solidarity were impos-
sible to merge. As for witchcraft, the Nyakyusa chiefs took the lion’s
share to themselves. The prototypical antipolitan is a sort of
cowboy figure apt to pull up stakes when things don’t go his way. In
the Nyakyusa peer village, banishment is always conceived as ridding
witches, and we may suppose the cowboy scenario was more likely to
fit the actual cases of (self-)exile than a heavy procedure like the
ostracism of ancient Greece. Decamping in an antipolitan world will
be more than one part voluntary.

Kinga lads in the hills had an easier way with peer pressure.
They were not assigned to a given village (as Nyakyusa were) but
chose their own friends and built their own places with them. As a
boy gained confidence and formed a wider amity network, it was likely
he could untie himself from the family goats and take off to live with
new friends. Amity all the while was being reinforced by intimacies.
What this meant for many a young man was a gradual accommo-
dation, a sort of ‘cowboy syndrome’, which might long prevent
settling down to a life of routine. But easy friendships too easily fail,
and older men might fall to suspecting an erstwhile friend of
mischief when things began to go wrong.

On this count the Nyakyusa may have it better. Their disloca-

tions are fewer and less casual. The pressure to conform within a
community of peers is comparatively rigid. First reports from the
German missionaries who came among them a century ago were of a
veritable paradise. This was a happy people. If this result had been
achieved by a repressive politics, the politicians had done their jobs
exceeding well. Still, three generations later Monica Wilson wrote
that this was a society organized for the benefit of “men and
elders,” cutting short youth for a girl before it could rightly begin,
restricting the freedom of women all through their best years, and
denying the perks of adulthood to young men by refusing them wives.
The balance had steadily changed under the colonial pax. By
contrast, the extended years of youthful independence for Kinga
men continued as a high period of private pleasure. Morale was high,
and fathers easily kept at a distance. Youth anywhere has to be
filled with adventure, but youth may be short or long.

Compared to the condition of Nyakyusa youth, the kind of
discipline—authoritative rather than, in Durkheim’s sense, mechani-
cally or peer-enforced—which the Sanga had brought in had led Kinga
youth, of both genders, another way. What Durkheim meant by
‘mechanical’ sanctioning is best seen as a feature of the everyday
role network itself. The diffuse sanctioning of behaviour which
constitutes such networks can produce a dense moral atmosphere
which distributes self-realization unequally to men or women, young
or old. Majesty had been a key to political power in uKinga, as it had
not been in uNyakyusa. We are left with the interesting puzzle, how it
may come about in human affairs that strong politics will coexist
with high morale, grounded in felt autonomy, among ordinary people.
The clue I see in this comparison is the sense that ‘strength’ in the
case of a Nyakyusa prince/chief is not laid on but has to be achieved
at the cost of stressful, aggressive action in a chronically turbulent
social environment. Arena politics rules. The more monumental
political theatre of the Sanga court as it existed before the pax was
structurally firmer and allowed an easier transition to top-down
colonial administration. The zigzag dialectic of change can be sharp
or almost smooth.

Like Nyakyusa, Kinga conceive witchcraft powers as ego-

enhancing. Men expect a ruler to be jealous of a witch in a way he
can’t be of his priest. This is not because a priest is regarded as ‘on
staff’ or because he is ‘one of the good wizards’. I think the reason is
simply that priests at the Sanga courts were allowed to be profes-
sionals as distinct from being entrepreneurs. Priests have been able
to uphold a high priority on esoteric knowledge and the arts of ritual
theatre, in preference to competition for apparent mystical power.
In a model-comparison with uNyakyusa, this difference is important
to see. The priests in the more turbulent Valley communities are less
effective in their management exercises.

It is true when you look soberly at the evidence for a Kinga/

Nyakyusa contrast you find what is more nearly a continuum:
between majesty and charisma, authority and belligerence, theatre
and arena. Among Nyakyusa speakers we have been looking at Selya
(not the more nearly theocratic uNgonde) while among Kinga we have
been focused on Ukwama’s high court in the Central realm, not the
long-drawn-out, always warlike insurgence of Kyelelo the Cruel in the
West. Where there is chiefly belligerence there is struggle over
followings. Where there is a single political and ritual focus there is
the kind of stability which sublimates the spirit of violence. I think it
likely that both political cultures knew oscillation on a structural
continuum defined in this way. For Nyakyusa we have seen this built
into the constitution of each autonomous major segment, each

chiefly realm, with its periodic ‘world renewal’, the Coming Out. For
Kinga too much history has languished unrecovered, particularly for
Eastern and Northern realms; and there is too much myth in the mix
of history we have for Ukwama, to know as well where the balance lay.

In this context the Kyelelo tale suggests a turbulent period

began in the mid-1800s with the assassination of a weak or weakly
supported ruling Prince, followed by succession wars which led in the
direction of legitimating new boundaries within a common but
expanded realm. The expansion was marked by the alliance of Vululile
(cheated apparent heir to the usurped throne) with a Mahanzi local
ruler. Prior to this military alliance against Kyelelo, the Mahanzi
Mwakalukwa had apparently been linked with his neighbour Kinga
communities by taking a key part in the frequently renewed
ceremonial pageantry in appeasement of the territorial divinity
Lwembe. Since it was just this divinity who was thought to bring
plague, drought, and pestilence to valley and mountain slope alike,
this procession bearing gift hoes must be seen as a grudging
reenactment of a mythic drama with a territory-wide scope. From
the beginning, Lwembe had demanded in recompense for his exile
from the Sanga high court that a treasured set of consecrated
hoes be returned to him. Each time his anger was seen to rise again,
the sacred ransom was to be repaid. Tribute to a once-and-only king?
That is certainly not what the Kinga would like the Nyakyusa to think
of it. The meanings in the symbolism are many, and are discussed
elsewhere, but just here the significance I would point to is the use of
a religion of blame to iterate the terms of an old (of course
unwritten) treaty of peaceful trade between distant partners.
Kinga trade in iron goods long antedates the protostate devel-
opment; and the Kinga procession to Lubaga presumably follows the
web of footpaths used by traders before men carried spears.

A prince in Nyakyusaland claims—must claim—the very powers

he condemns in a commoner. It is that claim and those powers which
create the princely calling there. The office takes its legitimacy from
the qualities successfully cultivated by the incumbent, in whom
these qualities are openly admired. A Kinga prince like Kyelelo is also
terrible, and for it much admired. In both societies the priests are
agreed that their propitiatory rites must be joined in by local rulers,
but what seems required is hardly more than their presence at the
sharing of the sacrificial meat. What I understand from this is that
the priests in each case apprehend the power of secular command in
the frame of natural history: there is a delicate balance between
order and calamity in (as we might see it) nature and social history,
and the priest owns the metaphysical art by which the cause of an
obvious cosmic imbalance may be recognized and normality restored.

I resist any temptation to see this priestly intervention as oriented
to the laying down of arms as between principalities. These priests
are not doves of peace. At least in uKinga their role in the regulation
of warfare entails the sublimation not elimination of violent under-
taking. Their counsel to the prince is ever to mind the murmuring of
his people lest he lose his braves to a rival. Yet for all that, we should
understand that they always work by indirection. Kinga priests like
the Nyakyusa are in their own way menders of the peace. What else
could be the point of their insistence on doing the intricate work of a
‘ritualist’ and their obvious pride in it?

But the situation of the priest in the two cultural settings is

distinct. Kinga priests counsel, protect, and even discipline their
princes. The exception which has to be made for the case of the pre-
Contact Kyelelos, the rebel father and son of the Western realm, is
such as to prove the point. But Nyakyusa priests, as we know from
the Wilsons’ careful witness, though they might badger to death the
poor unwilling colleague they had crowned and called Lwembe the
living god, king and founder of all princely lines, they might not get the
time of day from a truculent prince. The counseling, cautioning, and
doctoring agency in a Nyakyusa realm was not a concerted agency
within a royal court but articulated around the sacred groves now
grown about the graves of past hero-princes—so scattered about
among the several components of a loose temporal community. The
metaphysical agency was lodged in a band of ‘aristocratic’ priests
forever at odds with another band of ‘commoner’ priests; and, quite
apart from this field of influence, there was the staying power of a
tight array of commoner village headmen, ‘great commoners’ whose
cooperation in military matters was all-important to their prince
and his luminance. I can only think the two-way stretch of the Kinga
priest must have been easier to cope with than the four-way
stretch of the Nyakyusa.

Monica Wilson had her ‘inside informant’ Kasitile among the

priests articulated around the Lubaga shrine of her ‘divine king’
Lwembe. Kasitile complained constantly about collegial infighting. It
may have been easier in European times for a secular ruler to ignore
the little cluster of priests around Lwembe at the Lubaga shrine,
even seeming thus to thumb their noses at this high religion.
Certainly the predictable decline in popular belief in the efficacy of
this divinity in causing, then curing environmental crises was already
evident in the 1930s. But it was before Contact that Prince
Mwaijonga had made war on the then Lwembe, killing some of his men
and rustling off some cattle. So we have a genuine divine king,
complete with the requisite ritual, who can be viewed by a warlord in a
secular frame and look no grander than another petty prince

competing with his truculent neighbours for the security of life and
property, and for honour. In the better-contained and stabler realms
of the Kinga—not including, for certain, Kyelelo’s before the pax—the
prince was more symbol than leader. But in all cases, as with every
Nyakyusa prince, the mystical persona of a sanctified leader could
be deeply hurt by an admission of weakness or fear.

A key to the difference is to be found in the part ancestors

played in the two protostate systems. For Kinga the bush religion
prevailed. Ancestors featured in the private moral career of an
individual; they were always addressed by men through a nearest of
kin and pictured as an unnumbered community of shades dwelling as
if within the acephalous frame of the old bush culture. For Nyakyusa
the shades, as they may be pictured by a consultant diviner, are
deeply involved in monitoring the moral careers of men and women,
punishing transgression of meticulous rules for social behaviour
within the home, with affines, and the larger agnatic networks of
men and women. It is in a real sense the shades who keep the
threads of kinship taut in a society otherwise ruled by a brittle
politics of amity. The political religion of Nyakyusa articulates around
princely graves, where sacred groves are allowed to grow. In special
cases, presumably in keeping with a reigning successor prince’s own
stature, these sacred groves might gather enough of a mystique to
merit the full paraphernalia (pythons, rainstones, and much else) of
a major grove. The Lwembe grove at Lubaga had perhaps been one
such. But in historic times it served a wider pedestrian community
than any political realm, and fully deserves to be conceived as a terri-
torial cult centre. With documented early observation by mission-
aries and later ethnographic study concentrated in the general area
of Selya—in effect, at the more temperate altitudes—we simply
don’t know how many somewhat comparable groves may have
existed in 1890. We shall certainly never know how many, once
planted, had by that date already ceased to exist.

Uses of a bush religion: embodied danger

In ‘majesty’ we have the off loading—to the throne itself and all
the other props and effects of political theatre—of all the charisma
of founding heroes, whether taken from life or legend. Majesty also
comes in an implicit form: Sangilino of Lupila (Kinga Eastern Realm)
needed no regalia, but his was a quality rarely found and not trans-
ferable. Malatan charisma lived on well enough in its institutional
form into the 1930s, embodied in the surviving old-time chiefs, that
we can know its qualities from the Wilsons’ fieldwork. It was to
disappear, of course, with the new generation of educated public

servants. The good political entrepreneur of tradition was big,
decisive, and full of himself. The public was his claque, everything he
would do must be made a quantum larger than life. The driving force
for all this is explained as ubulosi (K: uvuhavi) witchcraft in one of its
several manifestations. The poetics of embodied danger lends
drama to the ‘constitutional’ stand-off between ‘evil witch’ and
‘charismatic chief’. Monica Wilson wanted to see it as a mystical
‘balance of power’:

Wilson: The constitution was a balance between chiefs and

commoners…Chiefs maintain their position by feasting their men on
beef, and this…prevents witches from attacking; sated with meat
their pythons ‘lie quiet’. ‡‡

Where the Nyakyusa prince was in his person a battleground

between the forces of vitality and corruption, except for the living
‘divine king’ Lwembe the Nyakyusa rulers were not set apart on that
account as sacred personae dangerous to and endangered by the
hustle and bustle of ordinary life. Their freedom of movement and
self-expression, their readiness for personal confrontation and their
boldness of public demeanor were not impaired or restricted by
taboo. It is especially interesting that the Kinga rebel Kyelelo the
Cruel was, by all accounts, just that kind of ruler to his people. The
reason is certainly not that he was un-Kinga but that what came to
the surface of Kinga culture in one circumstance need not be repli-
cated in another. Kyelelo’s more orthodox counterpart and enemy in
the Western realm was Vululile. Informants at his capital gave me a
Sanga version of their royal court and the special obsequies their
ruler must expect. Details were not as impressive as those I had got
at and for Ukwama, but the scenario was the same. The Kyelelos, on
the other hand, were political entrepreneurs. Sacerdotal kingship
was not their thing. One must imagine both the rebel father and his
successor son knew and approved of Mwaijonga’s tilt with the
puppet Lwembe. With pythons in your belly you can tell a priest to
watch his tongue.

When the elder Kyelelo finally wearied of battle he set up his

son in a capital village of his own and handed on the hero name. This is
not the way of the legitimate Sanga prince whose power comes out
of the medicine horn of a priest. A High Prince is rather ‘divine’ than
‘charismatic’, having in common with his ‘younger brother’ Lwembe
that he will step down only in death. But Kyelelo’s retirement in his
‘golden years’ would not seem incongruous to a Nyakyusa observer,
as it is the young bachelor men (with their future chiefs among
them) whom he will expect to do the fighting while the elders settle
down to grow rich in cattle and wives. Ordinary men in both cultures

marry late, at least a decade after they are fully fledged as warriors.
The Nyakyusa prince/chief is no exception to the rule of the place, as
he only takes his rank with the Coming Out of his agemates and only
gives it over to the next generation when the younger men have
proved themselves ready to ‘come out’. This means a prince stands
to reign some 25 to 30 years as a hands-on ruler. His preparation
will have been an extended decade of leadership in defending and
augmenting the family herds. At the climax of a successful reign
there will be a surfeit of wealth and wives to keep him busy. I think I
am right in doubting Monica Wilson on the brevity of his future after
the Coming Out of a new political generation. To me, the decisive
evidence is the known career of his village headmen—his age peers
and colleagues in government throughout his reign—at the same
point. All of these ‘retiring’ headmen take up now the final stage of
their careers, as ‘commoner priests’. If the chief has to settle down
at last as a diminished ruler, I don’t think his realm is diminished, only
the active, hands-on role he has hitherto had to play in governing it.
Do his pythons desert him? We hear of no such belief.

As to reclusion, I take that to have been a matter of degree

and taken gradually. For convenience at this point, let us picture a
chief who has just turned over the ‘entrepreneurial’ side of his calling
to his chosen sons, and let us suppose his transformation now can
be characterized as moving from ‘chief’ to ‘prince’. Just how ‘sacer-
dotal’ will such a prince aim to be? The Lwembe figure has been
described by Monica Wilson as a divine king with hardly any secular
power, living in partial isolation. The evidence for ‘divinity’ is that living
parts of his body are taken by the local priests when he is near
death; then he is smothered; and medicine made from his body relics
is used to pass on his identity to a successor priest. But similar
procedures are evidently employed at the passing of a great chief;
and since he could have been no recluse there could be no serious
case made for ‘divine kingship’ in any full sense of the term.

The obsequies of the high prince at Ukwama show that the

dangers associated with his office were carnal and inherent, and
must be prevented from passing to the shades’ world. Whether the
prevailing sentiment was more ‘We must not lose these powers!’
than ‘We must not let them loose!’ isn’t decided by the evidence we
have. But forcing the corpse to swell up and burst (as was done at
Ukwama) is directly contrary to rites of divine kingship everywhere
they are practised. And in life, the Sanga unkuludeva was forbidden
entry to any sacred grove: never abstaining from relations with his
wives he would defile anything sacred. Neither of these two figures
can be reckoned a priestly head of state: a Sanga prince was never
priestly, nor a reincarnated Lwembe princely. But we are free to

suppose there was logic in the way the Prince’s body was handled by
his priests; and that logic would almost have to begin with the need
to prevent a meeting of Lwembe with his perpetual bane, Mwemutsi,
who had banished him in heroic times.

The model of ruler as exemplary masculine leader is shared with

many Eastern Bantu peoples. The Malatan pattern includes popular
concession of the ruler’s hereditary right to command in matters
(as we would put it) “of state”. The variant practice at the Sanga
courts was to relegate the practical war-leader role to a commoner
unyivaha. Monica Wilson would recognize this person as a transform
of her ‘Great Commoner’, here attached directly to the ruler’s court.
This is the man who would, in effect, play ‘Chief’ as distinct from the
‘Prince’. Like the Nyakyusa ‘headman’ or ‘great commoner’, he could
stand close to the Prince and even resist without threatening him,
being ineligible to succeed him in office. After installing a new Prince,
Kinga priests would soon busy themselves seeing him withdrawn
from the public drama of the law court and other secular matters.
He must accustom himself to a theatrically sacerdotal role,
spending his personal energies productively within a quickly growing
harem, and turning his new mystical powers under priestly direction
to ritual use. The signal difference in Kinga political religion, which is
also found in Ngonde, is that the chiefly presence of a prince was not
trumpeted by those mystical powers ‘in the belly’ which so
reinforced the autonomous power of a Nyakyusa prince/chief.

We are left then to see the case of the Nyakyusa as the

special one among the Malatan three. As to reasons for this, I look
to the inherent instability of a political system which starts anew
with each generation. The number of princely realms and their
locations fluctuated over time. Alternative shrines abounded,
several of which operated as territorial shrines affecting the
common weal—in their own territories quite as important as Lubaga
for Selya. Given that no pyramidal political structure had evolved
there, it is hardly surprising that Lwembe was never as central to
Nyakyusa thinking as to Kinga. Still, whatever chapters in regional
history have been lost or stripped of the necessary detail, we can
regard the ‘divine king’ establishment at Lubaga in the light of
political theatre as a major constituent force for continuity in a
country thriving on rivalries. As such, that territorial shrine was
probably stretched to its limits with the turmoils of the later
nineteenth century: Ngoni invasions, slavers on the lake, and
attempted conquests by the growing military states northward.
The importance of such troubles in spurring hierarchization of the
Ngonde state south of the Songwe river are well documented. What
is important for us to see is that the politics of these protostates

depended on the sacralization of authority, and the vessel for this
could be either more charisma (python-deity in the belly) or a more
developed political theatre (ranging from ‘majesty’ ritual to heavy
heroics in well-staged warfare) or any combination.

Reviewing the variety within the span of cases on which I could

get details in my fieldwork period, in the 1960s the main obstacle to
generalizing is the destruction of the Eastern realm by (largely local)
forces mobilized by the Germans, so that only folklore and a
fragmentary oral history remains to represent that emerging realm;
and some cooking of the data recorded in Colonial records in the
West. During early German times a now-lawyerly ‘Kyelelo II’, rising
from rebel to officially ensconced Prince of the West, was able to
mask the extent of destabilization in that realm. This victory was
achieved by diplomacy (only partly through missionaries) where war
had consistently failed—a twist on the usual take. In the West it is
apparent that Vululile, the orthodox claimant to the power usurped
by Kyelelo, having been forced to depend on Mahanzi support in a new,
half-foreign capital, could only turn to charisma for lack of majesty.
In the East it is clear enough that the prince on-the-make Uliluvilo
had been waging an expansive war on his southeastern reaches, but
he had not (or had not securely) established Igumbilo as the main
sacerdotal court for the East before the Maji Maji devastation.
Uliluvilo had been ‘sent out’ by his father Sihudika from Igolwa. Was
he, like Kyelelo II in the West, a favoured son and untsagila sent out by
his father to continue the expansion wars of this realm? Or in what
sense and in what degree could he have been the rival of his ‘father’?
And how many biological generations do ‘Uliluvilo and his father
Sihudika’ actually represent? I remain unsure but favour correcting
for a likely foreshortening in that half-buried chapter of Kinga
history. As for records, the Germans having laid waste the East,
their cartographic information is slight on political information and
hard to interpret. Turning to the Northern realms, since we do know
that Ndwanga of Ilevelo well into German and even British times
would be challenging the sway of Uhugilo as the seat of that realm,
there is reason to think the sole still-point in the Sanga system was
the court of Mwemutsi at Ukwama—the preeminently sacerdotal
seat, acknowledged Alpha of the four, yet one whose precedence was
continually challenged on secular ground by the early Kyelelos.

The working conclusion I have come to is that the Sanga

system long had depended for its anchorage on the Lwembe cult;
that relations among the four realms (or however many of them a
Sanga leadership would have been ready in a given year to recognize)
were always informed with rivalry; and that the movement of tribute,
though regularly toward Ukwama, never was so regular or so weighty

a prestation as to confer a secure sense of permanence on the
pyramidal arrangement. A ruler’s real guarantee of security in tenure
lay in the strength and loyalty of his avapapwa, the inner circle of
Sanga ‘younger brother’ bachelor warriors living at his court, and the
effectiveness of his management corps among the avanyivaha. The
rest was up to priestly theatricals, and I suppose we should be
looking for the ‘spin doctors’ minding that side.

Right through Kyelelo’s rebellion the world to the north and

east of the Malatan region was teeming with movements and
countermoves of quasi-Napoleonic style, in response to the
proverbial winds of change blowing from South Africa and the
coastal centres of trade in gold, ‘white gold’, and black slaves. If the
response of the Malatan peoples was not to look for charismatic
tyrants able to build big coalitions, the reason was not strictly
geographic. Kinga, Nyakyusa, and Ngonde made less political use of
kinship rhetoric (with its particularistic daimons, the ancestral
shades) than their neighbours. Their deepest principle of cohesion
was amity, and the political face of amity is the antipolitan ethic.
Malatan man in this enjoyed a typological isolation within the larger
Southern Highlands region. It served as a sort of vaccine against
charismatic infection. The claims of friendship are easily broken by
acts which a tie of kinship will handily survive. The ruler-subject tie in
an antipolitan society lacks the sanction of the maximal-claim or
‘kinship’ tie: the subject will not necessarily lay down his own life for
that of his leader. Even the great, charismatic Kyelelo, finding
himself wounded and alone behind enemy lines, could not expect a
rescue attempt by his men. As with friendship, an ordinary Malatan
man wants his claims on a ruler affirmed, never disaffirmed, on each
encounter. The underlying rubric is amity (patronage) not kinship
(paternalism). The disestablishment of family domesticity, and of
the solidary thinking about kinship which it fosters, was built into
the early life-cycle, for Nyakyusa in their age-village system, for
Kinga in the segregated lives of children in their own-gender homes.

One obvious consequence for religion is the eclipse of the

ancestral shades, but a deeper implication is bred-in unease with
authority, which can give a brittle character to political loyalty. Pre-
Contact Ngonde decentralization (except in ritual hierarchy and the
control of the central court over external trade) puzzled Godfrey
Wilson. Perhaps in the context of Malatan regional culture it should
not have. The antipolitan persuasion necessarily produces a dialectic
as between ideals of loyalty and habits of freedom, myths of
belonging and expectations of self-reliance. As a source of creativity
and entrepreneurial energy this dialectical tension should not be
confused with disorder. Its mark is to be seen in the elaborately

balanced political structures of each of these three societies. But
there is also a darker side in the religious expression of mortal fear
and discontent. High office embodies in Ngonde, Nyakyusa, or Kinga
cultures a popular ambivalence toward power. Ngonde nobles used to
kill all but two sons of the Kyungu in their infancy. At every level of
rule the key office was guarded by a council of nobles or Great
Commoners whose combined powers of witchcraft could check-mate
their ruler’s. The same show of countervailing power, here embodied in
python-familiars, held the Nyakyusa prince to responsible rule.

As for the Kinga prince who must choose seclusion, the motive
was unabashed fear for the resentment of others toward his power.
Everything he ate or drank must be tasted beforehand for poison.
The schoolboys who scoffed at Mwemutsi Suruali in the sixties for
spending his truly enviable salary as Paramount Chief on bottled beer
could hardly have understood his reasons. Before the decay of his
royal court, everything the ruling prince ate or drank had been tasted
beforehand for poison. His daily existence had been sacralized—
though he had not the same ground of fear as the early, reclusive
Kyungus in the Ngonde court. It was said they must be throttled if
they lost only a drop of blood by accident or fell into light fever. The
institutionalized paranoia of a reclusive king is not found among
Nyakyusa, as the ‘divine king’ Lwembe was not expected to play
defender of the realm, but the burden of danger in that office was
still enough to keep the kingship at Lubaga empty from early in this

The reason for the dangers in taking on the mantle of majesty

is not simply in the classic (Arthurian?) burden of kingship in a still-
egalitarian society, or in some contradiction between the practical
demands of good order and the intuition of communitas. We have to
look further and specifically to the religious culture and its images of
mankind. The politicization of the Kinga priesthood distinguishes
that constitution from examples wherein the association of religion
and politics seems only implicit, or embedded in kinship. Such are
lineage and clan based societies, including those with heavy affinal
emphases in the political arena. Kinga priests enjoyed a remarkable
ambience, crossing borders with impunity where a prince dare not go.
The priest was kingmaker and as such able to operate well beyond his
own domain—even in another realm, as the nefarious history of one
important line, the Sanga Nyengwa, serves to witness. ‡

A Kinga priest did not carry a specifically religious burden in the

full sense my rendering of his title in English may suggest. He was a
ritual specialist attached to the court as one of an élite group with
privileged access to its sacred grove. He was not a healer or spirit

medium. As unteketsi he made offerings and executed sanctifying
procedures on behalf of court and country. But as a courtier unyivaha
he might be found leading a roving party of avasangutsi revenue
collectors out after imongo from a bush hamlet. This was of course
low, not high political theatre, and the scene was blurred in the social
memory of the nineteen sixties. Whereas the Mahanzi rainmaker
before Mwangawa was a private person with a religious calling, and he
may be taken as stand-in for the Kinga priest before Sanga times,
later court culture created an independent, mystically sanctioned
authority largely immune to interference by secular rulers and even
in position at times to patronize them. The children of the courtly
priest slept with those of the Prince. On his breast the priest wore
the regional symbol of authority, the imatsi conus-shell emblem, a
perfect spiral disk traded inland from the coast through many
hands, and elsewhere restricted to chiefs. Religion and politics were
largely emancipated from ‘tribal’ institutions, having come to be, in
an emergent polity of its own sort, instruments of state. ‡‡

So far as religion can be thought to reflect and sanction

features of the social structure, an important dimension of this
constitutional transformation has to be the shift away from
ancestor cults with their particularism toward an inter-ethnic
ceremonialism focused in the annual oracular drama at Lubaga. As
the magically dangerous younger brother of the High Prince, Lwembe
carried out of Kinga country the image of the ‘natural leader’, strong
both in combat and magical-mystical powers. The type of the Sanga
ruler left behind is, where the man himself is strong, of secular bent,
and where otherwise, so withdrawn as to be no personal hero at all.
Lwembe embodies the very forces of nature which the old rainmakers
were charged to monitor and control with their wonderful
rainstones. By placing a collateral ancestor of the Sanga ruling line in
a position of responsibility for all the sweeping forms of devastation
nature can visit on all the realms of the Sanga and central Nyakyusa
it seems our ever-conniving priests have wanted to sweep away
localism in both its religious and political forms.

How was the great transformation engineered? It tells us

little to say the Sanga rulerships ‘evolved’ along paths much traveled
on the continent. The part of the common people in the change may
have been mainly passive, but that of the sacred and secular rulers
was not, and both would have had to keep in effective contact with
individuals they were recruiting to new roles. Since it seems too
much to suppose that the early Sanga rulers, however clever, would
have realized a religious ‘revolution’ was wanted to secure their
power, it is reasonable to suppose that the driving energy for the
whole transformation would have come from the competition for

dominance between the two principal agencies. Each would have
sought to extend the scope of his own kind and sphere of influence.
Confrontation on certain issues would have forced at least the kind
of innovation which comes of sidestepping—the ‘workaround’. The
impression I had in 1960, when the whole native cosmology was in
limbo, was that no one conceived of it as a distinctively Kinga way of
seeing the world. It was not a human achievement to have pride in or
claim the right to preserve as history—any special feature I might
mention was taken as detail. The whole fabric was classed as general
knowledge about which only some few details might be debatable. I
came to see that in all probability the same would have been said to a
traveler who had come to them in 1860. In short, as there can be no
historical consciousness where there are no alternatives to ponder,
all of this came down to the present in a package, fait accompli, from
very early times, as explained by the mythical arrival of the first
Sanga, his reconstruction of bush culture, his confrontation with a
younger brother, and Lwembe’s escape to Lubaga. Any talk about the
gradual politicization of the priesthood and its consolidation as a
governing institution is thus my talk, not theirs. Was it witch-ridding
which would have given the priests their first specifically political
role in an expanding court culture? There was no one to confirm or
deny. If I now suppose that the peculiar powers of the priesthood
had to have been won at the expense, in final analysis, of the princes?
I’ll have to make that my own text, as it isn’t theirs.

The once-and-only Queen Kipole succeeded her father

Mwemutsi Nyanzululu in about 1897 after allegedly poisoning him—
she was the trustee who brought him his food. When her younger
brother Dembademba came of age and took over the throne as
Mwemutsi Mlambakyuma he was plagued by deaths among his wives
and children, all ascribed to the witchcraft of yet another sibling,
Mwakanema. Then with priestly efficiency all of this witchcraft was
turned back on Mwakanema’s own wives and his issue by protective
medicines the priests were able to obtain from afar, through their
wide-spreading network of professional associates. No Kinga would
argue, from this text, that the priesthood was not an indispensable
ally of the crown. But the text itself (lest we forget) is from start
to finish the telling of the priests about their own powers.

Parallel texts one might take from the priests of the Kyungu,
divine king of Ngonde, are not quite the same. His seclusion is ratio-
nalized not in terms of plots but another sort of paranoia. His bane
is his extreme fragility, an uncanny vulnerability to accident. It is a
personal fragility which apparently comes with the office. Pondering
it we may want to turn with more understanding to Kyelelo the Cruel.

Is he not perhaps some sort of Achilles figure, a hero unscathable
and unafraid to boast of the fire, the python power, in his belly?

Or consider once more the living Lwembe in Nyakyusaland.

Setting aside the odd-yearly Kinga procession, he seems to have
enjoyed far less in the way of chiefly income than either the Kyungu
or the prince of a Kinga realm, yet like them he has surrendered any
clout he may once have enjoyed. He is no mediator between ordinary
men (whom he seems not to meet) and gods but a recluse who deals
only with priests. Though his great power is anger, it is not the kind
of anger a secular prince, claiming descent from a hero, is allowed to
have in his belly. This anger is initially not seen but inferred by the
priests from bad weather and deaths of children, and attributed by
them to the restless spirit who speaks through the lonely figure
they will confront at Lubaga. The first Lwembe, as some say, came
down from the Kinga mountains to find a scattering of poor folk
without fire or any other civilized advantage. He brought them new
crops, cattle, civilization. Today all the Nyakyusa chiefs who claim
descent from him speak of themselves as having in this way brought
civilization to a savage land. But the living Lwembe at Lubaga betrays
no claim to a hero’s title. If there is power in him it is only the power
to speak with the voice, and stamp about with the feet, of a god.
Nyakyusa seek through him to appease not a copy but a true god
whose anger has festered from neglect (mirrored in the figure who
inhabits his shrine) and will burst upon the world bringing deaths or
drought. This ‘divine king’ is perhaps a disappointment to the anthro-
pological romantic but a compelling reminder of the inescapable
theatricality of any effort to represent a religious idea in dramatic

In Godfrey Wilson’s terms, the succession of living Lwembes

“never achieved any secular paramountcy at all...because they were
poor.” They remained “religious paramounts. Chiefs from all over the
district sent gifts to them to ask for health and rain”. In fact they
were allowed neither majesty nor charisma by the restrictive taboos
under which they must live. As a mortal man Wilson’s Lwembe lived,
to whatever extent he could not personally rise above it, in fear of
illness and unnatural death. The last Lwembe under the traditional
dispensation was gone by the time of the Wilsons’ fieldwork in the
1930s. There were candidates for the office then but none who
chose to be chosen for the dreadful honour. Peter Weber reports a
new living Lwembe in the 1990s, operating in quite a different style
but keeping the brand-name alive.

Reviewing the three Malatan cultures at the coming of the pax

we find three kinds of political system. Ngonde is a self-contained,

monolithic theocracy. The four realms of the Kinga comprise a
radically segmentary protostate whose major segments are weakly
linked by the perpetual kinship of the four rulers but rather more
securely by priestly cooperation. Nyakyusa chiefdoms are auton-
omous, locked in a turbulent competition for political-economic
space, for wealth in cattle and women, and for manpower; they are
linked by multiplex ties of kinship which intermittently effect the
realignment of local alliances; and they maintain the semblance of
constitutional stability in the irregular propitiation of hero-gods
most prominently at the Lubaga shrine of Lwembe. In the three
Malatan constitutions one constant factor stands out, the
mandate and professional character of the priesthood.

Is there nothing but wind in the belly of the Mwemutsi, High

Prince and King-in-Seclusion, foremost among the four royal rulers of
all Kinga? Boys in the sixties used to joke about the belly of their
Paramount. Still after sixty years of acculturation to colonial condi-
tions (and in the case of Mwemutsi Suluali, who was to be last of the
long line, a good but wholly wasted European-style school education)
the Prince did not know how to run his own court, hear cases, talk
policy, or mediate effectively with the Boma government. Big and
overweight, he was hardly ever seen sober and rarely could summon
up the full dignity of his person. He was surrounded by unruly
kinsmen, always there to carp and mock. He told me things were
falling apart because Lwembe had not been appeased, almost in all
living memory, by his people. Yet this most powerful scion was
powerless to move his people. The old priests, who knew the require-
ments of ritual, were dying away. For all their political acumen, they
never got a purchase on the system the pax brought in. Yet as I
gradually came to know, the Prince never had in man’s memory played
shaker and mover at Ukwama. No Mwemutsi was the one to
intercede for a troubled people with his angry ‘younger brother’
Lwembe; he never took the mover’s part in calendrical garden rituals.
It was never the prince and his men, always the priest and his
avanyivaha who must do the work of smoking out a witch and
subjecting his soul to trial. In all respects but one the religious
burden of the Sanga prince was nominal, easy as firmly pounding a
rubber stamp. The exception, of course, was sexual fertility. The royal
belly was and must ever be heavy with a burden of heterosexual lust
his countrymen found bordering on the unnatural.

It is probably sound to attribute the special character of the

Sanga kingship to the special fact of the royal isivaga, the teeming
bachelor residence maintained at a royal court. Nyakyusa-Ngonde
culture was not built around a court/bush dichotomy and didn’t in
the same degree practise the temporary elevation of younger men

to a privileged standing premised, in effect, on sexual inversion. For
Nyakyusa youth homophilia is a temporary, imperfect alternative to
sexual abstention during a frustratingly prolonged bachelorhood.
The formula for the successful life is plainly visible in the age-village
of his elders: the heterosexual life brings wealth in cattle and wives,
and the authority of senior standing. Nyakyusa say homophilia is a
resort of youth, thankfully forgotten with maturity. In Sanga court
culture the elevation of heterosexuality—in the big but reclusive
persona of the Prince/King—to a transcendent plane can be seen to
have provided a symbolic bulwark for marriage in a masculine
community whose commitment to that institution might otherwise

But to show that religious phenomena are psychologically

appropriate and functionally justifiable is not to explain their special
qualities at the level of specificity on which a believer experiences
them. The Sanga prince was a fearsome and fearful figure even if
veiled. By the magnificent style of his court he had to be known as a
great power, yet he was privately slave to his sexual duties. The
person of wealth and majesty attended by a lavish court was at the
same time a poor man cut off from his friends by the failure of trust.
Like the living Lwembe at Lubaga, the living Mwemutsi was a kept
symbol, a puppet in the robust image of the ancient Hero said to
have begotten the line.

Was there genuine fear that the High Prince might fail in his
fertility and all Kinga in consequence fail in theirs? If so, it would
certainly be fear of the sort we call ‘religious’—congruent with a
state of general confidence in Sanga institutions, and reflecting the
competence of Kinga priests to manage such a situation handily,
should it arise.

Imaginary theatre

Witchcraft may be everywhere the dark and hidden face of an

(elusive) ideal amity, but in societies whose first structural principle
is friendship, this is no mere truism. Like friendship, harm in Malatan
belief springs from human will not personal or cosmic destiny. Intent
and intender are not so manifestly one that it always would be
logically necessary, to kill the intent, to kill its author. That is the
meaning of the fact that, while witching powers are certainly
thought to be controlled by a living person, they are as a rule for
Kinga lodged in a separate, objectified vehicle which a skilled doctor
might find and destroy. The Nyakyusa construct is a little different,
but offers the same escape from ‘witch burning’. In Konde thinking, a

witch need only be chased beyond the narrow horizon of his chiefdom,
to lose all occult power. When after some years he is allowed to
return it is expected he will offer an act of atonement. This is not
the witch of folklore, unfixed in time or place, but the witch in local

The power of wish-gliding is something else—uncanny and very

likely to have been negotiated with a python. A witch supposed to
have won such powers would be beyond pursuing mere personal griev-
ances. When people see a fireball gliding over treetops they say it is
one witch attacking another. Talk about witches makes them a
society of their own, paralleling the society of shades but inverting it
in one respect: their greed is insatiable. The fairy tale witch is
unstoppable by any means short of death. There are covens, we
learn, wallowing in necrophagia. These witches can’t wait for a normal
death but press each member to supply them from among his/her
family and friends. This witch of the fireside tale is of a different kind
to one who might be named in an actual accusation. The root
difference is that an accusation will be based on the intuition of
motive to harm, where the phantasy witch is a monster quite beyond
ordinary human motivation. The objective correlative is certainly the
African vulture. Vampires pale by comparison. But it seems daytime
imagination most often takes off from the ground not mid-air. ‡‡

Still, mid-air thinking can come down to the ground. Here is an

informant who lived much of his adult life as a chauffeur in the
coastal regions of Tanganyika. He reflects general opinion about the
prevalence of witches, always worse than ever now:

Lukasi: Witchcraft has grown beyond all bounds in the years since,
in Old Kingaland, the witch was killed off before he could spread his
evil far and wide. Now you approach a witch very slyly, making friends
with him over the beerpot. “How can you like Fulani, he is up to no good
and needs to be done away with, eh? If I had the power I’d have got
him before this trouble began.” The other fellow hears and agrees he
might help. “I’d even give a cow,” you say. “A cow in calf?” says he. “A
cow in calf.” The contract has been made. “There are many witches
about from whom the medicine can be had,” says your fellow. He
would never admit to being the witch himself.

It would not surprise, if such a truth could be known, to

discover that all the wizardry of Old Kingaland was negotiated in just
such a sly and inconclusive manner. The first man begins with a
grievance, the second with a sympathetic ear, and they end up with
improbable commitments. But supposing Chance not long after such
an alcoholic conversation were to do the wizard’s work for him. Then
he would be in a strong position to collect the payment, making the

thing a done deed and witchcraft real. People say of such a man, “Ali
n’inumbula ja ‘gukanu, He has a wild beast’s heart.” But this refers to
nothing secret, as the words only describe in metaphor human
conduct everyone has seen. The technics of witchcraft are hardly
more mysterious to Kinga than flight and pharmacology to most of
us. The fascination is with the mind of the witch, its presocial ethic—
its wildness. These are the mass murderers of common discourse in
a technically simpler world.

Witchcraft is not an aberrant epiphenomenon but a firm facet

of Malatan belief. It parallels the ancestor cult and is at least as
important in all three cultures. The cause of your illness may equally
well have been the slighting of a friend or a god. Usually both the
divination of an illness and the cure are accomplished by ‘objective’
means. For his coughing, the Nyakyusa priest Kasitile consulted in
the order given: a diviner who struck a spear, one who used a stick in
the ground (two visits), a diviner using a ball of stiff porridge, and
finally one who used an axe, coppers, and a pot of ashes. The cures
applied or prescribed were not confessional or other self-trans-
forming ritual but objective—medicines or sacrificial offerings.
Kasitile’s religion is one of external conditions not inner states.
Among Ngonde baneful ghosts “come constantly to ‘brood’ on man
and his works and have constantly to be satisfied and driven away by
ritual”. Kyala, Kasitile’s spongiest divinity, was said to be angry and
brooding over him. Up in the high hills Lwembe would return to
Ukwama, unseen but sensed at treetop level, so that men becoming
aware of him would know a solemn act of propitiation was in order,
even before he had clearly shown his anger. That brooding mind is the
core mystery. The procedures for responding to its presence, though
mostly esoteric, are technical. ‡

Witchcraft in its usual form in uKinga can be termed ‘objective’

in this regional culture since the power to harm is usually vested in
medicines. When they are destroyed, a witch’s power, at least for
the time, is gone. The python of the Ngonde-Nyakyusa witch is
another such ‘objective’ creature of fantasy. The special quality of
charismatic charm a follower might perceive in a dramatically
competent and ‘chiefly’ prince in command mode is hypostatized as
python-ness. Saying that a man ‘has a python in his belly’ is
therefore not quite saying these powers are immanent and so insep-
arable from the man himself. Charisma like friendship is a quality
which must be sustained at every opportunity. Paradoxically, that is
why the Sanga unkuludeva, whose charisma is staged not self-
dramatically earned, can’t revert to a normal, uncharismatic
existence and why a ruling Nyakyusa prince can seem to pass his
python along to a successor when his vital charm can no longer be

maintained. To say this I have to bracket some of Monica Wilson’s
findings about her ‘divine king’. Since an important chief’s body could
be sacked (prescriptively before the last breath) for its mystical
parings, it compared in death with the Lwembe’s body. But in life the
difference was stark. A princely kingdom was won by the spear; only
after death was a great prince apt to appear in the frame of divinity.
Lwembe’s kingdom was ‘not of this world’. The shared rites of final
passage have their meaning in the special need to solemnize the
particular kind of succession which is not given by nature but must
be conferred by rite. The after-living hair and nails of a charismatic
man are known ingredients of the chrism by which this conferring of
identity can be achieved.

When you catch sight of a python near its watering hole you will
behold a being with uncanny powers, but you are not seeing a shetani
(daimon) on the way to possessing a mortal. Nyakyusa do, far more
than Kinga, credit ‘subjective’ divination even to the point of
accepting a ventriloquist—that is, not a consultant diviner but a
self-proclaiming and self-serving divinity. Even the early missionaries
found this level of credulity surprising, but in context and retrospect
it fits well into the picture we have gained of allegations and
counter-allegations among priests there. This was a society in which
the gods particularly helped those who helped themselves.

A python is most often visualized in uKinga not in a chiefly or

wizardly body cavity but wish-gliding through the air or under the
earth. Even the flight metaphor would hardly surprise a native who
had seen a python high in the trees. It hardly needs be argued that
the Lwembe who visits in that guise a sacred grove in uKinga is not
the living shrine-keeper of Lubaga but the trickster’s shade himself. I
never heard that a living witch can become a python or a python take
on an individual’s human form, in spite of the currency of pan-Bantu
fantasies about skin-changing. Even in the accounts of leopard
trouble I gathered in the Eastern realm there was never a hint of
unnatural animals, only of natural individuals somehow under the
control of a witch. One informant, assuming evil in a particular case,
had heard that a specialist could extract a gonadal medicine from a
female, and with it attract a rogue male to a neighbour’s byre.
Despite the widespread fantasy and boys’ house talk connecting
witchcraft with vulture-like necrophagia and a communion feast of
witches, in actual cases and procedures Kinga seem not to deviate
from their pattern of blaming an individual acting on private motives
through objective if devious means.

The witch who is killing you may be your friend. Kasitile freely
suspected his wives as well as his fellow village elders. So far as we

are told his story, though he kept on trying he never really confirmed
who or what sort of being was wishing him harm. He lived on for many
years, possibly always in partially bad health, looking for his antago-
nists. Just as the wrong which Kasitile might have done to provoke
such anger would have been inadvertent, and just as guilt and self-
blaming remorse would have been beside the point, so their fault
would have been in an isolated act not an unnatural state of the soul.
Moral indignation often and justly arises, but usually is not
magnified by infecting bystanders. As with any tort, if the affair
entails no public hurt it stays private.

This is not to say either that friendships are not spoiled by

witchcraft or that interpersonal relations are radically ‘insincere’
and episodic in Malatan culture. But the conventions of Malatan
discourse which govern such matters do not give support to the
person who would interpret his or her experience in terms of a deeply
moralistic worldview. Men don’t range from highly-placed and
wealthy saints to poor and marginally-connected witches. The
‘natural scapegoat’ formula (blaming witchcraft on deviants, widows,
and loners) won’t work here. Character attribution was not lacking
among Kinga men and women in 1960. This girl was bright, that man
stern, another not to be trusted. But character in that sense is up
front, dressed as what everyone already knows. Many Malatan
Christians in 1960 had acquired some taste for the modified
destiny-imagery of the West—God, angels, devils struggling for the
final possession of your soul. But Malatan thinking seems unmoved
by our psychiatric approach to human destinies. Their presumption
is that behind the socially accessible and civil personality there is a
private ego prepared to act on its own behalf according to a bold
calculus of gain and loss, owing little or nothing to civility.

I know of no effort by Kinga or Nyakyusa thinkers to rationalize

this view of our natures. We might class it as ‘homuncular’—positing
an inner homunculus, a featureless form of the outer person, able to
operate independently in pursuit of its own strategies. Malatan
thought offers the image of the python, a necessary furnishing of
any sacred grove, able to communicate wordlessly with man, and the
idea of a witch with an inner alter-ego. In Christianity there is an
analogue in the idea of temptation to evil which divides you against
yourself. Atonement has to be achieved by an act of equal weight to
the delict done, and in Christian countries the thought persists in
the secular field that criminals can somehow be cured by making the
punishment match the crime. Malatan thinking seems different in
its initial premise: discovering a witch and forcing him to back off will
stop him and put him back on his honour. The malicious act of a witch
is neither sinful or sick, rather selfish and uncivil. Witchcraft isn’t

checked either by guilt or unmasking but by quelling. I give now in full
detail Tunginiye’s experience, more briefly mentioned elsewhere. ‡

The case: As a young man Tunginiye was bewitched by a close

friend, whom I shall call Atangile. I give the case here in full detail as I
took it down in Swahili, and hope in doing this to avoid the sterilities
of abstraction and allow some prying below surfaces. Use of third-
hand reports as empirical case material falls well short of the ideal,
amounting to third-rate methodology. Even first-person accounts,
when quite brief, are little better. Tunginye deserved his reputation
as a sage. Once he had begun to accept my friendship, our common
interest in the history and culture of his people brought us together
intellectually. We talked at length about this traumatic incident of
his youth.

It is hard to say whether the hurt of betrayal was greater for

Tunginiye than his sudden fear of death. Forty years later the two
former friends had not exchanged a civil word. But love and its loss
are phenomena of personal involvements not structure. Having
survived the attack, Tunginiye was not called upon to pursue a
course of vengeance (as he might have been in another culture) or
exploit his subjective experience, as by apprenticing to the curer.
Formally the episode was closed. Tunginiye felt he himself had fought
and won a spiritual battle.

Tunginiye: There was a great epidemic (uluswa death, mortality) in

1919 brought by our men returning from the war. By 1920 all was
quiet. In 1921 there came a teacher from [Malawi or Zambia] whose
name was George Nyasulo Ziwambali. He had been sent to Bulongwa
by the British missionary MacKenzie. He gathered some students
together, and I happened to be among them, though I was early
married and had a son of six months. My wife at the time was Misoni
Kyawula, who was not then a Christian. We studied reading, writing,
and arithmetic, and the bright ones were always pushed ahead. I was
first in the class, Yaseti Sanga was second.

It was in January 1921 that the Teacher came to me and told me

to leave off drinking beer and follow his way. One day we students
were set to tilling his wheat field. In those days we tilled for wheat in
January and planted in February. We split into groups by sex, dividing
the field between us. Atangile, my friend, deserted the rest of us to
follow the maidens. The men finished five banks while the maidens
only finished two. I twitted Atangile for that and lo! he became angry.
“You think you are so great because you are better in maths than any
of us! The Master expects great things of you, you are to be both a
teacher and a clerk. As for me I shan’t be counting on it! Ndilolelage
isigono syoloso! [‘I’d be on the lookout all the time’—always a veiled

threat of witchcraft.]” Everyone was stunned to hear these sharp

We went home. Atangile was the first to tell the Master that his
field was finished, and he was given a shilling to purchase beer for us
all. Atangile led the way to some beer he knew about, and after a time
I followed. Atangile greeted me facetiously, “Vasite avavaha, Hail to
thee, Great one!” He went on in but I stayed outside. He brought me
out a small bowl of beer, which I refused. He put it on the ground. It
was finger-millet beer and only the hulls, the dregs of the bowl. “I
suppose you think we should have set aside the clear beer for you,
the prince!” That was his comment.

I took none of it but left immediately after that insult. Atangile

called after me, “Inyage ndungava utye ulinyaluhala—tulolage! I don’t
know if you should make yourself out to be so smart—we’ll see!” I
didn’t answer but went home to my wife who had cooked some white
potatoes, which she gave me. On the third potato I felt a stab in the
back through my whole chest. I began to cough and I was spitting
blood. I had to lie down. I was groaning and spitting blood. They called
my father and mother, who stayed the night with me. When finally I
got to sleep I dreamt of Atangile coming to me naked. He was
entering my legs and climbing up my body to the neck. I woke up. After
that I couldn’t sleep.

My father brought his kinsman Fulano Ndalama Sanga. He shook

his head and went to fetch a certain doctor, Ungita bin Kibidi. The
doctor arrived about mid-afternoon of the next day, coming with
Fulano, and took me out of the rondavel. Right away Ungita said,
“They have pierced you with the Blood lance.” He explained. They have
a medicine horn and with it a bright, exceedingly thin and sharp
copper needle. They captured a footprint of yours and mixed it into
the medicines in the horn. Then they pierced it with the needle. They
spit their evil words upon the needle. “Tunginiye—ptui—this very
day—ptui—he must die!” They keep on that way, telling the needle to
pass right through the lungs, the heart, all the organs. At last they
have run the needle all the way through the bottom of the horn. As
they draw it back out they find blood on it and then they know the
medicine has worked.

Now when I heard all this I knew that the witch was Atangile, for
he had been the favorite minstrel-dancer of Bulongwa before the
Teacher came, and always at the dances he had worn two miniature
horns at his neck, resting on his Adam’s apple.

The doctor had brought along with him fresh healing leaves and
roots which he had dug along the way. He had brought his own
medicine horn and a little medicine bundle the size of your thumb,
ihilisi it is called. It is tightly bound and the medicines it contains are
kept secret. The doctor crushed the leaves in a little mortar, adding

water. He asked for a wooden spoon and fed me this milky juice. Then
he called for the smallest kind of pot ikisaji. He spat into it words I
couldn’t hear. Somehow he was twisting his bored earlobe with the
one hand all the while. Then he added the roots with water, and still
spitting in these words I was not to catch. Then he took up the pot,
covered it with a shard, and ordered a fire to cook it.

While this soup was cooking the doctor took his own medicine
horn isiva, and fed me bits of the paste he had there, made with
castor oil, while using a special little paddle. He called for a razor
uluketo, and I had to show him where I hurt. He made incisions all
around under the left arm and over the right shoulder, a line following
the pain and circling to meet itself. Then he took more paste on the
little paddle, smearing it on his finger and rubbing it into the
incisions. I can still feel the sting! He took the razor again and made
three incisions at each joint of every limb, but on my hands only the
thumbs, and on my feet only the little toes. Then he made three
incisions at the navel, the spleen, the meeting of the clavicles, the
centre forehead, temples, and the base of the skull. Each time he
made the cuts he would rub in the medicine.

The doctor took up the ihilisi bundle. Fixed at the middle was a
pretty little horn, a tiny thing no bigger than a carnivore’s tooth and
quite empty. Ungita went into a sort of angry mood, spitting unintel-
ligible words into the little horn on the bundle around my left upper
arm and warned me that only he should untie it. Finally he fed me the
soup he had boiled up from the roots he brought, and I finished it.

That is when he began to explain. There are two kinds of Blood

lance attack, one where they take your footprint for medicine and
one made with the dust from the place where you have urinated. Only
if you have antidotes stronger than their medicines, if you have
powerful imyesigo, then the witch’s needle will break when he tries to
pierce the horn, and right away he will give up.

The doctor said I was very ill and near death, but he had some hope
just the same, as his own best medicine was the little horn tied
around my arm. He had got it at Karonga in Malawi. “If my medicine is
stronger than the witch’s, when you dream tonight he will come to
you naked. You will find a spear in your hand. You will cast it. It will
pass right through his body and then return to your hand. Until dawn
you will go on doing this, and tomorrow you will feel better. But if your
dream is different, if the witch comes to you naked but it is he who
has the spear, or if he has a knife, he will pierce you. You will feel the
sudden pain and you will die.”

My people cooked him porridge, for we had no beer, and he took his
leave. First he scooped out some more of his medicine from the horn
isiva. He put it in a cornshuck and gave it to my people so they could
renew the medication through the incisions from time to time.

That night I had the right dream. Atangile came to me naked. He
was covering his private parts with both his hands. The throwing of
the spear went fast, very fast. I would wake up. When I went back to
sleep again, there was Atangile. He would just appear, staring at me. I
would throw the spear. That is the way it was the whole night long. It
was the same night after night.

My illness continued for a week, with the blood giving way to foam.
The Teacher asked after me. My ‘father’s brother’ who was attending
school told him that I was probably dying. The Master called Atangile,
“Let us go see your good friend who is ill.” They came in the early
afternoon. My wife and I were inside, and our mothers nearby. When
my parents saw the Teacher come they joined the assembly.

Atangile stayed outside. The Teacher greeted me and suggested

that we pray. Then he had them carry me out into the light. Atangile
sat behind me without greeting. The Master asked about my pain but
I couldn’t answer. I was craning around to see Atangile, but he
wouldn’t meet my gaze. The Teacher unpacked some medicine which
he had brought folded in paper. He called my brother to instruct him.
He was to make incisions where I felt the pain and pack the medicine
there. When the Teacher went, Atangile followed. Still he had greeted
no one. So he confirmed his own guilt.

After some days the doctor Ungita bin Kibidi returned. When he
learned that I was still fighting off the witch every night, he told
everyone that his medicine had proved triumphant. I was to recover,
he said, and it happened. ‡

The ideal of a lifelong friendship can be realized. Tunginiye

himself was proud at seventy of certain lifelong intimacies with men
of his generation whom he admired. But friendships can also be irrep-
arably damaged. Time and bad fortune do not favour their survival.
After the experience he recalls so vividly above, Tunginiye moved
away from his native Bulongwa and made his life in the neighboring
realm. He remained when I knew him quite as peripatetic, though, and
as irrepressibly cheerful in manner as most Kinga men are. On his
side, Atangile could only accept in a passive way responsibility for an
attack which all their intimates came to know about. Still, though
the episode was traumatic for both young men, neither was embit-
tered. Perhaps to grasp the moral experience of taking the blame for
witchcraft we might resort to the metaphor of twins—though I
know I didn’t perpetrate so grave a wrong as my brother has done
you, I am prepared to bear responsibility in your eyes, for I can’t
repudiate my brother. In like fashion when Tunginiye so clearly recalls
the feverish time of illness and delirium forty years earlier he will be
aware of another self, clearly his own only in dream, who experienced
the attack in full knowledge and won the secret right to survive. It is

a dream self, a sort of twin, whom Tunginiye could not repudiate.
That is why it was Tunginiye who felt he must move out of the circle.
His experience of the affair seems to have been infinitely clearer and
more truly religious than Atangile’s—and unforgettable. The two old
friends survived most of their peers but never spoke, though there
was no civil enmity between them. Only a few survivors in 1960 knew
why, or thought they did. It was an old tale but I think it told me
where Tunginiye had confirmed his conspicuous faith in virtue.

Witchcraft and friendship are the obverse faces of one

mystical reality. Friendship as between two Kinga men will be
reinforced by sexual relations in a spontaneous way, and it is under-
standable that the breaking of a friendship would be experienced on
the sexual plane as well. Tunginiye dreamt that Atangile was invading
him, entering first the lower body and mounting toward the head. It
was a physical analogue to the strange invasion of self which had
begun in the Teacher’s garden, when Atangile had used confidences
freely given in intimacy—that is, Tunginiye’s very personal dreams of
a special destiny, to spite his friend. It is through intimacy a man
learns the conditions of another’s felicity and how to bring it down.
The fact that men are privy to each other’s bodies in friendship has
its dark analogue in the belief that witch-horns or needles are
thrust, cast, or shot into the body of a victim. Add to that
Tunginiye’s kinesthetic apparition of the other taking him over bodily.
The nightmare—the mystical battle, the unassimilable fact of
hostility as freely given as friendship—turned his illness into a one-
sided orgy of repudiation. Recurrent dreams, we are told (May
1958:53f.), must be faced down before the cure can begin. Tunginiye
rebuilt his moral strength each night as he fought off his witch in
dreams, restoring himself. It was in every sense a religious
experience, a descent into hell and return.

Disenchantment must be the universal experience of sensitive

minds in societies which permit the survival of innocence into
adulthood. Kinga may experience disenchantment as witchcraft
because they are more deeply and emotionally involved with certain
good friends than they are aware. The episode we share with
Tunginiye happened in the years when, around thirty but ahead of his
agemates, he had just been launched into marriage. But with a
nursling son his wife would not have had him in the house, and he
would once again be sleeping with his friends. The psychic resources
to which Kinga could turn, to defend against envy, seem to have been
fragile. The voluntaristic structure of peer-group life fails to offer
the familiar securities of a well-cultivated kinship system. I suppose
ambisexuality, whatever its advantages, is less unambiguous than
its main alternatives. In the old court culture, when a man’s hetero-

sexual adjustment was programmed to set in late, the deeper
psychological consequences must have been manifold.

There was no ground to doubt that maidens and maidenhood

were idealized by many young men in the bachelor stage in 1960, and
I have supposed that pattern belonged as well to the old court
culture. Marriage would then have been conceived as a privileged
state, to be achieved in time. When that time came with the world
still rather new, as with Tunginiye, I suppose one could predict insecu-
rities. The man is separated from his age mates, taking on tasks and
concerns they can’t be expected to share. He has a place to build. He
trades his spear for a hoe and a bush hook. From doughty raider he
turns to the peasant life. The more typical transformation was later
in life and presumably better prepared, often being shared with
friends who will be staking out a hamlet of their own. Then I suppose
the simple structural conditions may be more important than the
psychological. The burden of court culture was to extend the bache-
lorhood of men to the maximum feasible age, imposing this norm on a
bush culture which had called for marriage (probably) already in the
second decade of life, and allowed a considerable continuity of kin
relations on the general pattern of unlinked localized lineages.
Friendship in the bush culture had not been the load-bearing tie it
became with Sanga rule and its culture of militarism.

The politics of dishonour

Just as the court was kept on track by balancing prince with

priest, the Sanga territorial expansion had to have been carried by
two kinds of men. The principal would be the unyigoha hero of war, of
the type who would be given a princess in marriage after some fine
exploit and sent out “to rule” a new fringe community. He was a
putative candidate for lordly standing in future. Most likely, he would
be lucky ever to mount so high himself, or even clearly to open the
way for descendants to do it long after his own death. Such a
descendent would have to break free and consolidate an auton-
omous domain by strength of arms. He would have worn the Sanga
mantle, and his descendents or other successors, as long as they
played by the book, would continue to recognize the higher court of
an ‘elder brother’ as a source of their ruling authority. Presumably, a
fief became an autonomous domain at a stage where its ruler was
getting strong enough to ‘send out’ some of his own men to settle
his peripheries, so to further expand the Sanga hegemony. To judge
from the lore I could pick up a half-century later, a prince would want
to test an upstart’s strength at arms, but if he proved himself

valorous would validate the autonomy of a new local domain within
the realm by accepting tribute. Treaties of this kind were not done in
stone. The paths to glory were doubtless winding, and a prince who
did nothing when an annual tribute was late would find himself on a
slippery slope. Orders of precedence were written in sand. History
might well be recast after the next clash at arms. As the former
outpost could become an autonomous domain with its own barracks
and games, the domain at a distance could take on a satellite of its
own and begin to style itself the centre of a new realm. The details of
such developments are forever lost, though the ongoing politics of
the unsettled Eastern and Western realms in the decades before
the pax can be sketchily reconstructed, and suggest such a zig zag,
ad hoc pattern.

The other ‘colonizing’ emissary of the Sanga court was the

supernumerary priest or ritual apprentice, such as Kyalawe who
worked from Vululile’s court in the West. He was the witch-finder
found there by the Germans and spared by them on the ground he
had been a mere executioner following the orders of his Prince. It is
not difficult to see why such an enforcer would be wanted at any
court aiming to colonize a peripheral area and bring its independent
prior settlers into the Sanga system. The higher functions of the
priesthood presupposed a full-bodied courtly establishment, calling
for authority in respect of the agricultural calendar, active accep-
tance of the Lwembe cult, and a tributary cum redistributional
network presupposing a charismatic, rich, powerful personal ruler. By
contrast, divining for witchcraft was an undertaking for the ritual
entrepreneur able to attach himself to such power structures as
might be found on the ground. The witch belief was endemic, but the
antipolitan solution (bush variety) was either burning down a hut to
expel a witch or, if things weren’t stacked in your favour, pulling up
stakes yourself. Witchwork would have been the starting niche for a
new ‘doctor’ like Kyalawe aiming to help set up a priesthood under
Vululile—displaced as that embattled prince was to the margins of
Kinga civilization, he would have been needing Sanga-style ritual
assistants. As political and social change progressed with the build-
up of a new Sanga polity, so must lifestyle values change. The
psychology of friendship and the phenomenon of witchcraft as a
specific projection of it would assume new importance.

Was the Sanga domain a congregation of witches and victims?

No. That picture is skewed, exaggerating the folk concern with
witches and their ways. If witches were the truly aberrant types we
sometimes suppose, the frequency of incidents ought to be almost
negligible. But without going much deeper than we have, there are at
least two sound reasons for considering witchcraft a religious belief

in the solemn sense of the word. One is that witchcraft is conducted
by spirits, not persons. That makes it irrelevant that people who
think they are witches are aberrant and few. There is drama in the
idea of the ‘whole witch’, the person imbued with evil. But when you
look for them you are likely to find few or no empirical cases—granted
you can’t count heads when dealing with spirits. The other reason for
taking witchcraft seriously is that the witch belief is a system of
thought which, once established, will always be easy to act on, and
for that reason requires no expensive maintenance. The social
anarchy on which it thrives is never quite lacking in any human
society, though the self-proclaiming witch of today’s media world,
unless he or she is out to sow fear, has little in common with the
Malatan self-proclaimer we see in the person of a strong Nyakyusa
chief. Today’s urbane ‘witch’ resembles more the Malatan priest who
professes to use his powers only to tame the antisocial impulse in

Probably there weren’t frequent executions at an established

court. A prevalence of witches at any given time would most likely
reflect other sources of disquiet. Where and when the Sanga
system was working well, its own high ceremonialism (the calendrical
planting and the Lwembe cult) was designed to sponge up anxieties.
Kinga on the whole are not inclined to load themselves with psychic
burdens they can’t manage. Phenomenologically, Lukasi (cited above)
would have been right. There would have been a general sense that
witches were many but when the secular system was working they
would be cowed and keep in hiding. In the regional belief system
witchery does represent a sort of entropy principle which needs to
be held in check by the timely interventions of prince and priest.
Most major religions teach no less about the evils men may be up to
than witchcraft entails, though the imagery of the staid pulpiteer
may be somewhat less lurid than tales told over the fire by a circle of
Kinga goatherds. Evil is generally the negative foil to more positive
doctrines. The main objection generally found to taking witch belief
for one of the world’s important religions may simply be that the
positive foil appears to be missing.

Still, for ordinary Kinga beset by private woe the ancestor cult
was in some ways less ‘positive’ (being less therapeutic) than its
alternatives. Solidarity with one’s lineage past can have little
intense meaning in a society generally so neglectful of lineage and so
careless of the distinction between kith and kin as Kinga were. Where
you can’t assemble your kin for the sacrificial meal, what return can
you really expect from propitiating your proprietary dead, even if you
do recall some of the names? Against that, a well aimed accusation
of witchcraft can create a new sense of solidarity with all who will

shudder in sympathy. It hardly needs pointing out that the
wondrous flying baton of the witch finder when it singles out one
certain man in a crowded circle will have pleased all the others there
by vindicating them.

When witchcraft is compared to shamanism as a response to

disease and other private afflictions, it is at once obvious that the
latter is the more ‘psychological’ in bent. Witchcraft is rather
‘political’. In a general way the prevalence of witches in subsaharan
Africa is reasonably well matched by the presence of developed
systems of law beside it. The development of law has brought with it
conciliatory habits and established procedures for securing rights.
Without a prosecutorial bureaucracy, of course, the victim has the
burden of pressing for justice. This has meant the facts have to be
clear—both the case for the court’s intervention and the implication
of the accused must be undeniable. I expect the reason I have never
heard of a diviner being called to name a thief is that factual alibis
would too often be available to prove the diviner wrong. That is never
the case with witchcraft.

It may be difficult but is useful to see the difference between

the pragmatism of the law court and the seeming lapse of good
common sense in the witch ordeal as a matter of shifting frames
not losing logic. Kinga courts, being far less confrontational, are less
given to augmenting injustice than courts in anglophone homelands.
The institution of ‘friend of the court’ is so universally accepted and
applied by Kinga that dispute settlement before an authority
customarily has the air of a forum for participatory democracy. In
1960, and presumably a century before, formal dispute settlement
was the central political institution in which laymen could make their
feelings freely and directly known to authority. As for witchcraft
hearings, I witnessed none directly—they were summarily dismissed
by the native courts—and must rely on hearsay. But in my enquiries
toward reconstructing such hearings I found nothing to disconfirm
an expectation of a thoroughly ‘non-Western’ procedure—reliance on
‘unproved’ accusation, divination employing carefully randomized
mechanisms which must be seen to be free of party bias, and use of
the ordeal to find a ‘scapegoat’ in times of moral crisis. On the
evidence, I find no ground for defending the justice of a Kinga witch
trial. But as political theatre, a half-scripted morality play, it does
present a dramatic semblance of justice.

In courts of the anglophone tradition there is at least one area

where the drama, the morality play which is the subtext of the
proceedings, can remind you of an African ordeal and possibly help to
disclose its nature. Setting aside the recently promoted genre of

mass-entertainment through the televising of actual murder trials,
which is not yet fully approved as a model of legal justice, the
settlement of accounts for a broken marriage in our courts mostly
depends on confronting one fictional biography with another. The
manifest aim of each adversarial voice is establishing unilateral
blame. The credibility of a settlement flows from a balance reached in
the courtroom drama. If the result can satisfy anyone, it must have
used theatrical means to do so. We get a morality play, a piece of
judicial theatre instead of the judicious exploration we want of a
failed dyadic involvement. Can we not talk of the ‘politics’ of this
adversarial system as well as its stunning ‘psychology’? The political
value of the adversarial courtroom in a democratic society is the
semblance of a ‘justice’ freely achieved without state interference.
The same must be said of the Kinga ordeal. The divining procedure is
as open and manifestly fair as the drawing of lots, only somewhat
more dramatically staged. The decision’s authority is made imper-
sonal. Blame has been laid and the decision legitimated: revealed, in

Ten point is easy to settle though sometimes neglected. That

is, when threats are uttered in a ‘witchcraft culture’ they usually are
not escalated on the spot into violent quarrels. In a society where
everyone goes armed as a matter of course, witch beliefs might
therefore be counted as part of the system for keeping the peace.
How soon after receiving a threat would one have to suffer sudden
affliction, to apprehend it as witchcraft? Tunginiye’s quick sense of
certainty concerning the nature of his illness and its origin sprang
from the seeming immediacy of cause and effect. Even then, the
diagnosis was not fully confirmed until much later, by his reading of
the suspect’s conduct at their meeting. The probability is high that
a ‘veiled threat’ will pass over without repercussion. After a few days
of peace, few such threats will not have lost their edge. I find there
can be no pressing need for a depth-psychological accounting for the
prevalence of witchcraft in antipolitan societies. It is an instrument
among many, in ordinary times, of civil culture. Threat, when it will be
apprehended as alluding to violence by witchcraft, can’t be answered
in kind. Indeed, the gliding ball of fire which is the manifestation of
witch battling witch is a sight no Kinga boy would like to admit he
hasn’t seen, and a spectacle none can help but smile at. So witch-
craft beliefs beget a form of indirect action which won’t veer in a
quarrel to dangerously direct action.

But in stressful situations, or when witch beliefs begin to

serve partisan political ends, matters will complicate. After the
transformation of Kinga religion from bush to court culture it would
have been hard to argue that witch beliefs were functioning mainly in

the innocent capacity of baffles or safety valves, and but rarely as
catalysts to passion. What is a royal court, what is a royal theatre,
without heroic themes?

It is when we once admit that religion need not be ‘positive’ to

be effective, when we notice the power of negative thinking, that we
may grasp the near functional equivalence of ‘neighbours’ and
‘shades’ as popular figures for the channeling and legitimating of
blame. Ostensibly, when (rarely) a Kinga man ties a goat for
slaughter to propitiate an offended ancestor, the particularistic
principle of lineage exclusiveness has been invoked. Yet we have seen
that in the typical event, that principle is unlikely to dominate, being
overshadowed by the prior and more nearly universalistic principle of
merging kinship, fictional kinship, and amity. The informal sharing of
meat with everyone who has smelled it roasting is quite taken for
granted. We may read it as evidence that Kinga aren’t willing to scorn
a neighbour to honour their shades. A diffuse apprehension of neigh-
borly envy is implied. Theoretically in a ‘descent group’ society we
might expect to find ancestors associated with solidarity and long-
term, translocal alliances under the umbrella of a maximal lineage or
clan. Witchcraft in that case would associate with trouble in the
clan—segmentation and agonistic fission. But the Malatan social
structure emphasizes lineage only in relation to ruling élites, and
even then refuses to create solidary local descent groupings.

In the classic literature of African ethnography no people

stands out before the Azande. But readers have not always
completed their reading of the volumes Evans-Pritchard eventually
produced. The Zande ruling clan, to prevent internal structuration
and bloc rivalry for office, had resort to undermining the generative
rules of family and lineage segmentation. This was done by condoning
sexual inversion and incest, producing a radical non-alignment of
offspring at the domestic level. It is doubtful how long that system
would have worked, as the sheer size of the conqueror-clan was not
being well controlled. The Malatan solution for the same problem is
not concentration but dispersal of the royals’ offspring. The game is
to hold their loyalty as they proliferate, but allow no internal blocs to
form as factions in a struggle for succession. So we get prescriptive
segmentation, imposed fission and meritocratic weeding out of
rivals for the chiefship before it becomes available, all in the Coming
Out of young Nyakyusa chiefs. And we get the ‘sending out’ of Sanga
avapapwa—the disinherited royal males so named to suggest a ‘little
brother’ relationship to the crown—to settle new country as they
finally come to marriage age. The result in each case is by dispersing
kinsmen to prevent their forming power blocs. In both these cases
also the fighting men are mainly bachelors operating within a politi-

cally segmented, pyramidal protostate. This has the consequence
that rank and file have spent their best adult years fighting as
solidary teams against outsiders—and will subsequently be redis-

In the case of the Kyungu of uNgonde, since the buffer regions

around the central realm were settled by immigrant groups never
assimilated and still ruled by their own non-royal nobles, the solution
was directly to prevent the proliferation of royal offspring. All but
two of the king’s sons were systematically put to death in infancy.
This is not the usual practice of subsaharan peoples, whose
ancestral cults are meant to sanction kin solidarity and expansion.
In general, the Malatan emphasis on royal lineage was narrowly
tailored to the sanctioning of hereditary succession to high office,
thumping no drum for a generalized agnatic ethic. Some misunder-
standings about the importance of (nominal) patrilinearity or
residence rules in the region might be cleared up by a careful
distinction between such rules when they are politically promoted
and when minimized.

I believe it helps show the logical relation of witch beliefs to

ancestral devotion when the two systems of thought are viewed
abstractly. Ancestor rites are propitiatory, witchcraft rites
punitive. Since ancestors are not subject to salutary punishment,
the troubled descendant turns to the only obvious alternative
strategy, which our learning theorists call instrumental reward. Even
for the very same act of aggression a witch, whose appetite is
considered unpropitiable, gets short shrift. Ancestors, their bodies
corrupted, remain tied for comforts to their living kin. In the case of
the witch it is precisely those invisible ties which are corrupted, for
he will prey on his near and dear while his physical presence remains
untransformed. The expression in visible act of these two logically
differentiated notions about the invisible world consists in a
sanctioning programme. Ghosts are sought out and rewarded,
witches sought out and pilloried. Always propitiation entails a feast.
Always it is noticeable how little food has to be shared with the
shades to satisfy them. For the rest, envy is laid to rest through

The punishment of a witch, requiring public legitimation, calls

for an un-festive gathering, the divinatory ordeal. Here is then a
sketch of the relevant semiotic field:

Ancestor Witch
Physical corruption Moral corruption
Righteous indignation Amoral envy
Propitiation Suppression
Sacrificial feasting Ordeal
Solidarity Repudiation

The sacrificial meal valorizes a propitiatory stance toward an

ancestor. While ancestors are not universally and deeply popular—
their interventions seem implacably unfriendly—there are enough
human faces among them to evoke the kind of surrender associated
with prayer. When that happens to a Kinga man, the religious tone of
animism can be transformed in a flood of all the emotional complex-
ities which can build up in lasting relations of intimacy. But I only got
hints of that from a few men I knew well, and all of them had been
exposed in some measure to Christianity or Islam. For the most part
what controls a man’s relation to his ancestors is the simple sense
that if you follow the prescribed plan you will get the results
promised. When you are offering a feast to your friends, no strings
attached, you can expect a supportive response. I would have needed
a sex change, I suppose, to have any comparable information on the
religious experience of women. One thing they don’t do is tie a goat
and set off with it to make sacrifice to their ancestors.

Propitiation, if you bracket away the feasting, amounts to a

sort of spiritual delousing. The ordeal is a much bigger show. It legiti-
mates the community’s repudiation of an equal-right member as
possessed of an evil spirit—the kind of spirit one can only admire in
the belly of a legitimate ruler. Elsewhere it is meant to be hidden and
never shown off on public occasions. Presumably, it is just such
egoistic indiscretions which used to get men into ordeals at the old
Sanga courts. A sacrificial feast is wanted in the one case to dispel
the sense of hostility between living and dead which will have been in
the air from the time the shade is identified as the agent of dire
misfortune. Witchcraft also may be handled quietly. To privately
valorize the branding of a witch may require as little formality or
public theatre as Tunginiye reports at the unmasking of Atangile.
But where the court’s power is seen to have been challenged, a grand
spectacle is in order: ordeal and execution. The minimal
requirement—that responsibility be unambiguously allocated—can
be met privately in camera where the purpose is only to show the
victim through a crisis. But where the witch has been seen, or where
the court wants him seen, as a threat to community the affair will
take on a suitably theatrical style.

The storied ordeal Kinga elders would most often retail made
use of the foreign poison unkali, on which the priests of the court held
patent. In this (post-pax, retrospective) telling the poison was not
administered directly. Accuser and accused must attend, each with
his dog. Either dog, when dosed with the poison, might vomit and
survive or might die. Accuser or accused, if your dog dies you are
found a witch, while vomit means exoneration. In the event both dogs
survive, neither man is more than he seems, and the case is
disarmed. No informant could think both dogs would die. I supposed
that would have implied something unlikely: a witch resorting to the
court in his quarrel with a colleague. The found witch had a chance to
repent but was otherwise banished by the ruler’s decree, or might be
executed. To judge from reported uses of the given poison in mass
ordeals applied directly to the whole adult community, the proba-
bility of vomiting was high, and a reasonably happy ending likely. But
theatre has its own dynamic, and if the perils it plays on are only
ersatz the theatre will cease to move minds. How many actual
executions would it take to keep a public in thrall? Only Naïve says
none. But Clever says in good times the frequency could be quite low.
There would be an inverse relationship also to the dramatic
resonance of the show the court could put on when it chose to.

Kinga had certainly never known the true ‘African despot’

whose power seems to depend on lavish displays of unmotivated
cruelty. The ‘cruelty’ of Kyelelo had in common with a despot’s the
peculiar license to invert the rules of honour. He was not a man of his
word, he was the worst of ‘younger brothers’, his obsessive ambition
was there, naked, for all to see. But he drew good men to him and
bent good men to his will. The morale of his realm was high. In an
antipolitan world a leader is not expected to live by the rules of
ordinary men. It is an obverse to the principle that ordinary men are
not expected to keep pythons in their bellies.

Nothing, I was assured, prevented a woman from having the

instruments of mystical power uvuhavi. But women did not have dogs
to submit to an ordeal, and no one recalled a case of woman charging
woman. The question would always be turned to the way women
might fight, scratching and clawing like cats with no weapons but
their nails. A woman could be accused by a man or accuse him, but I
judged that the old culture never encouraged women in the witch
belief. We might want to reserve the possibility that it was in effect
a religion of men, or at least that witch lore was their special preoc-
cupation. So far as the witch belief revolves around the delights of
domination, that must be so.

I reasoned there were two motives for adopting the dog ordeal
instead of a direct procedure, which Kinga agreed they knew but
which they under-reported. The first motive is the consideration by
a ruler that he could show his strength as well by banishment
(should there be a loser) as by execution, while incurring less disaf-
fection among kin and friends of the accused. There are not many
‘loners’ in a Kinga community, and those there are will more likely be
pitied than censured. The theatrical effect of the dog ordeal was
strengthened by its miming the bolder form in which a fatal decision
would entail its automatic execution. And the easy valorization of
the labeling act (“Witch!”) would in any event rule out popular demon-
strations in defense of the accused. A second advantage to be seen
in electing the dog ordeal is the greater ‘objectivity’ of this
procedure. That is, it becomes less a defiant confrontation of
powers, more surely a cool demonstration of the witches’ impotence
before the soothsaying medicines of the court. Cruelty is not always
the most effective drama, and at least at the court of Ukwama the
reclusive prince may have resorted to the ordeal less often than the
priests as a group, to promote their prerogatives. The priests were
known as managers among the court’s men, the avanyivaha. As such
they were the tax collectors and knew they required an extra helping
of credibility.

It isn’t altogether irrelevant to our considerations that a

prince, himself believing in witches or not, could scarcely discredit
the belief in witchcraft without discrediting himself and his charis-
matic claims. Assume that a ‘well known witch’ has finally been
brought to the direct ordeal, only to survive it: has this man not now
put himself in position to claim his powers are greater than the
court’s? Won’t such a claim put itself forward in men’s private reflec-
tions? The dog ordeal has less histrionics about it and proportion-
ately less opportunity for heroics. Whatever its outcome, the forced
submission to it put an accused witch down, striking at those
phantasies of supranormal powers around which the image of
unaccountable moral endowments would have been embroidered in
the popular mind. Why should a man so powerful submit to any test
at all? Yet once a positive identification of a ‘political’ witch was
achieved, the terrible command of execution, Kantagi kuluganda!
became an act of authority no one could question. The world
returned to its secular frame. Majesty reasserted itself. Priest
handed back to Prince.

The ‘objectification’ of a religion must always be the work of a

professional priesthood. The true evangelist may teach only the way
to faith, but ritual and formulaic rite are easier to routinize and
guard. In the Kinga case it seems a court could evolve from the heroic

to the ceremonial style in a few generations. Vululile, Kyelelo, and
Uliluvilo on the Western and Eastern frontiers were princes-on-the-
make and have in Kinga lore the character of heroes. Mwemutsi and
Mwalukisa, in the established Central and Northern realms, were
puppets of their priesthoods not the stuff of hero tales. Proof is
hard to find, but I collected a good deal more underworld drama in the
sacerdotal (or ‘unheroic’) than in the ‘heroic’ realms and came to
conclude that there could be a systematic reason for that. A hands-
on, charismatic ruler like Kyelelo or a high-riding Nyakyusa chief can
afford to leave no power vacuum at the grass roots within which men
may imagine the free-booting witch will thrive. The principle at work
here is that the strong-bellied, hands-on ruler, to underwrite his
power, has to assure himself no sign of witches and their counter-
vailing power can appear in his realm; but the reclusive prince relies on
an almost opposite strategy, seeing his majesty magnified by just
the stagy kind of theatre that witch hunts and witch ridding
provide. Am I overimpressed here by the bathos I met at Ukwama at
the close of colonial times? In a lesser degree it was to be felt then
also at the Western capital, Kyelelo’s domain, another which the
independent government of the (then) state of Tanganyika chose to
put in new hands. Where it was least to be felt, and charisma most,
was in Sangilino’s part of the Eastern realm. Here was the strong
man who’d stood up to the British and earned their respect, tradi-
tional but not in the sacerdotal frame. In face of this unfazable
political entrepreneur it is hard to imagine a witch who would not fly
the other way. That seemed to be the general feeling about him
amongst a people ever ready to notice the weakness behind a mere
show of power.

At a mundane level of analysis, one seeming advantage of a

‘witch’ diagnosis over ‘ancestor’ would be enabling the aggrieved or
bereaved party to claim, not pay, compensation. It doesn’t work that
way for an ordinary plaintiff. His whole objective will more likely be
extricating himself from an existential crisis, usually domestic, than
claiming compensation or revenge. Of course for a prince, finding a
witch could legitimate seizure of property, so enriching court life. You
might like to impute that as a factor in the balance of a particular
case, but you would find the drama of the actual procedure and an
eventual execution playing out in quite a different existential frame.
It is the drama itself which becomes the issue and drives the matter
forward once begun. Although my Magoma informants, discussing
self-help, said a witch’s house would be surrounded by stealth at
night, and he with his wife and infant would be incinerated with the
hut, they couldn’t convincingly name or place a witch so treated. It is
a dramatic enough scenario to have an effect on moral premises, if
only in the semiotic reality of folklore. But this is an obviously prepo-

litical way of resolving a problem—what you would expect in
boundary-sitting Magoma—and wouldn’t have been suggested at a
Sanga court.

Kinga of the Western realm, in spite of the bad faith between

Mwangawa (Vululile line) and Kyelelo (successful rebel line), held that
a witch found anywhere in Mwangawa’s domain would have a chance
of exoneration first at home, but then at need would be taken under
guard to Kyelelo. This would have been the work of the Western
priesthood which, unless engaged in the actual making of ritual
defenses against attack, could only look to the sacred grove at
Ihanga as its proper centre. The first Kyelelo had taken that throne
by treachery, but the Sanga order was an overlay on an earlier order,
rooted in immovable chthonic shrines, which had served the prior
bush culture, and which the Sanga resettlers had in each case found
it necessary to reinstate. A witch on the way to Ihanga still had a
chance to repent. He must promise to stay clear of his medicines
and stay at peace. Then the priests could grant a conditional pardon.
They would proceed to his house and burn it with all its contents,
showing him where he might build anew. Then they would claim a small
daughter of the offender as kisikimuno ward in pledge. She was to be
raised as if a priest’s daughter to marriage age. Then the real father,
if his scutcheon was clean, might be granted the bridewealth, the
avanyivaha priests charging only the customary animal as imongo
marriage tax.

Doubtless the politics of domain and realm varied from place

to place and realm to realm. The Sanga system had exerted a
branching, non-confining effect on conceptions of social space.
Certain rulers who could not claim higher status than untwa still
claimed the hereditary right to execute witches. Such a claim, even if
seldom made good, was an effective political tool; but so was an
‘appellate’ system an effective tool for cooling out a flammable
situation, and it was much used in the Central realm. The intergroup
ambience of the priesthood, and the readiness of that estate to
command its own armed task forces in local policing, may have made
the business of witchcraft a welcome preoccupation when more
important matters were in abeyance. But we have no measure at all
of the volume of such business normally undertaken. I’ll hold with the
safer assumption that it was quiet in quiet times. What I seem to
have learned in support of that can be formulated in three proposi-

(1) A ‘witch’ so called, wrestled down like Atangile in private and

deeply embarrassed, is put on his honour as never before, and that is
likely to last for life.

(2) A witch, discredited in public trial, as in the dog ordeal, will
be more than ready to accept banishment as the only practical
means to restore his honour.

(3) Even a charismatic chief can’t afford to risk his reputation

for great belly magic in directly challenging a witch or priest, but
must find ways of controlling witches and priests through the
professional services of (other) priests.

Witch and state

The three variants of the Malatan pattern of chiefship/

kingship evolved within a regional system of social thought which had
prevailed in the bush cultures formed during the Bantu expansion
into and through their part of East Africa during the first millennium
of the present era. The witch belief survives from that prepolitical
culture and offers a window on it. Nyakyusa are most specific: all
men of power—all men equipped to override the judgement of their
colleagues—have witch power. That is what sets chiefly rulers apart
from ordinary persons. But it is also a privilege the rulers in a
protostate context have to protect against encroachment by lay
witches, claiming extra-constitutional powers in accordance with
the norms of those prepolitical times. Ngonde beliefs are similar,
though Godfrey Wilson was explicitly told there it was the Great
Commoners close to the Kyungu, not the king himself, in whom
pythons were to be found. Nyakyusa accord them to both the aristo-
cratic prince and the lay village chiefs (Great Commoners) who take
on the task of controlling him. Kinga in Kyelelo’s Western realm
cleanly relegated one sphere of state power to the body of priests,
the other to the body of the prince himself. But as with the
Nyakyusa chief, the Kinga ruler without his priests and their
medicines would have been vulnerable to attack from every quarter.
So it is that we find in Mwemutsi’s Central realm an achieved office of
leadership by Commoners has been set up outside the gates of the
royal enclosure. The crown has become an uncontested, hereditary
office confined, as it were, to the work of the harem and a kind of
remote-control presence in the decisions of his court and the
projects of his priesthood.

It is the priests in each society who must be the final arbiters

in the conceptual allocation of mystical powers among the several
players in the political arena. It is easy to see that without the witch
belief, and without their own firm abjuring of such embodied powers
in favour of medicinal knowledge and skills, none of the three consti-

tutions would be stable. The priests stay hors de combat or they are
nothing. This means scrupulously playing an impersonal game, attrib-
uting decisions to infallible procedure. The greatest embarrassment
was the incident in the Kinga wars between Kyelelo and Mwemutsi’s
court, when a priest was overrun in battle and taken prisoner in full
possession of his chemical kit. Of course he was treated well enough
by his professional colleagues in the other camp. But in their game,
exposing personal powerlessness is a bad show.

Assume that the major political burden of a religious system is

to give the structures of government a grounding in Nature—in the
Cosmos-before-culture, the world in which mannered Man is only a
guest. Agricultural societies sacralize the work of gardening and its
fruits. Kinga calendrical rites dramatize the natural integrity of a
domain and the dependence of its people on the ruler as unkilunga
owner of the land. That the ruler himself, being dangerous to the
sacralized gardens, must stay back and delegate the work to
priests makes a clear statement of the division of office within the
ruling court, and of the grounding of that dualism in the mystical
properties of the royal office. Kinga also sacralize the predictable
events and phases of the human life cycle. Socially significant differ-
ences of sex and age are seen to be inherent in nature and so to
enjoy immutable meanings. Witch beliefs are associated with the
attribution of meaning to premature death. A quiet death in old age,
such as in our own folk tradition we refer to ‘natural causes’, is
thought of in much that way by traditional Kinga thinkers, though
our idea of nature is not theirs. Kinga don’t perceive witchcraft as
suspending the laws of nature. It is one of the forces in nature which
can interfere with normal cycles of life. The figure of the witch as
(rogue) leopard is familiar throughout East Africa, but the single
case I collected (Eastern realm) of treating a leopard as unnatural
reduced to a mass ordeal to discover the witches controlling the
animal. Witchcraft substances are used by men destructively, just
as nearly the same medicines may be used by priests constructively
to fortify authority or produce a bountiful harvest. In such a society
political power can only be expected to find its ground in the funda-
mental notions of Nature which nourish the prevailing folk religion.

Consider how accusations of witchcraft in normal, apolitical

settings serve to ground the structure of everyday life. A little boy
of nine is feared dying of whooping cough. His friends have helped him
to his parents’ hut to say farewell, because he has had a vision of
death. After his friends have helped him home, an hour passes. Then
the friends come back to report. He is dead and the elders must
take charge. It is nearly evening, so the body is quickly and rather
secretively buried by the father and father’s brother at a place on

the edge of the wood where others of their children already lie. Word
goes out. A few women gather with the mother in her hut to keen
through the night. By mid-morning there are a hundred men and
women gathered. A number of fires have been made and beer
brought. Food is prepared, and the keening grows lusty. One late
comer is a remote agnatic kinsman. He has with him a squirrel-skin
bag with tobacco and some whittling work to finish. He has hardly
settled himself when an accusation rings out above the keening.
Little by little it becomes clear this is the man being accused. He was
seen passing by yesterday but failed to stop. A spokesman for the
bereaved at length emerges, stationing himself across the
courtyard from the accused. We hear denials and charges repeated.
A few others join in. There are intervals of silence and quiet general
conversation. The accused man attends to his whittling. A stilted
interview continues for several hours. At last the man will have no
more of it. He gathers his things into the squirrelskin bag, the first
adult to leave. He knows they expect compensation and he has in
effect bargained the amount down to ten shillings, all the while
steadfastly denying guilt. People say he will send the money but only
after a cooling time. Far from binding back together a (loosely
defined) lineage group which has been drifting apart, the whole
transaction puts a seal on schism—who would continue to attend
funerals where he will only be accused of bad faith? The significant
social consequence of the accusation has less to do with the choice
of a witch than the dramatic assertion that a boy’s death is
unnatural. A child has the natural right to expect a full life. So the
premature death is malicious and avoidable, an affair of the elders
who have access to powers over life and death, and which they
sometimes use amorally to hurt one another. This is the way the
world is.

The compensation the boy’s parents demanded was no more

than a token amount in a society where the value of a grown person,
as measured by the prevailing bridewealth, might be 500 times as
great. What has been dramatized is the parents’ assertion that it is
they who have been objects of aggression. They have suffered the
loss. Perhaps an observer of the surface of life would have said the
nine-year-old would have been most grievously missed by his peers,
with whom he lived, though they are assigned no part in the
obsequies. The forms of the funeral teach that under the surface of
life there is a deeper structure which recognizes the transitoriness
of friendships, the permanence of kinship ties, the dominance of the
elders, and the awful play of dissension among them in accounting
for misfortune.

A further consequence of the funeral accusation is the social-
ization of the dead boy’s peers, as they move about unnoticed
among the guests, into witch believing. They gain a sense for schism,
an acquaintance with alienation within a kinship group, an awareness
of the boundaries of trust. If a young wife dies in her first
accouchement, an experienced young man will know it is her agnatic
kinsmen who must bury her not his own. Still he may be shocked when
the accusation rings out as he makes his early appearance at the
funeral. With a penis he has speared her! He has no rights, the loss is
not his but her kinsmen’s. They will claim in compensation the whole
part of the bridewealth already paid, and in Kinga law it will be theirs.
He can’t claim it back. In effect, the law proclaims him a witch on the
evidence of circumstance. Only when a new wife has produced and
nursed a child of his agnatic group has he the right to bury her and
suffer the loss. It is through her attachment to a child not a
husband that she acquires a new identity linked to his. The kinds of
change which most closely govern our being happen in huts, conver-
sations, intimate lives spread out in time and space. A religion of
blame has a theatre of its own, in the courtyard of an ordinary hut,
where truths may be told and debts added up which are otherwise
not accounted.

Witchcraft in the court culture was this phenomenon politi-

cized. To claim monopoly powers in ridding the country of witches, to
execute a citizen after finding him a witch, is to put forward in
dramatic fashion a new set of premises. While they don’t cancel out
the plebeian principles we have noticed at a funeral, the high theatre
of the court leaves them in shadow. Witchcraft is no longer
embedded in the hard-to-notice processes of change in kinship,
friendship, and marriage ties and networks. At the Sanga court the
witch has become a threat to the community at large. Emerging
from the vast infrastructure of reciprocal debt and moral
exchange—the invisible nexus of community experienced in everyday
life—embodied power uvuhavi in a common person of independent or
egoistic bent has become a political offense. What was a ten-shilling
tort, worth in the traditional funeral moot no more than a spent
hoe-blade, perhaps suitable for a small girl, has become—should the
court find it right to intervene—high crime.

In the southernmost country of the Eastern realm I talked

with Masonzo (Madamwa Uliluvilo Sanga), nominal heir to the court
of the vanquished Uliluvilo. The illustrious father had been lost doing
battle not just with the Germans’ askaris and their Mahanzi
recruits but with young Mwemutsi (Dembademba) and his men,
whom the Easterner had soundly beaten in an initial engagement.
Uliluvilo’s domain was big, he was a hero-prince cut from the cloth of a

Kyelelo, no recluse, and this history makes plain the balance of
powers then prevailing there. The son Madamwa understandably
failed to find high favour as a grown man either with the colonial or
native Sanga powers, but had held local office at Igumbilo as the
devastated region recovered. He had been a child when the Germans
came and still too young to stay and fight when the country was laid
waste in 1905/6. He had seen little of the old culture of the court
after early childhood. He had certainly seen no mass ordeals with his
own eyes, but could convincingly show me exactly where one had
taken place. “Just there under the branches of that tree on the ridge
the witch was left lying. The place is avoided still.” A witch must be
judged, he said, by the prince unkuludeva (in this case Uliluvilo) but was
brought in to trial and executed by the avanyivaha, acting as the
executive and police arm of the court.

Ordinarily reports would be brought to the unkuludeva of ‘a

witch who is killing people’ in one of the outlying hamlets. The
avanyivaha would mount a party to bring the accused to court. They
would surround his hut at night and order him to pass out all his
arms through the small windows. Thus they would take him
disarmed. At court he was directly administered the unkali poison
ordeal. When many people were dying in one area, the prince and
avanyivaha would go there and round up the whole adult population.
Everyone must take a dose of the poison, even after some had died.
They were assembled for the ordeal in the bush, and where they fell
they must be left lying. In other domains the witch, once discovered,
was equally untouchable, having to be strangled by a good length of
rope looped at the middle around his neck, the body then to be cast
off the executioner’s cliff uluganda without any skin-to-skin contact.
I have no reason to doubt this is the scenario I would have got in the
same realm sixty years earlier. I have no way of knowing how often it
may have been put into practice.

I take it that in the process of a people’s politicization the

nature of witchcraft will be redefined. For Kinga, what had been an
act of desperate hostility anyone could fall into became, within the
discourse of the court, an indelible quality of the person, justifying
aversion and even execution. Thus is the institution of witch politi-
cized. The institutions which define the new witch are the mortal
ordeal and, among Nyakyusa, the autopsy. All that can be said of the
ordeal’s history in uKinga is that it may have been coeval with the
Sanga system of rule. It may also be younger—associated with
particular critical periods in the routinizing of Sanga authority. I say
this because in the cases I could inquire into in the 1960s the plot
line dealt with use of ‘objective’ devices. The ingenerate witch, who
can’t be disarmed and only by greater powers than his own

destroyed, appears in any event to have receded along with the
Sanga system during the colonial decades, falling into the frame of
idle folklore. The facts suggest that amity prevailed over distrust
for most people most of the time in both Malatan cultures; that
this would not have been the case where ordeals did no more than
lynch the defenseless and aggrandize the court; and that it is not
the sentiments of fantasy lore but of practical daylight discourse
which offer the best clues to social history.

Uliluvilo in the East, more than either Kyelelo or Vululile in the

West, was engaged in the conquest-colonization of a broad realm,
having claims at Contact extending well beyond Kinga borders
(eastward into Mawemba country, southward into Upangwa) as
these borders were later drawn to the liking of colonial administra-
tions. The character of this self-styled prince comes through to us
as Cromwellian. A believer in more than his destiny, he was eventually
to lead his people into the only unmitigated disaster ever to befall a
Sanga realm. Before the Germans, he had been an exemplary state-
builder. When he traveled out to a bush community, nominally at their
invitation, it was he and his party who administered the ordeal, the
locals who must undergo it. Submitting your village to such an ordeal,
even in some measure inviting it, was accepting the very premise of
inequality on which all authority finds firm ground. Ultimately in the
fully established princely court, after this kind of proselytizing was
done, warfare and dispute settlement, even on occasion the ordeal,
would come to be less directly administered. War would be led by
chosen commoner heroes, insured by priestly potions and rites. The
court of law would be run by deputies, the ordeal administered to
dogs or hens. But by then the elevation of princehood to an
unearthly plane would have been accomplished, and the elaborate
manners of court culture, with its special paraphernalia, would
distinguish its style and emergent historicity from that of the bush.

Witch belief has the effect of sacralizing the power to stand

above forces which drag men down before their time. Kinga infor-
mants would resort to the paradigm of three fields side by side,
planted and cultivated with the same care, two of them failing while
the third produces a fine crop. If not witchcraft, what explanation
could there be? The powers of witch and witch-finder, selfish and
magnanimous magician, are of one sort. What distinguishes the
witch is not his power but the use he is believed to have made of it.
An ordinary person accepting the reality of magical powers will
accept the existence of an entrepreneurial or hereditary category of
persons not subject to ordinary misfortune and ordinary sanctions.
Pakipande, the magical diviner most famous among Kinga in the
1960s, was one of those gifted individuals, quite outside the ruling

set. He was widely admired—no witch, because his talents were put
to constructive use and never concealed. Compare the priest: he has
no special talent, rather professional training and knowledge.
Compare the reigning prince or local ruler: his special qualities have
been passed over to him in adulthood by the priestly ritual acts of
inauguration. No one, in fact, is thought to be a witch until someone
is seized by misfortune and, to escape, must know who to blame.
Should all three plantations in the Kinga paradigm fail to prosper, the
evidence hardly implies witchcraft. General misfortune, having no
beneficiaries, is to be explained in other terms than the particular-
istic, grass-roots theatre of blame. But the paradigm does nicely
define the crucial role of envy in giving life to witchcraft.

True that the wealth of a prince exhibits the same kind of self-
serving power as a witch’s prospering field. But royal wealth is legiti-
mated by magnanimous redistribution—the socially corrosive
atmosphere of envy is absent. A magnanimous witch is a nonsense,
as is a local ruler who is stingy. But so far as office among Kinga
depended on network connections—the Sanga connection for the
untwa or prince, the priestly fraternity for the budding ritual
specialist—the ultimate definition of witch was a person armed with
uncanny powers and without legitimate title. This is a person whom
you cannot afford to trust. But Kinga in 1960 felt such a person
could be effectively disarmed. We have to ask why they would not
have so thought under the Sanga regime, and the answer seems to
be politics.

Mwangawa/Vululile, legitimate heir to the royal Sanga throne

Kyelelo usurped, coopted local priests from among the Mahanzi
where he was driven to settle. These specialists eventually estab-
lished their place in the Kinga fraternity, though details of this story
are lost. On the other hand, the priest-cum-witchfinder, such as
Kyalawe, sent into Magoma or Mahanzi communities, represents the
extension of the priestly network in advance of the warlike. He will be
followed by a Sanga hegemony gradually imposed. Here the
‘evangelist’ witch-doctor would perhaps be recruiting a local ruler
into the secular network as untsagila to the doctor’s sponsoring
Sanga lord at home. Presumably, in the zig and zag of history lost,
the Sanga expansion was sometimes led by the secular, sometimes
by the hieratic network, the one always facilitating and legitimating
extension of the other’s influence. I prefer to see the reigning motive
on either side as ‘entrepreneurial’ than as ‘ambitious’. Priest and
prince each in his own way have undertaken an absorbing job of
creative management. Power is part of the job but inseparable from
it. I find this implicit in the language used. The group of courtiers
which we would tend to call a ‘power elite’ or ‘set of oligarchs’ is

similarly conceived in Kinga discourse, but without reference either
to embodied ‘powers’ such as witches and sacralized rulers are
thought to possess. We have instead avanyivaha, ‘big men’ or perhaps
more literally ‘men of greatness’—a plural term indicating a social
position not a particular social type. Within this crowd are found the
priest (unteketsi = celebrant) with his assistants and apprentices,
magistrate, chosen assistants to the ruler, and armed servants of
the court, some with particular competencies—in short, the whole
agency of the Sanga court.

A special mystique was attached to the unkuludeva or prince of

a Realm, as distinct from the untwa or local lord of a satellite
Domain. Sacred (socially dangerous) things were at once his own, and
especially dangerous to a reigning prince. He never entered the
sacred grove belonging to his throne until he was brought in a corpse,
there to rot in the air unburied and thus unthreatening to Lwembe.
He must especially fear the double eyed hoe, forged on his behalf as a
most-sacred offering, through which were confirmed the ties of the
four realms one to the other and all together to the tyrant-like
divinity Lwembe; yet he must be witness to the passage of this
‘gateway’ sentinel through his royal grove. The priests will thus allow
him to steal a glimpse under the black sheepskin which hides the
strange hoe and its secrets: the esoteric symbolism which (Suluali
Memutsi said) only the priests understood.

In none of the Malatan schemes was the secular ruler any sort
of wizard fit to exercise overweening mystical power over others or
demolish witches by personal zap. German accounts make it plain
that witchcraft was no more than an auxiliary weapon for the
Nyakyusa prince/chief. His persona was more deeply colored by his
boldness in war, his authority as magistrate, and the magnetism and
bounty of his court. He had to have the right stuff or his chiefdom
would not thrive or rise to the implacable competition of other
chiefs. Chiefs and princes throughout the Malatan region depended
on ritual specialists at any turn in the pursuit of religious ends, and
not least in combatting all those entropic manifestations of the
human condition locally blamed on witchcraft. The secular ruler’s
transcendent status was owing not to his mastery of the mystical
art but to power of another sort. The figure of a living Lwembe
provides a clue. He displays in his fits of anger and petulant refusal
of gifts the prototypical character of the Ancestor: peevish and
demanding, a creature whose power to harm derives not from his lore
or earned merit but solely from his pitiful ontological condition.

To be sure, an outraged ancestor demands above all respect,

and it must be convincingly rendered as a condition for placating the

imagined anger which lies at the root of human suffering and
ultimately accounts for it. But rendering respect, whether to a
prince by groveling or to an ancestor by prestation, though it be a
performance laden with meaning is hardly a transparent cosmo-
logical statement. When Kinga priests come to Lubaga to placate
the Lwembe they do not bargain or reason with him. The play is more
nearly comparable to that ‘reasoning’ which goes on between guards
and madmen, trainers and lions.

The prince’s power is a quality of his person, comparable in its

nature to that power which, attributed to a witch by the outcome of
a solemn ordeal, calls for his execution. The person of the prince
must then be conformed to the job of showing off the power he is
destined to need—the powers, in all particulars, of the office into
which his priests have been prepared to install him. I think the bush
culture’s witch was a mere dabbler in medicines. People would seek
from him cures and sometimes remedies against attack. In the
1950s the witches found by the Ngonde finder Chiganga (Kyiganga)
and his ilk were the same. I won’t say witchcraft had been simply
commercialized and so trivialized, I will say witchcraft had been
depoliticized. I argued early in this chapter that the politicized witch
of the Sanga court culture was a phantasy transfiguration of the
small-minded neighbour into a public enemy, a daimon.

It seems to me that the Sanga prince was in like measure a

transfigured man, dangerous in his person, and dangerous, not by
reason of the lore and pharmacological skills which gave priests their
standing, but by reason of his inhabiting a separate frame of being. A
prince is in this respect like a witch with the powers of flight and out-
of-body experience. But the prince is not simply, in the Nyakyusa
concept, a ‘defender’. The constructive powers he needs are greater
than and different to those of a ‘good witch’—one who might claim to
be on the side of community, health, and prosperity. The office of
prince, whether managed by éminences grises at Ukwama or fed by
ambition as among Nyakyusa and in still-unsettled Kinga realms,
could establish authority on a trans-local basis and within its sphere
that crucial sense among a people of sharing a common fate, which is
the ground of political community. It is a transcendent human figure
which is able to do that. All the right props and scenarios must be


Priests and their Princes

Histrionics of belief

The Berlin missionaries were quick to gain fluency in the local

language but not as quick to grasp the situational subtleties of
their encounters with new neighbours. As would always be the case,
some first observations were the keenest. While still unsure of
themselves they were looking for clues to the meaning of daily
events; but early judgements can also be naive, and the scholar
today has to practice doubt concerning the missionary societies’
domestic discourse as it developed over two decades. The problem
with the Wilsons’ ethnography is quite different. We haven’t scraps
but a detailed and coherent portrait of a culture, among the best
descriptive ethnographies the twentieth century has left us. The
difficulty posed is the inescapable one of struggling for the feel of a
culture from a distance. In both cases I think the major correction
needed is an examination of the observer’s premises with respect to
Nyakyusa religion. After dealing with that I’ll discuss some others.
But on the matter of religion what is missing is fundamental. It is
recognition of the profound difference between animism and the
aptly named ‘high’ (or ‘sky’) religions.

The Germans actually supposed they could find the right

Nyakyusa word for “God.” Monica Wilson allowed her description of a
“Divine King” (1959b) to suggest a measure of majesty, of theatrical
power, and of political importance which could only deceive an unpre-
pared reader. Worse, her ‘divine king’ appears to be a centralizing and
unifying divinity, the apex of a priestly establishment. Lwembe as
myth may indeed be just that for the Kinga; but the living Lwembe
maintained at Lubaga by the local Nyakyusa priests represents a
different kind of cultural theatre. If Kinga priests use Lubaga to
focus a sort of state religion, Nyakyusa do not have one. The
protostate process tends to modify an animist worldview, but does
it piecemeal. Animism is generally eclectic and non-didactic, easily
absorbing new cults and enlarging religious discourse so as to
naturalize the new. What always remains is the daimonic premise:
that the supernatural world is no more centred in a singular power

than the natural one. Nyakyusa priests comprise no sort of college.
This is what most clearly distinguishes them from Kinga priests: it is
not that the Kinga priest is less of an auto-didact but that he
recognizes collegiality; and it is not that the Kinga is not
quarrelsome but that he expects, like a good academic, to reach an
eventual meeting of minds. In religion as in politics the Kinga world
had taken a further step toward central direction.

Its political aspect is not the essence of any religion—grant

that. But it may be the one easiest to get at from the outside. The
great puzzle Malatan studies can help to solve is the prevalence not
of witches but of priests. Bena society can serve as the standard
for comparisons within the Sowetan area. Hehe were transformed
before the pax into a militant ‘nation’—the pre-Arab, pre-Ngoni
condition of the peoples brought together under the tyrants
Munyigumba and Mkwawa is hard to know. Bena were involved in the
enormously expanded Hehe political field but less deeply, and were
not so radically transformed. They reverted by various paths to
localist separatism. In brief, the Bena pattern was a multiplicity of
independent chiefly communities, each in external relations on an
equal and independent basis with similarly constituted Bena groups.
So far as we can know, the pre-pax situation reflects their earlier
political pattern, though there was much mixing of households. There
was in the result no sort of hegemony as among chiefs, no secular
central direction and no hint of ritual suzerainty. Taking the
pyramidal model in reference, Bena lived in coequal pyramidal polities
each of which had taken on the character of a pedestrian chiefly
community of moderate to maximal size—altogether a congeries of
small pyramids constituting a single, spreading linguistic and
cultural ‘people’. Each chief could look outward from his kiya or
longhouse toward peripheral client settlements constituting a
buffer between Bena and other peoples, or between Bena chiefdoms.
Considered as a phase in political evolution, it is one the Nyakyusa as
well as the Kinga had superseded.

The main Bena study is the Culwick monograph on the

displaced riverine Bena resettled after the Ngoni-Hehe wars in a new
sort of natural setting. These Bena comprised about one tenth of
the full ‘Bena’ populations of early censuses, in chiefdoms spread
over an extensive highland landmass and comparable in scale. We
have to depend on the ethnographers to judge how far the dislo-
cation of the riverine group affected politics. I give here in skeletal
form the sense of the Culwick monograph. While there is much, much
more on record, all to be sifted and discussed before one could recon-
struct a probabilistic model of Bena society before the wars, this
much is confirmed in a rough way by other sources. The chief (Mtemi)

was himself the ‘high priest’ but was paired with a ritual specialist
(Mzagira wa Tambiko) without whom major public sacrificial
ceremonies could not be reproduced. The system is thus ‘monistic’
with respect to the secular/sacred dimension. Chiefly ancestors
were the recipients of public ceremonial address, and these
ceremonies were strictly parallel (only writ large) to the private
propitiation rites which accounted for the popular/traditional
religion of ancestor propitiation. Each chief relied on lesser local
(client) rulers in marginal ‘provinces’. The tendency of the system
was to grow localist roots but without generating frozen hostilities
between the autonomous polities.

Comparing Bena to Hehe we see a congeries of marginally

mixing and intermarrying polities on the one hand, and a fully
developed system of grand-scale central direction on the other.
Comparing Bena to Kinga, the Bena Mtemi matches in status the
Kinga Untwa as the ruler of a robust pedestrian domain; the Kinga
Unkuludeva, ruling as primus inter pares a realm branching over
several domains beside his own, each with autonomous sovereignty,
has no Bena counterpart. But setting Bena beside Nyakyusa the
result is a confusion of the both/and sort. The main point for my
purpose here is that the successful Nyakyusa ‘chief’ is, like the
Mtemi in Ubena of the Rivers, at once more than secular and less than
a priest. But the obverse of that is interesting: why in the Nyakyusa
case does this seem to require a prevalence of priests, when for
Bena one is almost enough for a population of 15,000? Before this
little mystery is solved we should have a better grasp of the way
translocal thinking can emerge from chiefly rivalry in a setting like
the Bena. We are after clues to the genesis of our Malatan
protostates within the Sowetan political archipelago. It is the
Nyakyusa model not the Hehe which best displays an unforced
process of political evolution.

Is there an inherent sequential ordering among these Sowetan

polities? I don’t think the question, put bare-faced, has a clear
answer. Tentatively, I suggest looking at the possibility that a phase
of ‘arena politics’ has to intervene between the ‘Bena’ model and the
protostate. That means turning to the questions which led Monica
and Godfrey Wilson to choose the ‘Konde’ linguistic and cultural
community for study. Their special interest was in the analysis of
social change. The Nyakyusa, they showed, were in a process of
expansion and so moving toward a new constitutional system. Since
their position has been clearly rejected by at least one subsequent
study, I am undertaking here to rethink their case. That means
getting more deeply into the literature focused on Selya.

The picture I’ll be painting of precolonial conditions in Selya will
emphasize a politics of uncertainty and managed turbulence in which
secular political authority is vested not in the office but the person
of a ‘chief’ or ‘prince’. It is a picture of arena politics characterized by
a good measure of theatricality and entrepreneurial ambition. Seen
through Kinga eyes, the absence of a firmly established territorial
map only invited political mischief. The ‘priest’ in this picture is a
more stable but no less uncertain figure than the ‘chief’. But if my
picture of Nyakyusa doesn’t duplicate or epitomize Monica Wilson’s,
the evidence for the priestly role lies in her case records. Her
portrayal of the role, so largely based on close relations with one
such (Kasitile of Selya), is the product of direct observation, still
feasible in some cases in the thirties.

Her chief, on the other hand, is based on men more radically

affected by colonialism. Government under the Germans made no
pretense at non-interference, and British Indirect Rule made a point
of legitimating only the secular claims of a ruler, while keeping a
hands-off position in what they considered to be non-governmental
cultural matters. In the sixties at Kinga courts my own recon-
structive task, harder for both élites, was particularly difficult for
priests. But there were so many commonalities with Nyakyusa royal
courts that one culture could be illuminated by close study of the
other. When you have seen one amphora whole you are better
qualified to put shards together toward the reconstruction of
another. The ‘whole’ in this case is the court as an institution formed
by the fusion of secular and ritually founded power.

Animists do have names for their divinities, but as you move

through a country you will find they have far more local divinities than
names for them, and no name at all for an almighty God. The Lwembe
of Selya whom Monica Wilson describes as a ‘divine king’ is the
incumbent of a sacralized office solemnized by dramatic, esoteric
rites. The (living) Lwembe is no true king though, and the (spiritual)
Lwembe who seems to possess him is a stranger to apotheosis. The
more we know about this Lwembe, the harder it is to like labeling him,
as the standing literature does, a ‘Hero’ figure. He is a shrine divinity
to whom the Kinga respond strictly as to a territorial cult, but
whose local role in Selya is harder to characterize. His counterpart
among the Ngonde people, the Kyungu, did become a proper medieval
king in the nineteenth century but appears to have lost a good deal
of his ‘divine’ mystique in the process. The circumstance that the
Kyungu’s office was hereditary, as the living Lwembe’s was not, is
enough to set the two apart. That one enterprising Kyungu was able
to convert his ritual importance into centralized secular authority
gives us a better case for deeming the resulting institution a ‘divine

kingship’. At the same time, the quasi-kingly aspect of the Lwembe,
as recipient of abundant tribute yearly from a full roster of Sanga
and Mahanzi courts, gave him a plainly secular stamp.

What is particularly telling in the Malatan region is the family

resemblance of many such ‘semi-sacred’ offices within the broader
Nyakyusa-speaking culture area. It is especially important to have in
mind that any quite prominent ‘chief’ or ‘prince’ among the Nyakyusa
could expect the same impressive mortuary treatment as the
‘divine’ Lwembe. This was aimed at preserving a dying secular leader’s
charismatic identity, so as to be able to pass it on (within the frame
of ritual theatre) to a successor. But it was the priest not the heir
who owned this transaction, from the taking of ‘immortal’ body
parts from the old prince to the eventual anointing of the new. What
we have here is an ‘hereditary’ office in name, but one to which a
plurality of claimants might aspire. Birth position alone is not
enough. The chrism of office has to be ritually applied by the priestly
establishment which guards it. A perspicuous social consequence
was the chosen successor’s moral and ritual dependence on a non-
chiefly interest group privileged to bestow or withhold the one gift
essential to confirm chiefly success—a supra generational identity.
It was a gift they could withhold for cause. Considering the moral
weight this bestowed on local priests, and their impervious
condition, I judge it as a gift the chosen one could only accept as a
revocable contract.

Compare the Kinga. The secular ruler of each domain achieves

his semi-sacred air on the inauguration of his rule, which can only be
staged by the priestly group of the domain—in many or most cases,
I believe, with active support or intervention from their peers in other
domains of the realm. The priestly privilege of winnowing out
potential successors who may be unpopular or incompetent is the
same, but the circumstance is not. In the Kinga case the Mkinga
passes his exams early in his manhood as a monitored candidate,
overseen by his priestly jury. If another son of the incumbent is to be
preferred he will have been chosen well enough in advance for proper
stage-management. In the Nyakyusa case it is evident the
successor to a major title has to fight his way to it against his
brother-candidates. The histrionics contrast.

In political theatre, claims to ritual power are no better than, in

troubled times, a sometimes fickle public will allow. This is a danger
the priest as such is sheltered from but not the prince, however
grand the role he may cast for himself or what mystical powers he
may claim. When there is trouble in circles of power the buck doesn’t
stop with a priest as long as his every move has been properly

staged to seem none of his own. The very essence of priesthood,
which is shared with the peripatetic ‘doctor’ but never with a prince,
is this disavowal of egotism.

This Konde religion of blame relies as the Kinga does on

implanting through public ritual inward sanctions to forestall
transgressions of a consensual code of civility. For a number of
reasons, any such religion will be most at home in an egalitarian
community. For reasons special to societies which find serious
meaning only in transgressions by males against males, the political
uses of blame may include domination. But witch belief, like the
cowboy’s sixgun, is a great leveller. The aftermath of confrontation is
dislocation not structural change. Like the duel which European
custom treated as an ordeal exempted from exogenous sanction,
witch accusations return surviving entrants to a status quo ante.
Ironically, witches, who are in the popular lore everywhere taken to be
members of a dark conspiracy, are not seen undertaking class
actions. They are not conspirators but, in the local idiom, owls—lone

As an instrument of sanctioning close interpersonal behaviour,

the witch belief fails where structural complications put whole
classes of persons mutually out of range for mystical blaming.
Blame is, as guilt is not, radically inter-personal, strongest in
relationships which can generate deep resentment, envy, or fear of
slight. If blame can’t embrace both sides of an impersonal barrier to
shared intimacy, blame in complex societies will not gain the moral
depth it has where inequalities aren’t socially buffered. How then
does one set one’s self up as a mighty ruler in a cosmos where
witches prevail?

In his classic Yucatan study Robert Redfield (1941) found

witchcraft in Merida thriving in the slums as nowhere else, virtually
absent in the classes above. If your slave has to be feared as a witch,
you aren’t boundlessly privileged as master, since your own daylight
sanctioning power diminishes if you create deep resentment within
an enduring relationship. If women are exempt from accusation, then
the witch belief will hardly take hold in them. If they can be accused
but find their own accusations scoffed at or belittled, their position
is embattled, with the implication of resentment. But if women are
at par with men, both genders have the same concealed weapons for
averting hostile acts and tempering domination.

The best evidence we have for witch-prevalence among the

Malatan peoples is the compilation of cases which Monica Wilson
made for Selya in the 1930s. There are 38 records. Where gender is

given, only one case involved the targeting of women, while six women
were accused of witchcraft. One of these was accused by a husband
of ‘bewitching the loins’ of her co-wives and divorced. No woman is
mentioned as an accuser. In one case an accused wife was forced to
undergo the poison ordeal. By successfully vomiting the poison she
exonerated herself from the charge of bewitching her husband’s
cattle; he then paid compensation to her male guardians. ‡

As for Kinga, in the decades before national independence it

had become the custom to send the accused with his accuser to
judgement abroad, so as to settle cases within the letter of British
statutes banning witchcraft from local courts. The one special case I
witnessed was brought to court by a sadly muddled wife who wanted
to accuse her husband. The court wanted no more information but
politely explained its incompetence in such cases. A few men seemed
amused. There were, as usual, no women auditing, and I know of no
sequel in that case. To my knowledge, only men were expected to
take the difficult journey by foot and boat to the professional witch-
finder new custom advised. I saw many men who had received his
absolution but never saw or heard of a woman bearing the telltale
facial incisions of his knife. As with the Nyakyusa, Kinga women are
strangers to the court as venue for civil cases, unless they are
brought in as accused. Anecdotal testimony says this was so
before, when courts heard witchcraft accusations, but circum-
stances then were different: I think it unlikely that ordinary women
would have had the chutzpa to face a major court with a personal
problem. Where political evolution is the concern, witchcraft likes to
move with development from the domestic level of relations to the
external sphere of politics, law, and ritual. It becomes ‘political’.

However that may have been, and whatever the subtler differ-
ences between Sanga courts and those of the Selya princes, the
broad Malatan scene was characterized by a division of spheres on
gender lines which will be familiar to readers of ethnographic
monographs from many parts of the world. It is men who are
expected to claim the loss when a child sickens or dies; men who
suffer when their women die or misbehave; men who sacrifice to their
ancestors on either side; and men, on the whole, who dare bring
charges to the authority. All this means that a woman seldom or
never enters the lists to confront a man in the name of justice
among equals. And this in turn at least whispers that a man is more
than likely to have met a woman’s resentment and want, should
trouble arise, to displace or reflect any blame. In the 1950s Monica
Wilson found Selya women’s resentment very near the surface. In For
Men and Elders she paints Selya as a repressive society in which
young men and married women are the spiritual victims of a world

made safe for children and their aging fathers. Separate was much
more nearly equal for Kinga women then and, most probably, in tradi-
tional times.

So it is prudent to conceive of the Malatan witch belief as a

creature of male discourse, fed by the presocial logic of masculine
egos in a world where demand for women and wealth is forever fated
to overwhelm supply. While animism in itself may not disallow norma-
tively sanctioned status differences, as a religion of blame it offers
a matchless matrix for witch beliefs. The way this keeps a society
(or its male component) roughly ‘egalitarian’ is logistical: misfortune
is no respecter of persons. When it strikes one of his women or
children, a systematically capricious system of divination is in place
to tell a man who to blame. But whether divination reveals that the
spiritual agent of distress is a Burmese nat (Spiro 1967), a Bantu
ancestor, or a living person with powers or medicines of witchcraft,
the universe of suspicion is small. Blame has to fall within a closed
circle of personal connections, and even in the case of witchcraft
there is blame enough to fall back on the person of the victim. Who is
not diminished, even as the butt of justified envy, by the mere odor
of vulnerability? As for scapegoats, if the term is taken in its original
meaning, to find a real case I expect you would have to look under a
more doctrinaire religious umbrella than animism.

But then, in face of this leveling tendency in the mystical arena

of witchcraft, how does the authority wanted in any translocal
political system grow and thrive? The simple answer has to be
cooptation; and that, in a nutshell, is the business of the priests.
With their help, the witch belief can be made to succor secular

Setting aside the fantasies of fireside lore, a ‘real’ or ‘realistic’

Kinga witch acts on personal motives, just as ancestors do. This is
the witch you will grieve against. Be they nats or ancestors, the
spirits who are plaguing you have each a quite particular
congregation, and it is the same for a witch. The circle comprises
your world of intimacy, people who depend with you on primary
mutual rights. When these rights aren’t confirmed in action, the
circle can break. Anxieties increase. So a religion of blame makes it
acceptable, when things go wrong, to fault someone who seems to
have proved undependable. The message is, Take care! Atangile in our
reading of Tunginiye’s sorry tale was testing his friend, who seemed
to be getting conceited: Take care or you’ll lose your friends! In the
event, he got the same message back more clearly than he could if
Tunginiye had actually uttered it. Most often there is no such drama
as, by medical misfortune, happened in that case. A man gets to

uttering veiled threats. The witch word comes back to him in gossip.
He begins to take more care. This may be a feature of peer relations
everywhere but it is sharp and double edged where witchcraft is
socially real.

Take care or you’ll lose your friends! That is the advice Kinga
priests liked to tell me they had for an uppity prince or the lord of a
domain. Sanga rulers had the inherent powers which go with majesty
but weren’t armed with the ‘pythons in their bellies’ which Nyakyusa
chiefs could boast. The reason is to be found in the difference
between the two worldviews: since the Sanga ruler had to fear not
night-witches but the medicines of witchcraft, his safety was in the
hands of his priests and the other court trustees. Nyakyusa put
their faith in the mystically armed ‘Defenders’ of their village. This
calling was the distinctive property of those men Godfrey Wilson
called ‘Great Commoners’—not just the ‘village headmen’ but the
handful of peers comprising their trusted entourage. The
counterpart in a Sanga court was the group of avanyivaha. Among
them were the specialists I have called ‘priests’ but also the secular
men of power associated with the court of law, peacekeeping, and
tax collection. The bond of personal loyalty was the key to a ruler’s
security in Selya. In Sanga courts the nexus was structural.

The Lwembe complex, seen from the Sanga courts, is a replay

of the private case of ancestor blaming on a near-cosmic scale. When
the community is under threat, Blame Lwembe! For the Kinga case,
this is made workable by setting one chief out of the ordinary. It is a
difficult balance, in good part because the scope of authenticity for
the ritual theatre by which this can be done is strained with each
increment of political-territorial growth. Bena chiefs fought this by
bringing young ‘semi-royals’ in for schooling at the capital court.
Sanga courts circulated the best of the rustic young males of a
domain into the capital for the barracks life and its more sophisti-
cated pleasures. Nyakyusa relied on the age village.

Given the witch belief, in the presence of purposive politics the

range of a veiled threat or muttered sanction can be extended
beyond the polygynous compound and network of peers to
important relations in the public sphere. So Kinga ‘priests’ or
‘doctors’ traveled with the ruler’s other political lieutenants
(avanyivaha) to collect taxes, and arms were seldom needed. So
priests talked to the unkuludeva in his harem-sanctuary about
mutterings among the men, and wheels were put in motion to stage
a feast, or a rehearsal for war, a crowd-pleaser. Animism can lend
itself to politics in this way because a religion of blame sets up a

grievance procedure based on the presumption that deep trouble
always comes from beings on the other side of a mystical divide.

Animism has flourished wherever there are those ‘little tradi-

tions’ Redfield liked us to notice persisting under the broader
umbrella of a ‘Great Tradition’. Records of witch burnings during early
modern times in Europe and the Americas have in this century
variously been interpreted as indicators of a pathological turn within
the Christian clergies and as clues to the persistence of
‘paganism’—a (distorted) animistic peasant religion thriving under
the disciplined formalism of a Great Tradition given to abstract
moral teaching. However those cases are read, unless real devils
were at work it is plain we have to deal with an under-religion of
blame, and a crisis of incompatibility between folk needs and clerical
beliefs which was destructive of both. Animism will never be hard to
re-invent. The Great Religions of the world tend to be grown into the
secular cultures where they have taken form over centuries, but
secular change can spoil the fit. Religious thought is likely to be
ninety percent unformulated, living as well in confusion and doubt as
in personal knowledge, and would fairly cease to exist if things were
the other way around. A crisis in the hearthside culture may call for
a grasp of traditional principles which aren’t easily agreed on. It
shouldn’t surprise that animism, with its flexibility and trans-
parency of principle, takes over turf in such times wherever a more
rigid religious establishment has left it unguarded. Where trouble
must have a moral cause, the shift from blaming one’s self, whether
for sin or impiety, to blaming a selfish friend or god is not always
difficult to make. ‡

Credos and credibility

There are two points I find the three Malatan cases can help to
clarify. The first point bears on the roots of credibility in ethno-
graphic modeling. The Malatan is a region of state-building in a
formative phase we seldom get to see so nearly in vivo. Archaeology
knows these transitions have to happen in the formative stages of
any civilization, but the sociology of such a transformation is hard to
reconstruct from stones and bones. As we’ll see, wonderful as it is
to have on record a few pertinent observations by early missionaries
on the lifestyle they had found in a pagan ‘paradise’, there were few
sociologists among them. More than that, however apt the
missionary’s training might have been for the time, we now have the
last-best century of professional ethnographic study behind us and
still it is a struggle to understand how the Nyakyusa-Ngonde social
systems must have worked. I’ll reconsider some excellent efforts in

that direction published by anthropologists and historians in the
post-pax decades. My own revisionist view will have to be judged on
its merits. But for each ethnographic region most of the social
facts not forever lost are already on record somewhere. We can’t
count on much fresh evidence. The business of Malatan studies then
becomes a forensic exercise, pitting one probability against another,
and theoretical models are essential. The point is to keep asking how
the model has to change to account for the viability of a particular
world we are trying to know. It wants touring a maze of evidence
always doubting but never quite denying.

What all sides agree is that with the colonial deep-freeze gone
the old political order in Malatan life is broadly misremembered. The
fragmentary memoirs which we have need careful screening. If some
few happen to be vivid, and early missionary notes occasionally are,
common pyrite can have the luster of gold when it is gold you are
after. Monica Wilson’s last fieldwork in the region was done in the
1950s, and her interest then was largely in systematizing her infor-
mation on chiefly genealogies, a task some of her informants took up
with enthusiasm. Her final monograph on the Nyakyusa offers a
profound reflection on the structure of experience—the moral
career of the individual—in the society she studied in the 1930s. But
that task doesn’t engage her in reconstructing the political
sociology of the turbulent ‘paradise’ her kinglists so clearly fail to
evoke. Should we blame the pretensions of positivism for this? The
rules of method seemed to the midcentury social anthropologist to
say, Trust only your data not your private sense of the probable. But
when the data themselves contain only your informants’ own private
sense of the probable, what then? How much detached under-
standing do most of us have of our own social lives? If the normal
dose of such understanding were truly comprehensive, the ethnog-
rapher’s job would be simple—round up a few articulate informants
and take dictation. The biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world could be
easy to compose if all the pieces were numbered.

R. G. Collingwood’s Idea of History is the methodological bible for

reconstructive ethnography. The following passage will be found
under the heading, ‘History as re-enactment of past experience’:

The historian does not know the past by simply believing a

witness who saw the events in question and has left his evidence on
record...[Rather,] what he does to his so-called authorities is not to
believe them but to criticize them. [1946: 282]

When documentary evidence is fragmentary its credibility may

hardly rise above that of mute stones and bones. A professional

monograph, whatever the conditions of its production, reveals the
degree to which there was a meeting of minds in the fieldwork. But if
it isn’t often you would choose to criticize your oral informant face
to face, it is seldom you should be content not to pursue the
contextual questions any statement must raise. As it is with
thrown bones, any batch of social facts from which you hope to
reconstruct a past may be moved about on the board of the mind
and reconstrued. What is special about reconstructive ethnography,
when virtually all the facts you’ll have are in, is that no single account
of their meaning can be empirically tested against another.
Goodness of fit, like elegance, is a matter of judgement. With the
vantage point of a student of the regional culture, my recon-
struction of traditional Nyakyusa politics begins with the social
situation of the chief or ruling prince in his court, which I see in
contrast to the more established Sanga realms as well as to the
more nearly sacerdotal Kyungu court in traditional uNgonde.

The second point on which the Malatan evidence has a special

bearing has to do with the nature and history of religion. It is a
truism that one age in any civilization will be more religious than
another, just as in a single generation one man may verge on fanatical
compunction while a little brother steals from the poorbox. I don’t
plan to estimate the intensity of religious feeling among the three
Malatan peoples, but I think the distinctive qualities they display
have much to tell us. My focus will keep coming back to matters of
civility, because I think the enduring virtue of a religion of blame is
sanctioning awareness of one’s own vulnerability. Nine tenths of
civility is guardedness. Consider the formal emphasis on amity (as
against the more common reliance on kinship) which the Malatan
cultures developed. The formality of Nyakyusa manners stands out
against a turbulent if not chaotic political scene and contrasts in
this with the Kinga case. To say why this should be, you have to take
in virtually all the differences between the Sanga courts and the
scene the first German missionaries had found in Selya, which
prompted them to write home about a tropical “Paradise”. The same
language had been used by some earlier European visitors. The great
puzzle will be to comprehend a seeming paradise which could be as
restive as Selya evidently was at the time.

In the public sphere, nothing can equal the feast as an

instrument of atonement. But in a context of intimacy and recip-
rocal sanctioning, it is blaming which most predictably leads to
disruption of the peace. Quarrels arise among intimates and run
their course, and amity is usually restored when verbal pummeling
has worked off the worst of the mixed frustrations which started
the ruckus. Histrionic displays of moral indignation, having found

their proper audience, can subside. Kinga communities tend to be
stable. Even when very small they are not self-isolating. The ethic of
amity promotes here—as not in Selya—a wide-branching network
structure without the all-pervading mosaic of in-group identities
the kinship ethic always (but the amity ethic less certainly) favours.
When quarrels erupt in a Kinga hamlet there is—again, not as in
Selya—no joining in. Kinga bystanders to a quarrel tend rather to
hold their ground and intervene only to cool parties down when dire
deeds threaten. If fear plays a role, it is common-sense fear. The kind
of fear the witch belief can introduce is of another sort. Instead of
raising hackles it wants to subdue egoism, anger, and indignation. It
is the kind of fear a priest or prince can use. It works on multitudes.
The actual prevalence of witches is imponderable no matter who you
ask, but the importance of belief in their magical powers can be seen
to rise with protostate politics. This is quite certainly the business
of priests not princes, however obviously both of them stand to
profit. The Malatan region, where the European pax found three
linked protostates differently placed in circumstance and stage of
development, offers special evidence.

Witchcraft, statecraft

The best place to begin a general assessment is in Selya. This is

the Nyakyusa region Kinga priests regularly visited when fears about
hunger and health had turned to organized anxiety at home in their
four realms; and this region was the practical focus of the better
part of the ethnographic work done on the Nyakyusa-speaking
peoples. There are also some special procedural reasons for
beginning with the Nyakyusa around Selya. The earliest close and
reliable notes on Malatan regional culture were left by German
missionaries who actually preceded the pax by a bit; and there is
confusion over the reading of these reports, particularly concerning
Nyakyusa religious belief and praxis, which ought to be cleared away.
There are anecdotal clues to the puzzle how the signal social and
political mechanisms reported in the later ethnography could have
worked in practice. And there is some robust material on the politics
of fear. But what is probably more important is assigning an order of
credibility to the fragmentary evidence the earliest German
missionaries left. The methodological issue is clear enough. Classical
scholars from time to time turn up some bit of new or overlooked
information which doesn’t fit the standing Wisdom. Occasionally
this sort of thing may start an academic swing toward a new
‘paradigm’ or ‘disclosure model’ of the classical world. But eventually
the dialectical movement turns again toward synthesis. Previous

views, also based on evidence, have to be reconciled. It is the same
with reconstructive ethnography: until we have an integral grasp of a
case we can’t even tentatively close it.

In a linguist’s view, Nyakyusaland is remarkable for resisting

influence from its neighbours, and the suggestion is that the
language, having been in place for the best of two millennia, would
hardly have succeeded so well without the help of a long continued
and forceful incorporative politics. At a minimum we can conclude
that the Nyakyusa political system has a long past, and a shining
record of defending its communities against incorporation by
others. ‡‡

The sociological reasons for this success are really not hard to
find in the record, once a few ethnographic muddles have been got by.
The problem is to reconstruct the institutions prevalent in Selya
before the 1890s and ask what sort of social and cultural activity
they would have generated in the region. By good fortune, some good
armchair anthropology was done in the 1960s which made a fair
start on the task of reconstructing the relevant past by sorting
out documentary sources. The writers’ focus was on the changes
which must have occurred in Nyakyusa institutions and worldview
prior to the Wilsons’ thorough field study in the mid-thirties. The
main work to consider is S. R. Charsley’s The Princes of Nyakyusa
(1969). A critical reappraisal of some aspects of that work will be
wanted when I come to evaluating the special character of Nyakyusa
(and the related character of Kinga) religion. But on political organi-
zation the writer puts the right foot forward.

Charsley makes two useful points about the way Nyakyusa

political society worked, and offers two interesting speculations
about Nyakyusa ideas and motives, on which some further reflection
is surely warranted. About the society, he argues that a closer look
at political succession shows Nyakyusa had no ‘chiefdoms’ in the
usual anthropological sense of that term. To make the point, he
avoids the term ‘chief’ in reference to their leaders, favouring ‘prince’
instead, as I had earlier done (1966) for somewhat the same
reasons in dealing with Kinga rulers. While the two societies differ
politically in two quite important ways, they show striking ‘family
resemblances’ bespeaking shared origins. The special attributes
Kinga have but Nyakyusa lack are these: a single ‘high prince’ claiming
precedence and tribute in a pyramidal protostate, not a shifting
political mosaic; and firmly fixed territorial spheres linking
citizenship to residence. Among Nyakyusa, even the most
successful ruler enjoys no sovereignty over a ‘country’. Entrenched
boundaries like those of a Sanga domain don’t exist. Even villages,

considered as fixed locations, hardly can be said to exist, as the
‘village’ consists not of its buildings or fields but its people. These
‘villages’, no less so if they are princely courts, are prone to translo-
cation. When a chief loses a group of his villagers he loses a tie to the
land they occupy. Solidarity is through peer-bonding while leadership
is through personal influence (and in that limited sense, propinquity)
but ‘territorial’ identity is weak. ‡

The reason for this level of voluntarism is apparent when we

consider Charsley’s second point, touching on the systematic turbu-
lence built into the Nyakyusa political system. The ‘Coming Out’
ceremony, so well described by Monica Wilson, had been offered as a
‘rite of succession’. What Charsley makes clear is that there was no
true succession to office or handing over of a princely title. Instead
it was a fresh torch or banner passed from a still dominant older age
set to a younger one. The system accords better with ‘age set’
examples than with ‘succession to power’. There was a regular period
of about thirty years between one ceremony and the next in any
given chiefdom. What we had from the Wilsons was a ‘how it is done’
scenario—better yet, ‘how it is designed to be done’. For some insti-
tutions this may pass, but for this one we were left with puzzles
about the empirical results. Reconstruction has to envision the
crucial practical implications of any formal arrangements recorded.
The impression of abdication by ‘an aging chief’ began to look less
credible with each new look. The impression of diaspora proved
chimerical, as the main thrust was expansion. A whole set of untried
leaders had been thrown together in a restarted political arena laid
out in make-believe space. Where were the new women and cattle to
come from if not by infringing on old rights?

To establish himself in this arena on a par with a celebrated

father or some other great chief, a young prince would have to
attract and hold a lively following of commoners of his own gener-
ation. Cattle raiding was one path to wealth and following, and must
be carried out by small groups of peers from a single village. But the
calling of the chief was to muster for war. This meant gaining
command of (and through) the young leaders of such peer raiding.
But the conditions set by the Coming Out (ubusooka) meant that
wealth, following, and readiness must be built from below. Our infor-
mation on the war pattern is not systematic but suggests that
actual battles were fought not for territory or inflicting damage but
for glory. The game presupposed rival forces would be evenly
matched. Raiding would have to be done on a village level, presumably
at distance and by night. What sort of tournaments would have
matched one young chief against another. or a younger force against
an older as between chiefdoms, we can only guess. It does seem that

a young chief’s claim to greatness would have to be established by
mustering a force fit to match and impress an already established
neighbour. Comparing this situation to the Kinga and most others
we know, the Nyakyusa chiefdom only comes about through radical
change in the local political map.

The turbulence set in motion by the princes’ Coming Out must

at some point reach the relatively steady state of a re-unified
chiefdom. The next step, it seems, would be the final one in the
priestly charade which Monica Wilson describes in her Frazer Lecture
(1959b) on ‘divine kings’ among the Nyakyusa. The new claimant to
charismatic powers would be formally anointed with a chrism made
of the mortuary relics of a prior great one—relics in the possession
of local priests well disposed to the new man. This reconstruction is
the most economical I can offer, taking into account what is known. I
think one quite general premise is sound and to the point. All the
evidence Charsley draws on, and a great deal more he might have
drawn from the same missionary literature, supports a ludic frame
for understanding chiefly rivalries from Selya to the lakeshore. Little
armies come and go on translocal military fishing expeditions. The
most perilous game, a collective challenge to the German guns in
1897, lures a great coalition into an instant massacre. Is the
Nyakyusa spirit broken? Neither broken nor properly humbled. The
German leaders were told jokingly on the morrow that the
commander’s white horse had been the prize most wanted. ‡‡

Consider in respect to the motivational context of the Coming

Out that this was an amity-based, male age-peer social organi-
zation, and one deeply colored by the same antipolitan ethos we
found in the Sanga courts. At the Coming Out no scepter and throne
were on offer. There is no mention in the relevant texts even of a
formal transfer of wealth on that day, excepting the provision of a
very young ‘chief wife’ for each candidate. What was on offer, in the
form of a distant prize to the winner and his following, was
something of a spiritual nature. When the scramble was over, if
things went well, the appropriate group of priests would be prepared
to announce the consensual choice of a battle-proven winner, in
whom the mystical renaissance of an all-new chiefdom was to be

The credibility of any such reading depends on the way it illumi-

nates detail. One of the problems we are left with is accounting for
the rival princes’ recruitment opportunities. As background to that
we have to consider the social situation on the morrow of the
Coming Out. There are first the youngest boys, living with their
mothers in one chiefly and perhaps a dozen commoner villages still

ruled by a polygynous older generation. Then there are the adoles-
cents and young men liberated by the Coming Out decrees. Most of
these potential recruits would be bachelors still. Their prime
concerns now would be getting their own food. Their staple grains
and bananas should come from their own gardens, and for this they
would need to start accumulating cattle and wives. That is to say,
each new village, chiefly or commoner, would have to build its
fortunes on an accumulating mix of inherited and self-made wealth in
cattle and women. A Nyakyusa man of a new generation only stands
to inherit when the last of his patrilateral uncles dies. Any of the
young princes would need time running into decades, better than
average luck, and (it is hard to doubt) patronage from powerful
neighbours to succeed in drawing enough men of the new generation
together to muster a force of chiefly proportion. Along the way he
would of course have to win the charismatic reputation which is the
reward of growing a spiritual python in your belly.

The basis for this interpretation of the Coming Out lies in the
size ratio between the ‘chiefs’ who were strong enough in 1890 to
claim recognition by the colonial government and the scores of
invisible ‘chiefs’ still claiming that status in the mid-1930s. In the
Coming Out, considered as a charade, the specific ‘loyalty’ of each
man in the new generation is assigned, giving each aspirant to high
office a fair number of his own, and a fair handful of ‘commoner village
heads’ each with his own putative following. It is an arrangement for
Cloud Cuckoo land. In the real world a full-blown chief could put some
6000 men in the field. The explanation has to be a scramble not so
much for individual recruits but for whole commoner villages. The
time frame is set, in the first place, by external relations, since
desirable cattle and women are on the move and ill-protected. Men
who are engaged in converting a property-less bachelor existence
into a semblance of wealth and security will want to make quick
decisions about future alignments, and it is just here the impor-
tance of the celebrated ethic of ‘good company’ can be appreciated.
In effect, what this means is that a fumbling chiefly candidate may
have his own small ‘village’ crowd with him, while by the same token
each commoner headman will either lose his crowd or be carried with
them into new alignments in a rapidly shifting field. Arena politics
selects for opportunistic values.

No proper ethnographic observations of the Nyakyusa social

and political system had been put on record before the Wilsons
began their visits (1934-1938), and no actual Coming Out was
monitored by them. The documentary fragments from early British
and German observers, with which all students of the region must be
familiar, are helpful but hardly compare (for example) with the fine

and coherent work of Colonel Nigmann on the Hehe. To reconstruct
from the 1930s ethnography I think the first requirement is freeing
yourself from what is sometimes disparagingly called ‘the social
anthropological method’, that is, picturing for your readers just the
society your informants pictured for you.

Discovering how your friend perceives his world is a necessary

step toward understanding him, but not a sufficient one. Charsley
does a great service here: having digested Wilson’s work and noted
the puzzles framed within it, he turns to some documents which
bring us back to precolonial conditions, wanting to picture the
society as the early German missionaries might have pictured it for
us. Now the page is turned and we have to comprehend the world as
these Christian evangelists from a particular European country and
sect were prone to see it. But still there are further steps to be
taken. If we can’t claim the object of ethnography is the discovery of
simple truths, it is nonetheless disingenuous to pretend there can
be no ‘objective object’ at all. What could a very wise observer, an owl
on the rooftops in 1890, have learned about the way things worked?
It is a question reconstructive ethnography can neither properly
answer nor ignore.

One of the methodological problems with this is obvious: we

have only indirect evidence concerning the perceptiveness and disin-
terest of individual missionaries. We have to judge their judge-
ments—and so find ourselves ‘juggling facts’. But by improving our
understanding of the regional culture we can still move a step or two
closer to the scene which confronted the first German visitors. Like
Charsley, I shall want to reinterpret the evidence the Wilsons
introduce. But while this may mean rejecting their construals, it
can’t mean rejecting their evidence. By working within a Malatan
regional culture I am taking as given the commonality of Malatan
history. Beyond the linguistic evidence (Nurse 1988), the cultural
affinities of kiNyakyusa and kiKinga speakers are quite clear. It is
with ‘cultures’ as with ‘languages’: you broaden or narrow your focus
with an eye to the particular set of problems you want to study. And
for historical reconstruction, you broaden to include several long-
related ‘local cultures’ because that is the most likely way to gain
depth—something one tries to get through historical triangulation.

Here is Charsley’s own summary of his argument on the

matter of the Nyakyusa Coming Out ceremony and its indirect
relation to chiefly succession:

The ceremony itself seems ... not to have involved the two young
princes succeeding to an existing position of authority ... but to have

concerned the creation of new positions and the attachment to
them of followings. The hierarchy of princely titles produced, each
with its own following, was manned by incumbents whose varying
authority, power, and wealth were ... determined in the course of a
continuing competitive process, on which ultimately depended the
survival of the titles themselves. ‡

Charsley’s ‘competition’ sounds as Darwinian as political. But

any reconstruction of the political scene in the valley just before the
pax would have to deal with a princely or chiefly figure more like a
political entrepreneur than a titled aristocrat or member of a landed
gentry. The main fact here is that the Nyakyusa chiefdom was a
personal fiefdom not the kind of established polity which could be
handed over intact, in face of the internal rivalries which ‘succession’
in its fullest sense inevitably would awaken.

But care is especially wanted when we come to consider

Charsley’s arguments about the controlling political and religious
ideas and motives embedded in Nyakyusa institutions. I want to
examine in particular the social situations of prince and priest.
Charsley’s prince is, appropriately, portrayed rather as a man with
rank and high expectations than as the hereditary chief and
defender of a settled territory. But his prince is, less appropriately,
bestowed with a status lacking any firm charge or mandate for
action. This is perhaps the kind of ‘prince’ Tolstoy would quickly
understand. The problem is, such a floating rank system wouldn’t
have worked at all in the Nyakyusa circumstance. You are no sort of
lord in a feudal order when you cannot meet your rivals in the field
with men at arms who are safely your own. It is the pervasion of the
Nyakyusa world with manly rivalry, condensed and redirected
outward by the bed-sharing loyalties of the age-village, which most
wants recognition in the Wilsons’ ethnography. Notes such as the
following, in Monica Wilson’s discussion of ‘values’, are not strong

Most Nyakyusa would hold that in the old days quarrelsomeness

within the village was bad, that towards members of another village
of the same chiefdom it was allowable, and towards members of
another chiefdom it was good. ‡

Charsley does better than Monica Wilson by the test of

approximation-to-credibility because he sets aside the ‘structural’
frame in favour of situated action. But his picture gives us few hints
as to the qualities of a man who would succeed in turning the
challenge of being chosen at a Coming Out into the full status of a
translocal ruler. The social situation of Charsley’s ‘priest’ is no
better sketched and seems to have only a bit part in the play. I’m

inclined to give priests more credit. There are two reasons for
thinking, as Charsley himself suggests in the letter quoted earlier,
we can hope to draw closer to the pre-pax Nyakyusa experience.
First, the institutions in question are older, stabler, and more recog-
nizable when they are taken to represent the broad regional culture
of the Corridor region than when they are grasped only on ‘insider’
evidence and so must lie ‘outside’ probative history. Second, I take it
as fair game to interpret them in light cast by my own fieldwork in
another part of the same culture area. This is not so much because I
can pretend to see the Nyakyusa version of the regional culture
through Kinga eyes as it is because I can claim to have read the
relevant professional ethnography with such borrowed eyes.

What I read into Monica Wilson’s work is the importance of

chiefly rivalries to the maintenance of ‘paradise’, and the importance
of chiefly witch-charisma in the motivational set which keeps the
rivalries going. This society thrives on what may occasionally pass as
‘friendly rivalry’. But to get into this frame I find I have to fly my own
armchair back in time and ask who these chiefs and priests were,
who their followers, and who their clients. In Collingwood fashion, I
have to re-enact their past experience. I try to reconstruct, with
the materials I get in this way, the prevailing ‘structures of
experience’ in that past time, distinguishing such from any
‘structure of consensus’ directly implied by informants’ recall. This
means looking as closely as evidence allows at the moral strategies
which would have suited the several situations of chiefs and
headmen, priests, prophets, and warriors; and fleshing out the
broader moral context of these mainly masculine political roles.
Moral strategies are not to be taken as data but models fitted to
the career paths the evidence presents as data. Such a model
‘explains’ a specimen data-set on the basis of fit. Abraham Kaplan
characterized the ‘pattern model’ thus:

Rather than saying we understand something when we have an

explanation for it, the pattern model says that we have an expla-
nation for something when we understand it. The pattern model
does indeed talk about psychological matters, but how else is
knowledge to be conceived? Human knowledge cannot be anything
other than an acquisition of the human mind, the product of human
acts of knowing. The critical question is always whether the mere
think-so (or feel-so) makes a statement so, and in the pattern
model this is emphatically denied. The pattern is not constituted by
our seeing it, but has its locus in a network of objective relations. ‡

Chiefly prince or princely chief?

Now we have evidence enough to make sense of the moral
career of a Nyakyusa ‘chief’ or ‘successful prince’ under precolonial
conditions. Start with the figure of the young prince at the Coming
Out. His project is unusual for a traditional society: he is expected
to make himself a leader of men. ‘Leadership’ is a buzzword in
capitalist kindergartens and schools of business. It is a word whose
etic meaning applies to peoples like the Tiv or the Nuer, where anthro-
pologists speak of ‘predatory expansion’; but its emic meaning
among the psychologically tainted teachers of kindergarten children
is foreign to Tiv or Nuer discourse. It would be wrong also in respect
of the ‘great commoner’ or village headman of Selya, though his
career is in good part made on the battlefield. What counted in
Konde warfare as it has been described by Western observers was
individual daring and skill with spear and shield. But the moral career
of the chief as I find it is a quantum jump away from that of his village
headmen, because it involves and crucially depends on actively
recruiting a following of village outsiders. My evidence for this is
inferential. If you try to model a world in which ten ‘mother
chiefdoms’ produce twenty or thirty ‘successor chiefdoms’ by going
through periodic mitoses once each generation you can only make
the model work by supposing that the mainstream political process
entails a massive project of amalgamation and re-sorting of
personnel, capable of reducing the twenty or thirty to a figure (say,
twelve) appropriate to a rate of population increase (natural plus
predatory) you can expect your expert colleagues to believe. Beyond
that, if you want your model to suggest a less-than-chaotic political
system, compatible with the African ‘paradise’ the early mission-
aries found, you have to assume that the process of re-sorting and
amalgamation, seen as realignments of individual men of fighting
age, would be massively de-randomized. That means villages remain
solidary wholes throughout, and that is a condition all the ethnog-
raphy firmly supports.

To understand a single episode in the collective life of any

human community you need all the context you can get, and to
improve a little on the basic arithmetic above, I suggest looking at
‘the structure of experience’ affecting a chiefly career in Selya. I
conceive the structure of experience as a fundamental feature of
social reality though not a feature an observer can easily grasp or
present as ‘data’. The easiest way into the structure of Nyakyusa
(or Kinga or our own) experience is through the world of common,
everyday experience, about which a people will build a predominantly
pragmatic-empirical discourse. The idea of a ‘social maze’ is often
introduced to help with this kind of analysis, but it is important in
doing so that we avoid thinking of a ‘maze of rules’ or ‘roles’. Better
to think in concrete terms: the personal and psychological compo-

nents of a decisive situation, risk management, ploys and tactics,
misunderstandings and revelations—not a proper scheme of
pathways but a tangle: hard knocks, prods and pitfalls. Consider how
individuals feel out the moral strategies which keep them in phase
with the institutions they will confront and manage to work-through
in the formative stages of life. The walls of this maze are met as
events not rules—immediate menace, fleeting gratification, not the
memorized turns-right and turns-left of a rat’s cardboard maze.
Think of friendships, marital ties, rivalries. Think of envy, pride, and
responsibilities met or shirked. The experience which is the signal
feature of this kind of social learning structure is the experience I
have called the individual moral career. For the typical biography of a
man or woman we may for convenience make do with a generalized
account of a life-cycle as expressing and giving context to an ethos/
eidos we have found characteristic of some cultural group. But that
is to suggest that role-differentiation is hardly important except
as it relates to such categories as gender and age.

The young prince from the day of his Coming Out is working
within a social maze requiring the would-be ruler to build a viable
polity of his own, starting with a small team of age-mates with
whom he has shared the life of a bachelor boys’ village for as long as a
couple of decades. If this is not ‘starting from scratch’ it is starting
with about the same handicap as any of the rival aspirants for
chiefhood matched with him by a committee of sponsoring elders. A
special Rift Valley condition for making this kind of political game
feasible is an environment which can be converted from grazing
commons to farming land by the application of just the kind of
industry such a team of young men excels in. An informing feature of
the Old Nyakyusa world is that the importance of cattle was more
social and political than subsistence-economic. Emphasis could be
shifted at will. Their land-use pattern was a combination of banana
culture, hoe culture, and cattle ranching which left open space
between one major political centre and another, so putting no special
premium on longterm settlement at a given site. The open space left
was still in the 1930s enough to sound paradoxical in the Wilsons’

Explanation is to be found in politics as much as intensified

agriculture. If the unity of a mature chiefdom, once gained, had
remained entrenched as in the highland Sanga realm, this spatial
isolation from neighbours would not have been needed. But it was a
mine of freedom. What we have is a group of (say) a dozen senior
stem villages each with its developing system of branch age-villages.
Politically, the league is centred on the two most senior of the stem
villages, both belonging to the chief. Each satellite age-village

comprises a mix of non-kin male peers. They are boys or young men,
for the most part without women. Autonomy is out of the question,
as the food they produce goes to the stem village, where it will be
cooked and served out by their fathers’ wives. Dependence on the
stem village of polygynous elders is total. In effect, the peripheral
age-village is equivalent as an organizational feature to the central
barracks of a Sanga court; while the married senior men (those
huddled together in a stem village around the Nyakyusa chief or
commoner headman) are counterparts to the senior Kinga barracks
men who have been given a wife and ‘sent out to rule’ peripheral
settlements. The two systems have a logic in common but use
opposite signs.

Peter Weber (1998) ably develops the argument that the

acephalous political culture of the autocthones or first settlers
(abilema) of the Rift Valley floor, as they lived before the coming of
chiefly politics, persisted as an explicit state of mind into the
decades of the pax. He sets out to disclose an underside to the
latter-day Konde political culture, obscured mainly in the well-known
chiefly areas but still showing at the edges. He sees in his recon-
struction of the pre-pax condition that the ‘chiefs’ would have been
resented by the ‘people’ (abapina). Thus he entertains the idea that
German missionary annals should be read as supporting this ‘popular
resentment’ of a system of authority still not fully legitimate in rank
and file opinion. The main case put in evidence is that of a peripatetic
medium, Mbasi, discussed in Chapter Six below. But that case
mainly shows me that chiefs, priests, and ‘doctors’ of whatever kind
shared in the characteristically entrepreneurial spirit of these
people. It is true enough, as the reader will see, that Mbasi’s
mischief was a thorn in the sides of princes and priests alike. When
we talk of ‘extra-processual events’ which are inherently likely to
recur in the conditions of a traditional community we are doing so to
warn ourselves how little a neatly ‘processual’ account has told us
about the object of our study.

In that spirit exactly, Peter Weber argues that in uNgonde, the

peripheral principalities are headed by ‘owners of the land’—autoch-
thones actually presiding as chiefs. This he understands as evidence
that the coming of chiefly rule from uKinga carried with it the
banishment of autochthonous rulers from the Nyakyusa heartlands
but not throughout the whole Konde cultural sphere. The conser-
vative Saku, who stand somewhat apart from the Nyakyusa of the
Wilsons’ monographs, actually reported to Fülleborn that their
chiefly intruders from uKinga ‘banished the abilema’. That is, the
status of ‘owner of the land’ was extinguished in uSaku, which is the
small Konde community (a Nyakyusa subchiefdom under the British)

close into the Livingstone escarpment and the lakeshore—the
ethnic area through which Kinga normally make contact with the
coastal markets. ‡

Apart from peripheral communities like the Saku, who regard

the ubusooka Coming Out as a reenactment of this banishment,
Nyakyusa regard the rite as reenacting the settlement of a
wilderness—that is, land inhabited only by acephalous, shifting culti-
vators. This comes to much the same thing, as the true ‘owner of the
land’ in olden times would have been a pop-up leader like the Pangwa
mkoyo or the Bungu ‘first settler’—not someone who distinguished
himself by lifestyle or coercive authority from others, only a
spokesman, primus inter pares. But Weber’s point is that the
metaphors used (banishment vs. wilderness) put a revolutionary
twist on the Saku version, where the suggestion elsewhere is only of
colonizing available bush. The kernel of his argument is the signature
meaning of the Coming Out ritual as we have it from the ethnog-
raphy: “Everything shall be new.” Under the Saku, the chiefly element
in the Coming Out seems to celebrate (by reenactment) the ancient
banishing of the key institution of a pre-chiefly culture. That is the
‘revolution’ in point, and it lends new meaning to ‘making everything
new’. The chief starts out as a ‘young Turk’ and, with luck, grows to
greatness. It is a gradual and toilsome accession to power.

Weber insists that the main social consequence of the Coming

Out ceremony is that piecemeal and irregular accession is replaced
by a regular generational periodicity, by which a new race for power
only starts when the majority populace of a consolidated chiefdom
is ready for it. We therefore have a central Nyakyusa chiefly arena,
which is set up for creating and recreating from each generation a
few warlike, centripetal chiefdoms of maximal/optimal scale. At the
edges, where the owner-of-the-land tradition is the (‘pop-up’) basis
of leadership, generational succession is not practised, and the local
polities are always small, with linear succession to office. In uKukwe
Monica Wilson caught the Hardyesque view of the marginal dirt

The Kukwe chiefs found us here...It is this they commemorate in

the ‘coming out’ ritual. We, the owners of the soil, were always here,
the chiefs...are like you Europeans who fight wars; we owners of the
soil think only of hoeing. ‡

Attention is then due to the kind of social tensions which

must underlie the systematic forms of so robust a political culture.
Perhaps the whole Rift Valley Konde community partakes of that
system; but the ‘processual’ institutions don’t own the people. The

social structure as you might have met it ‘on the ground’ is more
robust by far than the social geometry ‘in the heads’ of estab-
lishment informants. ‡ ‡

An appealing assessment of the ‘position of the chiefs’ for

which I find evidence in Peter Weber’s work is that they were always in
competition not just with each other but more densely with
leadership aspirants among the commoners excluded from chiefship.
There would have been two classes. First, there were the fickle
headmen of the commoner villages which greatly outnumbered the
chiefly. The Coming Out multiplied the commoner villages anew, and
led to the older village heads taking on the ‘consultant role’ of
commoner priest. This important set of contenders thus moved as
they aged from secular leadership to sacred. A chief’s career was
radically dependent on their continued support early and late. The
second class is the ‘extra-processual’ set not taking part in the
mainline structures set up at a Coming Out. Peter Weber offers even
from his fieldwork in the 1990s convincing evidence for at least two
types: shrine-keepers not part of the priesthoods, chiefly or
commoner; and peripatetic mediums sometimes capable, like the
Mbasi medium, of making a living by their enterprise. The ludic
dimension of Malatan battles didn’t mean they couldn’t be decisive,
only that decision must happen episodically, as in a gambling game.

This view puts the chiefly aspirants to translocal dominion in

the thick of a turbulent political arena, itself operating within the
background turbulence of an affluent populace of high morale,
responsive to every sort of external prodding from nature, neighbour,
and stranger. It is a picture I find implicit if (predictably) seldom
explicit in the descriptive ethnographies of the pax period.

Solidarity is the prime value stressed within the age-village,

and solidarity is the main product of the residential system which
segregates young men from their female age-mates and even their
own brothers within each village of the chiefly league. Boys daily join
with their peers in working the fields of their elders, from which their
staple food derives. Young men may nightly lust after the young
wives of their elders, whom they will eventually inherit, and from
whom they may already have learned to covet the heterosexual life.
As warriors, youths take every occasion to display and catch the
fancy of young women of other stem villages in the league. But these
are women they will have to buy or steal, not women within their own
fold. Intimacy with their seniors’ wives is freighted with social
danger—fuzzy ‘incest’ inhibitions which impose high secrecy but can
easily also lend to heterosexuality an attractive mystique.

The main political lesson is that there is solidarity inherent in
the (compound) village but not in the chiefdom, which must be
considered a loose league of a dozen or more such villages. What
unity is to develop in the new league will have to be worked out by a
new political set. It is the mandate of more than one young prince
‘sent out to rule’ to form an effective power group from within that
set. Carried to its logical end, an aspiring chief’s life task will be to fill
the whole space, political and demographic, of the old chiefdom as it
was at its height. As demographic increase is slow, this would mean
sidelining a few villages and assuming leadership of the rest. It is a
moral career which seems to have entailed outshining and outdoing,
but only rarely killing off, one’s princely competition.

We should consider the way space was politically organized.

The territorial principle laid on by the colonial powers masks tradi-
tional arrangements. Old chiefdoms can perhaps better be thought
of as congregations than realms. A successful chief seeks to an
ancestral shrine marking an important predecessor’s grave. It is the
focus of politically important rites on behalf of his people, all of whom
are in this way linked to a unitized past. The political space of the
league of villages comprising at any time a chief’s people articulates
about that past.

At this point it is useful to ask how a ‘normal’ succession could

take place in a society so organized. The short answer is, it couldn’t.
Each stem village has reached a huis clos from which it can’t proceed
intact, and therefore must disband, freeing its younger members (a
mass of children and their still fertile mothers) to find attachments
elsewhere. As if the oligarchs were determined to aggravate this
problem, which arises from the elders’ near-monopoly of women, it is
ordained that fertile widows are all to be collected by a surviving
brother, or in his absence by a son assuming the elder’s mantle. It
means the redistribution of women and wealth is reserved to the
last. But each of the dozen or more stem villages has been fostering,
through the system of food production and distribution, a plurality
(as many as five or six?) of branch villages, and it is the all-male
populations of these age-villages who must ultimately be targeted
by the women for the attachments they will need. We have then in
the model we have set up some 50 to 70 independent bands of
adolescent and young adult males who must form into some eight or
more viable new stem villages. The men will have to equip all these
villages anew with buildings, gardens, and wives. It will be a long and
turbulent transition. For the most part there will at first be scores
of small groups, young men or boys, collectively scrambling for
themselves. From the original mapping laid down by the old oligarchs
at Coming Out, some sort of consensual order will eventuate on the

general model of the chiefdom as it was ‘ever since the heroes
brought fire’. It will continue to orbit about the same sacred places,
and recreate the same institutions. But it will probably not accom-
modate more people, and the system as designed doesn’t offer
answers to the question, where the putative surplus must go.

Typically the number (n) of men forming the core of a new stem
village will be no larger than before, though the male offspring of any
single senior village would possibly amount to something rather
more like n² after thirty years of protected polygyny. Assume
normal rates of natural attrition and some deaths in fighting. You
would still expect a surplus of males in relation to available places
within a manageable new chiefdom. These are not the conditions of
self containment and political stability. But the Corridor region is
not an island, and the great civilization of which it is a small part had
taken over the better part of an enormous continent in the two
millennia before. All the cultural groups comprising the Eastern and
Western Bantu civilizations operate on structural plans which,
realistically evaluated, entail expansion; and all require chronic effort
to achieve it. The special turn of the Nyakyusa is to put boys and
youths to the main work of the fields, doing the gardens coopera-
tively and leaving the women (once their husbands are aged) to a
secure productive and reproductive life of their own in the closely-
built polygynous compounds of the stem village. It is a perfect
change on the Kinga pattern. In the royal Sanga village the main work
of the fields is done by a close group of protected women—royal
wives and daughters—whose bachelor male age-mates are mostly
herds and barracks men. An apparent consequence should be a
slower rate of expansion and a decidedly laid-back approach to the
great masculine scramble for women.

We may see the Coming Out against this broad historical

background as a form of ‘world renewal’ ceremony which works by
releasing the energies of youth in a general scramble to rebuild and
renew. The whole new generation—as individuals—gets to re-sort
itself on a largely voluntaristic basis. This is a brief and possibly
glorious ‘springtime of freedom’ which comes to everyone once in his
or her lifetime. The formal institutional templates of the Nyakyusa
protostate predestine an organic cycle of about thirty years. Each
cycle begins in free scramble, proceeds through turbulence, then
consolidation, and finally reaches a point where the existing polity
can’t proceed farther. At that point the oligarchs have to recognize
the generational tension they have sown from the time of the first
expulsion of boys from the parental village. A new cycle is decreed,
the political arena is—nominally—swept clean. But I think it fair to
assume that a random walk-through of the whole Nyakyusa region in

1890 would have discovered little to suggest what stage of this
thirty-year cycle any particular village represented. Neatness,
industry, and good humour were specialties of the Nyakyusa, and
that would have been the case right through what I have called their

It is this order of circumstance we need to grasp when we read

the early missionaries writing of a veritable paradise in this unique
Rift Valley bottom, and the same facts make it understandable that
an unusually fluid social and political system could evolve there. The
makings of a paradise are to be seen in the Kropotkin-style cooper-
ation of young men who take demonstrative pride in the orderly plan
and neat appearance of their little hamlets. These are men without
women, bachelors never divided by the competing needs of ordinary
villagers in cultures where men marry earlier, having to provide from
their own resources for growing families, and generally must see
most of their neighbours as rivals in a game which some fair portion
always stand to lose. The maleness of the branch age-hamlets is
matched in the stem villages of elders by an enormous prepon-
derance there of women. At its beginning such a stem village is
indeed a men’s community dedicated to collecting women; in its end-
state it is a collective seraglio—dedicated to the gender segre-
gation of the young right through early adulthood, but without a way
of its own into the future. In the end, the whole project of this village
of solidary peers takes it into a huis clos. In the impossible plan of the
‘processual’ model, every Nyakyusa male, as part of a tidy little boys’
village, sets out on a moral career which ends this way. Our puzzle is
to get behind the oversocialized design Nyakyusa men held in their
heads to discover what went on in the world of experience.

A strict taboo of the Nyakyusa was that the father of a

married man shall never see the face of his son’s young wife: that
means the father, though he continue in a proprietary relationship to
the son, can’t freely participate in affairs of the young household or
growing village. While Monica Wilson treats the taboo as (subjec-
tively) ‘incest’-like, its main social effect (following from the custom
that the son will not marry until his own generation ‘comes out’) was
political. In consequence of the rule, the elders who had always
dominated a village no longer do so in the personal worlds of their
one-time so loyal sons. In the new village old men are made to know
they are intruders. The panicky dumb-show of avoidance means they
belong to a dying seraglio, from which all still-marriageable women will
soon enough be liberated by a welcome widowhood. It is a nice lesson
in the pace and imbalance entailed in ‘social evolution’ that still in the
1950s Nyakyusa women were plagued by this strict taboo, having to
fly for no good reason they knew, in a compulsory panic at the

appearance of a father-in-law. The rule had already become deeply
dysfunctional, at least for young wives. Doubtless, it pleased old
men and helped to slow down the pace of structural change. Though
under the colonial pax (since 1926 under British Indirect Rule) the old
political system had been kept alive, it was effectively castrated.
Ironically, what this meant was loss of the countervailing power a
young warrior generation had enjoyed vis-à-vis their elders, whose
wealth and women had no other protection. Now under the pax the
seniors might keep all the cattle and women with very little of the
trouble. ‡‡

The autonomy of the commoner villages within the chiefdom

had been a key order-making feature amid the many diversions of the
Nyakyusa political arena, but had ceased to be vital by the 1930s.
Commoner villages replicated the form and substance of the chief’s
own, and their rulers would have to muster virtually the whole of the
fighting force a chief could command. In this situation he always
faced the challenge of leading these peers from personal strength.
But the pax scotched this. Chiefs and headmen were now left with
no true political, only administrative functions. But this was a new,
and foreign, distinction.

The balance in the old system had been morally sanctioned

solidarity within the (two) chiefly villages and voluntary alliance of
the (two sets of) autonomous commoner villages comprising a newly
chartered chiefdom. Since at the Coming Out two or more such
(compound) leagues were announced, each must have its (two) flag-
villages. The legal fiction of aristocratic birth-right was a necessary
card to be played by the old oligarchs to single out just a very few
‘royal’ heads flagged as the chosen ones of destiny, all others
deemed eligible to lead being perforce commoners. Royal entitlement
at the same time had to be firmly extinguished in any remaining
(rejected?) ‘royal’ sons, though with a proviso: while they could
neither qualify to lead a commoner village, sire one, or challenge any
incumbent leader, they seem to have remained in a reserve position,
should the priests need to produce a royal replacement. Such a
contingency might arise as well for commoners when a stem-village
elder died with many young or aging wives and no brother to replace
him. To save the village from sudden loss of many households and the
grown sons who tilled their gardens, the priests could legitimate
succession to the elder’s social identity by a chosen son. We have to
suppose there were many more slip-joints which allowed for gradual
consolidation and for pragmatic political moves.

Two critical provisions of the protostate constitution appear

at this point. First there is the independence of the hereditary

section of the priesthood from the remainder of a ruling oligarchy. It
is these priests who will (in the ‘divine king’ scenario) finally smother
an old chief and bequeath his charismatic powers and identity to a
single successor—presumably, the by-then foremost of the ‘royal’
princes. The powers of these priests would not be diminished but
magnified during the interregnum in the political cycle, and it is hard
to suppose they didn’t play their few cards close to their chests.
What else are sanctuaries for than lending an air of destiny to hard

The second critical provision of the charter laid down in the

theatrics of the Coming Out concerns the nature of the league of
villages comprising a chiefdom, and specifically the autonomy of the
commoner village. This can be seen as a necessary feature of the old
political culture. If commoner headmen were not ultimately free
agents, able to speak for the legitimate loyalties of their villagers,
the arbitrary realignment imposed by the old oligarchs would have
been written in blood on stone. Two warring camps would have faced
one another. The scramble then could only turn into a true war of
succession, renewed every thirty years. It need not have achieved
the famously fratricidal pattern of the Banyankole to the north, as
their ‘succession wars’ concerned lucrative proprietorships in limited
supply. Nyakyusa were not herders bound to a fixed network of client
farmers. But fratricide, it is known, won’t do in Paradise.

The actual political process by which a sole-successor is

selected, as I here model it, is a bit more like a bidding war than a
game of havoc, and matches the facts we have from the British
missionary MacKenzie concerning the Nyakyusa war pattern. As
with Kinga there was a theatrical pattern for wars, and a piracy
pattern for raids. This combination means that when a fight has the
nominal object of taking booty it will be limited to the small party
launching a secret attack, and only those on the other side who can
scramble to defense. But when a ruler’s prestige is at stake an
appointment for encounter must be agreed, the two sides muster
at strength, and individual bravado (a sort of fencing and feinting at
a spear-throw’s distance) will be the style. The winner of glory in this
contest is soon known, when a single warrior on the opposing side
falls, and peers call for truce. This, transported in space and
modified in detail, is the dance-like pattern of two facing ranks I got
from aging Kinga leaders in 1962. Two of them had known it at first
hand as war leaders. For Nyakyusa even more than for Kinga, the
material winning that comes with chiefly glory is the defection of
(mostly mobile bachelor) men from the losing side. Charisma, in this
reading of the evidence, shines only dimly until the one true
succession has been established. But it’s unlikely that, given the

normal strength in numbers of warrior-ready young men in the
typical Nyakyusa village, there would not regularly have been
expansion (by intrusive colonization of bush communities) when one
young leader saw that as his best opening. That Nyakyusa were
better organized politically than their neighbours is hardly to be
doubted on the evidence of Saku, Kukwe, Nyiha, or Ndali communities.
The Nyakyusa is a variant on the distributional pattern typical for
East African protostates: an extensive, active political arena
harbouring a network of developed and autonomous polities, and fully
separated from other such centres of chiefly politics by buffer belts
of smaller peoples enjoying the rather different rewards of localism.

Apart from the ‘disgruntled individual’ scenario, there would be

two major sources for defectors from the following of an ineffective
young prince. For one thing, there are younger boys’ villages caught
without clear loyalties at the time of a Coming Out. They are not
ready for autonomy as a village or for marriage, but soon will be. They
and the boys still too young to move away from their mothers are
initially left in continued dependency on the now-declining village of
their elders. Assuming they continue as an age-village on their own
at least as long as their mothers are not widowed and taken
elsewhere, they must decide, individually or collectively, which ‘side’
of the growing chiefdom of their ‘elder brothers’ they will freely join
as peers. The second main source of recruits to a charismatic prince
in this ‘bidding war’ would be whole commoner villages of young peers
willing to realign. At the start of the contest, they may owe little to
the young prince chosen by their elders to claim their loyalty. True
loyalties in a commoner village are lateral not vertical on the
seniority grid: they are in principle for peers who have safely lain
together for years and will likely move as a group. It is in this context
we must understand the primus inter pares standing of the
commoner village headman, and see the contrast to the relationship
a common man enjoys with his chief.

How strictly must the rules be kept, to justify a description of

high office as ‘hereditary’? Kinga can’t be sure who their next ruler
will be until the priests announce his installment. Yet from that point
onward, the sacred drum having spoken, there is no doubt—until,
perhaps, a generation later the son of one who should have been
installed stands for the office on the ground of righting a past
deviation from the true line. Kyelelo, who seized office by murder,
started the only genuine succession war I could discover in Kinga oral
history, and lived on in legend as an heroic deviant. In short, royalty is
as royalty is done by. Monica Wilson came to treat her catalogue of
ruling lines as virtually real genealogies. So for her a chief was born to
chiefship, just as he was for her Nyakyusa informants. A python

quite predictably grew in his belly, giving him dignity, authority, and
personal power. This is the ‘princely chief’. A born leader to whom the
manners of an aristocrat are natural. I have presented a different
argument, for a man born a little prince, who achieves through enter-
prise in adulthood the status and attributes of a chief and
commander of men—the ‘chiefly prince’. There were, as Charsley
noticed, scores of princes living here or there who couldn’t claim
much of a following. Monica Wilson talks of perhaps a hundred
‘chiefdoms’, the great majority of no consequence. Semantics aside,
I think Charsley’s mistake was assuming that aristocratic heredity
had a lot of significance for status among ordinary villagers, where
the evidence suggests that ‘bloodlines’ without the proven ability to
take and hold political office bestowed a rather modest social
advantage. Both Charsley and the Wilsons underestimated the
importance of achieved standing among men, the political career.
Greatness, which is a corollary of influence, could have been but
rarely thrust upon a Nyakyusa prince. For Kinga that is not the case.

A great Konde chief might have thirty wives or more; each

might bear two boys who grew to adulthood—we have sixty young
princes. Suppose forty of them are too young to be chosen as
leaders at the Coming Out of their generation. Still there are twenty
from whom two, three, or four might be selected by the old oligarchs.
They are chosen for chiefly promise and sent out to settle the
succession in the manner we have seen. The narratives, of course, are
missing. But it is unreasonable, almost to the point of folly, to
suppose everything always went ‘as it should’. If, and only if, it did so
does the model of the ‘chiefly prince’ match that of the ‘princely
chief’ with his symmetrical kinglists and the timeless stability of a
Nyakyusa world true only to social memory. Sometimes, I suppose, a
chiefly line in Selya may have lasted a century. That would mean one
prince taking the lion’s share each time, and early enough to be in
commanding position when the old chief died. Then things had indeed
gone ‘as they should’, and the new chief was made by the divine
chrism of the priests into an embodiment of the old. But continued
repetition of such a nice outcome is hardly to be expected. Chiefly
success itself, begetting demographic increase, must lead to
schism. I think the true history of any realm in Selya, as found in
1893, would have been infinitely intertwined and criss-crossed with
others. Had we a carefully-made dialect map from 1900, we’d have
far better chance of reconstructing the internal history of
Nyakyusa speaking communities than we do from oral testimony.
Symmetry is a simpler, more direct product of the human imagi-
nation than history can be.

Arena politics— ‘African despotism’ held in check?

The constitution of the Nyakyusa protostate depends on the
fluidity of local political structures. Fission within a chiefdom is
controlled fission thanks to the generational cycle. Because the
chiefdom can’t simply be rolled over at succession—because it has
to reconstitute itself as if from scratch—the size is automatically
limited to what a skilful new leader can manage. Paradoxically, the
Coming Out guarantees a chiefdom can’t grow beyond its proper
limits of political coherence. It is most instructive to compare this
arrangement on the one hand to the more formally stable Sanga
constitution (most developed in the Central realm at Ukwama), and
on the other hand to the Sangu and Hehe despotisms of the late
nineteenth century. Two useful methodological paradigms combine
here. Fred Eggan’s ‘close comparison within a region’ promises the
identification of observable institutional procedures and those
discoverable social forms the several communities have in common.
Asking how and why each community has its own version of the roles
of prince and priest, and their relation, can only illuminate each case.
This will lead naturally to further questions about the way the
different ecological settings of these four peoples offer clues to the
historical paths protostate evolution can take.

A special feature of the Nyakyusa system is its fluid orien-

tation to on-the-ground uses of political space. Chiefs are not
anchored in place until their final moment, when they are dead and a
sacred tree is planted to mark the grave and commemorate a
successful career. This contrasts with the established Kinga prince,
who is immured in a palace in life, but rots on the wind in death. The
contrast is real, because the two peoples share a single regional
cosmology. The Kinga chief or high prince is immured because he is
and must continue to seem endowed with socially dangerous
powers. In battle he is represented by a commoner hero wearing his
otterskin crown and bearing his arms. Kinga princes who were
famous for feats at arms were those who, like the occasional
Nyakyusa prince who was able to gain legendary status, found or
made an opportunity to build the Sanga protostate outward,
involving peripheral peoples in the process. A Nyakyusa chief by
contrast is nothing without personal mobility. He himself leads in
battle and in the jural arena, and he knows Lwembe—the one ruler
among them who is immured in a fixed and sacred place—as a secular
wimp. ‘Pure Kinga’ (non-Mahanzi) elders of the Western realm
presented their traitor-hero, Kyelelo the Cruel, as if cut from this
same chiefly Nyakyusa cloth.

Even the sacred groves most often visited by Nyakyusa are

scattered over the land without reference to such natural
phenomena as secluded springs and dense growth. These groves

contain ancestral shrines meant for a domestic market. Translocal
concerns such as we attribute to accidents of nature are more
firmly and strategically planted at known portals to the nether-
world. The chiefly shrines are like those of Bena chiefs. They allow
making a public benefit of the personal ancestral hearing of a
particular public’s current chief. Each marks the burial place of an
important ancestor of recent vintage, and consists at core of only a
few trees planted at his death. The custom says something about
the political use of lineal kinship rhetoric in an amity-based
community, but not about territorial boundaries. A group of inter-
ested priests may perform a sacrifice there, addressing the full
circle of chiefly ancestors through the ghost who guards the grave.
A bullock may be begged from a reigning descendent, and the object
of the rite will be release from whatever particular trouble royal
ancestors are blamed for visiting on their living descendants. One
thing this says concerns kin groups among aristocracy: if they don’t
constitute real lineages, the priests will have to construct mythical
lineal links back from today’s hero-chief to predecessors. Something
else is said as well: if it weren’t for the third-party role and the
earned credibility of the priests in this transaction, how would the
people know that their secular rulers are so fraught with mystical
danger? It is not a thesis one can usefully propound concerning one’s
self unless one is indeed a tyrant prepared to daily demonstrate the
size and power of his ego in the rankly unjust but unapologetic ways
of politically constituted fear gone mad.

In respect of this point it is notable that a Nyakyusa chief for

all his immanent power is, like the Bena chief, not able to make in the
public behalf the simple sacrifice to address an ancestor, which any
man privately might do. These rites on the public behalf must be
produced by a priestly team. This is in microcosm the way public
responsibility is structured. Going over the narratives Monica Wilson
records, it is especially noticeable that many chiefs are youngsters
from a priest’s point of view—chosen as like as not for candidacy by
some of the priests who will be arranging their sacrifice. The same
tutelary role is to be seen among Kinga and glimpsed among Bena,
but is most deeply structured-in by Nyakyusa. It will be recalled that
Mwemutsi himself is never allowed to leave off sexual contact with
women long enough to be clean for a ritual act of any sort at Ukwama
or indeed for entering his own lineage’s sacred grove.

We know from early documents that a young prince may

cultivate the patronage of a strong neighbour of an older generation,
and it is fair to speculate that the client will be expected to repay
favours at going market rates. We also know that on average over
the centuries the number of princely polities in the whole Nyakyusa-

speaking area (estimated in the thirties at about a hundred) must
have expanded at a snail’s pace in relation to the potentially
geometric expansion of the number of young aspirants to high office.
That means an aspirant stands no more than a fifty percent chance
of success; and if the scale of success would approximate a bell
curve when graphed, notable success would be rare. Since notable
princes were quickly drawn into whatever turbulence erupted within
their purview, and seldom on the same side as near rivals, a
princeship however successful was no sinecure. Still, a young prince
willing to accept patronage rather than fight for fiefs of his own
might well have had an easy time. We just can’t know how many
played cool and how many hot. What is clear follows from knowing
that a Coming Out called for a shake-up of the chiefdom as a whole.
The burden of political action was conclusively divided among many:
the new commoner village leaders would have been nearly as
important as the prince challenged to gain their loyalties. At
starting, the prince could be no more than first among equals. A
Coming Out was a big dose of deregulation. If my modeling is right,
peer-group ties were left intact while interpolitical ties—the web of
loyalties aligning each commoner village head with a prince—required
intensive practical affirmation.

Political distance was introduced not just between elders and

the young. The many peer villages of the young were also sorted into
separate segments, distanced from each other. Political power-
centres were set up which addressed relatively small communities
of unmarried men and charged them each with taking over the human
and other material resources of the old chiefdom to build one of
their own. The easiest assumption, based on what we know of
Nyakyusa character values, is that a great deal of wheeling and
dealing would have been folded in with a good deal of tougher games-
manship, and occasionally with some foolish and some quite adroit
uses of force.

What were the intents and expectations of reward which would

have driven such a system? Bear in mind that the Ngonde moved
from very much the same sort of open political system toward a
closed theocracy, probably during the course of the nineteenth
century in response to significant external pressures. This system-
change has to be understood in political terms as a pragmatic shift
toward central direction. There would have been the same process of
pulling together which each Nyakyusa chiefdom set in motion with
its Coming Out, only now applied on the larger scale. What Ngonde
found, in their position of special vulnerability to the subcontinental
turbulence of that century, was that the highly segmented, loosely-

knit ‘Nyakyusa’ protostate template couldn’t stand up when the
surrounding buffer belt of localist bush communities was broken.

It is not quite so clear that the Kinga, who proved themselves

throughout the nineteenth century perfectly capable of the same
open rivalry and charismatic warlordism as the Nyakyusa, had been
moved by their exposure to external raiding toward a measure of
central direction. But especially in their Central realm the Sanga
ascendancy had achieved at mid-century a quasi-sacerdotal organi-
zation not wholly unlike the Ngonde. In the same period, entrepre-
neurial politics was thriving in their Eastern and Western realms,
neither of which appears from my evidence to have been nearly so
well dug in as the Central and Northern courts. Arena politics had
hardly disappeared even in those two more staid realms, but all the
political centres were reasonably well fixed, and at least in the
Central realm the hegemonic order between peripheral and central
domains was regularly re-endorsed by a flow of tribute to Ukwama.
Of course, it was part of the business of the priests in their proces-
sional visits to other courts to air the grievances of their princes
and cool down the atmosphere of mutual blame.

One way to identify the special quality of the Nyakyusa scene

is to call it an extreme case of arena politics in a segmentary
system. Another is to note the singularity of a system which uses
an elaborate kinship fiction as the foil to—not the template of—its
segmentary political structure. To these political considerations we
shall later want to add consideration of religious worldviews. But
when the question is what ideas and motives were behind the thirty-
year cycle of consolidation/devolution which Nyakyusa age-village
arrangements reflect, I think the love of freedom was paramount. I
have dilated at some length in earlier volumes on the importance of
an antipolitan ethic for the Kinga and their region. Kinga men move
out when their bachelor days are done from centre to periphery,
claiming back the relative autonomy of boyhood, which they had
exchanged for the pleasures of sophistication. Nyakyusa boys are
early put to work in the fields with their fathers, but enjoy as Kinga
do a close domestic life with peers. Then they are living no barracks
life but in small groups and miniature houses of their own building.
Nyakyusa as they developed politically kept this pattern in their own
way. It appears that the small age-villages of youth could be quickly
removed and rebuilt elsewhere, as circumstance required.

Owing in part to bugs in the bamboo, Kinga huts are unlivable

after twenty years. In a hotter and wetter valley micro climate the
expectation is probably less, and local contamination by waste a
greater problem. That makes frequent moving for the young age-

villager a pragmatic option. But we have to assume this was not the
case late in a man’s life, when the Nyakyusa elder would be settled
down with a crowd of wives and children in a closed circle of many
another such crowd, all surrounded by byres, trees, and gardens.
Mobility in youth, roots in old age. It was the same in essence with
Kinga men, as all through their middle years as bachelor barracks
men they enjoyed great personal mobility, being at home with their
friends both everywhere and nowhere. The great difference to
Nyakyusa arrangements was a relatively cool version of arena
politics. Treachery, assassination, and back-room dealing were there,
but on-stage every succession to office was clean, final, and
designed to minimize the need of structural change. Armed clashes
were always possible especially where a given domain bordered
another linked to a different princely capital. but multilateral hostil-
ities seem to have been rare.

In the Konde context the age village pattern with its thirty-
year scramble was special to the Rift Valley where nature afforded
any village great freedom of movement. While the Sanga ruler staged
spectacular war games in the spirit of sport, the declining Nyakyusa
chief prepared a clean-swept arena for his best young princes, there
to reinvent war in a small way and play at the great game of states-

It is not convenient here to think of the political arena in the

carefully circumscribed way it was developed by Marc Swartz. We are
after ‘arena’ in a fuller sense: where power pyramids are defined and
timely issues championed by contests open to all comers: unsea-
soned upstarts and old guard, political entrepreneurs and estab-
lished rulers—case-related litigants and otherwise interested
intruders. An arena is the pre-eminent scene of contest, and in
particular of ‘staged’ contest. Of course, arena politics may come in
all degrees of intensity. But there are other words which better
describe settings for palaver or executive decision making. When it
comes to trials of strength through violent action, though, war is an
extension of nasty diplomacy. Kinga lords were assuredly good at
that, just as their priests were good at cooling them down. Is there a
certain climate of familiarity and gamesmanship which softens the
clashes and gives its mood to a particular ‘arena’? A broader set of
comparisons would be wanted to decide that. But the Rift Valley
floor would not be a bad place to start. ‡‡

With the Nyakyusa ethnography in mind it is most convenient

to place plottings ‘back stage’. In the arena itself we then find two
sorts of group activity: direct confrontation between (structurally
opposed) autonomous groups, and ceremonial gatherings of

mutually dependent subgroups celebrating ‘solidarity’ and, by doing
that, advancing their commitment to the politics of incorporation
which binds them. Nyakyusa funerals are such gatherings. Back
stage we can look for the ritual acts by which individuals affirm their
own social and political identities and watch for tactical moves by
their ritual stage managers. Every interior, every informal meeting-
place in a village is a ‘back stage’ place of its own, and the scenes
played out there can range from contacts leading to adulterous
elopements or shifts in personal allegiance to the weighting and
working out of new individual moral strategies or commitment to
special group projects. Ethnographers unfortunately get to observe
and describe little of this off-stage activity.

Kinship itself, considered as a set of committed loyalties

beyond the immediate family, is on stage for Nyakyusa mainly at
funeral dances. Young men famously make eventful occasions of
them, turning amorous or aggressive attentions, respectively, to
the non-kin females and males among locals of their age set. Though
it be only kinsmen of the deceased who make up the visiting parties,
all are very likely from different villages. This is because brothers and
half-brothers, who once hoed together for their father, seldom
belonged to the same age-village. As adults they will have gone
different ways. The instant solidarity they celebrate at a funeral
allows, as well as frolic, renewal of bonds and mutual influence on
career choices. What is at stake here may be clarification of goals,
decisions on residence, plans for immediate set activities, or
commitment to longterm projects. A young prince or headman will be
looking for recruits. Kinship ties in any society entail maximal claim
bonds. More than friendship or village membership, kinship relations
are permanent even when they are not regularly reaffirmed, and may
prove emotionally binding. When the bond is refreshed, as it may be
at the funeral of a father or mother or uncle, social leverage is
created which a brother or sister may wish to use. In this way kinship
can balance the demands of peer-village amity, offering at least an
easy escape to restive youth.

While an ‘on-stage’/‘back-stage’ distinction helps to set the

scene, at least by reminding an ethnographer how much transpires in
a village which can escape observation, a lot of the relevant public
action overflows understanding for lack of the very keys which
escape in this manner. Some special puzzles left by Monica Wilson’s
corpus relate to character traits. How is it that men who were
fighting you last night can be so cheerful about it all in the morning?
How easy is it, in spite of all the press for ‘good company’ among
peers, to pack off to new friends elsewhere? Independent ways are
what one knows quite well among Kinga boys, and are plainly not alien

to Nyakyusa ways. In particular there is the complex figure of the
Nyakyusa chief, armed with wizardry, habitual bellicosity, and born-
to-rule self-importance—something of a self-made man, something
of a titan. The Kinga example, Kyelelo the Cruel, comes to mind: a
patricide and more, a tyrant for certain—and the most popular hero
of Kinga folklore.

For that matter, much of the Nyakyusa blood shed by high-

testosterone warrior-youths is shed in petty fights at funerals and
taunting raids on a far-neighbour’s cattle. If I am not wrong, such
excitements would be stirred up less for the fun than for exploring or
hastening personal realignments. Fights nominally for spoils or
amorous advantage would generally nurse a tactical political aim of
‘testing’ and ‘softening’ a rival group—sometimes even instigating a
full-scale confrontation at arms. If you are apt to be stealing a man’s
wife or his cattle you must first be on bad terms with him. Inter-
chiefdom war itself, so carefully was it sometimes staged, could be
performed in ceremonial style, at once ‘confrontational’ and ‘incorpo-
rative’, with the outcome settled by coup-counting rather than the
harder victory of rout. War patterns are by their nature inter-
political to the extent the parties retain their structural
opposition, and Kinga evidence confirms that ceremonial warfare
was a regional not a localized pattern. Structural opposition within a
region is of course an absolute condition for the rise of balanced
(non-despotic) political superstructures, and it is the loss of that
balance which was threatened by the intrusive changes accelerating
in the broader Sowetan area after about 1830.

The most nearly understood case of a military despotism set

up in the Sowetan region in the nineteenth century is the Hehe, first
under Munyigumba who died about 1879, then Mkwawa. Plains Sangu
despotism began a little earlier, and later the Bena were involved but
never truly organized under a centralizing despotism of their own.
The Hehe story, as we have it, is well known and bears only quick
rehearsal here. Raiding on caravans, defensive war, and coping with or
obtaining guns were in the air, and the many-sided ethnic relations in
the Iringa highland area (later uHehe) provided a huge arena for inter-
group contest. The degree of chiefly political development in the area
in 1800 is not known but need not have reached the level of trans-
local authority. Yet by all accounts the ascendancy of Munyigumba
and his lieutenants was accomplished in a short span of months or
years, and a fighting force put together on the promise of quick,
massive attacks on far neighbours, the victors returning with
proportionate private booty. The difference to any earlier war
pattern native to the region was that a full share of the booty
(cattle, women, children, tools, and weapons) would go directly to

the man who took it. The crown’s share was to be modest. ‘Market
forces’, in short, were abetting this revolution. How directly the
scheme was based on the Ngoni example can’t be known, but this kind
of ‘horde’ behaviour doesn’t match the way neighbour peoples had
governed their relations.

A full history of ethnic mobilization in inland Tanganyika in the

nineteenth century will be long in coming. For the case of the
Sowetan political archipelago it appears the ecological insulation of
the Kinga and Nyakyusa lands were protective. These two peoples
experienced political continuity with their own pasts right up to the
pax. Ngonde fared much the same, retreating to a tighter political
organization around a carefully kept sacerdotal throne and meeting
the secular threats of the times by coordinated defense. But when
we take the regional examples together, a rather simple conclusion
almost spells itself out. Protostate development proceeds in a
gradual, evolutionary manner under conditions of partial isolation
from other protostates in similar stages of development. There was
much learning from neighbour polities in the archipelago, but little
need to match them. Each community followed its own historical
path. But when isolation is not just ruptured but lost, we meet a
form of contact which breaks continuity for the weaker side in war.
War patterns by their nature spread with remarkable rapidity
through a region of contact: if you can’t stand up to your neighbour,
you must quickly learn his tricks if you will survive. Both Kinga and
Nyakyusa were found at the pax in a stage of centripetal militarism.
It was a vital part of the protostate process that they fight contin-
uously within their own ranks, but in controlled ways. They thus
remained safe against intrusions as long as they were strong
enough to seal themselves off again after beating back a trial

In the Sowetan region the billiard-ball process went more or

less this way: Ngoni barge in, beating about in all directions but never
massively, and usually moving on after settling down for a season or
two to recoup and regroup. Their war tactics and equipment were
quickly picked up locally, and the Sangu under Merere, finding
themselves safe from booty raids by Ngoni, themselves turned
around 1860 to distance raiding within the region. In response,
Munyigumba got together his massive ‘Hehe’ coalition and in the
1870s pushed Merere back. Eventually, Ngoni now regrouping south
of uBena forced the Bena chiefs into coalition and alliance with the
Hehe through a series of cattle wars. Raiders reached the Eastern
realm of the Kinga but were repulsed, and no catastrophic disconti-
nuities affected the Kinga until German times. Since Kinga smiths
had perfected a two-handed stabbing/slashing spear, at least their

external war pattern seems to have been affected by their Ngoni
contacts. But as a device calling for close combat to death, this
sword must have been found useless in the internal war theatre
where the prize was only collective glory. A single serious wound was
enough in their ceremonial battles to take the prize away. For Nyaky-
usaland as well, the prior development of translocal politics allowed
for the massing of formidable forces of defense—in short, for
effective preparedness—against external threat. Looking then at
the history of the whole political archipelago in the Sowetan region,
it appears that Sangu, Hehe, and Bena were rushed into growth by
external impact. This was due to their immature structural devel-
opment at the crucial time of first contact with the Ngoni (and
Arab) versions of a new and massively destructive form of warfare.
From a stage of developed localism but still without a routinized
system of internal war-preparedness, they were drawn directly into
(or in the Bena case, toward) a despotic military state organization
which enabled them to match the Ngoni raiders already so well
organized. In this way of modeling the Sowetan scene, only the
Malatan segment of the region had developed (by about the 1840s)
a sophisticated system of translocal political authority. And while
this authority was necessarily based in war, its destructive
potential within its own cultural sphere was minimized for as long as
the preferred system could be kept in balance. ‡

Have we discovered that arena politics is a necessary phase in

protostate development of the kind the Malatan region used to
boast? Have we shown that a prevalence of priests is wanted to
tend to the stage-management which makes a political good of such
quarrelsomeness as Malatan leaders displayed? What is exagg-
erated in the Nyakyusa case is not replicated in the Ngonde state as
we know it, and Kinga history tends to flow in a rather less turbulent
fashion at least in the better established Central and Northern
realms. But a weak principle, at least, does emerge: multilateral
rivalry does characterize all three cases, though I have not tried to
argue here the relevance of this to Ngonde.

If the detailed history of the forging together of a unified Hehe

people under Munyigumba and again under Mkwawa were more
perfectly known, is there doubt that the triangular play of one party
against another for a third party’s gain would be there at each step
of the way? Missionary reports from uKinga made much of sabre
rattling and attitudinal pugnacity. Well into the pax there was rivalry
and opportunistic politics in the scramble for colonial patronage,
most particularly by the Kyelelo team in the Western realm. The
Mahanzi and Northern realm Kinga who played a strong part in the
Maji Maji massacre in the Eastern realm seem never to have offered

reparation or apology. These are simply not expectations in the
context. The broad idea of ‘arena politics’ seems to apply, and the
prevalence of priests is, I think, established, though Kinga can’t
match in this their Valley neighbours. As with ‘red tape’ in a modern
bureaucracy, ritually correct procedures, seen to by the avanyivaha in
a call to arms, will effect a shedding off of moral responsibility for
outcomes. Is the hand that throws the dice to blame for a bad fall?
Even conspicuous success in this political arena is attributed to
invisible pythons more often than to nobility of character.


A Malatan Cosmos

When the Berlin missionaries came to the country (1891) they

had to choose one of the names for God which had currency among
the natives, for their own proclamations. They chose the word Kyala.
They could have chosen Mbassi. For according to Richter (1924:645)
both words are equivalent, both are designations for sublime beings
from ancient times. ‘They are presumably names of earlier tribal
chiefs or outstanding heroes...’ It is unimportant whether Richter is
right...for the orientation of Konde to Kyala is fundamentally
distinct from their orientation to the shades of their ancestors,
and the names which they generally still use for Kyala prove it. They
call him (according to Mackenzie) Tenende = All-possessor, Nkulumuke
= Immortal, Khata = Omnipresent, Mpeli = All-creator, etc.

When they call on God at need they do it through the intercession

of their ancestors. They pray to them directly, imploring them to
pass on their requests to Kyala...

God is the everlasting terror for Konde. That is why they pray so
often, “Go far away from us, oh God, go to the Sangu, for your home
is so broad and great!” This fact offers a shattering insight into the
pagan condition: Angst. [Ludwig Weichert] ‡

The mischievous ‘medium’: a hard case

I reconsider here a seemingly trivial but intriguing series of

episodes from Selya in the 1890s. The scant facts became a matter
of record when they got under the skin of an early German
missionary. The point of stopping to look at this small tale (the ‘case
of Mbasi’) is that it has entered our literature on Kinga/Nyakyusa
religion as evidence for revising the main ethnographic accounts. I
find the revisions worthy in turn of revision, but there is a healthy
thrust in all the critical work toward reconstruction of precontact
conditions. Our conception of subsequent conditions, as given in the
Wilsons’ ethnography, can’t be trued without such a model of time-
zero before the pax made its changes.

It is no fault of the ethnographers in the 1930s that they
focused on what they could discover by direct observation, or that
interpretation was based on this well-grounded evidence. The noise
of random events mustn’t distract from an account of common
practice. Still, what is aberrant is often significant too. The recon-
struction I’ll offer of the fragmentary ‘case’ as it can be extracted
from missionary records is indebted to the original ethnography, the
critics thereof, and in particular to Dr. Peter Weber, who has recently
checked out Mbasi-survivals in the field. ‡

From a newly established missionary’s sometimes puzzled

notes on encounters with a certain spokesman for ‘Mbasi’, a
fragmentary story of divinity in action was brought to life and lively
debate eighty years later—getting under the skin now of interested
anthropologists and historians. On the archival record, I found the
case uncomplicated. Discounting deeper ideas of the kind visiting
academics were later to read into the evidence, what I learned from
it was that self-taught gurus—entrepreneurial zealots—had a bit
more prestige and leverage in Nyakyusa country than in Kinga. Here
was a wandering ‘herdsman of Mbasi’ (traveling, it seems, with only a
single acolyte to help with camp and campaign) able to alienate
cattle and wives from rising young chiefs. The missionaries got
involved when a ‘wronged’ chief got them to intercede for him. The
great divinity Mbasi was, it appeared, angry at a young woman for
deserting his herdsman and running back to her husband. The priests
agreed to protect her. The herdsman himself was lawyerly enough (if
quite a braggart) by day, but went about at night with a huge voice
threatening mystical trouble if the woman were not returned, with
perhaps an extra cow thrown in. There is no evidence the young seer
had ever paid or meant to pay a suitable bridewealth. I saw no good
reason for senior chiefs to support him, as some of them did, unless
it was a matter of (a) patron-client politics or (b) fear of the
leverage the young herdsman was getting over impressionable local
publics. His trick was called ventriloquism in the records—loud
tirades in a giant voice, always from the cover of darkness. Going
over details of the case today I would vote for (a) + (b), but all of the
principals remain veiled by the darkness of time. I promise not to
read their minds. What I think I can do is use the case in much the
way it has been used by colleagues as a ‘connect the dots’ game to
produce a picture of Nyakyusa religion and politics at time-zero. My
picture will not be theirs. I’ll get to premises later, but I want to begin
with an appeal to common sense.

The pretender to occult knowledge is a social type I had become

familiar with in uKinga. In the several cases I knew the claimant was a
youngish man of boastful manner and socially nomadic habits, rarely

taken as oracular by his elders. The young men I have in mind were
would-be prophets in search of a calling. Since some individuals in the
mid-century decades had been able to develop forms of divination
good enough to earn a measure of fame and fortune, the calling was
there. But Tunginiye was sure no practitioners of the occult
unacceptable to the jury of court priests would ever have been
tolerated. That the case was quite different in uNyakyusa became
clear only from bits of documentary evidence I encountered in
expanding my study from uKinga to the broader region. What was
special about uNyakyusa was the disunited character of the
‘priesthood’—that choice of a name could itself be misleading, as the
priests comprised no social entity. Still I was astonished to find
Mbasi’s ventriloquist called in the revisionist literature a ‘priest’. I
was also surprised, though not astonished, to find no recognition in
the Wright narrative of the evident and persistent preference of the
young chief’s young wife for staying home. If nothing else does, this
should dissuade us from seeing this ‘Mbasi’ encampment as an
established shrine or ‘cult centre’. Her side of the story, if we would
dramatize it in the interesting manner missionaries and scholars
have done for the masculine side of the case, I don’t doubt much
would be disclosed.

I don’t now think my initial take on ‘Mbasi’ was wrong. But it’s
clear that historically for Nyakyusa, in absence of high courts and
their centralizing dispensation, it would have been just such self-
employed diviners who might rise to the occasion as popular
saviours in times of widespread trouble. The irony in this is telling:
Mbasi the divinity is busy withering crops and magically killing
healthy cattle; yet his herdsman, the only mortal he seems to love,
is presented in the documents we have as some sort of hero. As it
happened, troubles from abroad and from nature had been mounting
up in the decades just before German contact, and epidemics,
droughts, and pestilence were just hitting the region when the
Germans were setting up their missions. It was natural for the
missionaries to put themselves forward as ‘doctors’ in the root
sense of the word, and so they were taken to be, by those who came
to patronize them. Within weeks this led to some meddling in local
affairs and ambivalence in their social situation. Enter Mbasi. Though
he put the missionaries only briefly at risk, the ‘Mbasi affair’ made
something plain which an observer ought to take seriously. The chiefs
were in open competition with the ‘doctors’ in a great game of
influence. The major tool was blame. If the missionaries would make
themselves felt, they would join this game.

When trouble was translocal and overflowed the ritually

defined jurisdictions of chiefly ancestral shrines, the chiefs

themselves must turn to ‘free divinities’. A plague is no respecter of
human boundaries. These spirit beings might be deemed ancestral,
but only in a mythic and universalizing sense. As such they might
logically be blamed for wholesale tribulation—disease, drought,
pestilence. The German missionaries were not slow to put in their
claims for a new and powerful free divinity. They had translators
brought with them from Karonga (uNgonde). They picked ‘Kyala’ as
the nearest word to Gott, and went right to the task of preaching
the powers of Kyala. If this didn’t clarify their presence, it made
them interesting, and important chiefs came to claim their
patronage. ‡

For the Sanga courts, the relevant free divinities were, at

home, the rainstones; and for ‘national’ concerns certain portal
divinities, all to be found below the escarpment in spots which
seemed to give mortal men access to an underworld. The main free
divinity for the Kinga was Lwembe. Propitiation meant a near-yearly
ceremonial act of histrionic humility in a sacred grove at Lubaga in
the Rungwe district. In essence, the meaning of that rite was, “We—
all of us—accept the blame for causing you to bring this trouble on
ourselves.” But Lwembe (sometimes also known as Mbasi) was not
hearing confessions. He is a chronically angry, accusative presence
whose demands take the form of tantrums and must be met by
symbolic acts of placation. What makes Lwembe, as the Kinga know
him at Lubaga, especially accessible in times of trouble is the combi-
nation of a permanent location with the high seriousness of estab-
lished ritual theatre. In my reading of the matter, the chiefly mind in
uNyakyusa turns to Lwembe at Lubaga for the same reasons as the
Kinga courts. To put it bluntly, the point is to pass the buck further
up, without actually having to confess one’s own impotence. But
that is the formula for the humblest private ancestral sacrifice. For
Nyakyusa, Lwembe may have had an apical position among free divin-
ities, but there were many contenders. Only the Kinga seem to have
found him worth elaborate ceremony. ‡‡

But what Peter Weber makes clear is that chiefly authority,

even where territorial jurisdiction was not the concern, always fell
short in uNyakyusa of the universal relevance it might reasonably
claim to have achieved in uKinga. The Mbasi we discover in the annals
of the early missions represents the presence of a plurality of
relatively free divinities whose persuasive powers could sometimes
match in the political arena those of a great chief. The main
difference, which always favoured the chiefs in a long run, was clout.

To achieve conviction most Kinga consultant diviners depended
on a display of objectivity. Only Hikadiseku (alive in the flesh in the
1930s) lived on in folklore as a proper spirit medium, and no one knew
the learning source of her art. She said she carried ancestral
voices—the whole ruling line of princes at Ukwama. Mediumship puts
a turn on the subjective type of divination by acting out a dramati-
cally effective dichotomy between the speaker’s ordinary presen-
tation of self and the supposed divinity’s manner of speaking. It is
not often independently invented and is not a regularly reported
feature of the Malatan cultural region. In the Mbasi case, the
spokesman for the divinity was a medium manqué. He didn’t present
trance or other outward signs of inward (spiritual) transformation.
This may seem to betray amateurism, but the routine was made
effective by night-time rants in the numinous voice of Mbasi himself,
and this may have been the routine of choice in those days for
presenting this divinity. Mbasi was not new to the Corridor scene in
1892, nor was his ‘medium’ the first or last to speak for the divinity.
We know nothing to guide conjecture about the herdsman’s
recruitment. Self-recruitment would not surprise.

The evidence is overwhelming that before missionaries singled

out Mbasi as the main name of the main Shetani on the valley floor
there were many more free divinities of varying stature, some with
localized shrines and others more or less deracinated. Peter Weber
maps thirteen ‘cult centers’ in uNyakyusa, each accredited as
ancient through careful interviews in the 1990s, including one
attributed to Mbasi. But the Mbasi the Germans had to deal with
kept no local shrine. We have to keep in mind that each ‘cult centre’
would be steered by a mortal, fallible, and not always utterly
convincing person. Mbasi’s spokesman in German times quite soon
came to grief. The great survival advantage the free divinities enjoy
derives from the longevity of a mythic name, and the fuzzy logic
connecting that name to a face, a place, and a time. But as for
shrines, like small businesses everywhere, they are not easy to pass
on to a capable heir. It is not clear the Lwembe shrine, which was
closed for business through the last decades of the British pax and
only reopened after national independence, would have had preem-
inent standing in the Wilsons’ Selya, had the steady Kinga clientage
not underwritten its credit. What is notable is the sensitivity of
such a business to market forces. By the 1990s the trade in
mystical revelations had enjoyed three decades of deregulation. ‡

Could anyone with the right talent aspire to producing the

Mbasi oracle? The setup was not like that of a fixed cult centre to
which a public seeks as if to a known healer. Here was a fly-by-night
oracle on the move, opportunistically using or even stirring up

trouble for his own ends. Neither was the setup like prophecy, looking
to what Fate has in store. This was an oracle offering to stay the
hand of a vengeful Fate on a quid quo pro basis. Mbasi’s herdsman
(a.k.a. Mwamafungubo) might have been a young man running a confi-
dence game. When his warnings missed their mark he would not be
around to take responsibility for failure. He had the advantage of the
itinerant in escaping claims. I was not immediately impressed. For
me, what eventually made the case significant was its mischievous
career in scholarship. The revisionist story in its most inflated form
seemed to demand we give up the whole sense of Nyakyusa culture
as we had it from the particularly thorough fieldwork of Godfrey and
Monica Wilson in the 1930s/1950s. Anyone familiar with that
fieldwork could hardly be blamed for demurring. The evidence contra
Wilson may possibly be taken as hard but certainly not hefty. Monica
Wilson herself soon laid the matter to rest or to stalemate. But
what hadn’t happened was a real expansion of our understanding of
the way things must have worked for Nyakyusa in 1890. The ‘Mbasi
case’ and the literature it provoked should have moved us toward a
better sense for the developing protostate process among
Nyakyusa, and the featuring in it of the (unfinished) cooptation of
‘bush religion’ to the advantage of the courts. Here was a clue to a
continuing ‘process’ where we had had only a seemingly finished
‘structure’. The revisionist critique started out well but lost its

The position I am taking runs quite contrary to Monica Wilson’s

most emphatic critic, Marcia Wright, who sees Lwembe and Mbasi as
contemporary spokesmen for two ‘rival hero cults’. The implications
are staggering. It is as if proselytizing ‘cult leaders’ were competing
for congregations just as chiefs compete for warlike followings. Now
I fear the devil has got into our house by the back door. Angry spirits,
small-minded and abusive as is their style, are made into Titans.
Wright’s fundamental premises about the lifestyle and beliefs of the
Valley floor peoples are not mine. The historically linear picture which
she develops on these premises is centred around tangential
archival evidence which almost never can be thought penetrating,
and can’t possibly be thought relevant and rich enough to confirm or
disconfirm any far-reaching premise. Her retrospective time-scale
(owing nothing to the ethnography) is cut short nicely to fit the
disappearing paper trail. But as an exercise in collecting and
connecting documentary evidence, her work is distinctly worth
reading. It is comprehensive as a scholarly information source, the
more so wherever it treats of missions and missionaries, not the
peoples they ministered to. Where, as with Elise Kootz-Kretchmer in
uSafwa, she has a penetrating intelligence to inform her of the world
outside the mission station, her work is invaluable. So what sort of

counter-critique should I mount? I can begin by looking over the case
she makes. Then comparing it with mine will lead into the matter of

I sample only a few pages to represent her version of events. I

present her case under the following heads: (a) Shrines (b) Priests
(c) Cults (d) Clientage (e) Narrative.

(a) Shrines. Wright would have this both ways. Mbasi has a
shrine “only an hour away” from the new Mission station. But Mbasi
is loose-footed:

The Mbasi priest, who was not attached to any fixed ritual
centre, then decamped to Lubaga. ‡

(b) Priests. Wright consistently calls the self-styled

herdsman of Mbasi a priest. There are several objections. A priest is
a functionary in some sort of stable social order. He belongs to the
‘processual’ not the ‘extra-processual’ sphere. A priest is a priest ‘in’
and ‘to’ some congregation or community, unlike a ‘prophet’ who has
no fixed clientele. A priest is a trustee of property (such as
Kasitile’s rainstones) related to his calling. He is a functionary to
whom a case may be brought, not an entrepreneur who goes out to
find paying customers. Even bonafide shrine keepers are best not
categorized as priests. Mbasi’s spokesman fails to meet the

(c) Cults. In one sentence we have ‘the cult’ and in the next ‘the
oracle’ referring, in each case, to the same object of popular
skepticism or allegiance. If the latter term had been consistently
adhered to we would escape being told of “the Berliners, who became
engaged in a spiritual conflict with a cult of Mbasi in the neigh-
bourhood.” Rejecting an oracle is a world away from fighting a cult.
The time presence is other. An oracle is not a corporate group. What
these passages and countless others in Wright’s two reports
obtain to is a three-sided imbroglio over influence. The Mission has
tried to quash an oracular herdsman whose veracity some chiefs
have underwritten with loans of cattle and wives, while other chiefs
prefer to magnify the claims of the missionaries. There is no
evidence of a cult brought forward, if ‘cult’ means a group adhering to
a cosmic persuasion identified with a dedicated divinity. In Georg
Simmel’s terms, there is a rising potential for group conflict, but only
amongst the chiefly polities, and in any case it is of the kind that
‘they need discord in order to preserve the relationship’. When the
focal confrontation does occur between a mission and an oracle it is
better described as a collision than a duel. Neither side could have

won on its own terms, both were lucky (or smart) to walk away from
the scene. They didn’t after all speak each other’s language. So far
as we know, the ‘cult’ disappeared with its spokesman later on, after
getting into more trouble elsewhere in the valley. The persistence in
lore of an Mbasi even a century later as a free divinity in the Konde
cosmos was not compromised by the failure of an oracle using his
name. But this is not saying an ‘Mbasi cult’ so persisted.‡‡

(d) Clientage. A system of clientage is implicit in all Marcia

Wright’s accounts of ‘cults and politics’, but there is no evidence she
understands its workings. None of us do or will know the details of
19th century patron-client relations, shifting as they clearly were,
among established and aspiring princes (chiefs). But consider this
bit of narrative:

An armed party of Mwanjabara’s men came from the plains to

force Mwaihojo to appease the god...

I set aside the careless use of the ‘god’ idea. What we know is
that in the general confusion about the blame for a rinderpest
epidemic ‘Mbasi’ was quick to claim responsibility, and a plains party
was sent (armed as always) to investigate. We certainly don’t know
that anyone was holding Mwaihojo or any other chief responsible for
the epidemic. Mwanjabara’s lieutenant seems to have been passed
over to the missionaries. There was a stand-off and withdrawal.
What had happened? Clientage is a system by which direct conflicts
between chiefs or headmen are turned to indirection—the play is to
gain influence and clientele by discrediting a rival. Each player is thus
bound to get into the game where the prize would magnify his
political persona. Almost every narrative of chiefly alliance and
conflict in Wright’s gloss assumes we can know how their system
worked by reference to the way we like to play chess or war. But in
this case we can’t even see the chess board. ‡

(e) Narrative. Historical narrative tries to serve as a roadmap

in time, showing how people got from one documented condition to
another. The usual ploy is to impute motive, as though history were a
series of premeditated actions. Everyone understands the heuristic
need for narrative, but everyone doesn’t condone ‘connecting the
dots’ between tangentially known positions in a culture—a moral
universe—which the writer is unable to describe. None of us is
qualified with respect to pax-time Nyakyusa chiefs. Much as we owe
to Charsley’s armchair initiative in taking up the puzzles in the
Wilsons’ ethnography, it is regrettable that he had to ‘romance’ the
task with a question-begging narrative voice. Marcia Wright only
follows his cue in supposing she can reconstruct ‘Nyakyusa cults and

politics in the later nineteenth century’ from missionary notes and
letters concerning their dealings with chiefs and oracles about
whom half of what we know is their names. Here is a quick sample of
Wright’s narrative voice:

For their part the resistant princes now turned to the heroic
tradition to legitimate and consecrate their resistance. For a prince
like Mwanjabala, who had once supported the Mbasi priests, there
was now no alternative but to support the Lwembe...It is unknown
what role Lwembe himself played in the ceremony, or whether anyone
represented the German enemy as a pestilence, seizing cattle and
disturbing the people...The princes were under great pressure of
public opinion, and the whole style of religion and politics was in crisis.

There is in fact a great deal that is unknown. Scraps have been

organized into coherent narrative. Unfortunately, coherence as such
is not a sterling virtue in historiography. What isn’t unknown about
the Living Lwembe is that he was not the star player she portrays in
the political arena. As for ‘the pressure of public opinion’ I find that a
particularly obtuse way to explain that, five years further on into
this occupation of their country by hubristic aliens, responsible
princes would finally turn to confront their enemy. I say this, of
course, only to lend weight to my distrust of narrative and its

But I am not fond of fighting rhetoric with rhetoric. Ethno-

graphic reconstruction is a non-narrative approach to historiog-
raphy, and I prefer it. It tries not to be seamless or didactic, its aim
is like the fairy-tale carver in wood to unveil and free what was
already there. It is my general premise that the religious style of
traditional uNyakyusa was radically pluralistic and had never been
organized around congregational ‘hero cults’. (Are there cults
without congregation?) The only Nyakyusa congregations were
those loosely organized about a chiefly burial shrine. All members of
the relevant chiefdom, including immigrants, looked to the ancestral
figure buried in the chiefdom’s sacred grove as the invigilator of their
destiny just as if they were true descendants. Such was the power
of peer pressure then. Regular communal rituals comprised the
separate theatrical spectacles of each such congregation. But to
ground my argument firmly in the ethnography a closer review of
evidence is wanted. As Charsley used ‘Mbasi’ to investigate the
chiefly dramatis personae in precolonial uNyakyusa, I would use
Mbasi the ‘free divinity’ to investigate the social ground on which the
pioneering of political authority had to find a footing.

The story of ‘the mischievous medium’ with very careful
retelling and editorial spin might let us emerge with an acceptable
sense for Nyakyusa history, building from tactical deconstruction of
old and new models. I promise only a little more of that. My point of
departure is the premise I take away from ‘Mbasi’ that Nyakyusa
chiefs faced some loss of their legitimacy whenever they were faced
with ‘territorial’ portents. Their only means for keeping face was the
military one. The same would not have been the case in remote pre-
chiefly times for the localist regimes headed by hereditary pop-up
leaders whose ritual prowess, allowing access to parental shades,
was home-grown and not translocal. Arena politics had not been
invented. Territorial shrines, like Lwembe’s at Lubaga, grew up or
moved into the Corridor with newcomers in a pluralistic fashion,
matching the needs of people spread wide in an extended pedestrian
area. To survive, the self-employed doctors must be many not few,
because it takes time and chance as much as talent to see the end
to a disease or a natural disaster. Mwamafungubo is an example of a
doctor who overplays his hand. He is very smart but not cagey
enough in the playing. It was the genius of Eastern Bantu cosmol-
ogies to recruit the victims of any standing ecological threat to the
game of finding its cause and propitiating the free divinity who might
confess to being at mischief. This is a common-sense reading of the
pragmatics of a religion of blame. It is not the religious reality
Kasitile (in Selya) or Tunginiye (in Ukwama) would teach us. But I think
it reveals something that has always been veiled even from the
foremost Malatan intellectuals, yet always was there.

By juxtaposing Kinga (Sanga) with Konde (Nyakyusa) we have

one system which has sacralized agriculture and centred its
mysteries in the high courts, and another system whose chiefs are
focused in war or keeping the peace through the resolution of private
trouble cases, and remains radically dependent on apolitical
agencies. When the two parties meet in the Lwembe grove at Lubaga,
the Kinga priests are facing a far more powerful divinity than the
Nyakyusa, its familiars, who treat it as one among many and
possibly not infallible. When a Kinga priest at a Lubaga gathering told
his Nyakyusa colleagues, ‘you are all witches’, I think he was aware of
the multidimensional geometry of trust in uNkyakyusa and
comparing it to a more simply triangular logic of trust in uKinga,
where only a witch would question the court’s authority. Mbasi can
represent, I surmise, the Konde voices Kinga would not have been
attuned to hear on their visits in the 1890s, but knew of distantly.

The title early European accounts used for all Nyakyusa-

speakers—‘the Konde’—is especially appropriate in this review as I
move to addressing cosmology, a subject only loosely tied to place;

and since, in turning to reconstructive interpretation, I need a
broader reach: Selya has to be seen in the fuller context of a regional
history. So I include the whole population of which Monica Wilson’s
Selya chiefdoms comprise only one especially well studied part. It is
important we have in mind the pluralistic identity of ‘Nyakyusa’
males as they are still portrayed by the Wilsons well after the pax.
Bearing arms ‘for the Nyakyusa’ happened rarely. A man’s primary
political identity was with his peer village and (most often through
its commoner headman) with a chief able to keep his respect.
Fighting was ordinarily against some (if perhaps beside other)
Nyakyusa chiefs. The pax made a system look stable, which earlier
had certainly been guaranteed turbulence. The deployment of force
had become the organizing framework of Konde society long before
the Ngoni and then the Sangu and the Germans came. But unlike the
Kinga, the Konde protostate process outside uNgonde itself didn’t
integrate religion with politics above the level of the chiefly segment.

I have dealt with ‘the Malatan peoples’ as a regional culture

including three distinguishable protostate processes. My main
problematic has been the relationship between Kinga and (Selya)
Nyakyusa. We are in position to consider these two as linked partici-
pants in the evolution of translocal social systems. The Selya
evidence is the best I have for judging the maturity of the
protostate process among the Sangas’ Rift Valley neighbours.
Identifying ‘Nyakyusa’ narrowly with ‘Selya’ and shifting to ‘Konde’
offers a panoramic focus even while mooting automatic falsification
of points I might make where ‘the ethnographic evidence’ of Selya is
ambiguous or seems to conflict. Broadening the scope of detailed
comparison to include Ungonde—Konde south of the Songwe River—
if that were feasible, would bring in details of a splinter Konde
community which had already drawn away politically from the plains
Nyakyusa to form a compact pyramidal state. Using the available
Ngonde evidence would allow concrete measures of difference within
the Konde community. I’ve had to forgo that project as a step too
far. But merely saying so much (and reminding a reader that all
Nyakyusa-speakers were never claimed to be sufficiently described
in the definitive ‘Nyakyusa’ monographs) makes it easier to focus on
the dynamics of change in the Corridor region as it must have
affected Kinga political awareness. Kinga, after all, were proudly the
source of the great ‘Nguluve’ migrations which are supposed to have
supplied the Konde with their royals.

Konde communities have not all followed one historical track,

nor had any of them unless it be Ungonde itself drawn hard bound-
aries and ‘settled into pattern’ before the colonial pax. The rest of
the Konde lie athwart the Corridor, occupying its most attractive

ecological zone. All Konde speak one language with dialect variants,
indicating a high rate of internal circulation. But it is essential to
have in mind that, despite notable statelike developments, the
Konde of the Corridor know very little of hard internal or external
boundaries, both of which are salient, hard-won waypoints in political
development. Konde boundaries are not lines between parcels of land
but implicit lines between groups supposing themselves dependent
on different chiefly ancestor shrines for their welfare. The Nyakyusa/
Ngonde difference is understandable as a function of political
ecology: once Ungonde has become a fortress state, its politics
changes accordingly. But formerly this was the part of the Malatan
region least well isolated from external connection (Swahili/Arab
ivory and slave traders) or telling collision (Bemba, Ngoni). As for the
other (Corridor) Konde communities, since they were many
chiefdoms they had the Hydra’s advantage with respect to defense:
cut one down and two pop up. But what should be understood is that
this kind of chiefly organization is inherently instable. It must be
such that large forces can be massed at need, yet be a system in
which massive force readily breaks down into politically autonomous,
self-supporting, but potentially warring parts.

The picture we have from the Wilsons can mislead a reader

accustomed to the ‘one-culture = one-system = one polity’ format
toward which ethnographic reporting used to lean. If as a practical
matter anthropologists must make free to concentrate fieldwork
on one segment of a grander historic whole, and if we will picture this
segment as a self-containing, self-stabilizing ‘structure’, the logic of
science asks us at least to note what we have cut away from the
specimen we claim to describe. When a human community involves
itself in the kind of systemic growth-and-transformation I call a
‘protostate process’, translocal relations begin to supplement and
replace local praxis. For Konde, intermixture was accelerated owing
to the delayed marriage age for men, which left males free to move
and breach whatever casual borders might be forming. This was
combined with a high rate of polygyny for older men, which collected
females from far corners into a single extended household in any one
of the six or eight senior villages which might be found in each chiefly
realm. The cattle-bridewealth system had supplanted marriage
choice on the basis of kin-partnership or prior acquaintance. Konde
culture became a living mosaic, coherent by reason of common
language and ideas but far from homogenized. It goes without
saying, though, that local informants (especially after a generation
of the pax) would unlikely picture the matter so. It has not even been
possible on the records to be sure just which Konde communities
actually would have had the signature Nyakyusa age-village system,
with its climactic institution the ubusooka, in 1890.

Is oral history not the way to resolve questions of this kind?
Interviewers encounter the same spectator paradox a reporter
meets in reconstructing a street accident. It is not simply that
some observers misremember, but that each of them has seen only
what he or she was prepared to by nature, situation, and experience.
Human wisdom is a function of the number and kind of private intel-
lectual matrices a person has for assimilating novelty. When it
comes to hearsay history, the differential preparation of individuals
is hard to exaggerate. Rule One in the interpretation of turbulent
cultures might be looking for laminations. That is, digging for more in
any individual’s testimony on the chance of finding what is not just
new but is revealingly incongruent with more superficial information.
If you are prepared to think of ‘thick description’ as the essence of
good history, you will know that even the best informant can’t supply
what scholarship needs. Even a Kasitile (Konde) or a Tunginiye (Kinga)
is no scholar from Mars. The ‘case of Mbasi’ well illustrates the diffi-
culty of trusting information as if it were knowledge.

The story of ‘Mbasi’ as it has been represented in the profes-

sional literature is wanting in the kind of interpretive key which turns
chronicle into history, narrative into telling social theatre. But the
play bears clearly on two issues: the expansive quotient which we
should read from the periodical ‘coming out’ ceremonies—the nut
Charsley set out to crack—and the importance of theistic patterns
in Konde religion. These are both significant ethnographic questions
where our aim is constructing a model of ‘unspoiled’ Konde life and
thought. So far in the critical literature, differences in premise and
emphasis have led to incongruous conclusions. Two matters of
principle need attention:

(1) Were the Nyakyusa in a phase of ‘predatory expansion’ in

their Rift Valley habitat in the decades before the European take-
over? The ethnographers seem to say yes, an historian says no. My
premise is that Konde culture was clearly expanding, but that the
mechanism is more like recruitment than predation—assimilation or
‘internal colonialism’ is to be distinguished from geopolitical
domination. There was no ethnic stratification entailed, though the
semblance of it may appear in the aristocratic claims of the princely
estate from which chiefs are drawn. The telling point of insisting on
an aristocratic privilege to take over the highest offices of secular
authority was to limit competition for such offices and allay popular
mistrust of men assigned to them. As much of this has been settled
in previous chapters, it remains only to adumbrate some exegetic
implications. I think the most important is that Konde culture was
organized around political mobilization. I have suggested that political
ecology offers explanation. To make that more explicit, I premise my

reconstruction on the view that we can’t comprehend the meaning
of Konde village relations within a chiefly realm without relating it
first to the ‘loneliness at the top’ which is created in the ubusooka or
Coming Out ceremony, and perceiving the same effect only inten-
sified in the division of any one chief’s realm into ‘his own two villages’
and a greater number of ‘commoner’ villages each with an
independent head.

What I find especially significant is the clean separation of the

‘Nguluve aristocracy’ from which a chief must be chosen, and the
‘commoner’ population from which a lesser village headman must
come. This is achieved by rather special rules for cooling off aristo-
cratic blood and its claims, for men not chosen at their ubusooka to
be one of the two or more chiefs of the next generation. They are
barred from consideration as ‘commoner’ leaders. This is precisely
the opposite strategy to the ‘Sanga factories’ of the Kinga
protostate, where ersatz ‘Sanga’ braves are sent out to rule the
court’s periphery. It seems to me pretty clear that a commoner
village in Selya or the Plains is always in position to detach itself
from its prescribed chief when he proves unlucky or unworthy. We
have that evidence from the ‘Mbasi case’: the young chief Mwaka-
tungile who has made himself a client to the Germans is shunned by
his own commoner headmen. How else explain the taboo on kinsmen
of the chief aspiring to head a subsidiary village?

Any contrary construction of the Nyakyusa constitution

would have to account for the special fit this model has to the facts
the Wilsons offer. The persistence of aristocratic blood lines in a
system which actually picks its leaders on a merit basis does beg for
explanation. So does the Nyakyusa proclivity for breaking up a chiefly
realm when it seems to be at its apex. My explanation is that chiefly
charisma in a wilfully turbulent social system can’t simply be passed
on through priestly ritual but must be rewon with each generation by
moving the actual person in high office—in the mobilizer role for set
group activity—closer to the rank and file. A commoner man never
comes to his chief for judgement unless brought there by his own
village headman. Those who do come directly to the ultimate court
are the chief’s own villagers. The chief has, with two villages, the
extra fighting force to predominate in military exercise. Aligned
separately with each of these two chiefly villages at the Coming Out
is a short string of commoner villages each representing one
(opposed) side. This is a setup for nicely controlled inter-village
rivalries and for strategic recombination over time. Such changes
proceed organically, not according to schematic plans: ‘pre-pax’ does
mean ‘no pax’ and no steady state.

I have no doubt that in precontact conditions, when the elders
of a chiefdom decided on a Coming Out of fledgling chiefs, their hands
had often been forced. If there were peaceful years there would be
turbulent times as well. Political mobilization was the key to success
at arms, and in times of drought, epidemic, and pestilence
dissension could prove an aging lion impotent. Political theatre
empowers its star actors when it succeeds, and opens them to
scorn or ridicule when it fails.

The main legacy ‘Mbasi’ leaves us is insight into a unique African

political model. The Coming Out on careful examination turns out to
be the key institution in a strongly democratic system for
succession to power. It is ‘democratic’ in that it provides for a
heritor to power who is proven in an open political arena from a
properly nominated set of candidates, and proven not by promissory
rhetoric but a history of leadership. The system is doubly
‘democratic’ in that the arena of proof is organized around an
antipolitan ethic: unpopular means unsuccessful.

(2) What was the place of the free divinity Mbasi in Konde
cosmology? I use ‘free’ here always in loose parallel to Godfrey
Lienhardt’s classic monograph on Dinka cosmology: some Dinka divin-
ities are assigned to a clientele by birth, as ancestors are in the
Sowetan region; others are unassigned (free) and broadly available,
as are all the so-called ‘heroes’ of Malatan literature. The canonical
ethnography portrays ‘Mbasi’ rather ambiguously as a legendary
Hero name but without a distinctive legend of its own. The one ‘hero’
easily conflates with others unless you notice that this ‘Mbasi’
floats also in political space, correlating with no fixed abode either in
geography or lore. Monica Wilson found that ‘Mbasi’ was a spare
divinity name often used interchangeably with some others better
localized in the Nyakyusa pantheon. A revisionist historian added
only a touch: Mbasi was a Hero on a par with others (notably Lwembe
and Kyala) who were only mistakenly thought to be more securely
lodged in legend and myth. This then took on the corollary that the
scruffy (un-chiefly) spokesman/herdsman for Mbasi was a proper
priest and a challenger to the priests of Mbasi’s fellow free divinities.
The ‘Mbasi’ episodes in the collective Nachlass of the German
missions have thus been held to afford us a unique, neglected insight
into the political as well as the religious life of the region in tradi-
tional times. If the argument doesn’t ring quite true, it does point to
the importance of ephemeral events and movements in affecting the
Konde eidos. The lesson of this is of course that turbulence was not
restricted to secular matters in Konde life.

I find that a proper understanding of the Mbasi episodes
requires us to credit the Konde community with greater dissensus,
intellectual subtlety, and imaginative genius than the relevant liter-
ature has done. Also required is a sharpened sense for the
processual dimension in the Konde political system as we have been
able to observe it. This is a lesson I would apply broadly to our under-
standing of the civilization of the Malatan peoples and of the
Sowetan region. If I picture the Sanga protostates as better stabi-
lized than the Konde, the distinction I’m urging is not one of black and
white. I suggest that in our reconstruction of this civilization as a
free-standing historic achievement we should reconsider the
balance of eidos and ethos, beliefs and values, in the emergence of
translocal political structures as they may be seen in regional
context. Cosmological ideas tend to reflect and reflect upon the
political. In particular it is obvious that Konde and Kinga shades have
their afterlives in an underworld of no great splendor—up on earth
bad luck is to be blamed on their jealous resentment as often as on
that of a living witch. Giving their offspring trouble is the shades’
way of demanding help from their former dependents. Certainly, no
shade individually has anything like the awesome mystical power of a
well-entrenched chief. Mystical and political beliefs are symbolically
joined in the high office, whether for the Konde ruler or the Sanga.
They are also joined privately at the base, where an insistent
antipolitan ethic keeps alive that disillusioning doubt which a high
court’s political theatre is supposed to allay.

What I have found arresting in the Mbasi case is the ‘lion tamer’
heroism of the itinerant oracle. In face of the wanton devastation of
rinderpest, it seems the popular wisdom was prepared to accept
that cataclysmic vengeance was justified by the niggardly behaviour
of one young chief in refusing to lend his wife to a certain doctor
nominated (he said) to speak for the divinity. Two features are
strange. The more usual form of an oracle is theatrically effective
mediumship. But here the ‘theatre’ is hidden in the dark, and the
‘oracle’ disclaims having been there. Then there is the public scale of
the trouble matched with the private and personal scale of the
grievance. Must we, after all is said, leave our inquiry into the Konde
and their cosmos with the impression of a preposterous credulity? I
prefer to see the scenario as ‘extra-processual’. What is clear
enough is that the translocal rumour mill was running at speed.
Translocal awareness would have been active since the arrival of the
Ngoni, the Sangu, and the slave and ivory hunters from mid-century
onward. The coming of Germans in an astonishing ship has given rise
to new rumours. In this case general apprehension is stirred anew by
reports of cattle dying and, ‘They say Mbasi is angry’. This automati-
cally suggests trouble on a big scale, because it goes back to the

mythlore everyone picks up in childhood. The person everyone turns
to when trouble comes on a grand scale is their recognized chief. The
young Mwakatungila, for his part, is personally involved in a confron-
tation with the Mbasi oracle, and finding his position backed by an
obviously powerful patron in the Mission leader, decides to stand
pat. All the other chiefs are committed to chiefly action, but only
the oracle has a plan, and this is the one they cautiously begin to
follow. Marcia Wright thought just here ‘the whole system of religion
and politics was in crisis’. An askari might have thought so, but the
Nyakyusa thought Mbasi or some other divinity was angry again. My
own opinion is the security of the system depended entirely on its
ability to absorb Angst on a scale matching that of the troubles in
hand. Nothing the chiefs could have done would stop the epidemic.
This was not their view but it was their situation, and they managed
to muddle through without, for the most part, losing what matters
in politics, their personal followings. The chief least likely to lose a
follower in this system is, paradoxically, the chief who has them all
with him ready to fight whatever comes—provided, I suppose, there
are windmills and lion-tamers enough to keep them busy. ‡‡

Sifting premises

I find the observer premise which biased the missionaries

continues to bias even current analysis of Konde religion toward a
form of establishmentarianism which can’t countenance extrapro-
cessual events. Students of religion often complain that observers
have tried to judge religious institutions from the outside. Thus we
often used to hear of ancestor ‘worship’ where ‘placation’ would have
been closer. And in the case I turn to here, sage observers have taken
all Konde divinities to have been turned out by the same stamp. All,
including the faux-incarnation of Mbasi in the 1890s in Selya, are
‘hero’ divinities. Two things become obvious: ‘Mbasi’ as the proper
name of a recognized divinity is a part, if infirmly, of the Konde
cosmological scheme—thus, ‘structural’; but the ‘Mbasi episode’
wants to be read as extraprocessual. We are witness to events not
hallowed occasions, involvements not structures.

Part of the problem is encased in that word, ‘hero’: it strains

logic. It makes poor sense unless you suppose that Konde society
was obsessively competitive in just that more-than-political sense
the english word ‘hero’ wants to carry. But this supposition flies in
face of the very human evidence the German missionary records and
the canonical ethnography offer us. More than one missionary took
‘Mbasi’ as the local equivalent of Swahili ‘Shetani’, while a ‘hero’ in
Monica Wilson’s book amounts to no more than a divinity (spirit)

about whom there is a definitive myth as a ‘founding father’. A
source of confusion lies in her treatment of ‘Mbasi’ as a hero name—
for Mbasi in her texts lacks a myth (and so an identity?) unambigu-
ously his own. Certainly she nowhere intends to assert any of her
‘hero’ figures are knowable from legendary days as actual leaders of
men or founders of ruling dynasties. They belong not to history but
cosmology. Would the fearfulness of a chiefly ancestor enhance a
chief’s worldly power? Only in this sense: even a chief can pass the
buck upward.

There are at least three reasons for questioning the histo-

ricity of the ‘Mbasi’ narrative as we have it. One is simply that,
though documented, it remains anecdotal and elliptical. This makes a
superficial, connect-the-dots reading too easy. Another consider-
ation is that the original, newly settled European tellers of the tale
witnessed everything through the heavy screen of translation, and
admit achieving little real insight into the events they recount.
Fülleborn, who in his syncretic ethnography (1906) produced a
grand-scaled account of the region, finds much to discount in his
missionary sources. But the third cause for reservation is one which
makes rethinking field evidence vital. With or without Mbasi, the
Willsons’ canonical monographs are based on hallowed but arguably
untenable premises. The ‘Mbasi case’ opens that door for us.

Let me at this point retell the tale of the Mischievous Medium

in my own narrative style. The tale concerns a youngish man named
Mwamafungubo who moves about the country in an enterprising
manner collecting a one-man (or was it a two-man?) string of cattle
and wives in the name of Mbasi, a renowned but slippery divinity. The
missionaries, who interviewed a mute ‘doctor’ through his (unnamed)
companion and mouthpiece, took Mwamafungubo as a fraud and
would have discredited him, but this “herdsman of Mbasi” proved too
sure-footed. His ploy was to blame local troubles, real or fancied, on
the anger of Mbasi, boast of his own omnific powers to mediate, then
use the leverage gained to collect women and cattle to supply his
independent living. He was an itinerant seller of cures who stumbled
onto something big. From our bits of information it seems he was
always on the margin of losing credibility, but managed to escape by
moving house (complete with cattle, companion, and women) to
some far locality, there to renew the game as opportunity allowed.
He was not a spirit medium, as he didn’t present the utterances of
Mbasi as issuing from his own belly. There was no show of trance and
possession, no conversation with a spirit-being through a visible
man’s mediumship. His art was a simplified form of ventriloquism. The
project was to stage an histrionic evocation of divine anger in the
name of Mbasi. As a general thing, Konde of the time probably knew

Mbasi as a Trickster figure featured in casual folklore and
sometimes in legend. Associated with no fixed address, Mbasi had
no specific portal shrine, no rooting establishment able to continue
over the generations. The divinity was presented in the 1890s as an
unearthly voice (was there a gourd-shell megaphone?) hovering
about in the depth of night, shouting out in the high style of moral
indignation, claiming vast powers of public mischief and offering to
relent only if certain rather trivial material demands were met. The
source of the bellowing was seemingly uncanny and (meant to be)
invisible—i.e. the ghostly divinity himself, unmediated. How far does
this account oblige us to challenge Monica Wilson’s premises?

My position is that we should hold more stubbornly than she

does to the fear-and-blame motifs of Konde cosmology. The Mbasi
case specifically shows us that the fierce mystic powers of the
python lodged in the belly of a chief were always at risk of exposure
as hollow rhetoric. Mwamafungubo comes to us as a representative
of a social type which had to be well known on the Konde scene. This is
the clever, traveling entrepreneur who, once exposed, we recognize as
a trickster or confidence man. The ‘Mbasi’ impostor almost pulls off
the trick. If he had, and the new mission had been overrun, German
history in Kondeland would have begun with a massacre. Considering
that, we should have had to say the mighty band of Nyakyusa chiefs
had been proven fools or worse by a ragged diviner. Do the chiefs in
this picture know that their authority is under challenge ‘from
below’? I don’t think so because I think existential dread is the source
of all the power in the picture though none of the principals would
have agreed with me. The herdsman of Mbasi is convinced by the very
success of his confidence tricks that it is Mbasi who speaks through
him and turns the trick in his favour. The chief believes in the python
whose presence in his belly is manifested in events as impressive to
the chief as to his cowering clients or chosen enemies. A chief in this
picture is as fully entrepreneurial as the diviner. Both were
attracted to the Mission in the way any professional is attracted
to fresh opportunity. When untoward natural catastrophes
intervene (beginning with rinderpest) the presence of the Germans
in some sort of rivalry with a local diviner gives sudden importance to
his frightening claims that the reason for the disease is Mbasi’s
anger. The mystical danger in this case is affecting cattle particu-
larly in the plains area. Plains chiefs accordingly pick up the gauntlet.
They, with their priests, are as always ready to serve the needs of
their people—it goes with the office.

These questions arise from the critical literature on Mbasi:

Does the itinerant diviner in some effective fashion represent the
interest of an important un-chiefly social segment or class? Is this a

crisis driven by inflamed public opinion? Is the Mbasi oracle treading
on the toes of the Living Lwembe?

The answers I find justified at this point are these: The Mbasi
oracle has a special appeal to the un-chiefly but is driven by self
interest. Public opinion is intermittently aroused by chiefs, priests,
and independent diviners in pursuit of their respective trades. Each
of these trades depends on the manipulation of public opinion. It is a
one-dimensional view of this sophisticated society which would deny
such pragmatic qualities to its leaders and professional practi-
tioners. The Living Lwembe accepts clients at their call and deals
with them by traditional tricks of his trade—he will doubtless be
glad to hear the last of the Mbasi oracle. But Mbasi and Lwembe are
often thought to be the same divinity. An entrepreneurial model fits
the facts better than an ideological one. There are no ‘saviours’ in the

The divinity’s brief appearance on the stage of history follows a

familiar Malatan formula in all but one detail. There is the standard
presentation of vengeful anger, the claim of mystical power to punish
by plague and pestilence. But the deity’s claims on his hearers don’t
match the majesty of his anger. Beholding his demands you get no
whiff of a lordly presence. The anger is big enough but the mountain
shakes only to claim a mousey share of placation. This Mbasi seems
to want no more than a particular woman, perhaps an additional cow,
for the comfort of his ‘herdsman’, and to get that is willing to set
vast plagues in action. Fortuitously, the ‘Mbasi episodes’ took place
during first-contact years, rich in such troubles as rinderpest and
locusts. The dark-of-night performances were plainly staged to give
leverage to the faux medium himself to negotiate (through the
mouthpiece) by day, consolidate winnings, and take off to another
place before being caught in a showdown. Eventually, as it appears,
the showdown came and this particular play-out of an ‘Mbasi cult’
fell apart.

The missionaries were betrayed by their assumption that

Konde speakers had a generic word (if not a proper noun) for God. In
their wordlist ‘God’ was ‘Kyala’. But ‘Kyala’ was the name of one
locally notable divinity, ‘Mbasi’ another. Rivals they might possibly be,
but not (as the mission would have had it) actors on the field of
Good and Evil. The missionaries imagined the Konde cosmos was a
confined one, rooted in ignorance, and distortive of quotidian human
experience. But the cosmos we must consider is no simpler than the
missionary’s own. Here is Monica Wilson on the theatrics of Kyala
and Mbasi:

...The numinous quality of the heroes is conceived as contami-
nation, not holiness. Like the shades, the heroes must be ‘driven off’
lest men go mad, and it is when they have driven them away that men
are belu—white, innocent, free of anger. Men should be belu but this is
never cited as an attribute of the pagan Kyala. It is the terribleness,
not the goodness or purity of God of which the Nyakyusa are aware.
This is underlined by the fact that a madman who, ‘when he comes
home rushes off’, and ‘does not see his fellows are human beings,’ and
who ‘has a loose heart’ (i.e., is passionate and quarrelsome), or
‘whose heart curls up like a leaf in the sun, or turns upside down’, is
called ‘Mbasi’ or is said to have been ‘caught hold of by Kyala’. ‡

Here now is an earlier snapshot of ‘Mbasi’, this time as some

kind of assumed alias for ‘Lwembe’. The author is missionary Hübner,
whose tenure at the Berliner Mission Station Bulongwa (in uKinga)
was certainly a distinct success. The excerpt is from his daybook as
published in 1902, and looks backward from a fairly well established
vantage point as a successful pastor. Hübner has got ‘recent infor-
mation’ from his Kinga trustees bearing on matters (our 'Mbasi
affair') already a decade past. He may seem confused to us, as
indeed he did to Fülleborn who cites the passage, but we should have
in mind an able observer trying to make sense of the religious
discourse of his parishioners while fumbling in the dark for clues to
the baffling cosmology it reflects. Hübner’s story begins by
describing Lwembe as the actual grandfather of the present priest
of that name residing at Lubaga (in Nyakyusaland), and as a wizard
(Zauberer). The missionary recounts the tale of Lwembe’s magical
talents and the amazing circumstances of his exile—all of it freshly
retold in earnest detail—and continues as follows:

Now that the wizard was gone, famine came to Kingaland, such as
never before was known there; it was perceived as direct punishment
for the expulsion of such an important man. Emissaries from the
Kinga went after Lwembe with gifts and urgently bade him return to
his homeland, which however he refused. As a return gift he gave the
emissaries seedgrain from local bounty, wherewith uKinga was
blessed with a rich harvest. This wonder produced a great sensation,
and the famed (wizard) Lwembe accordingly became a most
honoured priest. Henceforth at the start of each new growing
season, emissaries were sent him with gifts of cattle and hoes, to
ensure his support for the coming harvest. As with the father so
with the sons, and in the old priest Lwembe’s place his successor
was shown the same honour and credit by the people. After some
time this man devised a new name for himself, saying: ‘God has newly
appeared to me, now my name is Mbasi.’ This new name brought the
wizard great riches. Yet he was no miser but slaughtered for the
emissaries something of what they had brought, and thus these
festivities continued without end. The gods as well were particularly

well disposed to him under this new name. There followed a richly
blessed year producing such fruits that in Kondeland bananas
decayed on the stock, and Kingaland as well was unable to consume
all that was grown. Likewise, the wizard understood just how far
ahead to set the time when an Enemy attack should be expected. Lo,
all that Mbasi prophesied was fulfilled. Then came the report as well
to uKinga, that Whites (our missionaries) had come to Kondeland
and settled in to cultivate. The priest-prophet was asked advice, and
he promised they would soon leave. But the prophecy was never
fulfilled, any more than the assurance that all the cattle felled by
pestilence would come back to life. These and other remaining unful-
filled prophecies gradually undermined the popular reputation of the
once so respected priest, who lost his credibility. ‡

Hübner’s Kinga informants have put together fragments of

hearsay into a narrative of their own. (Need we be reminded that all
recorded folklore is first encountered as hearsay?) The missionary in
turn has worked their testimony into a narrative his German
supporters at home will find enlightening. The Mbasi affair has moved
at least four steps beyond from the drama of a decade past: (1)
Time is foreshortened and the mystique of legend lost; (2)
Fülleborn’s complaint: the play is now about priest-wizards and their
power not about spirit beings; (3) Lwembe has become Mbasi in this
Kinga drama—awkward, but perhaps reflecting a special strategy
Kinga often evince, taking a new name as a way of taking or
pretending a fresh tack in your personal life; (4) the plot has shifted:
where the drama had once seemed to pierce the curtain veiling Konde
cosmology we are given a pat fable about false prophets.

Is it the Kinga storytellers who are confused? They may be

wildly ill-informed as to details of the ‘Mbasi case’, but the sole
criterion of clarity in myth is that it shall pierce the curtains on
what is locally acknowledged as a mystery. Kinga tellers of course
must claim the Mbasi drama for Lwembe, their own divinity, just as
some Konde said that Lwembe (in form of the living priest at Lubaga)
had finally vanquished Mbasi (in form of his intrusive spokesman) in a
challenge ordeal and so driven him off, taking back cattle and women.
All the name-change in Hübner’s document means is that some Kinga
are claiming this miraculous tale for the Sanga portfolio. The ‘new
name’ business (since ‘Mbasi’ couldn’t have been deemed a fresh
name by Konde in 1902) is distinctly a Kinga talemaker’s innovation
and so not to be taken as a nominal substitution but as a naive
equation of the two names. This is no more than we see in Monica
Wilson’s methodological shrug wherever she has to cope with local
Konde conflation of ‘Mbasi/Lwembe’ in her Nyakyusa monographs.
‘Mbasi’ was patently a new name to some Kinga folk in 1902. It was
not in general use (as ‘Lwembe’ distinctly was) among Kinga in the

1960s, though it seems folk were prepared in the 1990s to conceive
of Mbasi rather vaguely as a territorial (translocal and free) divinity
whom they should contact when visiting in the Valley. Unfortunately
he was unavailable. Hübner’s special difficulty may have been in
expecting one cosmos, whereas the myth maker thinks rather in
terms of possible worlds. Here is one of Monica Wilson’s summary
judgements on the case, which bears the signs of information from
interview rather than mission documents alone:

During the years before 1914 a man, with two boys in attendance,
posed as Mbasi and went round Selya by night, growling in a gruff
voice that he was Mbasi, and seizing cattle and fowls and food. He
was eventually taken by night, by some Christians, and died after
seven months’ imprisonment in Tukuyu. ‡

Only one premise can be helpful here in sorting the facts, and
that is easily summarized: popular theological discourse in a socially
and politically turbulent society is unlikely to be self-consistent
from time to time or place to place. Social memory sifts the ‘facts’
of history differently in different affected communities. There is no
canonical form of a myth, unless long after its death it be found in
(to scholarship) a convincing documentary form.

The main support for the premise that ‘tradition’ blows on the
wind is that this seems to be the case quite commonly throughout
the world. The pertinent corollary is that in an animistic cosmos
divinities of varied sorts come and go, flourish in popular fancy and
fade, far more easily than in orthodox worlds. A broad application in
the present instance is simply that a protostate process moves
quite gradually toward the stabilization of a cosmological dispen-
sation which will be a bulwark to political orthodoxy. I have been at
pains to demonstrate that the Kinga had moved farther in this
direction than the Nyakyusa had. The (presumptive) primary reason
for this is setting: the Sanga régimes in the Livingstone Mountains
had far less varied and troublesome social contacts to deal with
than Konde chiefs had. Or perhaps I should simply say that the Kinga
bush culture was relatively homogeneous.

Peter Weber reports from the 1990s that a busy incumbent

for the ‘divine king’ position is in place at Lubaga—a modern-day
‘Living Lwembe’. There is not only a certain traffic of Kinga visiting,
priests and a varied lot of others, but counter-traffic as well. All is in
place in what seems to be a spontaneous recreation and updating of
tradition, though I have no news of a full parade from Ukwama being
re-enacted with all its heavy symbolism:

Whereas the people who are living near the cult-center on the top
of the hill assured me that until recently they were always waiting
for the “big priest” from uKinga, on the other hand the chief-priest
who is embodying the Hero nowadays told me that quite often he is
ordered by the Kinga to visit them in order to make the rain in the
Livingstone Mountains. ‡

The lay speculations Hübner recorded concerning Mbasi/

Lwembe may be taken as a warning against finding cosmic meaning in
smalltalk about divinities. These (to us) timeless divinities are at
the same distance—beyond a cosmic arm’s length—from the typical
living teller of tales as secular heroes of the past like Kyelelo of the
West or Manduba of the East are, and hold a similar fascination. In a
society where oral discourse floats free, the sole anchor of narrative
is myth: that means (transient) authenticity, which flows from the
hallowed stature of the teller. Thus among Kinga, the Lwembe
narrative has been stable at least since it was recorded in the
Njombe District Book in the 1920s. If we ask why that should be, a
simple answer comes to mind—the existence of systematic
authority. Tellings like that Hübner recorded have been denied by
those elders who have standing as keepers of myth. So far as I can
say on evidence, the ‘Mbasi’ of the tale Hübner took down about
then-recent events in Selya—an Mbasi who is plainly not presented
as a divinity in his own right—never did achieve mythic status among

The contrary appears to be the case for Konde cosmology.

Peter Weber found that one of the five ‘cult centres’ at Lubaga
claimed Mbasi as its patron. He sees Mbasi as a plebeian hero:

Mbasi was after all the divinity of the abapina—the ordinary

people. Bwibuuka itself served, as already explained, as a place of
origin, as the place whence mankind, not the chiefs, arose. A
reprimand at Bwibuuka, the cult centre dedicated to Mbasi, was
therefore enough to remind that the political establishment had not
ruled the Nyakyusa since mythical times—that is, not quite always.

Was Mbasi indeed such a people’s hero in olden days? As my

reading of the ‘case of a mischievous medium’ and the abortive
boycott of the missions called by ‘Mbasi’ offers no support for that
view, I tend to think the proletarian Mbasi has emerged since then. It
would be surprising to find a wandering ‘herdsman’ successfully
claiming to hold the mystical key to thwarting the locusts today. It
would be even more surprising to find that a territorial cult centre
was selling its services in the very same way now as it was in earliest
German times. The Nyakyusa mind in 1890 was not inclined to blame

the politicians for the vagaries of nature. Pestilence was the work of
spirit beings like Mbasi or Lwembe, two figures often confused in
popular lore. The boycott (in which Weber finds proof of the populist
character of an ‘Mbasi’ movement) in the early months of pax was
imposed by the chiefs and after an appropriate tarrying time
aborted by them. The reason for Angst at the time was a growing
ambiguity in the German presence—growing ambivalence. We may
doubt the boycott would have been aborted if, as happened later on,
the medium’s threat had been backed just then not by the annual
return of vague doubts about the coming of rain but by the drama of
pestilence: rinderpest or a plague of locusts. If it is insecurity that
turns us to our divinities, the certainty we may find there is itself a
turn of mind.

Konde chiefs had many divinities to help them search out

truth. Given the triviality of the social issues ‘Mbasi’ was raising in
that early case (and given the great number and peripatetic habits
of the Nyakyusa priests) his threats could hardly have got assured
confirmation on all sides. In particular we learn that ‘Lwembe’ was
opposed. The Living Lwembe was appointed by a thoroughly conser-
vative synod of Nyakyusa priests from amongst their own numbers.
His opposition means theirs. I see multiplex, not uniform, implica-
tions as the thrust of a Konde religion of blame. Where turbulence is
the norm, let trial-and-error rule. It works mainly by adroitly avoiding
confrontation while time and events move on.

What reception would a Sanga court have given an aggressive

‘Mbasi’ prophet? In the actual Konde case, there was neutral ground
for a traveler in magical notions to practise. The best chiefs seem to
have preferred chasing him off at his price to chasing him down. In a
Sanga court such a ‘movement’ would have constituted insurrection
and, had it come to that, would have been dealt with accordingly. But
we are dealing in both cases with societies which legitimated the
antipolitan ethic, and that ethic normally invokes a safety-valve
mechanism for escaping confrontation. For Konde, the peer-group
ethic, which Monica Wilson found key to the moral strategies of men,
was brittle. When it broke, the dissident was instantly welcome to
join some other group. But it doesn’t surprise that, with kinship de-
localized and in the virtual absence of the ancient land tenure rights
which only vestigially survive, peer loyalty held. No such compelling
ties bound commoner villages to their chief’s. The political system
which the periodic Coming Out fostered was elastic where the Sanga
was firmly buttressed. A collective shift of loyalties meant a major
rupture—a Kyelelo, for example, and his endless war against the
Sanga-led but still un-Sanga Mahanzi.

Konde cosmology could embrace innumerable spirit beings, any
one of whom might through divination claim responsibility for
punishing acts of some kind, visited on some unlucky individual or
community. As a rule of thumb, I suggest a self-employed diviner
would expect the range of free divinities available in a typical trouble
case would be quite like the range of dead kinsmen close enough to a
client to qualify for blame, or like the range of living kinsmen or
affines who might credibly be accused as witches. There is always a
handful of suspects, never less or more. We have to deal with a
religion of blame not fear, though the distinction may be hard for a
deeply Christian mind to accommodate. In religions of fear, a believer
is responsible, in the manner of a child to an all-seeing parent, for
‘being good’. In classic (ideal-typical) animism divinities are not inter-
ested in your welfare but their own. If a divinity seems to have
punished you, it is not for crossing your neighbour but miffing the
divinity. You will not find a spirit ready to be your moral guardian.
When spirits decide they want something you can give, they will bully
you for it in their own, well recognized ways.

It is particularly clear when invisible agents seem to be

chastising the multitudes that the problem is to recognize which of
the several hostile spirits is behind the trouble, and what sort of
appeasement must be offered. This work is not going to be done by
‘multitudes’ but their agents. Religion in this way flows into politics.
As for panicked publics, though, I find no evidence the Nyakyusa
political system was shattered by the Mbasi affair. It is at least in
some good measure pestilence, disease, and drought which drive a
human community into some form of political organization which
allows panic—or call it fear or dread—to go through channels. In the
Nyakyusa case, this can entail some turbulence. That is the way a
firmly agonistic system works.

But what I see in the case of Lwembe and the Sanga chiefs is a
neater compound of politics and religion, fear and blame. Where there
is an original sin there is an Original Blame, shared by the multitude.
Only the principals to the original acts against Lwembe can still his
anger. The greater and more general the Angst, the firmer the
court’s hold on its public.

How far the Konde mind had shifted from classic animism
toward a tenuous (poly)theism we can’t know precisely. Peter Weber
finds support in the symbolism literature for taking Lwembe as the
first Konde sky-god. For Kinga, in any event, Lwembe is certainly and
radically chthonic. But from what the Wilsons found in the 1930s I
believe any Konde shift from shades to gods, when Christian and
some Muslim overlays are set aside, was more apparent than real.

The main free divinity then who seemed to be making a transition to
a post-animist cosmos was Kyala, but that is only as one might have
expected. He had been adopted by the Missions, and the rhetoric of
deism is catching.

As for late nineteenth-century conditions, I have set out my

reasons for caution in using ‘cult’ to construe the Konde record. I find
the term usually inappropriate for Kinga practice, where divinatory
practice doesn’t lend itself to inspiring a congregation of believers
but seems always to have been practised solo, without retinue or
apprentice, for pay. But if ‘cult’ may be somewhat misleading as a
tool for revising Monica Wilson’s work on Nyakyusa ritual practice,
one facet of the word is enough to support its continued use: it fits
the facts of religious pluralism. Given that one portal ‘cult’ doesn’t
set out to vanquish another, still business rivalries must arise in a
setting where trouble-clients go shopping about for the best in
doctoring—just as we see modern Kinga doing in Peter Weber’s inter-
esting account.

Konde/Kinga cosmology in perspective

What we have been considering is a special strength and

special weakness of religions of blame. As translocal contacts and
‘winds of change’ break up the consensual fabric of an acephalous
pedestrian community, manipulative activity moves from mumble to
rumble. One manifestation is the emergence of translocal authority
roles. Another, always with a strong political coloring, is the ordeal—
turning witchcraft fears into trouble cases which leaders of a new
stamp can use as political spectacle. Witch ridding ‘cults’ represent
a different, more transitory phenomenon and may burgeon in the
lapse or absence of an effective chiefly executive. Wherever there is
a coincidence of chiefly incompetence with tormenting times we
should probably expect the appearance of rival claimants to magical
wisdom or magisterial calling. I do not suppose in the Malatan case
that witch-ridding cults were present before translocal politics
began, and it seems they were new on the scene after colonial rule
had effectively barred the ordeal. Witch-finding impresarios did
thrive, unblessed by authority, in early decades of the pax, when
salaried chiefs found their hands tied. The Mbasi ‘cult’ we glimpse in
German missionary documents present yet another format for
turning the special weakness of animisms to manipulative purpose.
I’ve noted the word ‘cult’ is strong, heavily weighted now by its appli-
cation to recent Western history. The vulgar connotation is ‘enthu-
siasm’. But where the ‘Lwembe cult’ is obviously not of that stripe,
an ‘Mbasi cult’ easily slips over the semantic line—the word wants to

become too spongy for use without special gloss. I have tried to
show that the ‘rival cult hypothesis’ implicit in the revisionists’
argument doesn’t fit the facts as known.

Malatan geology makes Konde country good for ‘portal cults’,

which grow around a netherworld access (one which, for instance, a
python might frequent, whether for water itself, a secure retreat, or
the small game attracted to a secluded spring). These are likely to
be spots off the main track for tillage and human traffic. Look at the
matter pragmatically. The portal curator having to make the most
of his venue, an obvious way to that end is to offer ‘territorial’
services. That is, he must be seen to remain free of local political
overlords and keep a practice open to pilgrims from a broad, trans-
local territory. On the evidence we have, an Mbasi cult is something
else entirely. One might call it mystical street theatre. The oracle
presents himself as everyman’s natural rival, a know-it-all. The lines
could be written for Punch. The particular German missionaries who
tilted with ‘Mbasi’ (in the scant few scenes we have to suggest their
drama in Selya) were indulgent participant observers, like the
anthropologists and historians who have followed their lead. The
trouble is the record as it stands fails to choose between genuine
and spurious aspects of Konde religious and public life. Native
Selyans may have set aside doubt as they were drawn into the thick,
but in the sequel (so far as we may know it) their plurality of frame
becomes clear. Humanity everywhere survives by employing an if-
then/as-if interpretive frame. Without belaboring Sapir’s well-known
distinction, I take it that the action of ripping off your friends can
serve as a touchstone for what is spurious, while actions reaffirming
such values as kinship and friendship may stand for the genuine in
any culture. To assume Konde culture is not capable of spawning and
supporting spurious (extraprocessual, anti-structural) perfor-
mance is to deny a magnetic community due respect. In particular, an
assimilation of all the divinities the Germans ran across to a
stereotype of the ‘heroic cult’ offers little sense of depth either in
time or character.

I have wanted to make a clear break from the reigning wisdom

of accepting the Mbasi narrative as evidence of a priestly ‘rivalry
among equals’. I find unacceptable the picture of a ‘battle of the
heroes’ staged by their respective priest-curators. Once you accept
established thinking about territorial cults it seems likely the Mbasi
episode represents the incursion of a fresh social type into that
day’s politico-ritual arena, challenging local practice. It isn’t clear to
me that Mwamafungubo (as the ‘herdsman of Mbasi’ called himself)
had any more legitimate standing in the Selya neighborhood than the
German missionaries had. Both claimed powerful spirit patronage,

but the advantage of the native Konde speaker was in experience
and tactics. Mwamafungubo had apparently been living by his wits
for some years as a roving presence (nuisance) in the Konde
community: the evidence is that he had already collected for himself
a small herd of cattle and a modest company of wives. When his
original effort to present as a client to the Germans failed, he
claimed them as his clients—he had brought them in. When next they
cried ‘Shetani’ he cried it back. They were straight and he was slick.
So I read the case. But just as we don’t style this Mbasi as a rival of
the Mission, we don’t style him as a ‘rival’ of the established priest-
hoods. He is a thorn in their side. He doesn’t threaten to replace
them. The ethnography shows the Lwembe, with his arduous taboos,
as a priest among priests, not a free-spirited ‘doctor among

To some degree the fault has been with the language of

discourse. The notion of a chthonic ‘hero’ guarding each portal to the
netherworld has given the land of the Konde a suspiciously Olympian
look. Lwembe as Mbasi-the-Creative-Trickster was indeed some sort
of hero in the (romantic) fictional sense, a protagonist in a tale of his
own—ultimately defeated—adventure in political subversion. But
seen in the context of ritual action, a ‘hero’ Lwembe is certainly not,
for he is a magician of the most dangerous sort, difficult to appease.
The Lwembe ‘cult’ is deeply misunderstood where the deity is
pictured as an emissary sent to the Konde to establish new
standards of civilization. This is to conflate Lwembe with the
legendary Nguluve, said to have led an exogenous princely party to
transform and rule the Konde. A Konde prince is no recluse. Lwembe
was banished not ‘sent forth’. He was subversive, feared, and out of
control. He could not be commanded, only placated at last with
arduous collective effort and ostentatious expense, employing the
special skills of knowledge-masters in the regional community.
Olympian? One might think of Hephaestus; but empyrean rivalries on
behalf of hero-herdsmen? No. What we have to consider is less

We must judge the pace of a long-term movement away from a

deeply established chthonic religion, always requiring self-help,
toward ‘ceremonialism’—religious theatre. If regionally exogenous
factors are not overwhelming, this kind of holistic change should be
gradual enough to provoke no signs of marked disorganization. Yet in
any historic instance the paths of change would be predictable only
in principle, not detail. By the same token, the use of oral history in
reconstructing past processes can only benefit from skepticism.
Let us suppose the movement begins with migratory drift: in this
case, the migrants are individuals and small groups with marginally

better farming technics, moving into more sparsely settled parts of
the larger Sowetan region. We may picture loosely connected pedes-
trian communities embedded in a gradual flow of individual culture
bearers looking, in the main, for a marginally better living but encoun-
tering resistance of the sort which intensifies a need for adaptive
change. One result is the emergence of new political institutions.
Another is the elaboration of new ways of dealing with the kind of
private woe which stresses social ties. We have two novelties which
are made for each other.

I am supposing that the interworking of these two strains can

lead to a protostate process giving prominence to secular rulers
cooperating with priestly keepers of a powerful ritual theatre. It is
particularly in this last that Kinga and Konde versions of state-
building differ. Konde culture as represented in the Selya studies
gives great scope to life-cycle/kinship ritual where Kinga does not.
Communal rituals at the Sanga courts are those of an agrarian
society whose crops are proclaimed to depend on the regular ritual
reinforcement of fixed order among a known assortment of domains
and realms, envisaged as a single, pyramidal structure. Communal
rites of the Konde in Selya emphatically sanction political pluralism,
where Kinga balance local autonomy with translocal dependency of
the ‘symbolic’ or ‘genuflecting’ sort.

Konde narrators often glibly conflate ‘Mbasi’ and ‘Lwembe’ in

telling the tale of the Lubaga divinity. While some confusions may be
due to colonial ‘noise’ the utterly undogmatic nature of animistic
thought can easily explain all of them. Sometimes in Konde/Kinga
discourse ‘Mbasi’ just means something like ‘Fugitive Trickster’.
Monica Wilson heard the meaning ‘lwembe’ (‘razor’) in the high
divinity’s name. This reflects particularly a facet of local knowledge
of pythons, since the known way to kill one was with a sharp-edged
reed or still better a palm-held knife of the sort used for shaving.
These knives are made by the Kinga smiths and traded to the valley.
So ‘Lwembe’ from uKinga becomes the python-killer, an unsaintly St.
George. A python would have to be mastered by its meeting a hero
with its own mystical kind of personal strength and armed with a
razor as well. So the essential idea Wilson found conveyed by the
name is that Lwembe should be understood as a divinity of higher
order than the pythons of the Konde or Sanga courts’ sacred
groves. There are two suitable meanings: Lord of the Pythons, or
Master of a New Order replacing the decentralized pre-chiefly
political organization. The old order comprised largely exogamous
and ritually autonomous local settlements headed by a pop-up
leader, heir to an original settler and Owner of the Land. I find no
need to choose between the two meanings.

Divinities’ names can operate as concepts in legendary
narrative. This hero of folk fiction is indeed a hero of legend to those
who find themselves wrestling against tyranny—let us grant that is
what, for some, his story could be about. But when Lwembe is
approached in time of trouble it is not as a potentially friendly inter-
cessor but as a fierce divinity whose anger has been roused. If ‘Mbasi’
seems to share all his magic but little of his majesty with ‘Lwembe’,
there may be ground to grant Mbasi less weight. I fear we know too
little about this, but we do know that the Konde Lwembe and the
Kinga are not deeply one and the same.

The territorial cults of (especially) Malawi and Zambia are

contingent here, both geographically and analytically, though the
weight we should give to south-north influence on Konde in the more
purely ritual order is not clear. The influence from that direction
which is clear, though, is that of the Ngoni. They imposed a series of
sorties and long-lasting settlements in the Corridor region during
the midcentury period and after. Mpezeni’s group was formed in the
northern reaches of the Corridor after Zwangendaba’s death about
1845, but didn’t withdraw from the Corridor region for another
quarter-century . Mbelwa’s kingdom, once set up in northern Malawi
with borderlands on Ungonde, remained on a nonstop war footing,
aggressive and defensive, sending out massive raiding parties into
the final decades of the century. Since the objectives of the massive
raiding parties were, apart from simply proving solidarity and
dominance, booty in slaves, cattle, and ivory, the apparent success
of the Konde peoples in holding their own has always seemed
remarkable. What I find most interesting is that this was accom-
plished by following an opposite strategy to the Ngoni—not
solidarity through massively disciplined militarism but something
closer to guerrilla tactics. Each Konde village was an autonomous,
moveable unit linked to others by deeply voluntary ties. Yet
something these two turbulences had in common was an ideological
de-emphasis of ancestralism. ‡

Margaret Read based her account on fieldwork in the 1930s in

Malawi, and especially funeral ceremonies. She found:

The attitude of the living toward the dead was one of respect and
honour, but not predominantly one of avoidance and fear as among
some of the neighboring tribes. ‡

Unfortunately, attendants at funerals anywhere else in the

region must have professed such respect. Rau sheds more light,
noting it was the Paramount Chief whose ancestors got public
praise as ‘protectors of society’, and:

Mizimu (spirits) of ancestors were occasionally identified by
vyanusi (izanusi: i.e. diviners, doctors, prophets) as causing personal
misfortune or illness, but oral accounts indicate that such
instances were infrequent. Rather than assigning personal problems
to ungratified mizimu, the Ngoni felt that most cases of misfortune
and unexplainable problems could be traced to witchcraft. ‡

It is not difficult to see that Ngoni, as an amalgam of men and

women of quite various cultural origins, would find it impolitic to
emphasize their diverse ancestry. The Nyakyusa again, having
delocalized kinship, followed a distinct strategy toward the same
goal. They gave funerals to the kin group while doing nothing to
prevent fighting at the funeral between kinsmen as visitors and the
deceased’s peer villagers as hosts. In this way neither kinship nor
political allegiance was unduly reinforced, and the split basis of
identity redounded rather to the benefit of individual freedom of
choice. Ancestor cults are famously sensitive to spatial
displacement. For one thing, it is hard to blame a spirit you may
require weeks to reach—shades stay where put. A further consider-
ation is simply that social turbulence breaks up ego’s close kinship
networks, allowing non-kin ties and rivalries to take on greater
importance. The often near presence and protracted threat of
militant Ngoni neighbours was probably at least as strong an
influence on Konde thought and praxis, as was the colonial contact
which followed and eventually pacified the Ngoni kingdoms. We have
seen that Konde social institutions had a direction of their own. But
certain ideas and values easily overflow borders. Ngoni contact with
Konde communities, though perhaps dramatically inconclusive, was
arguably as important an agent of change as were other Ngoni
contacts within the larger Sowetan region. Here are two special

Political theatre: Ngoni statecraft leaned heavily on the poison

ordeal. We have to understand that institution as a quick-and-dirty
way of converting private trouble cases which have begun to trouble
the peace into a show of imposing political power. The institution of
the ordeal is ancient and widespread in Eastern Bantu civilization,
but ranges from almost bloodless to dramatically punitive. Ngoni
influence by example would be to advertise and exacerbate the
drama, but not its use in statecraft. In absence of a heavily institu-
tionalized high-chiefly authority the poison ordeal would be adminis-
tered by local priests at the level of a moot not a court. That is,
spectacle would be subdued and blame off-loaded in a less prodigious

Prophecy: Ngoni kingdoms as we know them in pre- and post-
contact times from Malawi and Zambia had incorporated so many
diverse practitioners of diagnosis and prophecy as to stir up a true
efflorescence in these occult arts. Considering prophecy as no office
but a calling, recruitment to the role is not by routine but animus.
Cults of affliction of every sort are reported not just for Ngoni but
Cewa and many other unconquered peoples in the Central Africa
region south of the Malawi-Tanzania Corridor. Most occult arts are
everpresent in one form or another in East Africa as well, going
through periods of dormancy and arousal in response to
troublesome events. Where a protostate process is underway good
statecraft means controlling (co-opting) as much of this action as
possible. Famously, one Ngoni tyrant set a trial assignment—a trap,
indeed—to all the diviners under his court, and executed most of
them for toadying. Still the calling lived on. A prophet’s fame is
proverbially far from home. Boys pass on magic tales from one end of
the continent to another. When the times are out of joint, new
prophets will pop up. Malatan culture, in the canonical version,
tended to institutionalize prophecy through the portal cults, rulers’
ancestral shrines, and the carefully staged ordeal. Ngoni influence by
example would have been, on the one hand, to light up ambitious
young prophets everywhere; and on the other to point the benefits
of cooptation for the local ruler. But Ngoni influence by intrusion
would have been to heat up an already turbulent society, creating a
bull-market in certainties.

In the Konde case particularly and to a less degree for the

Sanga courts, the Malatan world can be seen changing by multiplying
alternatives, not by the tidier but tedious process of endogenous
institutional transmutation. Animism with all its open pluralism is
being stretched by interpolated innovations, and each community
has its own evocative symptoms. But it is only in the very long run
that pop-up innovations begin to warp the cosmos.

Kinga/Konde uses of ritual

Recall that the missionary’s fragmentary narrative concerns a

sort of prophet—a young man with some knack of ventriloquy,
presenting himself as the ‘herdsman’ and spokesman for an easily
roiled free divinity. There is something out of tune here: priests in
Nyakyusa culture are not self-appointed and are in the elder
category; yet we are asked to accept this self-promoting young man
as a ‘priest’? The clarifying context needed is a life of the mind and
spirit as richly colored and turbulent as the observable political
scene I have been concerned to reconstruct in earlier chapters—an

inner life not even as plausibly called ‘observable’ as the scene
already presented. Consider how important it has been, and how
difficult, to be aware of the difference between informant-models of
the Nyakyusa polity and actual (deemed most probable) practice.
Now apply the same consideration to ideas held about religious
matters. It is hard enough to be sure what those ideas were in the
1930s, and harder still to have anything certain to say about the
generative ideas which would have prevailed in the 1890s. Then
comes the task of reconstructing praxis: everyday life and response
to crisis. Still, having once recognized that the record can afford us
few certainties, we need to ask how we should deal with what
remains. When all is said, that means consulting the empirical
evidence, and it is not insubstantial.

Witchcraft wants its mystique. I suppose it is the very

empowerment a person may take from being suspected of mystical
powers which makes successful denial unlikely. To be called strong is
flattering. Our wandering ‘shepherd of Mbasi’ found a low-risk way to
empower himself as a for-profit prophet. As a strategy he borrows
from witchcraft but looks more like the crafty witch of fable than like
the poor chap who loses the coin-flip of a staged ordeal. Have in mind
that arcane powers are institutionalized in at least four ways in the
Selya we are given by the Wilsons. Three of these ways make
mystical power legitimate. A ruling prince, to effect respect, is
supposed to harbour a python in his belly. Priests hold offices which
give them legitimate access to the special paraphernalia and
chemical instruments of mystical power; and their use of these
instruments is subject to control only by the in-kind ploys of rival/
collegial priests. A third legitimate agent of occult power is the
spirit medium or prophet. Here are some bits from Monica Wilson’s

Reality is thought to be revealed to men in dreams, by prophets

who ‘go down thinking like the roots of a tree’ to the world of the
shades, and by oracles. What men seek to know are the causes of
misfortune—public and private—and the identity of witches...The
contemplative is not honoured in Nyakyusa tradition; the man of
spiritual power is a detective—a discoverer of evil-doers. ‡

Selya priests in the precolonial years would have known among

others these three portal shrines: Usweve based to the north in the
Porotos, Lwembe (alternatively Mbasi) at Lubaga, and Kyala (also and
for the same reasons alternatively Mbasi) to the south on the
lakeshore near Ikombe. Each is a special case, but all have access to
supernatural power of the generic kind witches are known to use in
harming others. Of Kyala, more later. Usweve the Selya priests would

at least have known through their Kinga colleagues. I have pointed
out that the Mbasi figure refers to a traveler with magical powers,
an animal maker in exile on account of those powers from his native
community. Usweve, who was sought to for relief from locust
plagues, was described by Kinga as an exiled rainmaker. He would have
been an autochthonous practitioner, first banished by a new Sanga
lord as a rival for authenticity, then by a successor on office urgently
but vainly wanted back. Other rainmakers, invaluable for the very
localness of their wisdom, in other domains did return, but Usweve
was unyielding. What we have then is a paradigmatic expression of an
animistic religion of blame, in which the narrative hero is first object,
then subject of righteous indignation. As with Lwembe, Usweve
proved himself a free divinity by plaguing his people. A witchlike figure,
envied and exiled, he escapes with supernaturally magnified powers
of terror-and-forgiveness over former friends and kin. It is a formula
which must have been applied to many more divinities than we can
reliably name. Joseph Campbell might welcome Usweve or Lwembe
into the company of his omnificent Hero, if only they would desert
their underworld abodes and claim the miracle of rebirth. I suppose
what is really at the heart of the Malatan hero myth is the logic of
social leverage. Our Mbasi impersonator was playing the very
trickster character of the legendary narrative, using special powers
to escape the trammels and injustices of the normal human
condition. We are dealing still with jealous not generous divinities.
The diameters of fear and blame, deprivation and feasting, anger and
forgiveness are dramatized wherever misfortune offers leverage—a
people informs its understanding of the cosmos, always hoping the
better to sense the part which human will must play in it. ‡ ‡

To this little homily I would add that ritual intercourse with the
spirit world in the Malatan region is esoteric. Since most people
won’t have had close and direct contact with even one major cult
centre but depend on priests for interlocution, common speech in
any part of this orally grounded culture may have its own plan as to
the importance, location, or proper name of address for any resident
spirits. About certain things priests themselves are bound to
disagree: chunks of narrative are borrowed and turned about, history
is improvised and the teller is always ready to recognize his protag-
onist by some other name. If the name ‘Mbasi’ in the episodes we
know was used to identify a spirit without a shrine and quite
possibly without free-willing clients, there were certainly many appli-
cations of that same name and many not kept for posterity. If there
is a single point to have in mind it is that Kinga/Konde culture is a
manifold system, all of which will never be seen in the frame an
outsider may regard as properly ‘evidential’.

Swahili’s two common terms for occult power, uchawi and ulozi,
have Malatan counterparts. Kinga favour a cognate to the one
(uvuhavi) and Nyakyusa a cognate to the other (ubulosi). Both words
translate as ‘witchcraft’ in english, though our ‘witch-hunt’ connota-
tions are usually misleading. Any account of the context of Malatan
witch belief should start by inquiring into the cast of mind which
equates legitimate moral authority with access to arcane power. Is
this a simple form of rank concession, or is it a yet subtler way out of
responsibility? Can the apprehension of your friend or your wife as a
witch be seen as a begrudging concession of rank in the presocial
order—the actual-cum-unofficial power scale—of your social world?
That is the order in which egos swim or sink. Tunginiye perceived a
threat from his friend which he could not withstand. By conceding
deadly powers to the other, and turning to a doctor able to match
them, Tunginiye experienced an estranging victory in his presocial
world and a heartening cure in the fully socialized world he could
return to. Had Tunginiye failed to survive, the idea of witchcraft
would have had shadowy confirmation and would have attached
itself to his suspected aggressor. Had his self-diagnosis led the
‘victim’ to a priest of the court instead of a doctor-friend, there
would have been no victory for anyone in the (ensuing) ordeal, and the
tale would have had no hero but the court itself. That is the kind of
drama I think reveals an essential political value in owning narrative

I have not located any documented information improving on

my scant field notes about Usweve. Kinga sometimes sent placatory
gifts to him at a fixed shrine-place somewhere in the hills north of
Lubaga. His pestilential specialty was locusts. Kinga myth makers
worked him into their pantheon by linking him to Lwembe by marriage
and character. Not quite consistently with the Kinga-Konde formula,
they pictured him to me rather as a pre-Sanga type of ‘doctor’ and
rainmaker than as a royal or a priest before he was ostracized by an
early Sanga ruler. Konde narrative seems to have favoured batching
such figures as Usweve in one syncretic tale of exile from the Sanga
high court in illo tempore, along with Lwembe in a ‘still younger brother’
guise. Either way, like Lwembe, Usweve had been exiled from Kinga
country and lived on as an immortal, keeping a jealous eye on his
people. Kinga say he stopped with Lwembe, who gave him a daughter
in marriage and sent him on northward with locust-control medicines
to be forever, like his father-in-law, another of Blame’s idols for the
Kinga people. In the telling by a panel of elders in the Western realm I
got hints that the Usweve shrine had been patronized by pre-Sanga
leaders and could be regarded as (in my terms) an add-on feature of
the Lwembe cult, resorted to particularly when locusts (suddenly)
threatened. Locusts don’t leave much time for priestly manoeuvring.

More I can’t say, but the measure of agreement by elders inter-
viewed in several domains was confirming. It is clear that Usweve was
considered in some circles to be just as tough as Lwembe, and I
suppose he was retrospectively married into the Lwembe line to
assign him a clear status as ally rather than rival. This may have been
needed, as Usweve (in the 1960s) was not as well known as Lwembe
in all parts of Kinga country. There are no documentary records for
an Usweve pilgrimage such as there are for the Lwembe cult centre,
and I know of no confirming notes from a supposed Usweve site in
Rungwe district. ‡‡

Any suggestion that Lwembe ‘was God’ or was a figure of

‘Good’ or of ‘Evil’ is even less pertinent than the same suggestion
about ‘Nguluve’. As an otiose creator or Adam figure, ‘Unguluwe’ (as
Kinga say the regionally important name) could be adopted to play
the role of Christian God without inspiring deep confusion in Kinga
thought. It just meant worshiping one’s apical male ancestor. No
serious displacement of the folk wisdom was entailed, as no Kinga
institution is chartered by an ‘Nguluve myth’, though what clarity
the missions might have won is not apparent. By contrast to this
otiose figure, Lwembe remained dramatically real in the 1960s
despite the languishing of his ritual; and he reappears in a new
adaptation in the nineties. When traditionally Kinga made their
expedition to Selya they wanted to ‘do business’ there and would be
looking out for credible wizards in the Rift valley to the west of their
highland country. The weather came from there, and with it the
occasional hostile infestations of insects and disease sent by the
same mystical agencies. We are dealing with an animistic worldview
not doctrinaire theism—the invisible powers are many, as are views
about which of them may wear what masks and bear what responsi-
bilities. It may be because weather (with its rains or rainless skies
and its clouds of locust) comes to Kingaland from the west that a
responsible divinity had to be sought there, but that is the sort of
thing you might hear offered by a scholar from uZungu (the West),
not by a believer.

Generous overlaps of name and function abound in a polyglot

cosmos. In new places you will find new divinities to deal with. Kinga
priests did not serve Lwembe but their individual local rulers. In a
quite pragmatic view, the priests who make the pilgrimage to Lubaga
need their Lwembe to serve their special interests. He is the main
source of their translocal prestige, and so of the influence they can
exert at home. Each priest came with his own portfolio of local
anxieties to assuage. So there was a healthy amount of improvi-
sation in the implementation of the Lwembe cult. As it wasn’t under-
taken at scheduled intervals (though Mahanzi informants told Peter

Weber in the 1990s that it probably was annual) but in response to
general ‘unrest’ of one kind or another, and as the main concerns of
the pilgrim-priests were to make firm connections with professional
colleagues all along the way, particularly within uKinga, the show
seems never to have happened quite the same way twice. It is easy
enough to accommodate all the conflicting stories recorded about
details, if you bear in mind each has reference to particular under-
takings and events of different date.

Speculative thought accumulates in granular fashion in prelit-

erate society just as it does in the less-literate segments of a more
urbanized world. All the hard granules of theological speculation once
established in the Malatan region may possibly persist in some
version even today. Neglected divinities who live on in myth may come
into fashion again. The case of Usweve illustrates. Consider that
Kinga treated Usweve as a ‘territorial’ deity with influence over only
one wide spreading pestilence. Locusts plague a given place at long
intervals of years. How is such a ‘cult’ to be maintained between? If it
is to be active, a shrine with such a far reach would have to be kept by
locals, and that entails providing a far broader range of services for a
regular local clientele. More likely is reinvention at need. As with any
institution, shrine-keeping costs must be met the year around; and
religious services are impossible to render where honour is malnour-
ished. The keepers are mystical power brokers who need to keep the
shop open and hand it on to trained successors. The known details of
the Lwembe shrine at Lubaga prove the rule. Currently, the shrine is in
revival. Peter Weber notes that both local and Kinga visitors are
currently frequenting it, and that the sorts of grievance addressed
to Lwembe are quite varied—in this version the shrine has a many-
sided business. The older version was languishing in the 1930s, with
only a makeshift arrangement for its upkeep. It is at least clear that
it was never kept up years-around only for the sake of Kinga and
other such occasional pilgrims. Consider also that Lwembe the
Prophet must enjoy more credit in far Kingaland than at home in
Selya. The ‘divine king’ imagery lived in precolonial Konde discourse for
both the Kyungu of Karonga in Ungonde and the Lwembe of Lubaga in
Selya through the purity of belief which distance allows: for the vast
numbers of believers the imagery drew its life from a hallowed text
about primal times and places unseen.

Supposing now that an embassy of Kinga priests had encoun-

tered Mbasi’s herdsman on a visit to Selya in the 1890s, what
notice would they have accorded him? There is reason to suppose it
would have been slight. This Mbasi made claims counter not parallel
to Lwembe’s. Presenting himself in street-theatre episodes, not
ceremonially, this Mbasi had no shrine-place, with supporting cast of

diverse priests, wherein to play the kind of solemn waiting-game
required. The sociology of the Lwembe shrine makes clear that in
response to plague or fear of drought the only politick solution for
the court’s priests was to be seen still hard at work on the problem
until the turmoil of fear had begun to fade of itself. Still, I do not put
it past Mbasi’s oracle to have accosted the Kinga priests, and they
would have been out of their own bailiwick. Failing intercession by a
career priest familiar with the oracle, how would the career priests
of uKinga respond?

‘Kyala’ in precontact times was another name to conjure with.

Since local names (not deities’) were used by Kinga in reference to
their visits to the lakeshore in the 1960s, the near-absence of
‘Kyala’ from my field notes needn’t mean that name was never
current in lay discourse, as it certainly had been among priests. The
regular business of Kinga with Kisi priests was doctoring the
rainstones, and Kyala’s portal shrine would have been generally
known, by whatever name, from such visits. But the rainstone
business was one the Sanga courts had not fully co-opted. Rain falls
just here and there and irregularly at the end of the dry season, and
its care thus falls to local ritualists. Some if not all these
rainmakers continued a pre-Sanga tradition of their own into the
1960s. Again the story-plot is one which accounts for placation of
one’s public without disavowing a unique mystical connection to the
hidden source of unnatural trouble. Each domain thus has in its
sacred grove a deep pot, fashioned by women in uKisi, covered and
kept moist by its location, containing a number of mischievous
rainstones. The pot must be visited from time to time as the dry
season looks to have run its course, to see that the rainstones are
secure. Magically, as the rain-priest’s visits grow more urgent, the
stones will be found missing, escaped from their dark and ritually
secluded store. Like the water they symbolize, the stones ‘run down
the mountainside’ heading back to Kisi country, a fifteen (plus) km.
strip of the Malawi lakeside. Are they ‘feeling dry’ and running down
for water? My rainpriest at Lupila wouldn’t say. He spoke of them as
one might speak of a rare animal with a mind not to be read. What is
special, on the Kinga scene, about the rainpriest is that he doesn’t
belong to the Sanga court but to the older bush culture. His name
will not be Sanga. He is of local descent and repute. He is not, and
does not see his heritage as, at one with the avanyivaha.

Before the Germans came to Lumbila to police lake traffic in

ivory and slaves, Kyala’s portal is said to have been there in a cavern
overlooking the Lumbila promontory. In Kinga folk memory the
eviction of that shrine and its keeper was ugly, but I had no infor-
mation as to the relocation of both to another cavern of similar

description (since called PaliKyala, Kyala’s place) between Ikombe and
the market centre at Matema. Though in the longer run the eviction
of the Kyala oracle, with its move much closer to population centres
in the Plains area, may have been good for business, it’s hard to
believe the status of Kyala in the regional pantheon was not
affected during the early German period, in the 1890s. Then once
‘Kyala’ was taken up as the Christian name for God, the operation of
the shrine would have reflected new ambiguities. But I think we
should suppose the Konde, like the Kinga, rather enjoyed than
deplored the license ambiguity could lend their cosmic speculum.

Monica Wilson’s review of the Konde aristocracy’s mythological

charter is to be found in the second chapter of Communal Rituals.
While her purpose is clearly to link the main free divinities of the
Konde to her chiefly genealogies, it is here she provides the fullest of
all recorded statements by a Kinga priest, Kikungubeja, of the
canonical narrative in its Sanga version. Several points bear clearly
on the status of Konde/Kinga free divinities:

(1) All the Kinga chiefs when praying in the sacred groves say the
names of their fathers who have died, and also the names of
Nkekete, Kyala, and Lwembe, in that order.

(2) Nkekete and Kyala only made crops—millet and beans. We ask
for fertility of the soil, and sunshine, and rain from them, but not
animals. From Lwembe we ask for milk, and fertility of men and cattle,
and snakes, and goats, and sheep, and all crops. Lwembe has every-
thing. We ask for sunshine and rain from Lwembe as well.

(3) When Lwembe went down into Selya he found the hill people
and the people of the plain already there. They feared him because he
had all things, and they still fear him. He was greater than Nkekete.
They cut Nkekete’s throat, but they couldn’t kill Lwembe. ‡

In the rambling account (as we have it in translation from

kiKinga through kiNyakyusa) there are also some interesting
discrepancies. First, it is unlikely a Kinga chief would personally enter
the sacred grove at his court—something has been lost in the
retelling. Nkekete’s haunting-place is either ‘at Mbela’ or ‘in a stream
with pools in it’ which is inferentially located at Lumbila. The two
versions may be resolved by equating ‘Mbela’ (locus unknown) with
the known ‘Lumbila’. Kyala’s preferred location, however, is always
given as Lumbila; it was there the Germans shot at him (i.e., his
shrine keeper) and drove him northward to an available grotto near
the shore market at Matema. Are Nkekete and Kyala, like Mbasi and
Lwembe, two casually distinguished faces of one chthonic hero? That
remains a possible resolution, granting that such composite myth-

figures result from the conjunction of ethnically separate traditions
with mutually-borrowed narrative plots. Or the matter might better
be settled more simply: in a regional culture like the Malatan all tradi-
tions will be heard in many dialects and versions. One man in a fairly
representative case might well in his lifetime subscribe to several of
them without sensing a difficulty. Kikungubeja, as arbiter of differ-
ences, must feel compelled to give a syncretic account: so all these
free divinities become ‘brothers’ within the Sanga ruling line. Other
expert tellers splice in other names and events. The myth remains

What the myth says (one of its readings) is that free divinities
are created when a superior kind of human being can’t be tolerated by
the political establishment, and is inadvertently ‘kicked upstairs’ (or
more correctly, down). Such divinities can best be understood as
antipolitan heroes. It is thus that all the free divinities we have to
consider for the Malatan region are tagged with the same narrative
schema: magical feats—exile—apotheosis as a chthonic divinity.

That the Sanga regime should have elevated such a figure to an

apical position in its open pantheon is not hard to comprehend. Intra-
mural warfare among Sanga rulers was an escalation of the
wargames each domain exercised under the auspices of its court to
wargames at the level of the princely realm. The nominal prize in this
‘great game’ was triumph not spoils; the real spoils which followed
from a triumph were new and morally renewed adherents to the
otterskin crown. The politan thrust of the Sanga system depended
on the rivalry of the leaders for the loyalties of men. The symptoms
of failure are to be seen in weakened morale and desertion; the quint-
essential politan show of strength is the vainglorious act of exiling a
man of fabulous personal power. In the narrative, the Unkekete-
Kyala-Lwembe character is just such an one, an inevitable and
irresistible strongman with whom no lesser personage could share
power. Predictably, it was Kinga priests who were most inclined to
construct syncretic versions of the magical strongman story.

The same narrative pertains in Konde cosmological thinking,

but with the difference that vainglory is displaced to the Sanga
regime in uKinga. The necessary connection is the Konde Nguluwe
fiction, by which Konde princes are made genealogically complicit in
the gods’ exile and set apart from the Valley commoners for whose
loyalty they must compete. Then for Konde as for Kinga, the
readiness of the highest secular power to atone at the spirit-world
level for a blameworthy past is the critical point of turning for the
narrative of human misfortune and redemption. But to appreciate

the critical difference between Kinga and Konde settings it may be
well to revisit the ‘case of Mbasi’ one more time.

This time we ask why the local Nyakyusa chiefs were willing to
lend credibility to Mbasi’s ‘herdsman’, almost to the point of
dropping their own ‘great game’ of internecine contest and turning
as one against the apparently benevolent missions. I take it as given
that the herdsman’s claims, counterclaims, and reverses of field
were not simply so adroitly done and so compelling as to explain the
hostile boycott of the missionaries in which most of the courts
joined. It appears the deciding factor was simply that the powers of
the chiefs were not equal to meeting natural (territory-wide)
challenges. These they would normally pass over to their priestly
colleagues; but these colleagues were even less well prepared to act
as a body than the chiefs. The Mbasi claimant was the man on the
spot on whom to off-load popular concerns about rain, dread signs of
change, and (eventually) rinderpest and locusts. Whereas the Sanga
prince had a fully established priestly entourage to turn to when
trouble arose which, of its nature, transgressed local boundaries,
the Konde prince had to deal with only transitory boundaries and a
plurality of distinctly individualistic priests, some of aristocratic
and some of commoner hue, scattered among residential enclaves of
chiefdoms of varying size and maturity. Crucially, the time-and-
spatial scheme of breakup and consolidation given by the ubusooka
institution would often if not always have left the personal links
between secular and sacred leadership tenuous. This stands in
contrast to the self-integrated Sanga system, in which continuity
of power was guarded by a co-opted priesthood whose every
interest lay in keeping close to the secular powers it served.

The sharpest image for making the difference clear between

the two systems of ritual action might be a ‘ritual mazeway’.
Assume that the point of ritual is to deal with trouble through
procedural interventions which, by appearing to deal with its source
in rational fashion, manage to sublimate the dangerous human
passions which have been aroused. Ordinary pragmatism isn’t appro-
priate when trouble goes deep enough to portend a breakdown of
order. In the Sanga case, ritual intervention leads up by solemn
procession from domain to realm and, at need, onward by the royal
road through the four realms, descending only finally to Lwembe. In
the Konde case (Selya and Plains) the mazeways are uncountable,
comprising a web in which the sense of crisis hangs suspended
perhaps for years. The prize example is Kasitile himself, the most
constant of the Wilsons’ informants but forever perplexed by his
own ailments and forever pursuing new paths toward cure in the rich
mazeways of ritual action open to him. Summary execution of a

witch, brought to the high court at Ukwama, had all the drama of high
treason, as if to prove that if the ordinary ordeal had failed to find
the witch, Destiny itself would take over. I find it hard to picture the
equivalent in the Selya I can reconstruct from testimony taken well
under a lifetime after traditional times. The standing of a ruling chief
was not, as the Lwembe oracle was, set apart and high enough.

Nyakyusa folk analysis in the Wilsons’ monographs had the

chiefs holding critical power. Yet Monica Wilson heard mid-century
youths complain that in illo tempore the chiefs had had to deal with
democratic checks, which Colonial administrations (unwittingly?)
suppressed. The skeletal facts of the Mbasi case, as recorded,
ought to be seen in this light. Mbasi is playing one chief against
another, even playing the missionaries against chiefs and local
publics. That is pretty much the whole story on the Mbasi game seen
(coolly) from the outside. The missionaries, when initially they took
the herdsman’s antics for chicanery, were at least being true to
what they perceived. I have elsewhere (1994: 204) discussed impli-
cations of the voluntary, unforced quality of the Nyakyusa ordeal. By
Kinga standards, this is a mere ‘bush’ institution.

Sanga succession was to a well entrenched office, while the

Nyakyusa postulant received only the conditional mandate of the
ubusooka—“Go forth and seek your fortune!” This left the logic of
longterm political loyalties fuzzy, and made room for spirited
outsiders. What the Mbasi narrative tells me about young Nyakyusa
princes—would-be chiefs—is that they were unusually vulnerable to
the ‘Mbasis’ of their world, because they wanted to claim, but had
not yet got the personal assurance (or call it python-power) they
would need to rule, a chiefdom. The evidence Charsley extracts from
mission records is clear on the tutelary status of the fledgling ‘chief’
Mwakatungila, vis-à-vis his more established chiefly neighbours. It
was Mwakatungila whose unlucky attempts to thwart Mbasi’s
‘herdsman’ (evidently more clever by far at wife-and-cow collecting)
found the young prince swinging between chiefly and mission
patronage for support, and even hiding out at the mission from his
own ‘councillors’. These would be the commoner headmen and inter-
ested priests looking to find the right stuff in him for leadership,
after a recent Coming Out. ‡

In the canonical doctrine, an established Nyakyusa chief

possesses mystical (witchcraft) powers prepotent over any lesser
man’s. Yet it appears that an uncanonical ‘medium’ can put the touch
not only on a fledgling but on his chiefly patrons as well, for several of
the most powerful men of Selya had ceded women and cattle to
Mbasi’s herdsman. It turns out that a ‘case of a mischievous

medium’ has told us much about the state of both religion and
politics in Kondeland. I have called it turbulent and stressed the
contrast, if always in shades of grey, to Kingaland. Client-rulers in
the Sanga system are given a piece of the political periphery of their
domain to develop as they will. Their competition is in the business of
recruiting strong followers, not besting internal rivals in power ploys.
Client rulers (fledgling chiefs) in a Nyakyusa setting are launched
into a harder game, either to win conspicuously or inconspicuously

I have argued elsewhere that turbulence is a natural feature of

any social structure, since rules (or say, the local body of common
law) are norms not reliable statements about empirical behaviour.
The whole Nyakyusa political system, as we may now understand it
to have been in free-traditional days, was built on the premise that it
is by bona fide high deeds a newly chosen prince must transform his
conditional mandate into a seat of entrenched power. The kind of
protostate process the Nyakyusa knew was actually stabilized by a
sort of ordeal of hard knocks, a periodic world renewal ceremony (the
ubusooka) unleashing the competition of duly nominated fledgling
chiefs for de facto power. If it seems paradoxical to hold that such a
measure of chaos could be needed to stabilize a polity, the evidence
is (as Charsley argued) that the ‘Coming Out’ of fledglings consti-
tuted not a succession but a hiving off which very likely left the
parent chiefdom and its important clientele formally intact (and
influential if no longer as theatrically ‘powerful’) right through an
initial phase of the regenerative cycle. That the Wilsons could have
collapsed all this drama into a ‘normal’ scenario of the old chief
retiring in order to ‘soon die’ and leave two chiefdoms in place of his
one does seem odd; but it follows from the circumstance of looking
for structure of a sort that quells turbulence. ‡

The Konde system of oblique succession may usefully be

contrasted with the well-known Banyankole system of succession
wars in Uganda. There a fully centralized autocracy was instantly
devolved with the death of the incumbent ruler to a condition of
mortal contest. Eligible princes, each backed by a cohort of local
warlords, were now fated to fight to the death for ascendancy to
the vacant office. How is it that the Konde case does not conform to
the pattern of an “African despotism” we find in the Banyankole and
other states of the Great Lakes region? ‡

I think we should look at the argument from amity, the peculiar

structural feature which sets the Malatan region apart. There is a
brittleness in the amity tie which has no counterpart in kin ties. Only
fail to affirm amity in a single episode and the tie itself is put in peril.

Political management strategies in ‘amity societies’ are quite
different to those in kin-based polities. Because the Nyakyusa
people as a whole were never left without firmly constituted central
authorities (having many chiefdoms, never in sync), and since they
were politically advanced enough to abhor a vacancy in high office,
they seem to have achieved stability over a long run through
switching loyalties, even though local pockets of low-level turbulence
were a chronic feature of the landscape. The genius of the Konde
system shows best in their age-village institution. By maximizing
kith-based male solidarity, and doing so in an especially effective
fashion, these rules gave light but durable weight to locked-in
loyalties, greater weight to moral suasion. The peculiarity of this
constitution can be called ‘bottom heavy politics’. That is, closed
pedestrian communities ultimately made the choice who to follow
into battle. Translocal power—power at a high level of protostate
structure—was only to be achieved by competing with one’s princely
colleagues for the loyalty of a number of autonomous commoner
villages. For Kinga on the one hand, the antipolitan option of
disloyalty was open only to unaided individuals. For Nyakyusa it was
also open to whole villages of able-bodied men. Again, the ‘case of
Mbasi’ provides the evidence that an aspiring chief could be
deserted by his commoner villages as well as his mentors.

I have styled the Coming Out as the critical ceremonial act in a

regenerative political cycle. Consider the domestic cycle of a herding
community, which has its critical point when the family head is
prepared to hand over cattle to a chosen heir. Suppose that the
brothers of this heir now have to look for their inheritance to him,
not their father. Then add the proviso that the whole generation of
that family head must likewise pass the care and ownership of their
cattle to heirs chosen from among their grown sons. Then you have
something like the Nyakyusa Coming Out. But when the political
aspect is considered there is this special difference, that a grand-
scaled reorganization of life is taking place, which appears to put the
security of the community in jeopardy. What begins with the Coming
Out is a ‘political renewal phase’ which will continue for a decade or
more, as a new generation of offspring are produced and a provisional
settlement pattern is fully established. Through the little window
on events we have called ‘the Mbasi case’ we have seen that the
chiefdom hosting the first Berlin mission station was in that phase
of the political cycle, and is vulnerable. A young chief trying to show
strength effectively fails and loses his commoner headmen. His
mentor, a local chief of the older generation, backs out of the matter.
An important plains chief sends up a scouting party to see what is
to be gained. And we know not what else. My argument has been that
out of this turbulence will eventually come renewed strength. Behind

the scenes we see played out there are a hundred political huddles—
steering committees, watching each turn and planning moves. Or call
it a school.

The stability Konde achieved was rooted in a kind of moral

strength in solidarity which transcended shifts in political
structure. Nyakyusa priests, some of princely hue and some
commoner, were stalwart individualists, less precisely inserted into
the political structure than priests in the Sanga domains. Probably
the rainmaker role represented the core of early Kinga priests’
terms and conditions as adjuncts to an original Sanga court. A
rainmaker divined the coming of seasonal rains by reading the
appearance of his rainstones, and claimed no inner voice or power to
control the heavens, only a special calling to monitor and control the
errant behaviour of his magically active stones. We usually make a
distinction in the study of divination between ‘objective’ and literally
oracular (godspeaking) methods. The dramatic performance of a
rainmaker, as described by Kinga practitioners, entailed the covert
kind of manipulations which Malinowski called ‘magic’: do it right and
it will achieve your aim. This represents a match to ‘objective
divination’ in that the interpreter of signs may be the bearer of bad
news but betrays no will to deceive. From another angle his situation
compares to that of the bureaucrat who claims only to shuffle
papers, not destinies. Nyakyusa priests as Monica Wilson describes
them are also readers and shufflers of objective signs or symbols.
Kasitile himself is a rainmaker with stones inherited down a long line.
Though he styles himself one of the chiefly class, what that probably
means is that he is heir himself to the (shamanistic) pop-up leader
of a pre-chiefly community. As such he represents the stand which
identifies with ‘owners of the land’ from ancient times. He styles
himself rather vaguely as ‘an hereditary priest of the chief’s lineage’
at Selya and is seen to resent signs of disrespect from commoner
priests there—they are veteran village leaders who turn to priestly
(lawyerly) work when their soldiering days are done. The title of
‘lawyer’ fits as well as ‘priest’. ‡‡

But Mbasi’s ‘herdsman’ spoke with passion in his master’s

name and in a style making him complicit in the power struggle which
ensued. This is not the lawyerly style of a priest. The Nyakyusa
ethnography offers no real close-ups of the for-profit diviner.

The one Kinga analog I know to oracular performance by a spirit

medium would have been the occasional ‘prophet’ or ‘prophetess’—
politically unaligned—one might still meet in uKinga in the 1960s.
These individuals worked as consultants not claimants, taking fees
not prizes. They used spectacle dramatically not for personal

empowerment but for setting their persons at arm’s length from
the problems their clients might bring them, and for dazzling
doubters. Would a deity share his wife with a herdsman? It is easier
with a Kinga prophet to accept that the wizardry, though mercenary
and made explicit, comes from the spirit world.

Tunginiye in the years 1937-8, while he was working as clerk of

the main court set up by the British, had dealings with a witch-finder
who was selling sweet cures to ‘witches’:

This woman diviner was called Hikadiseku. She found many

witches and always sold them the cure. She came into trouble when
the cure killed one woman, and the foetus of another was lost. It was
another person, a Pangwa man named Boimanda, son of Mjoukalala,
who prepared the cures. He took the money for each cure (a half
shilling) and split it with the lady augurer. When questioned [by
Tunginiye] she said, “I create rain and rid the land of witchcraft.” She
called on Lwembe and the whole Mwemutsi lineage by name. She said
all were gods and lived in her body. It was they who gave the orders
for all she did. She was receiving fees in cattle as well as money. She
would slaughter by night and in secret carry a portion of the meat to
Mwemutsi himself. She was a commoner but never harmed by
Mwemutsi because he had confirmed these gods were building in her
body, and she gave him proper tribute in the form of meat.

It is notable that her list of royal ancestors (god-spirits) was

always given in full. All were working together: “Imyitsitsi gyavene Their
shades have built in me.” She was a spirit medium (untsungwa) not an
objective diviner (untung’anya).

She would begin to shake uncontrollably, falling down in trance and

kicking the fire about with her feet, scattering coals vigorously at
and over her onlookers while uttering incomprehensible phrases.
When she calmed down she would sit up, take generous time for
greetings from the royal shades, and tell what the spirits had said in
response to whatever problem a client had brought. Night or day she
would divine in this way. She had many clients from uKinga, uSangu,
uNyakyusa, uBena, and uHehe—there was a constant procession.
Accused witches must be there. If they denied when found respon-
sible in the case, they could only expect death to the whole family.
She would name a price: “Your basin, your cow, your sheep—bring
them!” She had become wealthy.

I would distinguish Hikadiseku in the 1930s from our Mbasi

herdsman of the 1890s. Both are mystical entrepreneurs,
successful at their trade. Both are first and foremost performers
on a stage they set and manage themselves. Anthropologists have
to be chary about oversocializing their subjects: the Malatan scene

is rife with social types of any stripe, people who play their roles for
all they are worth, each at his or her own pleasure. The problem a
star performer has is to establish the charismatic frame a good act
needs if it is to work every time. In a protostate context that means
pulling strings. In the Kinga case there was a clear path to legiti-
mation. Hikadiseku needn’t play off one secular authority against
another. She pays off the High Prince in the same tender he chooses
to entertain and bind his own clients. But the ventriloquist cowherd
Mwamafugubo (a.k.a. Mbasi) has no such simple option: political
demesnes are fuzzily defined, the mazeways to legitimacy all dead-
ended. He is not destined like Hikadiseku to die beloved of his
countrymen. The difference is structural.

General evidence suggests, as one might expect on ecological

grounds and on the ground of known migration patterns, that
Nyakyusa were more open to ideas from the south (Malawi, Zambia,
Zimbabwe) than Kinga were. The one apotheosized ‘territorial cult’
intimately known to Kinga was that of Lwembe, located in the valley
and shared with Nyakyusa-speakers there. So located, it was
outside any Kinga ruler’s own domain. Kinga local priests worked
primarily with ‘objective’ devices: rainstones, rubbing oracles, a
poison oracle, and above all the reading of natural signs in light of
shared lore. A spirit (immepo) diviner could never be mistaken for a
priest, as Western observers have tended to do in the ‘Mbasi’ case.
For Kinga, the Lwembe shrine worked not as a primary source of
decision but as a final device of collective confirmation and
redemption, following the prolonged and careful readings and ritual-
sacrificial preparations of local court priests drawn together from
the entire array of Sanga-Mahanzi settlements. Only an ‘external
shrine’ would have served Kinga purposes, which required that visits
be rare and shared consensually among all the Sanga courts. If the
shrine were not external it would belong to one court, not all.
Nyakyusa, on the Mbasi documentation at least, can be seen to
honour the more ‘mystical’ approach to the occult, which we find
among their southern neighbours, and which there too seem to be
associated with the need for quick-and-dirty decisions in a more
turbulent political context. The Sanga pattern is not to off-load
blame hastily but meticulously and solemnly, whether accepting the
task of putting a witch to trial by a fiercely formal ordeal or discov-
ering and mediating with a responsible spirit always in the same
quasi-bureaucratic manner.

Where the sacralized seclusion of a Sanga prince could set him

hors de combat and above the turmoil of ordinary affairs—thus
dedicated to the plainly religious ends of human and garden
fertility—Nyakyusa chiefs were nothing if they were not engagés.

Only a forcefully assertive entrant could hope to prove himself in the
open political arena born of the ubusooka process. In uKinga there are
several famous cases of warrior-princes of the best Nyakyusa type,
whereas in the canonical version of the four Sanga high courts,
charisma and fierceness were for the youth of a prince-in-waiting, to
be put behind him on his ceremonial accession to rule. The (extrapro-
cessual) charismatic war-leaders best-remembered in 1960 were of
the final precontact decades. Ngotwilwe (father of or at least
predecessor in office to Sihudika in the East) had thrown the
gauntlet to the high prince of that realm. This Eastern realm was the
one soon to be shown on the German maps as Manduba’s, but the
seat of the realm was in a small, hilly domain (Igolwa, only a half day’s
walk from Ukwama), which was being dwarfed by the expanding
domain to the east. Whether Ngotwilwe was set firmly on the path
of secession, or (as I think more likely) envisaged claiming his own
domain as the ‘true’ seat of the Eastern realm, we can’t know. This is
the realm whose oral history vanished in the Maji Maji slaughter of
1905-6. In the Western realm the two Kyelelos, father and son, were
embroiled in civil war for dominance over an expanded realm pressing
into Mahanzi country. At contact, the elder (Kyelelo I the Cruel) had
finally retired in favour of his son (Kylelelo II the Cruel), and was
withdrawn to the older seat at Ihanga, just where he had in his youth
assassinated and usurped the throne of his father’s brother to
begin his career. Such seemingly errant cases are presumably echoes
of the way the original Sanga system grew—here are the vital
mechanisms of the protostate process, while the canonical consti-
tution I had from my best informants is the normative ‘structure’
toward which each of the four realms may be thought to have been

The viability of incongruous frames

The ideal-type distinction I’ve made between two worldviews,

the Konde and the Sanga, reflects a differential strain toward
congruency of frame. In viewing their worlds, Kinga tend to reject
incongruences which the Konde mind accepts as normal. Certainly
the Kinga world thrives on rivalry, but it is of the ‘nesting’ sort we are
familiar with from studies of another type of segmentary society
based on kinship and clanship. Kinga segmentation is frankly political,
though deeply premised on an antipolitan ethic of choice. Members
of any segment have ceded a right of taxation to the same court for
which the men were prepared to bear arms. Other important
rights—access to land and equal voice in a court of one’s peers—are
not subsumed under the mantle of executive authority but largely
rendered concordant with it in use. It is probably important that the

Sanga courts didn’t internally segment their recruits or allow the
formation of entrenched power cliques. Freedom of association was
built into the bachelor lifestyles of both gender groups but always
with this special ballast: dyadic withdrawal was not countenanced.
Bonding within the peer tie was not to be exclusive.

Konde rules of association dispersed young men into close-knit

age villages but focused their work collectively in service to an older
group of peers, nominally their genitors, in a long-standing peer
village of aging males and younger women and girls—all as if kinship
and descent were no basis of identity. But the law of property
actually revolved about kinship and descent, quite as if the peer
solidarity system didn’t exist. And substantial property in cattle
was the key to wealth in wives, so much so that the moral strategies
of a Nyakyusa man must always have had the accumulation of wealth
in view, quite as though the deepest personal motivation of a man
were not friendship or kinship loyalties but self-interest.

Still it would be wrong to see difference between Kinga and

Konde social arrangements simply as a matter of complexity. Youth
of both genders in uKinga lived separately from elders, developing
moral strategies specific to their sex. Pursuing a successful life-
strategy in either society, for either gender, would have been about
as difficult. There is a clear difference in Konde and Kinga social
structures, one favouring congruity and one spurning it. But from all
the observational measures we have, it seems both of these struc-
tural mazes can be learnt, and even if the neurotic loads they leave
may characteristically differ, the typical product of either life-cycle
does it no discredit.

Both worlds have room for the riskier form of divination—inspi-

ration. Kinga make it conform to the monolithic political model of a
segmentary state. Hikadiseku worked at Ukwama, the central
domain of a Sanga protostate which imagined itself pyramidal, a
segmented monolith. Whatever the divisions, however active the
rivalries for power, the Sanga model saw itself emerging from the
dust of battle in a pristine integrity. Within the Konde linguistic
community the Ngonde system resembled in this regard the Kinga.
The Nyakyusa, on the other hand, was aggressively pluralistic.
Princelings inherited (by the indirect way of their ubusooka Coming
Out) no fixed domain, only place to build a peer-village and a loosely
loyal following of other such villages—and a challenge to build this to
greatness. The difference in worldview conformed to this structural
difference in protostate architecture.

We see the contrast in their main institutions. Kinga and
Nyakyusa youths both must prove themselves in cattle raids not for
their private herds but their elders’. But when it comes to war itself,
Kinga men practice in war games, organized like a professional sport,
not the flare-ups and skirmishes so frequently cited for Nyakyusa.
Kinga and Nyakyusa both organize much of their lives primarily
around amity. But Kinga never switch from the amity-base of youth
to a domestic wealth-building phase of rampant polygyny and patria
potestas. Nyakyusa do so with a vengeance, and create dual struc-
tures of generationally stratified kinship on the one hand and
narrowly focused peer amity on the other.

The two protostates fared quite differently under the pax. For
Kinga there was a continual accumulation of decreed constitutions,
the new one always jacketing the old, all of them subtly fused in a
single ideal model to be used pragmatically ‘on the ground’ in sorting
out one’s options according to practical opportunity. In this way
time seemed not to erase the past but to continue and build on it.
There was less talk than I expected of ‘good old days’ among Kinga,
much more about great days to come. Past times in recollection
conformed to the same template as these or future times. It was a
challenge for the anthropologist to jog an informant back to the
specific conditions which must have prevailed in an earlier decade. A
little example would be the many informants who would assert that
late marriage among men must always have been due to difficulty
finding the bridewealth, all in the context of conversation stressing
the opposite—the ease with which a young man in the old days might
fetch himself the two hoes and goats he would need, once the need
was felt. The anomaly reflected no simple lack-logic but the persis-
tence of the feel of life today in the imagined life for an earlier gener-
ation. The prevailing premise was cultural continuity, and that is a
self-fulfilling premise on the deeper levels of being. The opposite was
the case young men made for Monica Wilson in the 1950s, when
generational awareness had taken on the colour of class
consciousness, and the young were restless for the autonomy a
traditional Coming Out had once thrust upon them.

The fabric of culture is rich or poor just as tapestries, texts, or

musical offerings may be. Comparing Konde and Kinga cultural styles,
it is especially the amity base they share which seems to enrich
them. I have argued elsewhere that, since amity is structurally
contingent where kinship is axiomatic, the two kinds of tie are funda-
mentally different. Cultural enrichment flows through intimate
relationships of either kind. Contingent relationships enrich a person
in the way we usually call ‘broadening’. Ties of amity to endure must
be reaffirmed at every meeting; the ties of kinship, on which so many

Bantu societies are dependent, perdure the kind of fracture which
ends friendship. The bright side of this shines in the wisdom of the
West and may be taken for granted. Of the darker side it may be too
simple to say most of the cramping done to human psyches occurs
when an ego is ‘trapped’ in a relationship, but the remark agrees with
general experience. Konde and Kinga share a way of life which keeps a
male child from being ‘trapped’ in a too-close parental tie; Kinga
provide this privilege also to female children. A community which
allows scope to amity in its social architecture produces individuals
who have established freely chosen intimacy with a series of other
individuals on the basis of social compatibility. I know this gives rise
to lively mind-games (songs, stories, skits, riddles, innuendo) among
Kinga lads and among Kinga maidens in their private houses, and
can’t doubt the same applies to Konde youth. ‡

Another kind of cultural enrichment is the one best known in

the West, coming from culture contact and the selective adoption
of foreign traits. Konde are deeper into culture contact than Kinga,
and I think that shows in their cosmologies. Konde are the more
eclectic, Kinga doctrinaire. That means it is comparatively easy to
frame general propositions about Kinga beliefs, comparatively risky
in the case of Konde versions of the Malatan cosmos.

Animist worlds invite mindplay with respect to the multi-

farious agents of mysterious trouble. Whole-cloth acceptance of
Christianity or Islam by Kinga men seemed hardly to cramp the
cosmic space available. Part of the reason was that certain of the
stumbling blocks one might anticipate were not especially relevant.
Kinga men were not rampantly polygynist, as Nyakyusa used to be.
The pressure was taken off bachelors by their chumminess in casual
relations and their freedom from domestic duties. Monolithic impli-
cations in the Christian cosmos were not perceived as cramping to
individual freedom, just as the antipolitan ethic had always left a
way out of political impasse. One of my friends was a leading church
person until he fell in love with a second woman. No one really made it
hard for him. Kinga women found congregational life to their liking,
particularly in the extended bachelor phase of their life cycle, which
had always been much given to (informal) sodalities. Kinga maidens
made the Lutheran church their very own club. But part of the
reason Christianity could be accommodated without much grief and
accepted as continuous with a pre-pax past was that it fused easily
with their beliefs about their cosmos. Monotheisms are, in their own
view, social contracts of the either/or sort. Animistic worlds make
both/and an easier moral strategy. Kierkegaard, I expect, if he could
have known the Kinga well, might dismiss them as humanists.

If what was new was the phenomenon of ‘worship’, what
Lutheran worship built on was the Apollonian style of Kinga celebra-
tions generally, their quick switch to gaiety, the lightness of their
expressive style on jubilant occasions. The difference to Konde style
is not abrupt but is deep. Social forms may look alike, but the
dramatic side of a dance is less conflicted, more predictably amiable
in outcome. Nyakyusa funerals are frenetic, Kinga come together
quietly, keen mainly in low voice, and depart quietly as well. Ruth
Benedict would surely find little of the Dionysian about them, though
this is not to say drinking parties can’t lead to fighting of an
unscheduled kind—fights “always forgotten by tomorrow.” ‡

Here is a remark of Monica Wilson explaining the intensity of a

Nyakyusa funeral and their problem in handling anger:

The Nyakyusa hold that merely to suppress grief or hatred is

useless, and likely to increase it, and they constantly press on one
another the need to ukusosya, to ‘bring out’, to confess, that which is
within. The admission of anger against kinsmen and affines is the
prelude to reconciliation; the open expression of antagonism
between two lineages, which are then reconciled by the exchange of
gifts and feasts in the Lugulu ritual of vituperation, is but the most
dramatic instance of a common theme. ‡

Nyakyusa amity, as it has been described, is unclouded and

unfeigned. This is the edenic side which so impressed early visitors.
But it builds easily to rivalrous quarreling. Young bachelor men, as
their elders say, are kept away from women to make them better
fighters. Youths may be killed in the hot-house frenzy of a Konde-
style funeral, so repugnant to early missionaries and so intense (not
to say ‘pagan’ and ‘erotic’ or ‘orgiastic’) in atmosphere. If the key to
Nyakyusa self-display is ‘swagger’ the key to Kinga is closer to
‘frolic’. Kinga young men are not working for their fathers, are not in
Angst about women, and tend to prolong their bachelor days, if not
in law then in lifestyle, into the midlife years.

A bit of evidence may suggest the way violence is evoked and

socialized in the context of Ukwama high court. As it was sketched
for me, though I never managed to walk out the actual scene, there is
or was a dance ground at the court which has given its name ikivilila
to a charming little chant beloved by children for dancing. The ground
and the hill rising above it are called by the same name, and it is on
the hill that a Dionysian revel was held after a successful cattle raid,
probably on lowland herds. A bullock was started in full career from
the top of the hill, pursued by young men trying to cut chunks from
the desperate beast on the run. The clamor ended, of course, at the
foot with a tangle of bloody men and badly slaughtered beef. It was

thought a great spectacle and high fun for the participants if not
too much of the blood were their own. But as with a boys’ cudgel-
throwing fight or mock warfare, no enmity arose even from an
accidental death. Anger was simply not on the menu. In the feast
and dancing which followed, the Dionysian element was gone.

The language of discussion for the ‘deepstuff’ of cultural

differences is necessarily improvisational and, if not imprecise,
always notional. I’m ready to cope with that at need. But here my
point is only that worlds are not always built around the strain
toward congruity of structure. The alternative way of building a
translocal world is not necessarily embracing chaos though it may
seem to naturalize social turbulence. Are Kinga laid back while their
neighbours in the Valley hills are truculent? The difference, because it
goes deeper than that would suggest, is not such an obvious one but
no less heavy. Doubtless, the relative remoteness of Kinga realms in
the Livingstone Mountains exposed them to less constant threats
from north and south, leaving them a marginally more secure
existence. This and the willingness of Kinga women to do a lioness’s
share of the gardening, plus all the preparation of food, would have
meant greater leisure—if that is a suitable word—for the men and
their state-building ventures.

Animism is not special because it accepts plural frames of

reference in the search for moral certainty. All systems of thought
have to do that, just as all systems have their own way of warping a
frame. What monotheisms particularly do that animisms do not is
declare intellectual war on other peoples’ frames. One key to under-
standing the difference can be pursued under the familiar topic
heading of taboo. What distinguishes a taboo from a moral law is the
absence of rationale. It is not that the reasons for taboos are
ineffable, not that fear of punishment for transgression is irrational,
it is simply that maintaining the taboos of your society is the prime
rule of membership in it. Toilet training is a good example to have in
mind. Iconoclasm is another, and complementary. Rising in fury
against the icons of your church is a decisive act because it is taboo,
and may sometimes be the one direct way out.


Taboo and Law

The Everyman narrative

Let ‘the Everyman narrative’ be the story of a human life from

cradle to grave, sketching what it means to pursue a normal moral
career in a specimen culture, in either gender, anywhere in history.
This is not the ‘moral’ concern of a morality play but a generic story
about coping with forced social choices in a well peopled arena where
the game is placing moral claims on others, and reacting to the
claims they place on you. Kinga fall neatly into just two gender
worlds if you allow for special rules governing the lives of a smith, the
leaders of a court culture, and life within a royal enclosure. The uKinga
of 1900 can be thought of as one single arena or as a set of smaller
pedestrian domains pyramidally grouped in four realms. By the same
token, taking a broader focus and considering only claims of the
translocal sort, uKinga is only a segment of a larger arena of moral
encounter. This arena has been projected here either as the Malatan
or the more inclusive Sowetan region.

The kind of moral claims a child can lodge upon a parent or peer
are the child’s to discover through incident as often as instruction,
though modern life has seemed to alter the balance with formal
schooling. A lifetime narrative under classic human conditions moves
through what Meyer Fortes called the internal domain of social
relations and proceeds with growing sophistication into the external
domain of public institutions. In each successive stage, the ordinary
person of either gender confronts new problems in conceiving a
successful strategy for conceiving and securing a good life. Included
in the Everyman narrative are such choices as conceding or claiming
advantage, honing or neglecting skills, keeping up with tasks or
letting things go, hounding or begrudging or letting-be in close
relations, and in-public policies of flagrancy or modesty, narcissism
or comity. A thousand and one shades of moral value may be applied
to anything you say or do in any community, from a sandbox to a city,
and each choice colors your life. The idea that life in some far corner

of the world can be unmeditated, a sightseeing drift down river never
lifting the paddle, is airy and not for Everyman. ‡‡

Let an anthropologist refer to the ‘culture’ of some human

community, however large and diverse or small and homogeneous.
This ‘culture’ will set up its own versions of the Everyman narrative,
always in some ways unique as a set. Each empirical example of
human culture is peculiar enough to tease out new soundings of that
never-to-be-defined ‘human condition’ which haunts every revealing
ethnography. Sigmund Freud made a famous attempt at framing the
Everyman narrative a century ago, at a time when there was little
help to be had from anthropology. Jean-Paul Sartre, half a century
after, did a better job of dodging Western ethnocentrism, graciously
sparing us Freud’s terrible infant, blindly driven by the twin daimons
Ego and Eros. But Sartre’s hero of Huis clos (“Hell is other people!”)
rather suggests adulthood is only a later stage of the same predic-
ament, no less grotesque. I propose that a more simply narrative
approach suits anthropology better. There can be no pat, culturally
given life-cycle. Every life is a career. What we have to deal with is
naturally governed existence within a series of culturally-given situa-
tional frames. The Everyman narrative watches children (often
rather complacently) and adults (less often so) developing the moral
strategies they hope will get them where they want to be in life—
always, to be sure, with the special spin their corner of the world has
to impart. At the existential level of experience, what and where a
person ‘wants to be’ remains chimerical all the way, whether evolving
or episodically cycling. This fate nags us everywhere: think of Eugene
O’Neill’s pipe dreams, or only consider what novelists have done for
our comprehension of ourselves.

The Everyman narrative has been my tool for understanding

the structure of human experience in the regional culture which
seems to centre on the Kinga people. We are given a lens which lets
us focus on the social structures a person encounters and
negotiates in a full lifetime. We see the structure as one of
experience not third-party observation. We are not concerned with
the way a person turns out—if this narrative is a sort of Bildung-
sroman, we read it for the world our protagonist has suffered and
enjoyed, not the personal fate that befell. Two caveats apply: (1)
Think of the ‘structure’ as a pliant one (say, a wilderness forest not a
hard-edged maze) but also a tricky one which doesn’t often turn out
quite as billed. (2) You have to imagine for clarity that the person in
each narrative experiences one social structure throughout, not a
radically changing social environment. This last caveat goes contrary
to fact, even in traditional social settings. But notice that the
biography of a person who moves about among several classes or

cultural settings doesn’t disqualify as an Everyman narrative. We
can still read it for the social structures encountered and the strat-
egies evoked, not just for keys to individual character. But as
disparate contexts multiply, useful comparison diminishes. I propose
to compare the structure of experience in three cultures within a
single region. The peoples are related through a long history of
contact. Culturally the Kinga are most closely related to the
Pangwa, who traditionally lived very much in the style of traditional
bush-culture Kinga. Politically, Kinga are very much closer to the
Nyakyusa (Konde). I make an initial declaration here that incongru-
ities in the Pangwa-Konde-Kinga series are manageable. I find their
differences instructive, not random, not baffling. There is no impli-
cation that I see the series as rectilinear. A better figure would be
three paintings by the same hand, but on distinct themes—or the
other way around. I deal with the same range of problems (‘core
problems’?) in each case.

All else aside, and acknowledging the ubiquity of doubt, there is

one thing gained by this kind of reconstructive approximation of
human experience in a small region over a telling stretch of its
history. You trade off some of the hypostasis entailed in taking a
personality type as phenomenally real. This saves some of the
discomforts of matching ‘psychological’ with ‘sociological’ models.
Your return on the trade-off may be achieving better empathy with
persons encountering worlds different to your own. Is a traditional
setting more likely to evoke successful moral strategies than a
turbulent one? I see room to doubt even there. The kind of intuition
entailed in moving from culture to mind is pretty private, and an
observer’s judgement can be only as scientific as that proviso
allows. The Konde scene was famously turbulent and famous for
felicity as well. We are at the star-gazing stage of human

What I want to do is to pursue the implications of this

analytical approach to the three peoples, Pangwa, Konde, and Kinga,
considered as they were in the final decades of the nineteenth
century. I treat them as an ordered morphological series repre-
senting three stages of developing protostate politics in the
Sowetan cultural archipelago. I reject the idea that each of these
political cultures had developed in isolation, even while I find them
interestingly distinct. Each specimen culture will be a recon-
struction of the precontact version, based on a critical reading of
twentieth-century field observations and (virtual) survivor inter-
views. The point of the project is to watch, at each stage of
progressive political change, the contact of social structure and
individual experience through a lifetime. As a person moves through a

given social maze at the speed of time, person and world momen-
tarily merge, emerging a moment later marginally altered. The point
of taking the three cases together is to present the structure and
experience of three historic versions of the regional culture, so
aligned as to represent—as touchstone models—three successive
stages in the phase movement from ‘acephalous’ to ‘pyramidal’
political systems. In this four-dimensional modeling the principal
sanction of social order self-transforms through its motion along an
ideal continuum from ‘taboo’ to ‘law’. But ‘taboo’, as the term is used
here, does need special explanation. There is a lot of wisdom to

Taboo is the customary basis of consensual social alignment

within those social worlds which lack the institutions required for
setting up a rule of law. Where courts of law do exist, though they
sound the drum for consensus their main work is to make life
possible without it. Where a new consensus does appear, it appears
as it always has on the plane of taboo. The incest taboo is the most
prominent consensual (‘spontaneous’) prohibition recognized around
the world. The taboo is part of a consensual arrangement which
prevents the formation of swollen, monadic kin groupings within a
viable pedestrian community. It works in a stunningly simple way by
outlawing (more correctly, by defining as utterly dangerous) sexual
relations between close kin. The effect is to prevent the build-up of
solidary in-marrying kin groups, owing so little to the members of
other such groups that there remain to them no firm structural
bases for translocal amity and (hence) for a pax publica. This can be
stated as a rough syllogism which applies universally to acephalous
societies, where domestic groups must be possessed of significant

Public safety in a human community flows from a premise of

amity endorsed and sanctioned by ordinary, self-reliant domestic
groups. A community which doesn’t prohibit incest allows ordinary
domestic groups to opt for endogamy, with the substantial risk of
their casting aside the premise of amity toward non-kinsmen.
Therefore public safety is endangered when domestic groups relax
their negative sanctioning of incest to become in-breeders.

Many kinship societies are organized elaborately in such

fashion as to form a system of unilineal kinship ‘segments’, each of
which breaks down into sub-segments until domestic groups are
reached. When you come to the households in this way, it appears
that the domestic group in such a segmentary society is simply the
‘least segment’. But another way to model these societies is to ask
in what groups (what level of segment) you can expect to find a
maximum emphasis on self-sufficiency. This is tricky. If you were

looking for symbolic expressions of solidarity, there are a number of
well-studied societies where the clanship (highest segmentary) level
would be an obvious answer. If you were looking for military adequacy,
you might be led by the scale of fighting forces people say were most
often mobilized in ‘the old days’. But if you looked for minimal social
and economic reliance on (and responsibility for the welfare of)
members of other ‘segments’ at the same structural level I think you
would find yourself looking at domestic groups. In a school
playground, who is going to watch your back for you, if you don’t? In a
kinship society, however strong the ritual rhetoric of cooperation
with kin, who is going to feed and manage your children if you don’t?
These were not merely abstract concerns in Malanduku « [Twin
Shadows], though the answers you would get there to those
questions would scarcely point to any easily recognized, solidary
‘domestic group’. Still, the existence of domestic groups considered
as solidary units can be asserted even for traditional Kinga settle-
ments, though the family members are spatially dispersed. It is
something we discover when we inquire into taboos on intimacy of
the sorts commonly recognized as incestuous. Does dispersal in
space, by reducing everyday intimacies, concomitantly reduce the
call for strict incest taboos? It seems not. Better consider the
possibility that the dispersal itself is an expression of such taboos.

A comparison of Pangwa, Konde, and Kinga uses of taboo has

to begin with the fact that the incest/marriage rules in all three
societies are the same, though they present widely different social
organizations. What they do have in common is a negative element. It
is a sticky exercise to define ‘the family’ in any of them. In Fr. Stirn-
imann’s reconstruction of the Pangwa ilichumbi (homestead, Einsel-
gehoft) you could say the family is the group eating from a single
kitchen-house, though the two genders eat and associate at
different fires, and it is by no means clear that the principle of
gender segregation doesn’t go so far as to prevent easy intimacy
between brother and sister or even husband and wife. Dispersed
living arrangements begin at an early age for all Kinga children, and
only a year or two later for Pangwa; in ‘the old days’ the same applied
for both genders in uNyakyusa, though colonialism saw girls marrying
straight from their mother’s homestead. Cooperative work between
mother and daughter is important in all three societies, but
otherwise intimate cooperation is among peers or at a more formal
level supports inter-familial relations.

Two significant generalizations seem justified. First, incest

taboos do play a crucial part in anchoring the social (moral) identity
of individuals in the ‘amity-based’ community. Second, a closer look
at the way ‘taboo’ plays out in the lifetime moral strategies of

persons in either gender group will show that ‘fear of incest’ is only
one aspect of the problem of intimate rights which haunts the
Everyman narrative everywhere. Since I conceive the nature of taboo
as both more interesting and more elementary than most do, I’ll try
to make my notions clear in the pages which follow in this section,
before turning to Fr. Stirnimann’s Pangwa. They were, in the image his
informants elaborated of their past, a swimmingly taboo-ridden

Incest and the amity nexus. To understand how the replacement

of a ‘kinship nexus’ by ‘amity’ bears on the matter of incest taboos I
think we have to back up and start with more elementary consider-
ations. Take the premise of universal envy, combine it with the
premise of universal competition for goods in short supply, and look
for the kind of rules which will minimize the size of the groups involved
in such rivalry. We do this in recognition of a prime principle of social
organization: the smaller the group granted autonomy in the pursuit
of self-interest, the smaller the difficulties which are likely to arise
from a collision of such interests. But an equally prime principle is
that sheer anarchy doesn’t work. One set of rules which will do a fair
job of keeping order in society, and for which anthropologists can
supply endless examples, is a set which begins with tabooing incest
within the domestic group, thus making ‘families’ dependent for
spousal candidates on other self-reliant groups of the same order;
then moves to exogamous rules which (a) enlarge the scope of the in-
group created by an incest-like sexual prohibition, and (b) invest in
this extended in-group the responsibility for regulating ‘out-
marriage’ in a consensual and systematic fashion which minimizes
direct ‘insider’ rivalry in the competition for spouses. Political order
is enhanced and stabilized in societies which move to this kind of
kinship organization, but the move is away from the fully decen-
tralized kind of order associated with taboo, and toward law.

Here is a quick sketch of the possibilities. Because law wants

universality and kinship is a doctrine of particularism, the growth of
a state where kinship institutions are entrenched will have to
elaborate a politics of devolution which allocates set powers to
extant (particularistic) kinship structures, overseen by some sort
of ‘federal’ or monarchial system of interethnic government. This is
likely to have a more manipulative than legitimately authoritative
stamp, if in fact it does not take the more direct form of tyranny.
But where a protostate process begins with a strong institutional
base in managed amity, a person’s kin-group or ‘ethnic’ identity
doesn’t intervene, and government through local courts will more
readily cultivate and spread a universalistic law.

But a viable political system which doesn’t have roots in ‘family
ties’ remains to be described in the world’s ethnography. A good
handful of societies are well known, which seem to keep family
solidarity minimal by locating primary autonomy at the level of a local
band comprising several small family groups in close intimacy. This
may be thought of as ‘treating the band as a family’. The Kinga
system is by contrast a micro-diaspora—tight family bonds which
however are not allowed to compete with the members’ intimacy
with unrelated peers. Now ‘tight family bonds’ arise from the web of
taboo (ritual) not law, and constitute the primary frame for estab-
lishing the web of personal identity without which law can’t function.

Intimate rights. The obverse of an avoidance is a right to

intimacy. So taboo is a window on the intimate use of personal
space. A thief who violates your property has invaded your personal
space. Having no sanction on the thief who won’t be caught, the law
has no power to dissuade the secretly self-contained culprit from
doing another person wrong. Isn’t it then miraculous that our
property can be so nearly safe so much of the time—that the
smashing of glass and snatching of bags doesn’t shatter our lives
every day? There is no miracle, only taboo. Tourists soon learn where
local taboos don’t apply to them, but find it hard to comprehend the
casual attitude of local police. Police, for their part, are disinclined to
bear blame, since their protection work is given credit for a tolerable
crime rate within their own community. Operating on diffuse
sanctioning, taboo is always local.

Taboo is underrated as a universal safeguard of intimate rights

precisely because it is so overrated (stereotyped) as a form of
magic. ‘Primitive Man’ is supposed to have lived in such fear of
breaking taboos that he dare never misbehave. Actually, as with the
rest of us, people living under local tradition (wherever in the world)
were dependent on the spontaneous learning of local ‘rules of
intimacy’ by children, starting long before the idea of a rule entered
their lives. The topic heading for a discussion of this learning process
in the diction of social psychology is likely to be ‘socialization’ not
‘taboo’ or ‘civility’; some anthropologists prefer ‘enculturation’, which
tends even more directly to suggest learning imposed by drill.
Correction is, as in language learning, doubtless spurred by drill to
some extent. Like musicality, ‘intimate correctness’ is more readily
learned by some than others. But it is a kind of learning we share
with other grey-brained creatures. We are a special case because
the learning which starts with getting along as a nursling continues
seamlessly into the acquisition of acceptable role behaviour in less
instinctive forms of food consumption, proxemics, toilet tasks, and
play—gentle and rough, fun and competitive, erotic and defensive

experience. If parents can’t depend on a child to do most of the work
in the development of successful moral strategies in the early home
years, it will take a mighty struggle to produce a half-way socialized
adult. ‘Taboo’ connotes not only avoidance but safekeeping. Every
episode of intimate interaction has a two-way sanctioning
dimension. Is it not taboo to wound your friend’s pride? By its
nature, the phenomenon calls not for mutuality but reciprocity—
asymmetric but not one-sided. The kind of role behaviour which
makes intimate coexistence possible entails kinesthetic, linguistic,
and moral fitting of the self to the invisible forms of others. This has
to be ‘learned by doing’ and like correct speech has to be intuitively
understood, abhorring ‘explanations’.

Identity also abhors explanations. A child learns who he is from

learning who he isn’t, whose he is from whose he isn’t. Later on when
the grown child has to ask the who-am-I, where-am-I-going questions
they turn out to be about the half-remembered mind which did that
learning. What else could they be about? Not what the child learned,
as that’s easy. Not what the elders (the documents) would say if
asked, as that is for un-persons. The question is how and how far and
why the mind looking back is one with the mind which first looked out
and around at a very small world. That world was defined, of course,
by the conjunction of a set of ego-centred incest taboos each
defining and limiting intimacy rights and obligations as between two
persons, and each connecting those persons to a webwork of such
ties stretching backward and forward in time to the ends of relevant
social space. Rights of intimacy generate obligations of intimacy,
obligations generate rights. This webwork is the structure of a moral
world. Every member of that world, living or dead, occupies a tiny
part of it and is its centre. Where there are not law and courts to
apply it, only this webwork of privileged intimacy and obligation can
be activated to ratify an inheritance, assign a motherless child to
care, demand a delict compensated by a fugitive’s kin, or establish a
basis for trusting a stranger.

In the world of Malatan tradition, a growing child gets to know

who is close kin, and of what kind, from kin-terms, privileged
relations, visits and hospitality, and awareness of an extended
incest taboo. The rights of intimacy are quite as mysterious as the
avoidance rules, and are learned at an age when mystery carries a
burden of high seriousness. So the moral map of a child’s world is
deeply set in mind. It is because (to the extent that) each individual
map overlaps and reinforces each other within a family group, and
because each must learn to live up to his or her rights and obliga-
tions in accord with the common map, that individuals acquire and fix
an indelible identity. The addition of incest avoidance to the map as a

child’s sexual awareness matures would regularly carry a new burden
of meaning with it.

A moment’s consideration makes it clear that as publicly

sanctioned law develops it will tend to eclipse the autonomy of
domestic groups and any close kin-based alliances among them.
These kin-based leagues begin to lose their status as translocal
sanctioning agencies. What is not immediately clear is how much and
how soon the autonomous qualities of the domestic group will be
annulled by the advance of a protostate process. In short, how far
does public order continue to rest on the willingness of its effective
kin-group units to maintain a taboo on incest? and how well can the
‘strong force’ of centralized power use naked rules of law to maintain
the pax publica without support from the ‘weak force’ of radically
decentralized—call it ‘internalized’ or ‘spontaneous’—taboo? Most of
us will probably admit on consideration that rampant egoism and
predatory gang formation within a large public is more likely to be
associated with turmoil and the abeyance of legitimate means of
social control than with a semblance of spontaneous order. The well-
studied association of Balkan familism with feuding is a case in
point. So far as it appears that the maintenance of mutual respect
among citizens depends on grass-roots support for a fundamental
ethic of amity, and so far as it also appears that disappearance of
that ethic endangers the legitimacy of government, it follows that
law sans taboo won’t achieve minimum strength. ‡

Taboos are especially associated with life-crises and with the

kind of individual experience which redirects a human career. Taboo is
the essence of that ritual formality in court procedures which can
impart authority to otherwise only-too-human pronouncements.
And as effective taboos are features of ‘spontaneous’ consensus, of
worldview, they won’t be as vulnerable to change as overt and practi-
cally motivated patterns of conduct are. All the same, the modern
West has not been particularly strong in maintaining life-crisis rites,
sanctioning altruism, or insisting on the just application of law.
These are values which can’t be compassed by law in its secular
mode. The most famous and nearly universal of our taboos, which is
that on incest, has on almost every showing proved to be
unenforceable by standard policing methods, and too often only
eroded by the attempts of public welfare institutions to co-opt this
responsibility from the domestic group. I believe the issues around
‘taboo’ deserve better clarification than the learned discourse of
the West has so far put on offer. By looking at the matter in cross-
cultural perspective, we may also gain a sharper sense for what law
can be and can’t.

Taboo has sometimes been assumed to have merged with and
disappeared into law in the course of recent human history: taboo
being taken as touchstone for a ‘primitive’ and law for a ‘civilized’
world. But quite apart from the burden of hubris implied in the
assumption, it is not the case that taboo disappears into law. The
microcultures described by anthropologists in the century past
have ranged from lightly to strictly ritualistic. And where is our own
to be placed? When we consider sociological studies of ‘modern
society’ it is not only the military and ecclesiastical orders which
look heavily ritualistic. Linguistic, political, and gender rules can be
laden with penalties no mere, self-supporting jural system could
maintain. Their sustenance is rather from the unquestioned accep-
tance of the subject population—Durkheim’s ‘diffuse sanctioning’. If
there have been times in your own career when ‘crime in the streets’
was no public problem the reason was not better laws but greater
‘spontaneous respect for the rules’ (taboos) guiding civility—rules
the most enlightened law cannot implant. If there have been times
when unenlightened mob rule has taken over a community, the reason
was the weakness of jural interventions meant to sponsor program-
matic change in the ‘spontaneous’ (taboo-based) values of that
community. The range of felt threats to social order anywhere,
whether in the synoptic comparison of different peoples or in
surveying longrun oscillations within a single culture flow, is only from
light to grave, never non-existent. But if Hell and Shangri-la sound
like storybook stuff, still the non-fictive differences within the range
between can be monumental.

Taboo and law are not alternative means to one end but
separate formulae for social control which work together in organic
fashion. One source of our problems has been the use of ‘ritual’ (as in
distinguishing ‘the political order’ from ‘the ritual order’) as referring
to the master class containing ‘religion’ plus ‘magic-and-super-
stition’. ‘Ritual’ was chosen (reluctantly, I believe, in the case of
Meyer Fortes and his circle) in an effort to escape the knotty
question where the line between two religion-like phenomena shall be
drawn. The usage unluckily seemed to imply there was no ritual in
political life, in marriage and adolescence, in the framing of moral
careers—and no politics in the ordeal. For ‘ritual’ in just such context
we may have to substitute ‘taboo’ to suggest how wrong the usage
was which seemed to deny deep mystique to a Hitler rally or a very
high tea.

The popular romance of taboo among Western thinkers was

nicely laid to rest by Franz Steiner at mid-century. We learned from
his critical lectures (on the several ways scholars had treated the
topic) that taboo is an aspect of the sacralization (ritualization) of

social danger. For ‘sacralization’ when applying the word to an insti-
tution one may sometimes read ‘casting in bronze’. Institutional
wisdoms pre-empt individual liberty. As a sailor’s channel buoys are
meant to narrow down his freedom of secure manoeuvre, an ‘incest
taboo’ narrows the freedom of action between any self and certain
others, and does so in a way we had as well call mundane as mystical.
A taboo is a marker in social space which fends you off, just as
perfume or a siren song may be a marker drawing you (perhaps with
just the right degree of fear and trembling) into a zone of danger.
Thinking of taboo as a bugaboo stirring instant trepidation is
dramatic but more fanciful than scholarly standards require. Social
markers may be the more effective the subtler their form. When the
institution in question is as close to your roots as your natal
domestic group, taboo merges enigmatically with identity. To see
that social identities couldn’t begin to exist and serve their political
purpose without the taboos that ordinarily protect and stabilize
them, we only need consider the appalling breakdown of social order
in a spate of ‘new states’ in Africa, starting in the middle and
restarting toward the end of the twentieth century. I think particu-
larly of arming preadolescent boys with the high-tech weapons of
mass murder.

Gaudy or even fearsome jural fences may serve to privatize but

often at the price of inviting transgression. In my lifetime there have
been sporadic efforts in the West to pull down taboo-barriers
around public nudity. They have generally been dealt with softly and
grown tame or petered out. So far, calling in the law has usually been
reckoned an overreaction. That is in good part because law-making of
this kind has a poor record of producing durable order. Body-modesty
seems to be ‘spontaneous’ enough to reassert itself after a nudity
fad wears thin. Asking why this should be so gives the meaning to
‘spontaneity’ which was intended in Michael Polanyi’s essays on
‘spontaneous order’. He argued that “such tasks as a system of free
adjustment may achieve, cannot be effectively performed by any
other technique of co-ordination”. A nudity taboo is by no means a
universal in the annals of history and ethnography. It demonstrably
isn’t a feature of ‘human nature’. But in societies where clothing has
made inroads it seems to thrive by offering a valuable, controllable
tension in the way we present ourselves to others. Only review what
Marshall Sahlins in his Culture and Practical Reason had to say about
our ‘clothing systems’, their syntax and the use they might have in
making the several parts of a society less (or occasionally more)
ambiguous. The abomination of public nudity has many sources and
reinforcing conditions, from the aesthetic to the practical. But as
with all taboos, the element warranting its persistence is its
‘spontaneity’. ‡

My brief here is not that taboo is or isn’t a feature of human
nature. I think the only taboo which scholars have quite often
attributed to human nature is the ban on incestuous sex, and that
scholarly position is controverted by clear evidence. The Zande ruling
clan is one of those ‘swollen kin groups’ the incest taboo elsewhere
militates against. We simply have there a politically deliberate
exception to the rule, which tests and refines our understanding of
it. Here is a clan which as a political expedient can afford to
encourage brother-sister incest. The main gain in the king’s eye is
perhaps to forestall the court’s young princes fraternizing with
commoners, magnifying the risk of royals developing independent
loyalties and ultimately obscuring in a new generation the divide
between ruler and ruled. ‡‡

The recent history of Sanga exceptionalism illustrates. The

penultimate ruler of the central realm made a first marriage to a
half-sister. They constantly quarreled, until the marriage was set
aside. The sibling-wife was sent to live apart with their two children,
as no part of the court community. Tunginiye, through whose sharp
eyes I could approach the narrative at arm’s length, did not see the
turnabout as intervention by the powerful shades of a princely line.
The simple fact of the marriage demonstrated the special nature of
a royal sex-life: as there was no spontaneous alarm from within the
group of kin, there could be no question of a taboo, just as there was
no confusion of the huge royal enclosure with a domestic group. The
trouble was ‘a marriage too close’, unsanctioned but unblest. It was
commonly observed that the partners to a marriage ‘almost taboo’
could expect no happiness from it. But taboo unlike law is not
negotiable: if it doesn’t arise spontaneously it doesn’t arise.

It remains ‘man’s fate’ in its existentialist meaning never to be

free of that wariness (whether of changing or holding course) which
comes of the subjective awareness of alternatives—they range from
a change of style to Exit itself. The little exits of life eventually lead
to bigger, and days hardly pass in your moral career without your
having to affirm or deny by some small act the private moral strat-
egies your secret vocation builds on. Kinga women, particularly, reach
an age of crisis gradually, where the joyful affairs of bachelor days
wind down and give over to the more inward adventures of child-
bearing. The strict taboo which channels a maiden’s exit from the
isaka of her youth is that institution’s prohibition of returning there,
even for a single night, after knowing coitus. As with any taboo, the
system tightness can be seen to depend on its (felt) specific
gravity. The viability of the organization depends on the tightness
being right. But the persistence of this taboo right through the
broader Kinga community generations after Contact is an indicator

of the spontaneous rightness of the rule in isaka thought, for no
other institution was normally involved. For maidens, the bachelor
years were the peak period of private pleasure of a lifetime, and
those gregarious maidenly years extended over the best two
decades of a woman’s life. Does it seem paradoxical that the taboo
of coitus, so negative in itself, should underpin an existence of high
spirits, self confident friendships, and (often enough) confidently
generous conduct? Readers who are agreeably acquainted with one
of the Lesbian sisterhoods on scene today will not find it so. We have
again the case of a taboo with ‘spontaneous’ staying power, even
while the oblique appeal of Christian young women’s sodalities was
making inroads in the 1960s. I think it behoves us to accept taboo as
an effective mechanism of social control, ontologically prior to
coercive law, and universally present as the rule-stuff of which all
human institutions, beginning with the family, are made.

The inherent privacy of individual minds is fundamental, but

conversely too the very accessibility of culture codes of conduct.
Taboos mark for an individual not a highroad to the good life but the
pits and deadfalls in an otherwise open terrain—straitening the way
by disallowing this choice or that but never making the critical
decision or even truly protecting Ego from fatal errors of his own. All
the time, or almost, Ego is scarcely aware of how much depends on
others staying on track—just doing so for our own part is all the
moral burden most of us can bear. What may seem to be ‘rules’ or
‘roles’ from the empyrean view of structural anthropology feels more
like a jungle path from the inside.

Do we each have our own, invented ‘taboos’? Grant that deeply

deviant communities tend to develop within large-scaled societies,
and grant that individuals in any kind of community can make free to
act, go, or be ‘crazy’—trashing the rules they know only too well. But
quite personal taboos contributing to the organization of ordinary
lives? The word ‘taboo’ can seem extravagant in application to a
person’s way of steering through and around the moral hindrances of
day-to-day existence. These are the countless infinitessimal acts of
avoidance and self-preservation which we learn from living—which
accumulate in idiosyncratic patterns to form an ego and evoke a
persona we dare present to a friend, a lover, a parent, a world away
from home. Picture the process as the continuous psychic sedimen-
tation inherent to the Everyman narrative—not a ‘formative’
process because never finished. We may talk of conscience. We may
talk of the acquisition of tastes or standards. David Hume famously
showed us at once their urgent privacy and public necessity. When
and how does a standard of taste, an aesthetic, a form of art
emerge from the privacy of conscience into generally sensible

existence? Isn’t it from private experience repeatedly coming to
expression in a contagious form? and isn’t that most likely to
happen when private intention moves a person toward the intuition
of value? The ultimate result when there is continuity enough and
generations of time is the emergence of a quite particular
community’s quite particular culture. You hardly need read much
news of the world to realize how little the private arts of living in
amity with colleagues in a culture have improved in a century of
stunning technological advances. The explanation we most hear is
dissonance: dissonance in the cultures which have taken form in the
century past, answering dissonance in private experience. It is a time
when we are prone to seeing every conceivable taboo being broken. It
is a time when cultural dissonance may seem to have filled the
prisons of the richest countries in a trend beyond the scope of law
to control. Does it make sense to ask if taboo, considered as the
matrix of law, might have a regenerative power in such a world? (How
many world leaders today are wearing the signal clerical garb?)

So we are confronting a shifting balance of uncertainties. What

we face today is peculiar to our age and place, but the predicament
itself is timeless. This I take to be the universal setting of an
Everyman narrative. Taboo, like law, rides the balance everywhere.
Law, being inherently public, can’t serve as source for Taboo, though
taboos, as in the case of divorce in the twentieth-century West, may
be displaced by law. A Roman father enjoyed the right of life or death
over his son, but this law of patria potestas did not make the exercise
of that right morally neutral. Rather, it was the enormity of the act
of filicide (still clearly taboo) which called for a rule of law to warn a
wayward son of the real danger courted in disobedience. Here is Law
paradoxically serving the function of lacing a dormant taboo of an
offspring’s presuming upon a father’s love. Every changing society
has to map the domestic group in ways which keep it viable. It was
the Roman choice to set up a law making Father not State the
ultimate judge of transgressions within the family fold—forerunner
to yesteryear’s ‘my home is my castle’ and a far cry indeed from the
mapping of domestic rights in successor nations today.

With taboo is invented the notion of transgression but

perhaps not (in an after-Freudian sense) its link to guilt. Break with a
taboo and the danger is not usually yours alone, nor poetically
sudden. The fallout strikes randomly on you-and-yours. Since incest
by its nature falls inside that compass of you-and-yours, the
putative danger of breaking with that taboo is doubled. Where guilt
may be kept in hiding even from family or the determined attack of a
skilled therapist, taboo is inherently a matter of group concern. In
principle, the cast of characters entailed is known, though their

ideas about the kind of ill fortune at risk may be fuzzy enough. Stay
out of danger and the problem does not appear. Break with your
taboos and—only wait—it must. Each member of the cast has got
to consider the moral options for action in redress. For each, the
existential triangle remains a private space, but for the errant one
the sense of privacy is shaken or may shatter. We see this obliquely
in the way a court can protect the privacy of mind of an accused,
holding that, whatever the crime, a suspect may not be forced to
testify. Such rights of privacy, meant to spare the court the onus of
forcing an obvious breach of taboo, at once guard the fiction that
courts discover truth, and honour the perishable value of the human
conscience. In it resides a person’s responsiveness to the rules of
decency whose force is only born of Taboo—fear not of measured
authority’s intervention but of wrong itself. Without the socially
fostered attribute of persons which we call conscience, Law has lost
that legitimacy of good faith which makes it viable. Who watches the
watchman if it be not the people themselves? But they must do so,
if they will, spontaneously.

The possible plots of the Everyman narrative are infinite but

always revolve about dramatic reversal. The application is always to
the specific conditions a person will confront when pursuit of a
wonted moral strategy has led to the apprehension of danger. At
the appearance of choice in the narrative field, as we watch ‘social
role’ or ‘character’ fade into ‘existential trial’, what we have to
consider is now an everyday episode, now a solemn rite of passage,
now a cataclysmic pouring out of passions heretofore scarcely given
dramatic play. We have seen that in a ‘friendship culture’ a dramatic
Peripeteia, often a deeply felt narrative reversal, may be built around
betrayal by a peer. Such was Tunginiye’s recognition of enmity in the
‘veiled warnings’ of his closest friend. Such must have lain behind
each case of ‘exile’ from a Nyakyusa age-village. Such is the tale
which lurks behind the ‘Kinga patent’ technic for taking beer from the
bowl your friend wants to pour for you: cup one hand to your mouth
but always with your other thumb at the ready to flick aside the ball
of poison.

Do taboos exist because they are heeded? When they cease

being heeded they are gone. Do laws exist because they are heeded,
or only in proportion as they are enforced? You have to presuppose
Kinga culture intact (even if all the while sporting the kind of infinit-
essimal novelties which lump up, gradually or sometimes with a
start, to become the hard calculi of sensible change) in order to
explain the existence of its rules. Kinga taboos relate to a culture
which is not everywhere the same, but in a general way you still know
Kinga culture from Konde, which is also not everywhere the same.

Nyakyusa taboos relate to a very different lifestyle to the Kinga, but
the difference is not an ‘apples and oranges’ case—more like Court-
lands and Gravensteins. There is a hand-in-glove, systemic relation
between Kinga taboos and Kinga behaviour, the same for Nyakyusa.
Of course we won’t insist this hand made this glove or vice versa. But
glove is shaped to hand in either community, and vice versa, because
in the case of culture and habit there can be no priority. Of course
taboos are man made just as laws are, though the one may be lightly
attributed to a god, the other to a Solomon. It is only misleading to
link taboos any more than laws to a mindless ‘Tradition’. That would
be to say people were able to make cultures in illo tempore but aren’t
up to it today. The idea of a modulated culture flow at the speed of
time is better than the cultural creationism implicit in earlier

Must I defend the argument that taboo is maintained by usage

not tradition? Taboo is a universal feature of folklore, one of the
costumes tradition wears, one precipitate of custom. Moral strat-
egies are privately worked out by individuals within the ample limits
of choice not blocked by customary prohibition. Any strategy is in
some measure a work-around, and one person may pull off a ploy
another can’t. But the moral environment of these work-arounds is
in principle the same as you move from one man or woman to another,
always accounting for differences of status and social circum-
stance. Sex roles and age roles, rules of respect and avoidance or
privileged intimacy, protocols of conduct in solemn or carnival
contexts work in a system of social control rather like features of an
inaccessible ‘machine language’, where law compares to a user-
accessible software programme. Taboo and law set limits in different
ways, but other mechanisms must decide the moral path an
individual should take through the encounters of the day, or of a
difficult life stage, or the full stretch of a personal career. Anthro-
pologists have traditionally turned at this point to the subject of

Seen as a maze-feature of the Everyman narrative, a scheme

of values is a pattern of ‘preferences’ or ‘priorities’ which have been
established in the gradual testing and cultivation of personal moral
strategies. It has been common to propose that our cultures
‘introject values’ during (early) socialization. The process has
sometimes been called ‘enculturation’, a mechanical clockwork of
continual downloading and upgrading of a culture programme in or
out of school. But in the model I have been putting forward, values
appear as the labels we give to preference patterns (epitomized
moral strategies) arising from individual choices, wherever we find
patterns well enough established in a community to seem general.

For the most part, labeling popular tendencies in patterns of
individual preference in this way (calling them ‘values’) does little
mischief. It is a convenient shorthand which, however, reflects an
observer bias toward dogmatism, as though values could not exist
unpreached. The processual aspect of a culture is masked, leaving us
with a puzzle: How are values formed? How do they change? How well
can we expect them to stabilize community life? These questions
are particularly relevant to anthropological studies, which usually
deal with relatively non-dogmatic human communities. I have taken
the position that one’s way in life is, and is bound by our human
nature to be, found crucially by intuitive thought and interpersonal
discovery not instruction. This is especially clear in Kinga and
Nyakyusa cases, where children run their own homes. When proper
conduct is ‘taught’ only in rule-of-thumb prohibitions, a way has to
be found around these roadblocks, but there is no equivalent to our
dogmatic moral principles—meeting bourgeois (godly) standards of
acceptability and the like. Where values become explicit they are
coded into daily discourse and doubtless have a conservative
function. Where they remain implicit they pervade Everyman’s
experience in his social world at the level of that stream of infinit-
essimal events which cumulatively give direction to a community’s
persistence and change over generations.

The Everyman narrative offers a frame of reference for the

study of ‘personality and culture’ while setting aside the doctrinaire
models of personality formation which have so often been found
necessary in psychological accounts of human nature. Dealing with
moral choice, this narrative approach easily blends with some
existentialist thought, but without raising or begging the question
of ontological priority as between ‘being’ and ‘existence’. I take it
that in the empirical world neither one can either blindside the other
or escape its iron grip. That part, at least, of the Everyman narrative
which entails moral choice emerges only gradually in infancy, doing so
only as the infant is exposed at a reflexive level to primary social-
ization. The evolution of individual moral strategies is the whole of
the narrative alluded to here. Understanding the nature and impor-
tance of taboo is a key to following the narrative.

Taboo constitutes a technique of social control which can and

must be decentralized. The incest taboo illustrates. It further
suggests the continuing role of taboo under jurally ordered institu-
tions of social control. Equivalent terms to Swahili mwiko (taboo) are
found throughout the Eastern Bantu languages and around the
world. English had to adopt the Tongan expression when learned folk
wanted to discuss the subject, because until the ‘age of exploration’
took the fancy of english-speakers no equally strong and felicitous

word had found its way into polite discourse. Even today the open
discussion of taboo in self-reference remains awkward. If your moral
strategies are based on acquiring and relying on the taboos appro-
priate to being who and where you are, exhuming them can mean
losing hard-won self-confidence—the kind of being-in-the-world
which goes under the rubric of ‘human dignity’. When psychotherapy
‘goes deep’ in search of the particular roadblocks a person has
encountered in the pursuit of a successful life-strategy, a terrible
dilemma arises: you are not asked to discard your ‘self’ because you
cannot, but you are asked to shrug off some long-buried encounters
with dread which have ‘always’ guided you—and with slim rational
assurance of finding your own way forward again. Taboo marks
danger, and danger marks us all. The experience need not be
traumatic to go deep. There is no fixed time- lapse.

An experience, to be morally effective, even to ‘haunt’ a person

later, need not even be especially notable at the time of happening.
That is what I intend by alluding to the ‘infinitessimals’ of human
experience. How is it that you suddenly find yourself ‘free’ of some
particular obsessive attachment? What accounted for it in the first
place? And but for it what would you still have that you lost, what
gained that you didn’t have? Persons come to differ in radical ways
through the waxing and waning of wariness, of rueful and ruthless
impulse, and self-reflective thought. I do not try to assimilate all
difference to the dimension of ‘social danger’. What I have in mind is
that the chief instrument by which ‘diffuse sanctions’ find their way
into our moral sensitivities has to be understood as the inward
marking or framing of social danger—that is, as response to taboo.
And I argue that the process is, as with successful discipline
anywhere, predominantly a subtle one, a matter of thrust-and-parry
not one-sided battering, physical or rhetorical.

The incest taboo illustrates how taboo works, as well as

showing how taboo and law can make combination. Law, in effect,
needs taboo. Crucially, this is because public safety flows from a
premise of amity beyond the necessarily self-protecting kin group,
formed around reproductive success, whose boundaries are perfor-
matively defined by rules which put endogamous procreation out of
mind. Since such rules of amity are not enforceable without taboo,
they have to be lodged within the structure of the domestic group,
where the ethic of self-sufficiency is most effectively nurtured. The
‘teaching’ function of taboo is seen everywhere in the association of
taboo with life crises. Special rules of propriety (decency and
decorum, manners and mores) are part of the spectacle of life-cycle
rites. Understanding of the universality of taboo follows from the
work of Michael Polanyi, Marshall Sahlins, Franz Steiner, and other

recent writers, as opposed to the ‘magicality’ focus of much popular
and anthropological thinking on the matter. The deeper aspects of
taboo require us to be aware of the privacy of mind from which,
through the centrality of moral strategy in the human career, a
‘system of public values’ is rendered possible. Taboo is maintained
primarily by usage, secondarily by tradition. Crucial to this, taboo is
reinforced by the privately harboured presentiment of ineluctable
danger, without which external sanctions on behaviour are relatively
impotent. ‡‡

Picturing the Pangwa world

My main model for picturing Sowetan culture in the very

distant past is uPangwa, the neighbour people southward of the
Kinga. Apart from archival sources, which are lean, I rely on Fr. Hans
Stirnimann’s monographs, which are not. Thanks to his exhaustive
studies of Pangwa ritual practice, carried well beyond anything I was
able to undertake for surviving elements of Kinga bush culture, and
thanks to the obviously near kinship of the two cultures, I’m in
position to reconstruct by approximation a pre-Sanga past the two
neighbour cultures once apparently shared. As will appear, Pangwa
practice as the good Father was able to reconstruct it from
interview and example in the 1960s refers back reliably to times still
alive then in the memory and imagination of older men. But owing to
radical disruptions and dislocations of the Pangwa communities
from the 1850s onward, the picturing is problematic. In a word, the
portrait we have from the ethnographer’s informants is of an implau-
sibly oversocialized people. ‡‡

Here is Stirnimann’s quick account of the history of troubles—

here as throughout the translation is mine: For convenience, as there
will be many citations, the location of the source for each is
identified by volume (I or II) and page. Short titles are: Volume I —
Existenzgrundlagen (1976); Vol. II — Die Pangwa (1979).

From about 1855 on to the turn of the century the unwarlike,

badly armed and hardly organized hoe-culturists of uPangwa were
repeatedly attacked after harvest time by predatory Ngoni hordes
from the south. These slew the men, taking the women and children
away in slavery. In spite of this enmity, the Pangwa aligned
themselves on the Ngoni side in the Maji-Maji uprising of 1905-6,
against the German colonial regime—and must suffer therefore
through nearly two years of unremitting guerilla warfare with the
troops. According to contemporary mission documentation some
three quarters of the [Pangwa] population fell victim to them. Only in
British times (1919-61) did the country recover, mainly owing to

increased migration of culturally assimilated Kinga and Wemba into
the depopulated areas of uPangwa. [II: 14]

I take it the main risks in using Pangwa self-description in the

way I intend derive from (a) inevitable differences at the detail level
in the pre-political cultures of Kinga and Pangwa communities, even
setting aside problems of timeline discrepancies and the perils of
imprecision (fuzzy logic) in all reconstructions; and (b) the specific
distortion or mythlore built into any account of Pangwa culture prior
to 1855. In mitigation with respect to (b) the oral evidence from the
Kinga Eastern realm puts the Sanga influence there only in-process,
hardly complete, in 1855, and probably stimulated about that time
principally by fear of Ngoni raiding. Even in 1890 the Kinga of the
Eastern realm retreated into a thornbush fort of sorts at the
approach of a curious German party mistaken for Ngoni. This hardly
matches the Sanga tactics developed in the Central and Northern
realms, suggesting rather a ‘bush’ element in the military culture. As
to (a) I learned enough of the differences persisting in the 1960s
within the erstwhile Sanga realms to take seriously the variations
within ‘Kinga culture’ at a detail level. There is, in effect, a Boolean
overlap between eastern Kinga and neighboring Pangwa cultural
communities, persisting into historic times. The proper interpretive
rubric for us here is that ‘our Pangwa’ are not meant to be ‘pure
Pangwa’ but are meant to be representative of older times in the
neighborhood Pangwa occupied when they were studied in the 1960s.

A review of Fr. Stirnimann’s material will show how thoroughly a

system of taboos can serve the ends of social order in an acephalous
society like the one a Sanga political class began to transform some
generations before the Ngoni came to the region. A century ago such
a transformation would have been termed a change from ‘sacred’ to
‘secular’ organization. It is worth asking what such a metamorphosis
ought to be called, once it has been seen close-to. I am inclined to
such pairs as closed/open, local/translocal, or with respect strictly
to the use of ritual, performative/dramatic or proprietary/public.

I suppose throughout what follows that Fr. Stirnimann’s

account can be taken as a tidy and possibly even overly sympathetic
recreation of the old lifeways, based on the best information a
missionary could gather in an enviably ample period of fieldwork.
What is of special importance is to see that Pangwa were a pacific
people, not warriors; and that they were treated (in a strict sense,
respectfully) as one of the bush communities into which the Sanga
system, but for the intrusion of other forces in the nineteenth
century, would normally have spread without the need of conquest
strategies. The war games and ‘standing armies’ of the Sanga

courts were persuaders against resistance from the bush
community as it moved from a first-contact situation to a fully
fledged minor court. Sanga were, indeed, in the process of spreading
by settlement across the Mgiwe/Kilondo river (variously named on
various maps) which was the natural feature the British later used
om setting up their ‘tribal areas’. That boundary settlement in 1926
‘orphaned’ substantial ethnic-Kinga populations in the north of
Pangwa tribal area and again in the trans-Mgiwe parts of Wemba
territory, which were eventually allotted to uBena. Sanga rule, be it
noted, lost nothing in the British boundary manoeuvres, as the new
‘tribal area’ gained more on other fronts than it lost in the east.
What the new regime meant was that many men paid taxes and took
their trouble cases to a new baraza. The new order did not officially or
practically close any boundaries, but did put an end to the game of
expanding Sanga rule by sending out client rulers to reorganize
acephalous bush communities.

Performative and dramatic ritual

The ideal-typical continuum an appropriate methodological

device for imagining an historic series in the development of ritual
and political sanctions in a region like the Sowetan. The independent
variable in the series I shall project is ritual style. The series is
pictured as a virtual time continuum. Over some three centuries the
prevailing style is simply considered to move, at different rates in
different ecozones, from an ‘early’ type toward a ‘late’. I look at three
ethnographic cases appropriately placed along the timeline—
uPangwa, uNyakyusa, uKinga—interpreting in each case the social
and political setting of its ritual style as a set of explanatory corre-
lates. Likely causal relations among the variables may be discussed
but are not assumed. My three ideal types of ritual style are labeled
(progressively) private, public, and ceremonial. Pangwa are most
dependent on private ritual, Nyakyusa on public, and Kinga on
ceremonial. But ritual of the three types is present in all these

To name the two poles of the model continuum, I distinguish

performative from dramatic ritual action. As you proceed from
uPangwa to uKinga the style becomes increasingly dramatic. Proceed
the other way and the style becomes increasingly performative—
each ritual has a definite project of effecting a specific change of
status. Garden magic, cures, and rites of passage are frequent
projects. The ritual if properly done is considered effective. But even
where the project is to transform a private individual it may invite
public participation, and miniature dramatic elements may be incor-

porated. A drum dance, or the like, may follow. The only sensible way
to sort out three cultural communities on such a continuum is by
scaling them—which depends more on dramatics, which more on
performative symbolism. Modest as our information is in each case, I
think it is enough to scale the ritual systems of our three Malatan
communities. Kinga, for one instance, do make some use of puberty
rites. The male rite, which is supposed to treat a group of boys from
a given locality, seems always to have been honoured in folklore more
than deed. There is no memory of a feastful dance afterward, and no
circumcision even in token form, and no explicit ritual change of
status. For girls there is token circumcision, a joyous ‘naked parade’,
and spontaneous drum-dancing after. But if a change is effected in
the girl’s status it is achieved through drama (teaching and mock-
magic) not the rite itself. Pangwa are certainly more ‘performative’
across the board, but make dramatic use of song on nominally
private ritual occasions.

It will be seen that, if one grants the premises of this

particular model, the three empirical cases I consider fall on the
virtual timeline in this order: Pangwa—Konde—Kinga. There is no
implication at all that the Kinga have been into the protostate
process longer than the Konde, or that their political achievement is
more impressive—only that Kinga have, in building a more ‘pyramidal’
(and so presumptively a more stable) statelike polity, depended
more on dramatic style in their rituals. If Ngonde had been included in
this comparative review, I can only guess it would place at the ‘most
developed’ end of this putative timeline. I would expect it to, as I
think ceremonialism is an especially appropriate tool for enhancing
central direction in the political field. But this is not the kind of
outcome to call without an inclusive review.

The meaning of ‘private’ is clearer if we link it to the decentrali-

zation of authority structures. Privacy is inherent in domestic
ritual, as the taboos required to sanction it—to put a ritual act into
effect—have only a domestic compass. But the umbrella of domes-
ticity can be extended along lines of kinship to the point of trans-
forming toward (public) ritual theatre intended to aggrandize the
social importance of the presenting group. In Konde funeral celebra-
tions we see the grieving group projecting itself through dance and
masque before a public of the deceased’s non-kin community.

As ritual becomes ‘public’ it begins to depend on theatricality

for its effect. The intention remains performative (accomplishing a
specific ritual transformation, as with Malinowski’s ‘magic’), but
requires and plays to an audience to achieve its effect. A Kinga
maiden’s initiation grows only more public as it proceeds from an

esoteric seance for maiden and elder women only, to the painted
‘naked parade’ with its noise and whooping, calling on the whole world
to attend. But the dramatic side is all there not only to effect the
change of public status (to nubility and new personal responsibilities
but not to a marriage commitment) in the maiden. The performative
intention of the rite, when read as a whole, is to affirm the struc-
tural dependency of a young woman’s moral career on the
sanctioning power of a matronly cabal not of her ‘mothers’ but her
future peers. That is, the thrust of the teaching is that a woman’s
move into marriage is not a move out of the autonomous circle of
female peers and its intimate sanctions. So the intention is ‘struc-
tural’ not private.

In ceremonialism the ritualistic performance is not meant to

effect a change in the participants or their status in the community
but to dramatize the importance of ritual itself, acting in the
interest of the whole community which sponsors it. Here the drama
must ‘transform reality’ (the world of common sense arising in local
discourse) through the transcendent mechanisms of theatre. The
drama (ceremony) fails if it falls short of the extra-ordinary.
Ceremony presents a superincumbent version of the world known to
ordinary experience. Here belongs the ‘flooding out’ experience of high
dramatic art or of those moments of danger and exhilaration, when
a person is ‘swept away’ by events, ‘caught up in the drama’ of an
arresting situation. This kind of experience, being all but predictable
for certain times of challenge or crisis, can be programmed. The
staged event is memorable because it is framed apart from the
ordinary run. Everyone loves a coronation, a dance, or a hanging if the
ritual side is rightly done.

Intimacy and avoidance

In classic ethnography ‘avoidance’ rules refer mainly to touch

and/or address as between two individuals occupying distinct roles
in one kinship network. As any two individuals who must avoid either
touch or address could not a fortiori commit incest, it might seem
that some ‘avoidances’ should be thought of as extensions of the
incest prohibition. What this would miss is the essence of the incest
taboo, which sets it quite apart. Intimacy is the normal condition of
all the dyads to which an incest taboo applies. This is, in effect,
socially prescribed intimacy, such as one finds in parent-child or
sibling relations. So the incest taboo invokes an existential condition
embedded in the conduct of primary (lifelong, maximal-claim)
relations of kinship: break this rule and you can’t expect these ties—
through which your society has constructed your individual identity
and all lifelong claims and counterclaims implied—to persist. Your

social being, your everyday persona, implodes. Oedipus (not in Freud
but in the ancient Greek legend) is an exceptional case which ‘proves’
the rule: in most versions it is not with the act itself but the actors’
recognition of its nature that damnation falls upon Jocasta and
Oedipus for their incestuous marriage. It is a common thing in Bantu
ethnography to find that a couple planning marriage may discover
before the fact that they are related (through links they were
unaware of) and before they dare marry must stage a ‘cutting’ ritual,
mystically dissolving their blood ties. To my knowledge it has
nowhere been shown that two such persons would be treated as
pariahs for having known sexual intimacy before the link was known.
As for ‘avoidances’ breached in ignorance, the problem could cause no
more than a bit of undamning confusion.

In a nutshell: an ‘avoidance rule’ cancels what in its absence

would be a step toward socially privileged intimacy between the
avoider and a kinsman or kinsman’s familiar. An ‘incest taboo’ sets
the condition of sex avoidance on cross-gender relations within the
kind of privileged intimacy group we usually call a family. It is a special
ban within a bond.

Where ‘avoidance’ is required between affines, a special logic

applies. Where a new spouse is brought within the compass of a
solidary kinship group, a new precinct of privileged sexual intimacy is
created and set apart within it. In the Nyakyusa case, an address-
avoidance taboo was applied to the bride with her marriage, forcing
her to flee as if in terror whenever her husband’s father or father’s
brother came by. That was feasible in traditional times, as her
husband would not be living in or frequenting his father’s village. One
vital consequence of this total-avoidance routine was to block the
transitivity of the father’s authority—deeply ingrained over two or
three decades—to other members of the son’s new family. Another
consequence: though the father must feign to ignore it, he is an
intruder now in his son’s private life. The son, after all, must be
allowed to ‘grow up’ at last and till fields of his own. In parallel cases,
but where a young husband and his father are in constant contact,
such a rule would prove unworkable. The usual cure for securing the
status of the ‘stranger bride’ is a group-spouse taboo—all other
males in the group must (as it were) ‘extend the incest taboo’ to the
new wife, so that normal social familiarity can rule. But this ‘group
spouse taboo’ is not ingrained but removable. The institution of the
levirate, often found in agnatic kinship societies, enjoins a man to
marry a brother’s widow. In the Nyakyusa case the takeover is
automatic, as a surviving brother inherits the other’s name and
identity, and with that his wives and other wealth. The true incest

taboo is not removable, though the ‘extension’ of its rhetoric to
intimacy with more distant relatives or affines may be.

For Kinga, where a woman does not marry into a solidary

agnatic kin group, no ‘group spouse taboo’ appears. A married man
may take his unmarried younger brother into a sort of tutelary bed,
a lit à trois, to redirect his sexuality and lean him toward a marriage
of his own. By the same token, a woman’s right to a new pregnancy
might see her turn to a husband’s brother when her spouse was
absent or ailing.

One point that will come up as we examine cases is that

intimacy at both levels (including or excluding sex) can be made
socially possible by the norms of avoidance entailed. The reason isn’t
instantly obvious. You must consider first that stable relations of
intimacy are not ‘natural’ to human kind. The nearest we approach
that is in the nursing bond of mother and infant, which both Pangwa
and Kinga custom extend almost maximally, but which is always
eventually extinguished. Beyond this, a stabilizing social structure—
a whole scheme of rights and duties ‘spontaneously’ sanctioned by
participants—is a precondition of extended intimate relations. The
ideas of ‘family’, ‘kinship’, and even ‘amity’ are meaningless outside of
such a social structure. Only particular societies make use of rigidly
formalized avoidance of address in their social architecture, but all
use a set of ‘role relationships’, each with specific behavioral expec-
tations attached. Some restrict, some enjoin the appearance of
affection. All are sanctioned diffusely and show strong patterning
which doesn’t encourage loose cannons. Where intimacy is episodic
and fleeting, it is not a relationship. To be so, it must be stabilized by
a systematic web of taboo. If a young Nyakyusa wife failed to avoid
eye-contact with her father-in-law even in the 1950s, she would be
introducing structural trouble—less grave than she might cause by
incest, but parallel in challenging the way their game of family life is
played. In this case, owing to the lack of age-traits as boundary
markers, the ‘group spouse’ taboo is especially hard to implement as
between this young woman and her husband’s polygynist father, who
continues to enjoy a uniquely lifelong privileged relationship (parental
authority, ingrained) with his son.

By the same token, in a rampantly polygynous society a stable

marital relationship will be hard to structure. As you think about the
Nyakyusa case you will see that jealousy among a man’s co-wives
would make marriage there a rather destabilizing experience if it had
to be grounded in the possessive sentiments a monogamous
marriage system so often relies on for stability. What the co-wives
of an aging Nyakyusa man have in common is their hateful avoidance

of their husband’s ‘fathers’. By drawing them together, the system
draws them emotionally away from dependence on the husband for
intimacy’s undeniable rewards. The whole charade with each
successive addition to the father’s plural marriage effectively
narrows the door of intimacy in it, and for both genders weakens the
fiduciary potential of the marital bond. As I read the ethnography,
the ‘sisterly’ bonds among women are proportionally strengthened—
though I confess to reading between the lines and looking for the
structure of experience not of rules.

A further point comes up. Structured social relationships are

never to be understood as ‘inherent’ in human kind. Since they depend
on actions impossible without mutual and congruent expectations
as to the claims which must be honoured in a structured
relationship, they presuppose deep socialization of the individuals
who will be involved. Sandbox society is not self-stabilizing. Adult
communities won’t make their way in history without more ‘grown up’
kinds of social relationships. If we have shown that in the absence of
incest taboos domestic groups or ‘family systems’ can’t be stabi-
lized as the primary units of self-sufficiency, a corollary is that
unstratified societies depend on that taboo to furnish the ‘schools’
which will socialize children capable of useful lives and of developing
viable moral strategies in an adult world. The situation remains
about the same in principle almost anywhere one moves in social
history in more simple or complex societies. I hope that the myste-
rious side of incest taboos need be deemed no more or less puzzling
than the very existence of our kind. It seems obvious to most
anthropologists that language, culture, and home-made social archi-
tecture set our kind apart from others, and in a quite special way
apart from nature. It would be arrogant indeed for a scientist to
predict the course of a (human vs. human) chess game and outra-
geous to predict the moral success of a single human career however
staid its social setting. Yet if the human condition leaves us in one
sense even less natural (predictable) than chess we are natural
enough to know and fear ‘unnatural human acts’: they put the game
itself at risk.

Pangwa particulars: intimacy and avoidance

Incest and avoidance rules of the Pangwa can be made clear by

citing and discussing Fr. Stirnimann’s accounts. Since his two major
monographs are not everywhere accessible, I translate extended

I first want to make clear Fr. Stirnimann’s thinking on Pangwa

sociology, as well as my own where it diverges, or where the passage

cited doesn’t speak for itself. A major divergence has to do with his
assumption that the Pangwa once lived in localized exogamous patri-
lineal communities. Pangwa like Kinga and Konde do have patrilineal
rules of inheritance but bilateral rules of descent. Thus their ideas
about kinship are dual, combining ‘kindred’ and ‘lineage’ patterns of
thought about personal identities. Pangwa call their political commu-
nities inana (sing. u-lutanana). As will appear, I do not gloss this major
Pangwa political institution, the lutanana, in the same way Fr. Stirn-
imann does. I avoid using ‘lineage’, preferring the less specific
‘descent group’ as my rendering of the Pangwa term within a citation
from his german text. Where I am myself translating lutanana into
english I refer to it as a ‘deme’, or more specifically a ‘patri-deme’. In
this I am following the reasoning of George Peter Murdock, whose
gloss, dating back half a century, deserves citation here:

...The inhabitants [of a ‘deme’] are necessarily related to one

another through intermarriage, although they cannot always trace
their exact kinship connections. They are consequently bound to one
another not only by common residence but also by consanguinity.
...Within such a group the only social structuring is commonly into
families... The strongest sense of identification is usually with the
community as a whole, which is viewed as a consanguineal unit in
relation to other communities in a manner quite comparable to the
attitude towards one’s own sib [clan] in a unilinear society.

The widespread tendency to extend incest taboos throughout

any kin group... naturally does not leave the deme unaffected.
...Exogamous demes, where unilinear descent has not become estab-
lished, may be distinguished according to residence rules as patri-
demes and matri-demes. ...Exogamous demes constitute one of the
two principal origins of [unilinear] clans. ‡

Here, for juxtaposition, is Fr. Stirnimann on the local descent

groups of the Pangwa. George Peter Murdock would be looking for
evidence as to how far the ‘kindred’ (defined by the incestuous
flavour given the idea of marrying close kin on either the father’s or
the mother’s side) had established its exclusive political rights in
the lutanana settlement territory, and how far the rhetoric of
ownership and identity had come to be expressed in terms of

The common residence of the kin group in the patrilineal (väter-

lichen) lutanana demanded of the individual members not only mutual
good will in the daily routine, but also readiness to assist and
cooperate in house building, the care of the fields, support with food
and seedgrain in time of need, participation in combatting harmful
wild animals. For the clearing of bush areas and the care of the larger
fields on the mountain slopes, the mkoyo [leader] of the lutanana

organized collective work groups, imikovi, in which all able-bodied
members, as well as in-migrant settlers, must take part.
...Assiduous participation in the collective work of house building and
cultivation was reckoned as visible confirmation of blood relationship
and was of fundamental significance for the solidarity of the whole
luxolo [kin group]. “We worked together, helped each other out all
around, and shared everything with each other like children of the
same father,” old men declared. [II 60-61]

Here are Fr. Stirnimann’s constructions of the ‘lineage’ or

descent-group organization and the clearly rather ‘kindred’ sort of
incest rules as they putatively were before traditional Pangwa
culture was disturbed by the Ngoni, the German and British adminis-
trations, and the missionaries:

In accord with their social structure, marriage is embedded in a

frame of usage and taboo, which as first priority is aimed at
maintaining the purity of blood of the patrilineal luxolo [kin group] in
the lutanana [local descent group]. [ II 136]

Intimate relations outside marriage, and marriage itself, are

forbidden where kinship as close as four generations exists between
partners. [II 136]

This last is intended to mean that two persons with any great-
great grandparent (either gender) in common are too closely related
to think of sexual contact. This is the kind of rule which best
matches a quasilocal ‘kindred’ organization, not any corporate group
which might be generated by unilineal rules of heredity. As will appear,
very few Pangwa would have been in position after 1855 to collect
the information needed for scrupulous clearing of all barriers to
marriage under this rule. In my reading, this would always have been
the case, although the ethnographer supposes the mistiness of
genealogical recall must be only recent. Another point to be kept in
mind in deciding what weight to give this ‘rule’ is that while no one in
recent times has been held to it, Pangwa informants don’t find it
anomalous. That is, the rule of patrilocal residence at marriage does
give the man and his patrilateral male kin constitutional privilege in
the lutanana. But this appears to be a function of local politics and
ritually sanctioned orders of precedence, not unilineal consanguinity.
We are dealing with a patri-deme not a localized patrilineage.

Trying to see the lutanana as a unilineal local descent group

makes the bilateral calculation of incest danger anomalous. But
that rule begins to look more reasonable when considered as a just-
so story to cool the passions of the young and keep marriage in the
hands of their elders. Protecting the elders’ grasp of ‘tradition’ is a

necessary condition of order in a society without formally vested
political authority. The rule of exogamy for the lutanana, when it is
coupled with the practice of estrangement as between inter-
marrying settlements, is a structural cinch which puts the destiny
of a young generation in the hands of the old men, who are alone in
position to find eligible brides for their sons. Fr. Stirnimann links this
to the broad incest/endogamy taboo:

Two exceptions from this broad-reaching incest taboo have

nonetheless always been recognized: the sororate and geographic
separation... Apart from these two exceptions, custom always
allowed a man to fetch his wife from an unrelated lutanana [local
descent-group], for as the saying goes, ‘New blood is only to be
bought from another lutanana’. Accordingly, in the old days planning a
marriage always lay in the hands of the father, who knew the several
kinship networks. [II 138-9]

The first exception is rather slight. In this case the main impli-
cation of ‘the sororate’ is that a father of two eligible daughters
might, when the first falls short of supplying her husband with the
contractually prescribed three babes, be obliged to settle the
matter either (a) by sending the second daughter after her, or (b)
returning some bridewealth. This is clearly an ‘ideal’ model of an
obligation some fathers might choose to resist. It entails a trans-
local contractual relationship calling for good will. The ‘sororate’
would only be an exception to an incest rule which held that
accepting a bridewealth portion (as a bride’s sister arguably must
do) creates a virtual kinship link, forbidding her (though it had not
barred her sister’s) marriage into the groom’s kin group. As will
appear, it is an author’s inference that this kind of link should set up
an ‘incest’ barrier. An alternative reading would be that we are dealing
with a society in which translocal political relations are mainly
steadied by marriage contracts which are considered as irrevocable,
lifelong partnerships between two families, but depend on each side
having an investment in the progeny of the marriage.

The second exception is more interesting. By ‘geographic

separation’ is simply meant the two will have grown up as strangers.
By ‘planning’ is also meant negotiating. It will be clear that one
consequence of a bridewealth system is just this: wealth must
accumulate, on the groom’s side, in the ascendant generation before
a marriage can be arranged. In some societies, much of it can be
brought in almost painlessly as bridewealth from another family by
arranging a daughter’s marriage at the convenient time. This
requires that marriages be thought of and acted on by the ‘fathers’
in businesslike terms. As bankers, they see the good of marrying off
local young women to other communities at good prices, the better

to satisfy local young men wanting to get unrelated brides. Regular
local endogamy would mean constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul,
which means canceling credits and undoing the simplicity of a local
exogamy balanced by the gender balance of birth rates. Unsimple
systems of credit are full of snares. All the indications are that this
applies in spades to the Pangwa.

In accord with traditional jural norms the husband’s group

acquires the right to the labour and fertility of the young wife, with
the handing over of the bridewealth, as it is expressed in the
teaching: Twikula umudala xulima na xubaba (We buy [literally, eat] a wife
to work the gardens and bear children). [II 140]

Fr. Stirnimann is most acute in the way he chases down details

of bridewealth distributions and their significance in his Pangwa
model. He shows that, in effect, the ‘incest-avoiding community’ (by
which I mean the group within which the taboo is a ‘spontaneous‘
categorical imperative) is recreated for individuals of each gener-
ation as they enter marriage, by the business deals made on either
hand with a bridewealth:

In contrast to the norms of many African societies, the bride’s

father in uPangwa can’t keep for himself the bridewealth he has
received from the groom’s family for loss of his daughter, but must
hand over the one half to his own blood kin of the lutanana [local
descent group], the other half to the bride’s mother’s brother repre-
senting the matrilateral kin. But this give-away of the compensation
implies mutuality. All recipients of bridewealth portions are obliged
by kin solidarity to put up equally valuable contributions to the
father for gathering the bridewealth of a son. At first sight this
exchange of gifts looks to be only a sign of solidarity within the
lineage. In reality this mutual receiving and giving has a deeper
dimension. It sets limits on the effective scope of blood kinship, and
with it the incest barrier. [II 137]

Note first that a bridewealth which is seen to melt away as

soon as received can’t cause personal envy even in the giver. This
treatment of wealth is the quintessential one for (acephalous)
communities of equals where neighborly amity among men is an
ethical imperative.

Next: The odd thing is that this kind of incest taboo ‘sets
limits’ much too generous to match any possible system of agnatic
or other unilinear reckoning. Where ‘one blood’ is the key to kinship
imagery it has to be the key to incest imagery. But ‘blood’ just
doesn’t run in ‘lines’ or ‘lineages’ in communities with bilateral rules of
descent and inheritance. Bilateral reckoning joins two lines in the

issue of each marriage, so that each married couple represents a
node in a centrifugally branching, all-consuming no-sided kinship
network which generates no overall shape to the society: no segmen-
tation, no possible sort of corporate kin group. To have corporate
groups (as in unilineal societies) you must have unambiguous
membership: each person recognized must belong to one and only
one such group. This uses kinship rhetoric to create the kind of social
structure we have come to call ‘segmentary’. But in bilateral
societies there are as many radically overlapping networks as there
are living marriages. For Pangwa the network of any set of full siblings
is defined for them by the bridewealth arrangements made for their
parents: receivers of bridewealth contributions (represented
directly or in the persons of their heirs) become givers of the
portions passed out of the lutanana community in the next gener-
ation—and so on. But it won’t be immediately obvious how such
arrangements create political stability in the lutanana.

There is one further comment due on ‘local descent groups’ and

anthropological correctness. For a kinship group in the strict sense
to own a territory it would have to be a corporate group, enduring as
a political unit through the generations needed to produce enough
people to make a biggish community. It would have to start with a
new group settling a new place and making room over time for
progeny and the progeny of progeny until the country was full. Then
some segment of the big kin group could move out to start
somewhere else. This is just as Pangwa informants know it must
have been in illo tempore:

The traditional worldview was simple and self-contained. The

founding father of a lutanana suddenly appeared, took the land in use
and thanks to his creative power brought forth not only the worlds
of plants and animals, but also a numberless company of descen-
dants. He allows the first-born of each generation to partake of his
creative power.... The deceased fathers (mahoxa [shades]) live on in
their graves and, together with the living descendants in the
lutanana, form one single blood, a closed kinship group (luxolo). The
visible group’s settlement area ‘above’ is identical with the country
of the [ghostly] fathers ‘below’. [I 219]

But unless the kinship system is the sort that will build a
regularly expanding corporate group with unambiguous central
direction over land, labour, and the distribution of other necessities,
it is misleading to say this is ‘a kinship group which owns its
territory’. That means my use of ‘local descent group’ to translate
Pangwa ulutanana is still not quite anthroplogically correct. As we
shall see, the Pangwa kindred is a contractual co-op:

Then according to reports from elderly informants, such troubles
affected kinship relations in the past, that the scope of the
bridewealth distribution even within the lutanana [descent-group
territory or settlement area] was always unstable. According to
traditional norms, the bridewealth portion at a marriage was
supposed to be distributed not only to father and mother, brothers
and sisters of the bride, but to all patrilateral and matrilateral kin to
and including great-great grandfather and his brothers and
sisters—thus to four ascending generations. As to how this was
possible, in consideration of the modest indemnity paid around the
turn of the century (about six hoes and two or three baskets of
maize, millet, and eleusine for brewing beer), the older informants
pointed to the radical decimation of the population throughout the
decades-long slave raiding of the Ngoni. Many now thickly settled
descent-group lands were...completely depopulated, to the point
that survivors barely managed a wretched existence in a few nuclear
families... Among these remaining groups what was once a lineage
group (luxolo) came down to the universal axiom: Where bridewealth is
shared, there is common blood, and: The recipients of bridewealth
shares are making alliance with the givers. For these, incest limits
and prohibitions of marriage were for at least three generations.
Intimate relations between cross-cousins, such as often take place
today, used to be regarded as incestuous. Any kind of family
disgrace was condemned as witchcraft (uvuhavi), and the guilty ones
were expelled from the kin group and banished from descent-group
territory. Should a married man be guilty of such an offense, they
burnt his house down and, after taking away his wife and children,
cast him out or killed him. They feared the wrath of the outraged
shades (mahoxa) should he remain living in the community. [II 137-8]

I find it wise to discount this last bit of news on mob rule as

only some more of the just-so rhetoric which needs to be taken with
salt. House burnings belong to the high dudgeon mode of righteous
indignation in acephalous societies, dependent as they are on
‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of people power. House-burning is a
sanction executed by stealth and so uncharacteristic of the
political rhetoric of chiefly society. What lurks behind this vehemence
is the sacralization of amity within the ‘descent group’ community.
Every member ought to share the ‘outrage of the shades’ and avoid
stirring up the fires of envy. Taking a bride from inside the lutanana
community isn’t bringing in a wife ‘to work the gardens and bear
children’ but taking an eminently ‘salable’ young woman of the
community off the market. In short, if some man whose son is in the
market for a woman wants to object to the use of ‘our banked
bridewealth credits’ to ‘buy a wife who is already here’ the taboo of
incest can be evoked to quash the move. What has to be understood
as the premise of amity in the lutanana is that it is structured as a
‘credit’ system with only the ‘books’ of memory. No man can boast

his holdings in the system outweigh another’s—the credit is
nominally all in one pool, symbolized as ‘one blood’. Behind the scenes,
young bachelor men are rivals, of each other and of some strong
married men as well, for the use of bridewealth credits. It is out of
this subsurface rivalry the real social danger of ‘incest’ arises. The
elders must quietly negotiate around it. They must conspire.

Looking for the ‘system on the ground’ through the lens of the
‘system of ideas’, our main conclusion should be simply that the
virtually boundless nature of the ‘incest-avoidance’ group, in combi-
nation with the modest ‘price’ of a traditional bridewealth, has the
consequence that while kinship (‘blood’) may rule at the level of
conventional wisdom, a strategy of amity rules Pangwa praxis. The
actual distribution of a bridewealth is determined ‘on the ground’ by
a modest series of transactions, amounting to morally sanctioned
contracts of reciprocal obligation, among men of the ascendant gener-
ation. If these men choose wisely they will choose to serve the ends
of neighborly amity. Paradoxically, each such transaction injects a
quantum of idealized kinship sentiment into an existing tie.
Reciprocity is reaffirmed. Whether I am giving or taking a bridewealth
portion I treat the contract as good and profitable, as a bit more
than ‘money in the bank’. Here is an avenue by which ‘forgotten links
of kinship’ can be made new. In short, it is a way ‘virtual kinship’ gets
the ‘genuine’ stamp. The main trick entailed is masking the arbitrary
element of choice in the business by letting key persons represent
whole arrays of the living and dead ‘unto the fourth generation’. It
gives the planners free hands. The most familiar instance is letting a
‘mother’s brother’ represent the ‘matrilateral kin’. A simple twist on
that is this: whenever a local man is asked to give or receive
bridewealth credits on behalf of the bride’s side of a marriage this
man becomes a virtual ‘mother’s brother’ to her. Kinship which is
theoretically established by dimly recalled lore about links is a fine
and flexible tool for carving kinship in the sand of the public mind. If
anyone they want to take into their crowd can’t be gotten in through
the Pangwa door, it is quite likely to be a missionary or an anthropol-
ogist, if not both. ‡‡

But Fr. Stirnimann makes clear Pangwa marriage arrange-

ments in an ideal case were bilaterally oriented, so creating a quasi-
affinal in-group of persons within which civil conduct was afforded
the positive sanction of kin-like amity. When I say ‘quasi-affinal’ I
allude to the statistically high probability that every man and
woman in a given lutanana, if they are not related by several paths of
‘agnatic’ or ‘cognatic’ kinship, are at least related by (passive) partic-
ipation in a certain number of marriages. Implicit in the incest rules is
the premise that ‘blood kinship’ always passes down through women

as well as men; and that, although the social ties in the ‘arranger’
generation are contractual, they are advertised as merging in a
future descending generation to form ties of ‘blood’. It is a provision
which illuminates the active significance of ‘virtual kinship’ within the
Pangwa-Kinga region. But it can be made to speak also to the inner
nature of the lutana. Stirnimann thinks of it as corporate.

...ulutanana (pl. inana) is the settlement area of a closed, agnatic

kinship group (uluxolo). [I 57n]

If I consider this a good and true statement of the case my

own conception of the scene certainly collapses. We have moved
from a discussion of incest rules and their implications to a question
about the main political institution of the Sowetan region’s best-
described acephalous society. If the incest taboos are somehow
defined for Pangwa through the retailing of bridewealths and
bridewealth obligations within the lutanana, it is clear enough that
Pangwa reckon kinship bilaterally and so cannot construct a
corporate kinship group. This means the lutanana membership list is
not prescribed by rules but recruited and confirmed by the
management of marriages and the obligatory associated ritual
installation of a new household as belonging in and to the lutanana. Is
a lutanana made up of people or homesteads? Appropriate phrases
might be ‘local community’ or, to insist on the territorial aspect,
‘local state’. If, as it is often suggested, the essence of an aceph-
alous polity is ‘organized anarchy’, and if the lutanana is something
other than a structural segment, we may be prepared to call it
simply a microcosm of the precolonial, pre-1855 Pangwa social order.
Like any other acephalous polity, the Pangwa would have depended on
‘pop-up leadership’ at need, not vested authority. The larger ethnic
community would be composed of an open series of inana organized
by social coherence under a ritually sanctioned code of law, not
political authority with its enforcement procedures. Nineteenth-
century anthropologist had a phrase for it: Custom is King. Now
what we must do is deconstruct ‘custom’.‡

I have elsewhere shown for Kinga that a bridewealth system

can generate power for men of the ascendant generation [Park
1994b]. That is the case for traditional Pangwa as well. Here it
remains only to suggest that the illusion of patriliny and closure in
this heavily bilateral and open (but necessarily patrilocal) society is
fostered by the solidary style of male elders in the affairs of the
Pangwa, and the well-earned but always personal authority with
which they are able to conduct themselves. We have yet to consider
in detail the household social structure which is the key to that

Konde particulars: intimacy and avoidance

My major sources for Konde ethnography are the Wilsons’

publications on the Nyakyusa of the Selya area. As with the Pangwa
in this chapter, it will be convenient to label each citation as it is
presented, with appended brackets. I list the monographs cited in
chronological order of publication:
A Godfrey Wilson, 1951
B C D E Monica Wilson, 1951, 1957, 1959, 1977

In the context of their study the ethnographers make a strong

case for conceiving taboos of incest and ‘in-law adultery’ as versions
of one social phenomenon. Here is Godfrey Wilson:

One of the most stringent taboos in Nyakyusa life is that which

separates father and daughter-in-law. A woman may never speak to,
approach, or look at her husband’s father. If she does it is believed
that she will die, through the ‘breath’ of indignant neighbours, a
painful and lingering death. And the taboo is extended from her own
father-in-law to all his classificatory brothers. The normal routine of
life is constantly interrupted by women’s avoidance of these
men....This taboo separating father and daughter-in-law is one of the
reasons for the age-village system ... [A 269]

Monica Wilson adds this:

The feeling that sons should not be cognizant of the sex activ-
ities of parents, and that father-in-law and daughter-in-law should
avoid one another is not, of course, peculiar to the Nyakyusa; all we
seek to show is that the extreme elaboration of these avoidances
among the Nyakyusa is dependent upon the existence of age-
villages. [B 160]

What needs emphasis is the ‘extension’ of this in-law taboo to

a husband’s paternal uncles, the father-in-law’s brothers, full and
classificatory. It is this facet which makes the meaning of this taboo
seem to have ‘generational’ significance. On the game-board of incest
avoidance, as one brother falls out, another takes his place and adds
the dead man’s responsibilities, along with his wealth, to his own.
Another facet of the same phenomenon: a sister’s son should treat
all his mother’s brothers’ wives as ‘mothers’. Monica Wilson labels
sexual intimacy in relations of this kind simply as ‘incest’. There are
reasons, but this wants clarification. It has been an accepted
convention in anthropology to define incest as sexual intercourse

between ‘born kin’. An extension of kinship sentiments to persons
brought into ego’s circle by in-law contracts has therefore been
considered as an aggravated form of adultery not incest . ‡

What is special about the Nyakyusa case is the vehemence of

the in-law taboo; and since what is also special about this culture is
the age-village, it is not surprising to find both natives and anthro-
pologists linking the two phenomena:

The incest theme elaborated in one fashion among people

organized in clans and practising clan exogamy, and in another among
people practising brother-sister avoidance, finds yet a different
expression in age-villages, of which the overt purpose is the
separation of sons and mothers, of fathers-in-law and daughters-
in-law. [B 162]

Monica Wilson cites