The Ngoni Tribe of Malawi
It is no surprise that the birth rituals in the Ngoni culture are vastly different than those of the American culture. The birth takes place in a hut instead of a hospital and is performed by midwives. The mother is not expected to yell or cry out in pain during the delivery of labor unlike mothers in America. They were encouraged by midwives and younger women who were looking on during the birth not to groan or show any sign of pain.
Most of the rituals that are performed at birth are performed after the delivery is over with. When the baby is delivered, it is washed by the midwives and smothered in castor oil. The umbilical cord is tied with a thread and the baby is given a thin gruel made of friend and ground finger millet (this is intended to act as a purgative to get rid of the mucus in the stomach). After the baby ejected the millet, it is fed sour milk curds.
The majority of the after birth rituals are done in preparation for the mother in her journey to motherhood. Once the birth is over, she is washed and covered in a cloth and left to rest. While she is resting, the midwives and other women take all of the mats and other cloths used during birth and create a fire in the middle of the hut to give the mother and her child warmth. The mother then, with the help of the midwives, washes her breasts with water and massages them in preparation for breastfeeding.
Special attention is given to those mothers who have twins, especially if only one of the twins survives in delivery. Although the Ngoni culture is particularly considerate of the mother of twins (they often kill wild animals to feed the mother to increase the flow of her milk), they bury the deceased twin under the front veranda of their hut and place a smooth stone across the grave and this stone is for sitting and is used for when the surviving baby is being washed.
The responsibility of naming of the child is given to the paternal grandfather and he usually names the child after the father or himself, and if it’s a girl he gives her the name of the mother or the father’s sister. The baby is also given a personal name in which it is not used in most social settings, this descriptive name could be due to the child being born with a twin or being born face downward (indicating that it was dreaded as an ill omen). Once a decision is reached by the grandfather, he comes to the hut where the mother is and tells her what her baby’s name is and the mother has no say in the final decision. This process is followed shortly by a process in which the grandfather gives the mother a ‘carrying skin’ that he makes. This ‘carrying skin’ is usually made of goat or small calf from the father’s pasture. This animal is also used for feasting on when the mother is finished resting.
It is clear that the Ngoni culture is very particular when it comes to birth rites. They treat the mothers with great respect and they are often given much time to rest and heal from the birth. With all of the birth rituals performed, the special gifts, and special names that are given to the baby, it is very clear that having a baby in this culture is a landmark in the mother’s life.
On the high plateau in the small country of Malawi, the Ngoni settled and made there home in the mid nineteenth century. This central African country became the new home for the Ngoni people after their forty-year journey from Natal to Tanganyika. Malawi provided them with lots of fresh drinking water, good soil, pasture lands, and beautiful scenery.
The Ngoni built their villages in a horseshoe formation, around a circular cattle kraal. Large villages could have over a hundred huts, with families grouped together. In each village, there was one “big house” in which the leading women lived.
Each Ngoni house was divided into two sides – one for men, and one for women. During ceremonies, the men sat on the right and the women sat on the left. In the back of the hut, behind the fire, was a sacred place known as the “ancestors’ corner,” and only the owner of the hut or the person participating in the ritual could approach the corner.
When the Ngoni settled in Malawi, they either conquered the local peoples who lived in that area, or accepted their submission. They were constantly trying to expand their borders by carrying on wars and raids. The Ngoni language was eventually abandoned as a result of the mixing of races. In all Ngoni kingdoms, they were led by a Paramount Chief as supreme ruler, with subordinate chiefs below him. When a war broke out, military service was required by all young men.
Only the people who could trace their families back to those who crossed the Zambeze River were considered “true Ngoni.” Four characteristics made them stand out from the group: their clan name, a marriage contract, patrilineal descent and inheritance through the male line, and a membership of a “house,” the social group of male Ngoni families. This group of true Ngoni’s formed the social and cultural aristocracy of the villages, and tried to maintain their traditional was of living.
Britain took over Malawi between 1891 and 1901, and cut the central Ngoni kingdom off from the rest. Each male was required to pay taxes to the British government, and a ban on warfare was put in place. The Ngoni way of life was changed forever, replaced by a more European way of life. The three main changes that occurred were: “loss of political independence; loss of authority over other ethnic groups; loss of traditional forms of replenishment of resources in man power, cattle, and grain when wars and raids ceased; and the widespread and profound results of labor migration to the south and outside the country” (12-13
The Ngoni of Malawi have been driving into a new age. They have been forced, as a colony of Britain, to adapt into a new way of life (Read, 1968.). At the heart of their culture was what they called, “building up the land”, which was also one of the guiding principles in bring up their children (Read, 1968.).
Though the Ngoni people were losing some of their culture, they were able to gather themselves and realize what they have lost and what they still considered a special part of their culture (Read, 1968.). They were strong believers in the continuity of their people and even though they have been socially and economically forced out of their natural culture, they were able to adapt to this new age.
Throughout the years many things had changed for the Ngoni people of Malawi, but there were three main things: “the end of warfare made the Ngoni kingdoms unable to expand and made military training no longer practicable; the loss of autonomy of these kingdoms when British administration took over; and the gradual fading out of the Ngoni language which was related to old Zulu” (Read, 1968, 90-91).
Though they had lost some of their customs, they still had their core values and kept things such as their systems of chieftainship and courts of law. Though they had kept their court of law, some of the functions were altered (Read, 1968.). Another thing that is still present in the Ngoni culture is the strict clan exogamy in marriage. The preferred form of marriage is by lobola, which is the transfer of cattle or money to ensure the custody of the children to the father’s family (Read, 1968.) This custom remains the same but the “mount of the lobola, formerly dependent on the status of the girl’s father, is now partly dependent also on the standard of education she has reached” (Read, 1968, 91). The Ngoni people have managed to keep some of their culture, but it still is being modified due to their colonization.
Since the Ngoni had been colonized, they felt that in order to better themselves and give themselves more power they must attain the same level of education as the British people and finally convinced their government to open secondary schools. In order to achieve equality of education, they felt they needed quality knowledge of the English language for their children, just as the British (Read, 1968.). With this higher education the Ngoni men were moving to the urban areas and getting well-paid jobs. With their well-paid jobs they would send money home to their villages to by cattle, which would help “the upbuilding of the land” (Read, 1968.).
In Ngoni history, reaching high achievement meant either marked by birth and through success in arms through military service. Another way they could reach this recognition of achievement was to kill a lion, which continued long after warfare had ceased (Read, 1968.). Since warfare had come to a halt, a new elite had evolved. This new elite came through “individual achievement in jobs held and standards reached in the schools” (Read, 1968, 93). Many of the children had their minds set on what they wished to become and it was no longer a great warrior; rather they set their goals of achievement high towards their jobs which could give them authority, responsibility, and dignity (Read, 1968.).
From the beginning, Ngoni people held in high regards the belief of “keeping together” and honoring each other” and was related to “the upbuilding of the land” (Read, 1968.). Though the times were changing, things like abiding by the law, obedience to authority, being gentle and showing restraint were still taught to the Ngoni children as the proper way in order for “the upbuilding of the land” (Read, 1968.).
Schools in Northern Ngoniland, as in the rest of Malawi until just recently, were founded and maintained by Christian missions, teaching Christianity with the intend of making converts was part of the school teaching.
This style of teaching was decided by the earliest converts who made the decision to do so in the face of much opposition from Ngoni parents, and leaders, but this opposition gradually faded as the new Ngoni Christians continued to be apart of their own age groups and to observe the required behavior of Ngoni boys. By the time Ngoni men had become head teachers, school inspectors, church elders, and ministers, church membership was accepted as compatible with being a good Ngoni man or women.
The result of this was that the schools and the church congregations became the essential parts of the life of the Northern Ngoni which whom built most of their own schools and churches. These people became the social institutions of the Ngoni culture. They collected school fees and church dues, and in some areas the people paid the teachers and the ministers. This was the funding that kept these resources available for the most part. The mission was continued to act in a supervisory capacity, by providing the essential additional finances and training the teachers and ministers. From the beginning in the Northern Ngoniland, the schools as well as the churches were closely related to the power structure of the Ngoni kingdom. Some of the chiefs were baptized as young men and later worked as teachers. On entering the chieftainship some adhered to church rules and retained their church membership. Others in the culture who took more than one wife, or inherited a dead brother’s widow, ceased to be church members. However, this did not hinder a chief from attending church services with his two, three, or more wives, from contributing to the church funds, as well as arranging to have a Christian minister attend all important ceremonies to give a short discourse and to lead prayers and hymn singing.
Although the schools teach Christianity, Christianity is not the only religion through out the Northern Ngoniland. Religious groups in Malawi can consist of people who follow the Roman Catholic religion, Protestants, and even Muslims. Although, Muslims religion existed, it only makes up a small percentage of the religion in this culture.
The Ngoni have three stages of childhood that they recognize for boys, each of these stages symbolize the transformation of the child, with each one having a physical change happening. The first stage is babyhood, which is from birth to weaning, this is marked by the ending of the dependence of the mother. The second stage is little child, which is from weaning until they have their second teeth, it is marked by the separation of t he boy from the “women’s world.” The last stage is Children to the onset of puberty(Read, 1968.). Actual childhood has ended after these stages have been fulfilled but the Ngoni do recognize two other stages. The first is young adults, youth, and maidens up to marriage, when important links are formed with a new family. The last being men and women from marriage to parenthood, where the cycle beings to start itself all over again (Read, 1968.).
When a girl has her first period it is a strange and unexpected thing for a Ngoni girl. The girls are not informed about this before hand and are often scared. When it does happen a message is sent out through the women in the family always saying “this child has matured.” (Read, 1968.).
Once the first menstruation has ended the girl is led by a procession to the river where she is forced to strip naked and sit in the shallow water always facing South-east. She is watched by the women who led her there until she is allowed to come out and put on clean and dry clothing. Once they are back to their community the girl is bluntly told that she is no longer a child and that she must separate herself from immature girls and the children of the community. She is told a few rules that she must follow now that she is mature such as always where a cloth between her legs no matter if she is menstruating or not, also she is only allowed to sleep and bath with girls who are matured as well (Read, 1968.). The girl is informed that she can now become pregnant and she is continued with her regular checks by a member of the family on the fathers side to make sure that her hymen is still in tacked. In the final stage of this the father is informed and so is the community of what has happened. The people rejoice but not with a party or anything of that form they kind of keep it silent and congratulate the father as a person who will now receive cattle on his daughters wedding day (Read, 1968.).
When a boy is considered to reach maturity it was broken down into two stages. The first being when he has a nocturnal emission. The boy is informed by an older boy that he must go to the river in the morning a wash himself hard with the water, and to do so after every time this happened. This process was called “being beaten with water” (Read, 1968.). This was meant to control the sexual urges of the boy. This process was kept very secretive. The second part of the ritual took place when the father or senior males of the family heard that the boy’s voice was cracking. When this happened the father went to a man in the village to get many different kinds of roots. These were either cooked in milk or in the cud of a goat’s stomach (Read, 1968.). In either case the boy was fed meat directly after drinking the mixture to remove the bitter taste from his mouth. The meat was either from the goat or if it was cooked in milk it was from a fowl. This also showed that the father had killed something for his son (Read, 1968.). The cooking of the mixture took place in front of the male members of the boy’s family. When the mixture was boiling and bubbling he was told to dip his fingers in and then lick them very quickly, he was expected by the male members to no show on his face that the mixture was bitter or that it was hot when he dipped his fingers in. At times during the ceremony the boy had to jump over the fire slapping his knees and elbows with the palm of his hand. This was good for the boy because the more he did this the less he had to dip his fingers and lick the mixture because he had to keep repeating that until it was all gone or dried up (Read, 1968.). All the males watched this because they believed that the mixture were good for growing strong muscles and preventing the boy from experiencing impotence.
Both the rituals for boys and girls were used to show the fathers power over his family. In the case of the boy there was no separation of him from children in the community. He was still allowed to associate with unmatured groups of the society (Read, 1968.).
Read, M (1968). Children of their fathers; growing up among the Ngoni of Malawi. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.