Claude Boucher Chisale and Joseph Kadzombe - The Maseko Ngoni comes from the Reed Bed (2011)
Art Gallery, Kungoni Centre, Malawi
In the Shield:
The Ngoni as a Warrior
Once upon a time there was a God Umkulukulu or Umkulunquango, the Lord of the Sky, the owner of everything that exists. Beneath the flat disk of earth stood four bulls carrying the world on their horns and causing earthquakes when they moved. Up in the sky, God was surrounded with a vast entourage of sons and daughters. One day, we are told, one young mischievous son had taken habit of riding God’s favourite ox. Umkulukulu was displeased and decided to send his stubborn son to earth as a punishment and so was lowered down, tied with cattle intestines (ithumbu) around the waist. While reaching the earth, the boy was stunned by its beauty and so he stretched his hand and reached out for a piece of reed and used a splinter to cut himself from the sky. God soon felt pity for his son and decided to grant him a wife among the most beautiful girls of the sky. They became the first couple on earth, known as the people from the sky, the Amazulu. They populated the land and were the first parents of the entire Ngoni nation.
The Maseko Ngoni narrate another story about their beginning that links up to the Zulu myth told above. They talk about humankind being born from the reed bed. Reeds are synonymous with the father, who is the carrier of semen and the fosterer of children. At birth, the newborn is separated from the mother by cutting the umbilical cord with a splinter of reed (on the left side of the painting). In the marriage ceremony, senior women dance the Msindo holding a piece of reed in their hand (on the right hand side of the painting) and reenact the beginning of the world. During the first fruits ceremony (Inchwala), all the participants hold a piece of the reed as the King of Kings is restored and empowered symbolically. He goes through a rebirth and with him, the entire Ngoni nation. The Inanusi, the King’s diviner, uses a reed as a divining rod.
As the Maseko dance the Ngoma and the Ligubo in full regalia, they also recall their origin from the sky. The men wear the Njobo, a big beaded navel belt from which a beaded umbilical cord hangs. This symbolizes that once upon a time they lived in the sky. The navel belt and the beaded string replace the portion of cow intestines. Their elaborate headgear is made of colourful feathers, identifying them with the birds flying in the sky. The young wives accompanying their husbands in the dance represent the first young fair lady who was offered by Umkulukulu to the first Ngoni man to be the parents of the Ngoni. In the Ligubo dance, men and women carry cowhide shields.
In the painting, death is symbolized by Mchaketa (next to the birth scene), resulting from their separation from the sky and their involvement in human reproduction. Therefore, the earth became their new home. This is why they are buried in the soil when death comes and their spirits return to the sky as Amadlosi.
The Frame around the Shield
The sky…? The earth…? So our story tells. But what does history say? Where is the real origin of the Maseko Ngoni to be located before they migrated to Mozambique and Malawi where they now live? Oral history reveals that they came from South Africa, the land of high hills and refreshing streams in the Zulu and Swazi country. They would have left the south around the first quarter of 1800 AD and migrated north to settle finally in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania.
Their real home in the south was the country of the San, the indigenous bush people of Southern Africa. The Ngoni had reached the Cape by 500 AD, coming from East Africa and the Great Lakes together with numerous other Bantu groups that crossed Africa from north to south. They settled in the hills where the San were living by hunting and gathering from an unknown time. The San preserved their experience and narrated their beliefs on the rock with paintings and engravings.
They told their turbulent encounter with the Ngoni, the ancestors of the Zulu and the Swazi. The Zulu were armed with oval shield and spear; and they wore feathers on their heads. As intruders, they fought against the San, who used bows and arrows and had ornaments on their bodies. Their arrow shafts were made of reed. In reaction the San raided cattle from the Ngoni.
We encounter the Ngoni, who, besides being agriculturalists, specialized in cattle herding, since the bride price was paid in cattle and characterized their patrilineal and polygamist setup. Among the cattle we observe the presence of fat-tailed sheep introduced by the Hottentots, their neighbours.
(Above the Shield)
The painting focuses on the San’s unique lifestyle and describes their visionary spirit world. The Bushmen were known for their great respect of the environment and their cautious use of it. The San lived a semi-nomadic life, shifting in small groups from different areas well known to them, where they found certain types of food in various seasons. When water and food conditions allowed, the small groups congregated into a bigger social gathering (for instance family reunions, youth meetings, finding mates and story telling). There, they learned news of distant relatives, arranged marriages and performed elaborate trance and healing dances.
The San men were predominantly hunters, feeding their families with a variety of animals. Both men and women performed special rituals and dances conducive to the success of the hunt or any other need with regard to their general welfare. They prayed to Kaggen, the Lord of the Sky. Such ceremonies are depicted on both sides of the painting. Men were the ritual specialists: the shamans, although women could also become shamans. The eland was considered to have supernatural potency and a dance in its honour was performed at times of initiation. Our painting depicts a great variety of animals. The top of the painting shows the death of a female eland. It lies upside down, bleeding from the nose, urinating and releasing its potency, used later by the shaman while experiencing the trance dance. Moreover, the blood of the eland was the primary ingredient used for making rock paintings.
The trance dance is depicted in greater detail. A shaman in trance bends forward and supports himself with his stick. Inside a beehive shelter the shaman lays his hands on the sick patient. Outside the shelter the menfolk perform a trance dance. Above this scene more shamans are experiencing the contractions of their stomachs and nose bleeding while the women are sitting and clapping. Shamans in antelope disguise intercede for the coming of the Rain Bull and its protective power. The San believe that at the beginning people and animals were one. They also imagine that people had animal heads and feet, particularly the eland’s. The role of the shaman is to keep the people healthy, protect them from evil and revitalize their lives on a regular basis. The trance dance restores the San completely and allows them to move on periodically and readjust to a changing world, a world where death to the old things brings about birth of the new.
Although the Ngoni and the Bushman experience the world differently and differ in livelihoods, both share the same rich spirituality and wisdom that gives meaning to their lives. At times their worldviews could even have influenced one another.
Description by Claude Boucher Chisale
This account is placed alongside the cloth painting in the Art Gallery.