The Myth of Mbega

“The Myth of Mbega”

From Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933)

By Alice Werner

Courtesy of Internet Sacred Texts Archive


Mbega, a Child of Ill-omen

Mbega would, in ordinary circumstances, have had short shrift, for he cut his upper teeth first, and such infants are, by most of the Bantu, considered extremely unlucky. Indeed, so strong is the belief that if allowed to grow up they would become dangerous criminals that in former times they were invariably put to death. At Rabai, on the now forsaken site of the old fortified village on the hill-top, a steep declivity is pointed out where such ill-omened babies were thrown down. It must have been the rarity of this occurrence that caused it to be regarded as unnatural, and so produced the belief. Mbega’s parents, however, no doubt because his father despised such pagan superstitions (he must have been a Moslem, though his sons did not follow his faith), paid no attention to this custom, but on the contrary took every care of him, and he grew up strong and handsome and beloved by every one, except his half-brothers, the sons of the other wives. Their hostility could not injure him as long as his father lived, but both parents died while he was still a youth. He had a protector, however, in his elder brother, “his brother of the same father and the same mother”-a tie always thus carefully specified in a polygamous society. But this brother died, and the rest took on themselves the disposal of his property, which-along with the guardianship of the widow and children-should naturally have passed to Mbega. They did not even summon him to the funeral.

When all the proper ceremonies had been performed and the time came for “taking away the mourning,” which means slaughtering cattle and making a feast for the whole clan, at, or after, which the heir is placed in possession, all the relatives were assembled, but not the slightest notice was taken of the rightful heir. Mbega, naturally, was deeply wounded-the record represents him as saying, “Oh, that my brother were alive! 1 have no one to advise me, no one; my father is dead, and my mother is dead!” So he went his way home, and wept upon his bed (akalia kitandani pake), and was ready to despair.


Mbega shut out from his Inheritance

The brothers chose the son of a more distant kinsman to succeed to the property and marry the widow, and handed over to him the dead man’s house and a share of his cattle, dividing the rest among themselves. Mbega, hearing of this, as he could not fail to do, consulted with the old men of the village, and sent them to his brothers and the whole clan, with the following message: “Why do they not give me my inheritance? Never once when one of the family died have they called me to the funeral. What wrong have I done?”

When the messengers had finished speaking “those brothers looked each other in the eyes, and every man said to his fellow, ‘Do you answer.'” At last one of them spoke up and said, “Listen, ye who have come, and we will tell you. That Mbega of yours is mad. Why should he send you to us instead of coming himself? Tell him that there is no man in our clan named Mbega. We do not want to see him or to have anything to do with him.”

The old men asked what Mbega had done, that they should hate him so, and the spokesman replied that he was a sorcerer (mchawi) who had caused all the deaths that had taken place in the clan. Anyone might know that he was not a normal human creature, since he was a kigego who had cut his upper teeth first; but his parents had been weak enough to conceal the fact and bring him up like any other child. He went on to say that when Mbega’s mother died he and the others had consulted a diviner, who told them that Mbega-was responsible (a cruel slander on a most affectionate son), and they had represented to their father that he ought to be killed, “but he would not agree through his great love for him.” Now that Mbega’s parents and his own brother were no more they would take things into their own hands, since, if let alone, he would exterminate the whole clan. They did not wish to have his blood on their hands, but let him depart out of the country on peril of his life, and, as for the messengers: “Do not you come here again with any word from Mbega.” They replied, with the quiet dignity of aged councillors, “We shall not come again to you.” So they returned to Mbega, who received them with the usual courtesies and would not inquire about their errand till they had rested and been fed and had a smoke. Then they told him all, and he said, “I have heard your words and theirs, and in truth I have no need to send men to them again. I, too, want no dealings with them.”


Mbega, a Mighty Hunter

Now Mbega, though hated by his near kinsmen, was beloved by the rest of the tribe, more especially the young men, whom he took with him on hunting expeditions and taught the use of trained dogs, then a novelty in the country. His father, no doubt, had brought some with him from Pemba. The name of Mbega’s own favourite dog, Chamfumu, has been preserved. The chronicler adds: “This one was his heart.” It does not seem clear whether this phrase merely expresses the degree of his affection for this particular dog, or whether there is some hint that Mbega’s life was bound up with him. This idea of the totem animal as ‘external soul’ was probably not strange to the old-time Washambala, but Abdallah bin Hemedi might well fall to understand it, and nothing of the sort appears anywhere else in the story.

The land was sorely plagued with wild beasts, which ravaged the flocks and destroyed the crops. We hear most of the wild swine, which still, in many parts of East Africa, make the cultivator’s life a burden to him. Mbega and his band of devoted followers scoured the woods with the dogs, put a stop to the depredations of the animals, and supplied the villagers with meat.

When Mbega’s messengers had reported the answer returned by his brothers he called his friends together, told them the whole story, and informed them that he would have to leave the country. They asked where he was going, and he replied that he did not know yet, but would find out by divination, and would then call them together and take leave of them.

We are given to understand that Mbega was highly skilled in magic-white magic, of course-and this may have lent some colour to his brothers’ accusations. If the expression he used on this occasion (“I am going to use the sand-board”) is to be taken literally it seems to refer to the Arab method of divining by means of sand spread on a board, the knowledge of which Mbega’s father may have brought with him from Pemba.

The young men protested against the notion of his leaving them, and declared that they would follow him wherever he went. He was determined not to allow this , knowing it would cause trouble with their parents, but said no more till he had decided on his course. He then consulted the oracle, and determined to direct his steps towards Kilindi, where he was well known. Next day, his friends being assembled, he told them he must leave them. He would not tell them where he was going, in case they should be asked by his brothers. They were very unwilling to agree to this, insisting that they would go with him, but were persuaded at last to give way. He sent for all his dogs and distributed them among the young men, keeping for himself seven couples, among them the great Chamfumu, “who was his heart.” He also gave them his recipes for hunting magic, in which, to this day, most natives put more faith than in the skill of the hunter or the excellence of his weapons.


Mbega goes to Kilindi

So Mbega went forth, carrying his spears, large and small, and his dog-bells, and his wallet of charms, and, followed by his pack, came on the evening of the second day to the gate of Kilindi town. It was already shut for the night, and, though those within answered his call, they hesitated to admit him till he had convinced them that he was indeed Mbega of Nguu, the hunter of the wild boar. Then the gate was thrown open, and the whole town rushed to welcome him, crying, “It is he! It is he!” They escorted him to the presence of the chief, who greeted him warmly, assigned him a dwelling, and gave orders that everything possible should be done to honour him. “So they gave him a house, with bedsteads and Zigula mats”-about all that was usual in the way of furniture-and when all the people summoned for the occasion had gone their several ways rejoicing Mbega rested for two or three days.

He remained at Kilindi for many months, and not only cleared the countryside of noxious beasts, but secured the town by his magic against human and other enemies. He possessed the secret of raising such a thick mist as to render it invisible to any attacking force, and could supply charms to protect men and cattle from lions and leopards. He seems also to have had some skill as a herbalist, for we are told that he healed the sick. In these ways, and still more “because he was he,” he made himself universally beloved. The chief’s son, in particular, who insisted on making blood brotherhood with him, worshipped him with all a youth’s enthusiasm.


Death of the Chief’s Son

As time went on all the wild pigs in the immediate neighbourhood of Kilindi were killed or driven away, and the cultivators had peace; but one day it was reported that there was a number of peculiarly large and fierce ones in a wood two or three days’ journey distant. Mbega at once prepared to set out, and the chief’s son wished to go with him. Mbega was unwilling to take the risk, and his companions all tried to dissuade the young man, but he insisted, and they finally gave way, on condition of his getting his father’s leave. The father consented, and he joined the party.

The pigs, when found, were indeed fierce: it is said they “roared like lions.” The dogs, excited beyond their wont by a stimulant Mbega administered to them, were equally fierce, and when the hunters rushed in with their spears some of them were overthrown in the struggle and others compelled to take refuge in trees. A number of pigs were killed, but five men were hurt, and when the ground was cleared it was found that the chief’s son was dead.

There could be no question of returning to Kilindi: Mbega knew he would be held responsible for the lad’s death, and for once was quite at a loss. When the others said, “What shall we do? ” he answered, “I have nothing to say; it is for you to decide.” They said they must fly the country, and as he, being a stranger, did not know where to go they offered to guide him. So they set out together, fifteen men in all (the names of ten among them have been preserved by tradition), with eleven dogs-it would seem that three had perished in the late or some other encounter with the wild boars. Their wanderings, recorded in detail, ended in Zirai, on the borders of Usambara, where they settled for some time, and Mbega’s fame spread throughout the country. The elders of Bumburi (in Usambara) sent and invited him to become their chief, “and he ruled over the whole country and was renowned for his skill in magic, and his kindness, and the comeliness of his face, and his knowledge of the law; and if any man was pressed for a debt Mbega would pay it for him.” He married a young maiden of Bumburi, and no doubt looked forward to spending the rest of his life there. But he had reckoned without the men of Vuga.


Mbega called to be Chief of Vuga

Vuga, the most important community of Usambara, had for some time been at war with the hillmen of Pare. The headman, Turi, having heard reports of Mbega’s great powers, especially as regards war-magic, first sent messengers to inquire into the truth of these reports, and then came himself in state to invite him to be their chief. He encamped with his party at Karange, a short distance from Bumburi, with beating of drums and blowing of warhorns. Mbega, hearing that they had arrived, prepared to go to meet them, and also to give some proof of his power. Having put on his robe of tanned bullock’s hide and armed himself with sword, spear, and club, he sent off a runner, bidding him say, “Let our guest excuse me for a little, while I talk with the clouds, that the sun may be covered, since it is so hot that we cannot greet each other comfortably.” For it was the season of the kaskazi, the north-east monsoon, when the sun is at its fiercest.

The Vuga men were astonished at receiving this message, but very soon they saw a mist rising, which spread till it became a great cloud and quite obscured the sun. Mbega had filled his magic gourd with water and shaken it up; then taken a fire-brand, beaten it on the ground till the glowing embers were scattered, and then quenched them with the water from the gourd. The rising steam formed the cloud, and the Vuga elders were duly impressed.

When, at last, they saw h m face to face they felt that all they had been told of him was true, so comely was his face and so noble his bearing. Turi explained why he had come, and after the usual steps had been taken for entertaining the guests Mbega agreed to accept the invitation on certain conditions. These chiefly concerned the building of his house and the fetching of the charms which he had left in charge of his Kilindi friends at their camp in the bush. These were to be taken to Vuga by a trusty messenger and hidden at a spot on the road outside the town, which he would have to pass.

Everything being agreed upon, Mbega went to inform his father-in-law, and ask his leave to take away his wife-an interesting point, as indicating that the tribal organization was matrilineal. It should also be noted that the father-in-law, while consenting for his own part, said that his wife must also be consulted. She, however, made no difficulty, “but I must certainly go and take leave of my daughter.”

Mbega than bade farewell to the elders of Bumburi, insisting that he did not wish to lose touch with them and enjoining on them to send word to him at Vuga of any important matter. He wanted his wife’s brother to accompany him, so that she might not feel cut off from all her relatives; also four of the old men.

The party set out, travelling by night and resting by day, when Mbega sacrificed a sheep and performed various ‘secret rites,’ which he explained to his brother-in-law. On the following morning they reached the place where the charms had been deposited, and the man who had hidden them produced them and handed them over to Mbega, who gave them to his wife to keep. They camped in this place for the day, and when night came on a lion made his appearance. The men scattered and fled; Mbega followed the lion up and killed him with one thrust of his spear. When his men came back he gave most careful directions about taking off and curing the skin, for reasons which will appear later. They then set out once more, and reached Vuga by easy stages early in the morning. The war-drum was beaten, and was answered by drums from the nearest hills, and those again by others from more distant ones, proclaiming to the whole countryside that the chief had come. And from every village, far and near, the people thronged to greet him. His house was built, thatched, and plastered according to his instructions, and when it was finished he had cattle killed and made a feast for the workers, both men and women. He then sent for the lion-skin, which meanwhile had been carefully prepared, and had it made into a bed for his wife, who was shortly expecting her first child.

Soon after she had taken her place on this couch Turi’s wife was sent for, and, she having called the other skilled women to attend on the queen, before long the cry of rejoicing, usual on such occasions, was raised. All the people came, bringing gifts and greetings, and Mbega had a bullock killed, and sent in some meat for the nurses. His first question to them was whether the birth had taken place on the lion-skin; when informed that it had he asked whether the child was a boy or a girl. They told him that it was a boy, and he asked, “Have you given him his ‘praise-name’ yet?”[1] They answered that they had not done so, where-

[1. The term used is jina la mzaha, translated by Madan, in his Swahili dictionary, as “nickname,” but the meaning is really the same as the Zulu isibongo, an honorific title. Its use caused some heart-burnings in a later generation, when two branches of the family quarrelled. Stanley, in 1871, had some trouble with a kind of brigand called Simba Mwene, who had a fortified stronghold on the road to Unyanyembe, but this man, I believe, was in no way connected with the Wakilindi, and had assumed the title with no right to it.]

upon he said that the boy’s name was to be Simba, the Lion, and by this name he was to be greeted. Mbega’s original name-the one first given him in his childhood-was Mwene, hence his son was to be greeted as Simba (son) of Mwene, which became a title handed down in the male line of the dynasty. But the name officially bestowed on the boy, at the usual time, was Buge.

As soon as the child was old enough his mother’s kinsmen claimed him, and he was brought up by his uncles at Bumburi-another indication of mother-right in Usambara. Mbega afterwards married at least one other wife, and had several sons, but Buge’s mother was the ‘Great Wife,’ and her son the heir. When he had arrived at manhood his kinsmen at Bumburi asked Mbega’s permission to install him as their chief, which was readily granted. The lad ruled wisely, and bade fair to tread in his father’s footsteps. His younger brothers, as they grew up, were also put in charge of districts, ruling as Mbega’s deputies; this continued to be the custom with the Wakilindi chiefs, who also assigned districts to their daughters.


Mbega’s Death and Burial

Now it came to pass that Mbega fell sick, but no one knew it except five old men who were in close attendance on him. His failing to appear in public created no surprise, for he had been in the habit, occasionally, of shutting himself up for ten days at a time and seeing no one, when it was given out that he was engaged in magic, as was, indeed, the case. His illness, which was not known even to his sons, lasted only three days, and the old men kept his death secret for some time. They sent messengers to Bumburi by night to tell Buge that his father was very ill and had sent for him, He set off at once, and, on arriving, was met by the news that Mbega was dead. The funeral was carried out secretly-no doubt in order to secure- the succession by having Buge on the spot before his father’s death was known. First a black bull was killed and skinned and the grave lined with its hide; then a black cat was found and killed and a boy and a girl chosen who had to lie down in the grave, side by side, and stay there till the corpse was lowered into it. This, no doubt, was a symbolical act, representing what in former times would have been a human sacrifice. When the corpse was laid in the grave the two came out of it, and were thenceforth tabu to each other: they were forbidden to meet again as long as they lived. Then the cat was placed beside the dead man and the grave filled in.

All this was done without the knowledge of the people in the town. The elders agreed to install Buge as successor to his father, and his wife was sent for from Bumburi. She arrived in the early morning, and at break of day the drums were sounded, announcing the death of the chief, and Buge sacrificed two bullocks at his father’s grave. Then he was solemnly proclaimed as chief, and his younger brother Kimweri took his place at Bumburi.









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