The Tumbuka people live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi, their homeland split by the border drawn by the British in 1890. But forty years before, the Tumbuka had suffered an earlier invasion, by Ngoni people fleeing the rise of the Zulu nation in south-east Africa. After many wanderings, the Ngoni settled in the Tumbuka heartlands, bringing with them a new cattle-based economy, new patterns of settlement and new systems of marriage.

A century and a half later, with the British long gone, Tumbuka women living in the Lusaka city compounds, still resent this earlier invasion. Tumbuka marriage had been matrilocal, men living in their wives’ villages, and land inherited in the female line. Taking wives from among the Tumbuka, the Ngoni demanded they lived in the husbands’ homesteads, subject to the control of the patrilineage, and forced to accept polygyny.

Over the decades, Tumbuka women have protested vigorously against this “slavery”. The form of their protest is called Vimbuza, a ceremony in which women are exorcised of the angry spirit believed to be possessing them. The possessed women are astonishingly arrogant, complaining bitterly about family members who have ill-treated them in songs to which no one can respond. They are rewarded with gifts, and with promises that their complaints will be attended to.

Individually, the songs can appear to be narrowly focussed. But the range of grievances is wide and, taken together, a consistent over-arching theme appears, in a general complaint about Ngoni overrule, about patrilineal marriage, about polygyny and the effects of labour migration. While the Ngoni boast about migration and conquest, and while the Tumbuka men are nostalgic for their pre-Ngoni empire, the women’s songs present an alternative history, an alternative vision of how life should be lived. They look back to a time of stable and harmonious relationships, when freedom from poverty, disease and spirit possession were guaranteed by the matrilineal extended family.

The following song was sung by NyaChisi, at Chimpeni village, Lundazi district, Zambia, on 25 March 1975. The references to “Orphans” and later “guarded wanderers” are powerful descriptions of how Tumbuka wives felt themselves to be outsiders in their Ngoni husbands’ homesteads.

Ta, walanda lero,
Ta, walanda lero,
Ta, walanda lero,
Ta, walanda lero,
Ta, walanda tikufwachi?
Liyele!
A~hiye – lero!
E – yayi!
Ta walanda pera!
Tikufwa musunga yinga.
Liyele!
A~hiye – lero!
E – yayi!
Ta walanda pera!

We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans,
Why are we orphans dying?
Liyele!
A~hiye – today!
Oh, no!
We are just orphans!
We are dying as guarded wanderers.
Liyele!
A~hiye – today!
Oh, no!
We, today’s orphans!

The following song was sung by Flora Mwale, Kaunda Square, Lusaka, Zambia, 25 July, 1985.

“Kwela! Kwela!”
Mama ine, nikwele uli?
“Kwela! Kwela!”
Mama ine, nikwele uli?
Mwana nabapila, mama ine.
Nikwele uli?
Jembe pamutu, mama ine,
Nikwele uli?
Nthumbo kumutina, mama ine,
Nikwele uli?
Nikwelenge, mama ine.
Nikwele uli?
Nikwele uli?

“Climb up! Climb up!” (1)
My mother, how can I climb?
“Climb up! Climb up!”
My mother, how can I climb?
With a child on my back, my mother,
How can I climb?
With a hoe on my head, my mother,
How can I climb?
Pregnant up to my heart, my mother,
How can I climb?
Oh, I will try to climb, my mother,
But how can I climb?
How can I climb?

This attack on polygyny, regarded as an Ngoni perversion, was sung by by a group at Thunda village, Rumphi district, Malawi, 1 January, 1984.

Wayowoya ndimuNgoni!
Wayowoya ndimuNgoni – eee!
Kanakazi kamoza nkhaulanda!
Wayowoya ndimuNgoni – eee!
Kanakazi kamoza nkhaulanda!

The Ngoni have decreed it
The Ngoni have decreed it – eee!
Having only one wife is a misery.
The Ngoni have decreed it – eee!
Having only one wife is a misery.

Sung by Elina NyaMhango, Kayowoyero village, Rumphi district,. Malawi, 26 September, 1984.

Ningawa chiwuya ine,
Kumitala mingayayo yayi.
Ningayako yaye-yawa.
Wanolonoleta.
Ningawa mwale ine,
Kumitala mingayayo yayi.
Ningayako yaye-yawa.
Wanolonoleta.

Even if I were an old maid,
I’d not marry a polygynist.
Indeed, I would not go into it.
You have spoilt everything.
Even if I were a still a girl,
I’d not marry a polygynist.
Indeed, I would not go into it.
You have spoilt everything.

The following song was sung by Tamalanji NyaPhiri, Chingala village, Lundazi district, Zambia, 7 September, 1982.

Asweni wane wayankhu?
Wamgona
kwaNyaBanda

Asweni wane wayankhu?
Wamgona
kwaNyaBanda

Mayilo nkhatuma mwana wize
namacelo-celo
“Ine?” “Yayi!” “Ine?” “Yayi!”
Gombeza lane – eee!
Nidikechi ine?
“Lelo wamgona mwane”
Amana kunozga!
“Lelo wamgona mwane”
Amana kunozga!
Gombeza lane – eee!
Nidikechi ine?
Gombeza lane layankhu?
Lamgona
kwaNyaBanda

Gombeza lane layankhu?
Lamgona
kwaNyaBanda

Mayilo nkhatuma mwana wize
namacelo-celo
“Ine?” “Yayi!” “Ine?” “Yayi!”
Gombeza lane – eee!
Nidikechi ine?
Wamgona kwaNyaPhiri.
Amana kunozga!
Wamgona kwaNyaMwale.
Amana kunozga!
Gombeza lane – eee!
Nidikechi ine?

Where has my husband gone?
Gone to sleep
with that Banda Woman

Where has my husband gone?
Gone to sleep
with that Banda Woman

Yesterday, I sent a child to tell him
to come to me early, early.
“Me?” “No!” “Me?” “No!”
My blanket, alas!
What shall I cover myself with? (2)
“Tonight, he’ll sleep with me.”
Mother, what a shame!
“Tonight, he’ll sleep with me.”
Mother, what a shame!
My blanket, alas!
What shall I cover myself with?
Where has my blanket gone?
Gone to sleep
with that Banda woman.

Where has my blanket gone?
Gone to sleep
with that Banda woman.

Yesterday, I sent a child to tell him
to come to me early, early.
“Me?” “No!” “Me?” “No!”
My blanket, alas,
What shall I cover myself with?
He will sleep with the Phiri woman.
Mother, what a shame!
He will sleep with the Mwale woman.
Mother, what a shame!
My blanket, alas!
What shall I cover myself with?

Power and the Praise Poem,
by Leroy Vail and Landeg White.
University Press of Virginia, 1991


Footnotes

  1. Kwela: literally “Climb up”, implies the daughter-in-law is weighed down by her responsibilities, to produce children, to cultivate even when heavily pregant. The appeal to “my mother”, and the emotive language “pregnant up to my heart”, means nothing in this Ngoni household.
  2. Blanket: is an exceptionally rich metaphor. It suggests warmth, comfort, intimacy and protection, here applied to what the woman expects from a husband. But blanket also implies labour migration, being usually the first item a returning labourer would bring home from the South African mines. One of the purposes of migration was to pay bridewealth for additional wives – which is why the woman’s husband has become “blanket” for the Banda, the Phiri and the Mwale women. Finally, to be without a blanket is to be naked like a wild beast. One of the symptoms of vimbuza was that the possessed woman ran naked into the bush.