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Myths and Legends of the Bantu: Introductory

Dec 4, 2017
Donnie Clayton
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 16 min.

BANTU is now the generally accepted name for those natives of South Africa (the great majority) who are neither Hottentots nor Bushmen-that is to say, mainly, the Zulus, Xosas (Kafirs), Basuto, and Bechuana -to whom may be added the Thongas (Shangaans) of the Delagoa Bay region and the people of Southern Rhodesia, commonly, though incorrectly, called Mashona.

Abantu is the Zulu word for ‘people’ (in Sesuto batho, and in Herero ovandu) which was adopted by Bleek, at the suggestion of Sir George Grey, as the name for the great family of languages now known to cover practically the whole southern half of Africa. It had already been ascertained, by more than one scholar, that there was a remarkable resemblance between the speech of these South African peoples and that of the Congo natives on the one hand and of the Mozambique natives on the other. It was left for Bleek-who spent the last twenty years of his life at the Cape-to study these languages from a scientific point of view and systematize what was already known about them. His Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, though left unfinished when he died, in 1875, is the foundation of all later work done in this subject.

The Bantu languages possess a remarkable degree of uniformity. They may differ considerably in vocabulary, and to a certain extent in pronunciation, but their grammatical structure is, in its main outlines, everywhere the same. But to speak of a ‘Bantu race’ is misleading. The Bantu-speaking peoples vary greatly in physical type: some of them hardly differ from some of the ‘Sudanic’-speaking Negroes of West Africa (who, again, are by no means all of one pattern), while others show a type which has been

accounted for by a probable ‘Hamitic’ invasion from the north.

But on questions connected with ‘race’ and racial characteristics ethnologists themselves are by no means agreed, and in any case we need not discuss them in this book.

The Bantu-speaking peoples, then, include such widely separated tribes as the Duala, adjoining the Gulf of Cameroons, in the north-west; the Pokomo of the Tana valley, in the north-east; the Zulus in the south-east; and the Hereros in the south-west. Some are tall and strongly built, like the Zulus; some as tall or taller, but more slender, though equally well formed, like the Basuto-or even over-tall and too thin for their height, like the Hereros; others short and sturdy, like the Pokomo canoe-men, or small, active, and wiry, like some of the Anyanja. They vary greatly in colour, from a very dark brown (none, I think, are quite black) to different shades of bronze or copper. Colour may not be uniform within the same tribe: the Zulus themselves, for instance, distinguish between ‘ black’-that is, dark brown-and ‘ red ‘-or lighter brown-Zulus.

It does not seem likely, then, that all these various tribes ever formed parts of one family, as their languages may be said to do. But it may be assumed that a considerable body, speaking the same language, set out (perhaps two or three thousand years ago) from somewhere in the region of the Great Lakes towards the south and east. Whether they came into Africa across the Isthmus of Suez, bringing their language with them, or-as seems more likely developed it in that continent need not concern us here. As they moved on, separating in different directions (as our Teutonic ancestors did when they moved into Europe), their several languages grew up.

The Bushmen

They did not find an empty continent awaiting them. The only previous inhabitants of whom we have any certain knowledge are the Bushmen, the Pygmies of the Congo forests (and some scattered remnants of similar tribes in other parts), and perhaps the Hottentots. And sometimes (as G. W. Stow thought was the case with the earliest Bechuana immigrants) the newcomers may have settled down more or less peaceably with the old inhabitants. This I think not unlikely to have happened in the district west of the Shire, in Nyasaland, where the local Nyanja-speaking population (calling themselves, not quite correctly, ‘Angoni’) are small, dark, and wiry, and seem to have absorbed a strong Bushman element. This fact, if true, may explain some of their notions about the origin of mankind, as we shall see later on.

The Bantu Languages

The Bantu languages, on the whole, are beautiful and harmonious. None of them differ from each other much

[1. I say ‘perhaps’ because, though we know that the Hottentots were in the Cape Peninsula long before the first Bantu reached the Fish river, we do not know the relative times of their earlier migrations.

2 Indeed, tradition records that a certain Xosa chief chose a Bushwoman for his principal wife, so impressed was he by her skill in preparing a certain kind of food to his taste.]

more than French does from Spanish or English from Danish. No two, for instance, would be as far apart as English and French, or French and Welsh, though all these belong to the same Indo-European family. The words used are often quite different (we know that English and American people, both speaking English, may use different words for the same thing); but the grammar is everywhere, in its main outlines, the same. It is scarcely necessary, at this time of day, to say that an unwritten language may have a grammar, and even a very complicated one.

It is not often that a speaker of one Bantu language can understand another without previously learning it; but most natives pick up each other’s speech with surprising quickness. An East African who has travelled any considerable distance from his home will probably speak three or four dialects with ease.

Customs and Beliefs: The Spirit World

Besides this relationship in language, all the Bantu have many customs and beliefs in common. All of them have, more or less vaguely, the idea of one God, though some of them do not clearly distinguish him from the sky or the sun, or even, as we shall see, from the first ancestor of the tribe. They believe in survival after death, and think that the ghosts of the dead can interfere to almost any extent in the affairs of the living. They do not seem to have any idea of immortality as we understand it; in fact, some distinctly say that the ghosts go on living only as long as people remember them (which is very much what Maeterlinck says in The Blue Bird!). Ordinary people have no memory or

tradition of anyone beyond their great-grandparents, so that, except for great chiefs and heroes, there would never be more than three generations of ghosts in existence. But, however that may be, the influence of the dead is seen in every department of life. A man gets directions from his father’s spirit before starting on any undertaking-either in a dream, or by consulting a diviner, or through all sorts of omens. For instance, a Yao, when thinking of going on a journey, would go to his chief, who would then take a handful of flour and drop it slowly and carefully on the ground. If it fell in the shape of a regular cone the omen would, so far, be good. They would then cover up the cone with a pot, and leave it till the next morning. If it was found to be quite undisturbed the man could go on his journey with an easy mind; but if any of the flour had fallen down he would give it up at once. Either the spirits did not, for some reason of their own, wish him to go, or they knew that some danger awaited him, and this was their warning.

If anyone is ill it is supposed that some ancestral ghost is offended and has sent the sickness, or else that some human enemy has bewitched the patient. In either case the diviner has to consult the spirits to find out who is responsible and what is the remedy. Drought, floods, a plague of locusts, or any other natural calamity may be due to the anger of the spirits.

In short, one may say that this belief in the power and influence of the dead is the basic fact in Bantu religion. We hear, rather doubtfully, of other spirits, some of which may be personified nature powers, but many of these (such as the Mwenembago, ‘Lord of the Forest,’ of the Wazaramo, in Tanganyika Territory) seem to have been human ghosts to begin with.

The dead are supposed to go on living for an indefinite time underground, very much as they have done on the upper earth. There are many stories describing the

adventures of people who have accidentally reached this country (called by the Swahili kuzimu), usually through following a porcupine, or some other burrowing animal, into its hole. This happened, in Uganda, to Mpobe the hunter, to the Zulu Uncama, and to an unnamed man of the Wairamba (in Eastern Unyamwezi). The story is found in so many different places that the idea seems to be held wherever a Bantu language is spoken.

One does not hear very much of ghosts appearing to survivors “in their habit as they lived”; though it -is a common occurrence (as I suppose it is everywhere) for people to see and talk with their dead friends in dreams. But they often come back in other shapes-mostly as snakes, and very often as birds-sometimes in the form of that uncanny insect the mantis, which some people call “the spirits’ fowl.” Later on we shall find some very striking tales, in which the ghost of a murdered man or woman haunts the murderer in the shape of a bird and calls on the kinsmen to avenge the slain.

The High God

The High God, when thought of as having a definite dwelling-place at all-for usually they are rather vague about him-is supposed to live above the sky, which, of course, is believed to be a solid roof, meeting the earth at the point which no one can travel far enough to reach. People have got into this country by climbing trees, or, in some unexplained way, by a rope thrown up or let down; and, like Jack after climbing the beanstalk, find a country not so very different from the one they have left. In a Yao tale a poor woman, who had been tricked into drowning her

baby, climbed a tree into the Heaven country and appealed to Mulungu, who gave her child back to her.

The High God is not always-perhaps not often-connected with creation. The earth is usually taken for granted, as having existed before all things. Human beings and animals are sometimes spoken of as made by him, but elsewhere as if they had originated quite independently. The Yaos say, “ In the beginning man was not, only Mulungu and the beasts.” But they do not say that God made the beasts, though they speak of them as “ his people.” The curious thing is that they think Mulungu in the beginning lived on earth, but went up into the sky because men had taken to setting the bush on fire and killing “his people.” The same or a similar idea (that God ceased to dwell on earth because of men’s misconduct) is found to be held by other Bantu-speaking tribes, and also by the Ashanti people in West Africa and the ‘Hamitic’ Masai in the east. It may be connected with the older and cruder notion (still to be traced here and there) that the sky and the earth, which between them produced all living things, were once in contact, and only became separated later.

Whatever may once have been the case, prayers and sacrifices are addressed to the ancestral spirits far more frequently than to Mulungu or Leza. The High God is not, as a rule, thought of as interfering directly with the course of this world; but this must not be taken too absolutely. Mr C. W. Hobley, among the Akamba, and the Rev. D. R. Mackenzie, among the people of North Nyasaland,

2 For whom Mulungu was in no way responsible. The first human pair were found by the chameleon (a prominent character in African mythology) in his fish-trap! See Duff Macdonald, Africana, Vol i, p. 295.]

have recorded instances of direct prayer to the High God in times of distress or difficulty.

The Origin of Mankind

As to the way in which mankind came into being, there are different accounts. The Zulus and the Thongas (Delagoa Bay people) used to believe that the, first man came out of a reed; some say a reed-bed, but the more unlikely sounding alternative is probably the true one, as some native authorities distinctly mention the exploding of the reed to let him out. Besides, it is a custom of the Basuto to stick a reed in the ground beside the door of a hut in which a baby has been born. The Hereros think their ancestors came out of a certain tree called Omumborombonga. This identical tree (I understand that ordinary members of the species are not uncommon) is believed to exist somewhere in the Kaoko veld, north of the Ugab river, in the South western Territory. The Hereros, who are great stock breeders (or were till the tribe fell on evil days), said that their cattle came out of Omumborombonga along with them, but the small stock, sheep and goats (kleinvee in Dutch), came out of a hole in the ground, along with the Bushmen and, presumably, the game on which the Bushmen lived. The mention of sheep and goats in this connexion is curious, as the Bushmen never kept any domestic animals, except dogs. The Bechuana did not attempt to account for the origin of the Bushmen: they had been in the country, along with the game, from time immemorial, before the Bechuana came into it.

The hole in the ground is interesting, because the Anyanja of Nyasaland used to say that the first people came out of a hole or cave somewhere to the west of Lake Nyasa: the place, which is called Kapirimtiya, has even been pointed out to Europeans. The footprints of the first man and of the animals which came out with him are said to be impressed on a rock in this place.

The Bantu never seem to have regarded death as an inevitable process of nature. Everywhere we find stories explaining how it began, and usually blaming the chameleon. I shall tell some of these in a later chapter. People who do not accept the chameleon story sometimes speak of Death as a person, and call him Walumbe, or Lirufu, or Kalunga-ngombe.

We hear now and then about people who live in the sky, though it is not very clear who they are. In the legends of the Baganda Heaven (Gulu), his sons, and his daughter Nambi are very much like an ordinary human family; but Heaven is less personal in the thought of the Bathonga, who call it Tilo, and speak of its sending rain, lightning, locusts, and-twins! M. Junod says it “is sometimes looked on as a real being, sometimes as an impersonal power”; and the ‘rain-doctor’ when facing the approaching thunderstorm, shouts, You, Heaven, go further! I have nothing against you! I do not fight against you!“-addressing it as a person. Besides Tilo himself, the sky is inhabited by little people called Balungwana, who have sometimes been seen to fall from the clouds when some disaster was about to befall the country. Twins, too, are called the “children of Heaven.” Elsewhere the Heaven-dwellers are, strangely enough, described as having tails; but it is difficult to learn much about them.

There is in the legends of some South African tribes a mysterious being called Hobyana (Huveane) or Khudjana, sometimes said to be “ the creator of heaven and earth and the first ancestor of the race, and sometimes the son of the creator (Rivimbi, Luvimbi, or Levivi, by others vaguely identified with a famous rain-maker of old times). But at the same time he is represented as a tricksy being, some of whose exploits recall those of the European Till Eulenspiegel. He does not seem to be known beyond the Zambezi-indeed, I doubt whether his legend reaches as far as that; but parts of it coincide with incidents in the life of some very different heroes-Kachirambe and the boy who saved his people from the Swallowing Monster, as we shall see later on.

As a rule one does not go to fairy-tales for high moral teaching; they are the playground of irresponsible fancy, and we do not look too closely into the ethics of Jack the Giant-killer or Rumpelstilzchen. Legends, of a more or less religious character, are a different matter, and this story of the Swallowing Monster may be taken as coming under that description. There is another type of story embodying a deep feeling of right and wrong, in which the spirit of a murdered person haunts the slayer in the form of a bird, and at last brings him to justice, as in the stories of “Nyengebule” and “Masilo and Masilonyane.”

Ogres (Amazimu)

The monster just mentioned links on to a class of beings variously described in English as ‘cannibals,’ ‘ogres,’ or merely ‘monsters’-in Zulu amazimu; in other languages madimo, madimu, or zimwi. It is a little misleading to call them cannibals, as they are never merely human beings, though sometimes taking (temporarily, at least) human shape. Zulu folklore is full of them, but one meets them more or less everywhere, and one favourite story, about the girl who, in some versions, was swallowed, in others carried about in a bag, crops up in all sorts of unexpected places. The irimu of the Chaga people (on Kilimanjaro mountain) is sometimes spoken of as a leopard; but he is clearly not an ordinary leopard, and in a Nyanja story, which will be told in full later on, we shall find a hyena who can turn himself into a man when he pleases. It is everywhere thought possible for animals to change into human beings, or human beings into animals; there are even at the present day people who say they have known it to happen: it is a favourite trick of the most wicked kind of witch. Besides turning themselves into animals, witches and wizards have the power of sending particular creatures out on their horrid errands-the baboon, the hyena, the owl; sometimes the leopard and the wild cat. This is why Zulus do not (or did not till lately) like you to use the words ingwe (leopard) and impaka (wild cat; the domestic cat, ikati, does not matter); you must call them by some other name. Another kind of familiar is the resuscitated and mutilated corpse (Zulu umkovu, Yao ndondocha), of which some account will be given in Chapter XVI.

Animal Stories

Many of the stories which I shall have to tell are entirely concerned with animals, who are shown speaking and acting just as if they were human beings. We all remember the “Uncle Remus” stories, which originally came from Africa, though naturally somewhat changed through being adapted to American surroundings: Uncle Remus felt called upon to explain that “de beastesses,” were once upon a time like people; the original story-teller would not have thought it necessary, since, to his mind, there was no great difference. We do not hear animals talk, but that may be because we cannot understand their language-and why should we suppose that their minds work otherwise than ours?

It seems quite likely that our Æsop’s Fables originated in Africa. Luqman, the Arab fabulist spoken of with approval by Muhammad, in the thirty-first chapter of the Koran, is said to have been an ‘Ethiopian’-that is, a Negro-slave. His stories were passed on to Greece, where he was known as Aithiops, and this was taken to be his name and turned into Æsop.

The favourite animal in the Bantu stories is the Hare: there are no rabbits in Africa south of the Sahara, and it would seem that Europeans, warned by the calamities of Australia, have refrained from introducing them. Uncle Remus, knowing more about rabbits than hares, has turned him into Brer Rabbit, just as the hyena (who cheats and ill-treats the hare, and is finally ‘bested’ by him) has become Brer Wolf or Brer Fox. If Uncle Remus nearly always gives animals a title-‘Brer Rabbit,’ ‘Mis’ Cow,’ and so on-this must be because his African forefathers did the same; we generally find them distinguished in some way when figuring in tales; sometimes, indeed, they are called by quite a different name. But the Bantu do not go as far as the Bushmen, who use different forms of words (with extra clicks) for the speeches of animals in the stories, and have a different tone of voice for each animal when reciting these speeches.

In some parts, as in the Congo forest country, where there are no hares, the same tales are told of a little antelope, the water chevrotain (Dorcatherium), called by the Congo natives nseshi. The reason why these two creatures, so small and weak, are made the principal heroes of African folklore seems to be a deep-seated, inarticulate feeling that the strong cannot always have things their own way and the under-dog must some time or other come into his own. The lion and the elephant stand for stupid, brutal force, though the hyena, on the whole, gets the worst character; the tortoise overcomes every one else in the end (even the hare) by quiet, dogged determination; but he sometimes (not always) shows a very unamiable side to his disposition.

These are the principal figures in the animal stories, though a good many others make their appearance incidentally.

The Zulu stories which have been collected (there must still be many others not published or even written down) are more or less like our own fairy-tales: about chiefs’ sons and beautiful maidens, lost children, ogres, witches, enchanters, and so forth; but they also have their hare stories.

Much the same may be said of the Basuto, only they give some of the hare’s most famous adventures to the jackal. This trait is probably borrowed from the Hottentots, who, like the Galla in North-eastern Africa (where the Hottentots came from, no one knows how long ago), have no opinion of the hare’s intelligence, and tell you that it is the jackal who is the clever one. And some of the same incidents are told by the Zulus of a queer little being called Hlakanyana, a sort of Tom Thumb, apparently human, but by some people identified not with the hare, but with a kind of weasel.

The circumstances of his birth are peculiar, which is also the case with some very different personages: Kachirambe of the Nyanja, Galinkalanganye of the Hehe, and usually the boy-hero who slays the Swallowing Monster. Ryang’ombe, the hero of the Lake Regions, distinguished himself by eating a whole ox when only a few hours old-a feat in which he even surpassed Hlakanyana.

The Baganda and Banyaruanda have many tales or legends of a type similar to those mentioned above, while other Bantu tribes seem to have more animal stories and less of the other kind; but they probably exist side by side everywhere. In attempting, as I have done, to present the most attractive specimens of both I have sometimes found it necessary to combine two or more versions so as to get a more complete and coherent whole.

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