Project Canterbury

Memories of Mashonaland

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Sometime Bishop of Mashonaland

London and New York: Edward Arnold, 1895.

Chapter II. Some Notes on the People and Their Customs.

What is Mashonaland? It is the country of the Mashona. And who are the Mashona? I never found anyone who knew. Al that I know about them has come from old chiefs and such authorities, usually through my native teachers and catechist, I would not say that they are necessarily correct, but if they are wrong I do not know anyone to put them right. Our leading catechist was accredited with being the best Seshona scholar existing and he certainly lost no information for want of asking, for he seemed to me to live either asking questions or discussing something with someone.

The people we call Mashona did not know themselves by that name. It seems to be a [16/17] nickname given by the Matabele, and means 'tripe-cleaners,' in allusion, apparently, to their eating the insides of animals. Another name they are known by is Makalaka, also given by the Matabele--meaning, roughly (not accurately), 'old women '--and conveys the Matabele's opinion of the courage of the Mashona. Among themselves each tribe has, I think, some name, though they are usually known by that of their chief. But there is a large collection of these tribes who, with variations, speak one language, and are very similar in looks and customs. Their appearance might lead one to suppose they had Arab blood in their veins; but where they come from no one knows. The account that I considered most reliable tells how the Barotse were lords of the land, with the Mashona under them; how their cruelty goaded the Mashona to revolt; and how the dispossessed Barotse remained dispossessed till the Matabele came, marching their 'impis' through them, and driving the bulk over the Zambesi near the Victoria Falls, and leaving the rest in the south near the Sabi river, where their old chief Sipiro used to tell stories of the days gone by. I think that he will tell you, if he is not dead by now, that it was his people [17/18] long ago who built what is known as Zimbabye, and that he is the last of the tribe in those parts who speaks the old Barotse language.

It is unfair to the Mashona to judge them as they are now. We only see them as a subject race, long harried on one side by the Matabele, on the other by the Gaza people. Their spirit is gone; but there is no reason why, if they are properly treated, it should not come back. I am afraid that now they are cowards, and are not ashamed of it; but they have retained in parts a good deal of savage brutality. I remember being asked in one of the out-of-the-way parts whether it was right for the young chiefs to kill people when they met them. This was the bald way in which the question was put. It seemed to be a kind of prerogative of the 'young bloods' that, if they met an unoffending traveller, they might, apparently in cold blood, assegai him. However, I never heard of it being done.

Once, travelling some thirty miles south of the Zambesi, I nearly walked over a human skeleton, and asked my carriers what was the history of it. 'It was someone who had been killed for his beads.' It didn't seem a matter [18/19] of much importance. Human bones and skulls near the 'waters' were apparently too common to attract much attention.

But I have better reason to remember this habit. A young man called Frederick Forster, who had not been very long in Africa, had promised to meet me at Buluwayo in 1888, he arranging to go in at the mouth of the Zambesi, while I struck the Zambesi from the south. He left Zumbo after coming up the river, went a few miles south, and was never heard of again. When I questioned one of the men who had been with him, he made, as I think, a mistake in describing the geography of the country that Forster had passed through. Now, I never knew a native make a mistake in his geography, and so I concluded that he had never been where he said he had, and that there had been foul play. I could trace Forster to a particular village, but no farther, and I found his canoe on the Zambesi. He, too, I believe, had been 'killed for his beads': for this was seven years ago, and I have never heard of him since. And it was from no fault of his own as a traveller, or because he could not work in with the natives, for he had made a very remarkable journey before this--so much [19/20] so that a well-known man who died in Africa said: 'They speak of what we have done, but it is nothing to what Forster did.' So I cannot feel that even the less savage tribes in these parts are always to be trusted.

As to the customs of the Mashona it is very difficult to speak. First, because so many have been spoken about before; secondly, because they vary in different parts; and thirdly, because it is hard to get at the truth about them. Then, again, the fact of there being no close connection between all the tribes that are called the Mashona people, and the great area over which they are spread, makes it practically impossible to speak about Mashona customs as a whole.

For instance, in their treatment of twins, I gathered that they often killed both by putting them into a pot and covering them with hot ashes; but I have heard it said that only one of the two was killed.

An account of a Mashona funeral, as seen by one of our missionaries, the Rev. A. Walker, brings the scene very vividly before us:

'Chitula, a son of Chipunza, the most important of Makoni's tributary chiefs, had been long friendly towards the mission. It is not [20/21] a month since he brought about forty men from his kraal to dig up and sow a piece of our ground with ufu, the native's staff of life. I could not but admire the man as he sowed the corn after his men had roughly prepared the ground. He looked every inch a chief--tall and well-proportioned, with rather stern, regular features. I was surprised and sorry to hear last Sunday that he was dead--poisoned by his enemies, as every native asserts.

'His funeral was to be on the following Tuesday, and messengers were sent to every kraal within twenty miles. But, to allow distant friends time to arrive, the actual burial was fixed for the Wednesday following, after sunrise. When we arrived on Tuesday morning we found Chipunza holding audiences with groups of visitors from neighbouring kraals. He was seated on some high ground above his kraal, under an awning made with a few green branches. He looked very dejected, but noticed every little thing that occurred.

'A number of chiefs, indunas, and head-men were seated round him, slowly clapping their hands in unison; but at each fresh arrival the clapping ceased until they had "touched hands" their friends, and given the usual [21/22] greetings, when it solemnly began again. Close to this group there was a rough enclosure made of dead branches, and here a crowd of natives were dancing monotonously to the sound of two drums, and singing an equally monotonous song. But inside the hut, where Chitula's body lay, I was told that really beautiful dancing was going on to the music of their native hand-instrument, a kind of rude zither. This dancing and singing went on all that day and the following night until the actual burial took place on Wednesday morning, the performers relieving one another.

'Some of the dances were accompanied by the firing of guns, which is a great institution among the Mashona; and they seem to have got hold of all the old-fashioned muzzle-loaders, from a flint-lock to a Boer "roer." Knowing of this custom, Frank, the catechist, and I had brought our rifles, and at a suitable moment we fired a few shots, which pleased them all. Chipunza called Frank and told him how pleased he was that we had come to show our sorrow for Chitula, and asked him to accept a fowl, as it was customary to give presents on these occasions. I noticed that many natives had brought with them goats, fowls, corn, rice, [22/23] or meal, intended, doubtless, as contributions to the food needed for so large a gathering. Soon afterwards we left, promising to be present at the concluding ceremonies.

'Early the following morning we went to the place "where the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep," and found it among the ruins of a very large kraal (village), where the ancestors of this tribe used to live before the coming of the Matabele, and when their only enemy was the Manica chief, Umtasa. Remains of a deep moat, portions of strong walls well built of faced stones, and countless foundations of equally well-built huts, all spoke plainly of a prosperity that has passed away. We soon heard the funeral song of the procession, and saw a large crowd of three or four hundred natives slowly coming across the valley. They were singing an evidently well-known song, with clearly-defined notes, pitched in a minor key, like most native music, while the chief mourners gave loud, shrill, yet plaintive cries of "Ya-ma-mai-wé!" It was a dense crowd, but with no confusion, and in the middle was the rude bier, carried on the shoulders of eight friends, with the body of Chitula entirely wrapped in white limbo (calico). As the [23/24] procession came on, about a dozen men would rush out in front, dancing wildly, and throwing out their arms and legs quite frantically, apparently in a savage attempt to show the depth of their grief, and then suddenly crouching on the ground. At other times the whole procession would stop while men with guns advanced and fired, as though some enemy were about to interrupt.

'The singing ceased as the ruins were reached, and general wailing began while the bier was carried in through a gateway in the wall that was still in a fair state of preservation. Then it was taken to the foot of a huge block of granite, almost round at the base, so that the bearers were able to place the body completely under the rock. Then they set to work to make Chitula's final resting-place secure; some made mortar, others brought stones from the ruined walls. Before the body was built in, women brought green branches which they had carried in the procession from the kraal, and laid them by the body, just as wreaths are placed at home. The gun-firing was very frequent by the grave--a part which the young bloods seemed to take great pleasure in. At one time a small procession of men, mostly [24/25] armed with guns, came up to the grave chanting quite a funeral dirge, and then fired a volley; but the behaviour of the flint-locks and of the oft-discomfited owners detracted from what might otherwise have been solemn. The chiefs and head-men sat down in a group on one side of the rocky tomb, while on the other sat the real mourners, Chitula's relations and friends. The women among these had ashes on their heads, but others had used white mealy flour instead of ashes--a kind of complimentary mourning; and both the brother and sister of Chitula had actually cut off all their hair, with its bead adornments--an unmistakable sign of grief. It was pitiful to see the real sorrow of these people as they crouched there, wailing and weeping, with tears literally streaming from their eyes. Then everyone began to go away, leaving only those who were building up the grave, and Chitula's relatives, who, I was told, would stay there all day and the following night, mourning.

'As we went away we could only look forward to the time when these poor mourners would no longer be without the Christian hope and consolation. It is not yet, but we trust it is coming.'

[26] In one part of the country they were intent upon keeping up the idea that the chiefs never die, and a strange way they adopted to do it. After death the body was put into a hut and surrounded with meat, and left till the whole became a putrefying mass, endued with other life; then what was believed to be the chief's body was taken from the mass and put into a cave, and they were, satisfied that 'the chief never dies.'

Anything which suggests limits to his power is considered more or less an insult to any great chief. There was a tradition that one of the first missionaries, when preaching in the presence of Umziligazi, the Matabele king, alluded to the 'King of the whole earth,' and that immediately he was stopped by Umziligazi on the pretext of showing him something about a waggon-wheel. The theory that anyone but Umziligazi himself was king of the whole earth was a reflection on the chief in the presence of his people.

The Mashona marriage customs vary. It may be considered a general rule, in the Africa of which I know anything, that men bought their wives; but one chief in Mashonaland crave his daughters (not, I presume, invariably) [26/27] to the poorer men of the tribe who could not afford to buy wives.

The Mashona behave to their women with "more consideration in everyday life than is customary among their neighbours. Women, of course, do a very large amount of the work, but the general carrying is usually done by the men. In trading with Europeans, if there is a long way to go, the men carry the goods. I know that the great admirers of the Zulus defend the custom of the women carrying the heavy weights on the ground of the necessity of the men having their hands free to carry arms, and attribute it to the chivalry of the Zulu; but the fact of the great weights being-carried by women remains. I can quite believe that they get used to it; and, having done it from childhood, they have the perfect uprightness of figure which makes carrying comparatively easy. It is most striking to see a woman standing talking to a friend for a considerable time with a huge pot of water on her head. No doubt the head is a comparatively easy place on which to carry loads. Once when I was short of carriers, and had to carry a small load for some distance, I found it almost impossible till I put it on my head. Women are [27/28] used as regular paid carriers near the Zambesi. My servants once employed some when I was away; but the custom is rather repugnant to our European ideas.

I am afraid the Mashona are a very dirty race. In this they differ entirely from the Zulus and their cognate tribes. Once I asked one of my men, who was almost a pure Zulu, what had made him ill, and he said it was because he had not washed his face that morning--'You always have a headache if you don't wash your face.' But the Mashona have no such ideas. Their kraals are a model of picturesque dirtiness. When I have arrived at a village too late to choose a clean spot, I have been startled next morning at the dirt of the place in which I have slept. At a short distance the collection of huts is picturesque beyond words. As a rule, it is on a hill composed of big granite boulders. That in itself is sufficiently beautiful. Sometimes the hill takes the form of a huge rounded mass of granite. Then the action of the rain, and dew, and sun seem to have no appreciable effect on it. But it is when the hill becomes disintegrated by the action of water and sunshine, and falls to pieces, leaving immense blocks [28/29] lying one on the top of the other, looking as though the Titans had been there at play, and the many-coloured trees grow in the clefts, that it is most striking. Then on and under and between these rocks the Mashona build their houses, at every possible level, up and down the hill. Sometimes two huts would be put on one slab, or the huge slab with its one hut would be a playground for the naked black children. I have seen them playing about on an overhanging rock at a height which would turn an English nurse sick with fear; but no one seemed to mind, and the children did not fall.

The approach to the village was usually through a gate made of strong double uprights, each pair on either side having room enough between them to take a log of wood. The 'door' was shut at night by a number of logs of wood being dropped one on the top of the other between the uprights. This door was put, when possible, near two huge boulders.

In many cases, owing to the way in which the rocks had fallen, the villages would have been almost impregnable without artillery. They would say, perhaps, in that country that no one but a Matabele would have attacked them, and [29/30] no one but a Mashona would have lost them. But the Mashona seemed paralyzed at the sight of the Matabele, and the strongest defences were abandoned. It was the more strange as in some cases they had evidently spent time and labour on most elaborate fortifications. At one place that I know of they did make a stand, with the result that a good many Matabele were killed; this seemed to have astounded the Matabele so much that they went back to their king, who, I believe, punished them still further for having been failures.

Of course, when there were no such defences, resistance was never of any use. One village--Situngwisa's--that I passed in the open some years ago had been marked on the map that Mr. Selous gave me as destroyed by the Matabele not very long before. Since then the Mashona had come back to it again, and again the Matabele had raided it just before I went there. It was very piteous. There were their gardens and their little arrangements for keeping away wild animals, but not a living soul near. I think this village was in an unfortunate place, for it was not very far from where the Matabele used to encamp when they were raiding in these parts. There [30/31] was a huge tree there, which, from its being unlike any known tree, was called 'the tree without a name.' It could be seen for miles, and was an admirable meeting-place.

Well, after one had gone through the 'gate' into a Mashona village, the picturesqueness gave place to dirt. The huts are a strange contrast to the Zulu or Matabele huts. There you see the most exquisite neatness. The wall of the Zulu hut is made of mud and other material, solid, smooth, and strong. The roof is most perfectly thatched. The floors are usually made of beaten earth polished with bullock's blood, so that it is almost like polished stone. Some I was told of that, after the hut had been burnt down, were exposed to the weather for two or three years, and still remained hard and polished. The Mashona hut has no beauty to lose. Upright poles sunk into the ground side by side, and smeared with mud, which it does not take much rain to wash down, form the walls. The roof is made of grass put on in the roughest way, and secured with string made of bark. The only solid part of it, when it has one, is the door. That is made of a huge slab of wood, hewn or sawn out of a tree that must have been about three [31/32] feet in diameter. These doors seem to be heirlooms in the family, and some must be very old.

When you have gone through the door, you come to more dirt. I do not think I have ever slept in a Mashona hut that had been used by a Mashona; of course, I constantly slept in huts built by Mashona, but after their family life had begun it was preferable to sleep outside. The doors are very low, but Mashona find no difficulty in getting through them; even the cattle have sometimes to get through them. This they do easily enough as calves, but as they grow they have to stoop: and when full grown, they have to bend down, as a man would do, to get through the door.

A graphic sketch of life in and round a village in modern Mashonaland has lately been given in a letter by Archdeacon Upcher, published in the Mashonaland Quarterly Paper.

'As Pelly is here, he and I are making a little expedition to Unyanwenda's. Our last visit to Chidamba's was interesting. We first went through eight miles of the Guibi river flats, with no trees, only ant-hills, and burnt and dry grass alternately. Once we found ourselves ahead of our boys, and we found they [32/33] had stayed to collect locusts, which, after roasting slightly, they eat with their Kaffir meal. In some of the kraals (villages) we saw heaps of them collected for use. Every place has some redeeming feature; parts of these flats were lovely with flowers--acres of them. At last we came to some trees, where the boys boiled our kettle, and we had some food. Then on again, with the sun very hot, past a spot where, two days before, a lion had bitten a piece out of a native's leg, besides peeping into our new catechist's hut to see what he was like.

'In the distance, on a high ridge, we began to see the first native church built in Mashonaland. It was hard work at the end of the long walk to climb up to the kraal, but once there we found many of the men sitting waiting. After shaking hands with the chief, we went on to Jacob in the mission hut, which is roomy and clean. Next day I visited the chief and his sister, both huts being beautifully clean. They have a good many cows, goats, and fowls, and the chief sent us some milk as a present, with some mealy porridge and meat nicely cooked in a pot. I told the chief we only wanted to tell him and his people of God, [33/34] and His great love to men. Then Pelly told him of his tour, and how the great chiefs had all asked for teachers, and one had been trying for years to put down evil, and that Chidamba must do the same; if it was hard work, God would help him. We asked if he had understood, and he said: "Yes, but I feel like a little child, and need teaching." '

Huts naturally differ. In one that I went into, in 1888, all that could be distinguished at first was that the inside was very dark and dirty. On a raised part lived three goats. In the middle was the fire, and as there was no kind of hole for the smoke to escape, the soot hung in large strings from the roof. A mat was brought for me to sit on. Some men came and sat in the hut beside me, among them a boy, who was smacked and turned out. I gave my usual message to the chief, telling him who I was and what I taught. Some parts of what I said they listened to seriously, at others they laughed. They had never seen a teacher before--so they said. As I came out of the hut the chief's son pointed me out his wife. This was exceptional, as women are not usually noticed. She was carrying a little black baby, which I said was pretty. 'No,' [34/35] she said, 'it is ugly'; and I dare say she was quite right.

Near the same village they were smelting iron; indeed, their chief industry is in iron. They take the ore out of the pit in baskets; and from one well-known pit there are paths in every direction leading to the villages around. When ready the ore is put into furnaces to be smelted. It is all very primitive, and much on the lines that Tubal Cain might have worked. In one shed some forty feet long were six little furnaces some two and a half feet high made of burnt clay. Behind each sat two men working a bellows in each hand. The bellows were made of a goat-skin with a hole in the top under the man's hand; this was pressed on to the ground to drive the air through a clay pipe that was joined on to the furnace. The ore is poured into the top of the furnace in alternate layers with charcoal mixed with a little fat, and the iron runs out at the bottom.

Near was the smithy, a shed. There the molten iron was made into hatchet - heads, assegais, bracelets, notes for their musical instruments, hair-pins, hoes, and other tools. The only implements of the forge are stones [35/36] of various sizes, round or oval. These are both anvils and hammers.

In this especial village the chief was the leading blacksmith; but whether the family had originally been made chiefs on account of their prowess, or he had risen to his responsibility as chief and become the best blacksmith, I did not find out.

All Mashona cattle, and, indeed, all their animals, are small--tiny cows, goats, chickens. A man once offered me a goat rather larger than usual, and asked a proportionate price. I told him it was too much to ask for a goat. 'A goat?' he said; 'that is not a goat: it is an ox.' But when we consider how constantly their cattle were taken from them by Matabele or Gaza people, it speaks well for their perseverance that they had any at all. They are a painstaking, persevering people when working at what they understand. Their blankets they make of bark, and dye them, and they are very warm and strong; but their chief clothes are skins, worn as loin cloths, and, as a rule, horribly dirty. From bark, too, they make their bags or sacks for carrying grain, their hunting nets and baskets. Their mats are usually made of a beautiful yellow reed; but [36/37] in the south-east the people make their baskets and mats out of thin broad strips of wood, and they are both useful and ornamental. Their string they make from bark, so when they are travelling they have a ball of string nearly always handy. If a carrier's load comes undone, in a minute a branch is pulled off a tree, the bark is stripped off, and the under layer is used to tie up their parcel. In tying they have a third hand in their foot, that they use when we would ask someone to put his finger on a half-finished knot. The beads that they wear as ornaments come from Europe; and though they may have got them from the coast for unknown years, they cannot come under the head of Mashona products.

It is delightful to see them go up a tree. It must not be so large that they cannot get their arms half round it; but if they can hold on with their hands, they don't climb as a European would, but they walk up the tree. Then their way of cutting off a branch is different to ours. They want both hands; so they will stand on the branch with their back to the tree, and cut it off near their toes.

Their hunting-nets also they make of bark. They are about five feet high, as far as I can [37/38] remember, and are stretched across narrow valleys. Then the whole country side is beaten up, and the antelopes are driven into them. But their pits are the usual means of catching animals. They are long and narrow and deep, sloping down in a wedge shape towards the bottom.

The 'hopo' that Dr. Livingstone gave a picture of in his first book is now never used, I believe, in Mashonaland. This is made of two fences of great length joining at an angle, and where they join--or, rather, almost join--there is a deep pit. The antelopes are driven in at the broad end, and, with the men behind, their only way out of the enclosure is into the pit. I found the remains of one not far from the Zambesi, but it evidently had not been used for a long time.

Since guns have found their way among them, the Mashona have taken to using them; but, happily for the animals, they make their own powder. Now and again an animal is shot that has one or two balls just under the skin, which a Mashona gun has probably put there; the destruction, however, among them must be very small. Some years ago, in those parts of the country where Europeans had not [38/39] disturbed them, the animals seemed very little frightened at seeing a man. When we have been encamped on Sunday a herd of elands have fed near us almost like a herd of cows; but those days are passing away.

The mode of life of the Mashona always suggests a mode of escaping from their enemies. Coming near a large hill which the Mashona called Kurusu, where, high above the more habitable part, were heaped gigantic-looking rocks, long before we knew of anyone living there, the people knew we were coming; and they had left their huts and were squatting, like rows of baboons, high up on the topmost boulders, with their black bodies looking like little specks against the sky-line. It was some little time before they could summon courage to come down.

Then up on their rocks they build their granaries, made very much like miniature huts, of clay with grass roofing. These granite boulders afford the very protection they want; every hole and cavern is accurately known, and those are the places to hide in when the Matabele or Gaza people come. But they had not much confidence even in their holes. One night a village danced and sang [39/40] for me, and the chorus of one of their songs ran something like this: 'We will sing and dance now, for the Matabele will soon be upon us; and though we shall hide ourselves in the holes of the rocks, they will be too quick for us;' and so on. They seemed to like putting their troubles into songs, which they sing over their fires. One used to be sung over our fire by a man who said his name was Antigone. He repeated the same words: 'I'm a great man, and I come from the river, and it's a pity 1 haven't got a mate!' No one seemed to take much notice of his song, till I inquired, and found out that he was telling us about a raid on his village by the Matabele, in which every one of his relations and friends, except three, had been killed, and he had just escaped. It reminded one of the story in Job: 'The Chaldeans made out three bands . . . yea, and have slain the servants with the edge of the sword, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.' The special raid that he was alluding to was probably the one on the Umfuli river on about June 18, 1888. We passed the Matabele 'impi' going home. They were said to have a number of women and children with them that they had taken.

[41] The Mashona give the impression of being the most frugal of people, utilizing everything that comes to hand-- which, till the trader comes into the country, is not very much. They are very fond of meat, but they hardly ever get it. To give him meat is the one way that will nearly always ensure a wild Mashona working well--or, rather, as well as he can. This love of meat is not confined to the Mashona. I have seen a whole camp of mixed nationalities changed from depression into the brightest of spirits by their having a sable antelope shot for them. To get meat in their uncivilized state, they will take the greatest trouble. The grass is burnt down every year to a great extent to allow them to dig out the mice, which they eat. They will husband their stock of meat by keeping a small piece in their cheek while they eat their porridge; and if they find an animal that has died, it is by no means despised. It was an extraordinary sight to see them fighting over an antelope. The idea of fair division never seemed to occur to them; each hacked off as much as he could as fast as he could. Two old men, looking like heads and leaders of the tribe, would seize a piece of [41/42] entrail at either end and drag against each other like two dogs. If there was no time, to cook, I have known them eat meat cut from the animal just as it was. I have seen them do this when I have shot a buffalo.

Having no clothes, a warm place at night is everything to them; and when they have to sleep in the open, they will lie so near the fires that they burn themselves. No amount of blankets takes the place of their fires for them. One consumptive boy who was with us, wherever he was put, would crawl back and sit up over the fire, and kept on burning himself till shortly before he died. Eight or ten carriers at night will arrange little fires in a row, and they then arrange themselves between them so that each one has a fire before him and behind him; and if we had no clothes we should probably do the same.

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