Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter IV. Manners and customs of the Swazis

THE Swazis are a pleasant, hospitable, and well-mannered race, but their ways of thinking must be properly understood. A European traveller arrives in Swaziland, heated and tired by a long journey; he naturally hopes for speedy refreshment, but he finds that his hosts think slowly, and that time is of no importance to them.

Should a Swazi be on a journey and arrive at a kraal, he will expect and receive beer and other refreshments, as a right and without paying for them, but he will not expect them at once. Having placed his assegais, battle-axe, and sticks on the ground, to show that he has come in a friendly mood, he seats himself outside the kraal and observes the scenery for some time in abstracted silence. Children come and peep at him, but otherwise no notice is taken of his presence.

A woman will then appear, and after gazing at him for some time in silence, will remark, "Sa bona" ("I have seen you"). "Yes," says the other, "I have seen you."

The introduction being now complete, the stranger will be questioned as to whence he has come and where he is going--questions which he will answer quite politely. When half an hour has elapsed since his first arrival, it is time for the headman of the kraal to make his appearance. Clad in a blanket, he will stalk out from among the huts and take a pro longed look at the visitor, and will finally announce that he "has seen him." After a further catechism by his host, the visitor will allude to the question of refreshment. But this must be done in a roundabout way, as any direct approach is considered vulgar. How does the corn grow in your parts?" he says. "Ah!" replies his host, "I hear that the corn grows well some miles away, but here we have a great famine. We are much troubled by lack of food." This is to suggest to the stranger that it would not be wise to bring his friends to "eat up" the kraals round about. "It is a poor country and not much food is to be got." "I am sorry to hear this," replies the visitor, "but where are the good crops you speak of to be found?" "They are far away," replies his host, unwilling to do his neighbours a bad turn, "far away, but it is what I hear." "The famine being so bad here you will have no beer," says the guest, looking out of the corner of his eye at the smoke of the wood-fire inside the kraal, and seeing the woman carrying the beer pots to and fro. No, there is no beer; it is a great trouble to us all," replies his friend. The visitor does not tell him that it is a lie, but he lapses into a somewhat moody silence, knowing that the next move lies with his host. "By the bye," says the latter, after a due interval to enable the women to complete their preparations, "a little beer and a little porridge are being brought to you." Tasting it, in order to show that it has not been poisoned, he hands the pot to his guest. The visitor must eat all that is set before him if he would not seem to despise the hospitality of his host. Having shown by the most obvious and primitive of natural signs that he is replete, the visitor now enters and inspects the kraal. Finding one of the women at work on a new hut, he will insert one of the sticks for her. This is to show that he is a helpful person and desirous of promoting goodwill. But he will be careful not to touch any of the children or even look closely at the cattle. To do so might make his hosts suspicious, and if any accident after wards occurred it would be attributed to his powers of the "evil eye."

Students consider that just as the Swazi language shows unmistakable signs of having been handed down by a people who possessed a higher mental development, so the customs of the Swazi people are remnants of a much higher and more advanced state of civilisation. If Swazi civilisation has degenerated, this is perhaps due to the hard natural conditions of the country, for a high standard of life can exist only on a fertil soil. No doubt the intense belief in witchcraft which enters into every detail of the daily life of the people has done much to degrade them. Anything strange or unknown is at once attributed to magic, and it is considered both dangerous and wicked to investigate it. Amongst the Swazis no one dies a natural death; the dead man is said to have been bewitched by his enemies. When illness comes, no cause for the disease, or remedy, is sought for, but a witch-doctor is called in, and should he be successful in smelling out the sorcerer who is causing the trouble, or should he be possessed of medicines strong enough to bewitch the sorcerer himself, the patient will recover.

The witch-doctor is a much respected and beloved person. He undergoes a long training, in the course of which he sits alone at night to commune with the spirits. He makes a journey to the sea to struggle with the monsters therein, and finally, after a long time of probation, is "passed" as a member of their cult by the college of witch-doctors. He cannot himself do any harm, but he can protect and advise people from all the ills of life. Should a thunder storm appear, the 'witch-doctor will mount on some stone near the kraal and threaten it with his assegais and shield. Should his words be big enough the storm will be frightened and go off! It will be said, "He has saved the people again!"

The power of smelling out a sorcerer is an easy one, and only requires some knowledge of human nature. Suppose someone at a kraal is ill. The people begin to discuss the matter, and soon find that other unfortunate things have happened. One of the cattle has broken its leg, the fowls have crowed in the middle of the night, and a garden of mealies has been blighted! It is obvious that someone has a hatred against the kraal and is using sorcery.

After long discussion it is finally agreed that the owner of a little kraal on the river bank three miles away must be responsible. Many little circumstances now recalled lead to this opinion and confirm it. At this point the witch-doctor is called in to smell out the evil-doer. After some mysterious preparations he seats himself on the ground in the centre of an admiring crowd of people and proceeds to throw the bones. He then hazards various guesses as to why he has been sent for, and at each guess, be it good or bad, the people answer, "Ngiya-vuma" ("I agree") in chorus. The system reminds us of the expression used in several English games, "Hot or cold." By listening carefully to the answers made by the chorus, the witch-doctor soon knows if he is on the right track. After several random shots as to the place where the sorcerer resides, which are answered but coldly by the chorus, he works his way towards the kraal where the people have decided that the sorcerer lives. As each guess draws nearer the place, the chorus grows louder and more excited, and when finally he names the man, the people go mad with delight. "Ah, he has smelt him out! He has smelt him out, the sorcerer!" and all loudly praise his occult powers. But now the evil-doer is located, the witch-doctor must give the people protection from him. This he does by supplying them with poison--and undoubtedly many and potent poisons are known to these men--or by giving them medicines of so strong a kind that, placed near the evil-doer's kraal or in his path, they will not only overcome his sorceries, but even counter-bewitch him and his kraal. In extreme cases the witch-doctor will recommend the murder of the guilty man, and will devise the means for carrying out the sentence.

After the murder, his services will again be required that he may offer atonement to the spirits for the blood shed. This is done by sacrificing suitable animals with mysterious rites.

A recent native trial in the Swaziland High Court is interesting as affording illustration of the influence over the Swazi mind of this belief in witch craft. In 1916, one of the European police of Swazi land volunteered for the Great War, but before leaving the country he went a fifty-mile ride through the bushveld from Stegi to Nomahasha to sell some of his cattle. He rode a mule and went alone. It was the wet season, and in the course of his journey, he had to swim across a flooded river, but as he was an expert swimmer, no anxiety was felt. In four days' time the mule returned riderless to Stegi. Its master's clothes were found strapped on its back, and for some time it was supposed that he had been drowned while swimming across the river. The mule had struggled out and returned home. The man was known to have reached his destination in safety, and to have set out on the return journey with a con siderable sum of money in gold. Some months after wards a native policeman overheard two natives quarrelling at a beer-drink. "If you trouble me," said one, "I shall tell of the white man you murdered at the river." The policeman found that the people at a kraal near the river had been spending much gold in the purchase of cattle, and that they had been to a local witch-doctor to be purified after the spilling of human blood. A white cock had been killed as part of the rites. The witch-doctor was arrested, but would only say, "Yes, two men had come to him, saying they wished to be purified after the murder of a white man. He had done what was necessary and had been paid, but knew nothing more." Working from this clue, the police were able to arrest the murderers and learn the story of the crime.

Some Swazi chiefs were once asked why they objected to the European rule of the country. Could they not now sleep safely in their beds at night, and were not the taxes much less than in the old days of folly and violence?

Was it not true that half of those present would in the old days have been smelled out and murdered? "Yes," they said, "but you white people will not allow us to kill the sorcerers; that is why the country is eaten up by pest and plagues. We are not wizards, and should not have been killed."

It is this fear of witchcraft from their neighbours that causes the Swazis to place their kraals so far distant from one another, and makes them object to crowding together in the native area.

There are many traces of Semitic customs amongst the Swazis and Zulus. In 1912 a Zulu woman was murdered, and her body divided into parts and buried in the mealie-garden to make the crops grow. This and similar incidents are no doubt remnants of human sacrifice. Levirite marriage is practised amongst the Swazis, and the incident described in Genesis xxxviii., as well as the mental attitude of the actors in the scene, have been reproduced in Swaziland exactly in recent years. Circumcision is also practised, though not universally.

A belief in God, the great great One, has come down to them, and a vague code of laws which has His authority. Certain crimes are not permitted by the great One. Those of the same name are not allowed to marry, and women are only allowed to bear children at intervals of three years. This, no doubt, accounts for the wonderful health and stamina of the race, and is a custom which, perhaps, could only be carried out in a polygamous nation.

Ancestors are supposed to inhabit snakes, and no Swazi will kill a snake near his own kraal. They say, "It is his own father come back again;" but if one is met at a distance it must be killed, or it will bring bad luck. It is no relation.

The spirits of the dead are supposed to haunt the relations, and are much feared. The corpse is buried in a sitting posture, and the grave sealed with heavy stones to keep the spirit imprisoned. Often a kraal will be moved after a death in order to prevent the spirit haunting its inhabitants. These spirits are to be found moving in the long grass at night, and when going on a journey it is best to sing, in order to frighten them away. Witchcraft and rain-making, however, form the basis of Swazi religious ideas, and there is little folk-lore.

Immorality of a most gross kind is almost universal amongst the girls and boys, and is laughed at and encouraged by their elders. This is the reason why they lack intelligence and energy after the age of puberty. Amongst the older people immorality is prevalent at beer-drinks, but not at other times.

The Swazis bear no malice, and seem incapable of sustained anger. They are a happy, good-natured people, living only for the present, and with no care for the future. Their lack of providence enables the trader to make his profit. At the end of the year they will buy back from him the mealies that they have sold before at half the price. The same lack of providence has lost them their land, and renders them quite unable to fill any responsible position. They have great family affection, and are kind nurses to the sick, as many white men have reason to know. The fear of witchcraft, however, makes them at times commit the most appalling crimes.

"Here are those jolly old Kaffirs again," said a South African volunteer, as he met them in the Labour Contingent in France. And those "jolly old Kaffirs" did an amount of work, and showed a courage and endurance that put many to shame.

"We are a fatherless people, and have no one to guide us," said an old man. It is this sense of having no guide or leader in these difficult days that makes them ready to listen to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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