Culture, religion on collision course

They might have lost their language, except for a few individuals at Mpherembe, but as JOHN CHIRWA writes, the Ngoni ethnic group in Mzimba is bent to salvage the little that is left of their culture:

A story is told of how the white man invaded Africa. He came with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. By then, Africans owned rich minerals, including land.

Ngonis believe in polygamy and beer-drinking as core elements of their culture ingoma war dance

He said ‘Let us pray’.

“We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land,” recounts South African Anglican cleric and theologian Desmond Tutu.

But the white man did not only take the land. As Chinua Achebe writes in Things Fall Apart, the white man also destabilised African cultures.

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart,” he writes.

Achebe might have written his book six decades ago. But his writings continue to ring true to this day, more especially among the Ngoni ethnic group in Mzimba.

In this largest district of Malawi, things have fallen apart as the fabric that held together religion and culture has been torn apart.

The Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP) Synod of Livingstonia and the Ngoni chiefs no longer see each other eye-to-eye due to the latter’s beliefs in polygamy and beer drinking—core elements of their culture.

“The people of Mzimba would like to express their dissatisfaction on with the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia is now handling and applying spiritual principles of the church towards the Ngoni nation.

“The people of Mzimba got great shock at the coronation of Inkosi Mzukuzuku at Ephangweni on April 17 2018 where the general secretary the Reverend Levi Nyondo delivered a speech which he said was from the Synod moderator of Livingstonia.

“The speech was directed personally at Amakhosi and the Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V that they were going to be suspended if they engage in polygamy and beer-drinking. As if that was not enough, a few days later, the general secretary sent another message through Zodiak [Radio] interview that all the Ngoni were free to leave CCAP Synod of Livingstonia and join Pentecostal churches,” reads a letter dated May 10 2018 which the chiefs sent to the synod.

The issue at hand dates back to the 1870s when the Free Church of Scotland under Dr. Robert Laws had first contact with M’mbelwa I and his subjects.

Initially, the church first settled at Cape Maclear in Mangochi. The mission failed for a number of reasons, including the influence of the Arab Slave Traders and the competition from the Islamic Religion.

Laws moved the mission to Bandawe in Nkhata Bay. At Bandawe too, the mission failed because of the raids by the Ngoni on the Tonga people. As a result, they opened a mission station at Kaning’ina in Mzuzu to negotiate with M’mbelwa I to stop fighting and accept the missionaries to establish a mission in their territory.

“Chief M’mbelwa himself, although he never became a Christian, made it possible for progress to be made by the mission. M’mbelwa died in August 1891, and the Foreign Mission Report of the following year speaks of him as the instrument in God’s hand for admitting the Gospel to his tribe,” reads a book Robert Laws: Servant of Africa.

However, Laws and M’mbelwa agreed in 1879, according to historians, that the missionaries should establish their churches on condition that the natives will go on with their culture of polygamy and beer drinking.

With this agreement, the Free Church of Scotland missionaries established churches in the district, including at Khondowe (Livingstonia) which by then was part of Mzimba.

Mzuzu University (Mzuni) historian Chrispine Mphande says the main interest for M’mbelwa to enter into this agreement was for his subjects to benefit from Western education the missionaries had brought alongside with religion.

“The idea was that the missionaries should keep on preaching the word of God until some of them conformed to the principles of Christianity,” he says.

Mzimba Heritage Association (Mziha) secretary Aupson Thole says the agreement was reinforced in 2003 at Njuyu during the Njuyu Mission Centenary Celebrations.

“Dr. Laws and the missionaries were aware that the Ngoni were polygamous as well as beer takers. They knew that with the gospel preached to them, things would eventually change. Dr. Laws and the Free Church of Scotland assured M’mbelwa that the church was going to welcome them in their cultural beliefs, morals and values with special understanding,” he says.

In view of such a history, Thole says the Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V, Amakhosi and the people of Mzimba are surprised to note the “intended move by the synod to abandon pulpit work of preaching, teaching and praying in favour of attacking the Ngoni at a wrong event”.

“Unfortunately, the attack took place at the kraal, the heart of Ngoni traditions, in front of the Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V, the amakhosi, indunas and thousands of citizens of Mzimba.

“This was a party or a celebration event for the Ngoni. You don’t expect to attack people at such an event for them to change. The method of address was wrong,” he says.

However, Nyondo maintains that the church will remain “the light of the world” in politics and culture.

“So, where we see darkness, we will go with light, whether in government or in society. If culture is missing something, we will go there with light. As Christians we are mandated to preach the word of God.

“We don’t have to be selective. We have to preach the word of God to all of them, whether to presidents, ministers or chiefs,” he says.

Mphande calls such an altercation between the two parties “a clash or disconnect between culture and religion”.

“What is missing now is the interface between culture and faith,” he says.

Perhaps, this is one of the most important effects of colonisation programme the white man instituted against local customs, traditional laws and cultural beliefs. n

Share This Post