Ndembu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Some 40 percent of Ndembu are now Christians. The old religion was imbued with a strong moral character: people would be afflicted by the spirits of deceased relatives wishing to remind them (or their relatives) of their social and religious duties. This spirit would "come out" in a certain mode, the mode of the appropriate cult association. Patient, doctors, and spirit belonged to a single sacred community, which initiated the patient as a new member. When honored in a ritual, the spirit would bestow hunting prowess and healing upon on the living members.

An otiose god, Nzambi, has been co-opted into Christianity, and spirit practioners invoke this god on behalf of the sick. Cult associations have disappeared. Today dynasties of doctors exist who work through their doctor ancestor spirits or some foreign tutelary spirit. Male sorcerers possess familiars, which they deliberately raise and induce to do harm, or they use mystic poisons. Evil women—witches—contain a substance inside them that impels them to harm others. Witches are also the involuntary hosts of familiar spirits.

Religious Practitioners. A doctor ( chimbuki, chiyang'a ) is first and foremost a spirit ritualist. Most doctors are men. Some come to their vocation through a call in the shape of a spirit-induced illness necessitating a ritual, by means of which the budding doctor develops his sense of spirit matters. He also learns medicines and ritual from a teacher, for whom he acts as assistant and apprentice. The office is usually inherited from some bilateral ancestor, with or without a major vocational episode. The doctors treat what are defined as "African diseases"—those that the hospital cannot cure but that are well understood by the healers. Diviners have become rare. Herbalists, men or women, treat minor ailments, and a traditional midwife, briefly trained by the hospital, attends births.

Ceremonies. Ritual ( ng'oma, meaning "drum") is performed by a skilled doctor with the help of the community (formerly led by the cult association concerned) in order to reveal the spirit, previously as figurine, effigy, or voice, and still today as hunter's tooth. "Revealing" was—and continues to be—the basic principle of Ndembu religion and curing. It is mainly through sickness that an individual begins to sense the existence of spirits or witchcraft powers. Thus, it is the irregularities of life that develop the sense of nonempirical powers. Some of the curative rituals still follow the form of the rite of passage, with a preliminary rite of separation, a seclusion phase, and a ritual of reintegration. Some show a marked point when the afflicting spirit leaves the body of the sufferer. Important elements in ritual are drumming, singing, dancing, medianes, shrines, symbolic objects, revealing and removing a spirit form, the power of the doctor, the participation of the community, and the cooperation of the patient. Healing rituals are on the increase, partly because the central medical authorities are unable to control what goes on in rural areas. Thus, traditional ritual skills have been developed and adapted, often with many successes.

Arts. Mask making is almost obsolete, but drum making persists. In the past there were highly gifted wood carvers. The principal Ndembu art today is music, both in drum rituals and in churches; harmonizing and choral skill have reached a high level.

Medicine. A great number of herbal medicines are used for healing, childbirth, madness, and even as poisons. Curative medicines used in rituals have both herbal and spiritual effects. White and red clay and the horns, blood, and other parts of animals give power to ritual.

Death and Afterlife. Death used to be celebrated by the appearance of a masked dancer or stilt walkers drawn from the funerary association, followed by the burning down of the deceased's house. Medicines were used to expel the ghost. The dead existed in a number of spirit forms, some of them being able to reincarnate in a patrilateral descendant, some as matrilineal ancestral guides, and some as dangerous ghosts; the latter are still feared today. Present-day funerals are greatly simplified because knowledge of ancestor spirits is disappearing.

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