Nyakyusa and Ngonde - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The precolonial Nyakyusa/Ngonde cosmology was nontheistic. It focused on the powers of the founding heroes and their chiefly descendants, on the powers of commoner headmen to combat witches, and on the ability of deceased relatives to affect the fortunes of the living. Since then Christianity has made very substantial progress, although not equally in all areas. In 1955 Moravians, Lutherans, and Catholics comprised some 14 percent of the total population, with significant numbers in other sects such as the Pentecostal Holiness, Assemblies of God, Watch Tower (Jehovah's Witnesses), Seventh Day Adventists, and a number of indigenous sectarian groups.

Religious Practitioners. Descendants of the "divine kings" (the Lwembe of Nyakyusa, the Kyungu of Ngonde) performed important rituals for the well-being of the country at large, such as ceremonies of national purification. There were also commoner priests and diviners, who worked together with the chiefs to avert misfortune, officiate at communal ceremonials, and preside over the grave sites of dead chiefs.

Ceremonies. The "coming out" was the most impressive and important of the collective ceremonials. Sacrifices at the burial groves of chiefs were important in times of misfortune. Kinship rituals, particularly the elaborate burial service, were the most common type of ceremony; there were also rituals accompanying puberty and marriage, and normal and abnormal birth (e.g., the birth of twins).

Medicine. "Medicines" were used to enhance the powers of chiefs and village headmen; they were administered to nourish the "python in the belly," the source of mystical power. The actual content of the medicines is uncertain, although some were composed of ground stone and others of vegetable substances, the latter type being of particular importance in strengthening a pubescent girl.

Death and Afterlife. The shades of the dead were of great importance. Neglect of the proper form in funeral services could lead to illness. The main function of funeral ceremonial was to produce a certain distance between the living and the dead. The shades of past kings and agnatic ancestors were frequently consulted when interpreting or attempting to avert misfortune.

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