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Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1898], at


And now it is that we come to Nkissi, the spirit, the power, the mystery, that is contained in the Bilongo, or medicines, in the earth, and trees, and herbs.

The father of the tribe carefully guarded one spot within his domain, in which he planted a stunted baobab, or placed a sacred stone, or a wooden image. Nails were not driven into this image, and the place so set apart was sacred-sacred to the mysterious power or spirit-and this was called his Nkissinsi. He was father and priest, or Nganga, the man learned in the folklore of his people. He it was who cured the sick, and instructed the young by his wise words and stories. He, as the direct descendant of Nzambi, ruled his people by that moral authority that devolved from what he considered his God.

But as this family became great, it was ruled not only by the father, but by those elders that he might select to govern certain districts under him; and these lieutenants in their turn appointed others to govern small portions of their regency. And finally Ngangas, or priests, men learned in folklore and medicine, were sent to help these lieutenants, and thus the office of ruler and priest, the effective authority and the moral authority, were separated, although the elder still considered himself as high-priest and ruler. The Ngangas became a class apart under the title of Zinganga Nkissi (Zinganga being the plural of Nganga).

These Zinganga developed Nkissisin as time went on, and instituted the Nkissi, or wooden image of a man or a beast charged with medicines. The petitioner who wished to kill the thief who had stolen some of his property, made the Nganga an offering, and drove a nail into the image as he made his request. Or the friends of the sick man would present their offering to the Nganga of a certain Nkissi; and he would present them with some bracelet or amulet, Nkissi, charged with medicine which he affirmed would certainly cure the sick man.

What a field was thus opened to unscrupulous Ngangas, and how quick they were to avail themselves of their chance, we can easily realise.

The Zinganga at last professed to be able to call down the rain from heaven, and thus held the whole country in fear and trembling while they filled their pockets with their peace offerings; and they backed up their profession by wholesale murder and poisoning of all unbelievers. They hypnotised the weak, who thought that some evil Nkissi had possession of them, until the patient's friends paid the Zingauga heavily to come and cast out the evil spirit, or killed them as so-called witches. They usurped the powers of the Elders, and cast off their allegiance to their great Father, until the great kingdom of the Bantu became cut up into innumerable petty sovereignties.

The month of February is sacred to Nkissinsi. This month is called Muauda. The prince calls all his people before him and addresses them; they then clean the holy ground of all grass and herbs, and for the first fifteen days the people dance and sing. On the fifteenth day all fetishes (Nkissi) are covered up, and no one is allowed to touch an image until the new moon appears again.

The day of the week upon which the prince calls his people together to discuss any subject is called Nduka. Palavers concerning dead people are talked over on the day called Ntono.

The Fjort has four days in his week: Tono; Silu; Nkandu; Nsona, the fourth day, upon which the women will not work in the fields, sacred to production and motherhood.

Touching those things which the Fjort regard as forbidden, and which they call Xina (thina, or tchina), the youngest resident amongst them must have noticed many of these Xina Swine, which no prince will touch. In addition to these, the Fjort regard all things that come from the sea and have not fins and scales as forbidden, and also all eagles, crows, cuckoos, hawks, owls, herons, bats, and snakes.

So long as he knows nothing about it he says he may eat food out of unclean pots, but if he knows that anything unclean has been cooked in the pot in which his food has been prepared, and he eats thereof, he will be punished by some great sickness coming over him, or by death.

The rites of purification are numerous. After menstruation, childbirth, or sickness, they anoint their bodies with palm-oil mixed with the red powder called takula.

Lastly, I give a note of Mr. Dennett's on the Nkissi of the Musurongo. These Musurongo to this day keep up their tradition for turbulence and miscellaneous villainy with which the Roman Catholic missionaries of the 15th and 16th centuries credited them. They are the descendants of the people of "the Count of Sogno." I also venture to think that they are a people upon whom Nkissism is a superimposed religion; but the superimposition of this religion on the Musurongo took place prior to superimposition of it on the people of Loango and KaCongo. We have, however, no white record on this point, but it shows faintly here and there in the black tradition, the Musurongo being frequently called "the bastard tribe, or people," and so on. Nevertheless, the information Mr. Dermett gives of these Nkissi at the present day is of such interest that I include it here.

The principal Nkissi, or wooden images, into which nails are driven in this part of the Musurongo territory are:

Kabata, which is said to kill its victims by givifig them the sleeping sickness.

Nsimbi, that causes dropsy.

Quansi, that infests them with a ceaseless itching.

Then we have their rain-giver, or withholder, called Nvemba.

The Nkissist is robbed, and straightway he goes to the Nganga of Kabata, with an offering, and knocks a nail into the Nkissi (or fetish, as you are given to calling it) that the robber may be plagued with the sleeping sickness and die.

Has he the sleeping sickness, the Nkissist goes to the Nganga, and, perhaps, confesses his sin, and pays him to withdraw the nail and cure him.

It has not rained as it should have done; then the prince collects cloth and goods from his people to present to the Nganga Nvemba; and they all go to the sacred grove, and having made their offering sing and dance, and clap their hands and shout for rain. The Nganga secures them this blessing if he can; -but if he cannot, it is because someone has committed some great act of indecency, or has broken some of the orders of Nvemba-perhaps someone has been digging up the gum copal and selling it to some trader. The fault at any rate is never with the Nganga; and some victim or other is pounced upon and has to appease the wrathful Nvemba by either losing his life, or that of a slave, or else by paying the Nganga.

But if the thief or sinner who has kindled the wrath of Nvemba will not confess his fault, how then is the culprit to be brought to justice?

The Ngauga Nkissi is not behind the sainted priests of our own church in its infancy, and is privileged to proceed by the ordeal of poison, fire, and water. And this again opens to the unscrupulous Nganga a wide field for what is called priestly jugglery, although I do not believe that the Ngangas, who in their simplicity appeal to the interposition of the Great Hidden Power, are necessarily impostors; for they certainly are not.

What we will call the conscience, for want of a better word, of people such as these KaCongos, who are still under the power of a religion full of superstition, is peculiarly sensitive. As then they fully believe that the Great Hidden Power will expose them, is it a wonderful conclusion to arrive at that this fear reacts upon their system? The next time you are in fear and trembling, just try to eat a mouthful of dry bread; and I think that after that you will be a step nearer faith in trial by ordeal than you are to-day, and that you will easily understand how a native suffering from a guilty conscience, and dreading discovery, standing in the presence of the Nganga and the people, when suddenly called upon to swallow a piece of dry mandioco, may probably be choked in his terrible effort to do so. And if fear acts upon the system in this way in this case, why should we doubt its action in other ordeals?

The swindling comes in when a rich sinner confesses his sin to the Nganga, and bribes him to see him through the ordeal safely. The Nganga promises; and the sinner, no longer the victim of fear, gets through the ordeal, even if the Nganga does not help him. But the unscrupulous Nganga does often help by putting a bean in the powdered bark, or casca, and thus ensuring its rejection by the stomach, and by other tricks known to him.

We know that St. Wilfrid built an abbey near Ripon, which was destroyed by fire in 950, and that the privilege of ordeal by fire and water was granted to this church; yet we do not hear people talking of St. Wilfrid as an old humbug. They give him the benefit of the doubt, and call him a saint. And yet I have no doubt that there were unscrupulous priests in those days, quite equal in villany to the vilest Nganga Nkissi of to-day.

But before a man is brought to his trial there must be some evidence against him; and this is supplied by the Nganga, who, having gone through a process of divining, accuses the man of being a poisoner, spell-binder, thief, or adulterer. Thus, a person falling sick will not presume that his sickness is brought about by his own folly, but rather concludes that someone is quietly poisoning him. He therefore calls in a Nganga; and it is this man's business to divine the evil-doer, or to tell the sufferer that his sickness is a natural one.

I have often known my servants get up in the night after a disagreeable dream and fire off their guns to drive the evil power away, and the next day busy themselves by divining who the person was that was trying to get at them.

I will close this collection of miscellaneous fragments with an account Mr. Dennett gives of the method of conducting a native palaver, a story that shows in what respect the decisions of the law were held, and a story showing the danger that is in words.

Next: Palavers.