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At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1906], at



The Soul. -Shadows. -Black Magic. -Ghosts. -The Future of the Soul.Witchcraft.


WHEN I read that according to the observation of Mr. So-and-So the same word is used among a certain people for breath, shadow, ghost, and soul, I do not conclude that the observer in question is wrong. Neither, however, am I led to suppose that these four distinct ideas are one in the mind of those people. I know how hard it is for an observer of primitive, arrested, or degraded people's thoughts to get at their real meaning, and I know that in some cases one word may stand for four distinct ideas.[1] Even in the country in which I have lived, although the white man has been there over four hundred years, I doubt if there are many who could enter into this subject with any great hope of giving you a definite idea of the difference the native draws between life shadow, breath, and intelligence on the one hand, and ghost, soul, and spirit on the other.


I remember when it was considered a crime for a person in this part of the country to trample on or even to cross the shadow of another, more especially if the shadow were that of a married woman. This shadow the Bavili call Xi dundu.

[1. Take the word MABILI for instance.]

To-day people are still very particular about passing one another; but a new-comer would be rather reminded of the custom at home that it is rude to pass in front of anyone, and inclined to put this habit down to a native's natural politeness.

At night the Xi dundu is said to sleep[1] in the body of its owner; and that it is considered a very vital part of man we gather from the fact that should an ndoxi, or dealer in black arts, rob a sleeper of his Xi dundu, he is said to take away his life. The Xi dundu enters and comes out of the body by the mouth (Munu), and is then likened to the (Muvu) breath of a man. When a man dies, he is said to have no shadow, even as he has no breath. Thus, in the mind of the Bavili both Xi dundu and Muvu are part of mortal man, and die with him. But when a person swoons, or has a fit, or is in a trance, they say some ndoxi has taken his Xi dundu, and it is just at his pleasure to return it or not. Should you kill the ndoxi, the Xi dundu in question would escape with another member of the ndoxi's family. Supposing even that you think you know the ndoxi who has secured your friend's shadow, you may not go to him and ask him to return it; you must get two or three zinganga to confirm your supposition, who shall visit the sick person and cry out to the ndoxi to leave the person alone, and then threaten to call out his name if he does not return the Xi dundu; then if it is not returned you must knock some fetish, calling his name out, so that if the ndoxi does not return the Xi dundu he will surely die.


We have already learnt a good deal about the Ximbindi in the tales in Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort.[2]

After death the Ximbindi of a person may rest in the house in which he dies for twenty days, after which it goes off to the woods and lives the very natural kind of life described in the above tales. But the Ximbindi of an ndoxi may haunt the place he died in for ever.

[1. This belief is obviously derived from the fact that at night a man's shadow disappears. How far the statement in the text requires modification when there is moonlight I am unable to say.

2. pp. 11-16, 115, 156.]

It is believed that if a person ever sees the Ximbindi of one of his relations he will die, and should anyone be beaten by a Ximbindi, that person certainly has not long to live.

An ndoxi who has the proper medicine (mpanga) is spoken of as having the power of "Nyungala." Such an ndoxi catches and keeps Bimbindi, and sends them out to beat and kill living persons. This ndoxi has also the power to send the leopard to kill people, or the crocodile to drown them and to carry their Bimbindi away under the waters to some island in the river Kongo, where he collects them previous to selling them to the white man, whom they serve as slaves, and make cloth for him beneath the blue sea far away.

The girl mentioned in Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort[1] as living in Malela, and as having died and been buried there, and then sold in Boma as a slave, and who afterwards came back to her family, was supposed to be under the influence of Nyungala by her parents. Since giving this example of a living Ximbindi I have heard of another case. A girl of the village of Lumbembika, in the upper Lukula river in Kakongo, died and was buried. Some time after this her mother, having made a long journey into the bush, came across her daughter, and asked her how she got there. She said that she had been sold to the chief of that town. After some palavers and delay she was brought back to her town, where she lived as a Ximbindi. She was forbidden to go near the place where she had been buried. The only difference people noticed about her was that her will was not her own, and that her eyes were like those of a person who had been drinking.[2]

Xilunzi, or ndunzi, the intelligence, dies, so they say, with man, and a Ximbindi is simply a tool in the hands of the ndoxi and has no ndunzi.


The Bakulu, or souls, of the BAVILI have nothing to do with witches, shadows, or ghosts, or breath, or even intelligence; they are the guiding voices of the dead. They prefer

[1. p. 11

2 It is by no means impossible that she was under hypnosis.]

to dwell in the heads of some of their near relations, and are placed there as described in the "Death and Burial of the Fjort."[1] If they are not fortunate enough to find such a habitation, they are said to hover about the outer division or verandah of the houses of their relations. They are never seen. They mourn with their relations when in trouble, and long to help them. And they say that if every one of the Bavili were destroyed to-morrow, these Bakulu would hover about in the grass around their towns for ever and ever.

I was very much touched the other day, when present at the funeral of a woman whom I had learnt to respect very much, to note the careful way in which the brother picked up the sacred earth from the grave of his now buried sister. His wife held out the end of the red cloth serving as her husband's waistband, and he carefully placed the earth in it. She then doubled the cloth over it, and tied the whole into a knot. This earth at some future date will be placed by some nganga in the little horn "Likawla," or then in the little tin box "Nkobi," so that the Nkulu of the dead sister may be placed in the head of some living relation, and her guiding voice be once more heard by those who loved her.

There are apparently six kinds of KULU among the Bavili, three belonging to the MUNTu NZAMBI class and three to the MUNTO A NDONGO class-that is to say, three pertaining to the higher or moral nature of man, and three to his lower and physical nature.

1. Nkulu bakakata (or the soul of our ancestors) causes women to bear offspring. (This is connected with the BAKICI BACI or sacred groves, but I have not found any traces of reincarnation.)

2. Nkulu npunu is also an ancestral soul that causes babies to fall sick.

3. Nkulu yianzi is the soul of one who has just died. It is placed in the head of a living relation for the purpose of consultation.

4. The muntu nzambi will not reckon as "nkulu" the nkulu ndoxi (nkulu of the person dealing in witchcraft).

[1. Folklore, viii, 136.]

This nkulu of the dead witch only a witch seeks to have placed in his head. It is a sore point with the BAVILI, and they prefer to tell us that the nkulu of a witch ceases at his death.

5. Nkulu mbuila, a very destructive locust.

6. Nkulu xilunga.[1] Both 5 and 6 have medicines attached to them to be given to women whose "courses have been greatly delayed for some cause.

Those who have read either Seven Years among the Fjort or my Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort may remark that the Nkasa tree has not been mentioned as a sacred tree. It will be remembered that the powdered bark of the Nkasa tree is given to suspected witches and wizards as a test to prove their innocence or guilt. If the accused vomit the noxious medicine, they are innocent. If the poison is retained, it either poisons the witch or else acts as a strong purge, when the culprit is set upon and killed, the body burnt, and the ashes scattered to the wind. No burial was granted to this temple of "Ndongo."

This witchcraft or fetishism (I use the word in the sense given to this part of BAVILI philosophy by the Portuguese sailors and missionaries of old) is just the evil counterpart of Nkicism (in the ancient acceptation of the word).

The BAVILI thus to this day describe themselves as BANTU NZAMBI, men of God, or BANTU A NDONGO, men of the black art; but all who think themselves Bantu nzambi are not necessarily such, for while among the Bantu a ndongo there are people who are aware that the evil power is in them (and these are those that are burnt, after death), there are others, on the other hand, who have lived with ndongo in their stomachs all their lives without knowing it. In fact, the painful truth is only brought to light after death, when the ndongo, who hates the idea of being tightly wrapped up and buried deep in the bowels of Mother Earth (or Bulunji), makes its appearance. For, say the Bavili, when the corpse has been wrapped up in folds of cloth, ndongo fights his way out of the stomach with a fearful explosion, burning a hole

[1. The meaning of this term has escaped me.]

through the wrappings. As the ndongo is no longer in the stomach of the corpse, and as when alive the man had lived a decent life, the corpse is buried; but no loving relation will pick up a handful of earth from the grave to keep until required for the purpose of depositing it in the Likaula or nkobi, those little zinkici so necessary to the sick relation who would commune with the "voice" or "nkulu" of the departed.


It is "Xina" (a thing forbidden) to throw the light reflected from a mirror upon a person, and when the light passes across the face of an individual he cries out: "Leave me alone. I have ndudu medicine in my body." It is not a crime, but more of the nature of an insult, to throw this light upon a person. Bits of looking-glass are to be found fixed in trees, and in the eyes and stomach of many fetishes. The light thus thrown is called "ntenia lu muéno."


When one wanders about the native village with a camera and points it at people with the intention of taking their photographs, they invariably at first run away. They say that they are afraid that the photographer wishes to take away their life or "Monio."

Next: Chapter 8. Ndongoism