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



Nkasa trees.-Sacred trees and the Bakici Baci.-Muema and other trees.-Secret Societies.-The Formula. -Maluango's Lesson.


I HAVE gathered sufficient evidence to convince myself that each grove has a tree sacred to it, but all these trees are not NKICI-CI. For instance I am told that the silk cotton NFUMA tree is NKICI to the grove XIVUMA, but the NFUMA tree is not NKICI-CI. Then some trees appear to be sacred to more than one grove, as for instance the NKUMBI tree, apparently sacred to MPUNGU and also to NYIMINA, and the NUMBU tree sacred to NYAMBI, BUKULU and others. My informants however differ so on this subject that in the following study I shall leave out all mention of the groves, and simply give the list of the twenty-four trees and herbs that are BAKICI-BACI, without bringing them in each instance into connection with the philosophy.

You must not conclude that in giving you this list of the sacred trees and herbs of the Bavili, I have exhausted their stock of medicine trees and shrubs. There are many other well-known plants and trees that have to do with medicine and NDONGOISM (fetish), but they are not BAKICI-BACI, or as we should say, sacred powers. MISENGO, MAKAKATA, XUMU, MVUTU, LUSINGO, all enter generally into fetish as medicines. Then there is the great tree NKASA, the powdered bark of which is given to people accused of witchcraft and the MBUNDU CITU. We are naturally left in wonder that two such members of the vegetable kingdom are not sacred, the BAVILI however say they are not, and we must be guided by them in this matter whatever the result may be.

There are no Nkasa trees near to Luango; that is to say, we must go for a walk of some twelve miles to find one. On one occasion we left Luango early in the morning, determined to photograph a few Nkasa and other "sacred" trees, as we thought them at the time.

We arrived at Ximoko, or Buku li Buali, the town of Mambuku Prati, the nephew of Maniluemba the Maluango-elect. Maluango had now left the town in which we first met him and come to Buali, his capital: and meanwhile on the road we heard that we should not find Mambuku at home. "He had gone to see Maluango," was the only answer to our question. "What has he gone there for?" No answer. Thus when we arrived, the front door of the "little palace" Mambuku had been good enough to build as a chamber for his guests was locked. We walked in therefore through the opening at the back. Then we plied Mambuku's mother with various questions (his wives were within the enclosure called Lumbu, already described).

It then appeared that the mother was suffering from an evil spirit that had already troubled her in one of her legs, and had now commenced to swell her fingers up. She showed us the hand to prove that there was no humbug about the palaver. Moreover, that same morning very early Makawso had got up and gone outside his shimbec in one direction, while his wife went into the grass in the other direction. Makawso was then, he said, suddenly attracted by the terrible cries of his wife. He rushed -to her assistance, and the leopard that had already seized her by the throat ran away. The poor woman was in a fearful state, but they hoped to save her life. Mambuku, as the father of his people, had gone to consult the great priest NGANGA NVUMBA, or Maluango.

After breakfast, I said I would start to find the Nkasatree which a small boy said he thought he knew of As we passed through another town the boy said we had better ask the women to guide us, for they generally knew where these trees were owing to the clearings made for them by their husbands for their plantations. So I asked them, and they laughed and giggled, the silly things, and said they would follow us, as they were going into the woods to gather the leaves of the fubu, it being nearly the time for mat-making. Down we dived into a wooded valley, and when we had reached the bottom we stopped to talk to some natives who were busy collecting palm-wine. Did they know of the whereabouts of an Nkasa-tree?


"Would the spokesman guide us to it?

He was busy, but the direction in which we were going would not take us to one. I called upon the small boy for an explanation. The boy and the native discussed the question, and the men and the women laughed. The women then went on their way jabbering.

The tree the boy wished to show me was not an Nkasa-tree. I then asked the speaker to neglect his business for a consideration, and lead us to the tree he knew of. He growled, but at last was persuaded to accompany us, and we went back by the road we had come. Our guide was in a hurry and ran; we ran after him. Then he dived into the wood and we followed him. Then he said he would have to find the tree, and he left us, and, alas! we saw him no more.

Then we followed a path which led us out of that wood, and when we once more got into the open we saw one of our party (who they said was a fool) reclining upon the grass resting. He said he knew where an Nkasa-tree existed. "Why, then, had he not taken us to it straightaway? Was it far?"


"Then let us be off."

Finally, about an hour's walk brought us to a clearing in the wood, where women were about to plant Indian corn and mandioca. By straining our necks and standing on the half-dried trunk of one of the felled trees which lay around us we caught sight of a few of the top branches of the Nkasa-tree, which we photographed. Then entering the dark wood we examined the trunk. The tree measured some twelve feet in circumference, and there appeared upon its trunk a great oblong patch devoid of bark. I wanted to take a sample of the bark, but I broke the blade of my knife in trying to cut some of it off; it was far harder than I had imagined. Tired and weary, but satisfied that I had added one more sacred tree to my collection, I arrived at Mambuku's town too late to even think of returning to Luango that night.

Mambuku having returned and informed himself of the object of our visit turned to the fool, and, patting him on the head, said, "So you knew where the Nkasa-tree was?" and the fool said, "Yes, he knew where all the medicine-trees were."

In conversation with some of my followers I had already discovered that the nkasa-tree was not a sacred tree; it was not Nkicici, but like all other trees that grow unplanted in the "sacred ground," if it happened to find its home there, in that sense it might be said to be Nkici.

I did not trust my friends, so I now asked Mambuku, who replied, "No, it is not Nkicici," but merely a tree which supplied them with the poisonous bark in Nkasa palaver.

MUEMA is the mangrove tree. As you know, the heavy trunk of this tree rests on a trellis-like mass of roots that appear to do all they can to keep its body from being in any way brought into contact with the filthy swampy matter at its base. The seeds of this tree also germinate in the air, and it is only when the plant is of a certain age that it drops from its parent stem into the soft mud below. The word might be translated as the essence or kernel in being. The verb EMA or OMA meaning to become dry, while ENA or ONA means he, who. Connected with the protecting NKICICI LUNGULULUBU and ideas of wind, we can understand that this tree gives the Bavili a very spiritual symbol.


XILIKA. This is a large tree having a small fruit which when it falls to the ground and dries separates into two parts This seed enters into the medicine MBUMBA.

NKANDIKA is also a great tree that bears a large fruit containing twenty-four seeds which enter into many medicines. The word has the meaning "to enclose." A man closes his house and places a few leaves of manioc, banana, or palm tree, about the latch and that means that no woman may enter therein. This custom is called LU KANDU BA KANDIKILA.

BI SULA BI NKANDI. The husks and shells of the palm fruit used in the smoking of dead bodies.

BIUMU. A string plant giving a bitter tasting fruit from which an ointment is made for drying up wounds.

NKALA is a bushy tree something like a willow that is planted over graves and from the wood of which the posts of the entrance gate to the towns called MABILI are made.

MISAKASAKA is a string plant which they wind round the NKALA posts Of MABILL SAKA is to chase, while SAKASAKA "a little chasing," gives us the idea of the quick little waves of the sea following one after the other.

MIKWICI is a cane-like plant, planted close to the NKALA poles.

MACISA is also a cane-like plant growing at the foot of the NKALA poles.

XILAWLO is the wild "Cœur de boeuf" known as the LAWLO NTANDU or the wayside "pawpaw." Its fruit is of a yellow colour and it is eaten by weary travellers on the march. It is one of those shrubs whose growth does not appear to be affected by the yearly prairie fires. It is burnt and scorched each year, but its blackened branches sprout and bear their yearly crop as if the fire had merely purged them of their dead matter and given them new life.

XIFILO is a bushy tree whose fruit is of a ruddy colour, and the leaves of which, together with those of the XILAWLO enter into the medicines connected with MBUMBA.

MAVUKA is a string plant used in binding the tooth of the Hippo (VUBU or NGUVU). This plant and the tooth is called MBUMBA XIDONGO and it is brought out by the prince on (Sundays) the fourth day SONA. Having chewed some KOLA nut, he spits the mass upon the part of the tooth that is bound by the MAVUKA to give him the power to overcome the wiles of the witches who would prevent his propagating his image.

MATONDI is the truffle found in the ground in the woods and eaten by the natives.

MUAMBA is a large tree producing a soft yellow wood of which the natives make figures (ZINKAWCI). It is the word used for the juice or broth made from the fruit of the palm tree.

NKANA is a lofty tree from the bark of which bracelets and anklets are made. Its small fruit enters into the MBUMBA medicines and MBUMBA is the smell of the earth. The wood of this tree must not be burnt in any town where the MBUMBA medicine exists.

MBUBU is the tree representing respectful fear (VUMI). BUBA (the spider) also means an assembly of many things wrapped up as in a parcel. The spider is said to have made a ladder up to heaven to fetch down fire.'

NTETE is a very high tree and serves as a mark or sign that the land on which it stands is near the headquarters of the King. This tree is now a very rare one, in Luango I only know of one and that is situated just on the BUALI side of the river LUBENDO which divides that province from LUANJILL The wood is used to make the handles of axes, hoes, etc. The meaning of the word is "First, principal." NKAKI NTETE chief and first wife.

NLOMBA is a fine tree sacred to KUNGU, but found in other woods under which the dead who die with their eyes open are placed. It is said that such dead want some question deciding or at least debating before they will submit to burial.

MBOTA is the lonchocarpus (Bentley) producing a very hard yellow wood. The ideas connected with the tree are those of endurance, production, excellence.

NKUMBI is the large tree already mentioned as being at the Eastern entrance to Maluango's XIBILA or sacred ground. It is here that the king elect, encouraged by NGANGA MBUMBA,

[1. Folklore of the Fjort, P. 74.]

must fight all pretenders who present themselves to dispute his right to the throne.

SEXI (Pl. XI) is the old market tree situated on the NZILA NZAMBI or high road leading from Maluango's XIBILA to the sea. Here the body of the defunct Maluango is placed just previous to being carried away for burial.

NUMBU is a very great, soft wood tree, and the one situated in the KONGOZOVO of XIENJI marks the place where the people of MAMBOMA meet those of Maluango bearing the dead body, and, chasing them away with oyster and cockle shells, take charge of the body and carry it off to burial. It is sacred to BUKULU and NYAMBI and other groves.[1]

MBA, the palm tree. Maluango, the head of his race in the full vigour of manhood, when judging his people always wears a sash of palm leaves across his shoulders. This is called NDEMBE-DEMBE. This word will carry your thoughts to the word NDEMBO or the secret society, the rites of which are graphically described to us in Mr. Bentley's dictionary, page 506, but the only secret society I know of among the BAVILI is that of the BADUNGO, who are the king's policemen, and were chiefly used by him as detectives to deter his people from committing acts of immorality likely to cause the wrath Of ZAMBI or the power BUNZI. The Mayombe I am told use the word NDUNGO and NKIMBA for one and the same person. I am inclined to believe with Consul Roger Casement that the NKIMBA, as a secret society, and as known south of the Congo, is a degenerate conglomeration of native and jesuitical formation. The BADUNGU wear a wooden mask and are dressed in feathers or dried banana leaves, carrying the snout of the saw fish in their hands as a sign of office. (See illustration in Seven Years Among the Fjort, pages 13 and 49.) Naturally as the people degenerated these policemen abused their powers and became a nuisance to the people who, in time, as the power of the king waned, suppressed them.

[1. I notice that in Mr. Bentley's dictionary of the Kongo language the word NUMBU is translated aromatic plant (generic) incense. The word the Bavili use for these plants is BIFUNDI, but I cannot find, any trace of their being used as incense.]

Some of you may have noticed Kongo pipes ornamented with the picture of a palm tree, among the branches of which quite near to the fruit the snake NLIMBA is coiled. At the foot of this palm tree a few straight lines figure a well. This picture is called NIOKA MU ILU, MPIWILA MACI, BOMA (KUNUA MACI understood), that is (the man seeing), a snake on high being thirsty, fears (to drink the waters of the well).[1]

LEMBE is the copper bracelet worn by princes who are married according to the rites of LEMBE. Now those women wearing the LEMBE bracelet may eat all kinds of palm fruit (NDENDE=a palm nut), but those wearing the NGOFO bracelet may not eat the all yellow nuts of the BA LI NTUNDABA a certain kind of palm tree.

The fence or LUMBU, wherein the wives after the rites of NGOFO and LEMBE live, should be made of the fronds of the palm tree, but if made of papyrus must have a branch of the palm tree showing here and there.

No ordinary woman while still capable of bearing children may eat of the yellow nuts called MATUNDABA, or the nut having a small kernel of the palm tree called SOMBO, but boys and men may eat all these nuts.

NSANDA is the Ficus religiosa or wild fig tree which spreads its branches over the market. It is a sacred tree in Luango but more common as a market tree in KAKONGO.

NKONDO (Pl. VIIb)is the Baobab tree. Its leaves mixed with palm oil are still eaten in the Kongo much as the leaves of the manioc are. Water poured on to the contents of its enormous pods makes a refreshing drink for a fever patient. Some of their dead are (everlastingly so they say) preserved within their hollow trunks. Cut it down and its fallen trunk throws roots down into the earth and shoots branches into the air with a persistent determination not to die.

The NFUMA tree is not sacred, but it is a sign which says "from this place you come."

[1. I think there is such a pipe in the Exeter Museum.]


Sacred Trees.



























In this case it will be hard for the Europeans to connect the six groups with the six categories because it is a case of comparing spirit to matter, which, of course, can only be done by analogy. It can most easily be done by first taking, as before, Maluango's lesson, and then tracing in it the ideas connected with the categories.

We have already seen what Maluango said with regard to the lands and rivers. I now give his lessons drawn from the sacred trees.


The sisters of Maluango are allowed to choose a man each from any part of the country as their husbands. The man thus chosen becomes virtually the slave of his royal wife, and must have no other wife or concubine. When Maluango, is finally crowned king he also must marry a princess of Ngoio and put away his wives or concubines that he may have lived with while he reigned as Nganga Nvumba. The princesses must live in Kondi and here on the death of a Maluango, Mamboma and the other princes must repair to choose a successor.


Not only must the ruler-elect be beloved by the people, but he must be a perfect man capable


of procreating, or, as we should say,


excellent, enduring and good man. That is in every way a noble man.


He is led to the Nkumbi tree to meet the people and is encouraged by Mamboma to fight any one who has any pretension to the crown. Strong in the knowledge of the purity


of his birth and that which has fallen


on him, and is within him from above, he looks upon himself as


the essence of all virtue. In this physical nature he is surrounded


by his courtiers as the market tree is by the people beneath its shade.


The fires and trials of life have but given him new life and a consciousness of Self, and he feels that


his-intuition will guide him so that


all his discussions will be remembered by the people.


Unconscious of wrong-doing he fears not death, and the knowledge that it is his duty to bury his uncle


whose body is now being dried by the


fire and smoke from husks and shells of the palm kernels makes


him all the more resolved to fight through his present troubles.


And now that he has succeeded his uncle the Ntawtela and is married to the welfare of his people


the time has come when he must


fulfil his promises and become


in reality the head of his State


And that he may follow in the footsteps of


Ntawtela and become absorbed in the deep of the Spirit, he must


remember his enduring and priestly powers, and live to the end,


in the respectful fear of God as Overseer and Chief from whom all come.


Such is the pure and kingly life; born of a royal mother, the only wife of one chosen husband; himself the husband of one royal wife.

In order to trace the connection of the trees and the categories the reader must refer to the table of associated ideas given on p. 109.

Next: Chapter 14. The Omens