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



Bunzi.-The Nerves.-Omens: the dog, the frog, birds, snakes, colours.-Double meaning of words.-The formula.


IT is said that BUNZI the South wind brought NSACI and XIMBUKA with him. While both these are the names of BAKICI BANKONDI, or "household gods," they are also the words used for thunder and lightning. NSACI (or NZACI), Antonio Lavadeiro told me some years ago, on one occasion sent his 24 dogs and they killed one of his companions and burnt a palm tree (Folklore of the Fjort, page 72.) At the time I wondered why there should have been 24 dogs, but now I feel assured that these dogs simply represented the 24 parts or pairs of intermediate nerves, which the natives attribute to the trunk of his body.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that this constantly recurring 6 by 4 is part of the system of native philosophy.

Thus they believe there are three pairs of nerves and a fourth as the cause, six sets of four pairs as that which goes between, and one and three pairs as the effect. Which counting the joining fourth of the causative set and the joining one of the effective set as one pair would make up the 31 pairs of nerves in the human body, according to the native.

Putting all this on one side for the moment let me tell you what I know of their omens, which are so nearly connected with their nervous system.

Thunder and lightning out of season portend the death of a prince and as such are a bad sign; in season they are very welcome.

MBWA or MBULU is the dog. The MBULU must not cross one's path at the commencement of a journey; if it does it must be taken as a sign of misfortune and the traveller must put off his departure for a day or two. The meaning of the word BULU is a valley, an animal, a being gifted with sensibility, a person without spirit or reason. BWA is now used rather as an appellation for the tame dog which their stories tell us was first sent to town to procure food for some of his friends, but enjoying the warmth of the fire there, determined to remain as the companion of man.

A man met a beautiful dog on one occasion and was so pleased with its appearance that he determined to take it home with him. As it was raining heavily he took it with him inside his shimbec and lighting a fire proceeded to dry and warm his pet. Suddenly there was an explosion and neither man, dog, nor shimbec were ever seen again. This dog was NSACI, so Antonio told me.


XUULA, the croaking frog, has two voices. When you hear it croaking in a stuttering guttural way you may expect evil When on the contrary it utters a soft purring kind of croak all is well. The word ULA is connected with the smashing and crushing that goes on, on earth and -in rivers during a storm when trees are falling and waters rushing madly towards the sea.

MBIXI is the little bird that sings LU ELO-ELO-ELO. And if you are going out fishing in the sea and you hear this pleasant sound you are sure to have good luck.

SUSU, the fowl. It is a bad sign to hear a cock crow after 6 p.m. and before 3 a.m.

XIXEXI, a very small bird. When this bird sings XIXEXI and you hear it on your way to fish, it is a good sign ensuring luck, but if it sings TIETIE turn back, as you will catch nothing.

KULU = the horned owl. When at night this bird comes near to you and you hear it hooting it is a sign of death that is about to overtake you or one near to you.

NXECI is a fairly large black bird, whose wings are tipped with white. Its song KE-E-E portends "witch palaver."

KNA KNA, a slender black bird with a long tail, that is continually crying out KNA KNA. When the Bavili hear this bird they conclude that there is something wrong with MABILI, not the power but the NKICINKONDI or entrance gate to their village, or there is some sickness hanging about some one dear to them. This bird came from the East with MABILI.

MVIA is a brown bird that cries out VIA, reminding the native of witch burning palaver. It is a bad sign. VIA=to burn.

NUMVU is a large dark-brown bird, the fish eagle, that lives near to rivers. When it is all one colour it is a bad sign, but when you meet one with its wings tipped with white it is a good sign.

XIFUTU NKUBU = the screech owl. Like the KULU, to hear it hoot is a sign of death.

MBENDA = the field rat. If this rat runs across your path from left to right it is a good sign; not so good when it crosses from right to left. Should it run towards you it is a bad sign, but if it runs along in front of you in the way you are going, "Oh! that is very good."

MPAWLO PAWLO = the common owl. When you hear the hooting of this owl you may feel happy, for it means "Be at rest, all is well! "


MPILI, the spitting adder, strikes terror into the noisy and is evidently connected with the sense of hearing.

NDUMA is a black coloured snake (Python?), from about 6 to 8 feet in length, that is said to lift itself on its tail and strike a person dead with its head if he attempts to pass it. Men wearing the iron bracelet of NGOFO Must ask themselves the following questions on meeting with it:-

Have we eaten the flesh of any animal that we have killed on the same day?
Have we pointed our knives at any one?
Did we know our wives on the day of rest, NSONA?
Have we looked upon women during their periods?
Have we eaten those long chili peppers instead of confining ourselves to the smaller kinds?

This snake causes man to reflect and reason.

MBUMBA is a great snake found in wells; it loves moisture, and is allied to the BOMA. Women are more especially afraid of MBUMBA, and after drawing the fish and water out of a well, they will run away and leave their fish if they discover that MBUMBA has been hidden in it after all. The word means moisture, secret, "to draw up the earth round the roots of a plant" when the smell of the earth is said to impart some secret to women. Nearly connected with MBUMBA is the plain copper bracelet of the NGANGA MBUMBA, and the NLUNGA SONGO. This connects MBUMBA with marriage and smell.

MACI MA XILEMBE = green. The water in which the King has washed his hands is called MACI MAXILEMBO or DEMBO. An ordinary man is said to wash his hands (SUKULA MIOKO), but a prince (SUKULA NDEMBO) his fingers. MACI MA XILEMBE is the water expressed from the five-fingered leaves of the MANIOC.[1] LEMBA means to touch mentally.

[1. The early Portuguese residents affirm that when they arrived in Africa the natives fed on bananas, sesame, and liico (by which perhaps they meant what we call Baku mushrooms), all which, they say, were indigenous. After a severe famine had ravaged the land, they say that they introduced the mandioca, Indian corn and sweet potatoes. This is possibly true. From the fact that the rnandioca, under the name of Mpanzi is sacred to the South wind, Bunzi, and that in the name for the colour green we find a reference to the same plant, we might, however, with reason doubt their having introduced it in the country north of the Kongo. But the leaves of the mandioca are very like to those of the Nkondo, or Baobab tree; and we know that the natives do with the leaves of this tree just what they do with those of the mandioca, i.e., boil and pound them in water to prepare them as food, and maci maxilembe may as a colour be said to be the proper name for the waters of both and may originally have been applied to the Baobab water only; "lembe" is not a name for mandioca.]

NLAWLO = yellow. LAWLOKA is to over-look; hence to pardon. It is the word used after a person has undergone the "hot knife" test and escaped unharmed signifying that he is innocent, so that the yellow colour is connected with this kind of examination.

MUAMBA = orange. It is the juice or essence of the palm nut. As an exclamation it is used to mean that what has been said, done, or seen, is very good; it therefore expresses appreciation.

MPILU = purple. This word could be written VILU or BIDU and that means the soot smeared upon the faces of people who mourn their dead. Hence VILUKA or MPILUKA is to change the face of a thing. This change of face expresses grief.

BUNDI = Indigo blue. The natives now tie a piece of blue baft, in which a bit of skin is fastened, around their heads as a sign of mourning. This band (TANTA) used to be made of folded grass cloth dyed nearly black.

MBAMBA is the green snake measuring from four to eight feet in length. The three snakes MBUMBA, NDUMA, and MPILI are classified by the natives under the name BOBO (the bearing ones) the three that we are now discussing, i.e. MBAMBA, NSANDA, and NLIMBA as Sasa (the procreating ones).

MBAMBA is harmful but not a deadly snake. ZIMBAMBA are the strips of the Mbamba palm used as string. The sense of touch is figured by this snake. SIMBA is to handle.

NSANDA is a light yellow snake about eight feet long, which will only bite those "whose day has come." It lives in the grass. It is one of the snakes said to guard LUNGULULUBU. The sense of sight. The word SANDA means to search and see which you prefer.

NLIMBA, about eight feet in length, is the orange-coloured snake that guards the palm nuts of certain trees so that those who are forbidden to eat them may not obtain them. In this way it is connected with the sense of taste. It is the diminutive of the NDAMBA or XAMA.

XAMA = snake, written also NDAMA, NCIAMA, TIAMA. It is said to be red in colour but it is seldom seen (save as a part of a rainbow). It is they say of enormous proportions and lives in the woods. If anyone kills it the rains will not fall. Pieces of it are occasionally found (probably talc) and highly prized.

There are two great XAMA, XAMA NGONZOLA and XAMA LUAYI.

It is said that the snake NLIMBA grows into the snake NDUNDO which in its turn becomes XAMA LUAYI, the beneficent rainbow that drives away the evil XAMA NGONZOLA. On the other hand, NSANDA grows into the snake NKULA NTIETI which becomes XAMA NGONZOLA. That is, choice or the desire to choose that which is not his in the market-place leads one to the chasing of the wrong voice which carries one to destruction.

Another example of this double meaning given to words or sentences by the native is found in the following saying given to me by my old head man (now dead) Francisco. He said that when the floods caused by XAMA NGONZOLA were wrecking their villages and plantations, the princes of the Bavili raised their hands to their breasts and then lifting them up on high let them drop again to their sides (the sign of the rainbow) saying ETU (our) SE (father) LE (that is) I (and) LI (who is) A (of) MBUKU (the exploder) ZAMBI (God) UI (KO understood), may he not hear. Francisco put in quite a lot of aspirates in this sentence, which would go to show that the saying came from the people to the East of Luango who still make use of them, the Bavili using V in their place. I have omitted these to make the sentence more easily comprehended. Now the saying used by the people generally in Luango is ETUCI (clouds for MATUTI) LE (that are) I (and) LIAMBUKO (never mind) ZAMBI (God) UI KO (may he not hear).

The valley or deep, out of which XAMA NGONZOLO is said to rise, is called BULU LE MBOMA, the valley of fear.

MBENGA=red (MENGA=blood).

It is not very hard for a native to connect the senses with the six categories.

Hearing is the opposite to exclaiming, which they connect with air and the heavens and so with water.

Reason they connect with ideas of foundation, ground, solidity just as we do.

Smell they connect with marriage, and hence with desire and heat.

Touch implies motion for them.

Sight they connect through coveteousness, with abundance and wealth or plenty.

Taste they connect with eating, and through eating with life.

The order is the natural one taken from the colours of the rainbow.




Colours of rainbow.


Rainbow snakes.




















Next: Chapter 15. Sacred Animals