Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 


BISHOP STEERE wrote, in 1869, that "the story of Liongo is the nearest approach to a bit of real history I was able to meet with. It is said that a sister or Liongo came to Zanzibar, and that her descendants are still living there."[1]

Since reading these words I have been informed that there is now at Mombasa a family of the Shaka clan and tribe claiming descent from Liongo Fumo. Even apart from this, there seems every reason to believe that he had a real existence, though some mythical elements have been incorporated into his legend.

Shaka, which gives its name to one of the thirteen tribes (miji, or, as they are more usually called, mataifa) of Mombasa, was a small principality at the mouth of the Ozi river, founded in very early times by colonists from Persia. The ruins of Shaka may still be seen not very far from the present town of Kipini, and another group of ruins, somewhat nearer it, goes by the name of Wangwana wa Mashah, "the noblemen of the Shahs." The rulers of Shaka, to whose family Liongo Fumo belonged, bore the Persian title of Shah.

Liongo Fumo, Poet and Bowman

Shaka was conquered by Sultan Omar of Pate, whose dates are variously given, but he seems to have been more or less contemporary with our Edward III, one authority even putting him as early as 1306. It is therefore safe to say that Liongo flourished during the twelfth century, if not earlier. It is true that one informant said to me, Liongo warred with the Portuguese," which would put him not earlier than the sixteenth century, but this is not supported by the general weight of authority.

Liongo's grave was pointed out to me at Kipini in 1912, also the site of the well outside the city gate which plays a

[1. Swahili Tales, p. vi.]

part in his story, and even the exact spot where he met his death. Most people, there and at Lamu, knew, at any rate, the song which is handed down as having been sung by him in prison, and almost anyone you met, Swahili or Pokomo, could tell you his story.

Many poems attributed to him circulate in manuscript among educated Swahili, and some are recited from memory even by the illiterate. It was two poor labourers, working on a cotton plantation, who showed me Liongo's grave They were evidently quite familiar with the story. One of the Poems was printed by Steere at the end of his Swahili Tales, with an English translation and a rendering into modern Swahili supplied by a native scholar at Zanzibar. As a rule, the language in which they are written is to a Swahili much as Chaucer's English is to us.

Liongo, as we have seen, was of the house of the Shaka Mashah, but, though the eldest son, could not succeed his father, his mother having been one of the inferior wives. He seems, however, to have been in every way more able than his brother, the lawful Shah Mringwari. His extraordinary stature and strength, his courage, his skill with the bow, and his poetical talents have been celebrated over and over again in song and story. The Pokomo fisherfolk tell how he conquered them and imposed on them the "tribute of heads"-that is to say, from every large village two boys and two girls, from every small village one of each. Also how he was "a tall man" (muntu muyeya) and very strong, and once, leaving Shaka in the morning, walked to Gana (at or near the present Chara)-about two days' journey each way-and returned the same day.

Liongo and his brother were not on good terms. By whose fault the quarrel began we are not told, but it is quite conceivable that the elder, kept by no fault of his own out of a position which he considered his due, and which he was more competent to fill than Mringwari, chafed under a sense of injustice, which embittered his already overbearing temper. It does not appear that, like Absalom, he stole the hearts of the people, for Mringwari had always been the more popular of the two, and Liongo's high-handed ways soon made him hated; yet he always had some to love him. Like Napoleon, he seems to have had a gift that way, which he exercised when he chose. Among the poems attributed to him is the tender Pani kiti:

Give me a chair that I may sit down
And soothe my Mananazi,
That I may soothe my wife,
Who takes away my grief and heaviness.[1] . . .

Anyhow, the enmity between the two went so far that Liongo attempted Mringwari's life.

The "Hadithi yar Liongo"

A poem of uncertain date (not supposed to be written by him, but telling his story) relates how certain Galla, coming to Pate to trade, heard of Liongo from the sultan, who dwelt so much on his prowess that their curiosity was aroused, and they expressed a wish to see him. So he sent a letter to Liongo at Shaka, desiring him to come. Liongo replied "with respect and courtesy" that he would come, and he set out on the following day, fully armed and carrying three trumpets .[2] The journey from Shaka to Pate was reckoned at four days, but Liongo arrived the day after he had started. At the city gate he blew such a blast that the trumpet was split, and the Galla asked, "What is it? Who has raised such a cry?" He answered, "It is Liongo who has come!"

Liongo sounded his second trumpet, and burst it; he then took the third, and the townsfolk all ran together, the Galla among them, to see what this portended. He then sent a messenger to say, "Our lord Liongo asks leave to enter." The gate was thrown open, and he was invited in, all the Galla being struck with astonishment and terror at the sight of him. "This is a lord of war," they said; "he can put a hundred armies to flight."

He sat down, at the same time laying on the ground the

[1. Steere's translation, in Swahili Tales, P. 473.

2. Panda, probably of ivory, like the great siwa of Lamu, still in existence.]

wallet which he had been carrying. After resting awhile he took out from it a mortar and pestle, a millstone, cooking pots of no common size, and the three stones used for supporting them over the fire.[1] The Galla stood by, gaping with amazement, and when at last they found speech they said to the sultan, "We want him for a prince, to marry one of our daughters, that a son of his may bring glory to our tribe." The sultan undertook to open the matter to Liongo, who agreed, on certain conditions (what these were we are not told), and the wedding was celebrated with great rejoicing at the Galla kraals. In due course a son was born, who, as he grew up, bade fair to resemble his father in strength and beauty.

It would seem as if Liongo had been living for some time at Pate (for he did not take up his abode permanently with the Galla)-no doubt as a result of the quarrel with his brother. But now some one-whether an emissary of Mringwari's or some of the Galla whom he had offended-stirred up trouble; "enmity arose against him," and, finding that the sultan had determined on his death, he left Pate for the mainland. There he took refuge with the forest-folk, the Wasanye and Wadahalo. These soon received a message from Pate, offering them a hundred reals (silver dollars) [2] if they would bring in Liongo's head. They were not proof against the temptation, and, unable to face him in fight, planned a treacherous scheme for his destruction. They approached him one day with a suggestion for a kikoa,[3] since a regular feast-in their roving forest life-"is not to be done." They were to dine off makoma (the fruit of the Hyphaene palm), each man taking his turn at climbing a tree and gathering for the party, the intention being to shoot Liongo when they had him at a disadvantage. However, when it came to his

[1. This poet describes Liongo as a giant, on the scale of Goliath of Gath. The Galla-who as a rule are tall men-"only reached to his knees." But most accounts speak of him merely as an ordinary human being of unusual stature and strength.

2 Of course a touch inserted by some comparatively recent writer or copyist.

3 Defined by Madan as " a meal eaten in common provided by each of those who join in it by turns." The one in the story was repeated as many times as there were people taking part.]

turn, having chosen the tallest palm, he defeated them by shooting down the nuts, one by one, where he stood. This, by the by, is the only instance recorded of his marksmanship, though his skill with the bow is one of his titles to fame.

Liongo escapes from Captivity

The Wasanye now gave up in despair, and sent word to the sultan that Liongo was not to be overcome either by force or guile. He, unwilling to trust them any further, left them and went to Shaka,[l] where he met his mother and his son. His Galla wife seems to have remained with her people, and we hear nothing from this authority of any other wives he may have had. Here, at last, he was captured by his brother's men, seized while asleep-one account says: "first having been given wine to drink": it was probably drugged. He was then secured in the prison in the usual way, his feet chained together with a post between them, and fetters on his hands. He was guarded day and night by warriors. There was much debating as to what should be done with him. There was a general desire to get rid of him, but some of Mringwari's councillors were of opinion that he was too dangerous to be dealt with directly: it would be better to give him the command of the army and let him perish, like Uriah, in the forefront of the battle. Mringwari thought this would be too great a risk, and there could be none in killing him, fettered as he was.

Meanwhile Liongo's mother sent her slave-girl Saada every day to the prison with food for her son, which the guards invariably seized, only tossing him the scraps.

Mringwari, when at last he had come to a decision, sent a slave-lad to the captive, to tell him that he must die in three days' time, but if he had a last wish it should be granted, "that you may take your leave of the world." Liongo sent word that he wished to have a gungu dance performed where he could see and hear it, and this was granted.

[1. Pate, in the poem I have been quoting from, but this is inconsistent with the further development of the narrative.]

He then fell to composing a song, which is known and sung to this day:

O thou handmaid Saada, list my words to-day!
Haste thee to my mother, tell her what I say.
Bid her bake for me a cake of chaff and bran, I pray,
And hide therein an iron file to cut my bonds away,
File to free my fettered feet, swiftly as I may;
Forth I'll glide like serpent's child, silently to slay.

When Saada came again he sang this over to her several times, till she knew it by heart-the guards either did not understand the words or were too much occupied with the dinner of which they had robbed him to pay any attention to his music. Saada went home and repeated the song to her mistress, who lost no time, but went out at once and bought some files. Next morning she prepared a better meal than usual, and also baked such a loaf as her son asked for, into which she inserted the files, wrapped in a rag.

When Saada arrived at the prison the guards took the food as usual, and, after a glance at the bran loaf, threw it contemptuously to Liongo, who appeared to take it with a look of sullen resignation to his fate.

When the dance was arranged he called the chief performers together and taught them a new song-perhaps one of the "Gungu Dance Songs" which have been handed down under his name. There was an unusually full orchestra: horns, trumpets, cymbals (matoazi), gongs (tasa), and the complete set of drums, while Liongo himself led the singing. When the band was playing its loudest he began filing at his fetters, the sound being quite inaudible amid the din; when the performers paused he stopped filing and lifted up his voice again. So he gradually cut through his foot-shackles and his handcuffs, and, rising up in his might, like Samson, burst the door, seized two of the guards, knocked their heads together, and threw them down dead. The musicians dropped their instruments and fled, the crowd scattered like a flock of sheep, and Liongo took to the woods, after going outside the town to take leave of his mother, none daring to stay him.

Liongo undone by Treachery at last

Here he led an outlaw's life, raiding towns and plundering travellers, and Mringwari was at his wits' end to compass his destruction. At last Liongo's son-or, as some say, his sister's son[1]-was gained over and induced to ferret out the secret of Liongo's charmed life, since it had been discovered by this time that neither spear nor arrow could wound him. The lad sought out his father, and greeted him with a great show of affection; but Liongo was not deceived. He made no difficulty, however, about revealing the secret-perhaps he felt that his time had come and that it was useless to fight against destiny. When his son said to him) after some hesitation, "My father, it is the desire of my heart-since I fear danger for you-that I might know for certain what it is that can kill you," Liongo replied, "I think, since you ask me this, that you are seeking to kill me." The son, of course, protested: "I swear by the Bountiful One I am not one to do this thing! Father, if you die, to whom shall I go? I shall be utterly destitute."

Liongo answered, My son, I know how you have been instructed and how you will be deceived in your turn. Those who are making use of you now will laugh you to scorn, and you will bitterly regret your doings! Yet, though it be so, I will tell you! That which can slay me is a copper nail driven into the navel. From any other weapon than this I can take no hurt." The son waited two days, and on the third made an excuse to hasten back to Pate,[2] saying that he was anxious about his mother's health. Mringwari, on receiving the information, at once sent for a craftsman and ordered him to make a copper spike of the kind required. The youth was feasted and made much of

[1. His nearest relation and rightful heir, in Bantu usage; but this would not be the case in Moslem law, whether Arab or Persian, and most accounts call the traitor his son. This was the promising son of the Galla wife. We bear of no other children; yet there must have been more if it is true that there are direct descendants of his now living.

2 Liongo seems to have been living unmolested for some time at Shaka, where he may have rallied some followers to his cause, while Mringwari, apparently, had retreated to Pate.]

for the space of ten days, and then dispatched on his errand, with the promise that a marriage should be arranged for him when he returned successful. On arriving at Shaka he was kindly welcomed by his father (who perhaps thought that, after all, he had been wrong in his suspicions), and remained with him for a month without carrying out his design either from lack of opportunity or, as one would fain hope, visited by some compunction. As time went on Mringwari grew impatient and wrote, reproaching him in covert terms for the delay. "We,. here, have everything ready"-i.e., for the promised wedding festivities, which were to be of the utmost magnificence. It chanced that on the day when this letter arrived Liongo, wearied out with hunting, slept more soundly than usual during the midday heat. The son, seizing his opportunity, screwed his courage to the sticking-place, crept up, and stabbed him in the one vulnerable spot.

Liongo started up in the death-pang and, seizing his bow and arrows, walked out of the house and out of the town. When he had reached a spot half-way between the city gate and the well at which the folk were wont to draw water his strength failed him: he sank on one knee, fitted an arrow to the string, drew it to the head, and so died, with his face towards the well.

The townsfolk could see him kneeling there, and did not know that he was dead. Then for three days neither man nor woman durst venture near the well. They used the water stored for ablutions in the tank outside the mosque; when that was exhausted there was great distress in the town. The elders of the people went to Liongo's mother and asked her to intercede with her son. "If she goes to him he will be sorry for her." She consented, and went out, accompanied by the principal men, chanting verses (perhaps some of his own poems) "with the purpose of soothing him." Gazing at him from a distance, she addressed him with piteous entreaties, but when they came nearer and saw that he was dead she would not believe it. "He cannot be killed; he is angry, and therefore he does not speak; he is brooding over his wrongs in his own mind and refuses to hear me!" So she wailed; but when he fell over they knew that he was dead indeed.

They came near and looked at the body, and drew out the copper needle which had killed him, and carried him into the town, and waked and buried him. And there he lies to this day, near Kipini by the sea.

The Traitor's Doom

The news reached Pate, and Mringwari, privately rejoicing at the removal of his enemy, sent for Mani Liongo, the son (who meanwhile had been sumptuously entertained in the palace), and told him what had happened, professing to be much surprised when he showed no signs of sorrow. When the son replied that, on the contrary, he was very glad Mringwari turned on him. "You are an utterly faithless one! Depart out of my house and from the town; take off the clothes I have given you and wear your own, you enemy of God!" Driven from Pate, he betook himself to his Galla kinsmen, but there he was received coldly, and even his mother cast him off. So, overcome with remorse and grief, he fell into a wasting sickness and died unlamented.

The Pokomo tradition has it that Liongo's enemies, having made use of the son for their own purposes, slew him, for they said, "If you kill a snake you must cut off its head. If you do not cut off its head it will bite again. Therefore it is better to kill this son also!" Hamisi wa Kayi, who told the story to Bishop Steere at Zanzibar, said, "And they seized that young man and killed him, and did not give him the kingdom." In any case he reaped the due reward of his treason.

The mourning for Liongo, in which the townsfolk of Shaka joined with his mother, shows that she was not alone in the more favourable view of him. "Liongo was our sword and spear and shield; there is none to defend us now he is gone!"

The grave, as I saw it in 1912, was a slight elevation in the ground, which might once have been a barrow. It was roughly marked at the head and foot with rows of white stones, evidently remnants of a complete rectangle. The native overseer in charge of the plantation in which it was situated told me that he and the European superintendent had measured the grave some time before, and found its length from east to west to be "fourteen paces"-some twelve or fourteen yards, suggesting that Liongo might, indeed, have been a giant whose knees were level with the head of a tall Galla. He and others said that the grave had formerly been marked with an inscribed stone "seven hundred years old"-but some European had dug it up and taken it away. As far as I know it has never been traced. So much for Liongo. With all his faults he had

The genius to be loved, so let him have
The justice to be honoured in his grave.

The idea of the charmed life, protected against every weapon but one, or vulnerable in one point only is familiar from European mythology (Balder, Siegfried, Achilles), but it is still a matter of living belief in Africa. Chikumbu, a Yao chief living on Mlanje in 1893, could, I was assured, be killed by one thing only-a splinter of bamboo; he had 'medicines' against everything else. A generation or two earlier Chibisa, a chief of the Mang'anja, was proof against everything but a 'sand-bullet,' which killed him as he stood on an ant-hill shouting his war-song.

Since writing this chapter I have found a curious parallel in a Rumanian ballad which is quoted in Panait Istrati's Les Haidoucs. The brigand Gheorghitza, who could be killed in one way only, was shot with a silver bullet, by a close friend turned traitor, "in the seat of the soul " (un peu au-dessus du nombril, où cela fait mal aux vaillants). He seized his gun, leaned against a rock, and took aim at his false friend, but death came upon him as he knelt. For three days none durst come near him; then one Beshg Elias went up to the body, cut off the head, and carried it, to Bucharest. And all who met him wept when they saw the head of Gheorghitza, "so beautiful was he!"

Next: Chapter XI: The Tricksters Hlakanyana and Huveane