African Religions- The Bantu


No one seems to know
when the South African Bantu first came into the country now occupied
by them. It is certain that the Bushmen, and in some places the
Hottentots, were there before them. One proof of this is found in the
names of places, and especially of rivers, which in the Cape Province
often contain clicks (the Iqora, called by Europeans Bushman’s River;
the Inxuba, which is the Fish river; and many others); while in Natal
and Zululand most of the river-names have a decided Bantu sound-Umgeni,
Tugela, and so on. The Bantu came from the north-east, and reached the
Kei river about the end of the seventeenth century, when they first
came in contact with the Dutch colonists. But they must have been in
Natal and the regions to the north-east long before that, for in 1498,
when Vasco da Gama’s fleet touched somewhere near the mouth of the
Limpopo, one of his crew, Martin Affonso, found he could understand the
talk of the natives, because it was very much like what he had picked
up on the West Coast, probably in Angola or on the Congo. It is also
known that the Makaranga, who are still living in Southern Rhodesia,
were there in 1505, when the Portuguese first heard of them, and they
must have settled there long before, as they had something like an
organized kingdom, under a paramount chief, whom the Portuguese called

Zulu Clan Tradition

These Makaranga are by some thought to be the ancestors of the
Amalala, the first of the Bantu to take up their abode in the countries
we know as Natal and Zululand. One of their tribes has a quaint story
of the way in which their first ancestor brought his family to their
new home. This was Malandela, son of Gumede, who came into the
Umhlatuze valley, Father Bryant thinks, about 1670. It is said that
when they had marched, day after day, for many weary miles, and the old
man found his strength failing, he made his wives and children get into
an isilulu-" one of the huge globular baskets still used for
storing grain."[1] He then, with one last effort, launched the basket
on its way with one mighty kick, and fell back dead. It rolled on "over
hill and dale, river and forest, till at last it stopped and steadied;
and when those within ventured to look out they found themselves in
this country where we now live," so some of their descendants, "who are
still nicknamed ‘those belonging to the basket,’" told Miss Colenso.[2]
But Father Bryant, who has made very careful inquiries into Zulu
traditions, has unkindly spoilt this story. He says that the real
meaning of "those belonging to the basket" is that Malandela’s family,
when driven by famine from their old homes, brought with them these
grain-baskets, which were then a novelty to the people among whom they

However that may be, Malandela was the father of Ntombela, the
father of Zulu, and so the ancestor of the great Zulu kings. Solomon,
son of Dinuzulu, who has recently died, was the twelfth in descent from
him. The graves of these kings, from Malandela to Senzangakona, father
of Tshaka, are pointed out near Babanango, in the valley of the White
Imfolozi river. Dinuzulu too is buried near them, but his father lies
in the Inkandhla forest, in Zululand, and his grandfather, Mpande, at

Tribal Migrations

Zulus and Xosas alike trace their descent from a tribe called Nguni
(Abenguni, a name still preserved by the Angoni of Nyasaland), who,
after coming from the north, as well as the Basuto, Bechuana, and
Hereros, settled somewhere in the Upper Limpopo valley. Father Bryant
thinks that they must have made a long circuit to the west,

[1. Alas, the degenerate izilulu (plural) of the present day are not more than three or four feet across!

2 Josiah Gumede, who came to England in 1919 to petition the
Imperial Government for justice to the Zulus, claims to be a descendant
of this family.]

crossing the Zambezi near its source, or even going round its
head-waters, as it would have been impassable to them "by any eastern
or even central crossing."[1] Be that as it may, while some of the
Nguni remained in the Limpopo valley part of the tribe set off about
the year 1300 to the eastward, and these, again, two hundred years
later, broke up into two sections, one of which continued its southward
march, and ultimately gave rise to the Xosa and Tembu tribes. Zulu and
Xosa may now be considered as dialects of the same language: they do
not differ much more, if at all, than Lowland Scots and standard
English, and originally, of course, they were one.

As centuries progressed, old words and forms fell out here and new
came in there, each section developing its speech along different
lines, till to-day Ntungwa and Xosa are separated by a quite
considerable extent of dialectical difference in speech. The Xosa
language, it may be noted, has preserved for us the old-time term ebu Nguni (Nguniland-there whence they came) as signifying " in the West." [2]

The differences in vocabulary are considerable, just as we find that
in different English counties the same things are not always called by
the same names; the grammar is almost identical; but the Xosa
intonation, rather than the pronunciation of individual sounds, is
decidedly strange to an ear accustomed to Zulu. This being so, it is
only to be expected that both sections of the South-eastern Bantu
should have many tales and legends in common, and I shall not always
try to distinguish between them.

The Reed and the Reed-bed

The Bantu, as a rule, do not try to account for the origin of the
human race as a whole, or, rather, their legends seem to assume that
the particular tribe in question is the human race; though, as we have
seen, there are some who con-

[1. Yet we know that Zwangendaba’s host crossed in 1835 near Zumbo in the height of the dry season, when the river was very low.

2 Bryant, Olden Times, p. 9.]

descend to recognize the Bushmen. They also frequently fail
to distinguish between a non-human creator and the first human
ancestor, which has led to a good deal of discussion as to the real
meaning of the Zulu Unkulunkulu, who ‘broke off’ mankind from Uhlanga. Uhlanga
means a reed, and there seems no reason to doubt that this at first was
intended quite literally, for, as one native told Dr Callaway, " it was
said that two people came out of a reed. There came out a man and a
woman." Some have refused to believe that this was really meant, and
take Callaway’s view that uhlanga is a metaphorical expression
for "a source of being." It certainly has come to be used in this
sense, but I should be inclined to look on this as a later development
and the reed as the original idea. The Baronga of Delagoa Bay[1] told
M. Junod that "one man and one woman suddenly came out from a reed,
which exploded, and there they were!" Some native authorities say that
the first pair came out of a reed-bed (umhlanga), but one is
inclined to think that the cruder version is the more primitive, and is
reminded of the Hereros and their Omumborombonga tree.

The Chameleon

Most) if not all, of the Bantu have the legend of the
chameleon-everywhere much the same, though differing in some not
unimportant details-explaining how death came into the world, or,
rather, how it was not prevented from coming. I will give it first as
it was told to Dr Callaway by Fulatela Sitole, and afterwards mention
some of the variations.

It is said he (Unkulunkulu) sent a chameleon; he said to it, "Go, chameleon (lunwaba),
go and say, ‘Let not men die!’" The chameleon set out; it went slowly,
it loitered in the way; and as it went it ate of the fruit of a bush
which is called

[1. The Baronga are a branch of
the great Thonga nation (Amatonga). Father Bryant says that "the
relationship between the Nguni (Zulu-Xosa), Sutu (Basuto), and Thonga
Bantu families may be likened to that existing in Europe between the
English, Germans, and Scandinavians of the Nordic race."]

Ubukwebezane. At length Uhkulunkulu sent a lizard [intulo,
the blue-headed gecko] after the chameleon, when it had already set out
for some time. The lizard went; it ran and made great haste, for
Unkulunkulu had said, "Lizard, when you have arrived say, ‘Let men
die!’" So the lizard went, and said, "I tell you, it is said, ‘Let men
die!’" The lizard came back again to Unkulunkulu before the chameleon
had reached his destination, the chameleon, which was sent first-which
was sent and told to go and say, "Let not men die!" At length it
arrived and shouted, saying, "It is said, ‘Let not men die!’" But men
answered, "Oh, we have accepted the word of the lizard; it has told us
the word, ‘It is said "Let men die!’" We cannot hear your word. Through
the word of the lizard men will die." [1]

Here no reason is given for Unkulunkulu’s sending the second
messenger. I do not think any genuine native version suggests that he
changed his mind on account of men’s wickedness. Where this is said one
suspects it to be a moralizing afterthought, due perhaps to European

The Luyi Legend

Some other versions assume that the creator had not made up his
mind, and decided to let the issue depend on which messenger arrived
first. The Luyi tribe of the Zambezi call the creator Nyambe, and give
him a wife, Nasilele.[2] She wanted men to die for ever, but Nyambe
wished them to live again. Nyambe had a dog of whom he was very fond.
The dog died, and Nyambe wished to restore him to life, but Nasilele
objected. " He is a thief, and I do not like him." Some time after this
Nasilele’s mother died. (Nyambe and his wife are stated to have been
the first human couple; but the student of mythology must learn not to
be surprised at contradictions of this sort.) She asked Nyambe to
revive her mother, but he refused, because she had wanted his dog to
stay dead. Some versions add that he gave in after a time, and set to

[1. Callaway, Amazulu, p. 3.

2. Told in full by Jacottet, "Textes Louyi," No. XLV.]

but when the process was nearly complete Nasilele ruined
everything by her curiosity. Then came the question whether mankind in
general should die for ever or live again, and they agreed to settle it
by sending the chameleon andnot the lizard, but the hare, who, as might
be expected, arrived first.

Elsewhere the lizard overhears the message, and, out of mere
spiteful mischief, hastens to get in first with the (alleged)
counter-order. It is not surprising that both these creatures should be
held unlucky. No unsophisticated African will touch a chameleon if he
can help it, or likes to see a European handling one; while for an
intulo to enter a Zulu hut is the worst of evil omens. In some parts,
indeed, the herd-boys, whenever they find a chameleon, will poison it
by squirting tobacco-juice or sprinkling snuff into its open mouth.

The chameleon is the creature usually associated with this legend
among Bantu-speaking peoples; the Hottentots, in a similar story, make
the messenger the hare, who is sent out by the Moon to tell people, "As
I die and, dying, live, so shall ye die and, dying, live." In some
versions he reverses the message out of forgetfulness or stupidity; in
one he does it wilfully, having taken the place of the insect who was
to have carried the message.’ It is to be noticed that the idea
throughout is not that man should be exempt from death, but that he
should return to life after it.

Legends current in Uganda

The Bantu must have brought this legend with them when they came
from the north, for it is also known to the people of Uganda, as well
as to others in between. But the Baganda have another story telling how
Death came-Death, who, in this tale, is thought of as a person, and
called Walumbe. This one belongs to the Bahima (or Batusi) cowherds,
who came in from the north with their long-horned cattle, and made
themselves chiefs in Uganda and Unyoro

[1. Bleek, Reynard the Fox in South in South Africa, pp. 69-73; Schulte, Namaland und Kalahari, p. 448.]

and Ankole.[1] But it is the peasants, the original Bantu
living in the country before the Bahima came, who have the chameleon
story. The tale of Kintu, the first man, who married the daughter of
Heaven (Gulu), has been told so often that it need not be repeated
here. It may be read in Dr Roscoe’s The Baganda, and in a charming little book by Mrs Baskerville, The King of the Snakes.
There, too, can be found the story of Mpobe, the hunter, who wandered
into the presence of Death, but was allowed to depart with a warning
never to speak of what he had seen. He was able to resist all
persuasion to do so, till at last his mother overcame his reluctance,
and Death immediately came to claim him.

Such personifications of Death do not seem to be very common in
Bantu mythology; but the Basumbwa of North-western Unyamwezi, in a
somewhat similar legend, call him Lirufu, and one occasionally hears of
a "chief of the ghosts," who may be identical with him.

Kalunga of the Ambundu

The Ambundu of Angola speak of Kalunga, a word which may mean either
Death, the King of the Netherworld (usually called, why I do not know,
Kalunga-ngombe, "Kalunga of the cattle"), or the sea. This is not
strange when one remembers that, though living, many of them, on the
coast, they are a seagoing people, and to the sense of dread and
mystery with which the ocean would naturally affect them would be added
the memory of the thousands carried away on slave-ships, never to
return. The Ndonga and Kwanyama, to the south of Angola, use this name
for their High God, whom the Hereros too call Njambi Karunga.

Some Mbundu stories give us a glimpse of Kalunga and his kingdom. Here are two of them.[2]

[1. They are no longer a separate people in Uganda
itself, as they are in Ankole and Ruanda, since even their kings and
great chiefs married women of the country.

2 Chatelain, Folk-tales of Angola, pp. 223 and 249.]

The first is called "King Kitamba kia Shiba." Kitamba was a
chief who lived at Kasanji. He lost his head-wife, Queen Muhongo, and
mourned for her many days. Not only did he mourn himself, but he
insisted on his people sharing his grief. "My village, too, no man
shall do anything therein. The young people shall not shout; the women
shall not pound; no one shall speak in the village." His headmen
remonstrated with him, but Kitamba was obdurate, and declared that he
would neither speak nor eat nor allow anyone else to do so till his
queen was restored to him. The headmen consulted together, and called
in a ‘doctor’ (kimbanda). Having received his fee (first a gun,
and then a cow) and heard their statement of the case, he said, "All
right," and set off to gather herbs. These he pounded in a
‘medicine-mortar,’ and, having prepared some sort of decoction, ordered
the king and all the people to wash themselves with it. He next
directed some men to "dig a grave in my guest-hut at the fireplace,"
which they did, and he entered it with his little boy, giving two last
instructions to his wife: to leave off her girdle (i.e., to
dress negligently, as if in mourning) and to pour water every day on
the fireplace. Then the men filled in the grave. The doctor saw a road
open before him; he walked along it with his boy till he came to a
village, where he found Queen Muhongo sitting, sewing a basket, She saw
him approaching, and asked, "Whence comest thou? " He answered, in the
usual form demanded by native politeness, "Thou thyself, I have sought
thee. Since thou art dead King Kitamba will not eat, will not drink,
will not speak. In the village they pound not; they speak not; he says,
‘If I shall talk, if I eat, go ye and fetch my head-wife.’ That is what
brought me here. I have spoken." [1]

The queen then pointed out a man seated a little way off, and asked
the doctor who he was. As he could not say, she told him, "He is Lord
Kalunga-ngombe; he is always consuming us, us all." Directing his
attention to another man", who was chained, she asked if he knew him,
and he

[1. Chatelain’s literal translation of his speech.]

answered, "He looks like King Kitamba, whom I left where I
came from." It was indeed Kitamba, and the queen further informed the
messenger that her husband had not many years to live,[1] and also that
"Here in Kalunga never comes one here to return again. She gave him the
armlet which had been buried with her, to show to Kitamba as a proof
that he had really visited the abode of the dead, but enjoined on him
not to tell the king that he had seen him there. And he must not eat
anything. in Kalunga; otherwise he would never be permitted to return
to earth.

One is reminded of Persephone and the pomegranate seed, but the idea
is one which frequently recurs in Bantu legends of the Underworld,
there is no reason to suppose that it was borrowed, directly or
indirectly, from the Greeks. It seems quite natural to think that the
food of the dead would be fatal to the living.

Meanwhile the doctor’s wife had kept pouring water on the grave. One
day she saw the earth beginning to crack; the cracks opened wider, and,
finally, her husband’s head appeared. He gradually made his way out,
and pulled his small-son up after him. The child fainted when he came
out into the sunlight, but his father washed him with some
‘herb-medicine,’ and soon brought him to.

Next day the doctor went to the headmen, presented his report, was
repaid with two slaves,[3] and returned to his home. The headmen told
Kitamba what he had said, and produced the token. The only comment he
is recorded to have made, on looking at the armlet, is "Truth, it is
the same." We do not hear whether he countermanded the official
mourning, but it is to be presumed he did so, for he made no further
difficulty about eating or drinking. Then, after a few years, he died,
and the story concludes, "They wailed the funeral; they scattered."

[1. This seems to be shown by the appearance of his wraith in the Underworld, but the point is not further explained.

2. Kalunga therefore denotes the place, as well as its ruler.

3. Chatelain’s informants in the eighteen-eighties treat this sort of thing quite as a matter of course.]

How Ngunza defied Death

The other story is about two brothers. Ngunza Kilundu was away from
home when a dream warned- him that his younger brother Maka was dead.
On his return he asked his mother, "What death was it that killed
Maka?" She could only say that it was Lord Kalunga-ngombe who had
killed him. "Then," said Ngunza, "I will go out and fight
Kalunga-ngombe." He went at once to a blacksmith and ordered a strong
iron trap. When it was ready he took it out into the bush and set it,
hiding near by with his gun. Soon he heard a cry, as of some creature
in distress, and, listening, made out words of human speech: "I am
dying, dying." It was Kalunga-ngombe who was caught in the trap, and
Ngunza took his gun and prepared to shoot. The voice cried out, "Do not
shoot me! Come to free me! Ngunza asked, "Who are you, that I should
set you free?" The answer came: "I am Kalunga-ngombe." "Oh, you are
Kalunga-ngombe, who killed my younger brother Maka!" Kalunga-ngombe
understood the threat which was left unspoken, and went on to explain
himself. "You accuse me of killing people. I do not do it wantonly, or
for my own satisfaction; people are brought to me by their fellow-men,
or through their own fault. You shall see this for yourself. Go away
now and wait four days: on the fifth you may go and fetch your brother
in my country."

Ngunza did as he was told, and went to Kalunga. It is not said how
he got there-probably by some such means as the doctor in the other
story. There he was received by Kalunga-ngombe, who invited him to take
his place beside him. The new arrivals began to come in. Kalunga-ngombe
asked the first man, "What killed you?" The man answered that on earth
he had been very rich; his neighbours were envious and bewitched him,
so that he died.[1] The next to arrive was a woman, who admitted that
‘vanity’ had been the cause of her death-that is, she had been

[1. A more likely occurrence-and one that has been
known to take place-would have been that an accusation of witchcraft
was trumped up, which led to his execution.]

greedy of finery and admiration, had coquetted with men, and
had in the end been killed by a jealous husband. So it went on: one
after another came with more or less the same story, and at last
Kalunga-Ngombe said, "You see how it is-I do not kill people; they are
brought to me for one cause or another. It is very unfair to blame me.
Now you may go to Milunga " and fetch your brother Maka."

Ngunza went as directed, and was overjoyed at finding Maka just as
he had left him at their home, and, apparently, leading much the same
sort of life as he had on earth. They greeted each other warmly, and
then Ngunza said, "Now let us be off, for I have come to fetch you
home." But, to his surprise, Maka did not want to go. "I won’t go back;
I am much better off here than I ever was while I lived. If I come with
you, shall I have as good a time?" Ngunza did not know how to answer
this, and, very unwillingly, had to leave his brother where he was. He
turned away sadly, and went to take leave of Kalunga, who gave him, as
a parting present, the seeds of all the useful plants now cultivated in
Angola, and ended by saying, "In eight I days I shall come to visit you
at your home."

This part of the story grows very puzzling, as no reason is given
for the visit, and it would almost seem, from what follows, as if some
condition had been imposed which Ngunza did not keep.[2] Kalunga came
to Ngunza’s home on the eighth day, and found that he had fled eastward
that is, inland. He pursued him from place to place, and finally came
up with him. Ngunza asked why Kalunga should have followed him, adding,
"You cannot kill me, for I have done you no wrong. You have been
insisting that you do not kill anyone-that people are brought to you
through some fault of theirs." Kalunga, for all answer, threw his
hatchet at Ngunza, and Ngunza "turned into a kituta spirit." This is not further explained, but we

[1. It is not clear what this place was. Chatelain could not even make out the word in the original manuscript.

2 Chatelain seems to have had some difficulty in getting a connected
narrative out of the "poorly written notes" left by a native helper who

find elsewhere that a kituta (or kianda) is "a
spirit or demon . . . who rules over the water and is fond of great
trees and of hill-tops." Such river-spirits figure in several other
stories from Angola.

In the story from Uganda already referred to Mpobe had to die
because he had, in spite of the warning received, spoken about his
visit to the kingdom of the dead. Something of the sort may have been
said in the correct version of the Mbundu story. Then, again, Ngunza is
not said to have been killed, but to have become a kituta-one
does not see why. In the ordinary course of things, one gathers, those
who depart this life go on living for an indefinite time in Kalunga;
but after that they die again, and this time cease, to exist. We shall
have to consider this point more fully, when speaking of the ancestral

It seems quite clear from all these legends that the African does
not, when he thinks about the matter at all, look upon death as an
essential fact in nature. It appears to be accepted that, but for some
unforeseen accident, or perhaps some piece of carelessness or wilful
disobedience, people need never have died at all. To the same set of
ideas belongs the prevalent belief that any death whose cause is not
understood (and the number of such deaths is now steadily decreasing)
must be due to witchcraft. Kalunga, if we are to think of him as the
High God, is exceptional for living underground. Leza, Mulungu, Iruwa,
and so on, if they have a local habitation at all, are placed in the
sky. As seen by Alice Werner


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: