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5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
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Ngoni Ethnic Consciousness

The upsurge in ethnic pride in Nyasaland's Northern Province during the inter-war years also affected the Ngoni. In 1933 the British recognized Lazaro Jere as Native Authority for the area of Mbelwa's Ngoni and as Paramount Chief of the Ngoni, reviving a title which had been banned since 1915. Superficially, this triumph for Ngoni ethnic consciousness is difficult to distinguish from the Tumbuka version just to the north. An alliance of chiefs, African intellectuals and ordinary villagers, coinciding with British concern for the social health of villages affected by labour migrancy and moves towards Indirect Rule, had produced a political solution identical to the Chikulamayembeship in everything except the title itself. Like the Tumbuka, the Ngoni had their culture brokers—for the Reverend Edward Manda, the Reverends Charles Chinula and Yesaya Chibambo; for Thomas Cullen Young, the British anthropologist Margaret Read.[60] Behind such similarities, however, lay profound contrasts in meaning and causation.

For the Tumbuka building their ethnic self-awareness, the opposing 'they' were primarily the Ngoni. Tumbuka attitudes to the British as liberators and educators, oppressors and exploiters were necessarily ambiguous, and the specifically anti-colonial ingredient was a comparatively late addition to Tumbuka ethnic consciousness. For the Ngoni, however, the problems of ethnic awareness were at once far simpler, yet also more complex. On the one hand, the Ngoni enjoyed a reputation throughout southern Africa as effective soldiers and administrators. Like the British, they had come to Nyasaland as conquerors, and they had been able to maintain their independence until 1904, long after their neighbours had conceded sovereignty. In short, the Ngoni knew that they were a people with whom one had to reckon.

On the other hand, the final quarter century of Ngoni independence had been plagued with problems. Their heartland had been severely damaged by overgrazing, the destruction of forest cover, a declining water table, and falling soil fertility.[61] This damage was aggravated, first, by the extension of the pax Britannica which ended the annual raiding by which the Ngoni had supplemented their food supplies, restricting them to their exhausted heartland, and, second, by the devastation of their cattle herds by the rinderpest epizoötic of the


mid-1890s.[62] In 1903, famine finally pushed large numbers of people to move out into the depopulated lands around them, thereby violating an earlier agreement with the British. Urged on by the Scottish missionaries, the Ngoni accepted British sovereignty in September 1904, the governor agreeing that the Ngoni should retain their Paramount Chief and enjoy other freedoms denied to all the other peoples of Nyasaland. In the eyes of the Ngoni, their chief was equal in status to the local British district officer.[63]

It was the abrupt imposition of a heavy tax burden on an impoverished people in an impoverished land that is still most vividly remembered:

Taxes were the main problem. . . . A hut tax of 3 shillings was introduced in 1906. That year, the people paid the tax, but when taxes were demanded afresh in 1907, the people rebelled, saying 'Should we pay taxes a second time? No!! That cannot be so!! We invited in government, not repeated tax collection.' It was after the tax rebellion of 1907 that the government sent Reuben, Madondolo, and Pickford to bum the huts of those who refused to pay.

There was wailing . . . villages were burnt here in Embangweni, in Engalaweni, everywhere. The main complaint was about the system of taxation which was bad in those days. They arrested anyone who defaulted in the payment of their taxes. Those who defaulted were often subjected to ill-treatment. Even if they were girls, they were tied up with ropes and beaten with the sjambok . The people had to migrate to Harare [Southern Rhodesia]. There was no money in this country, so they had to walk all the way to Rhodesia.[64]

This testimony is revealing in two ways. First, it shows well over half a century after the event the intensity of Ngoni anger over the tax issue. For the Tumbuka, accustomed to paying tribute to the Ngoni or Ngonde chiefs, British taxation involved primarily—although by no means only—a shift of allegiance. For the Ngoni, by contrast, it meant the surrender of their sovereignty to a new conqueror, a humiliating sign of tributary status for a people who had migrated all over southern and central Africa to avoid just such a fate.

Second, the testimony records that although tax had to be paid in money, there was 'no money in this country'. Where the soil was exhausted, as in Ngoni country, and where there were no markets for food or cash crops, as was the situation everywhere in northern Nyasaland, and when an outbreak of bovine pleuro-pneumonia soon made it impossible for the people to sell cattle to raise money, the imposition of the tax brought to the Ngoni the demands of a political economy based on a general labour migrancy that had already affected the Tumbuka north of them.

On the material level the results of labour migrancy for the Ngoni were the same as for the Tumbuka, but for the Ngoni, accustomed to being rulers, they were more galling. The British found the discontented Ngoni difficult to control, unlike the Tumbuka, and, reflecting their administrative exasperation, the acting governor sourly observed in 1913 that nothing would 'benefit them or the country more than to shoot a few down, burn their villages, deport the so-called chiefs and confiscate their cattle'.[65] In July 1914, when the governor met with the Ngoni leaders, mutual recriminations filled the air. The governor asserted that the chiefs were encouraging 'their people to evade payment of hut tax, deceived the Resident when he applied to them for information and assistance', and did not merit their governmental subsidies. The Ngoni chiefs complained of the lack of markets in northern Nyasaland and the oppressive weight of taxation.[66]

Shortly afterwards the Ngoni hierarchy was dealt a traumatic blow. In 1915,


when a British official tried to raise men to serve in the much-feared Carrier Corps in the East African campaign of World War I, Paramount Chief Chimtunga forbade it.[67] For this, he was removed from office and banished to the Southern Province, and DANO was applied to Ngoni country for the first time, reducing the chiefs to little more than assistants to the District Commissioner for mobilizing labour and collecting taxes. In the 1970s people still recalled this shattering event in an ingoma song:


Inkosi Chimtunga Jere

Chief Chimtunga Jere

Bambeke egekeni

Has been publicly humiliated!

Inkosi yelizwe!

The chief of the land!

Sibabaze hee!!

We make it known!!

Sibabaze hee!!

We make it known!!

Elizwe liyoneke .

The land has been made rotten.

Sibabaze hee!!

We make it known!![68]

This blow to Ngoni self-respect was followed by the deaths of a great many of the Province's people in the war, in which they were forced to serve as porters.[69] The severe reverses of the post-war years followed.[70] The imposition of colonial control thus coincided with a rapid and general deterioration of conditions of living in the area, generating profound resentment. For the Ngoni, the 'they' in opposition were clearly the agents of the new colonial political economy.

In 1919 a group of Livingstonia-educated clerks, teachers and clergymen established the Mombera Native Association, modelled on 1912's North Nyasaland Native Association. Over the years, this association was dominated by the Reverend Charles Chinula, who, though of Tumbuka origin, came to be as ardent a protagonist for the Ngoni ruling elite and advocate of Ngoni history as Edward Manda was for the Tumbuka and their version.[71] Chinula was assisted in this work by the Reverend Yesaya Chibambo, also of the Mission, who in a speech of 1920 succinctly expressed the aims and attitudes of the new organization:

The country is now in a new era with a new life, new knowledge, new resolutions, new laws, new customs which can be learned through education: it would be foolish and ridiculous if people of the country dislike the civilization. The old life differs greatly from the present life, and it would be wise for the people of this country to aspire to have education, which alone leads to civilization.[72]

Significantly, however, the path to this progressive future was seen as passing through a celebration of the Past.[73] The Ngoni past was vivid and, when compared with the grim realities of ecological decay, labour migrancy, and the undermined authority of chiefs, it seemed indeed glorious. The migration from Natal, the deeds of Zwangendaba, the victories of Ngoni armies, Ngoni skill in state-building, their high level of culture—all these were celebrated and publicized by Yesaya Chibambo in his role as historian in the book Midauko: Makani gha waNgoai (History: The Deeds of the Ngoni ) (Livingstonia, n.d.), which was prepared specifically for use in the local Mission schools.[74] To talk of the Ngoni past was, then, to speak of real and continuing structures of power.

In dealing with the British Administration, however, the Ngoni chiefs found it useful to use a less traditional face. As the District Commissioner minuted in 1930:

My experience of the District Councils in the Northern Province is that the Chiefs are so tired of trying to get their grievances redressed that they turned to


the Native Associations in the hope that the latter, being more educated, would bring greater pressure to bear upon the Government.[75]

In practice, the Mombera Native Association had from its inception been fulfilling this role. Among its first campaigns, the Association took up the cause of the banished Chief, Chimtunga Jere, persuading the colonial authorities to permit his return home, even though he was allowed no political role. After Chimtunga's death, it championed the claims of his son, Lazaro Jere, a Mission-educated clerk employed in the Northern Rhodesian administration, to return to Nyasaland as 'Paramount', a title still outlawed.[76] Once Lazaro returned in 1924, a well orchestrated campaign to revive the Paramountcy itself began, resulting in popular excitement so great that the District Commissioner contemplated calling in troops to suppress the movement.[77]

The adoption of Indirect Rule, however, was approaching, and in 1928 the government recognized Lazaro Jere as Principal Headman. He immediately confirmed the Association's role in promoting his advancement by becoming its chairman.[78] Not surprisingly, the Association continued its campaign in terms appropriate to a specifically ethnic consciousness, fighting off an attempt in 1929 to transfer the northern fringe of Ngoni territory to Chikulamayembe, and in 1930 arguing once again that the 'desire to have a paramount chief in Mombera still rings in the hearts of the people, for the present policy of equalizing all the Principal Headmen is contrary to the law of the country'.[79] In 1933 the government yielded and recognized Lazaro Jere as the new Paramount, Mbelwa II. Like the Chikulamayembe, he immediately became expansionist. Within a year he succeeded in annexing part of the area of the neighbouring Chewa chief Kaluluma and unsuccessfully attempted to acquire the adjacent Northern Rhodesian Ngoni chiefdoms of Magodi and Pikamalaza.[80] In 1938, he petitioned the state that the entire area of Northern Rhodesia between the Nyasaland border and the Luangwa river be placed under his administration, but this manoeuvre also failed.[81]

In sum, then, by the early 1930s two strong ethnic ideologies had been created in northern Nyasaland. In the Tumbuka case, the strongest creative influence was the intellectual input of graduates of the Scottish Mission's schools; in the Ngoni case, the strongest influences were the still-living memories of past independence and prosperity. For both groups, however, it was the demands of the colonial political economy and, most especially, the fact of widespread labour migrancy that provided a firm underpinning to these culturally defined revivals. While men were in Southern Rhodesia or South Africa earning money as labour migrants, they thought it essential that their local interests in land, cattle, and, particularly, control over women and children should be protected. Indeed, in recognition of the roles of the chiefs in preserving social order in the villages, migrants customarily presented the chiefs with gifts on their return home. Financial considerations, therefore, reinforced the chiefs' natural desires to maintain social order in their areas.[82]

In essence, Tumbuka and Ngoni ethnic ideologies during the inter-war period were products of a dialogue between labour migrants who wanted social controls enforced and African intellectuals who sought to shape these controls so as to encourage what they saw as Progress for their people. Ethnic consciousness in the Northern Province was, then, a form of resistance to colonialism that asserted the validity of the African way of life and the African past through a stress on 'tradition' while still looking forward to a future of 'Progress' through western education and training.


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5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
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