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The Moral Code of the Ngoni and their former Military State

  • Margaret Read

Modern anthropological research has shown that at every level of civilization there exists a moral code which is expressed in the ideal behaviour of individuals in the community, that is a behaviour which is ‘correct’ according to the people's ideas and praised by them in speech and story. Part of this moral code consists of regulations determining the mutual behaviour of the sexes, that is, of rules attempting to direct and control the physiological and emotional sexual impulses in individuals in the interest of the social well-being of the community or state. These physiological and emotional forces of sex are part of the biological equipment of human beings and hence common to all peoples. The anthropologist among so-called primitive people can approach the study of the moral code and its application from two angles: that of the individual, and that of the community. In all forms of society there is a supposition that individuals find control in sexual matters irksome, and only submit to restraint as a result of effective training allied to effective external pressure. A further universal supposition is that the community finds it necessary to demand a certain type of behaviour from individuals for the sake of its cohesion and stability. Both these suppositions are borne out by anthropological studies in primitive sociology. As soon, however, as we descend from general principles to a particular tribe, we begin to ask whether there is any connexion between the nature of the community and its demands on individuals as represented by the moral code and especially by the sexual regulations. Is there, for example, less need for stringent sexual regulations in a small isolated community than in a warlike tribe dependent for its existence on the strength of its arms? And if there is any such connexion what are the reasons for it?

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page 3 note 1 In spite, however, of being perhaps an unorthodox way of stating the issues, this presentation is an illustration of the fact that the social institutions such as family life and marriage where the sexual regulations can best be studied are intricately connected with the political institutions of village life, the nation, and the army.

page 3 note 2 Africa, ix. 4.

page 3 note 3 The material for this article was taken from texts written by natives, some at my request, some sent in unasked. These written texts were supplemented by statements taken down by me from informants who could speak with undoubted authority of pre-European days, that is of 30-40 years ago. It was also possible to check much of the information given by observation in certain centres where traditional life was still strong in spite of changed external conditions.

page 4 note 1 Ubudoda, umuna. In using vernacular terms in this article I have given some in Ngoni, some in Nyanja as they were given to me when collecting this material.

page 5 note 1 This rhythm of aggression and construction is evident over and over again in the setting up of the Ngoni state. For example, a group of villages when conquered in war were at once put under a mulumuzana who assigned them their tasks of providing workers for the Chief and attendants for his wives, and who conducted their cases according to Ngoni law.

page 5 note 2 Ukuhlala kahle.

page 5 note 3 kuopa to respect and to fear.

page 6 note 1 For a discussion of the use of this word ‘tribe’ see my former article in Africa, ix. 4.

page 6 note 2 machitidwe wa Angoni eni eni

page 6 note 3 mabanja akulu akulu.

page 7 note 1 e.g. there were no Ngoni taboos for a woman when menstruating beyond that of not sleeping on the same mat as her husband.

page 8 note 1 ukupumisa ’mntwana.

page 8 note 2 Hence, they say, the number of lullabies to hush the child as feeding time drew near.

page 8 note 3 kusewera.

page 9 note 1 These instructions can be observed at the present day.

page 10 note 1 The mountain streams in the highlands are very cold and bathing before dawn was and is regarded as a severe test of endurance.

page 11 note 1 This was a purificatory and strengthening male rite, and was used at other times, e.g. by a man before resuming cohabitation with his wife after a death.

page 11 note 2 i.e. in speaking of their ancestors they may recall an individual by remarking ‘iyeyo anadulidwa’, ‘that one was circumcised’.

page 12 note 1 For the kind of songs sung at umsindo see my article in Bantu Studies, March 1937.

page 21 note 1 This is well illustrated in their folk-tales and proverbs whose meaning is often far from clear to the European, but which need no explanation to the African because they illustrate an accepted truth.

page 21 note 2 ‘Nkulunkulu-Mulungu.

page 21 note 3 Ludzu, lit. thirst.

page 21 note 4 umunthu ozikuzayo, munthu wodziletsa, lit. a person who restrains or checks himself. Ukukuza and kuletsa mean to check or prevent.

page 21 note 5 ‘Things’ in this context mean the satisfaction of the sexual instinct. This is an example of Ngoni use of euphemisms.

page 22 note 1 Actual frigidity in our sense of the word they recognized and did not call ‘cold’, but ‘refusing to do these things’.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
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