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The M'Bona Cult is a system of religious beliefs and rituals currently limited to the most southerly parts of Malawi , but more extensive formerly, and found among the local Mang'anja people. It aims to secure abundant rains at the appropriate season through the making of propitiatory gifts at cult shrines , and includes rainmaking rituals in the event of drought. It has been related to a number of other territorial cults among the Maravi cluster of related African peoples, which aim to secure the well-being of the people of a particular area secure from drought, floods or food shortages.
The cult is believed to be a long established one, although estimates of how long it has existed are speculative, as the earliest definite record of its existence dates from There are a number of debates about the sect. The first is whether the identity of M'Bona has changed over time, being a natural spirit, a deified human or combination of several people or a human intermediary with a god, and whether the name M'Bona was applied to what were originally different entities in different places.
The second is whether the current stories about M'Bona are later myths, created to explain the cult, oral traditions with possibly a much distorted factual basis or a form of oral history from which past events can be recovered. The third is about the exact historical role of the M'Bona cult and whether its ritual practices as recorded in the 20th centuries are a continuation of those of earlier times. Much of the study of M'Bona was undertaken by Father Matthew Schoffeleers — , an anthropologist and researcher into African Religion, who was a Catholic missionary in the Lower Shire from to and then followed a largely academic career in Britain, Malawi and the Netherlands until his retirement in His extensive study of the cult began in the s and he published eight books or papers on it between and , besides two academic theses.
A number of speculative reconstructions of the origin of the Maravi cluster of peoples suggest that they entered the area of central and southern Malawi from the 14th century and that that the trade in ivory with the Muslim traders based on the coast of Nampula and Zambezia provinces was central to the rise of centralised Maravi states in an area they had long occupied. The later conflicts between these states, and the political changes in the area between and were said to result from the disruption of that trade by the Portuguese, who had been excluded from that trade, and their African allies Alpers , pp.
However, there is little documentary evidence for these reconstructions, and some that contradicts them . There is no evidence for a Maravi movement into the Lower Zambezi and Lower Shire river valleys before the late 16th century, the earliest European account of those river valleys and its people relates to an expedition of According to a further account of , the Macua lost control of the south bank of the Zambezi and the Lolo were displaced eastward: Rather than a Maravi empire being formed well to the north of the Zambezi and expanding southwards, as in several accounts, it is more probable that a number of related groups from north of the Zambezi entered Zambezia in the 16th century and coalesced into loosely connected Maravi chieftainships which were forced, when their further advance was prevented by the Portuguese, to recognise one or more paramount chiefs.
In this reconstruction, Muzura formed a state in the Mwanza area of the mid-Shire valley, between Lundu and Kalonga, which Kalonga took over by on his death, only then gaining paramountcy over the three chieftainships to the south . The people of the Maravi cluster diversified over time to become, from north to south the Tumbuka , Chewa , Nyanja and Mang'anja, although these successors retained certain common beliefs. At the end of the 18th century, the original Lundu kingdom among the Mang'anja people was based in the Lower Shire valley, but was vulnerable to aggression from Portuguese slave-traders.
Over half a century from the early 19th century, an individual named Mankhokwe, who already controlled the Katchsi shrine in Thyolo district in the Shire Highlands, gained control of the Middle Shire and western Shire highlands, claimed the paramountcy and title of Lundu and attempted to gain control of the Khulubvi shrine. In the Lower Shire, another chief with the title Tengani built up a force able to resist the Portuguese threat, at least temporarily, and the original Lundu state descended into obscurity.
The situation of the Mang'anja in the s, as described by members of David Livingstone 's expedition or the Universities' Mission to Central Africa , was that there was a hierarchy of chiefs and headmen of varying power and influence. Theoretically, the paramount chief with the title Lundu was at the apex of this hierarchy, his prestige deriving from his control of one or more rain shrines, but his power over other major chiefs was limited.
In practice, Mankhokwe had more power. However some of the Kololo that Livingstone had brought from Botswana in as porters, and left at the end of his expedition, established chieftainships along the Lower Shire valley outside Tengani's influence. Mankhokwe had to face Kololo pressure on the Middle Shire and Yao attacks in the Shire Highlands and later migrated to the hills west of the Shire River, when the ancestral Mankhokwe rain shrine that was left behind fell into disuse.
After Paul Mariano III reached adulthood, he reached an agreement with the Portuguese authorities in which left him in control of the Lower Shire Valley as far south as its confluence with the Zambezi, until a subsequent Portuguese governor attacked Mariano's stronghold on , following which many of Mariano's chikunda moved into the area around the Khulubvi shrine, destroying villages and taking slaves until from a Portuguese expedition led by Alexandre de Serpa Pinto and a British one under Henry Hamilton Johnston entered the area to quell the disorder.
The Lower Shire Valley was divided between the two powers by an Anglo-Portuguese treaty  The British Central Africa Protectorate that was set up in protected the Mang'anja people from further attacks by Mariano's former chikunda or the Kololo chiefs of the Middle Shire, and later recognised Tengani as protector of the Khulubvi shrine. The History of the M'Bona sect is closely bound up with that of the Mang'anja people, who currently live mainly in the north of Nsanje district and south of Chikwawa district in the Lower Shire valley of Malawi and adjacent areas of Mozambique.
However, before the migrations of the Yao and Lomwe into the north-western part of their former territory and the Sena in the south, all of which began in the midth century, they had ranged from the mid-Zambezi valley near Vila de Sena through the Lower and Middle Shire valley and into the western part of the Shire Highlands. A description of the M'Bona cult dating from recounted then-current traditions of M'Bona who, it was claimed, was a relative of a ruler with the hereditary title of Lundu and possessed rainmaking powers.
M'Bona fled south because he had usurped the Lundu's power as a ruler to make rain during a drought, and was accused of witchcraft. During his flight, M'Bona was said to have rested in several places in southern Malawi , in areas inhabited by the Mang'anja, before he was killed by his pursuers and beheaded. The places where he rested and that where he was killed were said to have become rain-shines after his death. Schoffeleers initially claimed that the M'Bona rain shrine at Khulubvi in Nsanje District in the lower Shire Valley , where it is said M'Bona's head was placed after his killing, has been in existence since at least and was at the heart of a cult whose influence stretched as far as the Indian Ocean in the east, Tete in the west, the Shire Highlands in the north and the Lower Zambezi valley in the south, and that it gave rise to other M'Bona shrines.
Another scholar considers M'Bona to have originated as a river god or spirit of a type known in other parts of Zambezia, the area of the Zambezi and its tributaries, as much as a protector against floods as a provider of rain adding that some of these precursors of M'Bona were female. There are three rain-shrines in central Malawi among the Chewa people , another offshoot of the Maravi.
The first was at Msinja, where its female founder was also said to be of a ruling lineage, the first of a line of priestesses and prophetesses called Makewana. However, In contrast to M'Bona, there was no suggestion that the first Makewana was or became a deity: The two other minor rain cults were not associated with a ruling family and little is known of them.
The reconstruction of Territorial Cults in Central Africa by Ranger described below suggests that most of these cults changed their nature over time, from shrines originally devoted to nature spirits with female priestesses or mediums to become ones controlled by locally-powerful families, which reclassified the spirit as that of a deceased ancestor, and its priestesses as wives of that spirit. However, Schoffeleers entirely dismisses Wrigley claim that accounts of M'Bona are a myth, insisting on M'Bona having had some form of historical reality and dating his death to around Initially, when they met Livingstone's party and the UMCA missionaries, officials of the M'Bona cult were hostile to their exposition of Christian doctrines, regarding them as likely to undermine Mang'anja society.
Although most adherents to the M'Bona cult were Mang'anja, when Lomwe people with similar social structures moved into areas inhabited by Mang'anja people, they were also allowed to adopted it, although Sena people, like the Lomwe immigrants from Mozambique, were not. In the south of Nsanje district, Sena residents began to outnumber the existing Mang'anja population in the first quarter of the 20th century, although most village headmen were Mang'anja, whose use of M'Bona shrines distinguished them from Sena villagers with lower status.
The sacred sites currently associated with M'Bona and claimed to derive from Khulubvi are found at Nyandzikwi, Nkhadzi and Mwala in Nsanje District; Kaloga sacred cave in Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, where sacrifices were offered in times of drought, disease or other calamities; Chifunda Lundu, the present day headquarters of Paramount Chief Lundu, Mtsakana and Konde Dzimbiri rain shrines, all three in Chikwawa district and a hut for the worship of M'Bona at Katchsi in Thyolo district.
Rangeley also mentions Dzambawe and Nyangazi, both in Mozambique as sites connected to M'Bona  The principal Khulubvi rain shrine was destroyed in the early s, but soon rebuilt. Rangeley and Schoffeleers have both given accounts of the M'Bona rites as they existed in the s and s, or as they had existed and were recorded in popular memory. Schoffeleers' more detailed account relates specifically to the Khulubvi shrine. No spirit wives were recorded after the late 19th century.
In some cases, M'Bona's spirit was said to communicate with Salima in dreams, in others with a male officiant of the shrine. No women held the positions of Salima or Camanga in the s, and the mediums at that time were male. Later mediums were usually male but included two females; some were descended from the first medium, others were relatives of a shrine guardian.
There were three main M'Bona rites at Khulubvi, annual communal rain prayers, rebuilding the shrine and, formerly, the induction of a new spirit wife. Rain prayers, accompanied by libations of millet beer, are said to be offered in October and November each year at the end of the dry season, and again if there is a drought.
The cult declined during the early 20th century, and several shrines fell into disuse, although following a widespread famine caused by a failure in the rains in , it had a significant revival . In the s and until Malawi's independence in , the Khulubvi rain shrine was associated with a chief whose title was Tengani. The Lundu chiefs, who were unimportant village headmen in the s,  and associated with the subsidiary shrine of Chifunda Lundu,  claimed descent from the powerful Lundu chiefdom that was broken up in the early 19th century: The Nyasaland famine of , caused by a failure of the seasonal rains, was most severe in the south of the protectorate and led to a revival of the cult.
In the aftermath of the famine, the colonial Agricultural Department introduced what it claimed were soil conservation techniques, more suited to sloping upland areas than the flat river valley. The M'Bona medium prophesied that use of these techniques would cause further drought. Although the administration imposed the regulations, this was the start of a period where the M'Bona medium opposed either the protectorate administration or the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland , culminating in the arrest and imprisonment of the medium during the State of Emergency.
There is no consensus among archaeologists and historians on the origin of the Maravi people, but many accept that there was a mingling of early settlers and a later ruling group. The former, sometimes known as the Chipeta, had moved into the area around the south of Lake Malawi early in the second millennium, perhaps from the 11th century and, although they did not form centralised states, their leaders had the clan name Banda.
The later ruling group were migrants from the Katanga region who, sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, brought ideas of chiefly power into what had been a stateless population. These newcomers belonged the Phiri clan of the Chewa people , which clan formed a number of centralised states. The concept of a "territorial cult" is one where the spirit venerated relates to a particular area, not to a kinship group.
The cult's main function is to secure the well-being of the local people through one or more of rain-making, the control of floods, fertility of the soil or success in fishing or hunting. Within this diversity, Ranger believes there are common themes, and the people that later split into separate Chewa, Tumbuka and Mang'anja peoples initially shared a common belief in a High God, with spirits as intermediates between god and mankind, and that humans that were able to communicate with the spirits.
He considers that these ideas were modified later. Firstly, these ideas became attached to specific local sites and, in the absence of central leadership, local territorial cults formed, usually with a prominent family controlling the shrine and priestesses "married" to a spirit intermediary as an oracle or medium. Secondly, before political organisation developed, there was some centralisation of local cults, with some accorded precedence over others. The role of priestesses was often reduced, with their function as mediums either ceasing or being taken over by men.
Before the Phiri rulers gained power, it is claimed, M'Bona was the title of the priestess, the wife of the spirit intermediary, at her main shrine in Thyolo district, with a minor shrine in Nsanje district. The latter became associated with a chief with real or assumed Phiri ancestry and the title Lundu, and the name M'Bona was transferred to a deceased member of the Lundu family.
As the Lundu chiefs grew more powerful, the Khulubvi shrine gained prominence and the former priestess was demoted to the status of the newly named M'Bona's wife. As the Lundu state expanded, it absorbed other cult sites, where the name M'Bona was applied to nature spirits of the river, who were protector against floods . Schoffeleers accepts that a generalised Central African belief in a High God with spirit intermediaries existed, adding that, in one particular instance, it was transformed into the story of a human martyr which later absorbed other cults.
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