This section is from the book "Wild Life In Central Africa", by Denis D. Lyell. Also available from Amazon: Wild Life in Central Africa.
Most noticeable characteristics of the natives—Internecine war in olden days —Witchcraft and the things it can do—A strange custom with children —Boiling water ordeal—Charms against death—Dead returning in the shape of animals—Digging up corpses—Cooking children of enemies— Names given to commemorate events—Old name for the Angoni race— Distribution of the Angoni tribe—Marriage customs—Women workers Polygamy defended for natives—The " White Father's" Mission— Strange legend about the Angoni trek—Putting not-wanted people out of the way—Strange custom to get a case heard—Kindness of natives to others of same tribe—Superstitions about planting crops—Hardihood under painful wounds—Bible not suitable for natives—Untruthfulness of natives—Civilisation not beneficial to natives—Fondness of hunting and meat — Natives good servants — Patience with natives best — Atrocities practised by natives—Mild justice inadequate at times—Love of children — Natives as soldiers—Adaptability in learning quickly— Liking for music—Cruelty to animals—Splendid porters—Staunchness at times—Mission boys—Missions discussed—A strange custom with pigeons—A funny native woman—Old Mpseni—Peculiar ideas with regard to births—Child murder—Impossibility of natives reasoning as do Europeans.
If a newcomer was asked what were the most noticeable characteristics of the natives, he would probably say their love of making a noise, their strong smell, and their liking for meat and native beer. He would be right, but there are also hundreds of other interesting traits which it takes a long time to discover, as to do so one has to live near them and understand their customs and manner of thought and action. In the old days before the whites went there, it was purely a " survival of the fittest," as they were constantly making war on other tribes ; and many people died by drinking the ordeal poison, and other poisons introduced into their food by enemies.
The natives firmly believe that a person can cast a spell on, and kill, another person, and they believe absolutely in various compounds, which if enclosed in a small horn, can cause death or sickness. One case that was mentioned to me was that of a child who was found one morning with all the teeth of its upper jaw missing, and they assert that there are medicines which cause persons the loss of various organs of the body ; so that some fine morning a man or a woman can wake up without a nose, or with only one eye or one ear, and perhaps a toe may have departed in the night.
The Angoni had a strange custom with regard to children who had the misfortune to cut the teeth of the upper, before the lower, jaw. If this happened, the mother would call a lot of old women to witness the occurrence, and then they would march down to the river with the child, when the mother would tie it tightly in a skin or piece of calico, and fling it into deep water, just like a puppy or kitten. This custom was called " kunameera."
Their idea was that should the child grow up it would be able to cast a spell on anyone it was unfriendly with, so it was put beyond doing harm in a watery grave ; and the mother and her friends returned quite relieved that they had done the best to save future trouble.
Infant mortality used to be very great, as the natives had a custom of throwing away babies that showed, in their estimation, the least blemish. For instance, if a child was born with dark skin round the nipples, or if the lips were very red, it was thrown into the bush.
Even to-day the natives kill many infants for the same paltry reasons.
A mother who gave birth to a child suffered from severe internal pains, doubtless caused by inflammation due to straining in deliverance. She affirmed that as soon as the cut navel of the child had healed that the pain would leave her.
Another strange idea is that they will not break sticks of firewood in a hut near a newly born child, as if this is done they believe the child will get ill.
Should a person be accused of a bad action and he or she feels guiltless of it, an instant offer is made to undergo the boiling water ordeal, which consists in heating a bowl or pot of water over a hot fire until it boils. Then a stone is thrown into the bowl and the accused picks it out and puts it in, several times, in the view of witnesses.
If nothing happens the person is held to be guiltless, but if the flesh is burnt or scalded, this is considered a sign of guilt. My informant averred that no innocent person can possibly be burnt by the hot water ; and he asked me to accuse him of something he could not have done, and he would prove it. However, I did not feel quite heartless enough at the moment to experiment in this way. The effect of the ordeal is heightened if the accused undergoes the trial in a hot sunlight, it is usually performed after the sun has set. I said that the accused person put something on the hand which prevented scalding, but this my informant strenuously denied.
Some natives accuse others of carrying poison under the finger nails which they use at times against their enemies, and they find this a convenient way of transporting it and keeping it secretly. Many natives put charms round their necks or wrists as a guard against Mfiti (witchcraft), or as a charm against danger in different shapes and forms. One will have a charm against illness, another against an enemy, another against lions, another against snakes, and so on.
This reminds me of the witch doctor's charm against the white man's bullets in the Matabele Rebellion. His charm did not work, for he died ; but had he had time for an explanation he would doubtless have stated that he had brought the wrong charm out that day, and that he had another at home which was infallible.
The Angoni believe that the spirits of wild animals can enter into human beings, and when a man-eating lion is killing the natives they will say that is So-and-so who died, and is now tormenting the people who are left by killing and eating them. An elephant I shot which fell in a kneeling position, like an Indian elephant kneeling for people to mount into the howdahs, was said to be an old chief who had turned into an elephant, and that he was kneeling to ask forgiveness or pity for past misdeeds to his fellow men. This was rather a quaint and interesting idea I thought.