In search of the Gods …Malawi’s ancient sacred rain shrines


Just as various cultures around the world such as the native Indians of North America practised different rituals, including those seeking to ask God, or other ancestral spirits, to provide rains, similar practices took place and still do in parts of Africa, including Malawi.

Shrines and sacred sites were used by ancestors in Malawi to offer sacrifices to the Great Spirit (God) in times of drought or other calamities way before 1500 AD.

One of the most prominent sacred shrines to have been used in pre-colonial Malawi, and one that continues to be used is the Khulubvi Sacred Shrine located on the southern tip of the country in the lower Shire Valley district of Nsanje.

Khulubvi Sacred Shrine remains an important spiritual place among the people of Mang'anja tribe who worship the spirit of Mbona, a legendary figure with super human powers who lived in the area during the rise of the Lundu Kingdom.

Mbona is said to have had knowledge of medicine and magic, and had a gift bestowed upon him from the heavens to govern the rains by bringing rain, creating wells of water on sandy lands, creating forests where they did not exist and hiding from enemies by turning into other creatures such as guinea fowls.

Mbona had a wife named Salima, who lived in seclusion, and was only visited by elderly women and children who were believed to be in the prime of body and spiritual purity. She ventured outside her compound on a few occasions only to assist Mbona on matters of divinity.

It is said that Mbona's uncle Mlauli, who was also a magician, envied and resented his nephew and wanted to kill him because of his extraordinary abilities.

Mlauli, however, failed to kill Mbona because the youthful magician had already set out the only way he was going to die, which was by having his throat cut with the leaf of a reed.

It is believed that true to his death wish, after other weapons failed to kill him, his fate was sealed when his head was cut off with a leaf of a reed and then placed at Khulubvi sacred groove, where the shrine exists to this day.

After his death, people who knew and believed in his supernatural works started coming to the place periodically to worship his spirit.

They constructed a traditional hut as their sacred shrine where Mbona's head is said to have been entombed within Khulubvi natural thicket, which is approximately 100 square metres.

The sanctuary is sacred ground and is never cleaned or swept. No one is allowed to cut down any tree, plant any crops or graze livestock.

The only people allowed near the shrine are those of the Mang'anja tribe who are only allowed with permission from the guardian.

After the death of Mbona, Salima is said to have continued playing important roles in the divine mediation between Mbona, who visited her at night in the form of a python to tell her what the future held for the village. She was the oracle.

After her death, the cult continued with succession of oracles. The ultimate responsibility for the cult lies with the Lundu paramount chiefs, who provide Mbona with a “wife”, strictly an elderly woman to live in Khulubvi and communicate Mbona's wishes, which are received through dreams and possession.

Apart from the tasks performed by successive Salimas, local chiefs have subsidiary shrines. The spirits communicate via this medium and their lineages span generations and there is a system of succession.

People come to worship, bringing with them a black cloth or a black goat, an offering to Mbona in exchange for rain, water, life.

Escorted by the chiefs and village headmen, they go to Mbona's hut. After they return home and have finished the sacred rites the sky would rip open and the ground would be blessed with rain.

From this site, other sacred sites have sprouted where people gather to worship and communicate with the spirit of Mbona, as a central divine figure of worship.

These include Nyandzikwi sacred site at the junction on the road to Bangula and Maraka in Nsanje district.

Another site is Mwala Umodzi (“The projected rock”) shrine, which is near Mgwiriza Village along the course of Thangadzi River in the same area. It is believed that once Mbona sat on this rock and left buttock imprints commonly known as 'Mbona's buttocks'.

Kaloga sacred cave site is another shrine located within the area located near Kanyimbi village in Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve. At this place, sacrifices were offered when there were droughts, diseases, heavy winds and other calamities.

The current Paramount Chief at Lundu headquarters, Chifunda Lundu, where there are remains of imprints called 'phazi la Mbona' (Mbona's foot), is another site where Mbona is said to have rested on his sojourn from Kaphirintiwa where he established his capital at Mbeweya Mitengo.

This area is renowned as a traditional place where the installation of a new chief took place. Nkhadzi sacred site located under a big baobab tree is located in the area of group village headman Ngabuin Nsanje district.

TA Ngabu and his people look after the site. The chief offers sacrifices whenever there are problems in the area, especially sickness and misfortunes.

It is believed that this shrine is on the path that Mbona uses when he visits Chief Ngabu's house where a room is reserved for consultations when he visits.

Another site is the Mtsakana rain shrine in the neighborhood of group village headman Zimara, TA Maseya in Chikhwawa District.

The site is located within the thick vegetative cover previously used as a graveyard. The site was used as a sacrificial shrine to honour the spirits of the people who had died in the area.

Tradition has it that when a person died, all his/her belongings were taken together with the dead body to a place called Phumulo (resting place) where villagers paid tribute at a hut called Kachisi built for worship and sacrifices by conducting beer offerings while praying to Mbona.

Konde Dzimbiri rain shrine is located in the area of sub TA Mphuka in Chikhwawa District. It is said that the ancestors of current Chief Changata, who were Mang'anja and relatives of Lundu, established Konde Dzimbiri as their place of worshipping Mbona. The site contains pottery remains, which were left at the site after offering sacrifices.

All these sites are situated in thick forests, making them important areas for bio-diversity and sources of medicinal plants.

The sites also offers great opportunities for scholars and researchers to conduct their historical, anthropological and archaeological research whereby linking the social-cultural settings from the past to the present day life.

Apart from prayers, the sacred sites are used for traditional rituals and expressions such as initiation for young boys.

Socially, people gather to offer beer and food sacrifices while singing traditional songs in communicating with the spirit of Mbona.

The Khulubvi-Mbona shrines within the sacred grove are maintained regularly using the original locally made materials collected from the thicket.

The local communities surrounding the sites maintain the original social/cultural values, spiritual values and historical values befitting the revered spirit of Mbona including the forbidding the 'contamination' of the sites with western civilisation influences such as shoes or any factory manufactured clothes.

The attributes of Khulubvi sacred site and other related Mbona shrines are very intact as it was during the time of Mbona.

Khulubvi sacred thicket, where the main shrine is located, has been preserved in its original state since the destruction of any vegetation and hunting animals is strictly prohibited and is regarded as a taboo.

No encroachment takes place around Khulubvi sacred grove.

The Khulubvi sacred site is similar in nature with Mijikenda Sacred Forest World Heritage Site in Kenya and Oshooshobo Sacred World Heritage Site in Nigeria.

The Mijikenda Kaya Forests consist of 11 separate forest sites spread over some 200 km along the coast containing the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as kayas, for the Mijikenda people.

The kayas are now regarded as the abodes of ancestors and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained as by councils of elders.

The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove, on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo, is one of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria.

Regarded as the abode of the goddess of fertility Osun, one of the pantheons of Yoruba gods, the landscape of the grove and its meandering river is dotted with sanctuaries and shrines, sculptures and art works in honour of Osun and other deities.

The sacred grove is now seen as a symbol of identity for all Yoruba people, is probably the last in Yoruba culture.

However, Khulubvi sacred site stands out because of its form and setting and the living tradition which is very unique in the whole southern Africa.

February 2014
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