CHIEF GOMANI’S FUNERAL, MAY 1954
An Eye—Witness Account
By A. H. Mell
PHILIP Gomani was at one time Chief of the Maseko Ngoni of Ntcheu. His ancestors were of Nguni stock from Zululand in Natal, South Africa. They had been driven from their home there by the Chaka’s Zulus, their former allies, and had subsequently trekked north to find a new area for settlement in what is now the Ntcheu District of Malawi.
Chief Gomani died, aged about 60 years, at 4.25 a.m. on 12th May, 1954, at Malamulo Hospital, Thyolo, after suffering from pneumonia and heart disease. His corpse was taken to Ntcheu the same day by Government ambulance. He was buried near his house at Lizulu on the afternoon of 14th May.
Some time before the burial took place the corpse was wrapped in the hide of a freshly slaughtered bull. Over this was draped first a length of white, figured cloth and then a blanket. At the same time part of the animal’s bladder was inflated and secured to the brow of the corpse by means of a thin strip of coloured cloth tied round the head. The corpse was so prepared in the Chief’s house seated on a chair.
A box of planks was then constructed on the verandah large enough to contain the sitting corpse. When completed the b was covered with fitted black cloth and lined with white. A cross of white cloth was stitched on the top of the box arid another on the front.
Early on the morning of the funeral the box was carried into the Chief’s house. Its front panel was removed and the corpse, still in the sitting position, placed inside. The bottom half of the front panel was then secured in position. The upper half was fitted with a hinge at the side to enable the corpse to be viewed when required. When so viewed the body could be seen wrapped as described above with a cloth-covered bundle of the Chief’s personal possessions on either side.
The corpse having been placed in the box and the latter closed up, a group of men carried it out of the house and placed it on mats spread on the ground in front of the verandah.
Two wreaths of flowers were placed on it. The close relatives of the Chief had previously assembled near the steps leading to the verandah. The women were traditionally dressed; the majority of the men wore European clothes.
About twenty men carried the the box to the grave. It was escorted by the Chief’s close relatives and preceeded by two male Ngoni dancers, further two bringing up the rear. They danced along the route to the grave, which was about fifty yards from the house. A dense crowd, through whom a path had previously been cleared by a ‘Master of ceremonies, watched the procession and kept up a continuous chanting. The crowd was between three and six thousand strong and had assembled some days prior to the funeral.
The escorting male dancers wore head-dresses of imported, vari-dyed ostrich plumes, bead ‘breast-plates’ and bangles, and skirts of animal tails. Around their calves and biceps were tied bundles of fine grass and hair and they all carried fly whisks. All were mature males and one was bearded.
When the procession arrived at the burial site the box was set down on mats placed at the edge of the grave. The close relatives of the Chief kept near the box and the crowd closed in round the grave. The District Commissioner and European missionaries of several denominations were also present at the graveside.
The “Master of Ceremonies” directed that the crowd should sit. The “door” of the box was opened and the close relatives formed a barrier between the corpse and the seated throng to prevent the latter from observing in detail the next part of the ceremony. A witch-doctor then approached the grave carrying a small brush and a gourd containing a “mankhwala”. He brushed some “mankhwala” on the face of the corpse and then tied a large flat stone over it by means of a strip of cloth. The box was then closed and secured and lowered into the grave by means of grass ropes and bamboos.
The grave was approximately fourteen feet deep by eight feet square and there was a cave excavated in its east wall. After the box had been lowered into the grave it was manhandled into the cave with the corpse facing the opening. The lowering of the box was executed with difficulty and the placing of it in the cave was held up until the latter had been enlarged. In all, the interment took over an hour.
As soon as the box had been placed in the cave the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ handed the deceased’s shield to the Chief’s son who then mounted on the funeral mound where the crowd saluted him with the ‘Bayete’ thrice repeated. Several firearms volleys were fired.
After this the Christian ceremony took place, the principal sermon being given in vernacular by Mr. Steytler of the D.R.C.M., Mlands. After the sermons the close relatives placed flowers near the grave’s edge and scattered earth into the grave, after which it was immediately and completely filled in. The ceremony was over by 1.30 p.m. and at its close the crowd dispersed.