At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, by Richard Edward Dennett, , at sacred-texts.com
HAVE the Bavili a conception of a divinity or God? You ask me, and I, immediately, am overcome by an almost irresistible wish to evade your question, not because I shall be obliged to answer you in a roundabout and hesitating way but because on the contrary the conception of God formed by the Bavili is so purely spiritual, or shall I say abstract, that you are sure to think that I am mad to suppose that so evidently degenerate a race can have formed so logical an idea of a God we all recognise and try in various ways to comprehend. The name for God is NZAMBI and its literal meaning is the personal essence (IMBI) of the fours (ZIA or ZA = fours). What then are the fours? They are the groups each of four powers called BAKICI BACI, which we have just discussed. The prefix BA the plural of N proving that these powers are personalities or attributes of a person, that is they are not ZINKICI like the mere wooden figures. Each group may be said to be composed of (1) a cause, (2 and 3) male and female parts, and (4) an effect. The group NZAMBI itself may be said to have four parts-(4) NZAMBI the
[1. Most people are under the impression that the native does not mention or fear NZAMBI very much, because in his broken English he tells us that "He is good too much." I don't think we are quite right in taking him at his word. As a matter of fact, I think that it is rather owing to his respect and fear of him, that he says as little about him as possible. In trouble he uses the word NZAMBI as an exclamation.]
abstract idea, the cause, (2 and 3) NZAMBI MPUNGU God Almighty, the father God who dwells in the heavens and is the guardian of the fire, NZAMBICI God the essence, the God on earth, the great princess, the mother of all the animals, the one who promises her daughter to the animal who shall bring her the fire from heaven, (4) KICI, the mysterious inherent quality in things that causes the BAVILI to fear and respect. This word was translated as "holy" by the first missionaries that came to the Congo, but many people now speak of it as "fetish," and in Seven Years Among the Fjort, I write of NKICI as evil. I had then only heard the word used in connection with fetish as NKICI and had hardly heard of the BAKICI BACI.
It is not unnatural that one of the personalities of ZAMBI being Kim his powers (or perhaps attributes), are called BAKICI BACI, the speaking powers on earth and that their product or the final effect is NKICI 'CI (KICI on earth) one of the titles of the King MALUANGO.
The word adopted by the old Romish missionaries for Holy was Nkici. The late Mr. Bentley in his interesting book entitled Pioneering on the Congo considers this a "most unfortunate selection" (page 236) and certainly it would have been were the current translation of the word to be taken as correct i.e., "fetish." Mr. Bentley considers that the old missionaries made a still more egregious blunder in the word which they adopted for Church "nzoankici" which he says is the common word used for "grave" (Bulu XIBAYI Luango) and is a euphemism meaning "fetish house."
Now I wonder whether these old missionaries were the asses Mr. Bentley seems to look upon them as, or whether they found the true religion of the natives less overgrown by "fetishism" than it is to-day. We must remember that some 400 years have passed between the arrival of the first missionaries and that of Mr. Bentley. What the words meant then and what they appear to mean to-day may well be two widely different things. Missionaries as a rule do not look for any high virtues in any religion but their own, and refusing to study the religion of the native set about to destroy it. The greater the play of civilisation and Christianity so-called the greater the havoc we may expect in the religion of the indigencs. In this case the work of the missionaries under the Portuguese Government took the greatest hold of the district south of the Congo, i.e., that about which Mr. Bentley writes; it is not then surprising to me that in his description of what he calls the religion of the natives, all trace of the higher part of it is found wanting. Neither is it to be wondered at that north of the Congo where the work of the missionaries took little or no hold, traces of Nkici-ism are still to be found. I say so-called religion because I do not call fetishism a religion any more than I would call witchcraft or any other form of priest ridden degeneracy anything more than a "superstition." Mr. Bentley's description of "fetishism" is a very correct one and must be most interesting to those who take an interest in the present degenerate form of the superstition of the native of the Congo. But as Mr. Bentley asks, "What are we to infer from the present state of things? Is the idea of God being slowly evolved out of fetishism? Is it not rather that the people have well-nigh lost the knowledge of God which once their forefathers possessed?" Exactly, I should infer from the long study of the people that I have made that such is certainly the case, and that this superstition called fetishism is an overgrowth imposed upon the purer knowledge they once certainly possessed. Can we be surprised, therefore, if the word Nkici was as near to the meaning of the word "Holy" as the priests of old could get.
It was stated in the preliminary remarks on Bavili philosophy (Chapter X) that fetishism is not the sum total of Bavili religion, that Bakici baci, or sacred symbols, exist, which are connected with Nzambi on the one side, and with the king on the other through his six titles. These sacred symbols are (1) groves, (2) lands and rivers, (3) trees, (4) animals, (5) omens, and (6) the seasons. In Chapter X it was shown that the seasons, the order of which is obviously indisputable, are regarded as genetically related to each other and that the various groups are connected in the native mind with certain ideas, which we have termed the categories, viz., water, earth, fire, procreation, motion, fruitfulness, life.
In the next chapter it was shown that the groves are grouped in sets of four, that the order of each set of four is fixed for the natives, and that the order of the groups inter se is likewise determined. That being so, it was possible to trace a connection between certain groups of groves, which we term families, and the categories, and to show that the natives regard the families as genetically related both internally and inter se in the same way as the seasons; it is however impossible, owing to lack of information, to work out this idea in detail, for though I have been successful in obtaining the names of nearly one hundred groves, I have failed to get from the natives any statement as to the order in which they should be placed.
In the case of the rivers, the order in which they were given me by the natives is that in which they appear on the map; the order of the provinces on the other hand is established by testimony only. In each case the order of the categories is preserved.
In the case of the trees the association with the categories seems to be less direct. The connection between the virtues of Maloango and the trees on the one hand, and between the categories and the virtues on the other, seems undeniable; but it is clear that the area of choice is wide, when we endeavour to associate the trees with the categories. It must, however, be remarked that the theory of Bavili philosophy here put forward may be perfectly correct in its main outlines, even though many details remain for future investigators. If the proof of the connection of the trees with the categories is slight, the fault is rather in my lack of knowledge than-in any real absence of continuity in native ideas.
At the end of the chapter on omens I have shown how the native connects with the categories the senses, which are themselves connected by the natives with colours and the rainbow snakes. It is important to notice that the order of the families is given in this case by the order of the spectral colours; it is consequently as indisputable as the order of the seasons.
In the case of the animals the connection with the categories is traced through the prohibitions or categories of the law, which are the opposites of the categories of the formula.
The relation of the king to the categories has already been traced on pp. 100, 135.
1 have now set forth the information gathered from the Bavili. During the past few years I have been in a different part of Africa, and I was naturally curious to see if I could discover traces of the same ideas among the inhabitants of Benin city and its neighbourhood. In the following chapters I develop what I have learnt of Bini philosophy.
My first impression of the religious system of the Bini was that it was something different from that of the Bavili.
An altar to OYATA at OKPWEBO, made of clay surmounted with native pottery.
I missed the class of fetishes into which nails are driven; I found temples near to the sacred groves, and altars not only in private houses, but also along many of their roads. But when I found the great dual division of ideas illustrated by the names ESHU and ESHU-SHU on the one hand, and EBAW, EBAMI, and OYISA on the other, equivalent to what I have described as NDONGOISM and NKICI-ISM among the BAVILI; and when I found traces of the "jujus" or fetishes into which nails are driven in some of their temples, swear "jujus" and family "jujus" on the one hand, and groves sacred to river spirits, trees, and animals on the other, I was driven to the conclusion that the apparent difference was rather an interesting development, which after all was a natural one and corresponded to the material progress from the rush huts or shimbecs of the Bavili to the solid mud houses of the Bini.