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Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1898], at


It is the most difficult thing in the world at present, I think, to get a clear definition of Nzambi Mpungu, or of Nzambi, from the natives themselves in a direct way.

Some say that Nzambi Mpungu made the world and sent Nzambi there, and that then he came down and married his creation, and thus became the father of us all. And of course we have distorted versions of the Creation according to the Bible. God, we are told, made man and woman, and put them in a large white house in a beautiful garden and told them not to eat of the tree of shame. But before they took charge of their house, thousands and thousands of rats trooped out of it. They ate of the tree of shame, and when God called to see them they were ashamed and dared not come out. And so forth.

Still the faint notion of a spirit that rules the rains and sends the lightning, and gives them rainbows, exists; and they call that very humanised spirit Nzambi Mpungu.

But Nzambi, as the great princess that governed all on earth, is ever in their months as a mighty ruler, and she seems to have obtained the spirit of rain, lightning, etc., and to have buried it in her bowels. The following is a little story that gives her a human shape, and fixes her position as a mother:

Some women were busy planting in a country where water was scarce, so that they had brought their sangas, containing that precious fluid, with them. As they were working, a poor old woman, carrying a child on her back, passed by them, hesitated for a moment, and then walked back to them and asked them to give her child a cup of water.

The women said that they had carried the water from afar, and needed it for themselves, as there was no water just there.

The poor old woman passed on, but told them that they would one day regret their want of charity.

Noticing a man up a palm tree, she asked him if he would mind giving her baby a little palm-wine, as the poor little thing, she was afraid, was dying of thirst.

"Why not, mother?" he replied, and straightway came down the tree and placed a calabash at her feet.

But I have no cup," she said.

"Nay, mother, let me break this spare calabash, and give the child a drink."

She thanked him, and went her way, saying: "Be here, my son, at this time to-morrow."

He wondered what the old woman meant; but such was the impression her words had made upon him, that he could not sleep at all that night, and felt himself obliged, when the morrow came, to proceed to the place.

"Surely this cannot be the place," he said, as he came near to the palm-tree where he had met the old woman. "There was no water where the women were at work yesterday, yet surely that is a great lake."

"Wonder not, my son," said the old woman, as she approached him, "for thus have I punished the women for their want of charity. See my son, this lake is full of fish, and you and all men may fish here daily, and the abundance of fish shall never grow less. But no woman shall eat the fish thereof, for as sure as she eats the fish of this lake, so surely shall she immediately die. Lot the lake and its fish be kazila for women. For I, Nzambi, have so ordered it." Nzambi then loaded the young man with many gifts, and told him to depart in peace. The name of this lake is Bosi, and it is situated a few miles inland behind a place called Futilla.

Another story proves to us that retribution is an attribute of Nzambi:

An old lady, after some days' journey, arrived at a town called Sonanzenzi, footsore and weary, and covered with those terrible sores that afflict a great number of the Negroes in the Congo district. The old lady asked for hospitality from each householder as she passed through the town; but they all refused to receive her, saying that she was unclean, until she arrived at the very last house. Here the kind folk took her in, nursed and cured her. When she was quite well and about to depart, she told her kind friends to pack up their traps and leave the town with her, as assuredly it was accursed and would be destroyed by Nzambi. And the night after they had left it, heavy rains fell, and the town was submerged, and all the people drowned, for Sonanzenzi was in a deep valley, quite surrounded by hills. And now as the people of Tandu pass on their way to Mbuela, and they look down into the deep waters, they notice the sticks of the houses at the bottom; and they remember that Nzambi would have them take care of the sick, and not turn them cruelly away from their doors.

From the following, one gathers that Nzambi is also a judge:

Nzambi was in her town resting, when she was called to settle a palaver in a town close to. She and her followers went, and after the usual preliminary formalities, commenced to talk the palaver. While they were yet talking, Nzambi heard the drum beaten in her own town, and wondered greatly what the matter could be. She sent the pig to see what the disturbance was, and to find out who had dared to beat her Ndungu zilo, or great drum, during her absence. But the pig returned, and said: "Princess, I did not see anyone in the town, and all was quiet and in order."

"Strange!" said Nzambi, "but I distinctly heard the beating of my drum."

They continued the palaver until Nzambi again heard her drum beating.

"Go immediately, O antelope!" said Nzambi, "and find out who is beating my drum."

The antelope went and returned; but he had not seen nor heard anything. They continued the palaver, and just as they drew it to a close, Nzambi heard the drum a third time.

"Let us all go and find out," said Nzambi, "who has thus dared to disturb us."

They went, but saw nothing.

"Hide yourselves in the grass round about the town, and watch for the intruder!"

Then they saw the crab coming out of the water. Breathlessly they all watched him. They saw the crab creep stealthily up to the drum and beat it. Then they heard him sing:

"Nzambi has gone up to the top of the mountain, and left me here all alone."

Then the people rushed out of the grass, and caught the terrified crab and dragged him to Nzambi.

And Nzambi rebuked him saying: "Thou hast acted as one without a head, henceforth thou shall be headless, and shalt be eaten by all men."

According to another crab story, Nzambi had already given the crab a body and legs, and promised on the next day to give him a head. Then the crab sent invitations to all around to come and see Nzambi place his head on. And when they had all arrived, he was so proud that he could hardly walk straight. But Nzambi rebuked him for his great pride, and told those who were present that as a warning to them not to be self-glorious she would not give the crab a head. And thus it happens that when the crab wants to see where he is going, he has to lift his eyes out of his body.

Nzambi Mpungu made the world and all the people in it. But Nzambi had made no drum for her people, so that they could not dance. Nchonzo nkila, a little bird with a long tail, fashioned like a native drum that seems always to be beating the earth, lived in a small village near to the town that Nzambi had chosen as her place of residence. This Nchonzo nkila set to work, and was the first to make a drum. He then called his followers together, and they beat the drum and danced. And when Nzambi heard the beating of the drum she wanted it, so that her people might also dance. "What!" she said to her people, "I, a great princess, cannot dance, because I have no drum, while that little wagtail dances to the beat of the drum he has made. Go now, O antelope, and tell the little wagtail that his Great Mother wants his drum."

And the antelope went to wagtail's town and asked him to send Nzambi his drum.

"Nay," answered the wagtail, "I cannot give Nzambi my drum, because I want it myself."

"But," said the antelope, "the great mother gave you your life; surely you owe her something in return."

"Yes, truly," answered wagtail, "but I cannot give her my drum."

Lend it to me then, said the antelope, "that I, may play it for you."

"Certainly," said the wagtail.

But after beating the drum for a short time, the antelope ran away with it. Then wagtail waxed exceeding wrath, and sent his people after him. And they caught the antelope and killed him, and gave him to their women to cook for them.

After a while Kivunga, the hyena, was sent by Nzambi to see why the antelope was so long away. And he asked Nchonzo nkila what had become of the antelope. And Nchonzo nkila told him.

"Give me then some of his blood, that I may take it to our mother, and show her."

Nchonzo nkila gave him some, and Kivunga took it to Nzambi, and told her all that had occurred. And Nzambi was grieved at not being able to secure the drum. Then she addressed the Mpacasa, or wild ox, and besought him to get her the drum. But Mpacasa tried the same game as the antelope, and met with the same fate. Kivunga came again, and was told by the wagtail that Mpacasa had been killed by his people for trying to steal the drum. Kivunga returned to Nzambi, and told her how Mpacasa had tried to run away with the drum, and had been killed. Nzambi grieved sorely, and would not be comforted, and cried out to her people, praying them to get her Nchonzo nkila's drum.

Then Mflti (the ant) stood out from among the people and volunteered, saying: "Weep not, O Nzambi, I will get the drum for you."

"But you are so small a creature, how will you secure the drum?"

"From the fact of my being so small I shall escape detection."

And so the ant went out to wagtail's town, and waited there until all were asleep. Then he entered the house where the drum was kept, and carried it away unperceived, and brought it to Nzambi. And Nzambi rewarded the ant and then beat the drum and made all her people dance.

Then Nchonzo nkila heard the noise, and said: "Listen! they are dancing in Nzambi's town. Surely they have stolen my drum."

And when they looked in the house for the drum, they found it not. So Nchonzo nkila became very angry and called all the birds together; and they all came to hear what he had to say, save the Mbemba, or pigeon. Then they discussed the matter and decided upon sending Nzambi a messenger, asking her to appoint a place of meeting where the palaver between them might be talked. And Nzambi promised to be in Neamlau's town the next day to talk the palaver over before that prince.

Then Nchonzo nkila and his followers went to Neamlau's town and awaited Nzambi. Two day's they waited, and on the third Nzambi and her people arrived.

Then Nchonzo nkila said: "O, prince! I made a drum and Nzambi has taken it from me. It is for her to tell you why; let her speak."

Nzambi arose and said: "O, prince! My people wished to dance, but we had no drum, and therefore they could not. Now I heard the sound of a drum being beaten in the village over which I had set Nchonzo nkila to rule. I therefore first sent the antelope as my ambassador to Nchonzo nkila to ask him for the drum; but his people killed the antelope. I then sent Mpacasa for the drum; but they killed him also, as Kivunga will bear witness. Finally I sent the ant; and he brought me the drum, and my people danced and we were happy. Surely, O prince, I who brought forth all the living in this world have a right to this drum if I want it."

Then Kivunga told them all he knew of the palaver.

Nenlau[1] and his old men, having heard all that was said, retired to drink water. When he returned, Nenlau said: "You have asked me to decide this question, and my judgment is this: It is true that Nzambi is the mother of us all, but Nchonzo nkila certainly made the drum. Now when Nzambi made us, she left us free to live as we chose, and she did not give us drums at our birth. The drums we make ourselves; and they are therefore ours, just as we may be said to be Nzambi's. If she had made drums and sent them into the world with us, then the drums would be hers. But she did

[1. Nenlau is a contracted form of Neamlau.]

not. Therefore she was wrong to take the drum from Nchonzo nkila."

Nzambi paid Nchonzo nkila for the drum, and was fined for the mistake.

Then both Nzambi and Nchonzo nkila gave presents to Nenlau and went their way.

Thus, in this case, we have Nzambi brought down to the level of the rest of the world, and judged by human laws. And such is the native idea of their second divinity; for while they willingly give her credit for being the mother of all things and full of all power, they cannot entertain the idea of her being other than human.

Next: Nzambi's Daughter And Her Slave.