Pitt Rivers Museum – or more specifically Marina de Alarcon, Meghan O’Brien Backhouse, Faye Belsey, Mel Rowntree and the education team- in Oxford have very kindly allowed us to make copies of figurines that they have in their store rooms, gathering dust, for over 60 years. It’s hard to over-stress what a fantastic opportunity this is. They were collected by an unnamed English colonial offical from Pangani, Tanga, in 1953.
(This is a few kilometres down the road from where our project takes place). But we have no idea what they are. What they’re for. Why they were even collected. So we’re (me, Aida Mulokozi, research associates Sylvester Mkwaya, Neema Mtenga), are taking photos back to Tanga to ask people if they know what these are about.
It provides a good conversation starter. But who knows what the reaction in Tanga will be.
I mean, maybe people will be understandably a bit annoyed that they were taken? Also, what was going on with the colonial official when he took them? Did he have all sorts of peculiar mis-placed fantasies about voodoo and primitive magic? There are just so many unanswered questions…..
It seems extraordinary (rude?) that literally nobody Tanzanian was recorded as being consulted/asked what these figures are, who made them, and why. They could be high abstract art, or basic children’s models….? We have literally no idea. But this is the wonderful thing about of this type of work: it requires asking many questions to the right people… and this is what’s also so amazing about Pitt Rivers Museum- they open themselves up to this sort of project.
who made this, and why?
Aida Mulokozi – a co-partner on this project, from DARCH, and I chatted about these small figures (they’re only about 12 cms high, and made of unfired clay/sand mix) and wonder if they’re part of the ‘Kongwe’ rituals. Effectively sexual/moral/personal education for aspirant brides/grooms that a shangazi (auntie) or mama ndogo (little mama) would take on in the Swahili coastal regions.
These practices are a way of talking about behaviours and codes for people preparing for marriage. ‘Tabia nzuri’ (good behaviour in Swahili) is a very broad term covering all elements of marital life, including how to keep a relationship going, what to cook, how to deal with extended family, as well as the more physical sides. But they are largely dying out, and people now often consider them old fashioned.
What did people think of the Makaramo figures?
We introduced the photos after we had interviewed people for several sessions, and we had built up a rappor. The style was very informal, we wanted to really hear what people had to say.
Younger interviewees like Mwini Kombo (20years old and saving to go to university) didn’t know, but he still improvised:
Whilst older women like Mama Mwanamvua knew exactly what the Makaramo figures were for, as containers for bad spirits (Majinni) and curses.
They are just papers, decoration, they are not the real thing. They are made of soil, and clay, the real thing (0:01)
Neema if I showed you the actual object, not just the photo would you be afraid?
Mwanamvua: Yes I would definitely be afraid, especially when you meet it face to face. You must be afraid. (0:18)
Mwanamvua: Laughing………..If you encounter these mkaramo in person, face to face you must be afraid because you don’t know them, they’re not familiar and they’re not friendly, not human. You must afraid these are (majidudu) this is the devil, it’s not human (0:23) What happens is that they are the container for majidudu, they have been invested with curses.
Interviewer: So you can either meet them, these majidudu (spirits) in the sea or in the wilderness?
Mwanamvua: Sometimes you may find them in the sea, actually under the waves, on the way in the forest, in the wilderness, hidden somewhere under a tree. But these are just papers, (photos) they are harmless, they’re not the real thing. Sometimes mganga can use these small things to cause harm to someone. They are so powerful that depending on their use, and the spirit in it, you can either die or live (0:05)
Interviewer: Do you mind if these clay figures are staying in an English Museum?
Mwanamvua: No problem let them have a look, they can keep them, and even if they wish they can modify them or change them, it’s not up to me. There is no problem, I don’t want to get involved, this is sorcery stuff, and I don’t want to be talked about as a witch, so I have no comment, I don’t want someone to say that I am a snitch. (sanamu) (1:06)
Interviewer: Is this stuff important for the kids to know? Is this important cultural heritage do you think?
Mwanamvua: Mh! No definitely not! No! children can’t learn about this stuff and they mustn’t know. This is big work for the qualified witchdoctors and not for messing around with. Shiiiiiiiiiiiii… How can you do it, do you know how they started? Do you understand this stuff really and do you want to be like they are? You don’t know, this is their (witch’s) work. (1:36)
Interviewer: You said that sometimes these small figurines are left for designated people to find in places that they will find them, like under the baobab tree?
Mwanamvua: Yes, these things (Majini) you can find them in the baobab trees. What happens is that the mganga who is practicing witchcraft will make a spell and curse the figurine, then they will leave them somewhere, and once the designated person who has been cursed finds it (and they will find it, because that is part of the curse) they…. They can either become crazy or even in some cases die. And sometimes we may find someone who is not feeling well, they start to experience odd aches and pains. When we take he/her to the witchdoctors they say that was attacked by Majini and that’s the explanation for their illness. (0:04)