Magazine article Monthly Review

In Defense of the Nyakyusa

Magazine article Monthly Review

In Defense of the Nyakyusa

Article excerpt

The debate between Mahmood Mamdani and Basil Davidson in the Monthly Review of July-August 1993, which was sparked by Davidson's new book on Africa, The Black Man's Burden, requires an important correction. Both scholars present illuminating comments. My concern, however, is about one aspect only: the rectification of Nyakyusa history, of which both men seem to have insufficient understanding.

Davidson claims in his book that the Nyakyusa, who live in southwest Tanzania, as a tribe, were "invented" by European colonialism. He states: At first, the British set themselves to the work of inventing tribes for Africans to belong to; later, with possible independence looming ahead, they turned to building nation-states.(1)

Among such formed "new tribes," he goes on, were: the Sukuma and the Nyakusa [sic], [who] rose fully formed from the mysterious workings of "tradition." Not being worried by such workings, whatever Europeans supposed them to be, such coagulated clans and segments do not seem to have minded becoming "tribes"with exotic names. .but rather pleased about it.(2)

While I cannot speak for the Sukuma because of my unfamiliarity with their history, the origins of the Nyakyusa do not jibe with Davidson's historiography at all. His mistake is based on John Iliffe's book, A Modern History of Tanganyika, which, on the subject of the creation of African tribes, Davidson lauds as "exemplary" and "excellent."(3) But what does Professor Iliffe say that Davidson finds so

Walusako Mwalilino is a journalist and former Associate Officer in the Department of Political and General Assembly Affairs at the United Nations. He is a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). enlightening? The following passage represents the core of Iliffe's thesis:

The most spectacular new tribe were the Nyakyusa. In the nineteenth century their name described only inhabitants of certain lakeshore chiefdoms. Some German observers and early British officials extended it to embrace also the Kukwe and Selya further north, their culture being broadly similar. After failing to impose paramounts on this essentially stateless people, the British established a council of chiefs in 1933 and described it as the tribal system. Buttressed by distinctive culture, common language, and sheer isolation, the newly-invented Nyakyusa tribe soon became an effective political unit.(4)

In my opinion, this type of revisionist history is less than "exemplary" or "excellent." To start with, it's not true that in the nineteenth century the name Nyakyusa "described only inhabitants of certain lakeshore chiefdoms;" that they were a "stateless people;" or that they were an "invented" tribe. Let's consider the facts.

The heartland of the Nyakyusa is bordered by the Rungwe mountain in the north, the Songwe river in the south, and Lake Malawi in the east. Residents below the mountain, forty miles away from the lakeshore, also called themselves Nyakyusa. The whole area is now part of Mbeya Region, but the people still call their country Unyakyusa. The Songwe river forms the Tanzania-Malawi boundary; a smaller number of Nyakyusa live on its south bank, inside Malawi. The Nyakyusa are closely related to the Ngonde, of north Malawi, who occupy the river's south bank and stretching forty-two miles south on the lake's plain. The two groups speak the same language (with a minor difference in accents), although the Nyakyusa refer to their version as Kinyakyusa, while the Ngonde call theirs Kyangonde. And both groups pray to Kyala (God).(5) According to Malawian historian, Professor Owen Kalinga, the Nyakyusa settled in Rungwe valley between 1550 and 1650, a fact now supported by carbon dating.(6) The founders of the Ngonde nation settled in Malawi in 1600.(7)

Thus, centuries prior to the arrival of the British consul, Frederic Elton, in 1877, the first European to travel in Unyakyusa, the people had developed a political system of independent chiefdoms, without a central authority. …

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