by Martin Walsh
[This paper was presented to a symposium on the ‘Cultures of Southwestern Tanzania’ at the XI International Congress of the Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Vancouver, on 25 August 1983. Some of its arguments were developed further in my Ph.D. dissertation, The Misinterpretation of Chiefly Power in Usangu, South-west Tanzania (University of Cambridge, 1984).]
In Mbeya District Book there is “A History of Usangu. Related by the Wazee [elders] of Utengule”, written in English and dated 6 January 1930.(1) Half of the text comprises an account of the foundation of the Sangu royal line. Briefly: a stranger comes to Usangu via Uwanji and makes the daughter of a local chief pregnant. The product of this union, with the help of war medicine and iron spears provided by his father, proves a worthy successor to the rule of this petty chiefdom. His own son and successor, Mwahavanga, conquers and so unifies the whole of Usangu for the first time, some years before the coming of the Ngoni (whose main clash with the Sangu can be dated to the 1850s).
This is not untypical of histories of its kind. What is perhaps its most incongruous detail is introduced when the stranger, replying to a question from his Sangu mistress, declares: “ ‘The country where I came from is Ubarawa’ ”, which a footnote locates in Somaliland, the coastal town now known as Brava. Later the hero explains to both mistress and son that he is a Somali, before returning home for good after seeing his son assume power. Although in this last instance the claim is incorporated in the main body of the text, it is tempting to interpret these Somalian glosses as the interpolations of an unsigned administrative officer, someone with a handy geographical knowledge and imbued with the spirit of “the Hamitic hypothesis”.(2) At the very least an identification teased out by a leading question. If I add that this is the only Sangu history I have seen or heard which makes this connection, then you might wonder whether it really matters how or why this apparently idiosyncratic embellishment came into being. In this paper I want to argue that it does. Not that I hold out any hope of resolving this particular textual anomaly. It is, though, only part of a more general interpretive problem.
Similar themes recur in modern versions of this history. The stranger is, almost without exception, called Mbalawe and said, as the name implies, to have come from Ubalawe;(3) though no one can say exactly where this is, except that it is somewhere to the north or east. Descriptions of his appearance - “He was tall and slender and his complexion was fair” - and that of his son - “a fine youth; intelligent, handsome, fair and slim while his nose was high-bridged like that of an Arab” - echo these words from the District Book. The most frequent gloss is, indeed, that Mbalawe was or was like “an Arab” and Ubalawe “in Arabia” or thereabouts.(4)
There are only two other printed versions of this early history, collected by a Dar es Salaam University student in 1968. They are particularly explicit in drawing the Arabic link. One begins: “The Arab who is claimed to have come from Barawa was one of the Arabs who had come to East Africa for trading”, and leaves us in no doubt by naming his half-caste son “Saidi” and stating that he also left behind a copy of the Koran, further implying that this has remained an object of veneration through to the present day.(5) The other account speaks of Arab traders accompanying a group of missionaries travelling from Mombasa to Nyasaland: “one of these Arabs, whose native town was Barawa, left the missionaries going to Nyasaland at Uwanji and came down to [the] Usangu Basin for trade…”, before consorting with the daughter of a local chief.(6) If these histories are coupled with what is known of nineteenth century Sangu history, then it is not difficult to conjure up an explanation. There is, moreover, a parallel case to hand from north-eastern Tanzania. Steven Feierman, noting analogous claims about the provenance of Mbegha, founding hero of the Shambaa, writes: “Quite probably the Arabic connection was created in the second half of the nineteenth century as a fictional genealogical link to be referred to in dealings with coastal traders” (1974: 82). It is easy to extend this argument to the Sangu case. Their “rise” and aggressive expansion northwards in the 1830s has been explained as a response to the extension of Arab trading interests towards Lake Tanganyika in this period (Shorter 1972: 246-247); while the permanent presence of coastal traders at the Sangu court from the mid-1870s onwards is well documented (for reference to the most famous of these, see below). This prompted the first Moravian missionaries, arriving from the south in 1891, to write of “the powerful Arab chief Merere from the north” (PA, I, 8, Dec.1891, 415-417). Feierman also notes that two of his three sources on this topic appeared to possess aspirations or interests matching those Arabic ones they ascribed to their hero. The authors of the last two Sangu histories quoted share an even clearer affiliation, embodied in their commitment to Islam. While there may no longer be any need to legitimate coastal connections, Muslims, contemporary witnesses to such an orientation, can be trusted to preserve and elaborate upon earlier charters.
This is a plausible, but incomplete, explanation. There are, for example, important differences between the Sangu and Shambaa cases. Where the story of Mbegha is common knowledge (Winans 1962: 79), the history of the stranger from Ubalawe is not. While the few ascriptions of Arabic attributes to Mbegha can be glossed as “historical material woven into the myth, of a kind easily changed without altering the myth’s structure” (Feierman 1974: 83), the same details strike at the structural core of the Sangu version. If Sangu can remember anything at all of this history it will likely include some intimation that their former rulers are putatively descended from Arabs, or a peoples of similar origin. This goes for both Muslim and non-Muslim informants. Now, in seeking an explanation for this, we can proceed to the outline of a much richer account.
Detailed histories of Mbalawe’s coming to Usangu are few and far between.(7) There is little agreement between different versions. Names, places, political setting, motives, pursuits, episodes and genealogical affiliations all appear in radically dissimilar permutations. These do not even preclude the identification of Mbalawe as a woman. Not surprisingly the fullest, and in many ways most compelling, interpretation I recorded begins by distancing itself from other accounts. I will quote at length.
“Sangu have told different stories about Mbalawe. In fact he came here like his elders, his masters, in the time when they were looking for elephant tusks, for ivory… Mbalawe was only a youth. People are mistaken if they say that he came here on some business of his own. He was only a young man [accompanying the traders].
Now the Sangu of long ago, the people of Mwana Mgawa and Mhami, when they saw this youth they had a yearning for his colour. ‘If only we could get his seed, his offspring!’ His masters, for their part, just wanted to trade, for ivory for example; and they had no scruples about leaving him behind because he was only a child and incapable of doing anything for himself. And [the Sangu] wanted his seed. They would let him sleep with one of their daughters. The one they chose was compliant, and they called her Shihwago… by likening her mild manner with that of a cow which will give milk to a child if it asks.(8) Whenever a gentle child is born into the royal family [these days] she is called Shihwago. And this is what the Sangu of long ago meant.
So, having decided this, they gave the young man [Mbalawe] girls as he pleased, including the one who was to [bear and] bring up his child. The reason they did this was to acquire the appearance which they desired – the colour white.”(9)
Cutting a long story short, the stranger, Mbalawe, fell ill and died while Shihwago became pregnant. When she gave birth to a son the Sangu were delighted by his appearance. Quoting again: “…he was taken along… when we went to war in search of wealth: looking at him, the white one, the people saw that he led them like a Jemadar”, in other words like his father’s people. This was how the line of Mwahavanga (as the descendants of Mbalawe’s son were later known) was founded.
This history was told by a Sangu man from Msangaji and now living in Chimala, Ali Mashaka Ndelele. One of the most interesting features of his account is its emphasis upon Mbalawe’s colour. Mashaka later implied that the name Mbalawe can, in fact, be etymologically derived from the verb radical –vala (s), ‘to be white, shining, pure’.(10) If they would not volunteer, other informants at least confirmed the possibility of such a derivation. Considered in isolation these are tentative grounds on which to suggest that the interpretation of the hero’s name as an ethnic label might be turned on its head, and viewed rather as a reinterpretation of an originary sense.
The later manifestations of such themes and colour symbolism are, though, widely known. A comparative survey would have to take in not only the whole of south-western Tanzania, but large areas of East and Central Africa. Nyakyusa ideas about the white colour of their chiefs and the blackness of common folk are, for example, incorporated in much the same way into their histories of origin; much as they surface in the reports, still to be heard, that the arrival of white men was prophesised well before the Europeans eventually came. There is plenty of material here for reconsideration.(11)
Burton was told of Mwahavanga in 1858 that he was:
“a man of venerable aspect, tall, burly, and light-coloured, with large ears, and a hooked nose like a ‘maghrabi’. His sons… all resembled him, their comeliness contrasting strongly with the common clansmen, who are considered by their chiefs as slaves. A tradition derives the origin of this royal race from Madagascar or one of its adjoining islets.” (1859: 304)
Over a decade later Livingstone heard similarly that the Sangu were “a fair people, like Portuguese, and very friendly to strangers” (1874: I, 212), and learned that Mwahavanga’s descendants were “very light coloured, and have straight noses” (1874: II, 88). These statements mark a neat conjuncture between prevailing European notions, recalling the world of Rider Haggard’s “She” (1976 ). This is to say nothing of any ideas the Arab conveyors of this knowledge may have had, and conceptions which have persisted in Sangu thinking through to the present day. They have a truth which spills over from ideology into practice. There is evidence to suggest that these ideas are played out in marriage strategies, notably in the selection of fair-skinned wives for chiefs; something I have observed myself.(12)
I can do no more here than point to the possibility of pursuing a line of enquiry which would parallel Marshall Sahlins’ recent work on the early history of the Sandwich Islands and the apotheosis of Captain Cook (esp. Sahlins 1981).(13) Interestingly, Feierman, suggesting that the myth of Mbegha may be a revision of the story of an earlier hero (Sheuta) triggered by political change, anticipates the analysis of what Sahlins refers to as “structures of the long run” and the dialectical engagement of structure and event (Feierman 1974: 66-69). The insight is lost, though, in the distinction Feierman draws between history and myth: the structuralist paradigm challenged by Sahlins. The same division surfaces and is developed further by Roy Willis in his latest book, and its price can be measured in his unconvincing treatment of Fipa ideas about the Twa (1981: esp. 29-35): ideas not so far removed, I might add, from those which Sangu entertain about their own rulers, avatwa (s), in the past. Although I will not engage Willis directly here, it should also become clear that I distance myself from his interpretation of settler and stranger as fixed values in the seemingly timeless constellations of Fipa cosmology.
The thrust of Sahlins’ argument is to show not only that cultural structures can be reproduced in events, but also to demonstrate how their engagement may result in both cultural and practical transformation. The skeleton of such an account is, I think, contained in Mashaka’s history. It opens by describing the aboriginal Sangu polity in terms of the interrelation of three (kindred) groups, known in short by the names Mgawa, Mhami and Mswaya. The first of these, the primary group, was settled at Ilamba and in the remote area north of the river Ruaha known as Unyamande, where they had lived from time immemorial, “multiplying like cattle”. The second, Mhami, was an offshoot of the first sent out to settle in the well-watered area of Madundani and Utengule, a staging point on the way to Uwanji: while the third, Mswaya, had been sent to Makondo in the west, on the path to Usafwa. Among themselves they would choose someone to look after their ritual affairs, filling the office of ‘Njali’. This title is said to be cognate with the word shali (s), ‘baby’ or ‘small child’, signalling the requirement that an incumbent must be wholly provided for by the people and so exempt from subsistence activity of any kind. Quoting Mashaka: “Had he worked he would have been in no position to look after our customs. Likewise in later times we have an elder (shehe) at the mosque and a padre in the church: they had their own equivalent of a padre or Muslim elder.” So the Sangu began to travel beyond the boundaries of Usangu to ensure Njali’s provision. This pattern was changed radically upon the accession of Mbalawe’s son, an event which offered a new blueprint for legitimation. The friction which was generated between old practice and new exploded upon Mwahavanga’s death (Mwahavanga being, in Mashaka’s version, alternatively Mbalawe’s son, or son’s son). When Mwahavanga’s favoured heir, a son, died before he could take office, his other sons found themselves in something of a quandary. To resolve the problem of the succession they turned to the precedent set by the Mbalawe episode. They appointed Tovelamahamba, the son of their sister, another Shihwago, and of an outsider, Nshilyama. Before long, however, jealous of Tovelamahamba’s position, they began to accuse him of failing to respect the distinction between sacred and secular power. Tovelamahamba responded by attacking his uncles, forcing them into exile and killing one, Gambali. In Mashaka’s words:
“At this point his mother [Shihwago] protested: ‘A-a-a – you’re killing my kinsmen: stop it! Why have you done this?’’ And he replied: ‘Haa – avija shi? Shene vaxamelele va vene!’ [s], ‘Ha – what did they say? Didn’t they give it [the chiefship] to me themselves!’… And in this way the name Merere began.”(14)
Reiterating this transformation in the use of chiefly power, the history continues: “Merere began to assert his authority, and his name became widely known. Now he could go to Uhehe and make war there”. And so onto the most familiar episodes in Sangu history.
This is a very compelling account. I should emphasise, though, that there are motives at work in this narrative other than the demands of consistency and coherence. These include both a sociological and a more personal interest on Mashaka’s part. If followed upon discussion and explanation of a system of titles (used, for example, in greetings), some of which are ascribed on the basis of affinal links of the kind which play an important part in this history: in particular through marriage to a woman of either royal line (Merere’s or Mwahavanga’s), to a woman with the title ‘Shihwago’. In certain respects the history was an appendix to this explanation; an extended illustration. Secondly, it functioned as an elaborate charter for the name Mgawa, posited as belonging to the primary and original Sangu group. In later history, as Mashaka made clear, all but one of the Sangu chiefs has been a descendant of another bearer of this name, Twanuxa Sinkunja, a wife of the first Merere. It is through his mother, also a Sinkunja, that Mashaka inherits the names Mhami and Mgawa. No other history I heard made similar claims about the early history of either name, though the Vaswaya are often accorded aboriginal status. And, as if to underline the provisionality of his version, no sooner had my interview with Mashaka come to an end than I was hailed by a man who volunteered an entirely different account. This, moreover, incorporated elements which Mashaka had just branded as betraying an insidious Hehe influence; clearest in tales that had Mbalawe coming down from Uwanji to Usangu as a hunter.(15)
Mashaka’s history does, nonetheless, highlight the issue of legitimacy in a way which is relevant to an understanding of the more generalised contemporary articulation of the origin story. Here it may be best to begin by sketching a more conventional historical account.
It seems certain that relations with coastal traders in the nineteenth century were essential in maintaining the power of the Sangu chiefs (if not instrumental in their creation). External trade provided the means by which capital, including land and labour, could be accumulated: whether by force or by dint of repute. These outside links were by no means constant or assured. They were, for example, subject to competition between chiefs and others in search of power. Severe difficulties of this kind appear to have been generated by Merere’s accession. The Arab alliance blew hot and cold. Relations reached a low point when the interests of the Bungu chief Kilanga and the dispossessed descendants of Mwahavanga coalesced, and did not improve until after the war which saw the deaths of both Kilanga and the trader Amran Masudi (in 1873: Shorter 1974: 10-14). Thereafter Merere was able to retain external support, despite constant Hehe pressure. Among his allies was the Baluchi Jemadar who joined Merere during his exile in Kiwele (c.1875), and stayed at the Sangu court for the next twenty years or so. He was given a daughter of the chief in marriage, and incorporated in a way which helps to explain Mashaka’s allusion (see above) and the fact that he is the only “Arab” from this period whose name, rendered “Nyamadali”, is still remembered by the Sangu.(16) In one sense, at least, his was an isolated case, not to be repeated.
With the rapid growth of European interests, the Arab connections were doomed to decline. At first Merere and his successor used their new allies to some advantage. But, as the Germans extended and consolidated their power, the Sangu rulers’ capacity to exercise similar authority slipped from their grasp.(17) Relations between successive chiefs and the colonial administrations, German then British, degenerated into mutual mistrust. They acquired an air of fatal necessity. The Sangu chiefs paid for legitimation by losing their earlier potential for domination. As swiftly as people had once been recruited to Merere’s cause, so they could now just as easily be hived off. And so they were, through a combination of internal and external pressures. By the early 1950s and the accession of Alfeo, great-grandson of the first Merere, chiefly power was limited to an ever-diminishing area, focusing upon the district around Utengule.
The dilemma which faced many Tanganyikan chiefs after the second world war, as nationalism grew and momentum gathered towards independence, is well documented.(18) The chief of Usangu, poised between conflicting sources of legitimation, was no exception to the general rule. In a way this was their permanent condition, with a history extending well before and after this one critical historical juncture. When his father, Mxanuwoga Merere, died at the end of 1950, Alfeo was still at school at Malangali. The Mbeya authorities seized upon this golden opportunity to groom a more compliant chief and packed Alfeo off for further schooling first at Tabora, then in Mwanza (ARPC 1953: 123). His father’s brother, Myotishuma, was appointed regent. When Alfeo returned to Utengule in 1953 to take up the royal stool the odds were already stacked heavily against him. His commitment to tradition was questioned by the elder generation, while his peers resented his sudden elevation to power. A group of Muslim youths from Mswiswi, a few miles south-west of Utengule, were particularly vocal in their opposition. One instance of their defiance can be singled out here. Much as they would not dismount from their bicycles and stoop to him in greeting, they refused to greet Alfeo with his proper title: “Aje njali!” (s). Instead they treated him to the Muslim salutation: “Sabalkheri!” (“Good morning!”): a calculated insult. There was sweet irony in this, and not only because Alfeo had just returned from Mwanza with a Muslim wife. The history of Mbalawe was conjured up with a vengeance, and the taunt, Merere the Arab, has stuck.
Many of the traditional practices and rituals of the Sangu chiefship fell into abeyance in the 1950s. Had Alfeo opted to project the traditional props of his position, this would have done him little good in the long run. His Muslim critics subsequently became prominent in the local organisation of TANU. And when TANU eventually came to power and the office of chief was erased from the ordinances in 1962-63, the traditional role was the only one which the new politics would allow for chiefs who were not recruited into the new government. To have accepted this definition would have been tantamount to political castration.
The history of Alfeo’s relations with government and people since independence has been correspondingly complex, impossible to summarise at all adequately here. The spread of the Christian, particularly Roman Catholic, church in the last two decades has completed Mashaka’s triple identification: chief, Muslim elder and priest, and adding a new focus for opposition. In 1981 the most powerful village politician in Utengule, the CCM (formerly TANU) Branch Secretary, was a Roman Catholic whose mother had led the royal rituals at Alfeo’s before her conversion. For the Christians in the community the taunt of the Muslims can be used more directly, echoing the words of the first German missionaries when they dubbed Merere an Arab.
With few exceptions the history, Mbalawe’s, which underpins these statements is not elaborated. Mashaka, as we have seen, provides one example. Others include the two printed accounts discussed at the beginning of the paper. Both are by members of split-off Muslim branches of Merere’s family; one of which provided Utengule with its elected Village Chairman through to early 1982. In general, though, the origin history is condensed into a simple binary formula. The insinuation that Merere is descended from an Arab, or other “white” outsider, is complemented by the claim that Sangu, real Sangu, are “black” and can trace their origin to the area known as Unyamande, in the remotest part of the plains. Its inaccessibility and isolation from the centres of modern administration, as well as from Alfeo’s retreat (1981) at Luhanga, just north of Utengule, provides another opportunity to emphasise the identification of both traditional and modern forms of government as external and foreign. Thus is Mashaka’s intricate reconstruction of the early history of Mgawa, Mhami and Mswaya distilled. This has its own reflex in practice, playing an important part in determining the orientation of the dead, many of whom are now buried looking towards Unyamande, as the putative origin of anyone with a good claim to be Sangu. Relatively few people, though, choose to trace (or care to recall) these connections in any great detail. For a very good reason. Many, after all, have genealogies which prove them to be as much outsiders as they would like to think Alfeo. And many are the descendants of men, women and children recruited by his predecessors more than seventy-five years ago.
Legitimacy twists and turns, blurring the distinction between myth and history, questioning a divide which values oral discourse over writing. Let me conclude, then. with an appropriate thought and by bringing discussion full circle and back to the origin of Mbalawe. I should perhaps have said earlier that there are reverberations of this detail further afield. In August 1981 Juma Mwamlima, a Nyiha chief, was claiming that “his grandfather told him that the most remote ancestors [of his line] had come from Balawi in Somalia”.(19) Chiefs can also, it seems, do research in District Books. Nothing surprises. It is Feierman who tells us that in about 1836 some Zigula, southern neighbours of the Shambaa, sold themselves as slaves to escape famine and “were taken to Somalia by Barawa traders” (1974: 137). Perhaps there is room for literal interpretation yet.(20)
Eighteen months’ fieldwork in Mbeya region, Tanzania, 1980-82, was funded by the SSRC, London, and the Smuts Fund, Cambridge, and conducted under the auspices of the Tanzania National Scientific Research Council, Dar es Salaam.
(1) This history was recorded in keeping with general guidelines for the compilation of District Books and in conjunction with a temporary thaw in relations between the District authorities in Mbeya and the then Sangu paramount, Mtenjela Merere (ARPC 1929: 56). I am grateful to John Iliffe for first introducing and making a copy of this history available to me, which I have since been able to check against microfilms in Rhodes House, Oxford, and in the Tanzania National Archives, Dar es Salaam.
(2) For a useful discussion of “The ‘Hamitic Myth’ and its Legacy” see Miller 1976: 4-11.
(3) I have adopted a transcription which is largely consistent with that employed by Bilodeau (1979), except that long vowels are generally not marked. Sangu, shisango, words and strings are marked ‘s’ in the text: Swahili terms are in italics only.
(4) ‘Arab’ is used in the customary (for the East African interior) loose way throughout this paper.
(5) Shaibu Sixapombe Merere interviewed on 18 April 1968, in Ndikwege 1968: 5/68/1/3/3.
(6) Salehe Mhanginonya Merere, undated interview in Ndikwege 1968: 5/68/1/3/10, 1-2.
(7) In addition to those I heard in the field, Alison Redmayne has kindly allowed me to read unpublished field notes containing a number of valuable accounts recorded by her on field trips to Usangu in 1966 and 1968.
(8) The name Shihwago is a derivative of the verb stem –hwaga (s), ‘to drive cattle’.
(9) Extract and translation from a tape-recorded interview in Swahili: Utengule, 3 October 1981.
(10) Compare mbalafu (s), ‘person with white (fair) skin’. Normally (when the name is pronounced in isolation) the stress falls upon the penultimate syllable of ‘Mbalawe’: one elderly informant differed by stressing the final syllable.
(11) See Monica Wilson 1959: esp. 1, 12-13, 153, 157; and for the related Ngonde tradition which makes an Arabic connection, Godfrey Wilson 1939: 10. For a version of the Nyakyusa prophecy, Thurnwald 1935: 328-329. Of elsewhere in the region, Musso 1968: esp. 1-24, on Hehe origins is the most fascinating document from this perspective. For reflections of the same in Zambia: Cunnison 1961: 62 (n.2). Note that I have omitted discussion of the third colour in Victor Turner’s (1966) classificatory triad: red. This is not for lack of evidence. Analysis of the interplay of red and white as the ascriptive colour of Sangu chiefs might begin with a reading of some of the tales recorded by Bilodeau (1979).
(12) For a reference to this practice among the Bena: Makwetta 1968: 4/68/1/1,6, information of Mzee Tatayila.
(13) For an even more direct parallel see the story of the apotheosis of Jumah Mfumbi, first Arab to enter Ugogo (Burton 1860: I, 302-303).
(14) i.e. –melele (s), from the verb stem –pela (s), ‘to give’.
(15) William Garland tells me that members of the Wanji chiefly line of Nyambo (at Mpangala) are reputed to be tall and fair and claim an origin from the east of Lake Victoria; while in general Wanji dismiss the Sangu story of origin as mistaken. I reserve detailed consideration of the Wanji element in many (but not all) versions of Mbalawe’s history for a future occasion. For the Hehe story see Redmayne 1964: 107-112.
(16) For the Jemadar see, for example, Elton 1879: 337, 344; Merensky 1892: 95-99; Abakari 1901: 91; Kootz-Kretschmer 1929: 279-283; and Ndikwege 1968: 3, 6-7.
(17) The best summary of these events can be found in Wright 1968.
(18) See, for example, Abrahams 1981: 28-33.
(19) Mwamlima was interviewed by John Gay (in the course of a RIDEP survey) on 20 August 1981. I am very grateful to him for the loan of notes from which the above statement is taken. Another Nyiha chief, Gilbert Nzowa, has claimed a Kenyan origin for both his and Mwamlima’s line (Slater 1976: 50-51). Brock (1968: 65-66) only notes that both lines independently claim to have come from (not via) Ugogo: while Knight (1974: 32-33) was, like John Gay, told of a Mwamlima – Merere link. Ali Mashaka rejected this last and similar claims as genealogical fictions.
(20) Derek Nurse adds the comment that there are two places on the East African coast with names which can be construed as “Barawa”: the Somali town of Brava (some of whose inhabitants are among the northernmost speakers of Swahili) and a village on the Kenyan coast presently settled by Boni. On the Tanzanian coast, particularly around Dar es Salaam, people claiming Shirazi descent specify a “Barawa” origin more frequently than they do other old Swahili settlements to the north.
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