Friday, 3 April 2009

THROWING AWAY THE DEAD: Communal Sites for the Disposal of Corpses in Pre-colonial South-west Tanzania

by Martin Walsh

[This is a corrected version of an article originally published in 1998 in Mvita: Bulletin of the Regional Centre for the Study of Archaeology in Eastern and Southern Africa, 7: 1-4. For some time it was available on the National Museums of Kenya website, together with a French translation by Edouard Bugingo (‘Jeter les Cadavres: Sites Communs où sont Déposés les Cadavres au Sud-Ouest Tanzanien dans la Periode Pre-Coloniale’). This led to its incorporation in The Rough Guide to Tanzania, which since 2003 has been suggesting to travellers that they try seeking out one of several “ritual sites next to ravines from where the Sangu tribe threw their dead (and, sometimes, the living, if they had been convicted of certain crimes, including philandery).” I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried!]


The ethnographic record indicates that disposal of the dead by leaving their corpses in the bush was once a widespread feature of mortuary practice in East Africa, practised by many Bantu as well as non-Bantu speakers. The following notes describe an interesting variation upon this practice, recorded (and still remembered) among different groups of Bantu speakers in what is now south-west Tanzania. Whereas most peoples known to have disposed of their dead in this way appear to have done so in any convenient spot away from habitation, the Sangu and others referred to below “threw away” their dead in particular sites designated for this purpose. These sites for communal disposal are recognisable by their common names and, though no longer used in quite the same way, are still feared through their association with death.

Sangu Practice
I have most information on the practice of the Sangu (avasango), among whom I conducted anthropological research between 1980 and 1982. The Sangu are the indigenous inhabitants of the Usangu Plains, which lie to the north of the mountain ranges which rise up from the northern shores of Lake Malawi. They speak an Eastern Bantu language which is classified in the Southern Highlands group together with Hehe, Bena, Wanji, Kinga, Pangwa, Kisi and Manda (Nurse 1988: 59). The development of trade routes from the East African coast in the early nineteenth century appears to have stimulated the early unification of the Sangu into a single chiefdom. The Hehe followed suit, and in the late 1870s forced the Sangu out of Usangu. The Sangu chief, Tovelamahamba Merere, established a new capital in the hills of Usafwa, to the west. The Sangu remained in exile there until after the turn of the twentieth century, when they were restored to Usangu (under Tovelamahamba’s son and successor, Mgandilwa Merere) by the newly established German administration (see Walsh 1984 for a detailed survey of Sangu history).

The contemporary Sangu bury all of their dead, and appear to have done so since the first decade or so of the colonial period. Earlier European travellers and missionaries, however, noted otherwise. When Elton and his party visited Tovelamahamba Merere in 1877 at Mfumbi, on the southern border of Usangu, they found large numbers of decomposing corpses, the victims of Hehe assaults, piled up outside of the stockade. At first it seemed that this may have been a temporary exigency of warfare, but after observing a dead woman being thrown into the bush Elton concluded that the Sangu did not in any event bury their dead (1879: 350-351, 358, 361-362). The Moravian missionaries who founded a mission station in 1895 outside of the Sangu capital-in-exile, Utengule-Usongwe (Kwa Mwalyego in Usafwa), were shocked to learn that corpses were being tossed into a nearby ravine. They appealed to Mgandilwa Merere to stop this practice, which he did, at least in this particular place (PA 1896: 288).

Comparative evidence suggests that the Sangu, like many of their neighbours, once disposed of all of their commoners in this way. Indeed contemporary linguistic usage has preserved the memory of this practice: the phrase kitaga umunu, ‘to throw away a person’, has been retained in ishisango, the Sangu language, as a polite euphemism for burial, and is used in preference to the verb kisiila, which means ‘to bury’ pure and simple. However, chiefs and certain other special categories of person, including twins and their parents, are said to have always been buried. The burial of the Sangu chief was a particularly elaborate affair, and when Tovelamahamba Merere died at the end of 1893 he was consigned to the grave together with a number of retainers (Heese 1913: 141), as well, it is said, with a large number of elephant tusks and other worldly goods to help him on his way.

Contemporary accounts also make it clear that the Sangu possessed designated sites for the disposal of corpses. The ravine near the Moravian mission station at Utengule-Usongwe was presumably one of these. One site, called Pitago (sometimes Kwitago), literally ‘the place for throwing away’, is located at the north-east of the twentieth century Sangu capital, Utengule-Usangu. It is possible that this site dates back to the nineteenth century, because Tovelamahamba Merere’s pre-1877 capital also stood close by. Informants cannot recall Pitago ever having been used for the general disposal of the dead, though it is described as a sacred site on which sacrificial offerings can be made for the whole population. According to one middle aged male informant it was used in the past (in the days of his grandfather) to dispose of transgressors, such as men who had unwisely seduced wives of the chief. In such a case the tribal elders would approach the accused and ask him to dress in his best clothes in order to accompany them to Pitago to sacrifice a bull. Once there they would slaughter the bull, and shortly thereafter the unwitting victim, whose corpse they would simply throw down on the spot. My informant thought that the victim’s decapitated head might have been brought back to the settlement for display, but he was not sure on this point. He added that in the daytime corpses left at Pitago would be consumed by vultures, and at night by hyenas (compare Elton: “...and now over a heap of skeletons, scattered leather aprons and beads, hovered flocks of vultures and gigantic storks, which, gorged with their loathsome feast, had scarcely power to flap away into the lower branches of the magnificent forest trees which adorn the once peaceful Usango valley”, 1879: 350-351).

This account recalls that of the Moravian missionaries, who discovered the Sangu practice of throwing away the dead following an incident in 1896 when Mgandilwa Merere had ordered the execution of two of his wives and a man for adultery. We can hypothesise that at this time Sangu mortuary practice was in a stage of transition, as burial became increasingly fashionable among commoners, perhaps initially for those who held political or military office and their close relatives. Disposal by exposure was subsequently restricted to the corpses of criminals and people in lower social categories, such as non-Sangu (as suggested by another informant in discussing the uses of Pitago). Thereafter burial became the universal practice: this was certainly the case in the south of Usangu around Brandt Lutheran Mission when Heese (1913) wrote on local customs. At the same time the chief / commoner distinction remained marked by different forms of burial: chiefs and the special ritual categories of persons treated analogously to them were and still are buried in a sitting position, whereas ordinary people are buried lying down.

Pitago in Utengule-Usangu still has strong associations with death for the local population. Broken pots and other remains are said to be found there, and the site is thought to be especially fearful during and after the rainy season when the grass has grown long. In 1981 Pitago had been set aside as a site for a future village cemetery, an appropriate transformation of its original purpose. I was unable to establish whether other, similar sites, are recognised elsewhere in Usangu: it may be that communal exposure was only practised in the vicinity of the Sangu capital(s), where the density of population and numbers of people dying over time meant that disposal of corpses in isolated spots in the bush was not as feasible an option as it was in less densely settled and cultivated areas. Certainly all of the known sites of collective disposal by the Sangu are located close to past and present capital settlements both in and outside of Usangu (Mfumbi, Utengule-Usongwe, and Utengule-Usangu), though this may be a function of observer bias.

The River Patagu

One possible exception is the River Patagu, which forms the boundary between the territories of the Sangu and the Poroto in the south west corner of Usangu. The Poroto are often classed as a sub group of the Safwa, though they have retained something of a separate identity, and are definitely thought of as separate by the Sangu. Like the Safwa they speak a language which is not particularly closely related to that of the Sangu, but is classified in the Nyika sub group and Corridor group of Eastern Bantu languages (other languages of the Nyika sub group include Lambya, Malila, Nyiha, and Tambo: Nurse 1988: 20). Throughout the German colonial period and for some years afterwards a section of Poroto territory across the Patagu was under the nominal control of a Sangu chief. This was Kahemere, a brother of Mgandilwa Merere who had refused to recognise the latter’s accession to the Sangu stool and subsequently also refused to follow him back into Usangu (though he relented during the British period, long after the death of Mgandilwa, when he was offered a sub-chiefship in south-east Usangu).

The Sangu nickname for the Poroto is avaxawuxa, which literally means ‘the dried up ones’. This is a reference to what the Sangu think of as the deep and throaty voices of the Poroto, which are alleged to be a consequence of their habit of drinking water from the River Patagu. No one else, it is said, will drink from this river. The implication of this, recalling also the name of the river (which is cognate with the Sangu Pitago), is that corpses were once cast into it and have therefore contaminated the water, rendering it unsuitable for human consumption. I have no information, however, on who might have been responsible for this (the Sangu or even the Poroto themselves), or whether the disposal of bodies in the river was a singular occurrence or a regular event.

Nyakyusa and Kukwe Practice

The existence of communal exposure sites can be more readily documented among the Nyakyusa and related peoples whose territory begins further to the south west of Usangu, beyond that of the Poroto. The Nyakyusa (once known, together with the closely related Ngonde, as the Konde) live on the plains and in the mountains at the northern tip of Lake Malawi. Their language, like that of the Poroto, belongs to the Corridor group of Eastern Bantu, but is classified, together with that of the Ndali, in a separate sub-group (Nurse 1988: 59). Like the Sangu, the Nyakyusa now bury their dead, but there is good evidence that this was not always the case:

“Here and there throughout Kondeland are places called Itago, so named from the verb kutaga, to cast away. In the long past, when a man was dying, and all hope of recovery had been abandoned, he was carried to the Itago, placed in a sitting position, and left to die. After death the flesh was devoured by birds or beasts. Nowhere, as far as I have discovered, is this repulsive practice now followed.” (MacKenzie 1925: 296)

While working in Usangu I spoke to Kukwe informants who confirmed that ‘throwing away the dead’ (no mention was made of the dying) was once practised at such communal sites. The Kukwe live in the north-west of Unyakyusa, on the western side of Mount Rungwe, and maintain a separate identity, despite their adoption of common Nyakyusa culture. One Kukwe woman I spoke to knew of a particular cliff called Itago, over which corpses had been cast in the days before burial had become widespread. This place was also called Ipanga after its steep cliff. She opined that corpses treated in this way would simply decompose, given the absence of either vultures or hyenas in this part of Kukwe territory. Another Kukwe informant, a man, recalled the existence of a similar site called Itagano, east of the main road to Tukuyu, from which corpses were also once cast. Modern maps of the Rungwe area show a number of possibly related place names, including Itaga (a place and a river), c.14 km north of Itumba, and Itagata, c.10 km south of Mount Rungwe. These might well be worth further investigation.


While there are clear parallels between what is known of Sangu practice and that of the Nyakyusa / Kukwe, it is difficult to determine whether these might be the result of independent developments (out of a common culture of throwing away the dead) or of contact between the two peoples. The Sangu and the Nyakyusa / Kukwe are not closely related and were not immediate neighbours in the pre-colonial period, although various contacts can be traced between them in addition to a pattern of raiding by the Sangu which was particularly intense during their period of exile in Usafwa. The Sangu are the only members of the Southern Highlands group who are known to have regularly exposed the dead at communal sites. It is possible, however, that further research among the Corridor peoples will reveal that this practice had a wider distribution than I have been able to document here. The apparent absence of the practice among other Southern Highlands speakers and the geographical proximity of the Sangu to Corridor speakers suggest that the Sangu may well have borrowed it from the south and west.

Otherwise it is conceivable that the Sangu and Nyakyusa / Kukwe practices represent independent developments. In the Sangu case the exposure of corpses on designated sites outside of the royal capital might be interpreted as a solution to the problem of disposal in a context of high population density. Whether or not high population density also favoured the development of a similar practice among the Nyakyusa / Kukwe is more difficult to determine, though it seems quite possible given reports of dense settlement in some chiefdoms in the immediate pre-colonial period. The Kukwe predilection for casting their dead off the tops of cliffs suggests that the nature of local topography may also have played a role in the evolution of this practice, although MacKenzie’s report indicates that the dead (or rather dying) in Unyakyusa were not everywhere thrown away in such a dramatic fashion. The cold climate and absence of animal scavengers in Ukukwe may also have made it a more attractive option for the living to place some vertical distance between themselves and the slowly rotting dead. The Usangu Plains are completely lacking in mountainous terrain, but are (or at least once were) replete with suitable scavengers to complete the work of disposal. Once they had moved up into Usafwa, however, the Sangu were quick to make use of local ravines for the same grim purpose.

If anything, it is evident that further research is required to determine the distribution of communal sites for the disposal of corpses and the possible reasons for this apparently unusual variation upon the practice of throwing away the dead. The preservation of these sites in name and memory, as well as their contemporary use as sacred (and possibly burial) sites, suggests that ethnographic enquiry on this subject may still bear fruit, despite the passage of time since they were last used for their original purpose. The practice of throwing away the dead (and abandoning the dying), whether randomly or in such designated places has obvious implications for our interpretation of the archaeological record. The prehistory and history of mortuary practices in south-west Tanzania, not to mention elsewhere in the region, remains to be described in detail. Exposure of the dead was clearly an important component of this history, at least in the immediate pre-colonial period. At present, however, we can only guess at what future research might reveal about the past of this and other mortuary practices.

My research in Tanzania in 1980-82 was funded by the then Social Science Research Council (U.K.), with additional support from the Smuts Fund and Wolfson College in the University of Cambridge. I am very grateful to my hosts in Utengule-Usangu and all those who provided me with information on the topic of this article, in particular Ngwila Simuhongole, Eliuter Shinangonele, Betitha Mwakalinga, and Jackson Mwakabalile.


Elton, J. F. 1879. Travels and Researches among the Lakes and Mountains of Eastern and Central Africa (edited by H. B. Cotterill). London: John Murray.

Heese, P. 1913. “Sitte und Brauch der Sango”, Archiv für Anthropologie, 40 (n.s.12): 134 146.

MacKenzie, D. R. 1925. The Spirit ridden Konde. London: Seeley, Service & Co.

Nurse, D. 1988. “The Diachronic Background to the Language Communities of Southwestern Tanzania”, Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 9: 15 115.

[PA] = Periodical Accounts Relating to the Foreign Missions of the Church of the United Brethren (London).

Walsh, M. T. 1984. The Misinterpretation of Chiefly Power in Usangu, South-west Tanzania, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

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