Monday, 27 February 2012


by Martin Walsh

Dancing yailya at mbalino, 7 August 1981
When the first European explorers crossed the mountains to the north of Lake Nyasa in 1877, they found themselves in the thick of a bloody conflict between the Sangu and the Hehe, the most powerful chiefdoms in what are now known as the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. They were welcomed by the Sangu chief Tovelmahamba Merere, who was holed up with his advisors and warriors in a temporary stockade at Mfumbi, at the foot of the escarpment that opens onto the Usangu Plains. After helping to raise the siege Captain Elton and his party then crossed the plains, travelling via the burned-out Sangu capital, Utengule, that had been abandoned by Merere a couple of years before. The Sangu chief didn't live in his old capital again, but died in exile in Usafwa, near modern Mbeya, in 1893. He was succeeded by his son, Mgandilwa Merere (aka Pambalu), who was finally able to return to Usangu at the end of 1896, after the Germans had defeated the Hehe under Mkwawa. In 1899 Mgandilwa went back to live in Utengule, and recruited craftsmen from the coast to build an imposing Swahili-style residence beside the River Mambi, a physical symbol of his authority, albeit circumscribed by German power (Walsh 1984: 42, 47-49).

Malenjela (photo by Alison Redmayne)
When I lived in Utengule-Usangu in 1980-81 Mgandilwa Merere's two-storey 'palace' was still the most impressive building in the village, though political authority now resided with the Village Secretary and other functionaries of the one-party State. The incumbent chief was Mgandilwa's grandson, Alfeo Mgandilwa Merere, and although he preferred to live in comparative isolation in the village of Luhanga, to the north of Utengule, he was regularly persuaded to preside over ritual offerings (mafunyo) to his ancestors at the palace, which everyone knew as mbalino (after, it was said, the name of a village thought to be similarly well-protected, in that case by a surrounding forest). Everyone was invited to these events (once upon a time attendance had been compulsory), the more the merrier, with the merriment provided by copious quantities of local beer and the performance of traditional songs and dances either side of the offerings themselves, which also meant a taste of roasted beef for those taking part. The first of the offerings I attended, at the end of the dry season in 1980, was in many ways the most spectacular, not least because it featured the rarely-heard playing of gourd zither (ligombo) and (separately) the war drums of the Sangu (one large and four small drums known collectively as malenjela). Appropriately enough, this collective offering and celebration was followed immediately by the start of the rains that it was designed to bring.  

Approaching mbalino, 25 August 2007
In all I attended five of these two-day royal rituals at Merere's Utengule residence, two of which were held consecutively. I wrote at some length about one of them in a chapter of my doctoral dissertation and the paper that was based on it (1984: 75-84; 1985). I've always wanted to write more, to try to capture (recover?) something of the emotional impact that these events had upon me, and to record the sights and sounds I witnessed for posterity, including the many banal aspects of these collective rituals and the human interactions that characterised them. More than once, though, I've held back because of discomfort with my evident failure to understand everything that was going on during these events, including the lack of an overall interpretation that would fit readily into the anthropological literature that I was brought up on. It's taken me some years to appreciate that Not Understanding Everything is an inescapable feature of research in Usangu, not to mention in other complex social situations, and not necessarily just a personal failing. My incomplete knowledge and understanding of what has happened in Utengule since I left at the end of 1981 is another case in point, and amply illustrated by the paragraphs that follow.

The crumbling exterior, 25 August 2007
When Alfeo died in 1988 (other dates are available), there was uncertainty over who should inherit the chiefship, and it was offered to two senior members of the royal family, who both turned it down on the grounds (it seems) that they could do without the hassle and not least the expense of having to pay for periodic offerings to their ancestors. The stool was eventually given to Yusuf, Alfeo's eldest son, who wasn't really in a position to sit on it because he lived and worked in Dodoma, the nation's political capital. He was then pushed aside by his younger brother, Ahmed, a schoolteacher who did at least live in Utengule, though not in the palace itself. When I returned to Utengule after a decade and a half absence in February 1997, this was being occupied by his mother Simalisa and her younger children. We sat and chatted in the cloistered baraza, where the large lilenjela drum occupied its traditional position at one end. The building was very evidently starting to crumble, and I made a note of this at the time. The writing was on the wall (quite literally), and Ahmed was subsequently blamed for failing to maintain not only the palace but also the welcoming spirit and traditional practices that had once given it life.

The collapsed wall, 25 August 2007
(Daniel Merere in the foreground, Jonas Mfumbulwa to the left)
I visited Utengule on a number of occasions after 1997, but didn't pay much attention to the Sangu royal residence or even the fate of the chiefship. On my last trip to Usangu in August 2007, I travelled from Rujewa to Utengule with Daniel Merere, whose father Myotishuma (Alfeo's father's brother) had played the ligombo in 1981 (and for anthropologist Alison Redmayne in the late 1960s). We went to see the palace, together with  Maneno Merere, one of Alfeo's sons, Jonas Mfumbulwa, the Mereres' ritual specialist, and Mohammed Mfumbulwa, Jonas' nephew and Chairman of the administrative unit in which the mbalino is now located, Magurula village. I was shocked to see the state of the now unoccupied building, one wall of which had collapsed, exposing its inner chambers and the stairs to the upper floor. I was equally dismayed to see that the large lilenjela drum, once a majestic instrument, had lost its skin and was falling apart. Maneno told me that the four smaller drums had been stolen. The separate kitchen building was also a ruin, and the whole compound, including the nearby royal graves, pervaded with an air of neglect. After inspecting the building and discussing the possibility of raising funds to restore the palace to its former glory -- difficult I thought, without evidence of collective organisation and support for such a project -- I entrusted Daniel with some money for emergency repairs and encouraged him to coordinate with other members of the royal family. He later sent me a detailed estimate of the cost of fixing the whole building, totalling nearly Tshs.3.5 million, but I was at a loss to know what to do with this, other than helping to publicise the plight of the royal palace.    

The neglected lilenjela, 25 August 2007
I haven't followed up until writing this post. Meanwhile, it seems, things have moved on. Ahmed Merere died in the early noughties (or before), and in 2002 (or thereabouts) his elder brother Yusuf returned to live in Utengule and reoccupy the royal stool, though his incumbency wasn't universally accepted. Some people considered the rightful chief to be another brother, Salehe (aka Luvaha), who was a son of Alfeo's by another wife, Simanjaganjali. I was told in 2003 that he had come out on top in the ritual test that was given to Alfeo's sons after his death, a test that was traditionally used to divine who was most suitable to succeed to the chiefship (this ritual and different understandings of it is a subject for another day). At the time he was judged too young to take up the position, hence the accession of his elder half-brothers Yusuf and then Ahmed. Although I can't say exactly how this happened, Salehe Alfeo Merere is now occupying the position that some thought he should have been all along, as chief of the Sangu. He's posted an appeal on a local websiteasking for more than Tshs. 43.5 million to renovate the palace and add other buildings and facilities to turn it into a museum. This is an ambitious project, and not well explained or pitched. But it's a sign that there might life yet in the Sangu chiefship and its otherwise crumbling heritage.

My thanks to Gundula Fischer at Tumaini University for telling me about a recent joint offering held by Salehe Merere and the Hehe chief, Abdul Mkwawa, at the latter's seat in Kalenga. This started me searching through old correspondence, notes and photos -- I might revise this post if I find more -- and also led me to the online appeal by the Sangu chief. What I know about the events that followed the death of Alfeo Mgandilwa Merere, I owe to one man in particular, his cousin Daniel Merere.


Writing on the wall of mbalino
Walsh, Martin 1984. The Misinterpretation of Chiefly Power in Usangu, South-west Tanzania. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Walsh, Martin 1985. Village, state and traditional authority in Usangu. In R. G. Abrahams (ed.) Villagers, Villages and the State in Modern Tanzania (Cambridge African Monograph No. 4). Cambridge: African Studies Centre. 135-167.

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