Ethnographic interviews and archive studies are important parts of Nancy Rushohoras research.

Water rituals still part of Tanzanian politics

The Majimaji war (1905–07) against German colonial rule began with water rituals. Maji medicine was supposed to turn bullets into water. NAI guest researcher Nancy Rushohora is studying the water rituals, which people still practise in southern Tanzania. In a recent conflict over a gas pipeline a ritualist threatened to turn gas into water.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 people died during the war and the famine that followed in what is now Tanzania. The war was triggered by a German policy designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export.

In 1904, ritualist Kinjekitile Ngwale created maji, a medicine that essentially consisted of sacred water from a spring close to his house. Under certain circumstances, it was supposed to turn German bullets into water and was distributed in secret. The medicine and the rituals are regarded as important elements in unifying 20 different ethnic groups to resist colonial rule.

“The same rituals emerged again in 2012, when ritualist Bibi Samoe Mtiti of Msimbati village [Bibi wa Msimbati] warned the government that she would turn gas in the proposed pipeline into water”, Rushohora says.

Ever since the Majimaji war, the southern regions – Ruvuma, Lindi and Mtwara – have been the least privileged parts of Tanzania in terms of economic development, initially because the colonial authorities saw them as ‘rebellious’.

Increased gas exploration and extraction in Mtwara between 2005 and 2010 raised hopes of a brighter future. But people regarded the government’s plan to construct a pipeline to take the gas to Dar es Salaam, instead of a local processing plant, as another attempt to drain the region of resources.

The rituals have also functioned as environmental conservation measures.

Nancy Rushohora

In the 1990s, a similar gas pipeline was built from Lindi, north of Mtwara, to Dar es Salaam.

“In Lindi, a lot of promises were given about local development, jobs and electricity that were not fulfilled”, Rushohora observes.

Demonstrations against the planned pipeline started in 2012 and soon escalated into riots. Houses were burnt down and several people were killed. Bibi wa Msimbati, at the time 106 years old, threatened to turn the gas into water if the government did not meet local demands of development.

She had been involved in gas exploration some years before. A Canadian company engaged her help when extraction of natural gas proved impossible.

“She started a process of ritual communication with the owners of the land. It is said that the extraction was successful after she performed rituals, but I have not been able to interview those involved to compare pre-ritual experience as compared to post-ritual”, Rushohora says.

The protest movement against the pipeline, which Bibi wa Msimbati headed, gained a large following and extensive media coverage. The prime minister at the time, Mizengo Pinda, even visited the ritualist.

“He tried to convince her how important construction of the pipeline was. He also informed her that she could be charged with crimes, as she was influencing the youth.”

A number of meetings took place and appeased local opposition with promises of benefits, among others electrification of rural areas. The pipeline was finally completed in 2015. But as recently as in October 2017 there has been civil unrest in Mtwara, triggered by extensive power cuts.

Pictographs show the horrors of the war in drawings.

Ritualists were executed

The colonial German authorities arrested Kinjekitile Ngwale shortly before the outbreak of the Majimaji war. He was executed in August 1905. Other ritualists were also killed during the war – among them, female leader Mkomanile – because the authorities saw them as a threat to colonial rule. The British, who succeeded the Germans as the colonial power, continued to suppress traditional beliefs and in 1921 declared maji rituals illegal.

Nevertheless, the rituals continued throughout southern Tanzania, and the country’s first president, Julius Nyerere, considered the Majimaji war the starting point of the struggle for independence.

“The debate about the war and the maji ideology has centred on the unification effect. But interpretations differ widely between ‘native rebellion’, patriotic liberation movement, gender struggle, agrarian or religious movement”, Rushohora comments.

She has studied 26 different sites connected with the Majimaji war and water rituals. They have been preserved mostly through societal taboos and rituals.

“The rituals are a part of the intangible heritage of the war, yet to be explored and given the significance they deserve.”

The rituals have also functioned as environmental conservation measures for water resources, not just of rivers or springs, but also of surrounding forests.

Rushohora’s research methods combine contemporary archaeology with ethnographic observation and archive studies. A specific problem she has encountered has been restricted access to Benedictine mission archives. The archives contain much material from the war, but researchers are not allowed access to them, only interviews with staff.

“The missionaries were eyewitnesses of the war, and their documentation is needed to determine if the Majimaji war should be considered as a genocide”, observes Rushohora.

Important sources to her are, for instance, two monographs by German ethnographer Karl Weule, produced during and shortly after the war. He collected pictographs: drawings on walls of huts or on stones in villages that are depicting events.

“People had a desire to demonstrate the harm that they encountered during the colonial period”, says Rushohora, who plans to publish a book about the rituals.

“I originally planned for articles, but at NAI in Uppsala I have been able to go through my notes and, with the help of researcher Terje Oestigaard, develop a completely new focus.”

TEXT: Mats Hellmark

The NAI Library suggests

To the top