Bantu Beliefs and Magic


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The general idea is that a dying person can put a curse upon property belonging to him, or can lay a curse upon another person, but only upon a person belonging to his own family; thus, for example, the head of a village, when dying, can lay a curse on a certain plot of land owned by him and will that it shall not pass out of the family, and if a descendant sells it, his speedy death is said to follow. A case recently came to the author’s knowledge where an elder was offered a very tempting sum for a particular piece of land, and equivalent land elsewhere, but refused it because the property had come down to him with a kirume on it. This is a very interesting revelation, because when one comes to consider it, in all probability it is the genesis of a last will or testament. Furthermore, it is the rude beginning of our principle of "entail." It shows, moreover, that these people have almost reached the stage of individual tenure in land, or at any rate, of tenure by the family, the head of the village being the trustee for the family, and it is his duty to see that the gethaka rights are preserved intact. The gethaka is the portion of a ridge owned by a particular family, title being obtained by an ancestor by purchase from the original occupiers, the Dorobo hunting tribes.

If the head of the family feels that he is nearing his end he assembles his sons, and to the eldest he will probably say, "The goats belonging to such a hut shall be yours"; he will then call another son and say, "The goats of such and such a hut shall be yours, and if any of you break these wishes he shall surely die." He will then mention a certain shamba (cultivated field) and say, "Such and such a shamba shall not be sold, and if this wish is broken the one who sells it shall die." This operates as an entail on the property which will be passed on from generation to generation; such is the strength of the belief. Upon inquiry, examples may be found all over the country.

Another case quoted was that of a man who had a ne’er-do-well son who was in the habit of pilfering the neighboring villages; the custom is for those who have suffered to collect and seize the equivalent of their losses from his father. If this continues, the father, in the end, becomes so annoyed with his son’s misdeeds that he will put a kirume on him when on his deathbed. There is quite a medieval flavor about this action.

Sometimes, too, a man, when he is very old, entrusts a son with charge of his livestock, and the son may abuse the trust and let the flocks and herds melt away. Cases have been known where an old patriarch on his deathbed has put a kirume on his son to the effect that he shall neither grow rich nor have wives, but to the end of his life shall be condemned to perpetual poverty.

Again, a daughter may be a trouble to her father; she is, say, married to a husband who has paid the required dowry to her father; she runs away, repeatedly misbehaves herself, and so forth, and the father will then be subject to continual worry, owing to the husband’s demands for the return of the dowry. The father may eventually become so weary of all this worry that he will put a kirume on her and condemn her to perpetual barrenness.

Another case quoted was that of two brothers, one rich and one poor; the poor man may be envious of his brother and hate him in consequence. One day they go to drink beer, and, excited by the liquor, the poorer one brutally attacks his brother and grievously injures him. When the injured man recovers consciousness he will call his brother and say, "You have always been jealous of my wealth, and now I shall probably die from treatment received at your hands, but when I am dead if you attempt to seize any of my property you shall only be able to look at it, for if you touch a single head of stock you will die, and if your son comes to take any of my beasts he will also die."

If a dying man calls out to a man of his own clan, muhirika, or morika, and makes a request such as, "Give me water," and the person refuses, the dying man can impose a kirume upon the one who refuses.

A man is, generally speaking, only able to lay a kirume upon a person belonging to his own muhirika, or clan, which really means that a kirume will only affect one with a common blood tie.

There are, however, two exceptions to this:

If a man of one clan marries a woman of another clan (as is the rule) he can, if necessity arises, place a kirume upon the family of his wife if they live in the village of his father-in-law, because they have, as the expression runs, "eaten of his property," referring to the livestock he has paid over to his father-in-law for his wife.

The converse can also happen, for if a man has married a woman and has not paid his father-in-law the full amount agreed upon, the father-in-law when he dies can impose a kirume upon his son-in-law, and such kirume may also extend to his daughter, the idea probably being that the daughter has not sufficiently worried her husband to pay the balance due.

The power to impose a kirume is apparently not altogether confined to elders, for it is said that if an incorrigible child is driven away from home, becomes starved, and dies in consequence, it can, before it dies, curse its parents and say, "You have treated me like this, and therefore you shall not have any more children."

It is said that if a person hears that someone of his own clan is threatening to impose a kirume on him, he can take steps to prevent its infliction. The procedure was described as follows: If a person hears that, say, a brother intended to place a kirume on him, he at once takes a male goat or sheep to his village and kills it there; he offers some of the fat, some milk and beer to the dying man, who cannot refuse to forgive the suppliant, and who ceremonially spits into his hands and rubs a little saliva on his forehead, navel, and feet. The threatened person then departs in peace, free from any danger of a kirume from that person. This applies to both guilds.

One curious case of kirume which was described deserves notice. It is probably very rare, but it possibly carries evidence of the ancient origin of the belief and dates back to matriarchal times.

Suppose a dying mwanake, or member of the warrior age, lays a kirume upon his maternal grandfather, what course would he pursue to rid himself of the dangerous infliction? If he was unable to get the one who imposed it to spit on him as above described, he would have to seek a grandson by another daughter, take or send to him a male goat, some beer, the milk of a cow, and seed of the various kinds of grain grown in the country, and beg him to come to his village. The grandson would then come accompanied by the elders; he would taste the meat, beer, milk, etc., and ceremonially spit them out on the grandfather, and this would relieve the old man of all danger from the kirume imposed by his other grandson. There is a word kigao, which is intimately connected with kirume, and is often confused with it, but inquiry seems to show that kigao means the neglect of a dying father’s wish with regard to the disposal of property, and the result of kigao, is, therefore, kirume, cause and effect being often very closely allied in the mind of a native. . . .

A married woman can impose a kirume, but not on an unmarried woman. The following is an example of a case in which a married woman may invoke this curse:

If a married woman has for a long time been systematically ill-treated by a brutal husband she can, when dying, put a kirume on her father for having forced her to marry such a bad man, and also upon her husband for his brutality.

The kirume is looked upon as the severest form of thahu or nzahu known; in most cases of thahu the subject rarely dies, because it is slow in its action and the patient has an opportunity of making reparation and seeking relief from the prescribed medicine man or elders, but in the case of a kirume the curse is very swift in its action, the patient rapidly sickens, breaks out into ulcers, and often dies before he can arrange to take measures to arrest its onslaught; his livestock will also die mysteriously.

It is believed that the effective power of the kirume is derived from the spirit (ngoma) of the deceased person by whom it is imposed, assisted by the ngoma of the ancestors of the family.

It is said that there is no poison without its antidote, and the same applies to the kirume, but the antidote must be applied in good time and the only persons who can effect a cure are certain persons called athuri ya ukuu. The athuri ya ukuu compose a grade of elders above that of athuri ya mburi nne (elders of four goats—referring to the fee they pay for initiation to the grade). They are always old men and rich, and have to pay to their fellow elders of the grade a bullock and a male sheep or goat as initiation fees.

While the athuri ya mburi nne form the ordinary kiama, or council of elders, the athuri ya ukuu constitute a native court of appeal, but they do not admit appeals except in very important cases, when it is within their competence to revise a judgment and, if they consider fit, reduce the amount of compensation. It is also the duty of the athuri ya ukuu to instruct the heir in the customs of the tribe when he succeeds to the property after his father’s death.

The athuri ya ukuu do not treat ordinary cases of thahu but have to be called in for cases of kirume.1

More generally, the curse is involved in the verbal expression of any evil magical wish, and is widely employed in this form, both as legal and illegal magic. Its most elaborate use is reported from the Chagga, in the form of swinging a curse pot. The concept here resembles somewhat the curse of a mother or father, who had the power of giving life and correspondingly of taking it. Similarly, the pot has the power of nourishing life through its contents and correspondingly of destroying it. The practice was originally a rite of secret magic, but in the course of time every powerful sib possessed a curse pot. Later the chiefs socialized the procedure, permitting it to be used only in certain situations, as when a man refused to submit a dispute about cattle to the sib council.

The swinger of the pot announced his intention on a market day and the market women carried the information to the man against whom the swinging was to be directed, and if he did not relent the cursing and swinging began on the following market day and lasted for seven days, from dawn until dark. The cursing and swinging were supposed to make the pot extremely hot and "to awaken in it the slumbering powers of destruction."

1Hobleyn/an/an/an/an/an/a, , 145–151. (H. F. and G. Witherby. By permission).


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Chicago: "Bantu Beliefs and Magic," Bantu Beliefs and Magic in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2022,

MLA: . "Bantu Beliefs and Magic." Bantu Beliefs and Magic, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 28 May. 2022.

Harvard: , 'Bantu Beliefs and Magic' in Bantu Beliefs and Magic. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2022, from