Huts & Votive Offerings in 19th Century Africa

Votive hut next to a residential hut in Burundi, c. 1910. Source: Meyer

Several of the 19th Century explorers mention finding very small huts, replicas of larger ones, in the villages through which they travelled.  Here is what Livingstone has to say:

 In various villages we have observed miniature huts, about two feet high, very neatly thatched and plastered, here we noticed them in dozens. On inquiring, we were told that when a child or relative dies one is made, and when any pleasant food is cooked or beer brewed, a little is placed in the tiny hut for the departed soul, which is believed to enjoy it.

 Source: The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume 1(of 2), 1866-1868

 Speke, whose information of a social and cultural nature is often incorrect or at the least stilted, and whose views are harsher than those of Livingstone, claims:

With the utmost complacency our sable brother builds a dwarf hut in his fields, and places some grain on [in] it to propitiate the evil spirit, and suffer him to reap the fruits of his labour, and this too they call Uganga or church.

 Source: John Hanning Speke: The Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1864.

One of the photos that appears in Hans Meyer’s book on Burundi  provides just such a picture of a miniature hut (above).

Meyer explains the huts in this way:

En règle générale, on trouve aussi tout a cote de la maison quelques petites huttes hautes d’1 m dédiées aux esprits (ikigabiro) faites de paille et de roseaux; on y dépose des offrandes dans des tessons de pots ou des calebasses; de la viande, du lait, ou bien des produits agricoles…

 Une autre petite hutte en miniature (ikitabo) est volée au dieu principal Riangombe ou Kiranga.  De telles huttes sont bien plus fréquentes en Urundi, en Uha [Tanzanie] et en Ussumbwa {Tanzanie ? } qu’au Ruanda…

 …Le père Gassldinger [un des Peres Blancs] appelle Kiranga “celui qui corrompt tout”, le Lucifer des Barundi.  D’après lui, c’est le dieu qu’on invoque en premier dans le malheur, la détresse et l’angoisse et c’est a lui que sont consacrées la plupart des petites huttes a sacrifices (akararo) situées a cote des habitations; on y trouverait régulièrement un grand pot en argile a trois pieds et trois ouvertures qui recueillerait les offrandes.

 En plus de la bière, c’est essentiellement de la paille qui est déposée dans ces petites huttes.  On y brule aussi des cornes de bovins, en guise de sacrifices…

 Source: Hans Meyer: Les Barundi: Une étude ethnologique en Afrique orientaleParis, Soc. Fr. d’hist. d’outre-mer, 1984 [[1916]

Talking to older Burundian friends who were born and raised upcountry, it seems that the use of small huts for magical purposes or for the deceased is still practiced in some of the ‘old-fashoned’ homes. 

This would be interesting to follow-up.  For example, are  (or were they recently used) in order to keep safe from rebel attacks during the war years?  Magical practices of this sort are fading quickly, with the younger generation.

Today, the only people still making grass huts in Burundi are the Batwa pygmies, who are the traditional pottery makers:

A Batwa woman in front of her hut making pots

that were purchased by the Hotel Club du Lac


For more information on the Batwa in Burundi, see this blog.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Colonialism, Explorers & exploration, History-Recent, Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika2. Bookmark the permalink.

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