Robert Nassau, as David Livingstone before him, was a missionary, explorer, and recorder of people, geography and customs in the areas through which he traveled and lived. Also, as Livingstone, he was a product of the colonial era of the nineteenth century, and thus his writing, analyses and claims should be read in relation to that historical and political paradigm.
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Earlier, I wrote the following about ‘magicality and food’
“Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical ‘recipe’ to be constructed – but also in relation to the context in which it is situated. Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product. It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.
“During his forty years of missionary work in west Africa, the Rev. Nassau seems to have learned this important fact – although it is not specifically stated as such in his works. To examine the approach he uses in incorporating what I shall call the ‘magicality of cuisine’ in an otherwise secular dish. I will talk about the role of Sacred Huts and Magical Aspects of Food.”
Source – The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
The Rev. Nassau explains:
In some part of the long single street of most villages is built a low hut, sometimes not larger than a dog-kennel, in which, among all tribes, are hung charms ; or by which is growing a consecrated plant (a lily, a cactus, a Euphorbia, or a Ficus). In some tribes a rudely carved human (generally female) figure stands in that hut, as an idol. Idols are rare among most of the coast tribes, but are common among all the interior tribes.
That they are not now frequently seen on the Coast is, I think, not due to a lack of faith in them, but perhaps to a slight sense of civilized shame. The idol has been the material object most denounced by missionaries in their sermons against heathenism.
The half-awakened native hides it, or he manufactures it for sale to curio-hunters. A really valued idol, supposed to contain a spirit, he will not sell. He does not always hide his fetich charm worn on his person; for it passes muster in his explanation of its use as a ” medicine.” That idol, charm, or plant, as the case may be, is believed for the time to be the residence of a spirit which is to be placated by offerings of some kind of food.
I have seen in those sacred huts a dish of boiled plantains (often by foreigners miscalled “bananas “) or a plate of fish. This food is generally not removed till it spoils. Sometimes, where the gift is a very large one, a feast is made; people and spirit are supposed to join in the festival, and nothing is left to spoil.
That it is of use to the spirit is fully believed ; but just how, few have been able to tell me. Some say that the ” hfe ” ‘or essence of the food’ has been eaten by the spirit ; only the form of the vegetable or flesh remaining to be removed.
Decle [‘author of “Three Years in Savage Africa”] also describes the religious habits of the Barotse tribes of Southern Central Africa : ” They chiefly worship the souls of their ancestors. When any misfortune happens, the witch doctor divines with knuckle-bones whether the ancestor is displeased, and they go to the grave and offer up sacrifice of grain or honey.
They also bring to the tombs cooked meats, which they leave there a few minutes and then eat. When they go to pray by a grave, they also leave some small white beads. Whilst an Englishman was journeying to Lialui, he passed near a little wood where there lay a very venerated chief. The boatmen stopped, and having sacrificed some cooked millet, their headman designated a man to offer up a prayer, which ran thus:
* You see us; we are worn out travellers, and our belly is empty ; inspire the white man, for whom we row, to give us food to fill our stomachs.’ “
Among the Wanyamwezi, ” Every chief has near his hut a Musimo hut, in which the dead are supposed to dwell, and where sacrifices and offerings must be made. Meat and flour are deposited in the Musimo huts, and are not, as with many other peoples, consumed afterwards. The common people also have their Musimo huts, but they are smaller than that of the chief, and the offerings they make are, of course, not so important as his.
Text source – Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.
Other entries in this series are:
- The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
- The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
- The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
- The Magicality of Cuisine 4: Feeding the Soil a Stew of Leaves and Bark to Guarantee Successful Gardening, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa