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Myths and Legends of the Bantu

Alice Werner


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The Bantu is the name given to a group of around 600 ethnic groups who speak the Bantu language. These groups can be found in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. This book, published in 1933 contains stories relating to them, as well as their beliefs.

This book has 294 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1910.

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Excerpt from 'Myths and Legends of the Bantu'

Who are the Bantu?

BANTU is now the generally accepted name for those natives of South Africa (the great majority) who are neither Hottentots nor Bushmen-that is to say, mainly, the Zulus, Xosas (Kafirs), Basuto, and Bechuana -to whom may be added the Thongas (Shangaans) of the Delagoa Bay region and the people of Southern Rhodesia, commonly, though incorrectly, called Mashona.

Abantu is the Zulu word for 'people' (in Sesuto batho, and in Herero ovandu) which was adopted by Bleek, at the suggestion of Sir George Grey, as the name for the great family of languages now known to cover practically the whole southern half of Africa. It had already been ascertained, by more than one scholar, that there was a remarkable resemblance between the speech of these South African peoples and that of the Congo natives on the one hand and of the Mozambique natives on the other. It was left for Bleek-who spent the last twenty years of his life at the Cape-to study these languages from a scientific point of view and systematize what was already known about them. His Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, though left unfinished when he died, in 1875, is the foundation of all later work done in this subject.

The Bantu languages possess a remarkable degree of uniformity. They may differ considerably in vocabulary, and to a certain extent in pronunciation, but their grammatical structure is, in its main outlines, everywhere the same. But to speak of a 'Bantu race' is misleading. The Bantu-speaking peoples vary greatly in physical type: some of them hardly differ from some of the 'Sudanic'-speaking Negroes of West Africa (who, again, are by no means all of one pattern), while others show a type which has been accounted for by a probable 'Hamitic' invasion from the north.

But on questions connected with 'race' and racial characteristics ethnologists themselves are by no means agreed, and in any case we need not discuss them in this book.

The Bantu-speaking peoples, then, include such widely separated tribes as the Duala, adjoining the Gulf of Cameroons, in the north-west; the Pokomo of the Tana valley, in the north-east; the Zulus in the south-east; and the Hereros in the south-west. Some are tall and strongly built, like the Zulus; some as tall or taller, but more slender, though equally well formed, like the Basuto-or even over-tall and too thin for their height, like the Hereros; others short and sturdy, like the Pokomo canoe-men, or small, active, and wiry, like some of the Anyanja. They vary greatly in colour, from a very dark brown (none, I think, are quite black) to different shades of bronze or copper. Colour may not be uniform within the same tribe: the Zulus themselves, for instance, distinguish between ' black'-that is, dark brown-and ' red '-or lighter brown-Zulus.

It does not seem likely, then, that all these various tribes ever formed parts of one family, as their languages may be said to do. But it may be assumed that a considerable body, speaking the same language, set out (perhaps two or three thousand years ago) from somewhere in the region of the Great Lakes towards the south and east. Whether they came into Africa across the Isthmus of Suez, bringing their language with them, or-as seems more likely developed it in that continent need not concern us here. As they moved on, separating in different directions (as our Teutonic ancestors did when they moved into Europe), their several languages grew up.

The Bushmen

They did not find an empty continent awaiting them. The only previous inhabitants of whom we have any certain knowledge are the Bushmen, the Pygmies of the Congo forests (and some scattered remnants of similar tribes in other parts), and perhaps the Hottentots. The present-day Bushmen, most of whom are to be found in the Kalahari Desert, are small (often under four feet in height), light-complexioned (Miss Bleek says "about putty-colour"), and in various other respects differ markedly from the Bantu. They live by hunting, trapping, and collecting whatever small animals, insects, fruits, and roots are regarded as edible. They were driven into the more inhospitable regions and partially exterminated, first by the invading Bantu and then by Europeans-whose treatment of them is a very black page in our history. The Bantu, however, in some cases killed the men only, and married the women, which accounts for unusual types met with here and there among the South African Bantu. And sometimes (as G. W. Stow thought was the case with the earliest Bechuana immigrants) the newcomers may have settled down more or less peaceably with the old inhabitants. This I think not unlikely to have happened in the district west of the Shire, in Nyasaland, where the local Nyanja-speaking population (calling themselves, not quite correctly, 'Angoni') are small, dark, and wiry, and seem to have absorbed a strong Bushman element. This fact, if true, may explain some of their notions about the origin of mankind, as we shall see later on.

The Bantu Languages

The Bantu languages, on the whole, are beautiful and harmonious. None of them differ from each other much more than French does from Spanish or English from Danish. No two, for instance, would be as far apart as English and French, or French and Welsh, though all these belong to the same Indo-European family. The words used are often quite different (we know that English and American people, both speaking English, may use different words for the same thing); but the grammar is everywhere, in its main outlines, the same. It is scarcely necessary, at this time of day, to say that an unwritten language may have a grammar, and even a very complicated one.

It is not often that a speaker of one Bantu language can understand another without previously learning it; but most natives pick up each other's speech with surprising quickness. An East African who has travelled any considerable distance from his home will probably speak three or four dialects with ease.

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