PART 1: Chiefs, grandmothers and other great female ancestors

‘Chiefs, grandmothers and other great female ancestors’ is the first photo essay in a three-part series documenting an ongoing oral history project on the historical changes of women’s political and spiritual power among the Yaawo people in Niassa, northern Mozambique.

Using both still images from interview videos as well as portraits of key narrators, it explores the ways that the time of our lives and deeper time (or the times of our ancestors) intertwine and interact in the oral history encounters.

The Yaawo have a long history of female chiefs (mweenye vaakoongwe) and other female figures of spiritual and political authority (known as biibi [pl. acibiibi] and angaanga, and later as rainha). And while the gendered system of chieftaincy and the shape of female power has undergone many significant changes through time—acibiibi still exist, and some communities have female chiefs.

These days the acibiibi are remembered in oral historical narratives of the Yaawo chiefly dynasties that emerged around the mid-nineteenth century but also in more personal family histories.

History-telling. Aku-Siwona Sayidi, Selsa Saidi, A-Siyatu Mwaamadi, A-Biibi Bonomadi, and Helena Baide (my co-interviewer) in Ligogolo, 2019.
From grandmother to daughter’s daughter. Aku-Siwona Sayidi remembers how as a child it was her job to pound the maize for the biibi for the mbopeesi ceremony (that is, the ceremony in which an offering of flour called mbopeesi is made to ancestral spirits and to God, asking them to protect the living). This biibi was her grandmother Ce-Mwaamiini N’suume. Preparing the flour could only be done by girls who hadn’t yet entered wunyago (undergone initiation), which is why the biibi didn’t pound the maize herself. But when the biibi together with chief Aku-Miwuuti (who was her brother) went to offer the mbopeesi at the n’solo tree, Aku-Siwona wasn’t allowed to follow. The elders went alone; and when they returned, as Aku-Siwona remembers, they only said that they had been at the n’solo tree making the mbopeesi offering. And as Aku-Siwona explains, at the time she didn’t dare ask any further questions. Her elders had made it clear to her that, similarly to wunyago, this ceremony involved knowledge to which she wasn’t yet privy. Years later when Ce-Mwaamiini died, she passed her mbopeesi basket to Aku-Siwona’s older sister Ce-Dadiya Sayidi. After Ce-Dadiya died, the basket passed to Aku-Siwona, and now she is teaching a granddaughter to continue after her.
Names that carry histories. In my interviews, a distinction was commonly made between the ‘small’ mbopeesi of the family and the ‘big’ mbopeesi of the country (or territory) offered for the protection of the whole population. In the past the mbopeesi of the country was only offered by big territorial chiefs together with their female counterparts the acibiibi. The first biibi of the Cipango chieftaincy was Ce-Ngavaane. She was the mother of the first Cipango. After she died, her name (and social position of biibi) passed on to her granddaughter; who, as A-Lasiya N’suudi tells us, was a maternal grandmother of hers. While the Ce-Ngavaane’s mbopeesi basket didn’t pass on to A-Lasiya, these days she occupies the position of the family biibi. She offers mbopeesi for the protection of her family. Both Elisabet and A-Lasiya are the acibiibi of their respective families. They received their names as well as their mbopeesi baskets from maternal grandmothers. Elisabet Yimedi, A-Lasiya N’suudi, and Helena Baide in Malulu, 2019.
The n’solo tree. Pseudolachnostylis maprouneufolia. The full-grown n’solo trees are known for their beautiful shade. These tree are considered special because they shed their leaves only at night. The n’solo trees are also known to gather spirits, and this is why the people of the old days chose to communicate with their ancestors and N’nuungu (God) under their shade. In the mbopeesi ceremony, the foot of the tree is first cleared from weeds and dry leaves. Then the offering of flour is made while the names of one’s dead ancestors are called upon thus invoking their spirits. In the more distant past when the big chiefs and great acibiibi performed the ceremony in protection of the people on their territory, they called on the spirits of the great chiefs and acibiibi of their matrilineages who had ruled before them to come to their aid. Mavago, 2019.
Generational shifts. The two daughters of A-Weetu Amisse know most of her stories, and she listens attentively as they do nearly all the talking. Having reached a very respectable age, A-Weetu has also already passed her mbopeesi basket (which she received from her grandmother) to two granddaughters, who are in the process of learning their responsibilities. In the past, as Helena, her eldest daughter, describes, every family used to have their mbopeesi, but these days it is difficult to know what goes on in other families as the village is so big. A-Weetu and her daughters also lament not knowing any names of the great acibiibi of the Kalanje chieftaincy. As Helena explains: ‘The old chiefs respected their acibiibi a lot. But these days, we don’t hear anymore these names.’ Only the name of the first Ce-Kalanje (remembered as a fierce military leader and great territorial chief) lives on through his successors up to this day. Helena Baide, Helena Yinusi, Joana Yinusi, and A-Weetu Amissi in Malulu, 2019.
Women’s changing power. Rajabu Chaibo tells the story of how in the past the chief wasn’t a man; she was a woman. When the first Ce-Nam’paanda (called Ce-Dipiindimule at the time, before he became the founder of the Nam’paanda dynasty) came from the direction of Mecula, he arrived with his sister Ce-Ngulupe. At the time she was the chief. According to Rajabu, the reason that the tables turned so that women could no longer be chiefs (and the chief had to be a man) was because the woman didn’t have time to attend to the visitors and people who came to the chief with their problems. This was when it was decided that it didn’t make sense for the woman to be chief—because she didn’t have time. All her time was spent in the kitchen cooking for the visitors. Rajabu Chaibo, Binamur Buchir, Gabriel Chaibo, and Mussa Nam’paanda in Mapuje, 2019. Ce-Nam’paanda had died very recently, and the men I met with were members of his council.
A story about a great grandmother. Fátima Mussa tells the story of Ce-Biiba her great grandmother who was the first chief in the area of N’kalapa. When Ce-Biiba arrived, the place was void of people, and even a part of her family fled because they thought that the place lacked fertile soil for farming. Yet as the story continues: When Ce-Biiba was lamenting on how she would manage to live alone, she heard spirits calling to her, telling her that she should go to the great territorial chief Ce-Mataaka (according to Fátima, this was Machemba; he ruled between 1912 and 1948), to get mbopeesi. Through this mbopeesi, as the spirits told her, she would get people to come and live with her. So Ce-Biiba went to Ce-Mataaka and brought the mbopeesi to N’kalapa, and indeed people started showing up. Two female chiefs, Ce-Bulayimu and Ce-Boodi, and one male chief, Ce-Wiile came with their families. Also those who had previously fled were called back. At that time the place had been dangerous, full of animals, such as lions, elephants, buffaloes, and wild oxen. But when Ce-Biiba started offering mbopeesi all those things disappeared and people started to live well in that place. Fátima M’bwaana, Ce-Mangolowe, Fátima Mussa, and Helena Baide in N’kalapa, 2019.
A dynasty of female chiefs. ‘Ce-Nan’tima was a woman; she wasn’t a man.’ Chief Ce-Nan’tima explains that since the very first Ce-Nan’tima—who arrived from the Ciingodi mountain in the area of Quelimane to settle on the Ciweegulu mountain on the Njeese mountain range in Niassa—the Nan’tima chief have all been women. Moreover, as she describes, the first Nan’tima chiefs were known for their powerful mbopeesi through which they protected their people in wars against the Ngoni and lions, as well as ensured that rains would fall and people could produce their crops. Maniamba, 2019.
Grandmother’s wisdom. At the end of our interview, I asked Ce-Maguuta (the counselor and oral historian of the Mataaka chiefs) if he still wanted to say something. He responded: ‘No, I don’t have anything to add. But I would like to say a bit about why the woman is considered superior to the man. I will try to say a little about what my grandmother told me.’ Mavago, 2019.

Continue to PART 2

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