On Friday 20th August 2015 I accompanied Third Year Theology students from Chancellor College who were going for an education visit to Mbona Shrine in Nsanje.
We arrived at the place at around 11:00 am and were met by the DC’s officer Mr Tembo. It is about ten kilometers from the Nsanje Government Offices to Mbona Shrine. On arrival we were met by some chiefs. We were told that there are twelve chiefs who work inside and twelve chiefs who are part of the group but working outside the shrine. We were briefed on arrival on what to do if someone wants to visit the shrine. We were told to undress from waist upwards and put a black cloth around our waist downward on top of our skirts / trousers. This applies to anyone who wants to visits the area. The twelve chiefs for the area work together for the benefit of the shrine.
We were escorted by some of the chiefs to the shrine. The shrine itself is inside a thick virgin forest. We were first taken to Mbona’s place where we were told that the head of Mbona was buried. This is a sacred place where people go to visit on special occasions. The place has a grass thatched hut and there is a huge tree trunk nearby where they leave the offerings for the rain. Found on the base of the tree were wooden plates and some gourds. The food during the offering is left on this tree and they believe that Mbona comes to eat and drink whatever is left here, and that after this people can have good rains. We were told that the tree fell at one point on top of this hut but it never destroyed any bamboo yet the tree trunks were so heavy that they needed about four men to move it from the top of hut where it fell. We saw a hole behind the hut where they say Mbona exits when going to Mai Salima’s hut. As we approached the hole, we saw a swarm of bees heading towards us. The person who was leading us told us that this meant Mbona wanted us to leave the place. We didn’t wait for a second warning; we ran as swiftly as we could.
After our ‘escape’, we were told about Mai Salima. According to local belief, Mayi Salima is the woman who is regarded as Mbona’s wife. The chiefs told us that people usually say Mbona is a snake but they know that Mbona is a human being. When we visited the shrine, they did not have anyone who could be referred to as Mayi Salima, because the designated holder of that title had passed away, and they were waiting to see who would take her place. The person has already been identified and is supposed to come from the Man’ganja clan at a special ceremony. The person is supposed to be a woman who is not a witch and who has passed through menopause and is a dedicated person to this culture/religion. This woman will be taken from wherever she is, being carried by women to this place. She will be covered so that people will not see her face. She will be showered with rules of this shrine before she is left alone. She will then be isolated for about four days in her hut so that she will chat with Mbona. She is the only one who can chat directly with Mbona and she is the mouthpiece of Mbona so she will tell the people what Mbona wants them to do.
Before we actually went out of this place we were asked to gather at a place called ‘chitupila’ which is at the opening of this shrine. We were told that if there is anything which people want to talk about they gather at this place. The place has a big tree where TA Mgabu seats and leans on whilst the others seat without leaning on anything. Near this tree there is a hollow tree trunk which is regarded as sacred. It has been there for a very long period. We were told that this area can never be filled up; for example those people who can fill the stadium can come to this place but they will not fill it up, and that is why it is called ‘chitupila,’ which means ‘ multiplying’. The whole Malawi nation can go into that place and space will still remain for other people to fill. The place with that we saw is about 25 metres by 10 metres.
There is a lot to be learnt on this shrine. I wouldn’t mind going for another visit. Let’s hope the bees will not send us on a hasty exit as was the case this time.