Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Myths & Tales: Nang’omba: ancient Malawi’s trumpet birds?

It’s just before the rainy season in Malawi when the sound of natures’ trumpets is heard….waaaaah! waaaah!! Waaaaah!!! cry the Trumpeter Hornbills in the busy commercial city of Blantyre startling some in a nearby room.

As if being guided by an invisible conductor the birds cry in unison like babies even louder again as if telling a story of sorrow which no man can understand.

Their constant cries can make those with creative minds wonder what they’re trying to say using bird language. An example of it's baby cry is posted on You Tube

But some villagers in Malawi claim there are a few “gifted” people who can somehow understand what such birds are saying and that it allegedly warns of something about to happen in the world.

How this is done remains a mystery but there are some people who still believe the behavior and sounds of some birds and animals can somehow foretell the future.  

They also believe the Trumpeter hornbill is a mbalame yamizimu (spirit bird) with a natural horn (nyanga). Other beliefs about this bird and the spirit are not allowed to be shared on this blog.

This is in contrast to the Helmeted Hornbill with the “casque not hollow but is filled with ivory and is used as a battering ram used in dramatic aerial jousts."

The Trumpeter Hornbill (Bycanistes bucinator) is a medium-sized hornbill, with length between 58 and 65 cm (23 and 26 in), characterized by a large grey casque on the bill, smaller in females partly reads the unofficial Wikipedia.

“The eyes are brown or red, with pink surrounding skin. Body mass is reported between 0.45 and 1 kg (0.99 and 2.2 lb). They are similar to Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

Distinguishing features include an all-black back, white belly and white underwing coverts (in flight, wings present white tips), and red facial skin.”

In the West, the Trumpeter Hornbill, Bycanistes bucinator is also believed to be the mystery bird photographed in a classroom of the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the children’s novel and film Harry Potter somewhere in Scotland according to some online sources.

For others in Malawi these are just the usual myths and tales of this land which make entertaining story telling.  

The Trumpeter Hornbill is defined on as a  “gregarious bird, usually living in groups of 2 to 5 individuals, although sometimes as many as 50. 

This hornbill is a locally common resident of the tropical evergreen forests of Burundi, Mozambique, Botswana, Congo, Kenya and the Caprivi strip of Namibia and eastern South Africa, where it feeds on fruits and large insects.

“Like other hornbills, the females incubate 4 to 5 white eggs, while sealed in the nest compartment.”

It’s range is from south central and southeastern Africa from north central Angola east across south central and southeastern Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania to south central and southeastern Kenya, and south through Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, northeastern Zimbabwe, extreme northeastern Namibia and northern Botswana to eastern South Africa.

“Found in humid forest, well developed riverine forest, lowland forest, moist woodland, edge, savanna, and second growth woodland habitats,” further reads the same website.

“The medium sized hornbill is typical of coastal and riverine forests. The call is a loud, high nasal braying noise that is often prolonged and resembles the cry of a baby. They also give a low gutteral croak when feeding.”

Great Hornbill photo from
Now for those who hear music in their ears when these birds “cry” like a baby this could be like the earliest form of a “primitive” trumpet made from the hollowed-out horn or shell of an animal, into the end of which a hole was bored for the mouth.

According to some online sources this kind of “trumpet” had neither a mouthpiece nor a bell, and was not so much a musical instrument as a megaphone into which one spoke, sang, or shouted. The intention was to distort the voice and produce a harsh, unnatural sound to ward off evil spirits or disconcert one’s enemies.

“Only later was the trumpet used to invoke friendly gods or to encourage one’s own warriors on the battlefield. 

Typically only one or two different pitches could be produced on such an instrument, though sometimes a small fingerhole was bored in the tip to provide the player with an extra pitch,” further reads

It adds that: “Primitive trumpets were mainly used in religious ceremonies and magic rituals. As they were played only by men, they probably acquired strong phallic overtones; among certain aboriginal tribes, for example, it was a capital offense for a woman to look at a trumpet. 

The tradition of playing trumpet or bugle fanfares at sunrise (Reveille), sunset (Last Post), and at funerals (Taps), probably evolved from these ancient rituals.
“The use of the trumpet as an instrument of warfare and the chase is probably as old. Its strident sound and animal origins must have suggested a wild or belligerent nature at a very early date, while the ritualistic uses to which it was put only served to strengthen its associations with death and male-oriented activities,” further reads the unofficial Wikipedia online.
The modern day trumpet also makes a wah-wah sound which is an instrumental sound similar to a baby’s cry as defined on

An example of a wah-wah is a sound made by opening and closing a trumpet's bell with a plunger mute and popularized by many Jazz artists among others.

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Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of Sapitwa and the Sirius star. this space.