Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Of ancient Malawi swords, braids and nsengwa baskets

Mbona illustration from Mtunda, Chichewa for Standard 8 book
If one has the fortune or misfortune of somehow managing to trek to the forbidden part of the mythical Sapitwa peak of Mount Mulanje which legend associates with ancestral spirits and winged spirits, one is bound to see a veiled woman in white gazing from a distance goes an oral story told by a Malawian Shaman.
This blog has discovered many websites referring to traditional healers locally known as asing’anga specializing in spirit issues (mizimu) as “African shaman” so we have adopted that word.
Now this woman nicknamed “Nyangu” is said to never show her hair since such “mizimu” (spirits) have hair that appears to move like snakes, maybe an African version of the Greek myth of Medusa?
And it is because of this belief that ancient priestesses of this land are believed to have not cut their hair because they saw power in it.  There is also a very strong possibility they had dreadlocks under their head wraps which probably to them resembled spiritual snakes.
Braiding with extensions but using the three pieces of hair
When a woman dreamed of an ancient Malawi elderly man with white hair braiding her hair in cornrows using three strands, it usually symbolized her calling to healing and African prophecy in which the nsengwa small basket was used and her hair never cut in rituals.
Ironically the weaving pattern on the nsengwa basket resembles cornrows but this blog has yet to establish how such baskets are made.  Maybe those with funding can travel to various areas where they make these and brief this blog about the process.
Now the ancient nsengwa oracle basket was very different from the lichero winnowing one for sifting and the like which is associated with witchcraft in mythical tales of flying baskets told by many Malawians.
Nsengwa small decoration basket with cornrow pattern
Various learned Malawian men on Facebook earlier in this blog explained that a bamboo used to make nsengwa or lichero is also sharp on both sides and that the Mvundulamadzi (African fish eagle) means a person who stirs up trouble or hatred between people but figuratively an eagle.

Vundulamadzi is also the secret word for the sword, knife or dagger of the Sapitwa version of Mbona of rain shrines which remains an unofficial myth.
This Mbona sword was also said to cut like a knife and cause confusion between people, families and friends hence the Chichewa proverb “Papita mnjere mpeni upita pomwepo [where the peel goes in this case a bamboo or sugar cane, the knife also goes there]”.
Lichero winnowing basket
A Sapitwa healer defines it as resembling the sugar cane but its peels being sharp and cutting on both sides like a two-edged knife.
In ancient myths the said African Fish Eagle was said to stir up trouble and cause divisions on both sides the way it does to fish in the water so that it can catch them.
This is where the teaching of three female winged spirits of a negative charge working together with four winged male winged spirits of a positive charge to create light or lightning came from say uneducated Sapitwa healers who only read hieroglyphics looking writings.
They played with the numbers three, four and seven in ancient rain shrines and in the way they viewed cornrow braids, weaving, rivers, rainfall and lightning among other things in nature they proudly attributed to Chauta, Mphambe, Namalenga (God) as the Creator of all.
It is also said that the oldest known image of hair braiding was traced back to a burial site called Saqqara located on the Nile River during the first dynasty of Pharaoh Menes.
Braids or dreadlocks?
– Ancient Egyptian internet photo

It was a means of communication so that at a glance one individual could distinguish a wealth of information about another, whether they were married, mourning, or of age for courtship, simply by observing their hairstyle partly reads the online unofficial Wikipedia.
Certain hairstyles were distinctive to particular tribes or nations. Other styles spoke to an individual’s status in society in that ancient Egyptian society but a quick Google search shows nothing for ancient Malawi despite evidence of various braiding or weaving styles in the country.
“Braiding is traditionally a social art. Because of the time it takes to braid hair the women took time to socialize while braiding and having their hair done. It begins with the elders making simple knots and braids for younger children.
Older children watch and learn from them, start practicing on younger girls and eventually learn the traditional designs. In the US, you see mothers and grandmothers braiding and putting colorful beads in little children’s hair. This carries on a tradition of bonding between elders and the new generation,” adds the Wikipedia.
Internet photo of cornrows
not related to this article
Likewise cornrowed hairstyles sometimes adorned with beads or cowry shells is a traditional way of styling hair throughout Africa and depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara that have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C.

“This tradition of female styling in cornrows has remained popular throughout Africa, particularly in North,East, and West Africa. Historically, male styling with cornrows can be traced as far back as the early nineteenth century to Ethiopia, where warriors and kings such as Tewodros II and Yohannes IV were depicted wearing cornrows” read online sources.

And a How to Cornrow website explains how one first makes a normal braid of about 2 “stitches” to get it started. They then pass the right piece under the middle, the left piece under the middle, the right piece under the middle, and the left piece under the middle adds the blog.

“A braid (also called plait) is a complex structure or pattern formed by intertwining three or more strands of flexible material such as textile fibres, wire, or hair. Compared to the process of weaving a wide sheet of cloth from two separate, perpendicular groups of strands (warp and weft), a braid is usually long and narrow, with each component strand functionally equivalent in zigzagging forward through the overlapping mass of the others.
This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 licens
“The simplest possible braid is a flat, solid, three-strand structure in some countries/cases called a plait. More complex braids can be constructed from an arbitrary (but usually odd) number of strands to create a wider range of structures: wider ribbon-like bands, hollow or solid cylindrical cords, or broad mats which resemble a rudimentary perpendicular weave,” also reads the online Wikipedia.

Now braids are also commonly used to make rope and decorative objects while complex braids have been used to create hanging fibre artworks. Braiding is also used to prepare horses’ manes and tails for showing, polo and polocrose.”

Braiding creates a composite rope that is thicker and stronger than the non-interlaced strands of yarn and in electrical and electronic cables, braid is a “tubular sheath made of braided strands of metal placed around a central cable for shielding against electromagnetic interference.”

“The braid is grounded while the central conductor(s) carry the signal. The braid may be used in addition to a foil jacket to increase shielding and durability.

“Another use is for litz wire which uses braids of thin insulated wires to carry high frequency signals with much lower losses from skin effector to minimise proximity effect in transformers.

“Flat braids made of many copper wires are also sometimes used for flexible electrical connections between large components. The numerous smaller wires comprising the braid are much more resistant to breaking under repeated motion and vibration than is a cable of larger wires. A common example of this may be found connecting a car battery’s negative terminal to the metal chassis.

Similar braiding is used on pressurized rubber hoses, such as in plumbing and hydraulicbrake systems in automobiles. Braiding is also used for fibres for composite reinforcements,” adds the Wikipedia.

And braiding is said to happen when a river is carrying vast amounts of eroded sediment. Sediment is deposited as islands in the channel causing the river to split up into many winding channels.

“In some river and stream systems, small streams join together and redivide in many places. Such stream systems are said to be braided. These are often found in alluvial fans at the outlet of canyons.
The braided streams of the Tanana River.

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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.