Thursday, May 15, 2014

Of Malawi’s mpungabwi ‘wormwood’ incense and Mbona tales?

Mbona illustration in the Ulendo Series Mtunda 8 Chichewa for Standard 8 book
White light flashing like the sun and resembling lightning hits the roof of a building on a bright hot October day in Malawi as a young woman approaches the building almost tripping in the process.
As the brightness of the light in a flash temporarily blinds her eyes she looks down and is suddenly confused with red spots that resemble blood appearing on the dusty ground before a mysterious watchman grabs her arm before she hits the ground.
She looks into his pigeon shaped eyes, smooth dark skin with a well shaped beard with hidden dreadlocks under his huge fedora looking brown hat.
So go such tales told by a female Mang’anja Sapitwa healer who believes in the power of Chauta, Namalenga, Mphambe (God) and claims to send requests through the Almighty Power.

She suspects the woman in the said tales probably came face to face with their version of a different Mbona like serpent spirit who on rare occasions appears like a man through the flash of a bright white light in so-called folklore.
The healer says such women called to healing and ancient Malawi prophecy (ulosi wakale) use incense (lubani) in some of their rituals to contact the “spirit world”.

Sapitwa healers have confirmed thatthe incense is locally knownMpungabwi and is also used to treat those who amadwala mutu waukulu and scare away “real” snakes and witches (afiti) who harm innocent people among other uses.

If “Mpungabwi” is “Wormwood” then online “Wormwood” is known as Herb Artemisia.

It was used in ancient Malawi “prophecy” when one is about to foretell droughts or upcoming negative events to clear the mind and get the message clearly.
f this Mpungabwi, it’s also used in Malawi incense
Mpungabwi  is also used for what is locally known as mutu waukulu[like spiritual illnesses that affect the mind causing headache like symptoms] and for kubwebweta.

Edmond Kachale on Facebook when asked defined bwebweta in English as babbling or “talking nonsense, to sleep-talk (to talk while asleep) which is Somniloquy.”

However Coster Phiri said Kubwebweta and Majini, Mabzoka/Malombo or Vimbuza are different as they’re “trances.”

Various spirit healing dances were also held in ancient times to rid “patients” of demons or illnesses.
Some babbling causes “headaches” worse than migraines and some are said to start having strange dreams and speak unknown words such as hihihihihihi….commonly associated with ziwanda (demons) which run away like snakes when they smell mpungabwi say some healers.

Now this blog is trying to confirm if Mpungabwi is Artmisia afra in English also known as Sagewood or Wormwood.

If so then maybe it’s the one in the Ulendo Series Mtunda 8 Chichewa for Standard 8 book which partly talks about Mbona lighting a fire as he waits for the elderly man to tell him the secret of prophecy which involves Mbona’s “wife” leaning on it.
The Chichewa story partly reads:
Mmenemo Mbona ali kulimbikira kusonkhezera moto kuti mkhalakale wake aulule zonse za chinsinsi cha ulosi wonse…..
“Pali mankhwala ena woti kuti agwire nchito mpaka ayenera kutsamiridwa ndi mkazi wako. Kodi uli kumva? Anafunsa motero Mlauli utsi wa fodya wa mkaliwo uli pa liwiro kuthamangira kudenga.

“Ndamva gogo! Anatero Mbona…..

….Mokondwerera anatero Mlauli ali kutsendeza wina fodya mkaliwo ndi chala chachikulu chimene chinachita kufwichilira ndi utsi, chili psuu!”

Now what is confusing is that some female Mang’anja Sapitwa healers seem to know some of the teachings of Mbona which include his kandalanga which is like a lupanga which in English is a two-edged sword.

“Mawa ndikupatsa chako chimpeni chothwa kuwiri chimene chimatchedwanso kuti kandalanga [tomorrow I will give you your own knife sharpened on both sides called a kandalanga] partly reads p.27 of the Ulosi wakale 1 [foretellers in history] in the Ulendo Series Mtunda Chichewa for Standard 8 book about the mythical Mbona.

Sapitwa hand symbol for Life as part of the cupped hands used when making offerings (nsembe)
And this blog can reveal that Mbona’s “wife” is supposed to use Mpungabwi together with a Sapitwa herb this blog is not allowed to reveal to clear “prophecies” from Mbona through dreams.

“According to Manganja oral tradition, Mbona was a rain priest who was decapitated by his enemies. Even after dying, his blood continued to pour from his headless body, eventually forming a river. 

The Ndione Pool, located not far from the Mbona shrine in Nsanje, Malawi, is celebrated as the place where Mbona was martyred….

“The Mbona shrine was traditionally maintained by an older woman selected by the priests to be Mbona’s “spirit wife.” The spirit wife, named Salima after Mbona’s original wife, supposedly received Mbona’s messages in her dreams.

The Salima also oversaw female initiation rites at Nsanje,” wrote J. Matthew Schoffeleers in his book River of Blood: The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi, ca. 1600 posted on

Schoffeleers also wrote that “Mbona was routinely portrayed as someone who causes the population to become divided amongst itself.”

He also described Mbona like an overseer “a sense of seeing or being seen, and derives from the word wona “to see” or “to be true.” The name may possibly be related also to the noun bona, the concluding ceremony of the mourning period, at which offerings of food and beer are made”.

Schoffeleers in his book also wrote that in one version of the Mbona tales, he was against the administrating of the mwabvi poisonous concoction where those without “witchcraft” were believe to not die from the ordeal.

In the tales Mbona is quoted as telling people he had the power of “Mlungu” to tell when people were guilty. Other tales talk of Mbona being labelled a mfiti (wizard) and him responding he used powers of (Chauta) God.

Now this mpungabwi incense is also used by some healers to send messages or requests to the 4 winds of Sapitwa (Mphepo Zinayi). The ancient Malawi cross is today drawn with ufa woyera (white flour) to mark the boundaries of the local altar and in the middle “tools” are put.
4 winds of Sapitwa cross (mphepo zinayi)

The four winds of Sapitwa consist of Tomasi Bona for the North wind, Tagoneka Mbona for the West, Chandiona gonekela for the South and Nthanda mwana wa mwezi (Nandi) of the East.
Sapitwa healers claim Sirius locally known as Nthanda mwana wa mwezi (Nandi) of the East has a companion star called Mpanga or is it Panga.
The 3 mythical winged female negative charges used in battle and connected to specific hills or mountains but not for incense are Dziwe Ntambamwana (witchcraft pool), Sungamwana (Keep the child) and Ife Zonse (all of us).
Next a charcoal burner locally known as mbaula is lit and “raw” lubani (incense) which we now know is mpungabwi is put on top till it creates smoke.

What ever is requested or asked for is said in the direction of the wind where the lubani smoke flows which is deliberately to the East because some of the ancestors of this land believed Chauta, Namalenga, Mpambe (God) is in the East.
South Africa’s Impepho?
Photo taken from

In a home or hut, the East would the direction where the sun rises and the West where it sets so the North and South would be known hence the ancient African cross for the 4 winds.

This was a method ancient Malawi’s Mbona used when pointing hiskandalanga (two-edged sword) to the North to signal for Chauta to bring rains and so forth. Globally, various internet sources define Artemisia Afra as wormwood.
Dried Wormwood internet photo

“Artemisia is named after the Greek goddess Artemis. This soft aromatic shrub is a popular medicinal plant in South Africa. Another interesting link to the name is Artemisia, the wife of the Greek/Persian King Mausolus, who ruled after his death in 353 BC. 

In his honour she built a magnificent tomb called the Mausoleum, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”
Artemisia afra is also a common species in South Africa with a wide distribution from the Cederberg Mountains in the Cape, northwards to tropical East Africa and stretching as far north as Ethiopia. Artemisia afra is the only indigenous species in this genus. The species name afra means from Africa.
“Artemisia vulgaris is naturalized in the Eastern Cape. It is indigenous to Europe, Iran, Siberia and North Africa and is described by Huxley et al. (1992) as a condiment with supposed magical properties’. World-wide there are about 400 species of Artemisia, mainly from the northern hemisphere,” partly reads

Another plant said to have a strong smell and is widely used as a perfume but also as an insect repellent, is Helichrysum odoratissimumwith yellow flowers resembling a plant at Sapitwa calledChepachepa…to do with making something small.

Some internet sources define ‘Impepho” as a Zulu name meaning “to be sheltered, shielded or protected and botanical – Helichrysum.
Impepho “is an indigenous African plant that, once dried, is burnt in order to communicate with one’s ancestors according to

“Impepho is well-known to the majority of Sub Saharan Africans as it is used to communicate with their ancestors and it is also used by traditional healers to communicate with the deceased. It is used in various ceremonies, as well as in traditional feasts, when chickens, goats or cows are offered to the ancestors.” 
South Africa’s Impepho?
Photo taken from

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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.