Matrix Cultures



























Daughters of Kasamba:
The Goba People of the Zambezi River

At the outset of their great expansion across central and southern Africa, the Bantu nations were matrilineal. Many conserved this orientation to the motherlines, notably in what scholars have called the Bantu matrilineal belt of south-central Africa. This culture area stretches from Namibia and southern Angola across to Zambia, and parts of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. In the eastern reaches of this vast region, daughters inherit land. The Chewa of south Malawi show “about 75% of land inherited from mother to daughter.” [Holden et al, 102-110, quote 105] The women’s ritual activity is also an important sphere of power.

Some of the most striking African instances of matrix cultures are found in this southeastern part of the continent. They are not only matrilineal but also matrilocal, with powerful female offices and a history of important foundational women. The peoples of the Zambezi river retained matrilocal custom and high female status. [Lancaster 152-3]

The Goba are a standout in this regard, especially since their Shona relatives to the south are strongly patrilineal and patrilocal. Their nhundu matrilineages are anchored around groups of sisters and their children. The sisters “are thought of as the heart of the village and as the living representatives of the original founding core of village women.” [Lancaster, 164]

Most Goba men marry out, but one brother always stays with his maternal kin as the dundumuntuli, a guardian figure who acts as family representative to the outside world. There is some maneuvering among the men to attain this coveted post, but in fact it is the sisters who choose the dundumuntuli. They have the power to prevent any unsuitable aspirant from seizing control. It is this “formal, institutionalized authority, rather than mere influence, traditionally enjoyed by their senior women” that distinguishes the Goba culture. The female elder is called samukadzi, with important responsibilities to the ancestors. [Lancaster, 171-3, 150, 177]

One of the Goba bands, the Banamainga, say they are the first Tonga group who crossed the Zambezi from the south. They had no king at that time. Other groups arrived and wars broke out, provoked by ambitious men who “tried to build ladders to the sky” to increase their power and prestige. “Then Kasamba, a powerful woman shaman, was called back from Soli Manyika to unite the Banamainga.” She restored order and created a land sanctuary at Njami Hill, the oldest in Zimbabwe. [Lancaster, 16]

Kasamba became the main tutelary spirit at this shrine after her death, and no one could become ruler without her blessing. It was the business of her female shamanic successors, the guardians of the Njami Hill sanctuary, to determine who was sanctioned to rule. After some time an additional male office was created, filled by a relative selected by the priestess, to see that court decisions were carried out and to provide martial backup if necessary. Trouble developed when the warlord Ntambo took this office. He “became jealous of his ‘queen sister’ and finally killed her with medicine.” He took over the shrine priesthood, while continuing his wars. His men filled the villages with captives, and probably sold some to the Portuguese, in the midst of a booming trade in ivory. [Lancaster, 17]

But the rains stopped, and Ntambo’s men were forced to make amends to the Njami shrine guardians. So balance was restored, but in time another king, Munenga, interfered again. Oral tradition says that this king had many elephants killed for the ivory trade, whose wealth he now claimed for the crown. Munenga was criticized for his collaboration with the Portuguese. His riches helped him to create a new land-shrine for the kingdom, and put one of his men in charge. [Lancaster, 19] Thus the royal, military and trading interests undermined the authority of the shrine priestesses, custodians of the foundational sanctuary of the Goba.

Nevertheless, women elders retained “important and conspicuous roles” in Goba society. They take leading roles in addressing the land-shrine spirits and commune with them in dances in which they clear harmful influences from the village while young men drum. It is they who choose successors by pointing a spear during succession ceremonies. The women’s councils meet separately from the men’s “to hear and judge all important decisions and disputes” affecting their lineage. A senior woman as well as an elder male must be in attendance for communion with ancestors to go forward, and a group of female elders always participates in divinations about deaths or other important concerns. [Lancaster, 194-5]


Most of the information in this section is drawn from:

Lancaster, Chet S., The Goba of the Zambezi: Sex Roles, Economics, and Change, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981