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Author: Donna O. Kerner
Title: The material of memory on Kilimanjaro: Mregho sticks and the exegesis of the body politic
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Source: The material of memory on Kilimanjaro: Mregho sticks and the exegesis of the body politic
Donna O. Kerner

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 7, pp. 3-5,7, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Texts in Objects
Author Biography: Donna Kerner is Associate Professor of Anthropology and co-ordinator of the African-American and African Studies Program at Wheaton College, Massachusetts.

The material of memory on Kilimanjaro: Mregho sticks and the exegesis of the body politic



Initiation ceremonies in sub-Saharan Africa have received broad scholarly attention as loci of key cultural symbols (Beidelman 1971, 1986; Kuper 1947; Turner 1962, 1967; Wilson 1957), processes that structure social representations of age, generation, and time (Baxter and Almagor 1978; Evans-Pritchard 1951; Gluckman 1962; Spencer 1970), and organizational forms that operate to transmit social knowledge (Richards 1956). Oral texts contained in song, riddle, and proverb are generally included in such analyses, as are descriptions of actions and objects that are instrumental in moving ceremonies from one transition phase to another. Less attention has been paid to how oral texts may be attached to, or embedded in, material objects and the part that visual representation plays in decentering the initiate's worldview and organizing a new constellation of cosmological principles structured by adult collective memory.

In this discussion paper I explore the example of carved sticks called mregho which were used as mnemonic teaching devices in Chagga initiation ceremonies until shortly after the turn of the century. The analysis is addressed to two interrelated problems: (1) What was the nature of the potent transaction that occurred when oral texts were attached to the visual representations on mregho; and (2) What do contemporary attempts to revive the initiation teachings of mregho reveal about the political uses of social memory?

I should stress that my analysis of mregho is still at a very preliminary stage and is part of a larger long-term collaborative project (Kerner and Mneney [eds.], forthcoming). This paper focuses exclusively on the mregho instruction of boys. Chagga girls also underwent mregho instruction, but these texts have been more difficult to obtain. The material for this paper was drawn from a variety of sources: interviews with Chagga intellectuals between 1991-93; texts collected by these informants of reconstructed mregho performances in the 1950s and 60s; Lutheran missionary Bruno Gutmann's German translations of mregho texts collected in the early 1920s; District Commissioner Charles Dundas' analysis of texts collected by mission converts (1924); missionary/sociologist Otto Raum's re-analysis of Gutmann's materials in the 1940s; and the late paramount chief Petro Itosi Marealle's Swahili translations of mregho texts (1947). A project such as this raises immediate questions about the problem of translation. For example, Winter (1979) calls our attention to Gutmann's idiosyncratic and often ambiguous translation of certain key Chagga concepts. His theories of social evolution and his particular model of folk psychology appear to have been influential in his word choice. Chagga intellectuals, working with contemporary oral Chagga texts translated into Swahili, sometimes find themselves influenced by previous analyses based on English translations of German translations of archaic Chagga texts. In the long run, the only possible solution to such translation difficulties is a collaborative effort between social scientists and local intellectuals who possess a good working knowledge of the different Chagga dialects and who can return to the original sources and check their translations of key concepts with a number of living elders. Translation problems aside, my understanding of mregho, then and now, is framed by a substantial body of literature on Chagga ethnography and history (e.g., Moore 1976, 1986; Rogers 1972; Stahl 1964) and my own fieldwork in Kilimanjaro which has taken place over the decade between 1983-93.

Disappearing Chagga culture?

The Chagga people, who inhabit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania's northeast region, occupy one of the most favored econiches on the continent. Historians and linguists reckon that the contemporary population on the mountain, now over one million (United Republic of Tanzania 1988), settled on the fertile mountain slopes in successive waves of migration beginning some 300 years ago. The diverse dialects of the contemporary population indicate hybrid cultural origins from Kamba and Maasai northern dispersals and the Shambaa and Pare areas to the south. The earliest 19th century explorers and missionaries to the mountain discovered thriving agricultural communities based on banana as a staple crop, with well-established links to other societies through long-distance trade. Control over the provisioning trade with Swahili caravans to the coast and interior served to shore up the accumulated wealth and power of chiefs in the approximately 100 petty chiefdoms in the precolonial period (Moore 1986; Rogers 1972; Stahl 1964). In other words, these were "open" societies in which new forms of knowledge, alliances (with Swahili traders, missionaries, and later, colonial administrators), and new types of technologies could be utilized by one chiefdom over another to consolidate its power and extend hegemony over its neighbors. Thus, political fortunes of these different chiefdoms waxed and waned until achieving a relatively fixed status under first German, and later British, colonial rule.

Owing to early missionary activity, favorable climate, and progressive colonial policies in the area of coffee production and marketing, the Kilimanjaro region enjoys a high level of infrastructural development relative to the rest of the country. The Chagga are comparatively well-educated and disproportionately represented in white collar professions and business. Close proximity to the northern safari tourist zone and the Kenyan border has provided commercial and service sector opportunities to Kilimanjaro residents and insures open transport and communication links within and beyond the region. Peasant communities on the mountain are "straddling" economies with households engaged in subsistence and coffee cash crop production, supplemented by income derived from wage labor and business enterprises (Kerner 1988 a and b). The Chagga are predominantly Catholic and Lutheran, the missionaries having divided the souls of different chiefdoms. Chiefdomship was abolished after independence in the early 1960s. The lands held by patrilineal clans are, at least on paper, now absorbed into the village, ward, and district system of the state. Chagga dialects are still commonly spoken on the mountain, although these days almost all are fluent in the national language Swahili. Compulsory primary education served as a major homogenizing influence.

The contemporary stance projected by the Chagga to outsiders is urbane and "progressive." Progress is a key word invoked with pride to indicate a long familiarity with Western religion, education, and technological advances. It also signals attitudes and values that the Chagga believe foster economic prosperity: achievement motivation, a Protestant work ethic, and a disdain for status-leveling beliefs and practices such as witchcraft and ancestral cursing. Sorcery, divination, consultation with traditional healers, ancestral sacrifices, and some aspects of initiation ritual continue to be practiced within these modern communities, but in limited secrecy so as not to incur the reprisals of church officials. Thus, while the superficial appearance of Chagga culture has all but disappeared, giving way to an image of accommodation and assimilation, the sub-stratum of cultural values and beliefs continues, albeit in modified form. Occasionally elements of this sub-stratum percolate to the surface, as with the current dialogue about the reinstatement of mregho instruction.

Re-creation and bestowal of memory through mregho

Initiation constituted but one part of the continuous socialization process in the precolonial period in which children were taught the rules and etiquette required for life in the community. Texts collected by the German missionary Bruno Gutmann (1922/23) indicate that the Chagga conceptualization of the person was submerged within communal bonds and sentiment and within the larger sphere of generative forces connecting all living things. Early childhood socialization through songs, riddles, proverbs, and rebukes served to teach and reinforce the categorization of persons and things so as not to unleash potentially destructive supernatural forces.

However, the socialization of youth reached its apex at initiation when the full knowledge of the adult community was revealed to newly circumcised boys (in the bush) and girls (inside the house) during a period of extended seclusion (Dundas 1924; Gutmann 1922; and Raum 1940). This training was considered part of the preliminary step towards wali, the marriage ceremony. Only those provided with proper knowledge and understanding were considered fit to manage a household and enter into the life of the community as full persons (Marealle 1947).

Gutmann was particularly emphatic that mregho instruction represented a distinct phase of initiation into adulthood, following circumcision and extended lessons during the recovery period in the sacred meadow. The first two phases of initiation were organized under the purview of the chief and were designed to mystically bond the newly initiated age set (rika) to the chief's court. The male rika served as the military force under the chief and his power in part derived from their good will since they could depose his designated heir if he proved politically or magically incompetent.

By contrast, mregho instruction took place among a small sub-set of the rika and members of the next ascending age-set, and it was organized by parents of the initiates and elders of the local patriline. Initiates might be taught singly or in small groups, but extant texts indicate that these lessons had the feel of a family affair. The parents of the initiate would contract a respected elder, the meku (ideally the paternal grandfather), to carve the mregho stick. The stick was approximately 140-170 cm long and divided into 18-23 sections by bark rings which separated sub-sections of smaller carvings consisting of inclined and vertical lines, circles, and triangles. An assistant to the elder, the mwitsi (an interpreter/counselor),was also recruited from the rank of the next ascending age set. The mwitsi was ideally an elder brother or paternal cousin and he later would serve as the go-between in the initiate's marriage negotiations. An elaborate three-day banana beer brewing ceremony opened the mregho instruction and involved the elders, counselors, initiates, the parents, and their sisters. Gutmann's long exegesis of prayers during this opening ceremony indicates that its purpose was to awaken the life force linking all members of the patriline, living and dead, to the vital power of the land:

"I cut you banana for a teaching, for a son of this house, for the child of the old one who moved into this land and found no field but he broke the earth and brought forth his sons. For this son we are cutting so that he will prosper and grow and cultivate and bring forth sons for whom we cut here." And, "Help me to awaken the life power of banana so that banana may shoot up like the reed kiwale which is sought for the children to open up their throats so they may begin to speak."

The primary device for imparting knowledge in the lessons that followed was the mregho stick and its performance. The knowledge imparted was of two types: knowledge of things which inhered in relationships (in other words, sensory experience mediated through transaction with others) and knowledge of how to do things (skill knowledge). The inscriptions on the stick represented to initiates a cosmology of the human body and served as the schematic map which preserved the memory of how experience was to be interpreted and understood.


Mregho instruction took place over several days and inverted the normal course of activities by beginning at sundown and finishing before sunrise. Texts from the chiefdoms of Old Moshi, Marangu, and Kibosho differ in length, order, and content, but all seem to have been "read" from bottom to top. Lessons from mregho recapitulate ontogeny, beginning with the bottom of the human body (the foot) and ending at the top (head hair). Ontological exegesis was interwoven with lessons concerning procreation, growth, morbidity, and death. Nested in these lessons were further lessons to insure the health of the body politic.

Mregho teaching consisted of a call and response song performed by the meku and mwitsi. The meku would begin each text by intoning the prayer, "Stillness, oh Great Stillness" (a praise feature of the Chagga God Ruwa, the silent listener), and would follow with a "puzzle song" to be unraveled by the mwitsi. Texts from the first two sections of the Old Moshi mregho capture the sense of the performance:

Meku (pointing at the first of five triangles): Stillness, oh Great Stillness, the staff of the little man (initiate). Here it is. You man who are the one to teach, tell me from the staff of the little man, what is it that created you?

Mwitsi (speaking to initiate): When the old man sings he has created you. When God created you in your mother's body and gave you your heel, this is the first thing he created. Thus you were created in the darkness and you were given the heel in order to stand up. This is that which is shown here.

Meku (pointing at the second of five triangles): Stillness, oh Great Stillness, the youth that are apprentices here today you are growing out. The mother is the snail shell (house) of tenderness. Tell me of the staff of the little man, what is it here which created you? What is it?

Mwitsi (to initiate): What the old man sings he is telling you that the sole of your foot is that which has been created for you in the darkness of your mother and you have become a human being. Do not dare to insult your mother who has brought you up so that you have become a human being. If your mother has said anything that has irritated you, that you hate, you must swallow it into your sole and remain quiet. When the old man sings mother is the snail shell of tenderness, so it is in the mother's womb. You were entombed in liquid and you have been drawn together. Your father has put you into your mother's womb through fluid and you have developed and you have become a human being. If you had developed without a sole you would have remained like a stick and would not have been able to walk. If you are walking on this sole, you are bringing an animal to present to your mother when she is old and still she has nourished you and brought you up from a formless mass.

Gutmann's informants stressed that mregho instruction was a life-long lesson. Initiates would eventually serve as mwitsi and mwitsi would eventually serve as meku. Textual performance and interpretive competence improved and reinforced memory at each successive lesson as the actors acquired deeper levels of understanding. Interpretive debate and errors (for which the mwitsi owed the meku a payment) served not only to consolidate the lesson, but sometimes worked to change the text. The use of "deep" (esoteric, secret) language, designed to hide meaning from strangers and the uninitiated, also changed the interpretive texts over time. Collective memory was at one level perceived as static and unchanging, renewed in the course of each generation by the act of inscription, performance, and memorization. On another level, inscriptions and texts varied from lineage to lineage and chiefdom to chiefdom, shifting with individual memory and new social challenges.

Powerful words

What power inhered in the relationship between mregho sticks and their texts? The sticks themselves seem not to have been the locus of power which transformed young men into adults. They were not fetishes; they were carved anew for each initiate, and kept (according to informants) under the bed until the birth of the man's first child. At that time, the man's father would call for the mregho to light the cooking fire for the sacrificial animal to celebrate the cutting of the umbilical cord. The act of destroying mregho by fire completed a cycle of reproduction and linked it to the next successive cycle. First-born children take the name of their paternal grandparents and are thought to inherit their life force and personality characteristics. The relationship between meku and initiate reinforced this alterity by leading the initiate through a recapitulation of biological and social ontogeny. This cycle was completed with the birth of the first son and it was the father of the young man who called for the mregho to light the fire to cook (generate) the sacrificial animal to be shared by members of the patriline and their ancestors on behalf of his new grandson. Thus meku and initiate were created anew and it was the new grandfather who would inscribe the next family stick and "open the throat" of his grandson so that he might "learn to speak" (as an adult, knowledgeable person).

Because the stick itself represented a cosmology of the human body, a great number of its lessons concerned sexuality, the mystery of procreation, and growth. As Moore has noted (1976), for the Chagga, laws of society and laws of nature were viewed as inextricably linked in a single system of cause and effect. The proper combination of female and male elements and the proper sequencing of such combinations would insure generation and prosperity. Wrong combinations resulted in chaos, sickness, and death. Thus initiation instruction began with teaching about each aspect of the human body, the form and function of organs of ingestion, elimination, and procreation, the proper sequencing of events which lead to healthy procreation, and then proceeded to lessons about food—its production and consumption—followed by instruction on practices necessary for healthy growth.

As laws of the human body and the social body politic were intertwined, mregho instruction extended to cover rules of internal security, chiefly rights and obligations, and the rules of warfare. Genealogical instruction, concerning the lives of chiefs and noble persons, was continuous throughout the lessons on the body politic. The memory of such notables was preserved in two shifting categories: the names of those who are remembered (because they have living descendants who sacrifice on their behalf) and those whose names are forgotten (because they have no living heirs). Those whose names are no longer remembered have shifted from a spiritual plane of existence, where as the warumu, the living dead, they were able to influence the living, to a netherworld where they no longer retain an influence on the community. They are banished to a kind of oblivion, a void explained in the Chagga creation myths as the result of the bad conduct of the original Chagga people who had the gift of eternal life revoked by God (Lema 1981). Those who are remembered are eventually erased and inserted into the "not remembered" category of mregho once their last living descendants have perished.

I would contend that the fundamental element in mregho instruction is the transmission of the experience of time and how it should be understood. Gender divisions/combinations and genealogies of ancestors (the living dead) are two ways to contemplate the dual properties of time (Leach 1961). One is circular. Living things are born, grow up, procreate, and die, but the spiritual or vital force which connects them continues in the fashion of seasonal cycles of death and rebirth. Alternatively, time is linear. Death has a corporeal finality and even the ancestors, the living dead, cease to participate in the vital connecting force once their heirs die and they are no longer remembered. Mregho instruction seeks to resolve the problem of linear time (death and forgetting) by means of circular time (generativity and remembrance).

The power in mregho performance lay in the mystique of the texts which created ("When the old man sings he creates you") the initiate through symbolic re-birth and transformed him into a person. The texts also re-created culture through an exegesis of history and rules of community from the domestic level outward to the level of the chiefdom. I would suggest that the radical de-centering and re-integration of the initiate's understanding of time and its meaning in his social relations called for in these lessons were aided through the attachment of texts to inscribed objects. While the sticks themselves derived power only through their attachment to mystical utterance, they visually ordered for the initiate a new understanding of the past and a prediction for his future. The sticks acted as dominant symbols, analogous to the human body and analogous to a microcosm of the universe. They are an example of what Turner (1967) refers to as sacra: objects/symbols which use the body's attributes as a template for the communication of gnosis. While the magic of the texts transforms the social person, the template of the stick teaches neophytes to think with some degree of abstraction about their cultural milieu. The lessons on mregho are then "re-inscribed" in the memories of the initiates. As Gutmann's informants put it, "the teachings are pushed deeper into their thinking."

The recontextualization of mregho tradition

I became aware of revived interest in the traditions of initiation by Chagga intellectuals, primarily from the former chiefdoms of Old Moshi and Marangu, in the late 1980s. First, there was talk of young men requesting the services of elders in circumcision and mregho instruction and controversy over the revival of clitoridectomy. The motivations of the young men were unclear, but preliminary interviews in the districts where clitoridectomy was regaining popularity indicated that the practice was being reinstated at the insistence of grandmothers, who reasoned that the operation would discourage premarital sexual activity, thus minimizing the distractions to schoolgirls who needed to concentrate on their studies so as to land good-salaried jobs. The second thing to come to my attention was that local intellectuals were systematically collecting mregho sticks and conducting interviews with surviving elders who had some knowledge of how to perform them. One of these intellectuals attempted to enlist my aid in applying for funding for a research project on the subject and another had submitted his raw interview data to a major publishing house in the hope that it would be accepted as a book manuscript. Chagga intellectuals have now accumulated the knowledge of memory from witnessing performances and conducting interviews and have many of the written records of these rituals. The question prompted by this revival of interest in mregho is: why initiation and why now? As a tentative answer I would suggest two recent events which may explain the revival of interest and use of these traditions.

Sexuality and risk

The first event is the AIDS pandemic. Kilimanjaro region ranks third in the nation in HIV infection and AIDS-related deaths. Owing to its high proportion of educated workers and acute land shortage, Kilimanjaro is a region characterized by out migration, particularly male migration. The common pattern has been for young men to work until in their thirties when they have accumulated enough money to organize a lavish wedding and build a modern house on purchased or inherited land on the mountain. They then marry and leave their wives to tend the farm while they return to salaried jobs in urban areas. Delayed age of marriage and long-term separations increase the likelihood of numerous sexual contacts, thus increasing the possibilities of HIV transmission. The Chagga are aware of the modes of heterosexual transmission of the virus, and their accommodation to this information has been to encourage earlier marriages. Clitoridectomy, which theoretically dampens female desire, and the revival of lessons about the moral and physical dangers of improper combinations and sequencing in sexual activity might also be seen as part of a preventative solution. Whether it is only those elements which deal with the spiritual and moral dangers of sexuality that are selected for initiation revivals in this new context remains to be seen.

Memory and the political field

While the event of AIDS represents a specter of chaos and death, another event—the introduction of multiparty politics—affords a vision of growth and opportunity. The link between multiparty politics and the revival of interest in initiation is tenuous, but suggestive. Chagga intellectuals are emphatic that the strongest mregho traditions survive in the area known as Kibosho, a former chiefdom which reached its apex in the immediate precolonial period, but lost its bid for power during the era of indirect rule. It is considered a backward area these days. I was curious as to why Kibosho was singled out as the major locus of Chagga cultural memory. I would have guessed that another division representing a contemporary success story might have been considered the cultural center. The answer I received inevitably involved the recitation of an historical narrative about the battle involving the former chiefdom of Kibosho and its rival, Machame.

In the 19th century, the Machame people had committed treachery against their neighbors in Kibosho. The chief of Machame plotted to overthrow his rival by inviting Kibosho youths to participate in the Machame initiation ceremonies. His army then turned and slaughtered the Kibosho youths when they were naked and unarmed, thereby wiping out one generative half of the Kibosho population and an entire generation of future warriors. Kibosho became a tributary chiefdom to Machame, until the terrible revenge of the Kibosho chief Sina one or two generations later. Sina pillaged Machame through military cunning. His father had sent him to Machame as a young child and he had received initiation instruction there. The knowledge he had of the court and its defenses enabled him to attack with stealth and to crush the chiefdom entirely. Sina was the last and perhaps the most talented chief to utilize military might and cunning to expand and consolidate an empire of many political units beyond his borders. He brought Machame and a number of other chiefdoms to the west under his control and grew prosperous through their tribute. He reserved his harshest punishment for Machame: Machame people were henceforth forbidden to conduct initiation rituals and to use mregho.

But Sina's hegemony was not to last. He was outwitted by the diplomatic dexterity of rival chiefs in Marangu and Old Moshi, who created powerful alliances with the Germans, and later by the ingenuity of the chief of Machame who was favored by the British. The history of Machame was effectively invented during British rule to sanitize its past and to justify its preferred status. Infrastructural development is highest in this part of Kilimanjaro, which received a disproportionate share of the local government budgets in the colonial and post-independence eras. The envy and hostility with which people of Machame are regarded by other Chagga are evident in comments about their "progress" and the observation that no trace of Chagga culture survives there.

At a more abstract level then, perhaps a revived interest in Chagga cultural memory via initiation signals the possibility of settling old scores, equalizing opportunities for progress, and asserting moral norms for regulating competition? The new era of multiparty politics promises an opening of the field of competition and a shifting in the rules and routes to power. Two themes which run through all Chagga historical narrative are the political assets of cunning and patience—cunning to outwit your competition and the patience to wait until the time is right.

Inscription and truth

Finally, there is the question of how Chagga intellectuals, who are actively collecting sticks and texts and who are familiar with the literate history and ethnography of their culture, imagine the project they have undertaken. The question is complex, but at least their consciously stated motive is clear: they primarily want to use mregho to prove that the Chagga had developed a written language in the precolonial period. Much of their effort has gone into developing a transcription system for the notches on the sticks. What does this signify?

First, proof of a common notational system throughout the mountain in the precolonial period would authenticate claims that the Chagga were culturally unified through written language. Second, it would legitimate Chagga claims for indigenous intellectual achievements separable from their alliances with foreigners (Swahili and European). Both claims were briefly recognized during the later phases of colonial rule when the Chagga were consolidated under a paramount chief and had their own national flag. Such claims were discarded during the era of ujamaa socialism, when the chieftaincy was abolished and Chagga political ambitions were curbed at the national center. Might Chagga attempts at unification and claims to a capacity for rule have been reactivated by the opening of the political field? The recent proliferation of new "improvement" associations throughout the mountain clamoring for registration as political parties suggests this may be the case.

Chagga intellectuals active in mregho research discuss these sticks as a book and each lesson inscribed as a chapter. They would like to write a book about this memory book, to preserve what should not be forgotten. What is clear in this exercise is a recontextualization in which two types of knowledge—the memory of things (inhering in relations with persons) and the memory of how to do things (skill knowledge)—are inserted into a different genre: memory about things (e.g., historical and ethnographic "facts"). Memory about things is propositional knowledge (Fentress and Wickham 1992). It is contingent and temporary and can be detached from the person who possesses it. It is essentially the memory which is seen as objective and therefore considered to have greater power to assert truth claims. If mregho sticks are actually books, then their power is, as one elder put it, "equal to that of the bible, both of which I keep under my bed to remind me of what I need to know."

Conclusion: are sacra texts?

In conclusion I would like to pose a set of problems raised by the mregho example and framed by the contemporary representation of the sticks as the "Chagga bible."

Why should the Chagga attach oral narratives that communicate gnosis to material objects? Earlier in my discussion I presented an instrumental explanation: inscription was used in combination with oral performance to de-center and reorganize the initiate's understanding of the natural and supernatural world. This explanation still begs the question of why mregho narratives should be attached to sticks (rather than something else), why the inscriptions themselves are abstract symbols (lines, circles, triangles), rather than pictographs, and why the sticks appear to have held symbolic power only in oral performance and ritual transaction.

Mregho sticks would seem to fall into that class of African ritual objects which have both pragmatic, functional features and are empowered as sacra only in a ritual context. The staff is a common object among East African pastoralists who walk long distances to take their herds to pasture. Segments of the different Chagga chiefdoms derived from Maasai migration to Kilimanjaro mountain and origin myths from the Vunjo area in particular speak of these pastoralist settlers as founders who subdued the foraging inhabitants because they had superior magic to make rain and wealth in cattle. Long after settlement, the people who would one day call themselves Chagga and who took up farming, in addition to livestock raising, maintained a symbiotic relationship with pastoralist peoples on the lowland plains— sometimes as enemies, more often as partners in the trade of cattle and iron weapons. Walking sticks, which were both common and portable, were apparently used as tallying devices in this trade and were also used to carry messages around the mountain to advise relatives of trading opportunities and threats of warfare and political treachery.

If sticks were already in use as common devices for the encoding of numerical information and urgent political messages, then it would make sense that their function could easily be expanded to include longer and more elaborate encodings of cosmological knowledge. However, unlike the shorthand message or counting function of the notches on the tally sticks, mregho sticks encapsulated long narrative and interpretive exegesis. Here the simplicity and abstraction of the inscribed symbols probably aided in the fluidity of performance and explanation. As suggested earlier, the memory narratives embedded on mregho were contingent on the inscriber whose role was to re-create knowledge in the new generation of initiates. The condensation of the mregho symbols had the effect of economizing aesthetic form, while allowing for an accordion-like expansion of layered meaning during performance. The "hard" text, inscribed by meku, could remain obscure and timeless, while the "soft" text, embedded in it and interpreted by the mwitsi, remained fluid, open to commentary and revision.

Aesthetically, mregho sticks bridge two forms of East African artistic tradition. Scholars have noted that by comparison with the rich sculptural traditions of West and Central Africa, East African sculpture is characterized by pole-like, thin, attenuated forms. Few East African societies have masking traditions which would serve as instrumental de-centering objects in transitional life crisis rituals. Instead, the most prominent aspect of East African artistry has been the use of the human body as an artistic medium (Burt 1985). Body painting, scarification, and jewelry are all mediums for the expression of social status and transitions through developmental phases. The aesthetic form of mregho collapses the mediums of sculpture and body by taking the human body as a template for the "reading" of inscription.

The final problem, why do mregho sticks appear to lack innate sacred character, is more difficult to answer, although I have suggested that the sticks appear to have been enlivened through powerful words contingent upon the performance by ritual actors. The ultimate answer may lie in the Chagga perception of how immanent sacred power is interwoven in everyday practical activity. The mregho narratives mention several types of plants to be used in initiation ritual, but Gutmann's translations highlight the prominence of kiwale (dracaena) as the soft wood from which the sticks were carved. Chagga homesteads are surrounded by banana (and now, coffee) groves, vihamba, and each minimal lineage unit is bounded by markers of dracaena hedges. Vihamba are inherited through the male line. The banana trees are owned by the minimal lineage head, but cultivated by his wife who owns their fruit. Vihamba are where male lineage members are buried and, as ancestors, propitiated. The dracaena plants that protect the borders of vihamba "make good neighbors," the Chagga say. These border plants are condensed symbols of rights and obligations within and between families and are highlighted in all Chagga life crisis and reconciliation rituals. The evidence here is tentative; it is by no means clear as to whether all mregho were carved from dracaena. The possibility that they might be suggests that we should carefully explore the symbolic value of the material from which objects are fashioned to empower oral narratives. Such objects resist a straightforward reading of inscriptions because what they communicate is at once apparent and hidden.


Funding for the research project upon which this paper is based was granted by the Hewlett-Mellon and Wenner-Gren Foundations. Research affiliations in Tanzania were provided by the University of Dar es Salaam and the Cooperative College, Moshi, during the years 1990-91. I am grateful to these institutions for their support and want to acknowledge with special thanks the permission granted by my collaborator, Julius A. Z. Mneney, to paraphrase his analysis of some of his unpublished texts. Messrs. Foya and Ntiro also lent their assistance to this project. Fr. Kiesel of the Lutheran Church Archives in Moshi provided me with copies of Gutmann's manuscripts on mregho and Marealle's manuscript on Chagga culture and helped to validate my initial speculations about the recontextualization of mregho.

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