NYAKYUSA, NKONDE, NGONDE (BANTU; Tanzania, MALAWI) (2+, 2+, 2, 3-,3,3;5,5;G3)


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Wilson (1951a [1963])[1]: “It is in conversation and play with village contemporaries that some knowledge of sex is acquired” (p88). “[…] [I]n spite of her mother’s responsibility for her [virginity], a girl learns nothing positive from her mother about sex, but from her own slightly older friends; with them she discusses the technique of love-making in detail, but never with her mother” (1936:p264). More clarity is gained at puberty initiations, although  “[f]ormal sex instruction” may precede puberty initiation (cf. Stephens, 1971:p407)[2]. The basis of Nyakyusa sexual morality is the separation of the sexual activities of successive generations (particularly mother-son), hence the so-called age-villages, where age-segregated groups of the same gender life together. Adults rationalise this with the danger of a growing boy hearing lewd talk between parents or seeing parental nudity (Wilson, 1949:p22, 24-5[3]; Wilson [1964:p82-3, 159]). In line with this organisation, “[t]he Nyakyusa believe that the sexual fluids are extremely dangerous to children [[4]], hence (they say) the restrictions on the parents of a young child sleeping together [sic]” (Wilson, 1936:p262 / 1951b:p262; 1950:p126-7[5]). “Except in some wealthy Christian families, men rarely marry before 25, and commonly not until nearer 30, while the girls are betrothed [at] about [age] eight, and go finally to their husbands when they reach puberty”; the men also marry junior wives. Hut building is practised by small boys, but this becomes serious business among herdboys at age 10 or 11. Homosexual play is common among boys herding cows, beginning at age 10 to 14 (1951a:p196[6]; [1964:p87-8, 196-7]). According to “an exceptionally reliable informant”, the older ones may “persuade the little ones to lie down with them and to do that which is forbidden with them between the legs”. “Contrary to general belief about “primitive” societies, homosexual intercourse is common in the boys’ villages, between close friends, but there is no real perversion; homosexuality is said to be always faute de mieux. The older men in discussion dismiss it with the tolerant word “adolescence”, it is never continued after marriage, and all except the feeble-minded get married sooner or later” (1936:p273). Indeed, later, because the older men are polygynists so that the younger age group cannot marry (Wilson, 1959:p197)[7]. In the boy’s village, sexual matters are freely discussed and the younger ones listen to older ones (1936:p272-3): “[…] that is how children grow up”. Affairs with girls begin before puberty. Childhood elongation of the labia majora is practised (Wilson, 1957:p87)[8]. Girls may be betrothed well before puberty (8 years, opposing an average age of “puberty” of 15-16; or even in infancy; Wilson, 1936:p257)[9], and they may live with their “husbands” for some time before they grow up,


“for the view of most Nyakyusa is that a girl should become accustomed to her husband gradually and that it is good for her to visit him from time to time, sweeping his house, cleaning the byre, drawing water and cooking for him, and learning the art of love-making with him and no one else. While she is still very immature it is insisted that he should only have intercourse with her inter crura, but when she is approaching puberty he often has full intercourse with her. No legal case can be brought against him in court if he does so, provided that he has not forced or frightened her, but his friends may tell him he is foolish, and is “teaching his wife adultery”, since now he can have no proof, in the physical examination at puberty, that she has not slept with other men”[10] (for an historical analysis, see also Wilson, 1977:p111-8)[11].


In the seclusion hut/ bride’s hut, a “centre for sex play”, “[…] intercourse inter crura is permitted, and no “husband” can claim damages if his betrothed wife lies with another young man there, unless penetration has taken place”. The girl receive advise on sexual mores and menses, and are examined for virginity (p96-9). Wilson (1936:p258) states that in some families the girl’s mother inspects the hymen after each visit. If she is found to be deflowered, a father may do nothing at all, or sends her off to her husband: “You have made her a woman yourself, you must pay the rest of the marriage-cattle quickly”.


Ngonde boys from age 10 to marriage live in separate villages, and homosexuality was condoned provided it was mutually agreeable; polygyny would have facilitated the practice, and there are no observations on the equivalent in girls, who marry early (Wilson, 1957).











Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1]Wilson, M. (1951) Good Company. Boston: Beacon. 1963 reprint. See also Bullough, V. L. (1976) Sexual Variance in Society and History. Chicago: Chicago University Press, p29.

[2] Op.cit.

[3]Wilson, M. (1949) Nyakyusa Age-Villages, J Anthropol Instit Great Britain & Ireland 79,1/2:21-5

[4]Early Spanish accounts also documented the Nahua practice of bathing children at birth to remove the contamination of their parents’ sexual activity, since it was believed that sexual fluids could pollute the child (Burkhart 1989:p113; López Austin 1980, I:p326, 336; Sullivan 1966:p83)”. Monaghan, J. (1996/2001) Physiology, Production, and Gendered Difference: The Evidence from Mixtec and Other Mesoamerican Societies, in Klein, C. F. (Ed.) Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Dumbarton Oaks Center Studies, p285-304, at p209

[5]Wilson, M. (1950) Nyakyusa kinship, in Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. & Forde, D. (Eds.) African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Oxford University Press, p111-39

[6] See also Murray and Roscoe (1998:p174-6), op.cit.

[7]Wilson, M. (1959) Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa.London: OxfordUniversity Press

[8]Wilson, M. (1957) Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press. See also 88, 97-8

[9] Wilson, G. (1936) An Introduction to Nyakyusa Society, Bantu Studies 10:253-92, see p264, 272-3. Reprinted, with certain amendments as Wilson, G. (1951b) The Nyakyusa of South-Western Tanganyika, in Colson, E. & Gluckman, M. (Eds.) Seven Tribes of British Central Africa. London: Oxford University Press, p253-91

[10] “We have no evidence to suggest that the girls in any general way dislike sleeping with their husbands before puberty, rather the reverse; and the men say: “It is good, it accustoms a girl to her husband”. But some girls dislike the particular men to whom they are betrothed” (1936:p258).

[11]Wilson, M. (1977) For Men and Elders: Change in the Relations of a Generations and of Men and Women among the Nyakyusa-Ngonde People 1875-1971. London: International African Institute