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Owls in Lore and Culture

Paper by B. G. Marcot, D. H. Johnson, & M. Cocker Updated 2012-10-31 Created 2000-06-15
Page 10 of 10

Appendix 4

Owl Tales from Tanzania, Africa by Bruce G. Marcot - Postscripts to "Owls in Lore and Culture"

09 October 2012

Told to me by Peter Njau of the Chagga Tribe, east side of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania:

  • If an owl comes to your window, it is very bad.
  • Women will pour sour milk onto the ground as a libation to ward off the owl.
  • Men will sacrifice live animals in sacred places, to ward off the owl.
  • If the owl returns, especially three times, people believe that it might be their ancestor. Then they will pour sour milk onto the ground and talk to the ancestors (kind of an appeasement libation), so that the ancestors/owl will not harm them.

Peter Njau said that such beliefs are now fading, and occur only in rural villages.

Other beliefs held by his tribe, as conveyed by Peter:

  • If an owl lands on the roof of your hut or house, this is very bad and means death or illness.
  • Peter says that his uncle firmly believes that you should not travel if you hear an owl, as that would bring misfortune. In a specific instance when Peter and his uncle were to drive from Dar es Salam to Arusha, an owl spent a night at his house, and his uncle refused to travel the next day, it is "bad news, I am telling you, don't go." They stayed for two days. The owl flew away and came back, several times. There was someone who was very sick for a month, then died, ostensibly attributed to the owl.

14 October 2012

I interviewed Chief Labulu of the village of Tarangari Masai Boma on his tribe's beliefs in owls. (Following is a transcription from an audio-recording I made of the interview.)

  • Owls are the birds which bring bad news mostly.
  • When the owl comes and sits on the roof, it brings bad news, it is the sign of a bad thing, especially if it also calls. If it sits there for a short time and flies away, it's OK; but not if it lingers.
  • If the owl perches on the roof and stays, and calls, how can this problem be solved? They mix red ochre and charcoal, and put it around the house and say, you have brought bad news here, just go away with the bad news, don't leave the bad news here.
  • If the owl perches in a nearby tree and calls, that can affect the cows. The cows may start dying. So to ward this off, they put the red ochre and charcoal around the tree and tell the owl to go away with the bad news it has brought here.
  • The big owls are the ones that are easy to see, but all owls, including the small ones, bring bad news.
  • The Masai general word for owl is ngukuma.
  • Will attitudes change if you find out that owls eat rats and other vermin that you don't want? Answer: we have domestic cats for this purpose.
  • What do you think of a scientist who studies owls? Answer: It is hard for me to understand; you could study other things, why owls? Things that bring bad news, why do you have to study those things? For this tribe, you may be associated with voodoo.
  • If I bring owls in at night by vocalizing their calls, the local people will think I have voodoo.
  • Peter Njau added: Then if something goes wrong in the village, you may end up being the first suspect. Even in my (Peter's) tribe (Chagga), you may be the first suspect.
  • Does this tribe use owl parts, feathers, talons, for anything, including food? No, they won't even touch the owl.
  • But they (shamans) can use owl eggs for witchcraft, to harm somebody. Doesn't know how this is done, specifically, what the egg is mixed with.
  • Does each boma have a shaman? It's passed on across generations, and boys are trained. Shamans are in the community.

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