Chapter 12 Commands, Curses, Blessings and Invocations among the Iraqw of Tanzania

In: The Art of Language
Maarten Mous
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This chapter provides an overview of blessings and curses in verbal art and in daily life among the Iraqw (Cushitic) of Tanzania. I approach the topic from the speech act and its context. Blessings and curses are taken as speech acts that are intended to directly affect the intended person (and associates) through evoking the power of God. After analysis of linguistic properties and contexts I look into conventionalisations and more casual blessings and curses and culturally required automatic responses. Blessings and curses are common in the verbal art and these seem to be formally different from how traditionally in daily life people would intentionally bless and curse. The fiiro traditional prayer (literally requesting) is interspersed with blessings/curses or strong wishes which are clearly set apart by a high speed of speech, high pitch and loud voice for a whole sentence upon which the audience waves their hands in the air or towards the ground. The slufay poetry which follows the fiiro can be seen as one long blessing, using subordinate verb forms and other archaic elements but not containing these formally marked utterances of the fiiro. In tales curses occur that are spoken by participants containing imperative sentences like ‘let the milk that you have just drunk kill you’. Alagwa (a related Cushitic language of the area) tales typically end in a formula that looks very similar, ‘yours hyenas, ours cattle’. In daily life cursing is done sometimes standing on a hillock wishing bad fortune on ones opponent but neither the actual words nor the way they are performed seem to be essential. Lifting the curse is a major event however. This can easily take up a whole day of discussing, singing, drinking and eating and the ceremony needs to be performed with the families of the two opponents and other people from the area present and with text emphasizing peace, good wishes and community spirit. The anthropological literature discusses the societal functions of curses. Blessing is often done by putting a piece of grass, barsi, above the door of the house between the cross bar above the door opening and the roof. This can but need not be accompanied with speech. In addition to the overview of the Iraqw curses and blesses, the chapter compares these and analyse these in relation to other East African traditions.

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