Farnham Rehfisch

Death, Dreams, and the Ancestors in Mambila Culture

Note: this was published as pp. 307-315 in Man in Africa (eds) M. Douglas & P.M. Kaberry.

London: Tavistock Press.

It is included here with the permission of Routledge and the Tavistock Press.

In this article I outline some Mambila beliefs concerning death and the afterworld and show how new tenets may be introduced into the belief system. I begin with a story, supposedly a true one, told to me by a large number of informants including the heroine of the tale. The event occurred shortly before my arrival. however, having myself witnessed several occurrences of the kind described, it is possible for me to vouch for the accuracy of the description of some of the events, though of course not of the 'dream'.

The Mambila, now in Southern Sardauna Province of Northern Nigeria (then in Adamawa Province of the British Cameroons), believe that the ancestors, both paternal and maternal, are very much concerned with the behaviour of their descendants. infractions of important rules of conduct are punished by illness and in some cases death. If a sick person publicly confesses his or her evil doings, the ancestors are satisfied and the patient will recover.

When I was in the Mambila village of Warwar in 1953 I was told about a woman who, in late 1951 or early 1952, was lying on her bed seriously ill. She was apparently in either a deep sleep or a coma. In the hut with her was a large number of persons both male and female. Some of there were her kinsfolk, some affines, and others neighbours, including influential men. Outside the house was larger number of persons anxiously awaiting the outcome of the sickness. Judging from like events observed by myself, it is more than probable that some of those present had come as far as fifteen or twenty miles for this occasion. Most of the households in the village would be represented by at lest one member. The audience would consist of approximately an equal number of men and women, with perhaps a slight preponderance of males. This is because many of the women residing in the immediate neighbourhood would be busy preparing food for the throng. Those present were not there as idle spectators; many played a role in attempting to cure the sick person.

Both men and women moved in and out of the hut of the sick woman quite freely, except when very secret rituals were being performed. Some of these were carried out by males, and women were prohibited from witnessing them on pain of being made seriously ill. Even the patient, if conscious, was obliged to shut her eyes or turn her back on these performances. A like prohibition was in force when women carried out their own special ritual, since men ran the risk of being made ill should they be witnesses. The aim of these rites was to propitiate the ancestors as well as to combat witchcraft. Attempts were also frequently made to obtain confessions of sins from the patient. People were constantly going up to the sickbed and pleading with her to make efforts to recall forgotten sins. People who had known her well tried hard to remind he of some breach of the rules that she might have forgotten. For example, her sister had accused her for many years previously of the theft of an ornament. She now came and pleaded with her to confess. The sick woman insisted that she was not guilty, saying that if she were lying she would surely die. The sister, not entirely reassured, made a public proclamation that even if the woman had perpetrated the theft all was forgiven and the ancestors should not punish her. Other persons with whom the patient had had disputes in the past also came trying to elicit confessions. Should such not be forthcoming they would then publicly proclaim that all was forgiven and, at the same time, take and oath that they ere not bewitching the sick person. The oath took the following form: if they were using witchcraft against the woman, they would immediately die and the patient be spared.

In spite of the efforts made, the condition of the woman steadily worsened and virtually all hope was abandoned when she went into either a coma or a very deep sleep. Life appeared to have left her and preparations were being made for her burial, when suddenly she began to stir. She opened her eyes and within a very few moments she was fully awake and apparently recovered. Shortly afterwards she began to describe her adventures which I shall call a ÔdreamÕ, though the Mambila would firmly resist any such interpretation and would argue that the events recalled were in fact true.

She said that she had died and come back to life. The ancestors had come to her and offered a choice morsel of chicken cooked in palm-oil and highly spiced with red peppers. Who these ancestors were is not certain, other than its being known that they must have been her direct ascendants. Having accepted the food, she died and was taken to the world of the shades. There she found a village very similar to the one she had left. The Mambila believe that the shades live in villages much like those of the living. Farms surround the settlement as is the case here on earth. The sick woman, however, found some differences. The shades owned vast quantities of coloured cloth of European manufacture, a commodity which had only recently become desirable to the Mambila. There were many chickens to be seen, far more than would be found in a village of the living and they had one odd characteristic, namely that all were white. The houses were all in an excellent state of repair and the settlement looked extremely prosperous. She began to speak to some of the ancestors, who asked her about her life on earth. When she mentioned that she had left two small children behind, one two years old and the other four, they became very angry. They scolded her severely for abandoning her off-spring and they said that it was a mistake to have let her die. The next thing she knew, she awoke on her bed.

The description of this event serves to illustrate a number of Mambila beliefs and practices. I myself had the opportunity of witnessing a number of like cases and the scenario was always similar to the one described above. It is the duty of all kind and friends of a stricken person to come as soon as they hear of his or her illness. By so doing they may be able to help to effect a cure, as indicated above, by reminding the patient of a sin, which he may then confess. All having knowledge of a curative ritual are expected to perform it. Those who have had or are currently having a dispute with the stricken person should make an appearance in order to swear on oath that it is not their witchcraft which is causing the illness. In the case of the illness of one very important man, I saw as many as two hundred people assembled in his compound. These came not only from the sick manÕs settlement but also from others and included both kin and friends.

The confession of sins, as has been mentioned already, is of the utmost importance. Ancestors punish those who have infringed the rules. Moreover, it is believed that witches are able to attack only those who have misbehaved. A blameless person or one who has confessed is immune from the malevolence of witches.

The purpose, then, of visiting the sick is far more than a matter of courtesy or an expression of solidarity in times of crisis. It is hoped that the act may help to effect a cure. If the ill person is well enough he is bombarded with questions about his past behaviour, with the aim of helping him to recall some infraction of the norms that he may have committed long ago and forgotten, but that none the less may be the cause of his present misfortune. Should his condition not allow of such lengthy questioning, friends and kin discuss the victimÕs past life among themselves, hoping to bring to mind a possible cause. When one is remembered, they await until the patient can be approached and then ask him direct questions concerning the suspected cause. A confession may thus be elicited.

The Mambila believe that a person involved in a dispute is a prime target for witches. The assailant may be either the antagonist or a third person, who having heard of the misunderstanding, may utilize his evil powers and hope that he will avoid suspicion, the partner in the quarrel being the prime suspect. It is therefore important that all who have had or have antagonistic relations with the sick person should appear and swear that it is not their witchcraft which is causing the trouble. This oath not only protects them from accusations in the future but also is said to cancel the effect of unconscious witchcraft, if any.

The ÔdreamÕ of the woman also illustrates certain commonly held beliefs concerning the afterworld. It is universally asserted that the dead live in villages like those on earth. None of my informants had any idea where these were to be found, though some guessed that they might be on the top of very high hills, others suggested the sky, while some stated that they might be underground. The location of these settlements is of no interest to the people at all, any my questioning did not elicit any curiosity. Some informants were annoyed, because it is said that the shades must be everywhere if they are to observe the behaviour of their descendants; hence an attempt to locate their villages in space might lead to contradictions. There are no fixed ideas as to how the villages of the dead are organized, or of their composition. The problem again is of no concern to the Mambila. This is consistent with the fact that both men and women often live in several settlements during their lifetime and have a wide range of choice available to them when choosing a place to settle (vide Rehfisch 1960: 255 ff.).

The life of the dead differs in some respects from that of the living. For example, witchcraft, illness, wickedness, and troubles of all kinds that so often plague the living are unknown among the shades. Food and the all-important beer are always plentiful, the farms yielding bumper crops without having to be cultivated. Access to the shadesÕ village is open to all upon death, as the evil and the good all go to the same place. Death wipes away all evil: even witches, the most wicked of all, join the shades after their demise.

Death is believed to be caused by the ancestors. The process by which it occurs is by the acceptance of a morsel of finely cooked chicken, proffered usually by an ancestor in either line. yet only those who have been bewitched are bound to accept the fatal food. Hence witchcraft is a contributory factor, and, as the Mambila, say, able to kill.

The heroine of our tale, when questioned, was unable to identify the shade who had offered her the piece of chicken. She insisted that it must be one of her ancestors, this being in conformity with the general view outlined above. It also conforms with the Mambila kinship system, which is multilineal. Within the society are kinship groups with corporate functions. All members trace descent from a common male ancestor or his sibling, but descent may be traced through males or females or both (vide Rehfisch 1960: 246 ff.). Ritual performed to propitiate the dead in this society is directed at all a personÕs ancestors, both known and unknown. No single individual or small group is specially selected, unless divination has shown that one or more specific ancestors are responsible for the particular troubles that the rites are expected to remedy.

When the sick woman reached the village of the shades she was met by a large group of her ancestors. Some she herself thought able to identify, for example, her father, who had died recently, her motherÕs brother, whom she had known well, having lived for some time in his compound, and finally her fatherÕs brotherÕs son. The first two had been long-term residents of Warwar; the third was born there but had lived most of his life elsewhere. Since Mambila say that ancestors are very much concerned with the day-to-day behaviour of their descendants, it is surprising that in this case they were apparently unaware that the woman had left two small children behind. No one remarked on this point, and when I questioned them their only comment was that the ancestors were not doing their job properly. The ancestorÕs anger upon hearing that the women had abandoned her offspring is not surprising, since one of the most seriously condemned actions in this society s negligence in respect of oneÕs own children. A parent will himself neither severely punish a child nor beat him, though a neighbour or kinsman may do so. ancestors are said to punish very severely a parent who beats his own child, whereas they are not concerned if others do so.

This case of a person dying and coming back to earth is not unique. I was told of several instances of this kind. For example, another woman was sent back when the shades discovered that she had left small children on earth. A middle-aged man was revived to look after his adolescent son. finally, a very old man who two adult sons were engaged in a very serious quarrel was brought back to life with orders to use his authority to settle the matter in an amicable fashion. I was unable to interview any of these persons but heard the stories in great detail.

The presence of only white chickens in the village of the shades in this case is puzzling. To the best of my knowledge, such a fact had never been previously reported. However, it elicited no surprise on the part of my informants. It might be mentioned here that for one important ceremony performed at the beginning of the New Year it is said to be desirable to sacrifice a pure white cock to the ancestors as a token of thanksgiving. However, on the one occasion when I was able to witness this ritual, a multi-coloured one with a few white spots was used. There were some pure white ones in the village at that time, but I was told that none belonged to the kin group which was responsible that year for providing the chicken. Apparently the colour of the fowl to be sacrificed is of no great importance. In other contexts white fowls are not especially valued. The favourite colour now is that of Rhode Island Reds, a breed imported by some missionaries, and this because of their much larger size than the local breed. The heroine, when asked whether she herself preferred white chickens, said that the colour was irrelevant, only size mattered. She could give no explanation as to why in the village of the shades only white chickens were to be found.

We now come to what is perhaps the most important aspect of the ÔdreamÕ inasmuch as it reflects most vividly the changing aspirations and needs among the Mambila. It was reported that the shades had vast stocks of European cloth. Until very recently the Mambila appear not to have desired imported cloth. The women wore no clothes at all, and the men had only loin cloths spun and woven by themselves from locally gown cotton. According to my informants, it was only in the late 1940s that local people became interested in purchasing imported textiles. When I arrived in 1953 few had been able to buy cloth, but it was desired by all. Those who had achieved their ambition had for the most part bought only one length of cloth and this was reserved for festive occasions. It is not surprising therefore that it is at this point in time, that is when cloth had become desired by all, that the ancestors are reported to have great quantities of this commodity. All who described the ÔdreamÕ to me never failed to mention this part of it, while only a few remembered the white chickens.

The ancestors are said to dislike imported objects. During the performance of important rituals those involved are allowed to wear only cloth of native manufacture. On quite a number of occasions I saw persons stripping down to a loincloth before taking part in such rites. I was allowed to wear a bit more than this on such occasions, since it was said that my ancestors had no aversion to clothing. I asked why, since the ancestors themselves had stocks of imported textiles, did they not want their children to wear it. No answer was forthcoming, though it appears more than likely that sooner or later, as the use of cloth becomes more widespread, this ritual prohibition will disappear and the ÔdreamÕ may be used to sanction the change.

The kind of event described above is neither very common nor extremely rare. A number of such instances were reported to me as having occurred in the past. However, no other dreamer, as far as I was able to discover, did more than state what was already known in his description of the village of the shades. Here we had a few innovations, yet they were accepted by all. I heard no scepticism being voice concerning the veracity of the report by any informant. The tale had been told to persons residing outside the village and was as readily accepted by them. The ÔdreamerÕ gained no long-term prestige from the event. I was told that at the time she was for a very short period a focus of interest, and the subject of her ÔdreamÕ was much discussed. By the time that I had arrived many of the details had been forgotten by the majority, but the belief in respect to the textiles remained. It should be added here that this woman had neither previously nor since had any marked psychic experience.

In any society where the ancestors are said to be either the main supernatural beings or the only ones, it seems likely that there will be a conservative ethos. Cultural change may and will occur but slowly, unless a revolutionary change in the belief system such as mass conversion to Islam or Christianity were to take place. Psychich experiences of the type described above may act as catalysts in initiating minor changes. Dream experiences or other contact with the spirits have in other societies introduced more revolutionary changes with great speed as, for example, the Ghost Dance, Cargo Cultsin Melanesia, and Prophetic Movements among the Nilotes of the Sudan. The ÔdreamÕ described above is of no major sociological significance since it led to no major changes in Mambila social structure or culture, but it may be of importance in the future since it shows the means whereby new ideas, values, and aspirations may be reconciled with the traditional belief system without shaking the foundations of that society.


REHFISCH, F. 1960. The Dynamics of Multilineality on the Mambila Plateau. Africa, 30 (3).

(C) Farnham Rehfisch, 1969.