Section 1

Driving off the dead: Mambila avatars and the ancestor cult:
Problems of history and interpretation


In what follows I attempt to give a fair and accurate answer to the question "do the Mambila have ancestors?" My initial responce is a proposition which borders on sophistry: that Mambila have and had ancestors but not an ancestor cult. In the text which follows I try to explain why I have arrived at this conclusion, and I explore some of the problems of historical reconstruction. When dealing with a system which lacks a clearly defined centre there is a not inconsiderable problem of how to characterise peripheral beliefs. This is related to the problem, in these situations, of distinguishing between the frequency of events and their salience or importance. Rarely performed rituals may be of the utmost importance (the Dogon having some of the most extreme examples of this), and frequent, mundane observances may not be of great significance to the actors. This raises problems of hermeneutics, which, of course, are never far from the anthropological study of religion. The question is how we are to assess the significance of actions, how to present a set of beliefs and claim that some are more important or salient than others. So, to take a Mambila example, most Mambila are regular churchgoers and make Christian prayers before meetings of rotating credit societies as well as sometimes before eating. For all this, my research has left me convinced that the rites and practices concerned with suàgà 2 are of far greater importance than Christianity, despite the greater frequency and regularity of Christian practice. The methodological challenge is to make explicit the basis for this assessment, and with this we must confront some of the classic problems of hermeneutics.

Returning to the problem of ancestors Fortes (1965:124) draws on Gluckman (1937) to distinguish between ancestor worship and 'mere' cults of the dead. "In many countries there is a cult of the dead which is not a cult of the ancestors, since no tendence is paid to a line of ancestors." (Gluckman 1937:129) According to these anthropological avatars Mambila may be said to have no ancestors, but a cult of the dead. However, Gluckman also gives this definition of an ancestral cult: "If an ancestral cult may be defined as the belief in the continued interference of ancestral ghosts in the affairs of their living kin and continual ritual behaviour by the latter to the former." (125 ) This seems to imply that Mambila could be held to have ancestors but no ancestor cult. Indeed, it may be best to avoid the term ancestor and simply talk of the dead. However, this does not help with the problem of peripherality.

Rather than discussing analytic definitions 3 I wish to present the available evidence for Mambila ancestors and their attitude to the dead. Questions of definition may arise in the discussion of this evidence.


The Mambila live on both sides of the Nigeria-Cameroon border, most of them on the Mambila Plateau in Nigeria. A smaller number (c. 12,000) live in Cameroon, especially at the foot of the Mambila Plateau escarpment, on the Tikar Plain. My fieldwork has been conducted mostly in Cameroon, and in particular in the village of Somié in Adamawa Province. Somié had a population of approximately one thousand (based on the official 1986 tax census) at the time of my fieldwork. Self-sufficient in food, the villagers have grown coffee as a cash crop since the early 1960s. The main language spoken in the village is Mambila, a Mambiloid language of the Benue-Congo family. Many people under the age of forty have had a primary education and speak some French. Fulfulde, a local lingua franca, is also widely spoken. Marriage is viripatrilocal, and is increasingly on the basis of courtship, although the provision of bridewealth is still a major factor.

Cameroonian Mambila on the Tikar Plain have adopted the Tikar institution of the chiefship, yet their social structure otherwise closely resembles that described for the Nigerian village of Warwar by Rehfisch (1972) based on fieldwork in 1953. Nigerian Mambila did not have the same type of institutionalized chiefship as is found in Cameroon. In Nigeria villages were organised on gerontocratic principles, and largely lacked political offices. The system of exchange marriage described by Rehfisch (1960) has now vanished, and with it the two sorts of named group which recruited through different combinations of descent, marriage type (exchange or bridewealth) and residence. Most people in the village are members of either the Catholic or Protestant church. However both men's and women's masquerades are still performed, and cases heard at the Chief's palace are regularly concluded with a ritual oath (suàgà, see below).


In what follows I shall first discuss myths, then the concept of Càng and other linguistic evidence. This is followed by discussion of different rituals: funerals and the skull cult of the chief, the pouring of beer on graves and the summoning of spirits of the dead.


My early fieldwork in Somié revealed no myths, nor did prompting succeed in eliciting any explanatory accounts which may be called myths. Initiation and training in different types of divination as well as the male masquerade cult included no reference to myths. However, during a brief visit early in 1990 I was discussing divination with one of my oldest friends. The conversation led me to ask "Was divination once able to talk with its mouth (i.e. talk language)?" This elicited the following response:

A hunter shot an antelope. He shot a poisoned arrow into its back. It fled into the bush. He took a spider 4 and put it in his hat so it could show him the way.
"Look! There's a hoof print. Go this way."
The antelope entered the ground. The spider told the hunter to go to a clump of elephant grass and to open it up. He did, and saw a big road going down into the ground. He entered and followed the path to a big village. He entered the village and was greeted by some people sitting under a granary.
"How are you?"
"Why have you come?"
"I'm looking for my antelope."
He came to the chief's palace, where again he was asked what he was doing.
"I'm looking for an animal which I shot."
"Is this the arrow?" he was asked, pulling an arrow from the roof.
"Yes, that is it."
"You have shot my sheep."
Then he was asked "How did you get here?" "Who showed you the road?" "Are you alone?"
"Are you alone?"
"Lies! Take off your hat!"
And there was the spider.
"Did the spider show you the road?"
"From now on the spider will not talk. For the antelope is the sheep of the ancestors. It will live in the ground and it will communicate only with divination cards through divination. Now go."
The hunter followed the road back out, shut the clump of grass and came back home. The spider talked no more.

Another version of this myth is given in an appendix.


Tuning next to linguistic evidence, there appears to be no word for ancestor in Mambila. The word used for personal spirit is càng. The principal focus of this word as the creator of the world and everything in it. (The word generally used for creation (meè) is the verb for house building and potting). It is commonly held that Càng decides what will happen, and that people cannot avoid this 5. For example, the standard response on hearing of a death is to say Càng né ten (Càng PRES. exists). The word "Càng" has been adopted by the Christians as the translation of "God" and this has been continued both by M. Perrin, a S.I.L. linguist, and by the local Catholic clergy.

There seems to have been no way of interceding with Càng prior to contact with world religions. Although the incorporation of the Mambila into a modern state has widened their perspective they have not developed any indigenous cult of Càng but have adopted world religions 6.

The other focus of Càng is as personal spirit, usually occurring in the expression càng (càng mine), meant in a similar sense to the Christian notion of spirit 7. 8On death the spirit (càng) leaves the body and is then banished from the house into the bush. In the bush is Càng tandalu. Some people hold that this comprises the spirits of all the dead, others understand by it the spirits of dead witches and other malefactors alone. In the latter case there follows the question of what happens to the spirits (càng) of good people. It is unclear whether illness when it is (was) attributed to the effect of the dead was seen as being caused by good or bad dead people. The question seems germane since the resulting ritual action was to drive the spirit away into the bush, just as occurs after death (see below).

The dead may be referred to with the phrase càng bò tèlè beèh. This is tantalisingly ambiguous in that it can mean either the (one) spirit of our fathers, or it may be taken to have an omitted initial plural and hence to mean the spirits of our fathers.

Names and Talking about the dead

One of the problems in doing genealogical research among the Mambila is that names are recycled. Many people, particularly firstborn are named for grandparents. A child born soon after the death of a senior kinsperson is likely to be given their name. There are no firm rules for this, many people have "new names" invented by a parent or other kin to fit particular circumstances surrounding their birth (see Zeitlyn 1990c). Mambila do not say that anything more than the name is recycled. Personal spirits (càng) are individual and are not reborn in different bodies.

A further problem in doing genealogical research is that people, particularly older people are reluctant to name the dead. No reasons are given for this reserve and it is far from a strictly observed prohibition. For example, while it is impolite to ask someone the name of their dead parent, there is no problem about asking a bystander, or of uttering the name oneself. Moreover, these very names may be used as oaths, on a model with "In the name of God" which is a popular (common) Mambila expletive.

For an example, in the short text below, Sarah tells off her neighbour Jack (the names have been changed) whose dog had once again raiding Sarah's kitchen. This was tape-recorded in my absence one evening when Sarah, like most of the population of the village had been drinking in the course of a funeral. The names of her parents are in bold.

Sarah; Jack, mì sum bú ka la sâ sum. Sarah; Jack I threw it out
Bor bú hen mì sum bú sum, This dog, I threw it out
mì gwan nggweh. I don't want it.
Genyi Ma Genyi and Ma
Wò makam hen nâ, You, with this old woman,
wò nde, wò yuo gùò, wò so man, wò cher, you go, you leave the house, you pass the day, you sleep
wò nde jumu ko, bò húán mani you go behind with small children.
Wò yeh sér. You eat fufu.
More good humoured sexual insult followed (Extract from Transcript book 5, p 42/3).


Apart from funerals the most important rituals which I wish to consider are the pouring of beer on a parent's grave and the summoning of dead spirits to address a family group.

Skulls and funerals

By contrast to many other groups in Cameroon Mambila do not have a skull cult. The principle exceptions to this statement are that the skulls of dead chiefs are removed and kept in a special skull house. This, however, like the institution of the chieftaincy, is a borrowing from the neighbouring Tikar, dating from the end of the last century.

It should also be noted that the skulls of some men who were prominent in the lom cult were removed and placed in tree forks in the forest. I have not succeeded in, discovering whether these skulls received any ritual treatment, nor much about the lom cult itself. This was a masquerading association since it is said to have had an enclosure like that of the men's suàgà masquerade which is still active. I could find no one who had participated or even witnessed the lom rites. However, I suspect it to have been a witchcraft eradication society. Such societies did exist in the area: I have documented the existence of two such movements one in about 1916 and the other immediately preceding the Second World War. In particular it should be noted that lom is cognate with the word for witch in some Grassfield languages (e.g. Bali, and Mbili see Chilver and Kaberry 1974:12 &63).

Furthermore, in Atta village there was a rite called cok, in which the skulls of people owning particular treatments (nuar leh) are removed within two years. If it is not performed men of the family were held to suffer impotence (bù yeh tare nggweh suú). This appears to have been a rite done by women for men. Other informants held that it should be done for all senior people (nuar kuú).

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