Section 2

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With the exception of the Chiefs (see below) there is no skull-cult and no connections are made between skulls, stones, pots and rain as has been reported in the North of Cameroon (as reported by e.g. Barley 1983 and David et al 1988). Funerary rites can be summarized as follows: burial takes place as soon as possible, although no preparations are made until after death. Shaft and chamber graves have been replaced by a grave style borrowed from the FulBe earlier this century. A wide shaft has a small body size trench cut in the bottom. The body is placed in this wrapped in a cloth. Both sexes are placed facing West with the right hand held up. A raffia-pith mat is placed over the body then the trench is roofed in with a screen of poles to prevent the earth directly touching the body.

As well as change in grave types, a more important change to funeral rites is that in the past the corpse (of senior males in all documented cases) was tied to a ladder 9 and propped upright, with bowls placed between the legs to collect any effluvia. The corpse was thus displayed until all their children could return and see it. This type of post-mortem display appears to have stopped a long time ago in Cameroon. Even my oldest informants knew of it only by hearsay. However, it occurred as recently as 1950 in the Nigerian village of Warwar. The Baptist missionary Gilbert Schneider was invited to photograph the corpse of Norikam tied in a sitting position surrounded by his children.

DIAGRAM 1. Burial styles

Those who touch the body must be treated afterwards to prevent arthritis: they hold their legs and arms over a fire then shake all their limbs towards the West as if "shaking off" something. Burial is performed by men, with women attending. It is now usually accompanied by a Christian prayer.

Meanwhile people gather at the home of the deceased and sit there for some days. Food is brought so that no one in the compound needs to cook and money is collected to pay for beer and cola which is offered to the guests. Each guest on leaving pays their respects to the most senior of the bereaved and may discreetly hand them some money.

A feast in which food is given to all comers is held on the third day after death. If death occurs in the evening there is often some debate as to when to start counting; practical considerations may sway the issue - for example so that the feast day falls on a Sunday, allowing more people to attend.

The house of the deceased is swept with the fuo yeh plant (one of the Labiatae (?plectranthus sp.), the smell of which is said to drive the spirit (càng) of the deceased out into the bush. The death of a senior person necessitates a more elaborate version, the fuo rite. The house and belongings of the deceased are first treated. The belongings are brought outside for this. They are beaten with a bundle consisting of fuo yeh (see above), kogo (unidentified) and a chicken. The same bundle is then beaten onto the head, shoulders and sternum of the spouses and descendants of the deceased. This is held "to prevent them dreaming of the deceased." Siblings and spouse(s) tie a cord (we) round their necks. A spouse also wears one round the neck, one above the waist. These are worn for forty days. Then the strings are cut off at the river and their wearers shave their heads and wash before returning to the village for the second feast. The house of the deceased may be treated a second time with fuo yeh on this occasion.

In the fuo rite, once the close kin have been treated the chicken is then killed, like most ritual chicken, by being held over a fire until dead. It is then cut into pieces and cooked in a pot on a fire made outside the house. It is cooked with leaves of san maveh (Ocimum Basilicum Linn. (Labiatae)). A sister of the deceased holds a piece of chicken over the pot in both her hands. The man organising the rite cuts the leaves onto the chicken, she then tips it up so the cut leaves fall into the pot. Once the chicken has been cooked it is stripped from the bones and the officiant puts a piece of the meat with some of the leaves into the hands of everyone being treated. They then raise their hands to their mouth and eat from their cupped palms. This rite may be repeated if one has recurrent dreams of a dead parent.

The second feast should be held forty days after the death. Often it is not held exactly when it should: it is likely to be held on the Sunday after the 40 days have elapsed, and it is sometimes postponed until sufficient funds are available. This is very likely to coincide with the "summer holidays" when "rich" city dwellers return to the village for their holidays and may contribute for the funeral feast of their siblings. In some cases a small feast is held after forty days as a marker, of the ritual that occurs, but stress is made that the main feast will be held when funds permit. However, these feasts do not compare in any way with the "cry-die" complex of the Grassfields (e.g. as described by Brain and Pollock, 1971).

The feasts are notable for the absence of public ritual other than the commensality implicit in their existence, although either Christian or Muslim prayers are now included before the meal. After forty days the we cords are cut and the bereaved can return to the fields.

Quite separate from the feasts is the dancing of suàgà for senior people. This occurs on the night following the death - for a death in the evening it happens the night after.

Men's suàgà is danced for a deceased male, women's suàgà for a female just as during the masquerades. I suspect that the death of a very senior man might occasion an appearance by the masquerade itself but I have little data on the point. During my first two years in Somié women's suàgà was only danced at one funeral, and men's suàgà at least three times. Since writing this I have undertaken further fieldwork and have been present at the death of a prominent senior man. Suàgà was danced but the masquerade did not appear. I have been told that when a relatively junior man from Somié died in the neighbouring village of Atta in mid 1989 the Atta masquerade did appear. Nigerian visitors maintain that among Nigerian Mambilla the male masquerade may appear during the funerary dances for senior men. Rehfisch photographed of funeral dances in Warwar in 1953 wherein a collection of bells and other objects are dragged along the ground. Although there are currently none in Somié they are known there 10 and exist in neighbouring villages where they are produced at major oaths 11 and during the masquerade. They were still in use by Nigerian Mambila near to Dorofi village in 1991.

The dancing occurs as a further elaboration of the visiting already described. No express mention of the deceased is made, and there is no difference (except in scale and hence dress of the dancers) between these funeral dances and the dances which accompany the masquerade. No reasons were stated for the decision whether a certain person warranted the dancing of suàgà, apart from generalizations such as "if they are very old" or if the deceased was a Notable. It seems that an old and respected person with prominent children resident in the village is likely to have suàgà danced for them. The dances which I witnessed were outside the village centre and I had no chance to be present when the decisions were made. The timing of death is influential since suàgà must be danced on the first evening following the death. If the person dies in the late afternoon or early evening then there may not be time to organise the dance (collect beer and drums as well as inviting people) so suàgà will not be danced. This was the reason given for suàgà not being danced after the death of Guanam following his sad death in February 1991. I was not able to be present at the forty day feast but I am sure that suàgà will have been danced then.

The skull cult of The Chief

The skulls of Chiefs are removed and given a secondary "burial" in the "Chiefs' skull house" behind the Palace. Only sister's sons of the Chief may enter this building.
Nggwun 12 and men's suàgà are danced following the death of a chief. Chiefs are buried sitting upright in a circular shaft grave. Approximately a month after the burial the head is removed and washed. The skull is placed in a small four-handled Mambila basket (sogo bà) in the skull house (gua feh) to the West of the Palace.

I was not allowed access to the skull-house, nor were the sister's sons forthcoming about the rites performed there. In particular, the relationship between the current Chief and the skulls of his predecessors remains unclear. The rites described to me did not involve the Chief himself. Annually the heads are taken from their baskets and "washed", being sprayed with palm wine by the sister's sons. The day on which this takes place is made "sóo": it is forbidden to break the soil and to cut elephant grass, so no farm-work is undertaken.

In the past non-Mambila immigrants to the village acted as guards and had permanent sleeping-quarters in the skull house, but this practice ceased in the 1950's The heads are said to shake in their baskets when a Notable is going to die, and the guards were supposed to report this to the Chief so that he could initiate divination in order to discover whose death was portended, and whether any action could be taken to avert it.

Co sà- pouring beer on graves

In this rite beer is poured onto a grave. It is performed by sibling sets over the graves of their parents. Greater prominence is given to father's graves than to mother's but the rites are performed over both.

Guinea corn beer is brewed and carried to the grave. Only sorghum beer can be used, and if the ritual is to be carried out on the actual graves then it must have been cultivated by the children concerned. If they have not grown it but have purchased the grain then they can still carry out the rite but not over the graves of their parents - rather they must pour the beer on a road as it leaves the village. This is also what is done if by happenstance a grave is a long way off, for example if a parent died in one of the big cites co sà may still be done, but the beer is pooured on the road that metaphorically gos towards their grave! When the ritual occurs on the actual graves then those present stand on the western side of the grave and face east, pointing spears and right forefingers to the East. A daughter's son of the deceased (sister's son of the man organising the rite) pours beer three times across the grave. The verb used to describe this is co, meaning to cut with a chopping action. The same word is used to describe the making of a suàgà ritual oath. It was explained to me as being appropriate in this context since the top of the grave is "cut off" by the line of beer.

As he pours the sister's son utters an invocation that good things come and that bad things go away, very similar to that made during the dameh rite (see below). He then blows beer three times over the outstretched fingers and spears of those present. First, the group of male siblings are treated, then the female siblings, although no difference is made in the actions. If both parents' graves are being treated a separate beer vase is used for each grave, the male grave being treated first. The day following the rites the male siblings and thier friends should go on a hunt to demonstrate by the animals they catch the success of their actions. However, there was no suggestion that the rite should be repeated or had been wrongly performed if nothing were caught.

The stated purpose of this is that "the good" (in its most general sense) may come to the village and "the bad" depart 13. The rites make no mention of either the person on whose grave the beer is being poured nor of the dead in general. It is thus different from the ritual mentioned by Rehfisch which is "performed to propitiate the dead in this society [and] is directed at all a person's ancestors, both known and unknown" (1969:311). Unfortunately he gives no more information about this rite.

In Atta village a communal rite called mbe càng is held annually. This synchronises the individual rites performed occasionally by individuals in Somié. In Atta on the day of mbe càng family groups do these rites in the morning then a dameh is performed at the chief's palace. A big beer drink and dance is then held. This combines family groups with the village unity espoused by dameh.

The synonymity of Càng and càng enables the mbe càng rites to be elided with Catholic All Souls, and co sà is performed on people buried in the Protestant cemetery. However, this very elision in the context of continuing mission activity renders uncertain the reminiscences of past practice - or to be precise, renders uncertain the accounts of the point or the addressee of the invocations of dameh or co sà addresses when practised 50-100 years ago. The Atta collective ritual leads me to believe that it was, before Christian pressure, addressed to the collectivity of dead spirits, càng bò tèlè beh (fathers including mothers).


During the dameh rite the village population gathers in the square outside the Palace, and forms a circle. The Chief sits on his kogo baji (chief's stool), other people sit or squat on the ground, having removed their shoes. The seating choice made by each individual results in a rough segregation between the sexes, although this fact was never commented upon. When everyone has assembled the Chief nominates a speaker, either one of his sister's sons or senior sisters. The speaker stands in the middle of the circle, faces eastwards, and raises their right forefinger, as does everyone else. The main thrust of the invocation is that good things should enter the village and bad things pass into the bush. During the invocation (which is typically short, no more than two or three minutes in length, and spoken at great speed) some varieties of good and evil are enumerated. The invocations made during dameh are similar to those made when pouring beer on a parent's grave, however, dameh threatens evil doers with suàgà. The speaker says, for example, "if someone comes to the village with evil intent, what will they see?" The response is provided by the audience: "They will see suàgà." The audience dip their forefingers to the ground as they make their response. This is identical to the behaviour of the audience when the refrain of the main suàgà ritual-oath is pronounced.

Moreover, in Atta dameh is always performed during the mbe càng (beer Spirit/God) rites, and is held to be directed at the generality of the dead. No such explanation was ever spontaneously given in Somié. When I related the account I had received in Atta it was accepted as a plausible description.

Tulu càng

The most significant rite to do with the dead is no longer practised. Some practitioners are still alive but they have not been forthcoming about the details of the rite. I doubt whether it has been practised since before the mid 1960s. This rite consisted of the summoning of an ancestral spirit into a house, whereon it was held to speak to an audience outside, before being driven off into the bush.

A family group would gather to solve some pressing problem. A person who knew how to summon spirits would be invited. He would go into a hut, close the door and blow on a notch flute to summon the spirit. The rite is sometimes referred to using the term for blowing a flute (twaga hence twaga càng). Once "it" had arrived "it" would speak from inside the hut through the practitioner. Clearly there was room for cynical manipulation by the practitioners but it is equally possible that possession may have occurred.

The family group concerned appears to have been a patrilateral grouping of brothers (of a single father) and their children (some of whom may be adult).

One informant made the link with divination as a preliminary to the rite. Nowadays when divining about the cause of an illness the divination is asked to choose between Càng and people as the prime cause. Càng is identified with mgbe Càng, and implies a "natural" illness which can be treated with medicines and will take its usual course. Illnesses caused by "people" have a human cause through the action of some sort of witchcraft or possibly through the use of poison. If this is the diagnosed cause the culprit will be pursued. When the tulu càng rite was practised the selection of the càng option gave rise to a further question. The divination was asked to choose between mgbe Càng (i.e. natural illness as already described) and càng bò t`elè (i.e. illness caused by the intervention of spirits of the dead). "Mgbe Càng" is the option now assumed to be the case. The tulu càng rite would be performed if the càng bò t`elè option was selected by the divination.

If siblings quarrel either witches (nduan) or the dead (càng tèlè) could enter and cause illness. The witches enter sheltering under the suspicion that the quarrel throws onto the siblings themselves, but the dead enter so that the matter is speedily resolved. Divination distinguishes these two possibilities, and points to subsequent action. One may warn off witches by a public statement that one is aware of their menace (ta nduan) or by taking a suàgà ritual oath. The quarrel may be resolved and the spirits chased away.

If an illness is held to be caused by càng the rites which follow do not constitute an appeasement. They are not a sacrifice nor a gift to the agency perceived to be the cause. Rather the agent (càng) is caught and chased away to the bush as if it were càng tandalu. This implies a more than ambiguous attitude to spirits of the dead.

The important questions are whether the spirit summoned was held to be that of a definite individual, and whether the same spirit could be summoned by other groups. I have no satisfactory answers to either question. One man said that tulu càng was concerned with càng tandalu. He said that càng tandalu caused illness and had to be driven away.

The question of the individuation of the dead is especially important in the context of the diffuseness of Mambila kinship. When exchange marriage was practised on a regular basis Mambila had two different sorts of groupings each with a residential component. The man (in Warwar dialect) was a group of coresidential bilateral kin, while the memin was a descent group in which the affiliation of the children depended on whether they were born from an exchange or bridewealth marriage. In addition, active membership depended on residence. In exchange marriage women were exchanged between men of different memin groups. Neither of these terms are recognised in Somié, and nor are there equivalent groupings in contemporary Cameroon.

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