Section 3

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What the dead do and do not do

Illness or other bad events are not held to be the results of ancestral intervention, although it is allowed as a possibility (see above). A corollary of this is that sacrifices are not made to the dead in order to avert their malign influence. Nor are they approached to intercede with or to supervent the actions of other deities. The dead are not individuated nor are there shrines dedicated to particular groups of ancestors. Beer when spilt is said to be given to the the dead but it is not routinely poured on the ground at the beginning of a beer drink as occurs elsewhere in Africa (see eg Karp 1980) and in Cameroon.

This contrasts with Bamiléké explanations of illness as described by Pradelles (1986). According to him ancestors are considered as the causes of illness, and are often diagnosed as such in divination. However, this does not give rise to specific acts to remove/appease the diagnosed causes. Pradelles takes this to be a counter-example of Horton's CPE model of African Traditional Religion.

The question of sacrifice and shrines

Rehfisch also noted (1972:118) that "near this central point [of the courtyard] one often finds small shrines composed of three stones: it is one these that medicines are cooked. ... Meek reports that these stones are said to represent the ancestors. I found no substantial ground for this. My informants said that the stones were neither symbols of the dead nor of anything else."

The first food of a meal should be thrown to the ground. A lump of fufu (maize porridge) is broken off by the eldest present, touched to the sauce and thrown to the ground (by men). Women do the same thing but throw it onto the firestones or behind the hearth. This was only done by seniors, never by juniors, even if they are eating alone. It is rarely, if ever, done nowadays. I never saw it done unprompted during any meal except during certain ritual meals where the practise was somewhat different: two pieces of food were taken, one thrown over the shoulder and the other thrown into the fire. I am uncertain whether this relates to the dead or whether it should be more related directly to ritual eating. Perhaps, like eating from both hands, it serves to mark ritual food as being different from mundane nourishment. I suspect that it is a ritual elaboration of the unmarked everyday offering which, as has been said, is no longer practised. When asked about these practices Mambila people told me that it was given to càng. When I asked which sort of càng I was told càng bò tèlè, the dead.

The problem with any discussion of the Mambila dead is how to correctly, accurately characterise their unimportance. How can I concentrate upon and discuss them and still be able to emphasise their marginality?

It is very likely that in the last thirty years they have become less important but I do not believe they were ever more than of secondary importance. They may have been referred to as a possible source of illness when siblings were known to have quarrelled or invoked anonymously to bring the Good to the village.Further to this, when beer is poured on parental graves blessings are invoked for everyone not just for the immediate sibling set. Blessings are seen to come from Mgbe Càng rather from càng bò tèlè (in so far as one can maintain the distinction), although dameh with its orientation to càng bò tèlè may refute this. It is a question of emphasis: which is more important, to repulse the bad, or to attract the good?

Tentative conclusion

To sum up: the ensemble of practice and statement described above lead me to say as a shorthand summary that contemporary Mambila have ancestors but no ancestor cult. (I suspect that this was true in the past as well.) The difference is one of emphasis rather than one of kind, although the question of kinship system must be explored further. Cross-culturally how true is it that there is a correlation between a linear kinship system and ancestors? In particular is it correct that bilateral kinship correlates with the absence (or unimportance) of ancestors?

What Mambila could do but have "chosen" not to

The set of practices in Somié is consistent with an elaborate and important ancestor cult. This possibility has not been exploited by Mambila in seeking to lead and manage their lives. The result is that ancestors appear as peripheral entities which may be appealed to or invoked in oaths, but do not play a major part in peoples lives.

Illness is treated, and may give rise to rituals to remove witchcraft or the malign influence of the dead. All I can do is to repeat that while witchcraft is held to cause much illness ancestral influence is rarely given as the explanation of an illness (I know of no cases). While this state of affairs prevails I persist in saying that the Mambila dead lack a cult.

The question at issue becomes one of how to accurately represent a nexus of belief and action which is largely potential, but one whose possibility has scarcely been realised.

If, as is possible, the contemporary situation results from a demise in importance of the Mambila dead then one must attempt to find possible agents of change. None of the changes which can be documented are particularly relevant to a demise in an ancestor complex. This is particularly so in the regional context in which the dead play a more prominent role among the immediate neighbours of Mambila. Hence I am led to assume that the Mambila dead were never of great importance.

What I have done here is to collect together a set of observation to do with death and ancestors. In concluding we must remember that Mambila are not wont to reflect in an abstract fashion upon such generalisations as may be made about their lives. What then are we, as analysts secure in our armchairs, to make of this? A one sentence summary may be that Mambila have ancestors but no ancestor cult, but some of the practices outlined above probably constitute a (weak) reverence of the dead. Perhaps it may be better to attribute an ancestor cult with no ancestors!

Discussing change we have to remember the context in which this has occurred. The last 100 years have seen the Mambila raided for slaves, the installation of a puppet chief and the FulBe domination replaced by colonial regimes which sanctioned the continued giving of tribute in kind and in humankind almost until the time of Independence.

During this time the Christianity Church began to be adopted by some people. Islam has only become an important factor since independence as memories of the FulBe slave raids fades and the identification of Islam with FulBe becomes less opprobrious. Indeed the importance of Islam among Cameroonian Mambila on the Tikar Plain has greatly increased in the last five years since large numbers of Nigerian Mambila have moved into Cameroon. Islam appears to be more widespread among Nigerian Mambila which may be an effect of the large numbers of cattle owning FulBe who have been more or less permanently on the Mambila Plateau since the late 1950's.

I have found it particularly hard to get good data about how the relative importance of different rites has changed. The subsequent question of how any such changes may have led to changes in the rites themselves is correspondingly harder still. As I proposed in my doctoral thesis (1990) my impression is that Mambila Traditional Religion has become somewhat simplified, and in so doing suàgà has come into a position of dominance which it may not have once held. Suàgà names a complex combination of masquerades and ritual oath. It is noteworthy that this particular combination appears to be distinctive to the Mambila. Neighbouring groups have masquerades with cognate names but lack the tie with ritual oath taking which is found in Mambila.

The Mambila masquerade (in Cameroon at least) has itself simplified: where once there were many different sorts of suàgà masquerades there is now only one type in use. I should also stress the Somi-centric view which is being presented. Since every village disparages their neighbours as being incorrect and as I have not participated in enough rites in other villages I refrain from comparisons at this point.

Suàgà has assumed centrality at the expense of at least one other masquerade society (lom). Medicine societies have also been reported in Warwar village (Nigeria) in the early 1950's. It seems plausible to suppose that as well as these ancestors have suffered at suàgà's expense. It may well have once been more common to attribute illness to the actions of càng bò tèlè. Dreams of the dead may have been more common than they are now.

So what I suggest is that the weakness, unimportance, peripherality of the Mambila dead does not fully result from 100 years of change of Mambila Religion which has seen both the total incorporation of a chief with a skull cult and the lessening the power of both chief and other village level authorities at the expense of precolonial political and independent external authorities. Even in the last century, although the dead may have been more prominent than they are at present, comparison with other groups to the north and to the south leaves me convinced of the continued unimportance of the Mambila dead.

Ancestors, elders and literature

The recent literature on ancestors discuss cases rather different from the Mambila (Fortes, 1981; Kopytoff, 1971). For no matter what is being said about the significance of ancestors, whether they are sui generis or conceptually a type of elder (Kopytoff, 1971 & 1981; Calhoun, 1980 & 1981), none of the authors is in any doubt as to the importance of what they are describing for the actors involved. Yet it is just this question which is at issue for the Mambila. To repeat myself: the dead are peripheral to Mambila life and to their conceptions of that life. They bulk large neither in routine ritual activity nor in responses to crisis.

I have found more relevance in a paper by Jack Glazier describing Mbeere changes in belief and action due both to prohibitions in traditional funerary practices (exposure of the corpse in the bush) and changes in land tenure (the introduction of individual titles to land). Intriguingly, Glazier is describing a set of changes in which the importance of ancestors is increasing. It seems appropriate on the strength of his account to say that Mbeere lacked ancestors at the beginning of this century and that they now have them. On the Nigerian side of the border land titles have been introduced and Mambila appear to have been systematically excluded from landholding 14. However, people are not buried in the bush and the existence of graves is not a part of the process of demonstrating a legitimate claim to title as occurs among the Mbeere (qv Glazier). Glazier discusses the developing importance of Mbeere ancestors. The issue which must be tackled when discussing Mambila ancestors is the problem of peripherality.

When analysing the Mambila suàgà complex (which is central to Mambila thought and ritual life) I stressed the vagueness of the concept. Such inchoate concepts may by virtue of their lack of precision be powerful and important elements in a conceptual scheme, appearing to unify and simplify. Their use as explanatory and organising principles does not raise questions of definition. The notion of essentially contested concepts (Gallie, 1956; Alison, 1984) may be helpful here.

Vagueness at the centre is different in kind from peripherality. A peripheral notion may itself be clear and precise. The importance, the salience or the centrality of a concept is independent of the precision with which that concept is defined. And let me here remark that occasional performance does not in itself imply that the rites (and their related concepts) are unimportant. Mambila rites are infrequent, and I believe, unimportant. My unease at making such a claim motivates this paper.

Gombrich (1971) discussing Sri Lankan Buddhism makes a distinction between cognitive and affective beliefs. For Gombrich cognitive beliefs are those which are stated by the actors, whereas affective ones may be read as implicit in action. Gombrich uses the example of a lapsed Catholic crossing themself in a moment of crisis or an Anglican refusing to sleep in a haunted house to illustrate affective beliefs (respectively in Christianity and the existence of ghosts).

Is this the best way of seeing it? Once again we come back to the central problem of characterising Mambila thought... Were we to adopt Gombrich's distinction we would have to assign Mambila religious belief as being affective. Unlike Sri Lankan Buddhists Mambila lack theologians and scriptures.

Southwold's discussion of Buddhism tackles the same issue. Southwold proposes to separate instrumental from "sapiental" thought. Instrumental action is the familiar goal-means-action approach in which a degree rationality is assumed in that actions are presumed to be intended and goal orientated. We tend to think of a problem of some sort. How can it be overcome? Action results from the answers to that question. The sapiental alternative is to act on oneself rather than the world, moving the goalposts rather than achieving one's goal. Southwold argues that for this type of thought ritual is prior to belief (as Robertson-Smith held). What is misleading about the rituals is that they may be justified or explained in an "instrumentalist idiom". He does not, however, succeed in explaining how we can distinguish actual instrumentalism from mere idiom. Once again, however, the concern is to explain something which is of central importance. Gombrich's example of the lapsed Catholic crossing themself in a moment of crisis is a good example. Imagine someone who, for the sake of argument, leaves the catholic church and becomes a Buddhist. Their explicit statements to friend and anthropologists clearly imply that they "believe" in Buddhism (see Southwold and Gombrich for the problems entailed by this). Faced by some unexpected disaster or threat of crisis they are observed to cross themselves. Gombrich takes this to mean that they still "affectively" believe in Christianity (whatever that is). A cynic may say that the legacy of Catholic schooling runs deep and that this may really be a conditioned reflex and no more. That aside, the problems raised by this are, I think, comparable to those of Mambila ancestors.

Beliefs/attitudes or lesser rituals which lie on the periphery are of interest as such. They provide clues to directions of change both forward (qv Horton on water spirits and the coming of oil) and back (reconstructions of earlier forms of a religion). In the Mambila case we are left with tantalising signs in the mention made of the lom rite and the treatment of skulls 15. The dead were once more prominent than they are now. Their graves were treated by the pouring of beer more often then now, and their spirits were summoned to help resolve crises within a family group. Yet, for all this I remain convinced that it would be inappropriate to characterise Mambila practice towards the dead as constituting an ancestor cult.

Càng tandalu is far in the bush and best left there.

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