The authority of ancestors - correspondence

Mampruli is a Mole-Dagbani language so closely akin to Talni that the two may be regarded as mutually intelligible dialects of a single language. The Mampruli word most accurately translated into English as `elder' is kpeema (pl. kpam-ma). This is cognate with Talni kpeem. The Mampruli word for `grandparent' (yaaba; pl. yaab-di-ma) is cognate with Talni yaaba. There is no word in Mampruli which may be alternatively translated as `elder' or `ancestor'. As far as I know there is also no word for `elder' in Mampruli cognate with a Talni word for `ancestor'.

Mampusi refer to yaab-di-ma (grandparents)', badima (members of a mother's agnatic lineage), in contexts where these words should be translated as `ancestors'. An English definition of `ancestor' which would correspond to the Mamprusi usage is; `a deceased relative to whom the living directly sacrifice'. As in the English usage of `grandparents', `mother's side of the family' or `father's side of the family', Mamprusi kinship terms may refer to both living and dead relatives. Mamprusi however clearly distinguish `the dead' (kpiim) from the living, and it is normally quite clear from context whether the individual referred to is living or dead.

In Mamprusi lineage structure, as in the organisation of lineages elsewhere, living `elders' become `ancestors' after death. The distinction between living elders and deceased ancestors is crucial to the processes of fission and fusion in

lineages and to the manner in which elders exercise authority. The lineage elder links the living lineage with the ancestors. This position is a prime source of his authority. Fortes (e.g. 1970: 164-200) has already emphasised that among the Tallensi no individual may approach the ancestors through his own deceased parent. He does this on behalf of dependant members of his lineage. The lineage head cannot be conceptually assimilated into a category of `the dead' because (among other reasons) his death will bring into motion the complex procedures which lead to his replacement. The living lineage must provide an individual to officiate in the communication with the dead. Were the distinction between dead and living lineage members ambiguous, and intermediary would be unnecessary.

Goody (1962) has amply documented, among the neighbouring Lodagaa, the complex ritual which attends death. He has also analysed the ideology which underlies the ritual. Funeral ritual is the most elaborate and funerals the most visible of social events throughout the Mole-Dagbani-speaking region of west Africa. Is is by no means obvious, as Kopytoff suggests, that people who systematically communicate and sacrifice to certain of the dead consider the distinction between the dead and the living less significant than others who believe in a resurrection of the dead for a last judgement. Differences in how the dead are conceptualised will certainly be correlated with other differences in belief and these are worth exploring. However, many interesting questions are obscured by Kopytoff's insistence that we concern ourselves with theorising about a `Pan-african macro-semantic universe'. Conceptions of `ancestors' and the role of `elders' appear to vary as the degree of centralisation varies from one society to another. The Mamprusi polity is more centralised than the Tallensi and attitudes towards authority contrast sharply (Drucker-Brown 1967). The role of elders and ancestors among the Mamprusi are different in subtle ways which need further analysis. (See also Drucker-Brown 1977; 1981).

Does common language imply homogenous attitudes? One might as well assume (and for some purposes, by some people, it is assumed) because the British and the citizens of the U.S.A. share a common vocabulary in which the words `president' and `prime minister' are included, that they also share a common attitude towards authority.

Susan Drucker-Brown,
University of Cambridge.

Drucker-Brown, Susan 1967. Ethnographic introduction. In Diccionario analitico del

Mampruli (by) E. Arana & M. Swadesh. Mesico: Museo de las Culturas.
- 1975. Ritual aspects of the Mamprusi kingship. Cambridge: African Studies Centre.
- 1981. The Mamprusi cult of naam, In The study of the state (eds) H.J.M. Claessen & P. Skalnik. The Hague, Paris: Mouton.
Fortes, Meyer 1970. Pietes in ancestor worship. In Time and social structure. London: Athlone Press.
Goody, Jack 1962. Death, property and the ancestors. London: Tavistock.

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