Social and Political Organisation

Phyllis Kaberry Before the arrival of Zintgraff, Bum consisted of a fairly elaborate chefferie on a hill top surrounded by villages small in size except for Fonfukka, which had become a point of contact between Grassfield traders and long distance merchants from the north and north-west. Many of the villages are said to have been founded by princes in the reigns of early kings. There are seven sub-chiefs, those of Sawe, Saf, Mbamlo, Mungong, Nfat, Mbuk and Fio, among whom the first stands in a special relation to the Fon of Bum as trusted adviser and witness of his installation. The palace itself contained the headquarters of the main conciliar and regulatory institutions; but village-heads (abitek) exercised considerable autonomy, and appear to have controlled public works in their own villages and to have dealt with the majority of civil disputes as presidents of an open moot attended by compound heads. As in Kom, many of them might own male associations, but the latter were not used, except in sub-chiefdoms, as local regulatory associations. Some also might possess guinea-corn medicine and be responsible for village rituals co-ordinated with those of the palace, as in Kom.

Clans are dispersed and predominantly patrilineal, but there is evidence of the previous existence of a few matrilineal clans which now seem to conform to patrilineal descent. Genealogies of lineage heads are some four to six generations in depth and seem to date from the 'Bala' raids and the consequent shift of population. Succession to compound-headships (as also the village-headships and the kingship) is ideally filial; in comparison with Kom, compounds are large and accommodate patrilineal extended families. The main distinction between clans is between those which are Alung, descendants of the original migrants from Mbot and participating in the prestige of the royal house, and the Atshinawüt who can be regarded as commoners, although the term means literally 'outsiders', i.e. not of the Alung group. The connections between the Alung clans are exhibited in ritual at ancestral graves: lineage-heads perform blood sacrifices and make food offerings, but libations of wine can only be made on their behalf by the Fon. As in former days in Kom, the Fon made circuits of his kingdom, staying with his retinue in the compounds of village-heads; on these occasions he might perform sacrifices and settle local disputes. It was recognised that commoners who brought their complaints to the palace might sometimes be prevented from seeing the Fon, or having their case reported accurately to him by palace retainers.


The royal palace consists of a large piazza around which are the meeting houses of tut (vide infra), the hunting lodge of fumbain, the palace military lodge, and the senior lodge of the women's association, tshong (not to be confused with the men's association also called tshong and held by some village-heads). The headquarters of the associations restricted to royals such as nggili are further removed; a special section of the palace easily reached from the private royal quarters housed the pages and the regulatory association, kwifon. The royal mausoleum is at a little distance from the main palace complex beyond the wives' quarters and contains the graves of the two Fons who have died at Lagabum. The inner part of the palace contains the lofty audience chamber and sleeping quarters of former Fons, but these, though they are respectfully preserved, are not the centres of royal ritual, as they are in Bafut, Kijëm Kegu and Mankon.

Associated with tut are hereditary officers (tshesu tutsu), consisting of eight men of Alung status, a princess who acts as wine-server, and the Fon. Fon Sawe and Fon Mbamlo may also enter the house; and any man from Bum proper can become an ordinary member on payment of the entry fee of four goats, two fowls and a drum of wine which are shared between the Fon and officers. The most senior office, after the Fon is Njito (a permanent title), allegedly descended from one of the early fons; he can never be removed from office. He is the Fon's trusted adviser, and also acts as king-enstooler at the installation ceremony which takes place in the tut house in the presence of the most senior member of the royal lineage and the premier sub-chief, Fon Sawe. Before a tut session starts a sacrifice is made of a fowl; God is invoked and the names of deceased Fons are called. The house of tut is regarded as one of the two conciliar bodies controlling Bum affairs, and as the institution concerned with the protection of fertility and health, and the expiation for accidental bloodshed. It assembles to inaugurate the local cycle of guinea-corn sacrifices, the ibin December festival and whenever summoned by the Fon. It formerly heard civil disputes, but if these were too difficult they were transferred for hearing in kwifon quarters and judged by its important members, though male officers of tut might be present. The Fon, because he is associated with peace and mercy, never attends trials though findings are reported to him. Criminal cases such as witchcraft, treason, murder and adultery with a Fon's wife were automatically heard by kwifon.

The regulatory institution, kwifon, comprised an inner council referred to by virtue of its meeting place (nda-tshum) as tshesu tshumsu and consisting of four or five co-optive members of commoner status; the members of the kwo' mortuary society; recruited retainers ( asutshisëndaso); and

#men who had paid to see the sacra of kwifon. This last right was extended to royals - an unusual privilege in Bamenda chiefdoms. As in other regulatory societies, a young retainer, babe, is in charge of the herald and lictor masks and instruments of kwifon, and disciplines his juniors. Young retainers are all of commoner status and this status includes the sons of princesses given in bride-wealth marriage. There was no obligation on commoners to present twins for service in the palace.


Nda-tshum was the second council of state and all important decisions involved consultation between it and the nda-tut. Thus decisions on peace and war and on the punishment of criminals were initiated by nda-tshum but referred for confirmation to nda-tut. It could also fine the Fon but never remove him from office. Its orders were, in the main, executed by retainers who might, if arrests or expropriations were intended, be accompanied by masked lictors. Executions were carried out by a masker in the bush: this man was always a stranger. Kwifon was also concerned with the regulation of annual renders at the dry-season annual festival of ibinilume and the appearance then of the village mask-societies. It also controlled trading practices and enforced the repayment of debts.

The palace depended on the regulatory institution for the arrangement of public services with village-heads - such as building and clearing - but not for its regular food supply. There were farms worked by palace women and young retainers under prince over-seers. A source of wealth was, however, the granting of honorifics, to obtain which a man had to satisfy the notables of both conciliar houses and the Fon with gifts. These honorifics, which gave a man access to the ruler's presence and enabled him to take a share of later gifts, were not hereditary: as we have seen there are scarcely any hereditary titles in Bum. The public services owed by young princes, in common with others, were regulated by the royal nggili society under its own senior boys, though disobedience to the orders of kwifon brought the young princes under the discipline of kwifon. Princes endowed with raffia stands by the Fon were expected to maintain a regular supply of wine to the palace. Princes settled out in the villages were expected to visit the palace regularly to report on local affairs. An elder royal, usually of the generation of the ruler's father, acted as head of the royal lineage and had his compound near the palace. He was one of the tut officers, appointed the head of the nggili society, arranged the marriages of princesses, acted as priest in the royal mausoleum, and was present at the Fon's installation.

It is difficult to recover the pre-colonial military organisation since it has, in recent times, been reformed on the model of the Nso mfu society and used for poll-tax collection. It would seem that formerly a local war lodge (nda-tsham) existed in most villages. In kwifon there was formerly a lodge (nda-asugwe) for thirty outstanding warriors of commoner status appointed by the ndatshum; an inner council called nesugwe (mother of asugwe) consisted of five members appointed by ndatshum and was consulted in times of war. Its leader was held to have a power called finti, a clairvoyant and predictive capacity which was conferred upon him by the Fon.

The institutions briefly described refer to Bum proper. There seems to be considerable variation in their nomenclature in the minuscule sub-chiefdoms: in Saf, for example, the institution most closely corresponding to tut is called nsëm, and in Mungong ye-gong.

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