The Fon with wives in Palace
In Bum social order is not only maintained through formal institutions like the Fon, Kwefon and Tuut, but also through the efforts of certain individuals with special powers and skills. Among these are the witchdoctor, the herbalist, the diviner, the avenger and the poison ordeal specialist.
The witchdoctor is a clairvoyant as the others already treated above. Unlike the villain and sorcerer, he is preoccupied with the good and welfare of the society; protecting its individuals from evil forces. He is a wise man. He is born with his medicine in his stomach, and as he grows up, the medicine grows as well. When this medicine is mature enough he begins to use it.
He knows the ins and outs of Msa. He goes there to rescue people. He is very careful of the way he does this, because its people would chase him away if they see him. Sometimes it is impossible to rescue a victim, either because he ate garden eggs, or is tied at a place too delicate for the witchdoctor to reach. According to Martin Knze:
When a witchdoctor has to rescue someone from Msa, he leaves his house with his medicine. He is given two fowls. He rubs himself and puts some of his medicine on his head. He must go there only at midday, when everybody has gone to the farm. He takes along with him groundnuts, palm nuts, bean balls; to bribe the children to show him where the victim has been kept. At midday the children are hungry and can easily be deceived. If the victim went to take money at Msa, the witchdoctor would see him in a house over whose roof water drips. The witchdoctor must make sure none of the water drops on him. If it does, he dies. (interviewed 15th December, 1984)
Once back from Msa, the witchdoctor makes an amulet for the rescued person. If the latter is a cunning child, the amulet would close the way to Msa for him, as long as it remains tied around his neck or waist. Just as witchdoctors are of varying abilities, so too are their amulets. It is not uncommon to find certain amulets stronger than others. The Bum people have a saying that:
It is the people who tell you of the good witchdoctor; he does not say so himself. Medicine is seen, not heard.
Where the victim at Msa is an innocent, the amulet would protect him against further victimization by his cunning mate.
The witchdoctor is an awung, but he does not join with others to "eat" people. Instead, at night he lies on his bed and watches all that the sorcerers are doing all over the land. If he sees where a victim is being roasted, he would go out to the spot and warn the sorcerers doing the roasting. He asks them to abandon their victim and disperse, or else be exposed to the authorities in the morning. These sorcerers may heed him or not. In the case where they do not, he reports them to the authorities at dawn. The authorities then take appropriate measures to force the sorcerers to discontinue their nocturnal activities. The sorcerers see the witchdoctor as an obstacle, and try to victimize him as well. The witchdoctor is expected to be ripe and strong in his medicine, to be able to outmanoeuvre them. He must not drink wine from a sorcerer. Or rather, he must be capable of detecting poisonous wine or food.
The witchdoctor is also expected to interpret the message of the gods (a god is egg-like in shape, white and soft, and believed to be an ancestor or a devil) that visit the people. A god might be a devil from Msa, that comes to ask for debts to be paid, or it may simply be an ancestor saying what is wrong or right with the present state of things. The witchdoctor also makes medicine on people's farms and compounds. This is to prevent destruction by sorcerers and villains who may transform themselves into storms and harmful animals. This particular medicine is called ifam
To conclude, the witchdoctor finds out what people bear in their minds; he moves about at night seeing what is going on in the various households and clans; sees the sorcerers at work and exposes them, thus saving the life of a would-be victim; goes to Msa and takes the bodies or hearts of victims, which he reinserts in them; and makes ifam on farms or compounds, or amulets, to protect and close the way to Msa, to the innocent and the cunning respectively.
The herbalist (sg. wutamfu = man of mfu - pl. ghetamfu) is a person who cures patients of bodily diseases with natural causes. He gives herbs (sg. afu - pl. mfu) to those who are sick with headaches, fever and other physical illnesses. All he needs is a very retentive memory, since he deals with many herbs which he must know to his finger tips; how to identify them, and what quantities are needed for what length of time, for a particular illness. He is often likened to what modernity (kwang) calls 'doctor'. Just like the doctor, the herbalist might buy some herbs whose effectiveness he has learned about. His ambition is to become as efficient as possible. When a new type of illness develops, he goes about to neighbouring tribes fetching for the cure. The more he travels and learns about the herbs and curing, the more efficient he is gong to be. The saying that 'medicine is seen, not heard', would apply to him as well. For people would broadcast far and wide how valuable he is to the sick and society. But a bad herbalist can never admit to you that he is bad.
Beben Bangha Dinga of Njinijoh, a herbalist, summarises what the Bum think of the herbalist as follows:
A witchdoctor is born with his sense in medicine But a herbalist might buy some herbs whose effectiveness he has been told about. Just, as with modernity, he who knows the names of drugs can buy them and sell, so too is it with local herbs. If I call in somebody now to cure my child of stomachache I would also ask him to show me the herb so that I could apply it when the child is sick again. The intelligence of a herbalist is just like that of a school child. Is it not true that sometimes in a class of sixty, only five may succeed in a test? I can indicate a certain herb to ten persons. But from here to Bamenda not more than one of them would be able to identify that herb again. The one who identifies it is more likely to be a herbalist than the others.
A bad herbalist, just as a sorcerer, can never tell you that he is such. Only people will tell you what he is or does. Herbalist are just like hospitals - with varying degrees of efficiency. If you - a patient -cannot be cured in Nkambe, they may send you to Bamenda. If you cannot be cured there, you may be sent to Banso. We hear of a good hospital from people. It is not the hospital staff that goes about boasting of their excellence (interviewed 5th April, 1984).
In today's Bum, the distinction we have drawn between the witchdoctor and the herbalist is not so clear amongst the laymen. However, the true witchdoctors and herbalists are very conscious of this difference between them. But they cooperate with one another. For instance, the herbalist Beben Meki of Kwoti, and the witchdoctor Bande Wabua of Njinijoh cooperate very well. When the former receives a case that concerns sorcery or villainy, he sends it to Bande Wabua. And when the latter is faced with the case of ordinary illness, he sends it to Beben Meki. If the laymen find it hard to distinguish between the two, it is either the result of one of two things or both. Firstly, it might be that the laymen believe that no illness is ever the result of natural causes (for the people often refer to the witchdoctor only, as if the herbalist never existed, even if it is in fact a herbalist that they consult. Or secondly, it might be the result of the proliferation nowadays of fake witchdoctors.
It is the duty of the diviner to find out what has happened, what is, and what is going to be. He uses his divination kit (cowries, kolanut peelings, funyak, little blocks of wood, ete) and tells the people of his findings. It is left to those concerned to think of the best line of action to take.
Both individuals and groups (lineages and villages) go to consult the diviner. A community might want to know those sorcerers and villains who cause destruction, illness and death. The diviner's findings might either confirm or reject the initial suspicions of those who consult him. The community always decides how best to sanction its dissidents. Divination therefore helps the community to solve the problem of distinguishing between who is a sorcerer or a villain, and who is not.
The diviner is not contacted only in connection with destruction, illness or death. An individual who meets with persistent ill-luck or misfortune, a community faced with blighted crops, poor harvest or an epidemic, would resort to divination. Divination was also carried out before hunting and fishing expeditions, trading trips, journeys and wars.
J.H.H. Pollock gives us the following detailed account of how the Bum carry out divination:
There are two types (of divination) one called Funyak, similar to the ka of Mbembe, the other is called Njokabi The procedure when consulting the former, is as follows:- A Funyak servant is called, after being told what information is required, he finds a land crab hole. The seeker for information then takes a stick, and touching his forehead with it, recites his request and asks the stick to request Funyak to give an answer, he then taps the entrance of the burrow with his stick, and drawing it along the ground for a distance of about 10 inches, sticks the stick into the ground; another stick is similarly placed in the ground which represents the negative answer, this is repeated for as many times as the suppliant has questions to ask. The burrow is then covered with leaves, some of which are marked and scratched with a knife, some are marked with sasswood, holes are burned in them. The two men then leave the burrow, after an hour or so they return, and if the land crab emerged and scattered the leaves the diviner is able to interpret the placing of the leaves as answers to the questions; should the leaves be scattered round in an indiscriminate manner it is interpreted as showing that Funyak is not prepared to answer any of the petitioner's questions. Divination by Njokabi is performed with a kola nut which is divided into five segments, the petitioner holds the pieces of nut and casts them on the ground; the diviner is supposed to be able to read an answer from the formation and manner in which the kola nut lies on the around (Pollock 1927: 43-44).
The diviner works in close collaboration with the witchdoctor, sending to the latter cases of illness that are connected with Msa. The diviner can suggest to an individual plagued by misfortunes, to "pull feathers off a fowl' in order to please his ancestors; "cook a pot" to the same effect; or "gather the house" which is being divided by certain bad elements. Ill-luck is likely to befall one who fails to keep his word or pay his debts.
In conclusion, the diviner reads the past, the present and the future; pinpoints the sorcerers and villains that trouble the peace of the society; detects liars and thieves; and finds out the cause of certain private or public misfortunes. The Bum prefer to go many villages away to look for a diviner. They equally believe that the local diviner knows all already about the supplicant, and can hardly be trusted. In Bum it is not uncommon to find a witebdoctor who is also a practising diviner.
Nowadays, in Bum, it is the belief that sorcerers and villains vaunt that no local authority can force them to seek information from the diviner on whether they are sorcerers and villains or not. so they practise their sorcery and villainy without scruples.
The avenger (sg. wutaschie = man of schie - pl. ghetasuchie) is called into play after the death of one believed to have been eaten by sorcerers or taken to Msa by villains. When a person like that dies, his kin or the accused or suspects. are lined up in front of his corpse. Each of them is given a bit of camwood to rub on the forehead of the dead man. The one who knows that he is lying must not apply the camwood on the corpse as prescribed. If he does, his body is going to he afflicted by burns, red spots and swellings.
Another way of avenging the dead man, is to shave his hair and put it into an amulet, which is then rubbed with camwood and burnt to ashes. After which the ashes are gathered and thrown into a river. The person or persons responsible for his death would be known when burns, red spots and swellings begin to appear on his skin. After a period of time the afflicted sorcerer or villain starts to lose parts of his body. This chronic stage of his affliction is call leprosy (sg. bingo, chiesu). The Bum have two appellations for the leper. They either refer to him as wutasumbingo, or call him by the same name used to identify the avenger wutaschie. Thus the term wutaschie refers both to the avenger who punishes others by leprosy affliction, and the culprit who is afflicted by leprosy.
The Avenger can also be invited to play his part when an individual is still ill. The person responsible for the illness is known when he hesitates to rub camwood on the sick man, thus we see the avenger as yet another means of dealing with the trouble-makers of the society. He in his own way detects liars, sorcerers and villains. But what is more, he revenges on them accordingly. The theory that inspires his function seems to be that of tit for tat.
In Bum the poison ordeal specialist (sg. wutagwu = person of gwu) was found at Mungong. He was the person who administered the sasswood to people accused of sorcery. The tree which he used is called Tungha (Erythraphlaeum quineense) by the Bum. This is a type ot red tree whose bark was cleaned, mixed with other things in a liquid, and given to the accused to drink. The accused died instantly if he was actually a sorcerer. But if he failed to die, it meant that he was wrongly accused.
The kwefon alone sent people to the poison ordeal specialist. Not every person accused of sorcery was sent to drink the sasswood. Only those who refused to confess to the kwefon were sent to drink the gwu. Those who confessed and pleaded with kwefon were forgiven and asked to abandon their evil practices; they were asked to go back home and act as the ears and eyes of the kwefon in their communities.
The accused had to make certain incantations as he drank the sasswood mixture. Those wrongly accused vomited the stuff. Then they were freed and taken home to the kwefon, who beat a fowl on them and shook their hands. Talking about the administration of the sasswood amongst the Bum, Bridges says:
After the trial by sasswood those who were innocent would be handsomely rewarded with food by the community at large; no doubt, as much to recompense them for the loss of their last meal as to compensate them for the damage to their reputation caused by the indignity of such an accusation. The wizard would inevitably die, (if he existed)... (Bridges 1933: 26).
Perhaps before we pass to the examination of Bum institutions, it is worth mentioning that the administration of sasswood was and has remained prohibited since European colonisers first came in contact with Bum. Today the Bum speak of it (as they do with many other practices and institutions) in the past tense.

This page was created by Ian Fowler