Mambila Tribe D.A Percival 1938

Note on sources

This has been prepared from a typed copy made by Farnham Rehfisch in c 1953. We have not been able to compare it with the original which is in the Kaduna archives.
The copy in Oxford (originally in the Rhodes House archive lacked the village appendices).
I have a poor photocopy (some truncation of lines and several parts of illegible from faint originals).

Mambila Tribe: Ethnological Report of C K Meek 1929.

(F85A) Ethnology - the Mambila tribe

As Mr Meek, on account of illness, spent only 10 days investigating this tribe, I make bold to offer a few minor additions to his notes.


  1. I was able to verify the account of the Moon Rites (vide MTS I 547-8) which is correct in every detail except that they are still practised at Mbanga. The Mbanga people in addition, unlike the rest of the Mambila, worship the sun but to a lesser degree. The moon is their paramount god and they do not recognize the supreme being "Nama" or "Chang". The sun rites are observed every day at sunset when the Elders pray each man holding the sacred grass in his hand. Their word for Sun is "Lo" and for moon "Wil".
  2. Generally I have found the supreme being "Nama" is identified with the earth. For the people say they are buried in the earth and their spirits abide therein.
  3. One or two villages have idols. At Ntem it is a piece of wood carved to represent a man "Shuga" and is kept in the sacred grove.
  4. The sacred grass So or Jiro invariably contains the eye of a cow and the process of divination or swearing oaths is often accompanied by a kind of cymbal.
  5. The harvest rites performed at Vokude in November are of interest. Here the village Head is not the priest but an old woman is designated priestess. Behind the Chief's house is a pit kept covered by a large stone. The people celebrate the coming event by dancing for 7 days. On the eighth day the priestess goes to the pit alone the people sitting at a distance. She removes the stone and looks into the pit. If she sees vapour rising and young seedlings of corn sprouting she stands up and laughs for this portends a good harvest; whereat all the people join in laughing. They then dance and drink beer for another 7 days. Should the priestess see no vapour or seedlings she cries and all lament. No one is allowed to look into the pit except the priestess. Divination of crime is however performed by the village head.


  1. In marriage by exchange if one couple has no children, it is customary for the other couple to share their children with them. That is to say if one couple has four children two of them would be given to the childless couple.
  2. At Mbanga and Mbang apart from marriage by exchange they have a system of marriage which might be termed marriage by labour. Should a woman have no brother and a man, having no sister, wished to marry her he goes to her farm and works it for her one year and provided her with beer. At the end of the year she goes to his house. No bride money is given but if a son is born, when he grows up, he works on his grandmother's farm for a year. They have no marriage by purchase.


  1. After death the body is opened and the whole of the internal organs examined for signs of witchcraft. I was unable to substantiate Mr Meek's statement that only the heart is examined (v.para.1,p551,Tribal Studies I). In fact at Mbang they go so far as to make incisions on the inside of the elbows and behind the knees and examine the veins and tendons and also sever the head completely.
  2. At Mbaso and Gubin the body is placed in a sitting posture in the grave. Elsewhere the corpse is laid on its right side with the head to the west and the feet to the east. In some instances a woman is lain on her left side.
  3. As a rule, the period of mourning is one year. Note. On the whole the Village Heads have unusually good authority over their people and I think the reason may be found in the fact that they are also the priests and therefore held in respect.

Sgd H.J.Gill, A.D.O. (dated 8 xi 1931).

Notes on Dr Meek's Report (page numbers refer to Tribal Studies, Vol.I)

Pp. 532-3 Intermarriage between hamlets: Addendum I/ to this report, omitted here: hdg/ gives the result of analysing the marriages of three hamlets.
The figures show that intermarriage between hamlets of the same village and between hamlets of different villages[CS1] is almost exactly in proportion to the distance between the hamlets concerned. Insofar as there is anywhere a tendency to obtain wives from a particular village it is from a friendly village, not as Mr Meek suggested from a hostile one. Instances are Gembu-Mbanga, old enemies who refrain from intermarriage, and Tamnya-Vokkude-Mbange, old friends who practise it.

Pp 533-4. "Mwandi" (sun) is commonly used by the Northern as well as the Southern Mambila.

Tagbo, Lagubi, Tongbo (Lagbo, on p560): Bo is apparently a termination denoting a group of people, as in Jabu, Gembu etc. Lak is the name used in Torbi dialect for Gembu, Tong is the name used in the Kabri dialect for Gembu, and is also used for certain hamlets now under Kabri. It means apparently also "rive confluence". Lagubi must be "Lak-Gubin" (Gubin being a neighbouring village to Gembu). I obtained no confirmation of the use of any of these words for a sub-tribal group of villages.

Pp. 534-4. Mambila groups in Bamenda Div.: The hamlets mentioned are in Tikar country.

Blacksmiths: Dr Meek's description of the smiths as a race apart applies to the blacksmiths of the northern /F88/ corner - Kuma, Gikau and Jabu, but not to those of the Southern Mambila-Kabri and Vokkude - who speak the ordinary dialects and have the same customs as their neighbours.

Pp 535-6. Exagamous kindreds. The only instances of a kindred which has divided itself between two village-chiefs are, I believe, the Chiefs of Gubin and Tem, and the kindred of Mbu, which is split between Wa and Gembu. In both, the exogamous principle is breaking down. On the other hand, all villages and many hamlets contain a plurality of kindreds and endogamous marriage is therefore found in nearly every hamlet (cf Note 1, above).
Wartime confederations: the groups Mverrep, San and Mbar were not invariable members of the confederacy of Gembu-Wa-Tep, but had connections also with Warwar.

Pp 537-9. Social system (general): Dr Meek states, "The whole Mambila system is based on a dual form of marriage, "that is, on the one hand they had a true patrilineal marriage by bride-price, and he refuses to accept Capt. Izard's view that "Formerly there was no other form of marriage than that by exchange". It is possible that the two views may to some degree be reconcilable. Dr Meek's statement is true of the northern villages, the only ones he was able to visit. /F89/ In the southern ones, on the other hand, it seems to be beyond doubt that until recently there was no true marriage by bride-price: in its place were practices which appear to be stages in the development of a bride-price system and away from an exchange system. In the first place, a man who had no female relative to offer as an exchange could indulge in secret fornication. The girl's parents would not object, since any children born would belong to them and would moreover enhance their daughter's worth for exchange. Of this stage of development, if it is a "stage", I came across one example only. The next stage is licensed concubinage: the man is accepted at the girl's parents' house and at frequent intervals stays there for some days, working on their farms as well as his own. The girl would, however, never come as wife to his house. A third stage is described by Mr Gill /v. supra, para2, F86/. This stage is clearly marriage, in however "futile" a form, not mere concubinage, and the next step to it is true bride-price marriage. I was informed that, sometimes at least, male children would belong to the father and only female to the mother. Such a distribution is contrary to the known Mambila principles and it may be merely that an act of grace has by repetition become a custom. /But certainly incredible nowhere that exchange prevails: it is the females who are at a premium (in Bauchi it has been reported that a daughter's "illegitimate" daughter may be exchanged for a girl who can be exchanged in turn for a wife for any member of the family): under the same system, one is obliged to provide a male with a female to exchange for a wife; and permitting an unmarried father custody of his male children would probably depend rather on the existing ratio of unmarried males to unmarried females in the mother's compound, or on the desire of senior males to take additional wives, perhaps.
Hdg/ As the conclusion to be drawn from all this it is suggested that the dual form of marriage, while so long-standing in the Northern villages as to be fundamental to the social system, was not a primeval and unchangeable custom, but only a compromise evolved - as the result of a fight against the unsatisfactory features of exchange marriage - from an earlier system in which no other form of marriage existed.

F90/ Pp539-40. Exchange marriage: Certain practices were noted among the Southern Villages which Dr Meek does not actually mention: (a) A woman who is a proved child-bearer is (or was) sometimes exchanged for another woman plus money, or rather plus hoes, which were formerly the only currency; (b) a woman may be exchanged for the refusal of a girl, or, on the principle of the bird in the hand, of two girls; (c) re-exchange is regular during the negotiations for a marriage, and a long chain of exchanges of brides and prospective brides may be set up, but once marriage is consummated the wife is not again exchanged.

Pp540-1. Bride-price: The majority of men state that their wives were obtained by purchase, not exchange, and it looks as though a system of bride-price of the common (Moslem) type (i.e. where the father, not the mother, has custody of the children) is coming into existence. For instance, it was said at Gembu that exchange had been rare for over 30 years, yet al the families were undoubtedly patrilocal. Possibly the patrilocal bride-price system is an extension of the marriage with a purchased slave which Dr Meek mentions. It was evidently common in the past and is probably so now, for a girl married by bride-price, if she had borne no children within a year or two, to be reclaimed by the parents and given in exchange elsewhere.

Pp 541-2. Custody of children: Enquiries went to show that the vast majority of children now reside in the father's house, despite the fact that their parents are alleged to be married under the bride-price system, which should imply maternal custody.
/F91/ Whatever the truth of this and whatever the allowances to be made for falsehood, it seems clear that the dual social system described by Meek is rapidly breaking down, partly from natural causes and partly from the Administrative Order regarding exchanges, not as in some cases elsewhere from inadvertent action by the Courts. /Unable to trace this order; ref. to "inadvertent action" obscure. hdg/Pp542-3. Change of married status: It was not unknown for a man to contract a marriage by bride-price or its equivalent, and later, if opportunity offered, to effect an exchange and obtain his same wife "genuinely". In such an instance children born prior to the exchange remained with the mother's family, while those born subsequently naturally belonged to the father. The instance quoted by Dr Meek, where a husband gave his sister into slavery to save the skin of the wife's uncle, illustrates the same principle, and I believe that between the words "all children begotten by her(sic)" and "would become his", the word "subsequently" is implied.
Redemption from slavery: In the only instance which came up, a man had been sent to slavery as a child to redeem his father's mother (the father having married by exchange, the grandmother apparently by purchase). No case of self-redemption was noted.
Inheritance of wives: both levirates are practised throughout the tribe, but inheritance of widows either by or from a son or sister's son, mentioned by Meek, is not practised in the Southern villages.
Inheritance of chieftainship: The Chiefs of Wa and Tep (whose appointments date from German times) and probably certain others are /F92/ sons of purchase marriages.

Pp 543-4. Illicit sexual relations: It should be noted that a Mambila man seldom marries before 25 and a girl before at least 20. Unmarried adults of both sexes occupy regularly the same sleeping-hut as a married couple.

Pp544-5. Relationship terms: Most of the terms quoted by Mr Meek are unknown in the Central and Southern villages.

Pp546-7. Moon worship: the new-moon rites continue at Mbanga, one Taro from the hamlet of Fu being the priest. The day after the performance of these rites is a public holiday. The rites described by Dr Meek as performed at the waning of the moon have evidently lapsed.

F93/Pp551-2. Ordeal: The sole oath or ordeal which the tribe now admits to practising when questioned by an Administrative Officer is that on the Kuru gong, or Yong, which is enjoined by the Native Court (mentioned on p555).

Pp552-3. Ngubsho: This charm (not to be confused with Ngu, a witch-testing concoction imported by itinerant quacks from the Tikar tribe) does not seem to be known in the Southern hamlets. In an alternative way of preparation the cock's head is impaled up on the stick.

Pp553-6. Festivals: Every kindred has its "Sabbath" which is the market day and comes at ten-day intervals - five days in Mbang and the Kaka villages. Not infrequently the market hasceased to function, but its name and date persist (v. infra). There are four chief seasonal festivals, as shown in the list below, which is taken from Titon but applies widely: (1) Kati (chief festival, sowing of corn), (2) Gevur (ripening of maize / first or second? in general, maize ripens twice throughout this area. Hdg/), (3) Kip (harvest-time, celebrated by both sexes; Nyoti is particular for women),(4) Nyingwan (harvest-thanksgiving when the crops are gathered). Kundu is the name given for burial feasts.

Pp557-8. Burial: the custom of burying a chief under one of his granaries and hanging his gown and fez on it is by no means invariable: some have been outside their hamlet in a grove.

Pp558-9. Blood-brotherhood: Though individual blood-brotherhood rites are not now practised, they are not unknown to the Southern Mambila, and in instances where a pair of hamlets is forbidden by custom to intermarry a long-standing blod-brotherhood may be given as the reason. Diga (Mbamga) and Kila (Vokkude), Koshin (Mbanga) and Mbarr are such pairs.
Circumcision: Sometimes postponed till after puberty. No reason was suggested except that the boy might have been frightened to undergo the operation earlier.
House-building: As Meek says, houses made of a frame of reeds (tolergrass) are usual in the northerly villages, and houses of the "lath and plaster" type in the center and south, but it is not correct to say that short thatch invariably goes with a framework hut and long with the latter.

Pp561-2. Granaries: Each wife and adult son has his own granary, the usual practice being that their corn is put to current use, while that in the master's store is kept for reserve and tax-paying.
Family group: Although in almost every hill-top group of compounds there is a nucleus of two or three compounds of close relations, there is almost invariably also a number of compounds belonging to persons who admit no close relationship.
Ownership of bamboo palms: Gullies containing the bamboo-palm belong as a rule to the hamlet as a whole, not to a special household or family in the narrower sense.
Dancing floor: In the northern group of villages the center of the beaten dancing-circle is invariably (?) occupied by a "coral" tree (Minjiriya, Erythrina senagalensis-Dalziel) growing out from a mud platform. It may be noted that the Minjiriya is revered also by the Kaka of Bamenda. Names of the villages and hamlets: The naming of a village after a previous chief is, I believe, purely a Fulani_German innovation. The Mambila, unless speaking to a stranger, uses the kindred - or place-name (which are one) or occasionally the name of the existing chief. The following are"village" names of Fulani use only and derive from a chief of the period 1890-1910: Titon, Vokkude (nickname), Tamnya, Gembu, Wa, Tem. Most of the remaining hamlets and villages are known abroad by their Mambila kindred-names or a corruption of it, though Kabri among others seems to be a pre-Mambila place-name.

Pp562-3. Weapons' hoes: Spears are made by the blacksmiths of Kabri and Vokkude who are true Mambila or at least very long-standing immigrants. Hoes, on the other hand, are made only by the blacksmiths of Kuma and Gikau, close to Nayo Daga, who are distinct from the Mambila proper. It is curious if the Mambila with their highly distinctive shields have, as Dr Meek suggests, been spear-bearers for only a short time, and one would like to hear in more detail the evidence on which he bases hiw view.
F96/ Musical instruments: a curious instrument is used by men to accompany their "crooning". This is a plucking instrument, like a guitar without a handle, of which the sounding medium is a series of springy splinters instead of strings.
Personal appearance: clothes are now worn by a few women in the northern villages; in the south they are still nude. Some of these follow the Kaka fashion of piercing the nose or ear and inserting a fragment of straw. The chipping of teeth is common, but is a fahsion only, not obligatory.
Markets: The market day is the holy day, coming roung every ten days except in Mbang village, where the five-day Kaka week is kept.

Sgd D A Percival, 1 xi 35.