Village Life in Mambila - II. Farming

Farming in Mambila



The Mambilas have many rules and customs to be obeyed before farming starts at the beginning of the year. No one but a priest can tell all the rules and customs in every period of the year. But watch as priest when he starts farming and see what he does and does not do. Here are some of the more important customs.

About 2 or 3 months before the new year [the new year for the Mambilas is the time of first sowing, i.e. April] the prophets (or diviners) and priests are busy all the time, besieged by requests from the villagers. The diviners' job is to find out whether the earth will be fertile for the coming season or not, and how the crops will grow, i.e. will they be bewitched by a magician, or eaten by locusts or birds. The diviners say the crops will be destroyed by locusts, the people are sure to say that the cause of this is witchcraft. They believe that witches can turn into locusts. Again, if the diviners say that birds will destroy the crops the people will say that someone has broken the rules - perhaps someone has committed adultery or fornication. Incidentally, if you wish to get married during this period, you will have to give the priest substantial presents. At this time, too, some people will not eat other people's food. They argue thus: the person whose food you eat may be the man whose medicine is powerful enough to prevent birds coming to eat up his young crops. This powerful medicine will have a reverse action on anyone who eats his food, causing their crops to be eaten by birds. This season, before sowing, is the time for making up quarrels so that the new year may be started with a clean state. If a person has been annoyed with or nursing bad thoughts about any member of his family, he should 'confess' in the presence of a priest, and the priest will make medicine which will cause the family to live in peace.

When the time is close for the first ploughing, the diviners will tell the priests what they have prophesied. Then the priests will call the chief and elders of the village together and the senior priest will explain all that has been prophesied. He will then warn any 'witches' who are likely to bring about any evil. He will not name or point at them, but just say openly that if the people will not stop such and such or thing, he will point out the offender. After he has finished with this warning speech, the second priest will stand up with the juju and medicine leaves. In this case the juju which is used is to them as god; all Mambila fear this kind of juju more than anything on earth. So the chief Priest will then say: "As we are now coming to the beginning of the farming season, let there be no witchcraft on the crops. Let there be no misbehaviour, no marrying without sanction of the priests. Who so shall disobey the juju, may the juju and these medicine leaves kill him." Then the 2 priests will perform the rites with the juju and medicine leaves. After this the people depart, leaving the priests, the diviners and the chief. The diviners will then read the omens to find out whether all the rules have been obeyed or not. If not, another assembly must be called. If so, everything is ready for the ploughing.

The chief priest will plough the first row or two himself, and plant the maize seeds with medicine leaves. If the priest has started, no one has the right to start ploughing. So, after the seeds planted by the priest have germinated, everyone will then start ploughing their farms. But each person must first go to one of the priests and get a bundle of medicine leaves: the priest will also make medicine and pray that all crops will grow well.

All these rules and customs will also be carried out when ploughing the guinea corn and kokoyam ('gwaza'. H.) fields. During the time guinea-corn is being planted, there must be no sales at all of any foodstuffs to outside people. If a person is going to another village he must be particularly careful not to take even a grain of corn with him. If he is found to have done so, even in error, he must bring a goat or a dog to be cooked at the juju shrine. If he fails to do so, he will be very ill. So, conversely, when people are sick, they often approach the diviners or prophet to find out what it is they have done wrong. And the prophets will answer - for instance, that he has killed someone by witchcraft or gone against the laws of the juju. If the real reason is found out, the sick person must pay a goat or some chickens or some hoes or a dog (which is best for making medicine).

There are many rules to follow at guinea-corn ploughing time. The first day the priest ploughs and plants the first 'medicine' or magic seeds. No one of the villagers may spend the night outside the village; should he do so he must pay one of the above-mentioned articles. During the time the priests are making these medicines, they do not have intercourse with their wives; if they do so, the medicine will not be so effective. Nor do common people have intercourse with their wives on the first day of ploughing. This ploughing is done according to the rules. When they reach the farm, usually the owner of the farm, the mother and the father will do light work, for instance digging out elephant grass roots or clearing along the stream banks. The young people, meanwhile, some young boys as well as grown-up girls, do the heavy work on the farm itself. The father and mother do work but not so quickly as the children; they make neater beds than the children.

The villagers go out in the morning to work on the farm about 5 a.m. and return about 7 p.m. The mother or wife cooks the food and reaches the farm about 8 a.m., and returns home to prepare dinner about 5 p.m. When on the farm they only rest for 2 periods, no more or less, unless there is any trouble or a hoe is broken. A man with 2 wives arranges things thus: on one night he will sleep in the hut of one of them and the next day will work on her farm, whilst the other one cooks the food and brings it to them and eats of it herself. The two women work individually on simple work such as weeding of corn and maize, and clearing of fields for ploughing. But on heavy work, such as ploughing, they will work together. [Note: it is unlawful for people to jump over the rows of guinea-corn; they say that if a man does that his belly will swell.]

If a father has several sons the unmarried ones will work in his farm, but the married ones have to work in their wives farms. But if the parents have only one son, and he is married, he will nevertheless probably work in his parents farm. It must be noted that the Mambila never do things individually but always cooperatively with their neighbours. They divide themselves into many grades according to their ages. The young men's group is usually the hard-working group. In some large villages this group may contain 80-90 boys. This is how they work. The one on whose farm the group is to work will prepare enough corn beer to satisfy his friends and others. Then the group will appear in his farm and work it all in the day. They can work much harder because they are working competitively. Everyone wants to work harder than the others in order that he may be embraced and kissed by the girls for his hard work. Before they work on their own farms, they must all have gone and worked on the farms of the girls they intend to marry. Everything is xxxxx in the young boys' group. You will not find one absent unless he is sick and has had to go on a journey. They always wear their best dress, and wherever they go the drums play and they sing songs.