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Chapter One - The country and its people


In discussing the Mambila-speaking people Meek says:

"The term Mambila is stated generally to have been conferred by the Fulani. But this can hardly be accepted. The Mambila themselves pronounce the word Mabila,which is probably a variant of Mbula, a common tribal title in Nigeria and meaning 'The Men'" [1]

Most of my informants said that the name Mambila was given them by the Fulani in the far distant past. Others said that perhaps the origin of the term was Fulani, but it might have been given them by some other tribe. The Warwar Mambila pronounce the word "Mambila" and not "Mabila".

The Mambila call themselves "Nor"[2]. The word "Nor" may sometimes have the connotations of mankind in general, sometimes it is used to refer only to the Mambila-speaking peoples, and finally in reference to persons of the male sex.

I propose to use the term "Mambila" since it is used by the Administration, neighbouring tribes, and in the literature to refer to these people. The Mambila themselves use the term when speaking to non-Mambila persons.


A grammar of the Mambila language was written by E. Meyer and published in 1939-40[3]. She did not visit the Mambila district herself, but used four Mambila informants who had been brought down to Mbom, in Bamenda Province, for that purpose. Meyer, using Westerman's linguistic classifications, has placed the Mambila language in the Western Sudanic linguistic group.[4]

Greenberg, in a recent attempt at classifying all African languages, for which sufficient information is available, places the Mambila language in the Central Branch of the Niger-Congo family[5]. The Mambila call their own language "Ju Nor-i". ("Ju" means language; "Nor" is used for Mambila, and the suffix "i" is added to the nomen regens in the genitive construction.) The language includes many dialects, each village having its own. Meyer says that the dialect differ not only in vocabulary but also in their grammars[6].

The Mambila have no difficulty at all in determining a man's provenance by the manner in which he speaks. Most of the dialects are mutually intelligible though some spoken on the periphery of the District are either understood with difficulty or not at all by the Mambila living in more centrally located areas. These peripheral dialects have been influenced by neighbouring alien tongues. A good example of this process is to be found in the village of Bang, a predominantly Mambile village with a few Kaka settlers. The Bang dialect has incorporated many Kaka words and grammatical constructions, making it difficult if not impossible for residents of other Mambila villages to understand it.

As a general rule the differences in dialects increase in proportion to geographical distances.


The bulk of the Mambila-speaking people live in what is called the Mambila district in Adamawa Province of the British Cameroons (See Map p.3). The district lies between 6o30' and 7o North latitude and 11o and 11o30 East Longitude. It covers an area of approximately 1,130 square miles.

The total population of the district is 36,769: 9,078 Fulani; 1,075 Hausa; 292 Kanuri; 32 Tiv; 12 Edo; 8 Ibo; 4,211 other Nigerian tribes; 33 non-Nigerians and, finally, 22,028 classed as other Northern tribes[7]. This last group includes the Mambila as well as the Kaka, the bulk of whom live in Bamonda, the Tigong etc. Because the figure 22,028 is not broken down into the component tribes it is impossible to know how large a proportion of the persons included in the figure are Mambila. In several comparatively recent unpublished government reports the total Mambila population has been estimated at 18,000.

Illus. 1: The Mambila District of Adamawa Province, British Cameroons

The population density for the entire district is roughly 28 per square mile. This figure is misleading as some of the district is uninhabited and other parts of it carry a much larger population that the stated 28 to the square mile. Nonetheless there seems to be no land shortage even in the most densely populated areas.

According to a census taken in the French Cameroons in 1950 there are 2,270 Mambila living in Adanawa Emirate of the French Cameroons[8]. These live to the South East of the Mambila of the British Cameroons. As there is nothing in the literature on those people and I myself was unable to visit them, I can do no more than mention their existence and say that there is some trade and intermarriage between the Mambila on the British side and those on the French side of the border.

Meek states that there are people of Mambila origin living in the villages of Nyoro, Gongkor and Bimpa, and Bamonda Province of the British Cameroons[9]. A more recent government Intelligence Report, 1933, says that the villages of Nyuron, Mgon and Id, in the Mbaw Native Administration Area, are populated by persons of Mambila origin[10]. In a still later report, 1936, the villages of Ngonkaw and Mbirikpa, among others, are said to be inhabited by Tikar peoples[11]. As Meek was dependent on early government records for his information on Bemonda Province, it is probable that the more recent government records are the more accurate.

The population of the three Mambila villages is given as 840[12]. Whether or not all of these are Mambila is not stated.

Unfortunately I was not able to visit Mbau but the Mambila in the area which I studied knew nothing of the group in Bamonda. A few who had travelled in the province denied the existence there of any fellow tribesmen, though none had ever visited the three villages in which they are said to live.

In spite of the fact that, as we have already seen, there is a great difference in the dialects spoken in various Mambila villages, and as we shall see that there was no - nor is there any - permanent organisation binding the various villages together, we shall use the term tribe in referring to the Mambila of Adamawa Province since the population has linguistic and cultural similarities, occupies a continuous stretch of territory and, in certain contexts, recognises itself as a discreet ethnic entity.


The region inhabited by the Mambila in Adamawa Province consists largely of hills and valleys. Though the area is known as the Mambila Plateau, the term "Plateau" is misleading since the country can by no stretch of the imagination be called flat. For many years the Government has been attempting to find a location for an emergency landing field but, due to the highly irregular nature of the terrain, it has been unable to find a suitable place. The mean altitude of the Plateau is said to be approximately 5,000 ft. above sea-level, with some of the highest hills attaining heights of 9,000 ft.[13].

The entire region is well watered by innumerable perennial streams. It is typical savannah country with few trees and covered with drought-resistant grasses. There appears to be a thick soil cover, very few granitic outcroppings have been noted. The subsoil is of a heavy broken down laterite type, and in certain areas is composed of chalk.[14]

Meek claims that the region is infertile[15]. This does not seem to be the case in the area where my research was carried out. It is probably that the hill-sides would not be very productive, but they are rarely used by the people for farming. Almost all of the intensive agriculture is carried out on the valley bottoms, yielding abundant crops. Silt is carried by the rivers and deposited on the plots during the floods, which accounts for the fact that plots which are quite consistently worked continue to give high yields.

Rainfall is high, perhaps 120" at Mayo Ndaga and 150" in the South West[16]. The rains begin in early March and continue through December. At the beginning of the rainy season (March to the middle of May), and at the end, in November and December, the rains are infrequent and usually not heavy. From mid-May until November it rains daily and hard.

Unfortunately no records were kept of temperatures. The climate is very pleasant for it rarely gets very hot and the nights are always cool and even cold.

Neighbouring Groups (See Map below)

A discussion of the relationship between the Mambila and neighbouring groups is rendered difficult by two facts: the first is that the major part of this study was carried out in Warwar, a settlement located approximately in the centre of the Mambila area and in which very little contact between Mambila and non-Mambila takes place; and, secondly, that neighbouring tribes have as yet not been studied.

The neighbours of the Mambila are: the Kaka, Kamkam, Magu, Tigon, nomadic Fulani, and the Mambila in the French Cameroons. The majority of the Kaka live in the northern part of Bamonda Province, in the Mfunto, Mbaw and Mbon Native Authorities[17]. A few have moved up into Adamawa Province, either founding villages of their own or settling in already established Mambila villages. Kaka settlements are dispersed villages with an acophalous political organisation like the Mambila[18]. This tribe seems to have a similar culture to that of the Mambila. Those Kaka villages which I passed through on my way into and out of the Mambila District very much resembled Mambila villages.

Illus. 2: Sketch Map Showing the Location of the Neighbouring Groups

The Nomadic Fulani are not marked on the map since they are to be found scattered over the entire area.

The most obvious differences between the two are that the Kaka generally build square houses rather than round, and their farms seem to be much less well tended than those of the Nambila. Kaka informants say that the men perform few of the tasks connected with cultivation and that most of the farm work is relegated to women [19]. The Kaka admit that the Mambila obtain much higher yields from their farm plots than they do themselves, and this is not surprising for Kaka farms seen frequently to be overgrown with woods and haphazardly planted in contrast with the neat and frequently wooded Mambila plots. Mme Dugast says of the Kaka in the French Cameroons:

"Les Kaka sont d'assez médiocres cultivateurs, preférant la chasse à la culture. Ils no possèdent oncoro que pou de cultures riches et se montrent assez refractaires au progrès[20]."

This statement confirms the impression that I gathered in my short visits to Kaka communities. In the primarily Nambila village of Bang a few Kaka have settled. I was told that they have been there for many years, probably since about 1925. The Kaka and Mambila seem to get along very well together. Intermarriage takes place though I have no figures on the incidence of such unions.

The Kaka and Mambila languages are mutually unintelligible but the majority of Bang residents speak both and are able to communicate across tribal lines. The Kaka have influenced the Bang Mambila inasmuch as the latter frequently build square houses for themselves instead of the traditional round house, the women wear nose ornaments and a loin cloth. Undoubtedly other culture traits have been transferred from one group to the other, but having spent only one day in the village I was only able to note the most obvious ones.

The villages of Kamkam and Magu (see Illus. 1) are said by Meek to be closely connected with the Mambila[21]. He says:

"Their language is intimately related to Mambila though it can hardly be described as a Mambila dialect. Culturally, they can scarcely be distinguished from the Mambila having the same religious cults and the same methods of house-building etc.


They were a matrilineal people lacking the exchange system of marriage[22]."

My own informants told me that the Magu and Kamkam are Mambila and did practise exchange marriage in the past. They likewise claim to be able to understand the Magu and Kamgam tongues. Meek has classed the Magu as Tigon[23]. If my informants were correct, this is not the case. The Abo and Batu peoples which Meek also classes as Tigon are said by him to have marriage practices similar to those of the Mambila[24]. Further research among these groups will be necessary before it is possible to determine how similar the culture of these people is to that of the Mambila.

To the East of the Mambila in the British Cameroons are the Nambila living in the French Cameroons. The latter will be called the "French Mambila" to differentiate them from their fellows living on the British side of the border. No published information is available on the French Mambila. My informants told me that the French Mambila have a similar culture and structure to their own. Unfortunately I was unable to visit any of the French villages to check this statement. The "Chief de sous-devision" in Banyo, the headquarters of the District in which the French Mambila live, told me in conversation that the Mambila were quite well off financially. A road has been built through the area in which they live, and due largely to this fact a ready market has developed for any surplus food-stuffs which they are able to grow. A few French Mambila have begun to work at the tin-mines in Mayo Darlo. Contact between the French and British Mambila is infrequent. The young men from Warwar on occasion cross the border to obtain cam-wood or to go hunting. A few marriages have taken place between French and British Mambila.

The Nomadic Fulani will not be discussed here, as a separate section of this thesis is devoted to the Mambila-Fulani symbiotic relationship.

From what has been said above, it is obvious that any attempt to make a detailed comparison between the Mambila and their neighbours must await further research. I suspect that such research will show that the cultures of the area are fairly homogenous; the majority of the groups living in dispersed villages, with an accophalous political organisation and being primarily dependent upon maize and guinea corn for their sustenance.

Pre-European Era

The Mambila have no origin myths. Much time was spent enquiring into the origin of the tribe, all to no avail. My question "Where did the first Mambila come from?" was invariably met with blank stares. All of my informants said that they had no idea. The problem aroused no interest at all in the group.

Some of my informants said that comparatively recently, perhaps about a hundred years ago, some of the Mambila groups now on the plateau had emigrated from the lowlands in what is today the French Cameroons. The villages from which they came were located near settlements occupied today by Mambila-speaking peoples. Though not stated, it is probable that the migration was an attempt to escape from the unwelcome attention of Fulani slave raiders living near or in Banyo. The Fulani only began their raids on the Mambila plateau at a later date[25].

Some Mambila villages were brought under the administration of the Emir of Banyo. This only means that the villages were expected to send tribute of maize, guinea corn, and perhaps slaves to Banyo. In return, the Mambila Chiefs were given a robe by the Emir and confirmed in office. Some of the villages are said to have resisted the Fulani and never to have been conquered.

My informants in Warwar said that the village had never been conquered by the Fulani, but that their chief had voluntarily gone to the Emir of Banyo to propose that peace should reign between the village and the Fulani. The Emir is said to have agreed. He gave the Chief a gown, and said that he would do the same for the chief's successors as long as the village sent him, at stated intervals, tribute of maize and slaves. This the chief agreed to do.

It is impossible at this late date to obtain any accurate information on events of that period. It is evident from informants' tales that there was almost constant raiding between the Fulani and the Mambila. The Fulani are said to have attacked Mambila villages with the object of taking slaves while the Mambila attached the Fulani whenever possible for vengeance and to obtain meat. The Fulani had at this period not yet begun to use the plateau as a grazing ground for their cattle. My informants told me that the pleasure derived from killing a Fulani was doubled by the fact that not only did they avenge their fellow-tribesmen by so doing but also, being at that time cannibalistic, they enjoyed eating the Fulani. Some of my older informants remember the days when such warfare was endemic. A few had been carried off to Banyo as slaves and had only been allowed to return to their native villages when the then German Cameroons was captured in 1915-16 by the British and French armies.

The German Era

Most of the information for this section is taken from an unpublished manuscript by D.A. Percival[26], written on the Mambila in 1938. The Emir of Banyo surrendered to the Germans in 1901. Percival says that from the evidence of German maps it is fairly certain that no German expeditions were sent onto the plateau until 1907. This conflicts with information given by my informants, who say that a few weeks after hearing that white people had captured Banyo, they were visited by the latter. As communications were fairly good between Banyo and Warwar, it is doubtful that six years would have elapsed between the time when the Germans arrived in Banyo and the Warwar people learnt of the event. At any rate, it is certain that the Mambila plateau was visited several times by German military and administrative personnel before 1914. Paths were cleared and rest houses built. The Administration's main concern was to recruit labour for building roads and military farms at Banyo. According to Percival a tax was never imposed, though a poll rate of one mark had been assessed and was to have been collected in 1914.

The Germans are still remembered by the Mambila. I was told that German touring officers came to the village of Warwar several times. They are said to have been very hard on the people. The Mambila were ordered to carry extremely heavy loads, and if they refused, or after a stint of carrying, complained that they were too tired and could no longer go on, they were beaten. Two German officers, who names are not known, were said to be especially brutal and to have shot and killed several Mambila for refusing to carry for them or for collapsing after having carried heavy loads over a long distance. The many stories related about the Germans may have been embroidered, but there is no doubt that the Mambila fear the Germans today. In 1940 it was rumoured that the Germans were coming back and many Mambila had planned that, if this were to happen, they would flee to Nigeria. It is not uncommon to hear an elder say to a younger member of the community, when the latter is complaining about some act of the District Office, "Whatever they do, they cannot be as bad as the Germans". The acts of the German Administration, which the Mambila would classify as atrocities, are still fresh in their minds.

Present Day Administration

With the fall of Banyo in 1915, the period of nominal administration by the Germans came to an end. The Cameroons was divided into two parts by the French and British. What is now known as the Mambila District was put into the British sphere. When a final peace settlement with the German Government was concluded (Versailles, 1919) the latter gave up all claims to the Cameroons. The provisional division of the Cameroons into a French and a British sphere was confirmed by treaty between the British and French Governments, with minor border rectifications which did not effect the Mambila District. Both the British and French Cameroons were administered as League of Nations' Mandates.

From 1915 to 1926, the Mambila were left pretty much to their own devices. In 1917 and again in 1923 an Administrative Officer rapidly toured parts of the District, but in neither case did he remain more than six weeks. No major changes were wrought by these two visits.

The modern period may be said to have begun in 1926 when the late Captain Izard was put in charge of the Gashaka Division, which at that time included the Nambila area. He conducted a census and prepared an unpublished intelligence report on the tribe. From this time forward the area gradually became better known to Provincial Headquarters at Yola. It is unnecessary to our purposes to describe all of the changes in administrative practices which took place in the area from 1926 until the present. The majority of these changes are irrelevant to our major interest. Those acts of the Administration which brought about changes in Mambila social structure will be discussed in the analysis of the structure. However, a brief summary of the present day administrative pattern will be made here before leaving the subject.

In 1940, the Mambila District was separated from Gashaka and put under a Fulani District Head appointed by the Lamido of Adamawa. The District Head lives in Gembu, the District Headquarters. This official is directly responsible to the Lamido, that is the Native Authority of the Province. From time to time a British Touring Officer visits the District. Due to the distance from Yola Provincial Headquarters[27], these visits are not very frequent as a rule and are often of short duration.

The District Head is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the District. When directives come from Yola he is responsible for their being carried out. The Touring Officer while in the area is expected to see to it that the orders from the central government have been acted upon and that the Administration of the area is carried out satisfactorily. In theory, any native of the District may come to him with complaints about the way the District Head is governing, appeal against decisions rendered by the Native Court, or lay any grievance that he may have before him. In fact this is rarely done, for reasons which are given below.

The executive and judicial agents of the Administration, with the exception of the Touring Officer, village heads or chiefs, are either born-Fulani or have adopted the Fulani way of life and are identified by the Mambila as Fulani.

The Mambila attitude towards the Government is governed by two postulates. They believe that some of the British officers are sympathetic to their cause and anxious to help them. They also believe that all of the Fulani (including those who are not born-Fulani but have adopted Fulani customs) wish to keep them in a position of subordination, and have the means to do so. They would like to lay their grievances before the Touring Officer, but fear to do so as they believe that the Fulani will take action against them when the British Officer has left the district. Free communication between the latter and the pagans is made difficult because the Touring Officer is always accompanied by either the District Head or one of his agents when on tour. Also the fact the lingua franca is Fulani and not Hausa hampers communication. In most provinces of Northern Nigeria, Hausa is the lingua franca and therefore the British administrative personnel learn that language and not Fulani. Most Mambila are able to speak Fulani reasonably well, but few can speak any Hausa. Therefore discussion between the Touring Officer and the pagans is carried out through an intermediary who translates the Mambila's Fulani into Hausa which the Officer can understand. Almost invariably the D.H.[28] acts an interpreter. Therefore the Mambila are afraid to complain about the Administration to the Touring Officer because they fear the D.H. This fear was confirmed by the fact that Mambila would often come and air their grievances to me, asking me to pass them on to the Touring Officer. When I would ask them why they did not go to him personally, they said that they were afraid that, if the D.H. heard about their complaints, they would be punished. To sum up the situation very briefly, the District is under virtual domination of the D.H. and his agents. In theory, the Mambila may appeal to the Touring Officer, though in practice this possibility is usually closed to them.

In the District there is a Council to advise the D.H. The Fulani administration, the Nomadic Fulani and the Mambila are represented. Each Mambila village sends its chief and one other inhabitant to the Council which meets at Bembu. The Mambila have taken little interest in the Council and in fact, until now, have played practically no role in its activities.

The Mission and the Mambila

The only Mission in the Mambila District is the Cameroons Baptist Mission. Other missionary groups have applied for permission to work in the area, but as yet none has been granted. The first missionary of the C.B.M. to visit the Mambila came in 1937. Thereafter until 1939, there were brief visits twice a year. In 1939 a mission station was established in the village of Warwar. It was abandoned during the war years and only reoccupied in 1945. From 1945 until 1951, missionaries were in almost continuous residence in the district. From 1951 to 1953 the station was again vacant, except for brief tours. In 1953 an American missionary and his wife came to Warwar and are still there.

A Catholic father has in the past few years come rather infrequently to Gombu (District Headquarters) to offer communion to the Catholic population there, who are all immigrants from Bamenda. The Catholics do not have permission to proselytize in this area.

The Cameroons Baptist Mission claims 1,015 adherents in the Mambila District[29].

The figures given are not broken down further so it is impossible to estimate how many are Mambila. Unfortunately the term "adherents" is not defined; I suspect that it includes all of those who attend church with some regularity, as it seems very doubtful that anywhere near that number of persons has been baptised. In the village of Warwar in December 1953 there were a total of 44 Christians. Of these, 13 were baptised on the thirteenth of that month.

The coming of the missionaries seems to have had little effect on the social structure of the village. A few of the young boys have gone away to the Mission school in Mbem, in Bamonda Province. When and if they return to their native villages, they may be agents of change. These boys who in the past went to school for a year or two and then returned seem to have settled down in their natal villages, and to be living in a manner which is similar to that of the rest of the Mambila. The small Christian community lives on good terms with its pagan neighbours and there is no conflict between the two segments of the population. The old men, the guardians of traditional ways and practices, seem to have accepted the fact that some of the younger people wish to abandon the old ways and take up now. In spite of what one might expect the elders do not seem to be working against the Mission. Some of those same elders have shown some interest in the church, and have gone as far as attending services. One of the most important ritual officiates quite frequently spent his Sunday mornings at church, though he would not sent to be baptised or to abandon the traditional religion.

The most important change brought about by the advent of missionaries is the introduction of wage labour into the area. In pro-mission times there was no demand for such services and, apart from the rarely offered opportunity of carrying for a European coming through the area, there was no possibility of a Mambila exchanging his labour directly for money. In fact, very few Mambila have been hired by the Mission, no more than 30 at the outside, but the idea according to which one can work and in return be paid money has been a revolutionary innovation. Many Mambila now wish to find employment and it would not be surprising if, in a few years, the young men leave the plateau and come down into Bamonda or even the Cameroons Province in search of employment[30].

Mambila - Pastoral Fulani Relationships

The Mambila-Nomad relationship is one of symbiosis, even though it is fraught with mutual antagonism. The Mambila need the Nomads as they are the main source of cash income, being the largest purchasers of their agricultural surplus. The Nomads also pay the lion's share of the tax collected in the district, thus to a large extend supporting the local government.

Nonetheless relations between the two groups are constantly strained. I shall not attempt to discuss the reasons why the cattle Fulani are so antagonistic to the Mambila, because once I had become associated with the latter group it was impossible to conduct any investigation into the values of the former. The Fulani assumed that I had come to help the Mambila and therefore I must be their enemy and dangerous to them. The main reason for the hatred which the Mambila have for the Nomads is not difficult to find: it is that the Nomads frequently allow their cattle to destroy Mambila crops. Farmer-grazier disputes in this area are numerous, though few are taken to court. The Mambila realise that such action is virtually useless as the Native Authority Courts, up the present, have granted very small damages and have not punished the nomadic herdsmen. For example, a Warwar resident went to the Native Authority Court at Gembu to sue a nomad who had allowed his cattle to stray on the former's plot. The surface of the plot covered approximately 12,000 sq.yards. The Court agreed that the Nomad was guilty of negligence and fined him five shillings, of which three shillings were given to the Mambila as damages. The amount of damages granted was ludicrously small since the crop on the plot was already mature and soon to be harvested. As a result of the destruction there was little more than a basketful of ripe corn to be gleaned from the plot, whereas if the cattle had not tramples the crop it would have yielded many large baskets. This type of case arises quite frequently and the Mambila rarely seem to be given fair treatment in the Courts.

Though fairly strict rules governing the areas, where the cattle may be allowed to pasture and come down to water, have been drawn up by the Administration, they are seldom complied with by the Nomads; when they are broken the courts do not punish the law-breakers sufficiently to make certain that they will not do so again.

The Mambila say that the Alkali (Fulfuldo term for "Judge") does not give them fair treatment when they sue Nomads, as the latter are Fulani (as is also the Alkali) and therefore are given preferential treatment in the courts. The Nomads quite frequently take a Mambila into court. Their favourite accusation is that the Mambila has killed one of their cattle or stolen from them. Cattle killings and thefts do sometimes occur but it is doubtful if it is a common happening. Nonetheless a Mambila who is brought into court on this type of charge is almost invariably found guilty and sent to prison and fined.

There are numerous other causes for Mambila antagonism towards the Nomads. All Fulani treat the Mambila as inferior beings and the latter resent it. The Nomads also frequently burn the hill sides at the end of the dry season in order that the new grass, which grows with the coming of the first rains, will grow better. The Mambila are annoyed by this as it does not allow them to hunt in the customary way. There are other reasons for the growing discord but the above are the most important ones. The Administration is at some stage going to be forced to face the problem of attempting to arrange a modus viviendi between the Nomads and the Mambila which is equitable and does not favour one group to the detriment of the other. Up to the present, the Mambila have been too intimidated by the Fulani to take any steps to protect themselves against the manifold injustices perpetuated upon them by these Nomads. How long this passivity will continue is difficult to say.

Before closing this section it is necessary to state that there are a few Nomads who maintain good relations with the Mambila. These exercise care to see to it that their cattle do not invade plots on which crops are growing, and when this does inadvertently happen, they settle by giving the Mambila fairly adequate compensation. Unfortunately Nomads of this type are few and far between.

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