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Chapter Six


The majority of West African tribes described in the anthropological literature practice either matrilineal or patrilineal descent, while a few have what has been called a double descent system or, more accurately, a double unilateral descent system. Double unitlateral descent systems are characterised by the fact that matrilineal and patrilineal descent principles operate concurrently but in different spheres of the total social field. For example in discussing the Yakö Forde says:

"It has been seen that rights to dwelling sites, farming land, and the more important forest resources are obtained in virtue of membership in a patrilineal group: but that when attention is transferred from rights in economic resources to the transmission of accumulated wealth, matrilineal kinship comes into prominence. All currency, whether it be brass rods or modern coinage, and all livestock, should by custom pass to matrilineal relatives who also receive the greater share of the implements, weapons, household goods, and any stores of food" Forde (1950), p. 310.

The Mambila do not use the principle of unilineal descent for the organisation of corporate groups, and are at least in this respect dissimilar from the majority of West African tribes studies so far. Nevertheless it is probable that there are other groups in West Africa who practice bilateral descent[54].

Goodenough attempts to explain the presence of non-unilineal descent groups by citing ecological and social factors. He says:

"In any community where cultivatable land is not over-abundant in relation to population, and all rights to land depend upon membership in strictly unilinear kin groups, a serious problem must soon arise. Unilinear groups invariably fluctuate considerably in size. As a result, one lineage may have twice as much land as its members need while another has not enough to go around. Malayo-Polynesian societies characteristically vest land ownership in kin groups. Throughout their history, therefore they have had to meet the problem of land distribution in the fact of constant fluctuation in kin group size. One of the simplest possible devices for achieving this end is to keep the land-owning groups non-unilinear" Goodenough (1955), p. 80.

This formulation appears to apply to the data which he is analysing but it does not explain the pattern of descent reckoning of the Mambila. In the past the Mambila had less land available for agriculture than today, but is doubtful whether they suffered from an acute land shortage. However, as we neither know the population of Mambila villages in the past and the size of the areas which they cultivated, nor the productivity of their agricultural techniques, it is impossible to state categorically that they suffered from "land hunger". Finally, as all rights to land do not depend on membership of a kin group (and presumably did not in the past), the Mambila and the Malayo-Polynesian systems differ in this fundamental respect. Goodenough's thesis is not therefore applicable to the Mambila situation.

Several anthropologists have attempted to define the conditions in which unilineal descent groups are likely to emerge. We shall now briefly discuss what has been said on this subject and see whether or not it applies to the Mambila.

Forde says:

"When a comparatively low threshold of stability and density of settlement is reached, tendencies for unilineal transmission of both individual and collective rights, giving rise to the formation of unilineal kin groups, emerge spontaneously from the conditions of the economy in consequence of the operation of two general processes - parent-child succession and the sex division of responsibility for the provision of economic needs" Forde (1947), p. 7.

It is difficult to determine exactly what is meant by "a comparatively low threshold of stability and density of settlement", so we cannot say whether these two minimal conditions postulated by Forde exist among the Mambila.

Lowie says:

"In my opinion, the transmission of property rights and the mode of residence after marriage have been the most effective means of establishing the principles of unilineal descent." Lowie (1920), p. 157.

Linton also noticed the importance of residence rules in establishing unilineal descent when he said:

"Matrilineal descent is normally linked with matrilocal residence, patrilineal with patrilocal" Linton (1936), p. 169.

Linton's and Lowie's conditions are not met among the Mambila. It is true that virilocal marriage is the rule, but the critical point is not that the wife goes to the husband's compound but that the husband may be residing with agnatic, uterine or other categories of cognates. If one accepts what informants relate about the past, there was pressure put on some men to live with their agnates and others to live with their uterine kin. We were told that before the prohibition of exchange marriage by the Administration, a man - other things being equal - was expected to live with the core of his Memin. Therefore, if the majority of men followed the ideal pattern, any local group would be composed of persons related not solely through males or females, but through both.

Among the Mambila, the most important property such a farm plots and compounds is immovable and is inherited by members of the local group of the deceased. As a general rule a dead man's property is inherited by members of his cluster, though members of his Man may make a claim if they are in need. Since both the compound cluster and the Man are made up of cognates, the principles of inheritance reinforces the composite nature of the kinship group.

In order to avoid possible misunderstanding, it should be stressed here that we are not postulating a simple cause and effect relationship, namely that fixed residence rules will automatically bring into being unilineal descent groups. Murdock lists 13 tribes who have what he calls matrilocal and avunculocal rules of residence and who practice bilateral descent (1949), p. 59). He also cites four cases of groups with matrilineal descent and eight with patrilineal descent who have neolocal and bilocal rules of residence. Therefore, we must agree with him when he says that fixed rules of residence are conductive to the formation of unilineal descent groups, but unilineal groups do not in all cases result from such fixed principles ( Ibid, p. 59).

In the case of the Mambila the main structural feature militating against the emergence of unilineal descent groups was the dual system of marriage. We may remember that, when a couple were married by exchange, the children were as a rule affiliated with the father's Memin, while in bridewealth marriage the offspring were associated with that of their mother. From the information available today concerning marriage practices, it seems likely that though exchange marriage was preferred, the incidence of bridewealth marriage was high. More children were born to parents married by exchange as that type of union endured longer than the other type but enough children were born to parents who had contracted bridewealth marriages to prevent the emergence of unilineal descent groups.

Having pointed out that unilineal descent groups do not exist among the Mambila, it is now necessary to summarize the principles used in the organisation of the various social groups found in the social structure. We shall begin with the largest unit in that structure, the village.

A village is a residential unit. A person is a member if he resides and has plots of land within the village boundary. The same two criteria apply in determining membership in a hamlet, compound cluster, and compound, though in the last two instances one would normally find that most, if not all, of the male members of the two groups would be further linked by cognatic ties. Before a person is admitted to Man membership he usually must either be able to trace, or be ascribed, descent from the Man founder. In the discussion of the Man, we described how a person who was known to be unrelated to the founder was nonetheless granted Man membership. In this one recorded case the real pattern did not conform with the ideal pattern.

Reference has already been made to the Memin in an earlier paragraph and, as it has lost all of its functional significance, it will not be treated further here.

We shall now summarize briefly the functions of the various local groups.

If one were to ask a Mambila what a village does, he would answer that its main task is to protect its members against residents of other villages; he will say that there is a constant threat of neighbouring villages encroaching upon the village land. If a man's land is in danger of being taken by a resident of another settlement, his own fellow villagers should come to his aid. Occasions such as these often led to war in the past. Today a case of trespass is brought before the Native Court and the plaintiff's fellow villagers are expected to support him. The threat of encroachment is a real one and is not a hangover from the past. This is borne out by a statement, made to me by the Touring Officer of the Mambila District, to the effect that most of the inter-village disputes brought to his attention were over boundaries. In the past when a wife and/or children of a man were captured by another village, the fellow villages of the injured man were expect to help him to get them back even if physical force had to be used. Today cases of this kind do not arise.

The residents of a village like their settlement to be strong so that it may protect its inhabitants. An analysis of the ritual makes this clear. The village unites for the performance of ritual once or twice a year. I was told that village-wide ritual should take place twice a year, but in 1953 it was held once. The reason given was that, as the time when the second ritual was to be held, a senior man had just died, and most of the members of the village were occupied by his funeral. The aim of the ritual is to ensure good crops for the coming year, make the women of the village bear many male children, and to protect the inhabitants against witches. The presence of witches in the settlement is believed by the Mambila to weaken it, firstly because some of the residents die; and secondly because persons who think that they are being bewitched are likely to emigrate. In both cases the village loses population. The emphasis on women bearing sons is understandable in view of the fact that men are the warriors and can defend a village while women cannot. Good crops are also essential to maintain village strength, as in periods of famine not only do people die but also many leave the village. I was told that when locust plagues were common, a village which was hard hit by this scourge might lose a large part of its population through emigration.

What has been said above applies equally well to the other local groups found within the village. Each group appears as a separate entity in juxtaposition to like groups and disappears when groups of a larger order come into play. For example, the hamlet is expected to support its own members in conflict with residents of other hamlets in the same village. But if a man is involved in a dispute with a resident of another village, his entire village should support him and his hamlet as a unit is merged in the larger aggregate.

In addition to formal obligations, there exists a more general duty among members of local groups, of whatever scale, to help one another in time of difficulty. Such help includes supplying a member with food if his own crop is not sufficient or if it is destroyed by fire or pests, in raising bridewealth and paying fines. But the responsibilities of the various groups are not strictly defined. For example, the chief of Warwar was fined 8 by the Native Court in Gembu for perjury (the Court believe that he had perjured himself though I personally did not believe that this was the case). The Chief turned to the Elders in his hamlet for help. They agreed to give him part of the money required but said that other hamlets should also help. There was a general meeting of Elders from all the hamlets and they said that each hamlet should make a contribution. The chief's own hamlet would give 5, and the other three hamlets would contribute 1 each. All my informants agreed that the guilty person being the chief had nothing to do with the entire village contributing to the payment of the fine. Rather, they said that if a resident was fined a sum which was too large for him, his kinsmen and his fellow hamlet dwellers to pay, the other villages should help him. The general practice seems to be for a man in need to appeal first to the smallest group of which he is a member, such as the compound or the compound cluster; if the members of that group cannot meet his needs an appeal is made by the Elders of the group to increasingly larger groups until the need is satisfied. I was told that a resident of Mbanga, a Mambila village, was sued by a resident of that village in the Native Court. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant had committed adultery with his, the plaintiff's wife. The court rules that the defendant had to give 5 to the plaintiff in compensation. As both resided in the same hamlet and the Man of the defendant could not raise the total amount, the Man of the plaintiff was called upon to make a contribution, and they did so, to the extent of 30 shillings. This meant that the plaintiff gave at least 2 shillings to the defendant in order that he might pay him, the plaintiff, the damages assessed by the Court. We can see from the above that in each local group the members have a feeling of interdependence. A brief discussion of ritual will show how the rites help to bring about and maintain this sense of unity, at least during their performance.

Among the Mambila, the village and the hamlet are the important ritual units. Local kinship groups such as Man, compound cluster and compounds have no important ritual functions. This should not be taken to mean that no ritual is ever performed by these three groups but, in Mambila eyes, such a ritual is not as important as that performed by the hamlet or village. Unlike other West African groups like the Tallensi, Yako, Ibo and others, the major ritual is carried out by local groups whose members are recognised not to have ties of kinship.

The rituals performed by the hamlet and village serve as an integrative factor. This can best be shown by giving a brief description of one of the hamlet rites. Before the members of the hamlets are allowed to plant their guinea-corn, a man in the hamlet with the proper "medicine", Yil lelli (Yil stands for guinea-corn, Lel means medicine), must plant a small plot about 4 ft. square with seeds of guinea corn. The other residents must wait until the medicine man reports that the seeds have put forth green shoots before beginning their own cultivation. Between the time that the seeds are planted and the shoots appear, all of the residents must follow certain rules of behaviour. No resident must spend the night in another hamlet or village. Food may be sold to non-residents, but they must consume it in the hamlet where it is bought, as no food must be taken out of the settlement. (During this period, no persons from the various hamlets of Warwar sold food in the local market. Two men and one women had come from neighbouring villages to sell corn). Finally, no fighting may take place in the hamlet. If these rules are transgressed, the shoots will not appear unless the transgressor sacrifices a chicken to the ancestors. If the shoots do not appear on time, the medicine man appeals to the hamlet dweller who has sinned to confess and to perform the necessary expiatory rites. During this and other similar periods all the residents are intensely aware of their responsibility to the group, as a whole, and aware also of their mutual interdependence. Village rites operate in the same way in maintaining village integration.

The religious beliefs of the Mambila also serve to integrate the hamlet and the village. When sacrifices are made, they are said to be addressed to all of the ancestors of the people taking part in the rite, whether it be the hamlet or the village, since all the ancestors of all the residents are expected to look after the group's welfare[55].

No names of ancestors are called during the rites. The priest says "Tschang bii hal wo tschor", meaning "ancestors, we give you a chicken". The Mambila say that if the names of particular ancestors were forgotten they would be "vexed" and would wreak their vengeance by harming the village. It would be appear to the observer that residents whose ancestors were unknown would not believe that they were benefiting from the ritual, and this would tend to divide the community if some resident's ancestors names were called and others not. The Mambila look upon the ancestors of all the residents as being one collective group in the same way as they conceptualise the residents of the local unit, whether it be a hamlet or a village.

The importance of ritual in the integration of the local community is due to the fact, as we have said earlier, that all local groups are comparatively fluid. People come and go for both immigration and emigration are easy. A fairly large proportion of the male inhabitants of the hamlet have spent the major part of their lives there, but a certain number may have come after reaching adulthood. Such men have not developed the habits of co-operation with other members of the local group which are of such major importance for the welfare of that group. By participating in the ritual, they are compelled to co-operate with the other residents, because they fear supernatural sanctions if they refuse; this instils in them a feeling of interdependence with the other members of the local group.

It seems likely that in a stateless community with bilateral reckoning of descent and a permissive settlement pattern - that is, where a man has a number of alternative non-unilineal descent groups with which he may settle - it is the local group and not its component kinship groups which perform the major rituals.

Rehfisch Thesis - 2 DEC 1996

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