Chapter II


The Mbembe and the Yakö

It is inevitable that the Mbembe should be compared with the Yakö since the Yakö are the one people in this area who have been thoroughly studied. Moreover they are the immediate western neighbours of the Mbembe and are, in fact, very similar to them in many ways. Indeed a study of the similarities and differences between these two peoples will prove most illuminating for an understanding of Mbembe society, and repeated comparisons will be drawn between them throughout this discussion. Therefore it will be useful to compare them in some detail at the very outset of this account.

One section of an Mbembe village looks at first, to the outside observer, to be almost identical with a section of a Yakö village, for the houses are similar and they are similarly arranged in groups of compounds separated by wide streets. If the visitor, however, gives more than a casual glance at the settlements it soon becomes apparent that there are marked differences between them which must be sociologically significant.

Closer observation reveals obvious cultural differences even in house design. For example the Yakö house has sliding double doors, [1] but the Mbembe house has only a single door. Moreover the Mbembe village completely lacks a characteristic Yakö feature, the huge stacks of firewood on house verandahs collected by prospective sons-in-law for their mothers-in-law. [2] Much more significant, sociologically, is the difference in size between Yakö and Mbembe villages. The smallest Yakö village, Idomi, has a population of 2,800 and the largest, Umor, had in 1953 a population of over 17,000. The Yakö villages are separated from each other by distances of from five to eight miles. The Mbembe villages on the other hand are much smaller, the largest having a population of only 3,000 and many villages having less than 500 inhabitants. This difference in village size cannot be explained by differences in the overall population density for the Mbembe tribe of Adun has a density of about 250 to the square mile and approaches that of the Yakö. [3] It seems rather that the difference in settlement pattern is due to the fact that the Yakö choose to live in very large isolated villages whereas the Mbembe live in smaller settlements which are dispersed more evenly over the territory. This difference in demography is, as we shall

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see, very closely connected with differences in the social structure of the two peoples.

There is, basically, a marked similarity between the social organization of the Yakö and of the Mbembe. Like the Yakö the Mbembe recognize double unilineal descent with co-resident patrilineal and dispersed matrilineal groups; both organize men and woman into very similar age sets; and among both peoples associations played a vitally important part, in the organization of village life. Indeed in many instances it is clear that associations must have been borrowed fairly freely between the two peoples and in once case an association of the same name performs almost precisely the same role among the two peoples. The Mbembe Eberambit and the Yakö Eblembe[4] are the most important warriors' associations among their respective groups. Finally the Yakö and the Mbembe are similar in that both stress the unity and the political independence of each village. Nevertheless despite all these similarities there are marked differences between the two peoples.

First of all we may consider the associations. The Mbembe are like the Yakö in that they have a bewildering proliferation of association, but nevertheless associations differ sharply in their overall configuration among the two peoples. Among the Yakö, or at least in Umor, there is no general acknowledgment by all of the superiority of any one association, nor any belief that other associations exercised power only on the basis of authority delegated to them from the centre. [5] Among the Mbembe, however, there is such a belief and there is a general acknowledgment of the superiority of certain associations to others.

This is particularly surprising since in general among the Mbembe there is little stability in the position of associations. New ones often sweep rapidly into, and out of, popularity. While they are popular they perform certain tasks in the village but they lose their ability to do this if their popularity, and therefore their numbers, decline. In consequence, despite the occurrence of associations of the same name in different tribes, in detail the configuration of associations is not identical in any two villages even in the same tribe; and even within the same village the pattern varies over quite short periods of time. Nevertheless in every Mbembe village there are two associations which are acknowledged to be superior to all others and to have a certain measure of authority over the rest. These two are Okwa and Ocheika. Normally they are linked together by a considerable overlap in their membership, and they complement each other, for Okwa acts primarily in the secular and Ocheika in the ritual sphere. Their dominance means that the structure of relationships between the Mbembe associations is significantly different from that among the Yakö.

a comparison of the kinship systems of the Mbembe and the Yakö

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also reveals some differences as well as many similarities. Among both peoples land and houses and many offices pass patrilineally. Movable property however, passes matrilineally and in the traditional system the dispersed matrilineal groups were jurally responsible for their members. There are, it is true, obvious minor differences between the two kinship systems. For example among the Yakö the patriclan is always exogamous but marriage may be permitted within the matriclan. Among the Mbembe, however, the reverse holds. Again there is a difference in the pattern of recognition given to extra-descent group ties. Among the Yakö ties are recognized equally with the father's matrilineage and the mother's patrilineage. [6] Among the Mbembe on the other hand the latter relationship is not of structural significance, but very strong ties bind the individual to his father's matrilineage and particularly to his father's matrilineal heir. Fundamentally, however, the two systems are, from the point of view of the individual, almost identical.

Nevertheless, and this is most significant for a study of the political organization of the Mbembe, there are marked differences between the two peoples in the political use they make of their kinship systems. Briefly, among the Yakö the matrilineal organization is politically vital at the village level since the matriclan priests, the Yabot, one of whom is the village head, form a corporation which helps to give the settlement unity. [7] Among the Mbembe the kinship system works differently. The Avat, who also provide the village heads, are similar in their insignia and many roles to the Yabot, but the Avat are selected from patriclans, not matriclans, and matrilineal kinship therefore is less significant for village solidarity, although it does play an important part in cementing inter-village ties. We cannot, however, compare in isolation the political significance of the Yakö and Mbembe kinship systems. That matrilineal ties form significant links between Mbembe villages is associated with the fact that these are bound also by other ties not based on kinship, and this provides the major point of distinction between Yakö and Mbembe organization. Every Yakö village is an independent political unit buy Mbembe villages are associated together. The villages of an Mbembe "tribe" form a "parish" of a cult called Okpobam whose priests are the Avat. Common parish membership makes killing sacriligious and inter-village relations peaceful. No comparable system is found among the Yakö.


It is impossible here to contrast in general the Mbembe with all their neighbours, but because the office of the Ovat is so significant it must be briefly described now and set against the background of somewhat similar offices found among these other peoples.

If we consider Eastern Nigeria as a whole we know that in many parts of the Region British administrators early gave the title of

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"chief" to those who, under the indigenous system, could scarcely have deserved it since politically specialized offices did not exist in their societies. The chiefly "warrant" when it was given to the Avat however, seems to have been more appropriate since it is clear that they were office holders with not merely ritual authority but with political significance as well.

This fact is indicated in their very title for it is not the usual one for a priest. This is "Otim" (he holds) or "Odip" (he ties) followed by the name of the cult or group concerned. For example the priest of the matriclan is called "Odip" (or "Otim" ) Ochi", (ochi, matriclan) . Indeed the term Ovat is not used for any other priest, but, significantly, it may be used in a qualified form to indicate the leader of some organization; for example "Ovat kw 'Okim" the head of an association, or "Ovat kw 'Ogbo" , the head of an age-set. When necessary people may qualify the titles of those whom we have referred to simply as the Avat. For example in each village one Ovat is regarded as senior to the others and is the village head, and if this distinction must be made clear the people can distinguish between the Ovat kw 'Efona , the patriclan Ovat, and the Ovat kw 'Owon , the village Ovat. Nevertheless whenever the word "Ovat" is used without such qualification, as in "Ovat 'nong" (among, a person) or in the plural form "Avat" then it is always the Okpobam priests to whom reference is made. It is to them that the term primarily refers, and it might therefore be translated simply as "the leaders". Obviously the term has political significance and this point is further supported by the popular etymology of the word, for it is said to mean "he becomes rich".

The Avat are, even today, set apart from all others within their society by the respect shown to them, by their insignia of office and by the rites and ceremonies associated with their installation and death. It is only to the Avat that it is proper for adults to make a formal greeting that acknowledges the superior status of the person addressed. On any formal occasion an Ovat must be greeted in a special manner, for the one who approaches must cup his hands together, (in the same respectful position that a boy will use when giving something to an old man) and will bow down to rest them for a moment on the ground, saying as he does so "Ovat bogae !" (literally Ovat hands!).

The Avat are the only persons permitted to wear a circlet of leopards' claws, and/or red stocking caps. They carry, and are the only persons permitted to touch, ceremonial staffs decorated with brass currency rods. The installation ceremonies of the Avat vary in their details from place to place buy they constitute always a "rite-de-passage" in which the candidate is "crowned" and then secluded for a period. He passes this seclusion normally in the company of one wife who, significantly, must be a woman born in the village, and usually there is a rule that both of her parents must also have been so born. If an Ovat, prior to his installation, has no wife who fulfills these criteria then before he is inducted he must marry a wife who does meet these requirements. The period of seclusion is terminated by a public feast

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When an Ovat dies no one is allowed to mourn until the official announcement of the death some time later, and in the meanwhile it is an offence punishable by the Ocheika association for anyone to mention the death. It is also usual for the Ovat to be buried in a place or in a manner which distinguishes the burial from that of other men.

In one sense, however, such distinctions in greetings and insignia and ceremonial can tell us very little about the office and certainly need not imply that the status of the Ovat was to any extent uniform among the Mbembe tribes. This is made quite clear by the fact that the Yakö office of the Obot is very similarly distinguished, and yet we already know enough to be sure that the political significance of this office must have differed very considerably from that of the Ovat. Moreover offices somewhat similarly set apart occur also among the Agoi Ibami and probably among other Agoi peoples to the south of the Mbembe. To the eastwards such offices are to be found among all the tribes bordering the Cross River at least as far as the Cameroons' border; and in Ogoja Province to the north-east it seems that such offices likewise existed among the Obanlike, Boki, Ukelle, Bette-Bende and Akaju peoples, and probably amongst others also. [8] This wide distribution of an office, linked by these formal traits, among peoples whom we know to differ rather widely in their social and political structure, suggests very forcibly that the outward similarity is part of what might be called the "style" of the area and must mask considerable differences in the roles and functions of the office holders.

For this reason the mere outward similarity in the form of the office of Ovat among the different Mbembe tribes is obviously not in itself proof that the roles of the different Avat were the same and, in fact, there was and is considerable variation in the amount and type of influence which the Avat may exercise. The similarities between any of the Avat seem, however, much greater than the similarities between any of the Avat and similar office holders amongst other peoples, for the great majority of the Avat are linked to the same kind of structure and are priests of the same cult among people who, as we shall see, share a common ideology. Moreover the Mbembe tribes in many respects have social structures which, in their essentials, are strikingly alike; and the office of the Ovat is clearly shaped in its roles and functions by this common structure. Despite all this, however, the office of Ovat seems to have an inherent plasticity that has allowed it to develop in very different directions to suit different circumstances. The consequence was that by the early part of this century there were wide differences between the three tribes of Osopong, Okum and Adun in the positions of their Avat. For example, the leading Ovat among the Osopong had great political significance but comparatively little political power, although among the Adun the comparable Ovat had something of the position of a paramount chief in a centralized state. At the same time, among the Okum there was a remarkable efflorescence and quite without parallel anywhere else among these three tribes. The reasons for these differences it will be our purpose to discover.

[1] Forde, 1950 p.290.

[2] Forde, 1941 p.22.

[3] Umor's density was about 360 p.s.m. in 1953.

[4] Forde, 1961 p.313.

[5] Forde, ibid. pp. 318-322.

[6] Forde, 1950 p.317.

[7] Forde, 1950 p.316.

[8] Butcher, Unpublished mss.

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