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Chapter III


Despite the very marked differences between the three main Mbembe tribes it is nevertheless possible to see in the culture of each much that is common. This is true both at the level of their social structure and at that of their cosmological beliefs. It is therefore, these common factors which will be first discussed

It would, of course, be more usual to discuss the structural aspects of these similarities first and follow this by a description of the Mbembe cosmology. But if this part of the discussion is to be presented briefly it is for various reasons more convenient to consider the belief system first, primarily because before attempting to consider the position of the Avat it is necessary to understand the ideology associated with these offices. This ideology in its turn can be understood only in the context of the Mbembe ideas concerning supranormal powers. Therefore we shall reverse the customary pattern of exposition and begin our discussion with an account of Mbembe religious thought.

The Spiritual Forces

In their view the extra-human universe may be divided into three main categories. In the first there is Ibinokpabi, the creator god, who is thought of as being different in kind from every other spiritual being, and as ultimately responsible for the whole universe. As is so often the way with African high gods, Ibinokpabi has very largely withdrawn himself from close contact with men because of man's importunities.

Secondly there are the dead, the afra'nong who, in a way not clear to me and not I think, clear to my informants, act as the main mediators between Ibinokpabi and man. It is not, I think that they have any direct connection with Ibinokpabi, but the power of giving and withholding all blessings has been given them and they may injure man by withholding good things or through the direct infliction of punishment. Although the dead are thus largely responsible for imposing sanctions the are not thought of as keeping a watchful eye on the behaviour of the living, punishing these forms of conduct which are anti-social. To the people an suggestion of such an attitude seems ludicrous and they think, quite simply, that no one who has known a live villager would expect a dead one to act in this way on behalf of the living unless paid to do so. The dead, people believe, impose sanctions of their own accord only when their own interests are threatened. Moreover the dead do not even automatically give to man those blessings over which they have control; rather they have to be cajoled, for the dead are busy about their own affairs, farming and going to market and they are no more ready to listen to requests for unmerited assistance than they

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were they alive. The living are, therefore, set the problem of contacting the dead, of compelling their attention and, as it were, of prodding them into taking the desired action. The answer to these problems is found in the third main category of spiritual beings, compose of mediating spirits, "awka", who are the intermediaries between the living and the dead. These awka are the answer to the need to apply persuasion and compulsion to the dead.

The awka emanate from the mixture of medicines which form the core of a shrine. When a sacrifice is to be held at the shrine a small token offering is usually made at it on the day prior to the main rite and the mediating spirit is requested to go to the Village of the Dead to inform those concerned. This request is made because not all the dead are concerned with every cult, but for each there is a group in the Village of the Dead which corresponds to the congregation in the world of the living. The awka is thought of as telling the dead of the coming sacrifice to be offered to them, and as requesting their presence at it. The sacrifice is seen both as a means of appeasing the dead and as putting the dead attending the rite under an obligation to grant the desires of the living expressed in their prayers. Indeed the dead are thought of as being forced to do so. In so far as these prayers request, or imply the request, that the dead shall in certain circumstances punish offenders among the living, it is the awka through which such retribution is taken. The awka both brings the dead to take action on behalf of those who have sacrificed at its shrine and by its nature, determines the form that the retribution shall take; for while all awka act as intermediaries they differ, as it were, in their ability to convey messages of different kinds, and also in their capacities for inflicting punishments of different kinds. For this reason particular diseases are associated with particular awka, and a person suffering from an illness will be said to have been "caught" by a certain awka. This, however, is a loose form of speech; fundamentally the people do not think of the awka as taking independent action but understand this phrase to mean that the dead have taken action through the awka.

It is held that all mediating spirits emanating from the same mixture of medicines are the same and differ from those awka constituted of other medicines. Only the priest, or sometimes a diviner, has knowledge of the medicines at the core of his shrine. If he has full knowledge of the way in which they are blended he is able to create a new shrine of the same cult in a different place for a different group of people. The mediating spirit within the new shrine will then be of the same "species" as the parent shrine and will usually be known by the same name. However, although two awka in different places may be the "same" in that they have the same nature, they are not necessarily equally powerful. There may, in some way, be an inherent difference in the two shrines. The new shrine may never achieve as much prestige as the parent shrine, and the power of the new shrine may be thought of as but a pale reflection of the original. More commonly it is thought that a shrine may become weak, and lose its power of communicating with the dead. Such enfeeblement may be due either to neglect of various rules which, at its foundation, are enjoined

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on the shrine priest and sometimes also on all its congregation or, and this is more usual, it may be due to attacks on it by witches and sorcerers.

The belief that awka may become weak is, of course, crucial for the Mbembe religious system since it provides the "escape clause" which makes it possible to account for unanswered prayer and fruitless sacrifices without any questioning of the central tenets of the people's beliefs. It also accounts, at a practical level, for the ease and enthusiasm with which cults may be adopted and then discarded. A declining cult may be restored to power through the "repairing" of its medicines, either by its own priest or, more often, by the priest of a "powerful" shrine of the same cult elsewhere. It is equally probable, however, that a declining cult will loose progressively more and more prestige until, instead of trying to "repair" it, the people seek a new cult together.

It is understandable that the people should lay great emphasis on attacks on awka by witches and sorcerers since these are thought to be the cause of most undeserved misfortune and the purpose of many awka is to rally the dead to protect a particular congregation from the depredations of these anti-social beings. Witches and sorcerers, therefore, naturally feel considerable enmity against the shrines.

Witches and Sorcerers

Of these witches are the more dangerous. They have witchcraft substance, "like a bat", within them, which is thought of as being either inherited or as having been acquired unwittingly through greediness; for if an individual goes greedily to sit with any and every group that he sees drinking palm - wine it is possible that a witch may slip witchcraft medicines into the drink and so add a recruit to his fellow witches. No one, however, wishes to become a witch or tries actively to join the association of witches. Mbembe witches, in accordance with the usual African belief, go out at night in dreams and attack the souls of their enemies; attacks which results in wasting diseases and ulcers. They are not, however, limited to such activities for they will also try to destroy crops, anyone's crops, through the sheer maliciousness which is the hallmark of the witch. In the form of wild animals they damage growing crops, or they send boring insects into the yams, or they make the growing yam disappear by throwing them, as some believe, into the Cross River.

Against witches the Mbembe had traditionally three types of protection, only one of which, the awka, is now left to them. Of the other two, one, smallpox which has now largely been stamped out, is believed to have been sent by Ibinokpabi as a direct attack on witches. According to the Mbembe belief anyone may catch smallpox but only witches die of it, and the only people to be badly scarred by the disease are malicious persons who, although not having the special abilities of the witch, nevertheless are akin to them in spirit.

The second line of defence was the esere bean poison ordeal against which the Administration early took stern measure. (Indeed to the

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Mbembe one of the most sinister characteristics of Europeans is the way in which they have consistently shown themselves to be on the side of the witches). There were two contexts in which esere bean might be taken. One individual might accuse another of witchcraft, in which case both would go to take the ordeal; and it is believed that a false accusation would lead to death equally with witchcraft. In this context the accused and the accuser might be either man or woman, although accusations, so far as it is possible to judge at this distance of time, seem to have occurred more frequently between women. The second context concerned women only. It seems that if there had been a run of misfortune in the village and a number of children had died, instead of one culprit being name there arose a general anxiety about the number of witches within the village. This might lead all the women of the whole village, or perhaps of a subdivision within it, to go en masse to take the ordeal. This pattern seems to have been particularly strong among the Osopong but it did occur also in other tribes. A number of women would die and the rest would return in triumph and with a sense of reassurance. People still keep esere beans in their houses as part of charms against witches but, so far as I know, the actual taking of the ordeal has not occurred for some years.

The Mbembe normally abhor witches, but they do not feel the same revulsion against sorcerers, although the people take steps to guard themselves against sorcery attacks. Witches work harm for the sheer pleasure it gives them, not for anything they ma gain from it. Sorcerers kill their kinsfolk but their aim is generally thought to be material wealth, and so their activities are not considered an unnatural vice. Sorcerers do not make their attacks through the medium of medicines, their power is something inherent within them, but it is a power which they are thought to achieve by wittingly becoming members of the Ijong sorcerers association. Only men are Ijong members.

These men, the "Ajijongo", it is thought, take part in feasts at which the host for the occasion must, as part of his recurrent fees to the association, offer the spirit one of his matrilineal kin to the other members. These, by their participation in the feast, become indebted to the association and must in their turn offer matrilineal kinsmen to the others.

It must be a matrilineal kinsman, normally, since a man can only offer a kinsman over whom he has some measure of control, and jural control was exercised within the matrilineal group. Senior men within the matrilineal group are though of as "owning" their juniors who, therefore, make the appropriate Ijong victims. [1] Conversely a sorcerer has no right to offer any member of a different matrilineage, and should he do so the offer would not be accepted by the other members. If the sorcerer has no appropriate kinsman that he can, or will offer then the other "Ajijongo" will turn and kill him.

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Sudden death or loss of consciousness are the characteristics of Ijong attacks.

A man joins Ijong, it is believed, either because he becomes a member of certain other (actual) associations whose "medicines" contain the Ijong medicine, so that he becomes a sorcerer ex officio; or, more commonly, it is thought that he deliberately seeks to become an Ajijongo to gain wealth. Occasionally, it is thought, he joins to seek revenge, for if he has lost perhaps a brother as the result of an attack by a distant matrilineal relative he hopes, by joining, to be able to kill that man's nearest and dearest.

One defence against sorcerers, therefore, is simply to split the matrilineal group, in a way that will be described, for if the members of a matrilineage fear the sorcery attacks of their more distant matrikinsmen, they can escape the danger by formally separating themselves. This means that the feared sorcerers no longer have the right to offer any of them as victims. Less drastically a particularly feared individual Ijong member may be made to swear on oath before a particular awka that he will offer no more of his matrikin as victims. It is, however, not only the dispersed matrilineal groups which take action to protect their members from sorcery attacks, for residential groups will also do so, although this at first sight might seem, logically, an inappropriate step for them to take. It is believed, however, that sorcerers always work in groups of lodge members; to be precise they have lodges under water to which they travel invisibly by streams, and it is believed that members of one lodge never include more than two or three sorcerers from the same village - the majority always come from elsewhere. In keeping with this belief attacks by Ijong members are assumed to involve the movement of outside sorcerers into a village and patriclan, and I have myself heard the senior men of a village called out in the middle of the night to repel with gunfire an invasion of (invisible) sorcerers from other villages. Residential groups, therefore, acquire particular awka to erect invisible defences round their borders and these awka become the particular targets of Ijong members.

The large part in human life which is assigned to witches, awtan , and sorcerers, Ajijongo, must be correlated rather with the absence of other factors in the Mbembe cosmology which are used to explain misfortune than with any psychopathic malaise affecting Mbembe social life. I base this argument on the remarkable absence in Mbembe ideology of non-human causes of evil.

In the first place the Mbembe do not conceive of the universe in such strictly moral terms that any larger sector of human misfortune can be seen as the result of the just retribution of spiritual forces. There is one crucial exception to this rule the significance of which we shall discuss below; this is the belief that Ibinokpabi, the creator, intervenes at times to punish witchcraft through the medium of smallpox. Such direct punishment of human wickedness is, however, unique. The dead, as we have seen, are not normally interested in punishing the moral lapses of man in his relationships with man.

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It is of course true that the dead do take some action through awka to punish certain kinds of trespass by man. To a certain extent misfortune is due to their punishment but the use of this concept as an explanation of evil is limited. On the one hand only sickness which responds readily to treatment can be so explained for illness caused in this way through awka is cured by the proper sacrifices at the proper shrine. If a sacrifice at one shrine fails divination may prescribe sacrifice at another, but if one or two sacrifices are made in vain then it is usually assumed that the trouble is in fact caused by witchcraft and not awka. Even when the dead, acting through an awka, are blamed for illness, the patient need not reproach himself with having committed a really serious action. He may ignorantly have broken the taboos of an awka, or he many unwittingly, for instance, have plucked fruit from a tree guarded by an awka's medicine, and have been struck by the associated disease; therefore although it is always said that such medicine is placed to guard property from real thieves, one who is ill need not be thought to come into this category. Therefore although there is some concept that misfortune is due to retribution by the dead it is restricted to cases of illness where there is speedy recovery and the relation between human guilt and misfortune is not a very strong one, since it is recognized that the offence committed may have been of a trivial nature.

Nevertheless, and this is very significant, although the dead may be held to have exacted a penalty out of proportion to the offence they cannot be held to have acted capriciously. This ties in with the rest of the Mbembe cosmological beliefs for if, on the one hand, misfortune is not to be explained by the existence of a strictly moral universe it is not to be explained away by postulating one that is amoral. Misfortune is not put down to capriciousness at the centre of things. Ibinokpabi may largely have withdrawn from direct human contact but he is still concerned for man's welfare and in so far as he does take an interest in human life it is for man's benefit. It is a fact that all prayers are addressed to him for no matter what others follow, the name "Ibinokpabi" begins every prayer. Certainly Ibinokpabi does not bring undeserved misfortune. Nor is there any pantheon of possibly irresponsible minor deities which might bring evil.

Some West African peoples explain otherwise inexplicable misfortunes by throwing the blame back on the suffering individual, holding that has difficulties are due to choices he made while yet unborn [2]3but the Mbembe have no such concept of prenatal fate to explain events. Nor are there, either, unpredictable distant ancestors who might be thought, as amongst the Tallensi, to visit unexpected and sudden punishments of their descendants [3]3indeed this type of explanation would seem incompatible with a kinship system which lays little stress on the tracing of genealogical ties.

We may, therefore summarize the situation by saying that all illnesses not speedily cured, all wasting sicknesses and ulcers, all acci-

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dents, fainting fits and sudden death, all serious crop failure and financial loss are regarded as undeserved misfortunes caused by wizardry. [4] If these ideas were studied in isolation then, no doubt, it would be possible to paint a picture of Mbembe society that would make it seem akin to that of Dobu. [5] Nevertheless although the amount of misfortune explained in terms of wizardry is so great that it must at times lead to unusual strain between individuals I doubt if inter-personal friction can be held to account for the large field of activity assigned to witches and sorcerers. [6] It accounts of course for the pattern of accusations but, as we have seen, the wide field assigned to wizardry can be understood only in the wider context of Mbembe cosmology. It is because evil can be assigned to wizardry that it is possible for the Mbembe to postulate as they do an ultimately beneficent universe.

To believe in this is never easy. The Christian, of course, manages to do so only by holding amongst other things that misfortunes rightly understood are not necessarily evils - but this is a sophistication unknown to African religions which equate the two. For them there are very broadly two main alternatives; they may postulate a strictly moral universe in which misfortunes are the result of man's sin, or an amoral universe in which capricious spiritual beings may bring misfortune which is quite undeserved. The Mbembe, however, take a different position. At the back of their universe is a beneficent moral being Ibinokpabi, not capricious spirits; but misfortune though blamed on man is blamed not on the sufferer's sin but on wizardry [7]. They have not raised theological problems for themselves by postulating that Ibinokpabi is all powerful and all good; they therefore do not ask why he should permit witches to exist at all. They are content to believe, however, that he is both good and powerful and the ultimate proof of his powerfulness and goodness is that in the last resort he intervenes with smallpox to kill witches who are the primary source of evil in the world. Thus blame for misfortune is projected away from the gods, and on to a special class of human beings who are ultimately cursed by God. This is why we have said that it is the beliefs in wizardry that make it possible ultimately to reconcile the existence of misfortune with the postulate of a benevolent universe.


Men are therefore engaged in a constant struggle with the human

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forces of evil and men's leaders, or at least their spies, in this fight are the diviners, "Obongonong". These are those who have been caught by "Ebok" which seems to be a personification of the power of divination. It is a word difficult to translate, but its root is the same as that for "hands" and it may be thought of as "the Catcher" or "the Seizer", a force whose outlines are not further delineated. Ebok may catch either men or women but hose caught are found usually to be the fairly close relatives of deceased abongonong. After a period of illness, which is normally fairly stereotyped and is said to include a phase in which the patient rushes impulsively to the bush and returns carrying uprooted trees, the one who is caught is taken to a diviner who announces what has happened.

The new diviner undergoes no formal apprenticeship because it is an article of faith that he is under the direct tuition of the dead, and specifically of the recently deceased obongonong who shows him medicines that he shall use. In practice, however, the new diviner does undergo a kind of novitiate, during which white clothes are worn. When he feels competent he announces a coming-out display at which he demonstrates his skill before diviners, who are invited to come from quite a wide distance, and before a large general audience. The display takes the form, principally, of a dance, for it is believed that by splendid dancing the diviner tempts the spirits of witches and sorcerers to come out to dance with him, and he is then able to identify them. At the display no open accusations take place, or at least I have heard none made, but the diviner indicates his suspicions by stopping in front of certain people in the audience and staring at them.

The dance is, however, not the usual day-to-day method of divination. This is done by direct communication with the dead, through what may be regarded as a multiple shrine possessed by the diviner, which contains the medicines of various awka, and other objects, the most important of which are believed to have been given directly to the diviner by the dead. It is the diviners who discover from the dead the name of the particular ancestor reincarnated at the birth of each child; it is they who, in the case of sickness, find out from the dead whether it is caused through an awka or whether it is the result of witchcraft and sorcery; and it is often they who recommend the repairing of a particular awka or the acquisition of a new one.

All these fundamental beliefs the Mbembe tribes share in common and this configuration of beliefs is not found in precisely the same form among their neighbours. It is true that many aspects of these beliefs are widespread. For example the belief in the wealth-giving association of water sorcerers seems to occur right down the Cross River and has affinities with the Kalabari "water people" [8]; and the name Ijong and Idiong occurs as far away as the Ibibio, (where rightly or wrongly it was linked with the leopard murders of 1947) and even among the coastal Bantu of the southern Cameroons. [9] Nevertheless, although I was unable to study in detail the religious beliefs of any of

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the neighbours of the Mbembe, even a cursory examination showed, for instance, that the Yakö have much more complex ideas about divination and about Ijong[10] and a little to the east, the people of Ikon and Okuni have beliefs about divination, reincarnation and witchcraft which are in many ways quite dissimilar from the Mbembe pattern.

An understanding of the Mbembe cosmological scheme is essential for an understanding of the position of the Avat because they are thought, in some respects, to lead the village defenses against witches and sorcerers; because the Avat are thought to be necessarily themselves members of Ijong and sometimes also witches of a kind; and above all because, as priests of the awka, Okpobam, they are thought to have a special relationship with the world of the dead. Nevertheless because this special relationship depends on the people's view of the structure of the world of the dead and because this, in its turn, reflects the organization of the world of the living we must examine Mbembe social structure in more detail before we can grasp the special significance of the unique religious position of the Avat.

[1] For a precisely similar belief among the Lo Dagaba, see Goody, 1957 pp.84-85.

[2] Fortes, 1959 p.40. Horton 1961.

[3] Fortes (ibid.) p.51

[4] I use this term to mean both witchcraft and sorcery, following Middleton, 1963 p.3.

[5] Fortune 1930.

[6] The most, I think, that can be argued is that there is much insecurity in Mbembe social relationships(see pp.35-36) and that this is not incompatible with the attribution of misfortune to human agencies.

[7] Cf. the position of some Christian Scientists who, having postulated a universe in which illness does not exist blame the apparent ills of right thinking men on a malevolent human agency, "malicious animal magnetism" see Wilson, 1961 p.127.

[8] Horton, 1960, p.18.

[9] Ardener, 1956, p.105. Here the "sorcerers" are called nyongo.

[10] Moreover while the Mbembe awka is apparently in some respect very similar to the Yakö edet the concepts underlying these shrines seem to differ from each other considerably. See Forde 1958.

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