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Chapter V


In discussing the relation between the Avat and the social structure we meet certain difficulties since the groups with which the Avat are associated are not uniform throughout the Mbembe peoples, nor is there complete uniformity even within one tribe. Most Avat are heads of patriclans but some are heads of patriclan sectors only, and three are linked with matrilineal groups. Some Avat, by virtue of being the heads of particular patriclans, are recognized also as the heads of their villages A few Avat are regarded in some senses as being also tribal or sub-tribal leaders. It is not, therefore, easy to generalize about the position of the Avat Nevertheless those who are Avat are almost invariably the heads of large patrilineal groups which, we have seen, have much in common in all three tribes; therefore there must be much in common also in the office of Ovat in all three tribes. Moreover the Avat everywhere have in common certain types of relationship with age-sets and associations, because these have a very similar structure and function among the Adun, the Okum and the Osopong. We can, therefore, discuss in general terms the office of the Ovat as it is influenced by its relationships with patriclans (including here in this term the Osopong patriclan sector) age-sets and associations. We may then consider the special position of those who are Avat of villages and wider groups.

The Ovat and the Patriclan

First of all we may consider the position of the Ovat in relation to land. Apart from the Ovat's rights to game and wine which will be discussed below, it must be clear that the rights of any of the Avat over land must be extremely limited. The Ovat normally has no right to allocate land, since it is the minimal patrilineage which is the land holding group. Moreover since there are, in general, no restrictions on the clearing by an individual of unclaimed bush the Ovat seldom has the right to divide out even this. In fact the Ovat will be involved in land matters normally only if there is serious internal quarreling over land boundaries among members of the patriclan. He is involved in such cases partly because it is his general duty to maintain the peace at all times, and partly because such quarrels occur normally in the planting season and may lead to the uprooting of crops which, is sacrilegious act which specifically requires a cleansing sacrifice by an Ovat. Secondly the Ovat is involved if outsiders begin to encroach on the land of members of his patriclan. then, as the representative of this group, he is expected to take action on its behalf. In almost all other circumstances, however, the authority of the Ovat over land is minimal.

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Similarly it follows from what has been said about the nature of the patrilineal groups in relation to communal work that the Ovat as head of the patriclan does not thereby derive much control over labour for, above the level of the minimal patrilineage, these groups do not often co-operate together. Where a patriclan forms a major division within the village there are certain "public works" which it must perform on its own behalf, and order for such tasks may be given by the Ovat acting as patriclan head. On the other hand the Ovat as clan head was only rarely in the position to call on all the men of his clan, or a large proportion of them, to work on his farm. This was probably due to the difficulty of applying coercion with this group.

Nevertheless despite this weakness in the Ovat's position it is relatively strong in other ways, and in particular he derives considerable authority from the fact that he acts as the clan's representative with outsiders. The significance of this for any particular office-holder must, of course, vary with the size and solidarity of the patriclan, but the patriclan is always to some extent a unit vis -a -vis other groups.

It is, in the first place, as we have seen, a ritual unit and therefore the Ovat acts as his group's representative in ritual matters. He is priest of, or has considerable control over, all cults belonging to the clan, and it is usually the Ovat who takes the most prominent part in the acquisition of any cult by the clan. It is in his name that messengers are sent to buy the cult, and although the Ovat may not himself become the custodian of the new shrine he will be regarded as having appointed its priest and may give orders for a particular rite to be held. The Ovat is particularly well placed to act in such matters since the new cults are desired primarily to give protection from witches and sorcerers and it is widely believed that the medicines with which the Ovat comes in contact during his installation rites give him special insight into both these types of nefarious activity.

The Ovat also acts as his group's representative in many mundane matters. We have already seen that he does so if his people become involved in land disputes. The Ovat, however, acts as his clan's representative not merely in the context of quarrels but also in the routine affairs of the village. For example if, as is generally the case, there is more than one Ovat within the village the frequently meet informally to talk over village affairs, and when they do so each Ovat is felt to represent his own patriclan. Because the Ovat is so much his clan's representative message which concern the group as a whole are sent to him and strangers of consequence, coming from other villages, will greet the Ovat and be given hospitality by him. Even those coming to visit relatives will usually, as a matter of courtesy go to greet the Ovat of the patriclan they are visiting. Therefore the Ovat is well placed to know all the affairs of his clansmen.

One of the reasons, according to the people, that the Ovat is expected to give hospitality to strangers is that each Ovat has the right to certain tribute meat and wine. The Ovat's right to this tribute is very strongly emphasized for it symbolizes his political authority. It is therefore, noteworthy that if this right were denied, particularly if a hunter cheated an Ovat of the meat due to him, it is (or it used to be)

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believed that that man would be supernaturally punished by the Ovat's special cult, Okpobam. The name Okpobam is the name for the brown kite and it is said that it was given to the cult because it attacks, as mercilessly as the kite attacks a chicken, the individual who fails to give due tribute to the Ovat. We shall discuss later the full significance of this cult, but it can be seen at once that it has immediate practical significance for the Ovat because it is through Okpobam that the Ovat's right to tribute is ritually sanctioned.

This brings us to a consideration of the final aspect of the relation between the Ovat and the patriclan. We have seen how the structure of the clan influences the "shape" of the office; but it must be pointed out that there is also a "feedback" for, just because the Ovat is the clan's representative, the rites and ceremonies and the privileges of his office are of considerable significance for the patriclan itself. For example, the right of the Ovat to receive tribute meat is not merely a symbol of an Ovat's political authority, it is also a symbol of the status within the village of the patriclan to which the hunter belongs. There are some patriclans which, for historical reasons, either have no Ovat at all, or the "sector" within a particular village is without its own Ovat; in such a case the group is closely bound to another clan whose Ovat acts as its "patron" and, therefore, whenever an animal is killed within its "Efonakpa" meat is sent to this Ovat. This makes quite clear to everyone the group's dependent status, and accounts of how such a group acquired its own Okpobam cult and Ovat usually end with the statement that "now we send meat to or own Ovat".

More generally, the rites of the installation and burial of the Ovat of the patriclan provide occasions for the coming together of the whole patriclan, women as well as men. All make contributions in food and money to the ceremonies and these festivities provide the best occasions for the display of group loyalty, for the eyes of everyone else in the village are on them. Moreover the participation of different groups in these ceremonies constitutes series of symbolic statements about political relationships.

Nevertheless, despite this close relationship between the Ovat and his patriclan there is, at first sight, the curious fact that the Ovat does not have as his advisers the heads of the lineages of his patriclan; at least they do not act as such ex-officio. That this should be so may in part be due to the very structure of the patriclan, within which, as we have seen, the lineages are not genealogically ordered. Since lineage heads are, therefore, all equally the heads of small groups and none by virtue of his office can be regarded as senior to the others it follows that none through his office is clearly suited to being the Ovat's lieutenant. Much more important however, is the fact we have already noted, that the patrilineage is not a group through which it is easy to exercise coercive authority. The lineage head, therefore, even in the traditional system, can have had little control over his members. Even the rights of the head of the patrilineage over land are limited and they can never have had jural responsibility for, or control over, the men of the lineage; these rights and obligations belonged to the

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matrilineal groups. It is apparent therefore that in so far as the Ovat has to exercise power within his clan he can never have found the patrilineage heads as such to be the most useful person through whom to work. It is not surprising, therefore, that nowhere are lineage heads by virtue of their office those most closely linked to the Ovat Rather his adviser were members of associations.

The relation of the Avat with Age-sets and Associations.

We may now consider the relations between the Ovat and the non-kin village organizations. These are of course of two main type, the age-sets and the associations. In the absence, however, of age-grading there was, as we have seen, no close tie between the age-set system and the political organization of the village; rather it is for the individual that age-sets have their main significance. There was, therefore, little occasion for any close formal contact between the Avat and the age-sets. It is only when we consider the office of the Village Avat that we find that there is significant relationship, and this is better discussed when we consider this office in detail: we may therefore examine here only the relationship between the Avat in general and the associations.

It is the relationships of the Avat with Okwa, and to a lesser extent with Ocheika and Eberambit that are the most significant for out study. The Avat's relations with Emberambit stem from the fact that it was everywhere the association responsible for organizing war parties, as opposed to private head-hunting forays. As such, it was everywhere a powerful association which all Avat were expected to join immediately after their installation if they were not already members. This is still the case despite the diminution of Eberambit's power which has been brought about by peaceful conditions.

Ocheika members have particular responsibility for the proper performance of the rites, especially the burial rites of all the Avat. In fact much of the distinction of the office of the Ovat in one sense depended on Ocheika since it was this association which was responsible for fining those who broke any of the taboos binding the general public on these occasions. It was Ocheika that fined those who, for example, made any kind of disturbance (since quietness and an absence of quarrelling were demanded of all) and who also fined anyone who might speak of the Ovat's death or wail before the association made the formal announcement,

The Ovat and Okwa.

It is however, the Ovat's relationship with Okwa which has been most significant. Obviously this is bound to be so since, as we have seen, Okwa is the most powerful of the associations; but the relationship is much closer than might be expected from this fact alone. This closeness of the relationship is expressed by the Mbembe in ritual terms, for it is believed that there is an affinity between the cult "medicines" of Okwa and those of Okpobam such that Okwa members may handle

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Okpobam cult objects (which are fatal to the ordinary) with impunity. This is, of course, a rationalization of the fact that Okwa members, as members of the most powerful of the associations, play a large part in the selection of the Ovat. Someone must install the Ovat and give his his sacred Okpobam emblems and the other insignia of his office, and it is normally Okwa members who have this right; hence, apparently, the belief in the similarity of the "medicines" of the Okpobam and Okwa [1]. When the Ovat dies it is normally the head of Okwa, the Ejukwa, who acts as the ritual caretaker for the office, the Efuninga (lit. the-one-who-sits-in-the-place-of-the-dead). This man makes any necessary sacrifices at the Okpobam shrine during the interregnum and in turn receives any tribute of meat and wine which should have been brought to the Ovat.

The office of the Ovat, is almost invariably attached to a patriclan yet it is not, as might be expected, the elders of the clan who officially choose the Ovat but rather it is the members of Okwa. In the case of a village Ovat all the Okwa members are officially involved; in the case of the Ovat of a subdivision of a village, the Okwa members of that unit have the prior right of selection. In making their choice the members do not seek any kind of supernatural guidance. They do not, for instance, resort to divination, but make their selection on practical grounds and in general go about the task with the directness which characterizes the way in which all associations undertake their duties.

The Okwa members do not even restrict their choice to the elderly, despite the fact that, in general, it is felt that the old should be chosen as priests because they have the best contacts with the dead. Okwa, however, is not limited in its selection by such ritual considerations. Indeed it has in general a very wide choice since, as we have seen, the Ovat does not have to be chosen from any one pre-determined lineage but, in theory, may be selected form any lineage within the clan or clan sector. The Okwa members base their choice quite openly on their estimation of the candidate's wealth and character; in practise usually choosing a man acceptable to the strongest faction with in the group concerned.

Once selected by Okwa, the candidate at his installation rites must be submitted for the formal approval of all the people of his group. At these ceremonies the insignia of office are given to him, usually by the senior Okwa member of the group concerned. Just before this is done, however, the officiant must address all the people who have gathered to watch the ceremony, asking them if they will accept the man as their Ovat. The usual response is for the people to say "No" twice, and to agree only the third time that the question is put to them. This is, of course, a very important symbolic statement of the

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rights of the people in the Ovat's selection, but in practise, once Okwa in private consultation with the influential men of the patriclan has decided on a candidate there is never a last minute refusal of him by the people.

The belief that Okpobam emblems can be handled with impunity by Okwa members, and by them only, provides the charter not merely for their right to select the Avat but also, equally important, for their right to depose him. To understand this fact it is necessary to understand that the office of Ovat is in some ways reminiscent of that of the Anuak chiefs, for like them the Avat can retain their office only while they retain their sacred emblems, in this case the Okpobam emblems [2]. If these should be removed from them, even by stealth and not with open public support, the Ovat is automatically deposed. The Ovat is protected, however, from the risk apparent in this situation by the belief, already mentioned, that the ordinary person would die were he to touch the emblems. In fact all the regalia of the Ovat carry a certain danger to the "man in the street" and even the Ovat's staff of authority, although in one sense not especially sacred, may be safely touched only by women who are debarred by their sex from competing with the Ovat.

Only Okwa, members, and preferably the head of Okwa the "Ejukwa" can with impunity remove the Ovat's Okpobam and, in the indigenous system, this step was taken only if it had considerable public support. This support was essential because the people of the Ovat's own compound could be relied upon to back him, even by fighting, if a small faction should try to take away the emblems. Only if the group which came were large enough to overawe opposition and were led by a senior member of Okwa would the emblems be given up without a struggle. Today people who go in a body to remove the emblems from an Ovat's compound are likely to be charged before the courts with a breach of the peace, and for this reason there have in recent years been a few cases of the "stealing" of emblems by Okwa members but, traditionally, the rate cases of their removal were open affairs.

Although, in the indigenous system, it seems likely that the forcible deposition of the Ovat was not very common, the possibility of this step being taken is, by implication, threatened in the very installation of the Ovat, for at this ceremony the people admonish him in terms which indicate that they consider certain forms of behaviour to be required of the Ovat. Significantly these admonitions stress the political rather than the priestly side of this office. It seems to have been taken for granted that he would fulfil his ritual roles but, as is becoming clear, the Ovat played a very considerable political role also and this was, perhaps, more subject to criticism. The Ovat is warned, in stereotyped phrases, not to be "selfish". That is he must be hospitable, sharing the tribute of game and wine that he receives, as well as other advantages which come to him with his Akpan Ovat (literally "the Ovat's brothers") the members of Okwa and Ocheika. He must also entertain visitors and be open-handed with his people generally. He is

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told, equally significantly, "do not care only for your own brothers", that is he must not favour and share the benefits of his office only with his own closest kinsmen. These statements indicate that the Ovat must be generous and impartial, and also that the office if believed to be a profitable one, an idea expressed, in the popular belief that the word "Ovat" means "he becomes rich".

The admonition of the Ovat implies also, perhaps, that there exists a certain hostility towards him. It suggests that the people suspect that he will not come up to their ideal of what an Ovat should be the attitude of the people thus being similar to that reported of people at the installation ceremonies of certain East African headman. [3] More important, however, it is implied, as we have seen, that if the Ovat should commit these or other similar secular offences he may be removed from his office by those who have agreed to his installation, that is by Okwa and the members of the Ovat's group. The Ovat, therefore, has a dual accountability although his primary relationship is with Okwa.

This is so not merely because Okwa officially selects and if necessary deposes the Ovat, but because the members of the association are also normally responsible for watching over the Ovat's daily conduct. Obviously this responsibility is linked to their ultimate right to depose him, but their interest in his behaviour is made more immediate by the fact that they may fine him if he breaks the rules of his office. This is because just as an association may be given the right to watch over some aspect of village affairs, fining those whom they can detect committing an offence, so Okwa has this vested interest in detecting errors on the part of the Ovat.

Should an Ovat be considered to have committed an offence merely against his own patriclan then it will be only the Okwa members of that patriclan and important men within it who will fine him. On the other hand any Ovat may be held to have committed an offence against the whole village. It is more likely that a Village Ovat will be held to have offended in this way, but other Avat may be considered to have done so-for example an Ovat offends if he takes upon himself a role properly belonging to the Village Ovat, if for instance he gives information to strangers on matters concerning the village as a whole in the absence of the Village Ovat. In such a case the Okwa association of the whole village is entitled to discuss the matter and, if necessary, reprimand or fine the Ovat. Even should the Ovat offended against the rules governing his behaviour as priest of Okpobam, should he for example, fall to the ground, the sanction on his action is not a ritual one but the imposition of a fine by Okwa. In imposing this fine Okwa is seen as acting on behalf of the village as a whole, and although it is Okwa members who consume the fines, normally taken in liquid form, the fines are spoken of as fines paid "to the village".

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Almost certainly it is because of these rights that the members of Okwa, and especially the head of the Okwa association within the Ovat's group, have become, in some respects, intermediaries between the Ovat and the people, and exercise roles comparable with office holders in more centralized states. These roles have for example certain similarities with those of the Ngambela among the Lozi, [4] the Mtar Lords among the Nsaw, [5] or of the members of Ogboni among the Yoruba. [6] It is in fact true to say of all the Mbembe tribes that no one with a complaint to make against an Ovat should make it directly to the Ovat himself; rather the complaint must normally by taken to a member of Okwa, because it is this association, that is privileged to take any necessary action.

Most Avat have, in consequence, an extremely close relationship with Okwa; in fact it might seem from what has been said that the office is dominated by Okwa. It is, therefore, necessary to point out that the relationship is not wholly to the disadvantage of the Ovat. In the first place, obviously, it largely shields him from direct criticism by the ordinary people. This does much to obtain the dignity of the office in a society in which there is, otherwise, very little awe shown of either or age. At the same time, because the members of Okwa do have this institutionalized right to criticize they also share in the public's mind, some responsibility for the way in which the Ovat conducts himself. The Ovat, therefore, does derive certain advantages from his close association with Okwa but it remains true that Okwa is potentially in a very powerful position vis -a -vis the Ovat and a study of the balance of power between them in the different tribes is crucial for an understanding of the general political significance of the Avat.

The Village Ovat

This brings us to a consideration of the role of the Village Ovat. This office holder has a most significant ritual position, but before discussing this we may examine the way in which his position is influenced by the people's sentiments for the village of which he is the representative.

Clearly it is from the strong sense of village unity that the Ovat derives much of his influence, and, as we shall see, the greater the sense of village unity the greater this influence. Just as the patriclan Ovat acts as the clan's representative with outsiders so the Village Ovat represents the whole village. He receives and offers hospitality to all important visitors from other places and to him are sent most messages which concern the village as a whole.

The Village Ovat also symbolizes the village, as a unit, in its own internal affairs. In the first place he acts on its behalf in the one

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instance in which the age-set organization is of general public concern; that is at the passage of the young girls to marriageable status. At this time the Village Ovat plays a crucial role for he has the right to say whether or not the girls are old enough to begin the series of ceremonies and abstentions which mark this transition. In addition his permission has to be gained before the girls are allowed to perform the final dance which must take place before any of them may go to take up residence in their husbands' homes.

There seems never to have been any possibility that the Ovat might capriciously delay granting the girls his permission. Nevertheless he may, if displeased, hold up these events and this right has a certain significance for him. In the first place as a condition of his approval he can demand gifts from the girls; gifts which are readily supplied by those anxious to marry them. Moreover as the girls are anxious to be on good terms with the Village Ovat they usually give him some help in the working of his farms, particularly in weeding. From the Ovat's point of view a useful relationship is often established between him and this age-set, which, even today, sometimes lasts beyond the time of the last pre-marriage rite. Until growing domestic responsibilities cut down the amount of time the members have available the age-set continues to be very ready to give assistance on the Village Ovat's farms; and by the time they give up helping him the next age-set of girls must begin to seek his favour by working for him.

Even apart, however, from the immediate practical advantage which the Ovat gains from his power over these age-sets it is also of indirect advantage to him because his right to hold up the pre-marriage ceremonies is a clear demonstration of his authority. When the time for the final pre-marriage dance draws near the whole village becomes impatient waiting for the celebration; and they must all wait for the Ovat's permission, which is not normally granted on the first occasion it is requested. Usually the girls must go several times with gifts to him, and are told that they have not brought sufficient and must return again. Only when he is finally satisfied can the dance go forward.

Of very much greater significance have been the links between the Village Avat and the associations. Indeed these relationships are bound to be crucial since social control within the village is exercised by and through associations. We have seen that all the Avat have close ties with Okwa and Ocheika and Eberambit, and many belong to other associations also, but the Village Ovat has ties with every association in his village. In the first place his authority is symbolized by the fact that before any new association may perform dances publicly within the village - an essential feature of associations - the leaders must gain the Village Ovat's permission to do so. This gives a significant clue to the extent of the Village Ovat's secular authority. His permission is, here, clearly sought on account of his secular rather than his ritual powers, for the new association gives gifts to the Village Ovat that he may use his political authority on its behalf. Were the association to dance without his permission it would be

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committing no offence but there would be nothing to prevent non-members from breaking in and dancing also. The members of the new association could take no steps to keep out non-members because if they were to do so and a fight were to break out the members would be held responsible for the violence. Yet if one and all were permitted to join in the new association's ceremonies the whole point of its existence would have disappeared. Therefore the gifts made to the Village Ovat are made to ensure that he will exert his authority over the members of the village to prevent them from joining in the dances of associations of which they are not members. Once he has given his permission for the new association to perform, any outsider who beaks into the dance is held responsible for the resulting disturbance; and the association which would fine him is clearly thought of as acting on behalf of the Village Ovat.

Because the Village Ovat must formally approve the introduction of all new associations he is thought of, in some senses, as a member of all the associations in his village; of new ones because he is in a sense their patron; of established ones because he is though to inherit a connection with them from his predecessors in office. His relationship with them is not, however, simple. In some cases his "membership" is a privilege of his office which, at no cost to himself, gives him the right to join with members of an association at their meetings if he so wishes; in other cases, however, the Village Ovat is ex-officio under an obligation to particular associations. Some associations have become such strong "pressure groups" within the village that a prospective Village Ovat must informally gain their support before he is selected for his office. In certain cases this process has become institutionalized to the extent that a new Ovat not previously a member of the associations concerned must, in theory, pay their entry fees at the time of his installation. If for any reason he fails to do so throughout his period of office then, at his death, these unpaid fees constitute a debt to the association which must be paid by his matrilineal heirs.

Nevertheless whether the Ovat is though of as being a member of a given association because of the strength of his position or because of the strength of the association, the fact that he is a member of all is of considerable potential importance. There was, in the indigenous system, no one village court before which all offenses were tried; rather there was very considerable delegation of authority from the centre. The associations were responsible for punishing offences and they were spoken of as acting on behalf of the Avat and Okwa, but in many respects they seem, in practice, to have acted semi-independently. The Village Ovat, however, being a member of all associations, has the right to attend all meeting and to share in any fine exacted by the associations. The significance of this rule varied very much between the tribes, depending on the variety and degree of authority of the associations; but the existence of the rule is important in all the tribes since it indicates the formal political position of the Village Ovat.

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The Village Ovat's relationship with Okwa is particularly crucial The Okwa association is closely associated with all Avat, but it links with the Village Ovat are even more significant. The Village Ovat is normally chosen by the Okwa association of the whole village and it is this that makes it possible, at the secular level, for him to represent the village as a whole. As we have seen, the patrilineal groups within a village have no charter of ultimate common descent and there must, therefore, be certain inherent difficulties in having one Ovat, chosen from one particular patriclan, as a the head of the village. It is possible, however, for the people to think of the Ovat as the representative of the whole village not merely because all the people of the village attend his installation and have the formal right to accept or reject him, because he has in fact been selected by the village-wide Okwa association. The Okwa members are not thought of primarily as the representatives of their patriclans; there is no fixed number from each patriclan who belong to it, and Okwa is thought of in most contexts as an institution independent of the clan organizations. Nevertheless, each patriclan does have, and is conscious of having, members who belong to Okwa and, therefore, when Okwa selects the Village Ovat each patriclan feels that it has had a share in this selection. It is to this fact that the Ovat must, in considerable measure, owe his title of "Ovat kw 'Owon", "Ovat of the village".

Avat of Wider Groups

A study of the position of those who are Avat of tribes or sub-tribes is crucial for the understanding of the political organization of the Mbembe. Nevertheless an examination of these office holders must be left until we consider each tribe independently for they differ from each other so much that it is impossible to generalize about them. The position of tribal and sub-tribal Avat is intelligible only against the background of the structure of these groups.

[1] There are certain parallels between the relationship of the Ovat and Okwa and that between the Temne chief and the Ragbenle association: see Dorjahn 1959.

[2] See Evans-Pritchard, 1940.

[3] See Mitchell 1951 p.340.

[4] Gluckman, 1951 p.p.45-46.

[5] Kaberry, 1959 p.370.

[6] P. Morton-Williams personal communication.

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