Review of ZEITLYN, David, Sua in Somié: aspects of Mambila traditional religion Published in JRAI Vol 2 No. 2 pp. 398-9 June 1996
Included here with kind permission of the R.A.I.
This book considers the religious life of Somié, a Mambila village on the Tikar plain in Cameroon. Its strength lies in its descriptions and translations of Mambila rituals and other religious practices.
Zeitlyn's task is to study 'theology in a society without theologians'. The Mambila, he says, lack a theological tradition. Their intellectual activity is directed to resolving immediate problems. In consequence, conversations with informants proved to be 'fruitless attempts to elicit explanation of the concepts continually being referred to'.
By far the best part of this book consists of detailed descriptions of many religious rituals and practices, concentrating finally on the central concept of 'Sua'. The term Sua refers primarily to masquerades and oath-taking, both of which Zeitlyn describes in detail. Both male and female masquerades are described. There are also annotated and transcribed texts of several Sua oaths: one taken at the palace to settle a dispute; one in a domestic house to protect individuals and their families; and one used to reconcile a husband and his wife's lover. These accounts are in many ways excellent, but there is a surprising lack of rituals' symbolism.
One apparently small matter gave me pause. This was the failure to discuss the significance of plants. The problem here is that the different rituals make very considerable use of plants. More generally, since V.W. Turner's celebrated work on the Ndembu, it has become well known that the religious and other ideas of many Africans are inseparable from their botanical knowledge.
Zeitlyn tells for example, of illnesses which come from God but which have 'natural' causes. These are cured by drinking the water squeezed from leaves, or by using powders which are imbibed or rubbed into incisions in the skin. Yet we are given no idea about what might be thought to be a 'natural cause' for illness. Do the inhabitants of Somié have a germ or a humoral theory of disease, or do they simply have no idea about the natural causes of disease? And if so, on what basis do they construct their herbal remedies? Guesswork? One would be surprised if these practices had no theoretical underpinning, and also if this botanical knowledge were not the basis for the use of plants in ritual.
The claim that religion (or any other facet of life) is 'nebulous' or uninformed by abstract structure carries obvious dangers. There is a risk of demanding too much theoretical skill from informants. Most of us (anthropologists included) often make use of concepts without necessarily being able to talk about them. Also, an idea which an ethnographer believes to need theoretical elaboration may not be at all problematical for the ethnographer's informants. Much of Turner's work, for example, took place in the absence of what he called 'native exegesis'. The task of ethnographer is often to discover the patterns which infuse the informants' descriptions and actions. He should not be surprised if the informants are not anthropologists themselves.
ANTHONY D. BUCKLEY Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
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