P. Dekar:

Review of ZEITLYN, David, Sua in SomiŽ: aspects of Mambila traditional religion

Published in International Journal of African Historical Studies 30(1): 161-162 (1997). Included here with kind permission of the Publisher

SUA IN SOMIE. ASPECTS OF MAMBILA TRADITIONAL RELIGION. By David Zeitlyn. Collectanea Instituti Athropos 41. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Academia Verlag, 1994. 260 pp. DM78.

This book introduces the ethnography, cosmology, and history of the Mambila, who straddle the international Cameroon-Nigeria boundary. Whilst most of the Mambila live on the Mambila Plateau in Nigeria, this work draws on fieldwork in somiŽ village, a canton of nearly two thousand people living in the Tikar Plain, Cameroon. David Zeitlyn of the University of Oxford claims the Mambila have articulated no detailed religious system. Therefore, this is the first systematic presentation of Mambila religious concepts.

While divination and witchcraft practices are among the most important institutional modes of traditional Mambila religion, this book focuses on sua masquerades and oath-taking rites. While sua is not a unitary concept, Zeitlyn presents it as a blanket word covering a range of related rites. Both men and women take sua oaths to affect personal and village purification. Male and female sua masquerades and the associated dances serve functions such as to guarantee fertility and to resolve conflict. Together, the rites serve to protect villages from the malevolence of both insiders and outsiders, foster social solidarity, and ensure village continuity.

Translated transcripts of the different sua ceremonies form the empirical core of the book. In a more general discussion at the conclusion of the ethnographic data, Zeitlyn examines problems inherent in the analysis of non-literate societies lacking precise, structured religious concept. The connection between political power and religion has been central to anthropology since Durkheim. In this, Zeitlyn works within a coherent intellectual tradition. By extending his analysis to the relationship between religious and symbolic power, Zeitlyn begins to explore themes such as fundamental ways in which male domination is achieved and perpetuated, and the clash between traditional authority and state authority.

A revision of a University of Cambridge doctoral thesis, this ethnographic study is of value not only for the intrinsic interest of Mambila religion, but also for its discussion of problems inherent in the analysis of non-literate societies lacking a reflective tradition. The study raises questions of the relation between actors' and observers' models, and of whether and in what sense a model must be articulated by the actors to be real. For those familiar with Durkheimian categories, this study confronts the challenge of broadening the structural analysis of a people by incorporating the symbolic aspects of their rituals into the analysis. Finally, this book offers a case study in the persistence of religion. Despite the adherence of Mambila to Christianity or Islam, traditional Mambila practices continue to shape the way Mambila experience reality. Recently, the Muslim chief of SomiŽ and the Christian chief of Atta re-scheduled sua rites to avoid their coincidence with Ramadan and to encourage full participation in rites which bear no evidence of Muslim or Christian influence.

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