The Cross and the Gods

[A Look at Adamawa and Taraba States, Nigeria]


Patience Ahmed

CAPRO Research Office

Mambila pp. 287-292

The Mambila are a tribe of about 99,000 people living on the Mambila plateau in Sardauna Local Government Area and in Cameroon. They are believed to have come from north-eastern Africa. Besides their own language, Mambila people speak Fulfulde as a trade language, and many understand English.

Culture Highlights

The Kaba priest is in charge of twins, and he consults the gods on their behalf. Twins are treated well so that they will not be angry, and equally so they will not be jealous.

Boys of 16 years and above are circumcised in a group during the dry season. It is done by clans or families with dances by the boys. After circumcision, boys are introduced to the gods and initiated into the cult during one of the days of the cults festival in April or May. The initiation is done in a special pool, and sometimes boys drown.

The Mambila also practise both marriage by payment of brideprice and exchange marriage. Two families or clans exchange their daughters as wives for their sons. Only the wife and sons of an exchange marriage have the right to inherit from their husband and father. Likewise, only one of the chiefs sons by an exchange marriage can inherit the throne. If a chief has no such sons, the son of his sister who did not marry by exchange, takes the office. However, today this is not strictly adhered to.

Polygamy is common. If a woman leaves without having given a child to her husband, she has to pay back all the first husband spent on her before marrying another man.

The dodo, called Nduksowoyi, is in charge of burial. The grave is dug outside with a tunnel to the house. The dodo announces whether the death was caused by witchcraft, poisoning or by natural causes. If the person was old, songs are sung to praise or rebuke him and his family. Sometimes the relatives destroy his belongings so that he will be able to use them in the next life.

Ten days after the burial is a five day celebration of the last mourning (sadaka). The biography of the dead person if given briefly and all his debts settled. Then the dodo declares the protection of the gods over the surviving children and a curse on anyone who tries to harm them. The widow and children may be assigned a relative as guardian.

Religion and Leadership

The people are governed by the priests whose laws come from the gods. They must not abandon the native religion. it is believed that chief will die young unless he has supernatural powers. The elders choose the chief from among the men of the royal family. He works together with the traditional priest.

Nam is the cult of the spirits of the ancestors. When someone dies, they believe his spirit moves around the compound, so sacrifices are offered to the ghost so that it will not trouble the family.

Makah is a possession cult. When the Makah spirit possesses someone, the person behaves abnormally and can foretell the future. They believe the Makah spirit purifies the land from witchcraft.

The images are called Soh. There are many of them with various names but similar functions. Some are carved in human form, but most are in the form of animals, like the heads of birds or buffalo. Njuwan and Nyar are prominent. The masquerade of the Soh cult can appear in various forms also. There is a priest called Ngan Sohoyi, who takes care of the cult.

Mashinge is an idol kept on a rock somewhere away from the village because it is very dangerous. Anybody who offends it can become mad. Others are Kwur, whose masquerade comes out during harvest, and Kang, whose masquerade goes about begging for sauce ingredients from women. It is believed to have a head filled with maggots. Sangar is another, which disciplines stubborn people.

There are others, such as Tam, Mafeye, Nbar, Kwari, Kwuri and Bem that have similar functions. There are also Nden, Nyabak and Nomkahyan which discipline people who misbehave. Only these three may be seen by people who have not been initiated to them.

The masquerades of these gods appear each year for their festivals. An individual village may have up to four Soh. These gods are brought out once a year, in May or June. They believe the gods make the soil fertile, provide proper rainfall, settle quarrels in homes and punish people who break the rules of society. They protect families, clans and villages from sickness or trouble. Chickens, goats and wine are offered to appease these gods.

Nba Jabi festival is celebrated in August/September. It is the time that all firstfruits of vegetables are dedicated to the gods. Nba Namine or Tosen is celebrated in February/March. it is in order to dedicate the firstfruits of guinea corn and other crops harvested in dry season before anyone is allowed to eat any of them. Nba Kati is the final mourning festival to summon together all the spirits of those who have died during the year. At this time also the newly married are blessed. It is celebrated in November/December and has different names from one area to another. It is also a time when the gods are consulted and for settling quarrels.

Every tenth day is a holy day. Some trees, shrubs and animals are sacred. So also are some forests and no stranger or unauthorized people such as women and children are allowed to go there. Most people like the part of traditional religion used to curse and discover thieves. But they dislike the fact that some people get initiated into cults that allow them to practise harmful witchcraft. Such initiates are greatly feared.

The traditional religion is losing influence due to modernization and the coming of other religions. Most of the secrets are not known even to women and children. There is some Western education among them, but in rural areas few attend school. Parents dont like to keep their girls in school past puberty since they often lose heir virginity before marriage if not married young.

They are not hostile to strangers, but suspicious or guarded until they understand their reasons for being among them. Tribal feelings and loyalties are strong, and violence is possible if they are challenged. They are farmers and rear livestock.

The common diseases among them are fever, cough, scabies and other skin infections. They usually consult native doctors but recently the educated ones have begun using Western medical treatment.

Christian Witness

The gospel has been among the Mambila since 1938. The missionaries were from the North American Baptist Convention from Cameroon. The first team included Dr. Geypower {DZ: Paul Gebauer}, Dr. Dunga {DZ: George Dunger} and Mamachu (an African evangelist). They surveyed and evangelised the area and did medical work. They first settled at what is now Warwar town. Mr Joseph Gidan, John Donwan and Mr. Tafi were the first converts, and they went through many difficulties.

Today there is a New Testament in the Mambila language and some pamphlets and tracts. But they have not been using them. The translated material is very effective in evangelism but the translation group is presently not functioning well. There are about 80 churches scattered over the area belonging to the Mambila Baptist Convention, but growth seems to have stagnated.

Apart from the Mambila Baptist Convention, the Redeemed Peoples Mission and the Deeper Life Bible Church are found in a few towns with few of the members Mambila. The Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Luthrean Church of Christ in Nigeria, Nigerian Baptist Convention and the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria have all tried to do work in the area but not many Mambila have responded because they do not like sudden change. They consider the Mambila Baptist Convention their tribal church. The MBC uses Mambila music set to Christian words which is popular. Mambila church attendance is bout 10,500, plus attenders of other tribes.

The influence of Islam is greatest on the eastern part of the plateau. A lot of Mambila live there, but they have never responded much to the gospel. Most are still following traditional religion, but are also turning to Islam. Only a few are becoming Christians. Most of the members of the churches in that area are government workers and traders not indigenous to the area.