Sua in Somié: aspects of Mambila traditional religion

N. Lovell:

Review of ZEITLYN, David, Sua in Somié: aspects of Mambila traditional religion Published in Journal of Religion in Africa XXVIII(1): 115-7 (1997).

ZEITLYN, David, Sua in Somié: Aspects of Mambila Traditional Religion, Sankt Augustin, Academia Verlag, 1994, 260 pp., 3 88345 375 7

Zeitlyn takes us through a detailed exploration of most aspects of Mambila descent, social and political organisation, providing rich and well documented ethnography relating to changes in kinship and politics in recent historical contexts. He documents, for instance, the occurence of non-lineal inheritance, in the process providing a useful critique of classical descent theories as these have been applied to West African situations. Similarly, he explores changes in political organisation which have resulted in the demise of acephalous structures and the adoption of centralised chieftainships in response to colonial processes.

Throughout, he also emphasises the religious aspects of these institutions, while keeping his focus firmly fixed on the role played by oaths and masquerades in legitimising and perpetuating these structures. Zeitlyn explicitly underscores the fact that no systematic ethnography of the Mambila in Somie has previously been undertaken, and the present endeavour therefore presents valuable and important original material.

Traditional religion is defined by Zeitlyn as encompassing mainly indigenous, localised forms of religious practice. He admits to the more or less predominant absence of a coherent discourse as a mode of localised explanation to religious behaviour and, although his approach might appear debatable in light of the obvious contact between indigenous forms of religion and Christianity and Islam, as punctuated by the statement that 'traditional religion and world religions are to a great extent separate and insulated from each other notwithstanding that most people actively subscribe to more than one religion' (p. 15), this is entirely consistent with his attempt at describing practices which, as he states, have not been subjected to overtly syncretic influences. In this light, Mambila 'traditional' religion is subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

Sua, as manifested in oaths and masquerades, is said to constitute a dominant aspect of Mambila religion. Sua simultaneously expresses the unity and multiplicity of Mambila cosmology and religious ideas: Sua unifies fragmented world views, but also reflects the diversity of the consubstantial. Zeitlyn's primary concern is to delineate the boundaries of what constitutes religion, in the absence of a cohesive religious view, literary tradition, and explicit exegesis. As such, the problem is not new. What characterises Zeitlyn's position, however, is his stance that this be done primarily through linguistic analysis: in a context such as that of the Mambila where theologies are lacking, linguistic fields can offer a structure stable enough to provide religious understanding, without making the concept of religion itself overtly explicit.

Sua, as represented for instance by oaths, is predominantly used to settle disputes between members of the Mambila community in Somie, and as an anti-witchcraft device. Oath-taking thereby allows Mambila men, primarily, to protect themselves from harmful actions undertaken by others or from attacks by witchcraft. Sua as oaths thus simultaneously acts as a means for assessing social situations and the position of actors in relation to one another. The 'illocutionary force' (p. 98) of oaths is thereby examined, emphasising the semantic field in which oaths are sworn, enacted and displayed, either privately or in public. As such, oaths are described as lying outside of ordinary speech, since ordinary rules of speech (shared space, taking turns to speak, the use of coded language) do not apply during the oath-taking performances. Speech in sua is therefore freed of some of the constraints of ordinary conversation, being both more explicit and, simultaneously, conditional. Sua, when performed as masquerade, serves to enhance male fertility and solidarity in relation to women. Sua as a unitary concept, as general religious form, and sua in the specific manifestation of oath-taking and masquerade, is thus examined in light of the political power it confers on men and, as an ultimate extension, on the chief in social organisation.

The material presented by Zeitlyn is rich in ethnographic detail, and will enhance the relatively scarce bibliographic sources relating to this region of Africa. However, the somewhat arbitrary fashion in which it is presented is bound, at times, to confuse the reader. For instance, the term sua introduced in the title, and appears for the first time in the text on p. 15, where it is conjoined with 'divination'. Later on that same page, its meaning appears to have shifted to that of 'masquerade', only to be associated with 'oaths' on page 18. Only much later, when dealing with sua in full detail and in separate chapters, does it become clear that this term is indeed linked to both the institutions of oath-taking and masquerades, and that the Mambila make no direct ontological distinction between the two. A more systematic presentation would certainly have been helpful. The lack of focus and interest in non-verbal communication and symbolism leaves some of the ethnographic material which Zeitlyn presents somewhat under-analysed. However, his approach to linguistic and semantic fields yields innovative results, and will prove a valuable addition to this area of enquiry.

University of Kent N. Lovell

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