The question of kinship and how it impacts any given society has been given attention by sociologists, anthropologists and literary creators either overtly or indirectly. In this
article, I study the African kinship structure, from the perspective the Oroko (Balue) people of Cameroon, and how it impacts the performance or practice of rituals and taboos. I seek to create a connection between the family and the concepts of moral and or religious responsibility in African societies. In the analysis, I look at certain beliefs and ideologies which relate an individual to his or her family and which compel them to behave in a way that helps to maintain order in society. I also attempt a definition of the family within the constraints of the African society and bring forward the argument that Africa’s communal leanings have prompted for a certain level of interconnectedness between blood, religion and ethics in that all three elements intricately affect each other. The traditional African society has been looked at from an existentialist perspective with the strict emphasise that the African idea of being is inclusive and dependent on the individual’s connection and relation to his fellow man as well as the supernatural. In this article, I propose that the Oroko people have a defined kinship pattern which affects the people’s moral and religious behaviour. Divided into three main parts, the article discusses certain conventions of the family in Oroko land, related taboos and the rituals performed in the case where these taboos are broken.
Key words: kinship, taboo, ritual, existentialism, Oroko people, Balue people
There is…no obvious order in the universe, immediately and uniformly visible to all men. Reality, whatever it may, be sets a few limits on how it will be interpreted… Rules of conduct, ideas of goodness and beauty, ways of communicating and solving problems, do not spring full-blown from the human nervous system. Materials for constructing descriptions, explanations, rules and values come readily to hand biological, psychological, social, cultural and environmental sources. (B. Allan Ogot, 1971)
The observation above comes with the need for an African form of philosophy which to the opinion of the author must “be invented” since knowledge is not innate. This observation though, has a strong bearing on the external factors that account for man’s behaviour in society and for his perception of things as either good or not good. In the circle of kinship and all the religious aspects that follow behind it, man, while trying to give an explanation to certain phenomena or in seeking to check the excesses of his own nature, has “invented”, so to speak, certain notions that keep his actions and beliefs in balance. These notions come in the form of myths, taboos and rituals which help regulate his perception of the world around him and his actions towards himself and the external environment. It is important to note that these are universal intricacies in human thinking but this paper focuses on the African pattern of these anthropological niceties with particular emphasis on the Oroko people.
One would love to ask the questions; what about these human particulars? Why these checks and balances on the human being who, according to philosophers like Sartre and Roseau, should be free to his will? The truth of the matter seems to be that the African understands that man should be free and is free but his existence as man is not exclusively in his charge; for, in order for him to be fully human in society, the African person finds that he is intricately related to other life forms and lifeless forms outside him to the point where his life and that of other entities in the world around him affect each other. It is this relationship with the whole that gives the African his own form of existence as opposed to Western individualistic notions of existence.
Dwayne A. Tunstall (2008) relates African existentialism to phenomenology and though she believes that it is a kind of philosophy which has been in place since pre-colonial times, African existential phenomenology, as she likes to put it, has had Eurocentric notions of racism instilled in it since colonialism and slavery began. Her definition for this kind of philosophy insists on the lived experiences of people of the black race. The worrying aspect of this definition, which is somehow stemming from Satrean and Cartesian notions of existentialism (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2004), hinges on the fact that man is seen as an isolated being whose existence is best defined by the “I am”. Alembong (2010: 40-48) however, suggests that man, as opposed to Western notions, defines his existence in Africa with respect to the existence of others; both the living and the dead. It is this inclusive tendency that prompts for African societies to adhere to certain social restrictions in the form of taboos.
The family can be defined as a social unit comprising of people who are related to each other either by blood or common social aspirations and values. People become a family by blood through the act of marriage with such a family constituting a father, mother(s), and children and in Africa, the relatives of the man and his wife or wives. The family therefore simply put from an African perspective refers to people of the same bloodline living in a household or people of the same ancestry. Members of any given family are collectively known as kindred (stemming from the old English word, kin, meaning relative and the native English suffix –red, signifying a condition). Among most Oroko clans and especially among the Balue, kinship is defined from one’s maternal relatives with the paternal relatives seen as either very extended family members or simply people outside one’s family line. Kinship is the fact of being in kindred or family. Hence the kinship pattern or structure of any given people will be the orientation the people give to what or who is considered a member of one’s kindred. The kinship pattern of the Oroko (Balue) people is therefore matrilineal.
According to Turner (1977) quoted in Alembong (2010), ritual is defined as a “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers”. This definition gives ritual a special originality that refutes the place of science and alludes directly to dogma through its appeal to metaphysical existence. Ritual practices are common among the Oroko people of Cameroon and they go further to explain their form of existentialism which goes beyond the physical “being” that Heidegger so much believed in. For according to Heidegger, existence is simply being and being aware of your being (Schoolman, 1980). A taboo on its part can be defined as a restriction placed on the performance of certain practices or the utterance of certain words at certain moments either because of religious or social reasons. A taboo is like an injunction placed on the expression of certain freedoms to maintain a certain degree of order in a given sphere. There are various taboos among the Oroko people ranging from taboos of social relations to those that have to do with man and the absolute.
Kinship Structure of the Oroko People, Taboos and Rituals
The Oroko exist in ten tribes; Balondo, Batanga, Balondo ba Diko, Bima, Balue, Mbonge, Bakundu, Bakoko, Ngolo, Ekombe, occupying parts of the Ndian and Meme Divisions of Cameroon. Most of the people, as stated above, operate a matrilineal kinship structure which is supported by several cultural myths and legends. Among these matrilineal Oroko societies, the child belongs to the mother and not to the father. The people believe first in the notion that it is the mother who can tell the truth about a child’s real father and so, they have such proverbs as eyoko esa wɛrɛkɛ which, roughly translated, will be “the penis owns nothing”. This explanation is however not the basis for which the ethnic group is matrilineal. One of the people’s creation myths holds that the whole world came from one woman who had sexual intercourse with a host of related men (brothers). Since none of the brothers could claim to have singly sired the resultant progeny, it only became logical that the mother alone could call them “mine”. Another myth holds that a man who could not pay his debts and was doomed to face death was not saved by his children but by those of his sister because his wife claimed that the children were “hers”. These myths and many more explain why children are not said to belong to their father’s family but to that of their mother. For example, if a child’s father, mine for instance, comes from the Bakutari clan (family) and his mother from the Bareka clan (family), the child is referred to as Moreka (from/of (Ba)reka) and not Mokutari (from/of (Ba)kutari). However, the same person’s (my) maternal uncle’s children are not referred to as Bareka (plural of Moreka) nor will his(my) children be referred to as such. They also will take their respective mother’s families as theirs. The implications for this pattern of kinship are many.
To begin with the issue of birth, it is forbidden for any member of a given family (clan) to have sexual relationships with another of the same family. Clans/families among the Oroko are not usually clustered in the same village or tribe. Suffice me to categorise the clan to be people of the same direct bloodline living as an extended progeny of a common ancestor and a tribe to mean a collection of clans with a common history and ancestor. In my understanding, clans make up villages as well as villages can make up clans depending on the population of the clans. These in turn make up tribes which also make up ethnic groups such as the Oroko ethnic group. Within the Oroko ethnic group, there are over thirty clans with the most prominent of them being the Bareka, Bakutari, Dibandakori, Bonyari, Bombori, Bongoe, Bowie/Bobie, Bondonge to name a few. These families exist in most of the tribes mentioned above, spanning across today’s divisional and sub-divisional lines in Meme and Ndian. This means that if a boy from Bafaka Balue who belongs to the Bareka family goes to another village in the Ndian or Meme division, say, Bole Bakundu, to seek a girl’s hand in marriage, it is necessary for him to ask of the girl’s clan/family. If incidentally the girl is another Moreka, the marriage does not hold. In the case where the youths commit themselves to sexual activity out of ignorance, they are subjected to certain cleansing rituals to avert what is called sɛmo (pronounced /sɜ:mɔ/), which is an “illness” that affects and may eventually kill any child born of such a relationship if not tackled urgently.
Closely related to the above is the taboo which forbids a relative from seeing the newly born child of another relative with whose spouse he/she had had a sexual relationship in the past. If, for example, two people met and had a sexual relationship which involved intercourse and eventually breakup so that one of the former lovers gets married to a clansman or woman of his or her former informal lover or partner, it is forbidden for that one to go and visit his/her relative who puts to birth within a certain number of months (usually it is three months, according to some Balue communities). This ritual – that of observing this period of “absence” – is meant to avert the same calamity of sɛmo from taking hold of the newly born child. The non-visiting relative if he/she must visit must wait for the three months after which he/she prepares a meal for the children of the compound and surrounding compounds to eat. The child is then given to him/her to carry and certain incantations said to plead with the child to stay.
Another kinship factor which prompts taboos and ritual performances is in death. It is generally a very strong taboo in most cultures around the world for a kinsman to kill another of his clan, tribe or ethnic group. Among the Oroko, this is called ebanja or ebanya. Should any man or woman kill his/her own kinsperson whether knowingly or unknowingly, the rituals to be performed are transported from the level of the person’s immediate family or clan to his external relations, these now being the village or tribe. Ebanja/ebanya rituals usually entail the shedding of blood to compensate for the blood that was initially shed by a kinsman. Just like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in which Okonkwo sheds the blood of several kinspersons including Ikemefuna, his son by consequence, and he receives the reprimanding of the gods and the tribe, the Oroko man who kills a fellow kinsperson is usually banished from the village for some time. The usual procedure is for him to be exiled to the relatives of his mother in another village to spend his term of exile after which he may come back for final cleansing. The victims of ebanja are also given a burial with special rituals. The most common is that they are never buried in the village or near the homesteads. This is yet another taboo which aims at avoiding the same mishap to continue among members of that family or community. They must be buried in the forest under a young buma tree – Ceiba pentandra or fromager tree (a large, tropical silk cotton-bearing tree), according to some customs among the southern Balue. Where this is impossible, several alternative rituals are performed, accompanied by prayers to the ancestors for the reversion of any punishment that may come with the failure of fulfilling the original ritual.
The point above has several accompanying issues that come up. If a family has had the record of having committed ebanja, the repercussion of the crime does not end with the actual perpetrator of the crime. It is believed that ebanja, which is also the name of what befalls the committer of the act, will affect all members of the wrongdoer’s immediate family in the future. They may either become very wretched and die poor or go mad with time. To avert this, the members of that family are subjected to certain rituals which involve the cooking of food for the whole community. Each person makes a prayer of penance to the ancestors on the family’s behalf. In most cases, there is a community libation to be done to appease the deities in charge of such circumstances and the ancestors so as not to bring doom to the land. An extended effect of ebanja is that it affects the future of young people in the family of the culprit who may hardly get married because it is believed that ebanja, once committed, starts running through the bloodline of the family members of the culprit. To convince the world that this no longer holds, the young men and women of that family are taken for special rituals that would sever the reins of abomination from their blood and thus make them fit for marriage.
Also related to death and marriage are the taboos that concern widowhood and the very first deaths of children, not necessarily of firstborns. Among the Oroko (Balue), the death of a spouse when the couple is still young is an abomination. It is an ill omen for the living spouse which may haunt his/her entire life with respect to subsequent decisions to get married. When a man or woman dies, leaving a spouse who can still get married in the future, the bokpisi ritual is conducted to help the living spouse find another partner whenever it is necessary for him or her. Bokpisi is the word for widowhood or the fact of having lost a partner to death. It also refers to the ill luck that may befall the living spouse by him/her not getting another spouse to marry or by losing all subsequent spouses to death. The ritual entails the removal of hair on the bereaved spouse’s head and rubbing it with specially spiced camwood and herbs. Sometime after the funeral of the deceased spouse, the living spouse cooks what is called bokpisi, a meal for widows/widowers and older women/men to eat. It is until an individual does this ritual that he/she can get into another arrangement of marriage. It is important to note that this ritual, if not conducted, puts not only the widowed person in the danger of losing subsequent partners, it also has the potency of subverting marital probabilities for the kinsfolks of the widowed person such as his/her children, nephews and nieces as well as the maternal nephews and nieces. Hence the ritual is hence done collectively for the immediate victim and his/her unmarried kindred, born and unborn.
Among the Oroko (Balue), for a woman or man to lose a child for the first time when the parent(s) are still capable of having more children is considered a very serious misfortune. The need to obviate a recurrence of the tragedy is usually very urgent. This explains why the funeral rituals associated with such deaths are very special. A child who dies in this way is referred to as konja. Konja deaths normally take fewer days to be mourned and do not include festivities during the official days of mourning. When a child dies in this manner, he/she is buried with only a cloth tied around their waists. They are buried without coffins and their graves are usually attached to the wall of their father’s house. Where the mother is not married to their father (even if the child lived or grew up with his/her father), the corpse is taken to his/her mother’s people for burial in the same manner. Because of the emergency that comes with the treatment of konja deaths, the deceased is not allowed to break the next day before they bury the corpse. Hence corpses of this nature do not require the mortuary.
When the above happens, the parent(s) undergo the konja ritual which is very similar to the bokpisi ritual in its form, but for the fact that here, the rite is of avoiding future deaths of the living and yet to be born children of the parents of the deceased. In this case, the aftermath of not fulfilling the ritual does not cross to the immediate or extended kinsmen of the deceased’s parents. It ends with his/her own living immediate siblings and those yet unborn. In a polygamous home however, the repercussion does not affect the other woman’s children because they belong to another family. Husbands partake in the konja ritual when they are still married to the woman whose child dies or when they have other children with her. To protect his living and yet to be born children with the bereaved woman, the man is compelled to take the konja ritual.
There are several rituals relating to taboos that have to do with one’s kinsman/woman involving in certain traditional cults of the Oroko (Balue) land. However, even at this point, one’s own children, in the case of the man, may not be held responsible for not fulfilling the rites that come with the death of such a man. Rather, his sister’s children are expected to take on the responsibility of “burying their father”. If a mother dies, it is the responsibility of the biological children to “burry their mother”. This explains why a son may not inherit his father’s position in the grand cults (Ekpe, Dioh, Diangi, Ibeku etc) at the expense of his paternal cousins born by his paternal aunt, but a daughter may inherit her mother’s position in female cults (Besambe, Mbara, Maloba etc) not necessarily at the expense of her maternal cousins.
There therefore is a strong attachment to the woman as far as the Oroko people are concerned. If for example my father was a member of the Malle, Nganya, Dioh, Nyangbε, Oboni or Ku cults and my mother a member of Maloba, Mbara or Besambe, when they die, there is expected to be certain rituals and sacrifices to be made in order to complete their funerals. However, in the case of my father, it is my paternal cousins (born of my father’s sisters of the same mother) and/or relatives of my father’s mother who will take care of his funeral rites. I can only come to assist. When my mother dies on the other hand, it is I, my maternal cousins, uncles and the relatives of my mother’s mother to take care of the funeral rites. It is customary to hear among the Oroko that a child buries his/her mother and not his father. This is very evident even in some songs that the people sing with respect to funerals; the subject is mostly about the mother. There are of course serious aftermaths if these rituals are not conducted. Depending on the cult, members of the deceased’s maternal family, excluding the biological children in the case of the man, can be struck by a sudden wave of mysterious deaths until such rites are completed. In the case of the woman, the children are never safe.
In conclusion, one can say from the above that the Oroko people of Cameroon have their own worldview which is based on the fact that man cannot exist all on his own. His existence is defined by the communality he shares with members of his society, which explains why he tries to explain everything social in terms of family relations. We find that in this view of the world, the Oroko (Balue) people have created certain conditions that animate their existence as a social group. These conditions are such that aim at strengthening family bonds; they are created to check certain human excesses and to find a leeway to the afterlife. Like Alembong (2011: 72) posits, the Oroko people, like all other peoples of Africa, believe in certain metaphysical phenomena that justify the conduct of a number of rites for the reversion of mishaps that may result from taboos that the people generally recognize. These rituals as we have seen are either done at a personal level, as in the case of incest (sɛmo) or at a communal level, as in the case of murder (ebanja).
** Images courtesy of Ebenezer Winnyawoko Motale
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