Fetichism in West Africa by Robert Hamill Nassau


The family is the unit in native sociology. There is the narrow circle of relationship expressed by the word "ijawe," plural "majawe" (a derivative of the verb "jaka" = to beget), which includes those of the immediate family, both on the father's as well as on the mother's side (_i. e._, blood-relatives). The wider circle expressed by the word "ikaka" (pl.
"makaka") includes those who are blood-relatives, together with those united to them by marriage.

In giving illustrative native words I shall use the Benga dialect as typical. All the tribes have words indicating the relationships of father, mother, brother, sister. A nephew, while calling his own father "paia," calls an uncle who is older than himself "paia-utodu"; one younger than himself he calls "paia-nděmbě." His own mother he calls "ina," and his aunts "ina-utodu" and "ina-nděmbě," respectively, for one who is older or younger than himself.

A cousin is called "mwana-paia-utodu," or "-nděmbě," as the case may be, according to age. These same designations are used for both the father's and the mother's side. A cousin's consanguinity is considered almost the same as that of brother or sister. They cannot marry. Indeed, all lines of consanguinity are carried farther, in prohibition of marriage, than in civilized countries.

1. _Family Responsibility._ Each family is held by the community responsible for the misdeeds of its members. However unworthy a man may be, his "people" are to stand by him, defend him, and even claim as right his acts, however unjust. He may demand their help, however guilty he may be. Even if his offence be so great that his own people have to acknowledge his guilt, they cannot abjure their responsibility. Even if he be worthy of death, and a ransom is called for, they must pay it: not only his rich relatives, but all who are at all able must help.

There is a narrower family relationship, that of the household, or "diyâ" (the hearth, or fireplace; derivative of the verb "diyaka" = to live).
There are a great many of these. Their habitations are built in one street, long or short, according to the size of the man's family.

In polygamy each wife has a separate house, or at least a separate room. _Her_ children's home is in that house. Each woman rules her own house and children.

One of these women is called the "head-wife" ("konde"--queen). Usually she is the first wife. But the man is at liberty to displace her and put a younger one in her place.

The position of head-wife carries with it no special privileges except that she superintends; but she is not herself excused from work. In the community she is given more respect if the husband happens to be among the "headmen" or chiefs.

Each wife is supplied by the husband, but does not personally own her own house, kitchen utensils, and garden tools. She makes her own garden or "plantation" ("mwanga").

There is no community in ownership of a plantation. Each one chooses a spot for himself. Nor is there land tenure. Any man can go to any place not already occupied, and choose a site on which to build, or to make a garden; and he keeps it as long as he or some member of his family occupies it.

2. _Family Headship._ It descends to a son; if there be none, to a brother; or, if he be dead, to that brother's son; in default of these, to a sister's son. This headship carries with it, for a man, such authority that, should he kill his wife, he may not be killed; though her relatives, if they be influential, may demand some restitution.

If an ordinary man kills another man, he may himself be killed. For a debt he may give away a daughter or wife, but he may not give away a son or a brother. A father rules all his children, male and female, until his death.

If adult members of a family are dissatisfied with family arrangements, they can remove and build elsewhere; but they cannot thereby entirely separate themselves from rule by, and responsibility to and for the family.

A troublesome man cannot be expelled from the family village. A woman can be, but only by her husband, for such offences as stealing, adultery, quarrelling; in which case the dowry money paid by him to her relatives must be returned to him, or another woman given in her place.

3. _Marital Relations._ Marriages are made not only between members of the same tribe but between different tribes. Formerly it was not considered proper that a man of a coast tribe should marry a woman from an interior tribe. The coast tribes regarded themselves as more enlightened than those of the interior, and were disposed to look down upon them. But now men marry women not only of their own tribe but of all inferior tribes.

Polygamy is common, almost universal. A man's addition to the number of his wives is limited only by his ability to pay their dowry price.

He may cohabit with a woman without paying dowry for her; but their relation is not regarded as a marriage ("diba"), and this woman is disrespected as a harlot ("evove").

There are few men with only one wife. In some cases their monogamy is their voluntary choice; in most cases (where there is not Christian principle) it is due to poverty. A polygamist arranges his marital duties to his several wives according to his choice; but the division having been made, each wife jealously guards her own claim on his attentions. A
disregard of them leads to many a family quarrel.[1]

If a man die, his brothers may marry any or all of the widows; or, if there be no brothers, a son inherits, and may marry any or all of the widows except his own mother.

It is preferred that widows shall be retained in the family circle because of the dowry money that was paid for them, which is considered as a permanent investment.

Ante-ceremonial sexual trials (the ancient German "bundling") are not recognized as according to rule; but the custom is very common. If not followed by regular marriage ceremony, it is judged as adultery.

While a man may go to any tribe to seek a wife, he does not settle in the woman's tribe; she comes to him, and enters into his family.

4. _Arrangements for Marriage._ On entering into marriage a man depends on only the male members of his family to assist him. If the woman is of adult age, he is first to try to obtain her consent. But that is not final; it may be either overridden or compelled by her father. The fathers of the two parties are the ultimate judges; the marriage cannot
take place without their consent, after the preliminary wooing. The final compact is by dowry money, the most of which must be paid in advance. It is the custom which has come down from old time. It is now slightly changing under education, enlightenment, and foreign law. The amount of the dowry is not prescribed by any law. Custom alters the amount, according to the social status of the two families and the pecuniary ability of the bridegroom.

The highest price is paid for a virgin; the next, for a woman who has been put away by some other man; the lowest price for widows. It is paid in instalments, but is supposed to be completed in one or two years after the marriage.

But the purchase of the woman by dowry does not extinguish all claim on her by her family. If she is maltreated, she may be taken back by them, in which case the man's dowry money is to be returned to him. Not only the woman's father, but her other relatives, have a claim to a share in the dowry paid for her. Her brothers, sisters, and cousins may ask gifts from the would-be husband.

If a husband die, the widow becomes the property of his family; she does not inherit, by right, any of his goods because she herself, as a widow, is property. Sometimes she is given something, but only as a favor.

If she runs away or escapes, her father or her family must return either her or the dowry paid for her.

On the death of a woman after her marriage, a part of the money received for her is returned to the husband as compensation for his loss on his investment. If she has borne no children, nothing is given or restored to the husband.

If a woman deserts her husband, her family is required to pay back the dowry. If the man himself sends her away, the dowry may be repaid on his demand and after a public discussion.

There is no escape from marriage for a woman during her life except by repayment of the money received for her.

Two men may exchange wives thus: each puts away his wife, sending her back to her people and receiving in return the money paid for her. With this money in hand each buys again the wife the other has put away; and all parties are satisfied.

A father can force his daughter to marry against her will; but such marriages are troublesome, and generally end in the man putting the woman away.

A daughter may be betrothed by her parents at any time, even at birth. The marriage formerly did not take place until she was a woman grown of twenty years; now they are married at fifteen or sixteen, or earlier.

Marriage within any degree of consanguinity is forbidden. Marriage of cousins is impossible. Disparity of age is no hindrance to marriage: an old man may take a young virgin, and a young man may take an old woman.

There are no bars of caste nor rank, except the social eminence derived from wealth or free birth.

Only women are barred from marrying an inferior. That inferiority is not a personal one. No personal worth can make a man of an inferior tribe equal to the meanest member of a superior tribe.

All coast tribes reckon themselves superior to any interior tribe; and, of the coast tribes, a superiority is claimed for those who have the largest foreign commerce and the greatest number of white residents.

A man may marry any woman of any inferior tribe, the idea being that he thus elevates her; but it is almost unheard of that a woman shall marry beneath her.

As a result of this iron rule, women of the Mpongwe and a few other small "superior" coast tribes being barred from many men of their own tribe by lines of consanguinity, and unable to marry beneath themselves, expect to and do make their marriage alliances with the white traders and foreign government officials. Their civilization has made them attractive, and they are sought for by white men from far distant points.

Younger sons and daughters must not be married before the older ones.[2]

5. _Courtship and Wedding._ The routine varies greatly according to tribe; and in any tribe, according to the man's self-respect and regard for conventionalities. A proper outline is: First, the man goes to the father empty-handed to ask his consent. The second visit he goes with gifts, and the father calls in the other members of the family to witness the gifts.
On the third visit he goes with liquor (formerly the native palm wine, now the foreign trade gin or rum), and pays an instalment on the dowry; on the fourth visit with his parents, and gives presents to the woman herself. On a fifth occasion the mother of the woman makes a feast for the mother and friends of the groom. At this feast the host and hostess do not eat, but they join in the drinking. Finally, the man goes with gifts and takes the woman. Her father makes return gifts as a farewell to his daughter.

On her arrival at the man's village they are met with rejoicing, and a dance called "nkânjâ"; but there is no further ceremony, and she is his wife.

For three months she should not be required to do any hard work, the man providing her with food and dress. Then she will begin the usual woman's work, in the making of a garden and carrying of burdens.

Weddings may be made in any season of the year. Formerly the dry season, or the latter part of the rainy, was preferred because of the plentifulness of fish at these periods, and the weather being better for outdoor sports and plays.

The man is expected to visit his wife's family often, and to eat with them. Her mother feasts him, and he calls her parents to eat at his house.

6. _Dissolution of Marriage._ By death of the husband. Formerly, in many tribes one or more of the widows were put to death, either that the dead might not be without companionship in the spirit world, or as a punishment for not having cared better for him in the preservation of his life.

Formerly the women mourned for six months; now the mourning (_i. e._, the public wailing) is reduced to one month. But signs of mourning are retained for many months in dark, old, or scanty dress, and an absence of ornament.

The mourning of both men and women begins before the sick have actually died. The men cease after the burial, but the women continue.

All the dead man's property goes to his male relatives. On the death of a wife the husband is expected to make a gift to pacify her relatives.
Formerly the corpse was not allowed to be buried until this gift was made.
The demand was made by the father, saying, "Our child died in your hands; give us!" Now they make a more quiet request, and wait a week before doing so. Something must be given, even if the husband had already paid her dowry in full.

Marriage can be dissolved by divorce at almost any time, and for almost any reason, by the man,--by a woman rarely. The usual reasons for divorce are unfaithfulness, quarrelling, disobedience, and sometimes chronic sickness. There are many other more private reasons. In being thus put away the woman has no property rights; she is given nothing more than what the man may allow as a favor. If the woman has children, she has no claim on them; they belong to the father. But if she has daughters who are married, she can ask for part of the money which the husband received for them. The man and the divorced woman are then each free to marry any other parties.

7. _Illegitimate Marital Relations._ These are very common, but they are not sanctioned as proper. The husband demands a fine for his wife's infidelity from the co-respondent. Cohabitation with the expected husband previous to the marriage ceremonies is common; but it is not sanctioned, and therefore is secret.

The husband of a woman who is mother of a child begotten by another man takes it as his own. If it be a girl, he (and not the real father) is the person who gives her in marriage and retains the dowry.

8. _Domestic Life._ No special feast is made for the birth of either a son or a daughter, but there is rejoicing. During the woman's pregnancy both she and her husband have to observe a variety of prohibitions as to what they may eat or what they may do. They cohabit up to the time of the child's birth; but after that not for a long period, formerly three years.
Now it is reduced to one and a half years, or less. This custom is one of the reasons assigned by men for the alleged necessity of a plurality of wives.

During the confinement and for a short time after the birth, the wife remains in the husband's house, and is then taken by her parents to their house.

Deformed and defective children are kept with kindness as others; but monstrosities are destroyed. Formerly in all tribes twins were regarded as monstrosities and were therefore killed,--still the custom in some tribes.
In the more civilized tribes they are now valued, but special fetich ceremonies for them are considered necessary.

In the former destruction of twins there were tribes that killed only one of them. If they were male and female, the father would wish to save the boy and the mother the girl; but the father ruled. A motherless new-born infant is not deserted; it is suckled by some other woman.

A portion of the wearing apparel and other goods are placed in the coffin with the corpse. The greater part of a man's goods are taken by his male relatives. Formerly nothing was given to his widow; now she receives a small part. And the paternal relatives of the dead man give something to his maternal relatives.

The corpse is buried in various ways,--on an elevated scaffold, on the surface of the ground, or in a shallow grave, rarely cremated. Formerly the burial could be delayed by a claim for settlement of a debt, but this does not now occur.

No coast tribe eats human flesh. The Fang and other interior tribes eat any corpse, regardless of the cause of death. Families hesitate to eat their own dead, but they sell or exchange them for the dead of other families.

The name given a child is according to family wish. There is no law.
Parents like to have their own names transmitted; but all sorts of reasons prevail for giving common names, or for making a new one, or for selecting the name of a great person or of some natural object. A child born at midday may be called "Joba" (sun), or, at the full moon, "Ngândê" (moon).
A mother who had borne nine children, all of whom had died, on bearing a tenth, and hopeless of its surviving, named it "Botombaka" (passing away).

Circumcision is practised universally by all these tribes. An uncircumcised native is not considered to be a man in the full sense of the word,--fit for fighting, working, marrying, and inheriting. He is regarded as nothing by both men and women, is slandered, abused, insulted, ostracized, and not allowed to marry.

The operation is not performed in infancy, but is delayed till the tenth year, or even later. The native doctor holds cayenne pepper in his mouth, and, on completing the operation, spits the pepper upon the wound. Then seizing a sword, he brandishes it with a shout as a signal to the spectators that the act is completed. Then the crowd of men and women join in singing and dancing, and compliment the lad on being now "a real man."

As natives have no records of births, they cannot exactly tell the ages of their children, or the time when a youth is fit to marry or assume other manly rights; but by the eighteenth or nineteenth year he is regarded with the respect due a man. He can marry even as early as fifteen or sixteen.

There are no tests to which he is subjected as proof of his manhood.

A woman may speak in a court of trial, for defence of herself or friends.
She may also be summoned as a witness, but she has no political rights.

Aged persons are not put to death, to escape the care of them; they are reasonably well provided for.

Fetichism in West Africa

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