Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
PROBABLY most white men on first coming to Africa are inclined to look upon black women as prone to suffer beneath the oppression of their men folk.
It was with much this idea that my husband went to the Oban District, and the glee of its sturdy amazons, who had long ago reduced the male Ekoi to a state of becoming humility, on recognising this attitude on the part of the first Commissioner sent them by Government, can be better imagined than described! No one is quicker than these "unsophisticated" peoples to recognise any such bias, and the consequent pose adopted by the militant wives was pathetic in the extreme, and the more convincing in that their meek male folk hardly ventured upon a word of defence. When the "hideous cruelty" of which one wife complained was, however, found to consist in her husband's refusal to marry any other woman save herself, so that no secondary wife was available to help in the housework, and the tyranny of a father over his daughter, a child of eight, was discovered only to have been shown in making use, without her permission, of a cooking-pot which he had himself given her some time before, the Commissioner's
point of view naturally changed somewhat.
Taught by such experience, we arrived in the Eket District with an open mind as to the relation of the sexes; but this philosophic attitude was to be rudely dispelled. The land of the Ibibios may be taken as typical of those where fetish and witch doctor reign supreme, and where woman is looked upon as a mere chattel of father or husband.
Left to themselves, the Ibibios may perhaps be considered, along certain lines, as a moral people; although the old idea, which lingered in mid-Europe until comparatively recent times, that a host should place all in his house, even to the honour of his wife, at the disposal of a guest, yet obtains here. To quote the naive statement of my informant:
"When a friend comes to visit him the husband will often go out of the house, leaving the new-comer alone with his wife, so as to give them a chance. . . . Afterwards the two men drink together in token of friendliness, and to show that no claim for compensation will be made by the husband."
In the old days crimes of unfaithfulness would appear to have been far more uncommon than at present, probably owing to the terrible penalties inflicted. At times the death of both guilty parties was exacted; while, as a comparatively mild punishment, the lover was often forced to sell himself into slavery in order to raise sufficient money to meet the heavy fine imposed.
The chiefs expressed themselves as unanimous in wishing the penalties for infidelity to be made more
severe than the comparatively light damages exacted at present; but their attitude is very one-sided. All of them desire that, as in the old days, no woman should be allowed to claim divorce save on the grounds of grave ill-treatment, while many wish for the still older rule to be enforced, that it should not be allowed to women for any cause whatever. As one of them explained:
"Should a man beat his wife very cruelly she can always run away to her father, who will give her good advice, such as: 'Obey your husband in everything, and always strive to please him. Make his will yours; then you will no longer be ill-treated.'"
That many husbands still regard their wives as mere chattels is proved by case after case, of which the following, brought before my husband in the Native Court at Eket only a short time ago, may serve as typical:
Offong Udo Akpa Imo thought that he had reason to suspect his wife Unwa of infidelity. In order to induce her to confess to this he tied her hands to two stakes firmly driven into the ground and so far apart that she lay with arms extended as if crucified. He then proceeded to torture her by forcing native pepper into her eyes and in other ways, which, though recounted in Court as mere matters of everyday occurrence, are such as it is impossible to describe. Yet the man only acted within the rights given him by the law and custom of his tribe.
According to some accounts, it would appear that the usual torture inflicted under such circumstances was, after stripping and binding the woman in the
way just described, to cover her with thousands of the fierce black ants which abound in the bush, and which the husband had previously collected for the purpose.
Such cases are not confined to the Ekets, but might be repeated ad nauseam in connection with every tribe in the district. The Orons, as nearest to Calabar, and therefore most in touch with civilisation, should show some advance in the treatment of their women, yet the following case brought before the Native Court in August, 1913, is quite typical. During the course of the evidence Eyo Okon Mbukpa, stated on oath:
"Mbit Ese Ewan was my husband, but I wish to be divorced from him. Last year he wounded me, but afterwards took a lot of trouble to cure my wound. Later he asked me to come back. At first I refused, to do so, but afterwards agreed. Through his roughness he broke one of my bones, on account of which, when my child was born, I nearly died. For two months afterwards I could hardly walk. A third time he came, but I refused him. On that he knocked me down and dragged me, naked, before the townsfolk. . . . Next morning he flogged me very cruelly."
There was no question by the husband.
Ating, a fellow townsman, stated on oath:
"I am no relation of Eyo Okon's, neither am I her 'friend.' I saw Mbit Ese come to her. He stripped her, lifted her feet in the air and beat her head upon the ground, then dragged her along it. The girl kept shouting to me, so at last I went to her help. My
cousin's wife told me that the bone was broken, and Eyo was very clever to have got her child safely born."
Mbit Ese Awan, the husband, sworn, stated:
"I did not hold her feet in the air nor beat her head upon the ground. I only dragged her along it."
There were, however, too many witnesses against him, and the charge was proven in all respects.
While many women have taken advantage of the protection afforded by white rule to break away from the old stern code as to marital fidelity, many are still faithful to their husbands, as has been proved by no inconsiderable number who have resisted to the last extremity outrages sought to be forced upon them. Not only this, but that a distinct desire for monogamy does exist among Ibibio women is shown by the frequency of cases in which wives have 'administered love philtres to their husbands in the hope of thus capturing the whole affection of their dusky lords. This will be more fully treated of later, in the section devoted to magic.
In those few cases when a much-married man of the tribe has been denied the blessing of children, the "medicine doctor" consulted as to the cause of the misfortune has been known to advise the putting away of all wives save one. The following story, illustrating such a case, was told me by one of my women informants--a Christian convert--as a proof of the advantage of monogamy over polygamy. In all save names, it bears a striking resemblance to a tale recounted by Mr. Elphinstone Dayrell in his collection of "Ikom Folk Stories." 1
"Once a very great chief named Ekpenyong Abassi dwelt among us. He was so rich that his house was filled with treasures. His flocks and herds multiplied beyond those of other men. His palm groves produced their golden clusters in such numbers that the gatherers grew weary of cutting, and when he sent out his slaves to fish in the rivers they brought back catches so heavy that they staggered beneath the weight.
"While still young, Ekpenyong married many wives; but in spite of his great wealth he was not happy, for no babe was sent to bless his hearth. His days were therefore spent in sadness, lest he should die without a son to bury him with due honour and pour libations to his ghost.
"To and fro in the land went the chief from one famous juju man to another, seeking a 'medicine' which might take away his curse and cause a child to be born. To each he gave great gifts, but no matter what was paid for charm or magic rites, all proved of no avail. At length word came of a medicine man, said to be very strong in the knowledge of secret things, who had come down from the Kameruns, where much magic dwells, and was now staying in a part of the district far away from the home of Ekpenyong.
"No sooner had the chief heard of the fame of this stranger than he set forth, taking with him a great 'dash' of wires and cloth. Spears, too, he took and cattle, with other fine things borne by a train of slaves. When he reached the house of the juju man he told the latter all his trouble, and asked what he must do in order that a son might be granted him.
"The priest consulted his oracle and at length announced:
"'All your wives you must put away from you save one only, Adiaha by name. Then you must raze to the ground the houses in which the other women used to dwell. Press down and smooth the earth over the place till none may see that dwellings once stood there. Then build a quite new home for Adiaha and offer in sacrifice before it a white goat, a white fowl and many eggs. From the door-lintel of the new house, on the inside, let a piece of white cloth be hung. Then go yourself to the riverside, and, casting away the clothes which you have formerly worn, go down into the water, taking care that it laves every part of your body and flows even above the crown of your head. After this, dress yourself from head to foot in new garments and, returning, sleep alone in your house.
"'Meantime, let Adiaha go to the pool where the great juju dwells, and, after likewise casting from her her garments, let her slip into the water until it flows above her head. After which bid her put on a white gown never before worn, so that she should be an entirely fresh woman, and, thus robed, let her go silently into the house prepared for her and there await your coming.'
"On hearing this, Ekpenyong thanked the medicine man, and after leaving his offering went home with new hope in his heart. No sooner did he reach the compound than he sent to call all his wives before him. From farm or cooking-hearth they came trooping forth to welcome him home; but when they heard the news which he brought their joy was turned into
wailing. Some pleaded that they should not be driven forth; some reviled Adiaha, and said that it was but the trick of a jealous wife, who had bribed the juju man to give her husband this advice, so that they might all be humbled while she alone reigned in their stead. Adiaha wept bitterly at their hard words, for, indeed, she was fond of many of them and sorry to lose their companionship, but she comforted herself at the thought that at length a son was about to be born to her.
"Ekpenyong sent to his farms to fetch yams and plantains in great quantities, and took from out his storehouse chains and anklets, with bracelets and other rich gifts, all of which he gave to the discarded wives; so that they went forth well dowered and could easily find other husbands. When all had left the compound, everything was done according to the advice of the wise juju man. The houses where the old wives had dwelt were pulled down, and the place smoothed over and planted, so that none might see that a dwelling had been there. Then a new home was made for Adiaha, after which husband and wife went down to bathe, and did, to the very least thing, as they had been bidden. Before many moons had passed the woman felt a stirring beneath the breast, and told her husband, whereon they both rejoiced greatly.
"Next day husband and wife went together before the juju which dwelt under the sacred water in which Adiaha had bathed. With them they took a goat as offering, and prayed to the spirit of the pool to watch over the unborn babe. The blood of the victim was then poured over Adiaha's forehead, while Ekpenyong
sacrificed white fowls and eggs that she might not suffer greatly when her child should come. 1
"On the birth of the boy the chief gave a 'play' for all the young men and women of his town, that they also might rejoice in his good fortune. A few months later he got together a great 'dash' and sent it to the wise juju man, thanking him for the advice which had proved of such advantage, and asking that the oracle might be consulted as to whether this child would live, and also how many further children would be granted him. The answer was returned that the first son would certainly thrive, and that twenty-one children in all might be hoped for.
"On learning this good news the chief gave another great feast. Afterwards he summoned all his slaves before him and bade them cut bush and clear the land in readiness for the planting of very large farms, since now he must begin to make provision for so numerous a household.
"In course of time other children were born to the couple, until they were surrounded by a large family of sturdy sons and daughters. Always Chief Ekpenyong guarded Adiaha tenderly and saw that she was well served, for he feared that some of his old wives might be jealous and seek to do her a hurt.
"After many years the twenty-first child arrived, and the chief knew that no more were to follow. So he said to his wife, 'You must be weary from bearing so many babes. Now, therefore, rest, for the juju so wills.'
"Always when the chief went on a journey to a neighbouring town, or even but a small way to visit his farm or make sacrifice in the juju house, all his children accompanied him. In their midst he walked, rich and happy, and many of the townsfolk envied his good fortune.
"Now, in the same town there dwelt a lesser chief whose heart was very sore when he considered the prosperity of Ekpenyong. Long he pondered as to how he might best wreak vengeance upon his prosperous neighbour, and sometimes in crocodile form--for he was full of witchcraft and could send forth his soul in this guise--he used to creep up a little stream which lay near the back of Ekpenyong's compound spying out how he might best injure the man whom he hated. Only he never dared go very near to the house because he feared the juju which was hung therein, since it was very powerful, and he dreaded lest it should kill him on account of his evil witchcraft.
"Now among the 'witch company' to which this man belonged was one of Chief Ekpenyong's former wives. To her, therefore, he opened the matter, asking if she had never heard of a way by which the power of this particular juju might be circumvented. The woman demanded why he wished to know, and he answered that he, together with many of the townsfolk, was weary of seeing the continuous prosperity of Ekpenyong, and therefore wanted to get rid of him and all his family, so that the latter's great possessions might be divided up among themselves. To this the woman answered that she also was jealous of Adiaha, because the latter had been preferred before her, and
also because so many children had been born to this woman, while she herself remained barren. They therefore consulted together and made a plan-------." But that is another story. 1
In the foregoing story both Ekpenyong and Adiaha were bidden to go down to the water and bathe so that their bodies might be laved from head to foot. This would appear to have been ordered, not only on account of the fertilising powers ascribed to water in this region, but also as a means of breaking the curse of sterility under which both were suffering.
Such an idea seems not unconnected with the ancient Babylonian belief in the power of water as an antidote to evil spells, mentioned by Mr. R. C. Thompson in dealing with charms and magical preparations. He says:
"Of these the simplest was pure water, which was sprinkled over the possessed person at the conclusion of an incantation, and this had a double meaning, symbolising as it did the cleansing of the man from the spell, and the presence of the great God Ea, whose emanation always remained in water and whose aid was invoked by these means."
To a similar belief in the purifying power of water the ancient Roman lustral ceremonies may also be ascribed.
* * * * *
An Efik woman once expressed her ideas on the advantage of monogamy in quaint, halting English as follows:
"Among our people, if a man gets plenty wives
and then goes outside and brings in yet another, the first ones get vexed at this, so trouble comes in that family. Perhaps one wife goes out and finds another man. For this the husband flogs her. She then takes out a summons against him and says, 'I will not stay with that husband any more.' The custom of marrying many wives brings trouble for all women in our country. Women themselves sometimes keep as many as four 'friends,' 'well hidden.' If the husband finds out, he goes bring palaver. Sometimes he flogs the offending men. Sometimes he summonses them. Sometimes a big man has many wives, and one of them wants him to love her past all others. Then she makes medicine and gives him. He says she wants to kill him, and therefore brings her before Court. Some men get wife for house, but no be fit to buy clothes for her. Then another man brings clothes and gives her and the woman takes some of these and 'dashes' to her husband, on which he accepts them and lets her go her own way. At times a husband says he will go walk. Then he goes out, but turns back when out of sight and goes to another place. On his return the wife asks, 'Whence do you come?' He answers, 'I only walk.' Wife says, 'What time did you come back from walk?' He says, 'No ask that. I no be boy.' On which the wife begin to vex. Sometimes a wife is good woman, but no get piccan. Therefore husband says, 'No want you any more.' Some men say, 'If wife goes church will not have her again.' Some women for this part refuse to marry man if he no go church. Say, 'No want to marry you.' To which man reply, 'Very well, no want you--another man
can marry you.' Men like to have plenty wives because each can do certain things and then more work is done.
"Sometimes if husband flogs wife she summonses him. Then he goes prison and she goes for another man. When husband comes out of prison he goes kill the woman. Takes the other man's other wife in exchange, and goes to his house. He does not kill the man, because it was the first woman's fault!
"If a man gets plenty money women like to marry him, but when the money finishes wife runs away and says, 'Do not want you now.' To which the man replies, 'Cannot go. You married me, and must stay whether I have money or not.'
"One woman, her husband went for some place to another man's house, because he loved other man's wife. Leopard caught him and killed him. Then wife began to cry. Said, 'If husband had stopped with me he would not have died so.'
* * * * *
Among some Ibibios a custom still obtains through which it is hoped by sympathetic magic to ensure fruitfulness to a bride. When for the first time the new wife enters her husband's house he leaves her so soon as she has crossed the threshold and goes to the compound of some friend to whom a "fine piccan" has been granted. He then hastens back with the babe in his arms, and, entering the bride chamber, says, "Look! This is my piccan." This is done in order that many children may be born to them also.
Again, when the young wife is about to bear her first babe, the husband often goes out and invites
other small folk into the house. A meal has been prepared, and while the little guests are busily feasting he calls to his wife, "Just as many piccans are now in our house so may you bear plenty for me, that in time it will be filled with our children!"
A juju of special renown as the protector of women and the bestower of fertility is that called Isemin. Pools sacred to this spirit are to be found in all the country round Awa. One of the most celebrated of these lies near the border of the town of Mkpokk, and thither one early September day we went, about the time of the new yam harvest. Through the town playground we passed, then turned to the right beneath a screen of boughs which had to be held aside for us to enter a path, almost invisible at first, but later showing a track deep-worn by the feet of worshippers, who for centuries had followed this road to the sacred water. Beneath a continuous archway of overhanging boughs we passed, low bending of necessity, under leafage so thick as to produce a soft green twilight, till the edge of the holy pool was reached.
Thither, at the new yam festival, all the women and girls of Mkpokk go in procession at dawn. "Naked as the breeze" they pass to bathe in the stream. All men must keep in the houses during the performance of this rite, and should one be found hiding in the bush during this, one of the most sacred of the feminine mysteries, the old native law condemns him to death. Even now a fine of one goat and a hundred manillas would be exacted by the angry women; while the chances of that man living to see the dawn of another Isemin day would also not be very great,
for even the protection of Government would hardly avail to save him from the thousand and one subtle poisons which are still unknown to white men. It is believed that, should male eye gaze upon these women as they go by unveiled to show themselves before Isemin, the object of the rite would be brought to naught, and the blessing of fruitfulness which it is designed to draw down would in consequence be denied to the town.
Later, one of my women informants explained the matter to me more clearly than such things would seem usually to be formulated in the minds of primitive people such as these. She confided the matter with a charm and delicacy of expression hardly to be expected from a woman typical of those of this region.
"As a bride on her wedding night," said the narrator, "yields herself in all ways to the will of her new-made lord, so at harvest time maids and matrons present themselves before the great juju, Isemin, unrobed and awaiting his will, that perchance he may enter within those whom he chooses, thus shedding the blessing of fertility upon our town."
The eldest of the band, low bending, presents a sacrifice of corn and fish, symbolising fertility on earth and beneath the waters. In every town throughout this part of the district a shrine of this juju may be found, and when a girl marries away from her native place she joins the Isemin of her husband's people.
Great pythons are thought to guard the dwelling-place of the deity--a little hut overlooking the stream. Many snakes, as we can testify from our experience, have their homes near by, and these no man may
kill. To the inhabitants of Mkpokk and the neighbouring village of Okat snake flesh is tabu "because snakes are sacred to Isemin," and were this law broken the juju would avenge himself by withholding the blessing of fertility from the town, while a devastating pestilence would fall upon the sacrilegious inhabitants. For these great serpents, set as guardians to the mysteries of Isemin, like the famous snakes of Æsculapius, also bestow health upon the countryside.
Some half-mile off is to be seen the shrine of the juju Okwu Okat, before which girls of the aforementioned place must show themselves on entering the Fatting-house. On this occasion custom ordains that they should wear ornaments made from young palm leaves.
100:1 Second Series, No. 12.
104:1 A similar ceremony is carried out by Efik women in a holy water near Creek Town, which is thought to be sacred to a juju very powerful for the protection of women in childbirth.
106:1 See p. 168.