African Tribes

by Andrew Sandon - Date: 2006-11-21 - Word Count: 3074 Share This!

African Tribes
In this article the economies and lifestyles of such African tribes as the Lele and the Bushong will be discussed. In order to understand the differences between cultural and economic processes of these tribes we'll refer to the organization of labor in those tribes, the meaning of authority, the importance of environmental issues and ritual practices.
One of the main conclusions of Mary Douglas's brilliant comparison of Lele and Bushong economies is that in some societies people work for a much greater part of their lifetime than in others. "Everything the Lele have or do," Douglas wrote, "the Bushong have more and can do better. They produce more, live better as well as populating their region more densely than the Lele" (211). They produce more largely because they work more, as demonstrated along one dimension by the remarkable diagram Douglas presents of male working life span in the two societies.
Beginning before age 20 and finishing after 60, a Bushong man is productively occupied almost twice as long as a Lele, the latter retiring comparatively early from a career that began well after physical maturity. Without intending to repeat Douglas's detailed analysis, some of the reasons might be noted briefly for their pertinence to the present discussion.
One is the Lele practice of polygyny, which as a privilege of the elders entails for younger men a considerable postponement of marriage, hence of adult responsibilities. Moving into the political domain, Douglas's more general explanations of the Lele -Bushong contrast are concentrated on issues which are familiar to many researchers. But Douglas carries the analysis to new dimensions. It is not only differences in political scale or morphology that make one or another system more effective economically, but the different relations they entail between the powers that be and the process of production.
Scant use of young adult labor, however, is not characteristic of the Lele alone. It is not even the exclusive privilege of agricultural societies. Hunting and gathering do not demand of Kung Bushmen that famous "maximum effort of a maximum number of people." They manage quite well without the full cooperation of younger men, who are fairly idle sometimes to the age of 25:
"Another significant feature of the composition of the [Kung Bushmen] work force is the late assumption of adult responsibility by the adolescents. Young people are not expected to provide food regularly until they are married. Girls typically marry between the ages of 15 and 20, and boys about five years later, so that it is not unusual to find healthy, active teenagers visiting from camp to camp while their older relatives provide food for them." (Lee 36).
In the course of primitive social evolution, main control over the domestic economy seems to pass from the formal solidarity of the kinship structure to its political aspect. As the structure is politicized, especially as it is centralized in ruling chiefs, the household economy is mobilized in a larger social cause. Although the primitive headman or chief may be himself driven by personal ambition, he personifies a public economic principle in opposition to the private ends and petty self-concerns of the household economy.
Mary Douglas introduces her major monograph on the Lele of Kasai as a study in the failure of authority. And she notes immediately the economic consequence: "Those who have had anything to do with the Lele must have noticed the absence of anyone who could give orders with a reasonable hope of being obeyed.... The lack of authority goes a long way to explain their poverty." (1).
Unlike the Lele, the Bushongo is one of the African tribes that managed to achieve great stability and cultural distinction. They conquered their environment and learned how to live at peace with it; and the word "primitive" can be applied to them, with any degree of justification, only in a strictly narrow and technological sense. One of the reasons of the Bushongo success is that this tribe was loyal to traditions of strong authority.
On this, Emil Torday's comment will stand. He was writing of King Shamba Bolongongo, whose rule over the Bushongo began around A.D. 1600 and who is said to have abolished his standing army and forbidden the use of the throwing knife in warfare. "A central African king of the early days of the seventeenth century," says Torday, "whose only conquests were on the field of thought, public prosperity, and social progress, and who is still remembered in our day by every person in the country . . . must have been a remarkable man indeed." (88). Torday, it is true, was an enthusiast; yet his thoughts on the past of central Africa, even if they stray a little to the side of a romantic idealism, are none the less nearer to the truth than the miseries of savage.
A tribe of the Bushongo nation to the south of the Congo, had a king whom they regarded as a god on earth, all-powerful to maintain the prosperity of the country and people. On this subject E. Torday, who discovered this divine king, writes as follows: " My long conversations with them made the political situation clearer than it had seemed at first. Its intricacy had its source in the dual position of the Nyimi (king) as temporal and spiritual chief. As the Prime Minister explained to me, to such people as the Bengongo and the Bangendi, the Nyimi was the King, the political chief of the country; if they rebelled, theirs was a political crime. But to the Bambala, the ruling tribe, he was also the head of the clan, the spiritual chief, the living representative of the founder, and, as such, sacred. Hence their frenzied jealousy of his honour; an insult to him was an insult to all the members of the clan, dead, living, and not yet born. They wanted him to defend this, their honour, at the risk of his life, at the risk of the nation's existence. Nothing mattered so long as honour was satisfied. There was not one amongst them who would not have freely given his life to save the head of the clan the slightest humiliation ; as Chembe Kunji (god on earth) they loved him tenderly and resented the fact that he would not allow them to die for him. ... In his own clan his position is really a more exalted one than that of the Mikado of Japan, for while in the latter country only part of the population professes the Shinto religion, the Bambala are all ancestor worshippers, and the Nyimi (king) is the living link that alone can join them through the chain of his one hundred and twenty predecessors to Bumba, the founder. The spirit of Bumba lives in every one of them; it is the life of the living, the memory of the dead, the hope of future generations. It is his spirit that makes the moon wane and increase, that makes the sun shine ; it is his spirit that in the shape of rain quenches the thirst of the soil after the months of drought ; it is his spirit that makes the seeds germinate and presides over the reproduction of all that lives. This spirit is incarnated in the Chembe Kunji (god on earth) and Kwete (the king) is Chembe Kunji; any weakening of his power, every affront to his dignity sends a tremor through all and everything that shares his spirit and pushes it towards the abyss of annihilation." (Torday 114)
In order to understand the life style of the Bushong and the Lele let's review the philosophy of those tribes describing some of their rituals which refer to treatment of life and death. Douglas portrays general social practices regarding pollution beliefs as setting social boundaries between "purity" and "danger"as ways, that is, to map a safe course through a threatening world. Some version of socially constructed categorical differentiations between "purity" and "danger" are, by her account, universal features of human social organizations. Moreover, she observes, "the focus of all pollution symbolism is the body" and therefore "the final problem to which the perspective of pollution leads is bodily disintegration. Death presents a challenge to any metaphysical system. " (Douglass 121). Douglas also identified a special role for priestly castes in many societies as enforcers and, at the same time, as approved transgressors of those categorical boundaries.
Of all the practices Douglas discussed, she found the greatest fascination and profundity in the pangolin cult of the Lele tribe of the Congo. I want to set out her account at some length in order to suggest some parallels between this cult and the ritual role of death in the Lele culture:
"[The Lele] are a people who are very pollution-conscious in secular and ritual affairs. Their habitual separating and classifying comes out nowhere so clearly as in their approach to animal food. Most of their cosmology and much of their social order is reflected in their animal categories. Certain animals and parts of animals are appropriate for men to eat, others for women, others for children, others for pregnant women. Others are regarded as totally inedible. One way or another the animals which they reject as unsuitable for human or female consumption turn out to be ambiguous according to their scheme of classifications. Their animal taxonomy separates night from day animals; animals of the above (bird, squirrels and monkeys) from animals of the below: water animals and land animals. Those whose behaviour is ambiguous are struck off someone's diet sheet. ..." (Douglas 100)
"[Lele formal rituals] lead through a series of cults which allow their initiates to eat what is normally dangerous and forbidden, carnivorous animals, chest of game and young animals. In an inner cult a hybrid monster, which in secular life one would expect them to abhor, is reverently eaten by initiates and taken to be the most powerful source of fertility. ... [T]he benign monster to which Lele pay formal cult [is] the pangolin or scaly ant-eater. Its being contradicts all the most obvious animal categories. It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young. And most significant of all, unlike other small mammals its young are born singly. ... Instead of being abhorred and utterly anomalous, the pangolin is eaten in solemn ceremony by its initiates who are thereby enabled to minister fertility to their kind. ... [In this] inner cult of all their ritual life, ... the initiates of the pangolin, immune to dangers that would kill uninitiated men, approach, hold, kill and eat the animal which in its own existence combines all the elements which Lele culture keeps apart" (Douglass 102).
Our culture is free to disregard the ritual opportunities seized by the Lele initiates in their pangolin cult. But if we do take this restrictive course, we will be turning awayas Douglas observesfrom a "common urge to make a unity of all [human] experience and to overcome distinction and separation in acts of atonement." (Douglass 110). In this refusal, this rigid insistence on the purity and power of our conventional conceptions of rational self-control and rational control over natural forces, we will miss what the Lele have grasped. As Douglas saw,
"The dramatic combination of opposites is a psychologically satisfying theme full of scope for interpretation at varying levels. ... [A]ny ritual which expresses the happy union of opposites is also an apt vehicle for essentially religious themes. The Lele pangolin cult is only one example, of which many more could be cited, of cults which invite their initiates to turn round and confront the categories on which their whole surrounding culture has been built up and to recognise them for the fictive, man-made, arbitrary creations that they are. ... By the mystery of [the pangolin] rite they recognise some thing of the fortuitous and conventional nature of the categories in whose mould they have their experience. If they consistently shunned ambiguity they would commit themselves to division between ideal and reality. But they confront ambiguity in an extreme and concentrated form. They dare to grasp the pangolin and put it to ritual use, proclaiming that this has more power than any other rites. So the pangolin cult is capable of inspiring a profound meditation on the nature of purity and impurity and on the limitation on human contemplation of existence." (155)
Similar to the Lele, Bushongo people believe that they cannot control their attitudes toward death or suppress a sense of ambivalence and contaminating mystery by a self-willed act of rational intellectual mastery.
One of the examples of the Bushongo beliefs is the cult of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is based upon the belief that man, or rather part of him, survives after death. This conviction is held by Bushong people, who firmly believe that already during his lifetime a person consists of two separable entities, his mortal body and his immortal soul.
All those present at the funeral must be ceremonially cleansed. Very often an ox or goat is killed as part of the ceremony, the meat being "doctored" with strengthening medicines before they can eat it. The close relatives and other dependants of deceased shave their hair, change their clothing, refrain from sexual relations, cease all agricultural work and abstain from many other customary activities, and observe various food and other taboos for a few days or weeks. When a Chief has died, all his subjects mourn in the same way. A special purification ceremony is then performed releasing them from these restrictions. Widows or widowers, however, continue to mourn for a period of from six months to a year, during which they may not go about freely among the people, and must take various ritual precautions to prevent their contaminating any hut, field, cattlekraal, or other place which they enter for the first time since their bereavement. An animal is then slaughtered for the final purification, their hair is dressed, they receive new garments, and may resume all their former activities. They may now also remarry.
The worship of ancestors is based upon the belief that when a man dies he continues to influence the lives of his relatives remaining on earth. But the spirits of the dead, "although they have found enlargement of power through release from the restraints of the body, are not omnipotent; nor can they read the secrets of the human heart, though they know all that their children do, say, or suffer. They are as interested as ever in their descendants who remain 'outside on the earth', but indifferent to members of other communities, unless they owe them some grudge or have to hinder them from hurting their protégés. Their characters have not been changed by death; they are as prone to jealousy as they ever were, and as rancorous towards descendants who wound their vanity, flout their wishes, squander their bequests, or infringe the ancient laws and customs of their clans; but they are also as willing as ever to help those of their lineage who treat them with becoming respect and obedience." (Willoughby 88). The affairs of human beings as such do not concern the spirits of ancestors; they are exclusively interested in the affairs of their own family and tribe, and without their help and guidance their living descendants cannot hope to flourish. As long as the moral code is strictly followed, they confer blessings and abundance; but if offended by any breach of custom, they can also send drought, cattle plague, tribal or personal disaster, sickness or death.
The belief in survival after death is common to the Lele and the Bushong tribes; but it is not necessarily accompanied by ancestor worship for the Lele. The development of this cult among the Bushong can perhaps be understood if we remember how greatly respect for seniority dominates all social relations in Bantu life, and how effectively the members of a family are subordinated to its headman. This pattern is carried over even beyond death: the unquestioning respect for the living parents changes into veneration for and worship of their spirit.
Besides rituals, climatic conditions, also, influence the life styles of the Bushong and the Lele. A rare departure from the social sciences' lack of concern with the climate-society relationship throughout the twentieth century was Mary Douglas' comparison of Lele and Bushong economies. Douglas observed a stark difference in the levels of development and climatological perception of these neighboring peoples, who were separated by the Kasai River, and subject to only minor variations in ecological conditions.
Whereas the more economically developed Bushong viewed the summer as hot, dry, and unpleasant, the technologically and artistically inferior Lele regarded it as a pleasant season of relaxation. Douglas suggested that the ability of the monogamous Bushong to earn status through their own industriousness provided more stimulus to cooperative economic effort than the polygamous Lele. The latter could only acquire status, along with wives, through age. Hence, Bushong were hard at work herding throughout the summer while their Lele counterparts were able to kick back in the shade drinking palm wine. According to this account, social relations exert a strong influence on ideas about the weather.
However, researchers seem to be divided on this issue. For example, several appear to see perceptions of climate and weather as determined by natural conditions of aridity. Indeed, there are echoes of these views in West's claim that "ecological and climatic conditions shape particular patterns of belief, which induce people to place more value on specific natural phenomena than others" (Shackley et al 188). On the other hand, Finan emphasizes 'how a climate discourse is embedded in traditional forms of political interaction within a highly stratified, paternalistic society' (Shackley et al 200). Orlove and Harley describe how seasons are anchored in cultural stereotypes associated with calendrical time (Shackley et al 201).
In conclusion, we see that numerous factors influenced the differences in economic and social development of the Bushong and the Lele tribes. The Bushong tribe managed to achieve better economic results than the Lele tribe because of the attitude of Bushong people towards work, authority and senior status of the members of the family. The Lele tribe cannot be described by significant achievements in the economic field because Lele people work less and have less developed structure of authority.
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