IN war time, even now, strong women on both sides act as scouts. They know that they will not be killed, so go before the main body fearlessly spying upon the enemy. As soon as the first sign of the latter is seen they cry out to warn their own men, and then run aside so as not to be in the way.
At times a band of Amazons comes across and captures a single foeman. Then these women, usually so gentle and kindly, seem to change their whole nature. They fall upon the luckless man, bind, and often cruelly wound him; then hand him over in triumph to be slain by the men of their own party.
Perhaps the most important service rendered by the women of the tribe in time of war is the carrying out of the secret rites decreed by ancient law for the burial of a warrior. As much as could be learnt of the matter from the men of the tribe is thus recorded:
"When a man in the prime of life is cut off in battle, the body is carried home to the dead man's town by wedded women who are his next of kin. No man may touch the corpse. Weeping and singing sad songs, it is borne by their gentle hands to a place of thick bush called owok afai--the forest of those
slain by sudden death. . . . No maiden may be present at these rites; only to wives may such sad mysteries be revealed." 1
Later, an ancient woman was induced to confide to me part at least of these strange rites. I had not intended to publish them, nor, indeed, much of the information already incorporated in the foregoing account. Certain English scientists, however, of the highest distinction, have been good enough to point out that the matter is not without ethnological interest, and also that it is most improbable that this little study will ever reach those in any way concerned. Save for one detail, therefore, all that could be gleaned on the subject is given here.
After the bodies of dead warriors have been borne into the shadows of that part of the forest set aside for this purpose, they are gently laid upon beds of fresh leaves, high piled to form a last couch, not far from the place where an open grave has been prepared. Young boughs are next picked from sacred trees, the names of which, unfortunately, my informant could not be persuaded to reveal. These boughs are drawn over the bodies of the slain amid low, wailing chants and fast-falling tears. The chants are said to contain a prayer that the virility of the warrior thus cut off in the pride of life and strength may not be lost, but rather should go forth to bless with increase the hearths, farms and byres of his own townsfolk.
My informant explained that she was only able to give vaguely the meaning of the chants sung on
such occasions, since these have been handed down in a tongue so old as to be practically forgotten in the present day. It is a matter of great regret to us that the expense of transport in countries such as this, where all impedimenta must be borne upon carriers' heads, had hitherto kept us from adding a phonograph to the already somewhat long list of scientific apparatus which we are in the habit of carrying about with us. Lady Frazer, who has herself rendered such inestimable services to science, had urged us to do so, and had we but been able to follow her advice it might have been possible to secure records of these old songs, the chance to obtain which may in all probability never occur again. Alas! "Our Lady Poverty" is a hard task-mistress, and often places a stern veto upon the garnering of much of the rich harvest which, in Africa, lies on every hand awaiting gleaning.
Though the exact meaning of the ritual chants has now been lost, the idea underlying the ceremonies is indicated by the actions accompanying the song, as, for instance, when the sacred boughs are drawn over that part of the body regarded as the seat of virile energy, with the avowed purpose of withdrawing the spirit of fertility into the leaves. Before interment, small portions of the body are also cut away and placed, together with the sacred leaves, in earthen pots never before used. These are wrapped up in the garments of the celebrants, and borne forth by them in silence, to be secretly interred in farm or byre, or hidden away in holes dug beneath the hearth or bridal bed.
The reason that knowledge of such rites must be kept alike from men and maidens of the tribe is said to be that this secret was among those entrusted to women in the days when woman, not man, was the dominant sex, and that these were not disclosed at the time when males were initiated into the mysteries of the secret societies, because it had been revealed that on the guarding of this secret depended the strength of the tribe. Were the rites once disclosed the power of the juju would be broken, few or no babes would be born, farms and herds would yield but scanty increase, while the arms of future generations of fighting men would lose their strength and hearts their courage--until the Ibibio people were either enslaved or had vanished from the face of the earth.
During our last leave in England we had the privilege of talking over those primitive customs and beliefs which seemed to us of special interest with so great an authority as Dr. Wallis Budge, of the British Museum. Among other incidents he listened to that above given, and when the little account was finished pointed out the striking similarity between this still surviving rite and the strange story of the origin of Horus--that seed of life and love snatched by the widowed Isis from death itself. Indeed, were the account of this Ibibio rite given in full detail it might almost seem as though intended as a re-enactment of the ancient tragedy of the Nile, when the mighty goddess Isis found the body of the slaughtered Osiris, and by her knowledge of the mysteries of birth and death "the Great Mother" wrung a
new life from out the very jaws of desolation and despair. 1
At present there seems little danger of a falling off in numbers among Ibibios, for the greatest pride of both men and women is to become the parents of many children. The head chief of Oyubia, Enyenihi by name, has a family of thirty, all of whom he proudly claims as his own offspring. Large as the number seems, however, it is quite outdone by the crowd of children which surrounds many chiefs. Akpan Udaw Ibomm of Ikotobo, for instance, who died in 1913, had a hundred and sixty sons and daughters, of all of whom he claimed to be the actual father. Ofeok Oyo of Ikua Ita too, who has only lately died, was the mother of twenty fine children. Yet, almost to the day of her death she carried herself as straight and well and was as tall and good to look upon, according to native ideas, as many a woman who had borne but a single babe. Indeed the Ibibios and neighbouring peoples would seem to be a standing contradiction to the theory that polygamy tends to restrict the race. We were informed on the authority of Mr. John Bailey, a well-known native Government official, who was present when Sir Claude Macdonald went up to Afikpo, on the Cross River, that one chief
alone brought ninety sons to salute the Chief Commissioner! True it is that the distinguished administrator himself, whose memory is held in grateful remembrance by European and native alike throughout the length and breadth of the colony for whose prosperity he did so much, thinks that nineteen would be a more probable number to give; but owing to the marriage customs and rules as to family membership it is by no means impossible that one chief should be able to produce the number stated.
Among some of the more civilised Efiks of Calabar the growth of the family seems to have been restricted, to a certain extent, from motives of vanity on the part of the women, who fear that much child-bearing might spoil their beauty. Yet, even here, there does not seem to be cause for anxiety as to the danger of racial suicide. The late Chief Esonta of Old Town, for instance, had forty-five wives, who, between them, are said to have borne him a hundred and sixty children!
Chief Essien Etim, who died in 1910, and was a well-known Calabar chief, is stated to have had ninety-nine sons and daughters. After his death, a dispute arose as to the distribution of the property, and the family marched into Court to lay the matter before His Honour Judge Weber. It was fortunate that the disagreement was only among themselves, so that litigation did not extend to another family of like or superior size.
Another well-known chief, Efa Etung Effion by name, had sixty wives and ninety-five piccans; while Chief Abassi Okun Abassi of Creek Town had a mere
thirty-five to show; but then he had only seven wives all told! The aforementioned numbers are given on the authority of Chief Daniel Henshaw.
To a certain extent large families may be accounted for by the custom which, on the death of a chief, caused the wives to be divided out among sons and brothers, who henceforth assumed towards them the position formerly held by the deceased; care being taken that a woman should not thus be given to her own son. Before death a man usually "makes his will," under which term is included the disposal of his wives and female dependents. The women of the household are called before him on his death-bed, and he there and then decides to which relative each should be given. Often in this way a grown woman is allocated as "wife" to a small boy of eight or nine years old. In such a case all children which she may bear to other men, while the child-husband is growing up, are looked upon as his. So that, supposing some half-dozen women are bequeathed in this manner to a boy of eight, the latter on reaching the age of twelve might easily find himself titular "father" of a dozen or more children.
A case illustrating such a "marriage" came before the Native Court at Idua Oron. In this the plaintiff, Akon Abassi, stated on oath:
"My former husband died and left behind him a young brother of about ten years of age. According to his will I was betrothed to the latter, but as I was over twenty years old and already a mother I asked the parents of the child-husband to receive back their dowry, because the boy was too young for me."
A similar case occurred at the same sitting in which a woman named Kadu claimed divorce from a small boy, Affion Usuk Inyi by name. In the course of her evidence the plaintiff stated:
"About six and a half years ago I came out of the Fatting-house and was married. Not long afterwards my husband died, and I was told to become the wife of a boy about twelve years of age. I am now almost twenty-five years old, and therefore summon the defendant to receive back his dowry and set me free, as the child is too young to be my husband."
Many cases are known, however, in which young and attractive women have refused the advances of other wooers, and preferred to wait until the youth, to whom they have been given by the Will of their late husband, should be of sufficient age to wed them.
206:1 "By Haunted Waters." P. Amaury Talbot.
209:1 Since writing the above, it has been our good fortune to have the opportunity of studying the customs of Ibo and New Calabari women. It would seem that the lives of these latter are ruled, even more markedly than those of their Ibibio sisters, by rites of which nothing may be revealed to the males of the tribe, or indeed, to any man.
As an instance may be mentioned the secret rites carried out by every New Calabari widow during the seven days of mourning following the death of her husband. These strange ceremonies entail almost incredible self-denial, pain and discomfort on the unfortunate celebrants, but, according to unanimous testimony, no word of what transpires on such occasions has as yet reached male ears.