ANCESTOR cults and ancestor worship loom large in the anthropological image of sub-Saharan Africa and few would disagree with Fortes that ‘comparatively viewed, African ancestor worship has a remarkably uniform structural framework’ (Fortes, 1965: 122). The general pattern may be quickly summarized. Ancestors are vested with mystical powers and authority. They retain a functional role in the world of the living, specifically in the life of their living kinsmen; indeed, African kin-groups are often described as communities of both the living and the dead. The relation of the ancestors to their living kinsmen has been described as ambivalent, as both punitive and benevolent and sometimes even as capricious. In general, ancestral benevolence is assured through propitiation and sacrifice; neglect is believed to bring about punishment. Ancestors are intimately involved with the welfare of their kin-group but they are not linked in the same way to every member of that group. The linkage is structured through the elders of the kin-group, and the elders’ authority is related to their close link to the ancestors. In some sense the elders are the representatives of the ancestors and the mediators between them and the kin-group.
Fortes has extended our theoretical understanding of African ancestor worship more recently by further clarifying some of its structural features (1965). Amplifying Gluckman’s (1937) distinction between ancestor cults and the cults of the dead, Fortes brings out the importance of the ‘structural matrix of [African] ancestor worship’, noting inter alia the relative lack of elaboration and indeed interest among the Africans in the cosmography of the afterworld in which the ancestors reside. The African emphasis is clearly not on how the dead live but on the manner in which they affect the living. Different ancestors are recognized as relevant to different structural contexts (as, for example, in groups of different genealogical levels); not all but only certain dead with particular structural positions are worshipped as ancestors; and the behaviour of ancestors reflects not their individual personalities but rather a particular legal status in the political-jural domain.
In this paper I shall describe some activities and relationships among the Suku of south-western Congo (Kinshasa). It will be apparent that the description conforms to the generalized pattern of African ancestor cults and is congruent with Fortes’s analysis. But, I shall show that there are difficulties in characterizing the Suku complex as an ‘ancestor cult’ and shall bring in additional data on Suku lineage structure. I shall then contend that Fortes’s analysis, while pointing in the right direction, does not go far enough because it does not take the final step of shedding the ethnoecentric connotations of the very term ‘ancestor’ – connotations that have a bearing on theory. I shall also try to show that by viewing what have been called African ancestor cults as part of the eldeship complex, we can account more simply for many of
Fortes’s generalizations and at the same time make redundant some of the problems he raises.
The fundamental social and jural group among the Suku is the corporate matrilineage, generally consisting of some thirty-five to forty persons. Married couples live virilocally, and males live patrilocally at least until their father’s death and often beyond. The membership of a matrilineage is dispersed over several villages but within an area that is not too large to preclude easy communication, consultations, and joint action in important matters. The matrilineage is a corporate unit in economic, political, jural and religious respects. Each matrilineage is centre in a particular village which bears its name and is its administrative and ritual head-quarters, containing the formal lineage head (the oldest male member) and, usually, several other older members (Kopytoff, 1964, 1965).
The dead members of the lineage, as a collectivity, are appealed to in times of crisis (such as a serious sickness or a series of misfortune) and, more regularly, on such occasions as the marriages of women of the lineage, the breaking of sexual taboos affecting these women, the coming-out ceremony for infants, and yearly, before the large communal hunts of the dry season. The general pattern is as follows: the head of the lineage and two or three older men of his generation go at night to the grave – any grave – of a deceased member of the lineage who was older than any of them. The Suku have no special burying places and graves are dug at random in the bush outside the lineage centre or near crossroads; the graves are not maintained and they eventually return to bush, so that the site of a particular grave is usually forgotten in time. The location of recent graves is of course remembered, and the lineage head and the older men usually go to the grave of the last deceased man who was older than they. The other appropriate place to address the dead is at the crossing of paths.
At the grave or at the cross-roads, the old men ‘feed’ the dead certain foods considered to be their favourite: particular kinds of forest mushroom and wild roots, palm wine, and sometimes even manioc, the Suku staple. A small hole is dug in the ground and the food is put into it. Communication with the dead takes the form of a conversational monologue, patterned but not stereotyped, and devoid of repetitive formulae. One speaks the way one speaks to living people: ‘You, [such and such], your junior is ill. We do not know why, we do not know who is responsible. If it is you, if you are angry, we ask for forgiveness. If we have done wrong, pardon us. Do not let him die. Other lineages are prospering and our people are dying. Why are you doing this? Why do you not look after us properly?’ The words typically combine complaints, scolding, sometimes even anger, and at the same time appeals for forgiveness.
At the coming-out ceremonies for infants and at marriages, the dead members of the lineage are informed of the event; pleas are made for their approval and their efforts in insuring the success of the newborn or of the marriage and the children that will be born to it. Before the large communal hunts of the dry season, the dead members are asked to extend good luck to the enterprise. They are told that the people are hungry for meat, they are reprimanded for not granting enough meat, and they are shamed that their own people should be eating less well than other lineages.
Finally, dead members of the lineage are always referred to publicly by the living elders on all ceremonial occasions involving the lineage as a unit.
These activities clearly fit the general pattern of African ‘ancestor cults’. The ancestors are seen as retaining their role in the affairs of their kin-group and only of their kin-group. They are propriated with ‘sacrifices’. They are seen as dispensing both favours and misfortune; they are often accused of being capricious and of failing in their responsibilities, but, at the same time, their actions are related to possible lapses on the part of the living and are seen as legitimately punitive. The features of the ‘cult’ emphasize the nature of the social relationship while details of the life of ancestors in the other world are de-emphasized and are, indeed, of little interest to the Suku. It is primarily the jural context that dominates the relationship with the ancestors and not the personal characteristics they may have had when they were alive.
There is, however, one immediate problem that arises in calling this an ‘ancestor cult’: the Suku have no term that can be translated as ‘ancestor’. These dead members of the lineage are referred to as bambuta. Literally,bambuta means the ‘big ones’, the ‘old ones’, those who have attained maturity, those older than oneself; collectively, the term refers to the ruling elders of a lineage. A mbuta (singular) is literally anyone who is older than ego. The meaning is comparative. Eldership is not an absolute state of being old; being a mbuta is always relative to someone who is younger. Within the lineage, a mbuta is any older adult, older siblings as well as those of the generations above. My bambuta collectively are all the members of the lineage who are older than I, whether they are alive or dead. In jural contexts, where authority is vested overwhelmingly in the males, the term is effectively narrowed to all my male seniors. The lineage is thus divided into two named groups: those above me who are my bambuta, and those below me – my baleke- to whom I am an elder. By contrast, no semantic distinction is made within the lineage between those who are alive and those who are dead.
An elder – any elder – represents to a junior the entire legal and mystical authority of the lineage. The very fact of eldership confers upon a person mystical powers over the junior. He can curse his junior in the name of the lineage, thereby removing from him the mystical protection of the lineage. The curse can be formal and public, but it can also be secret and even unconscious. To use a contemporary metaphor, a Suku is under the ‘umbrella’ of the power of his lineage; removal of this protection exposes him to the outside world, and the world is a dangerous place to be in when one is not attached to a kin-group. As the Suku phrase it, a curse ‘opens the road to misfortune’; though it does not actively cause misfortune. An elder’s curse, always implicitly made in the name of the lineage, can only be removed by an older elder – one to whom the previous elder is a junior.
Lineage authority and the representation of the lineage to the outside world are organized on a continuum of age, that is, of relative eldership. Within this formal continuum based purely on relative age, there is also the principle of generational solidarity. Lineage members of the same generation are close to each other and tend toward greater though never actual equality. Thus, the inequality of power and authority is most pronounced between generations. It is most presumptuous for the junior generation to question, under normal circumstances, the decisions of the senior generation and the ways in which they have been arrived at. It is the generation above me that represents to me the full authority of the lineage; generational solidarity as well as inter-generational distance means that, unless I have knowledge to the contrary, I must assume that the decision of one senior represents the decision of all seniors. This generational structure also expresses a continuum of authority. If I am middle-aged, the decision by elders of the generation above me carries for me the authority of all the senior generations above me. To a junior in the generation below me, my decision similarly carries the authority of my generation together with all the generations senior to it. To the junior, then, lineage authority is most directly embodied in the generation immediately above him, and it is presumptuous for him to go over their heads, so to speak, to yet more senior generations. Conversely, the authority of eldership is most directly exercised upon those of the generation immediately below, as they in turn properly exercise it over the generation below them. Exercising authority over the second lower generation, over the heads of the intervening one, is somewhat inappropriate. This results in muting the outward expression of authority between the alternating generations of a lineage, a pattern congruent with the relaxed etiquette between alternating generations.
In any context, the lineage is fully and legally represented by the oldest adult member of the lineage who is present. Let me give a few examples. In common with many Central African peoples, the name of the lineage is formally carried by the head of that lineage. Thus, the head of the lineage Kusu is addressed as Kusu. But this general rule expresses a more complex structure. The identification of the lineage’s name with the person extends to the entire membership of the lineage; it is the lineage as a whole, qua corporate group, that holds the title. Cunnison (1951), writing on the Luapula peoples, has analysed this particular usage in which a person discussing his lineage and its history in the past, will refer to it by the pronoun ‘I’. A similar usage exists among the Suku. The oldest lineage member who is present in any situation can refer to himself by the name of his lineage, and is so addressed by others. For example, an infant who is a member of the royal lineage is addressed as Mini Kongo, the title of the Suku king, as long as no other older member of the royal lineage is present. The moment an older member arrives on the scene, the title is shifted to him. A young man of Kusu lineage will refer to himself as Kusu and, a moment later, after an old lineage mate has arrived, he will refer to him as Kusu and will cease applying the title to himself. Ultimately, of course, if all the members of the lineage are present, the title Kusu devolves upon the oldest male members of the lineage who is also its formal head.
The continuum of eldership is representing the lineage has a jural significance in inner-lineage relations. Let me illustrate with an extreme example. A young man became angry with his elders and, without consulting anyone, sold to another lineage a hunting area belonging to his own. The transaction was fully legal, since he was a legitimate spokesman for his lineage in the context in which the transaction took place. His own lineage was, of course, incensed by the action; in the old days he might have been sold or even killed. But the significant point here is that the legality of the transaction was not questioned.
In short, to those on the outside, a lineage is represented by the oldest member present. Within the lineage, the lineage is represented to any one member by any older member present and, collectively, by all older members living and dead. The principle of eldership operating within the lineage corresponds, in its external relations, to its ‘chieftainship’ (kimfumu). Lineage ‘chieftainship’ is also a relative, not an absolute matter; for the outside world, it is carried by the oldest member present. Thus, the Suku say that ‘everyone is a chief’ – just as everyone is an elder.
Let us consider now some additional features of the ritual preceding the collective hunt of the dry season. Before the hunting season begins every Suku secures hunting luck by obtaining that the lineage wishes him well, that he continues to be under its protection. The reassurance can in principle be obtained verbally from any elder; more appropriately, it is obtained from anyone in the generation above. Young men go to the middle-aged and the middle-aged go to the old. There is a pattern in asking for luck: one beseeches, one complains, one reproves, one asks forgiveness. On his part, the older man signifies his goodwill by giving the junior some pemba(white clay); he also uses the occasion to remind the young man of his obligations to the old, to scold him lightly for his past misdemeanours, and to ask his forgiveness for past misfortunes. The manner of addressing the living elder is the same as the one used in addressing the dead. The Suku regard the two activities as being not merely analogous but identical, and the differences between them as incidental and contextual. Everyone goes to his elder. If I am young, I go to my elders who happen to be alive. The old people go to their elders; but since these are dead, they are to be found at the grave or at the cross-roads at night. Given the continuum of eldership, the use of any grave, as long as the dead is older than the petitioner, is understandable. Also understandable in this context is the neglect of older graves. In the light of the structure of eldership, this neglect does not represent a ‘weak’ ancestor cult nor does it indicate shallowness of lineage structure.
If there be a ‘cult’ here, it is a cult of bambuta, of elders living and dead. Every junior owes buzitu (‘honour’, ‘respect’) to his seniors, be they ‘elders’ or ‘ancestors’ in Western terminology. A single set of principles regulates the relationship between senior and junior; a person deals with a single category of bambuta and the line dividing the living from the dead does not affect the structure of the relationship. Where the line is relevant is in the method of approaching the elder. The dead must of necessity be approached differently from the living; interaction with them necessarily appears one sided and conversations with them necessarily become monologues. Also, interaction with them is necessarily less frequent and when it occurs, it is formal – but no less formal than is the interaction with living elders on ceremonial occasions. The offer of palm wine is normal at all formal occasions when a junior approaches a senior; but dead elders, in their capacity of the dead, also have their preferred foods – the special forest mushroom and roots. Thus, it is the special methods of approach, inevitably characterizing dealings with the dead as opposed to the living, that give these dealings the special cast that makes us, as anthropologists and outsiders, call it a ‘cult’. The dead qua dead also know more and see things that living elders do not; they are, therefore, more powerful and can sometimes be more helpful. Also, though the reasons for action by any elder are often obscure to the juniors, actions by elders are particularly obscure since no explanations from them are ever possible. In short, there is a difference in the manner in which the dead are approached, in contrast to the living. But the difference is to their different physical states, even while they remain in the same structural positions vis-à-vis their juniors.
The Suku pattern described above is congruent with most ethnographic descriptions of African ‘ancestral cults’ and of the role of elders. When the Suku case may appear distinctive is in the accompanying linguistic and semantic pattern of encompassing under the single term mbuta the continuum of eldership while neglecting the line between the living and the dead. But the Suku are far from unique in this. Comparative linguistic evidence suggests that the merger or a very close semantic association of ‘ancestors’ with ‘elders’ is widespread in Africa, particularly in Bantu Africa.
The accompanying table shows the distribution of the radicals used in several Bantu languages to form terms that have been translated as ‘elders’ and ‘ancestors’. It can be seen that a situation similar to that of the Suku, with their single ‘ancestor/elder’ term, is also found in Ovambo, Lele, Songye, Nkundo, Bobangi, Ila, Lamba, Yao, Bondei, Bantu-Tiriki, and Zulu. Separate terms that are, nevertheless, very similar and derivative from the same radical, are found among the Kongo, Ntomba, Yao, Ankole, and Karanga. It will also be noted that when terms for ‘ancestor’ and ‘elder’ are reported to be different, or when alternative terms exist, the separate terms, nevertheless, derive from the same radicals that have occurred in the preceding cases. Finally, there is an occasional pattern for a single term to stand for ‘grand-father/ancestor’.
Three common Bantu radicals stand out in the table: -kula, -kale, and -koko.
The semantic core of -kulu (-kuru, -kolo, -koro, -guru)and its usual semantic field in Bantu languages includes ‘to grow up, to mature, to become adult, to become old, to be important’ (with their respective adjective and noun forms). In many languages there is a semantic drift towards ‘older’ (comparative) and ‘elder’ (noun). In some languages, there is a further drift towards ‘the old ones’, used in the English sense of ‘ancestors’. (The direction of the semantic drift is from ‘elder’ alone to the combined ‘elder/ancestor’.) Thus, an appropriate translation of the core meaning of -kulu would be the French grand (with its associated verb grandir), and ‘elders/ancestors’ formed from this radical would be rendered as les grands (a term that French-speaking Africans in fact sometimes use with striking semantic appropriateness: les grands, after all, can be alive as well as dead).
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