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ETHNONYM: Bache (sing. Unache; self-denomination)


Identification. The Rukuba live in central Nigeria, on the High Plateau at some 30 kilometers west of the town of Jos, capital of Plateau State. They are one among the numerous small groups inhabiting the region. These groups are, by African standards, demographically small.

Location. The Rukuba inhabit a rugged country and, until the mid-1950s, when some of them descended to the foothills, lived on the hilltops, where many still remain. The geography is Northern Guinea zone characterized by thickets on the hills and "orchard bush" (cultivated land on which useful trees have been retained). Elevation is about 1,200 meters; annual rainfall averages 150 centimeters and falls mainly from April to September, with a peak in July-August. The average temperature in the early dry season (December-January), when the northern wind blows, is 20.5° C; it rises to 25° C in March-April, the hottest months, and goes down again in the wet season.

Demography. The Rukuba number around 12,000 people who occupy a territory of about 440 square kilometers with a population density of nearly 27 people per square kilometer. Most of the Rukuba are farmers, and only a few Western-educated civil servants live in Jos township.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Rukuba language is classified in the Niger-Congo Family, Subfamily Benue-Congo, Group Plateau A, Subgroup 4. None of their immediate neighbors understand this language.

History and Cultural Regions

The Rukuba claim to have migrated to their present territory from Ugba, a locality about 64 kilometers northward. Their historical tradition connects them closely with neighboring peoples of different linguistic subgroups, the Jere, the Buji, the Ribina, the Amo and, some say, the Chara. This migration is difficult to date, but the eighteenth century seems the best estimate, although it might have taken place earlier. Linguistically isolated, the Rukuba nevertheless have various formal links of a ritual nature with thirteen neighboring populations that are also small by African standards. In spite of the language barrier, these peoples formally invite representatives of other groups to communal hunting, to initiation ceremonies, to certain funerals, and so on. The British, while searching for tin on the High Plateau, subdued the Rukuba in 1905. Tin extraction by soil washing began in mining camps, providing an opportunity for the local peoples to pay a newly introduced personal tax without migrating away for long periods. This explains the relative conservatism of these Plateau ethnic groups, which met the monetary needs of the British administration by getting hired in mining camps for only a few weeks a year or by growing foodstuffs for the foreign permanent residents in the same mining camps. The town of Jos also offers some opportunities to work without going far away from home.


Rukuba villages are generally comprised of a core nucleus densely populated with outlying settlements, which were originally dispersed on rocky eminences around the core nucleus. This pattern slowly changed in the 1950s, when people started migrating to their farms situated in the plains and valleys at the bottom of the rocky outcrops. Village populations range between seventy residents in the smallest ones to more than a thousand in the largest. Manured gardens, often fenced with high euphorbias, are close to the houses. A belt of small fields, usually cultivated by women, surrounds the village; the small fields are less manured, and some remain fallow for several years. Bush farms constitute another field category, sometimes at a distance of several kilometers from the village. People with faraway fields spend several weeks there in the rainy season. Such fields are never manured, except nowadays by an occasional Fulani cattle camp.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The staple crops of the Rukuba are fonio (Digitaria exilis and D. iburua ), sorghum, and late millet, the proportion varying from village to village, according to the quality of soils. Eleusine millet and sesame are also grown in far lesser quantities. Several species of yam, sweet potatoes, and cocoyams (Colocasia ) are important crops. Crop rotation is complicated. The main cereals are grown on bush farms; sorghum is planted first, for a year or two, followed by late millet for a year, and by fonio. The land lies fallow the third and fourth years, but this period may last longer. In manured fields and gardens, everything can be grown according to household needs. The Rukuba also plant peppers, okra, cucurbits, Kaffir potatoes, spinach, red sorrel, beans, climbing beans, groundnuts, Bambara nutsall told about twenty-five species. Groundnuts were introduced in the 1920s and cassava in the 1950s. The former is mainly a cash crop; however, any of these crops can be sold to feed the permanent population of the urban and mining camps. Every compound has several goats (needed for ritual slaughter), dogs (for hunting), and chickens (for sacrifices); sheep are not widely kept. Some of these animals are also sold. Horses were numerous in the 1920s; every compound owned one stallion for hunting purposes. The prevalence of horses has now drastically diminished. The Rukuba do not keep cattle, nor do they cultivate textile fibers, given that they formerly went entirely naked, except for a raffia penis sheath for the men and two bundles of leaves for the women. Hunting, which is culturally important, does not add significantly to the diet. Only those living along rivers fish; it is an occasional activity with no economic importance. Milk is not consumed, and eggs are almost never eaten.

Industrial Arts. Formerly, the Rukuba were noted iron smelters, but smelting disappeared relatively soon after the arrival of the British. A number of blacksmiths are still operating. Female potters make domestic utensils, which are sometimes sold to neighboring ethnic groups.

Trade. There was a small amount of trade with neighboring peoples. Imports were not necessary, except for salt, which came from Zaria Emirate through the intermediary of adjacent ethnic groups. Markets were unknown until the British introduced them. Eastern Rukuba go directly to the Jos main market to trade but attend the local markets to drink sorghum beer.

Division of Labor. Men and women both perform agricultural work, but the men do the heaviest part of the hoeing. Both sexes cultivate the same plants, but women specialize in groundnuts, Bambara nuts, sweet potatoes, sesame, eleusine millet, and most pulses. Men cut firewood, but women carry it home. All meals, except ritual ones, are prepared by women. Men do all husbandry and hunting. Women fish with small nets; men trap fish. Women do all basketry; men plait sleeping mats and beer filters and craft all leatherwork, such as baby carriers and sheaths for swords and knives. Mortars, pestles, wooden seats, and wooden spoons are carved by part-time specialists, of which there are only few. Blacksmithing, in spite of its high prestige, wasand still isa part-time occupation. Soothsayers and local medicine men also practice agriculture.

Land Tenure. Land passes from father to son(s), women being excluded from land inheritance because they work on farms allotted to them by their husbands. Patrilineal people tend to remain together at the same location generation after generation; if a man has too many sons, land will be sought from remote patrilateral kin whose family is depleted. Land can also be borrowed on a short- or long-term basisor even bought, from neighbors who have enough farms.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although descent is patrilineal, genealogies are not remembered after three or four generations. Patrilocality is very strong, however, and people are believed to have remained patrilineally grouped since the time of their arrival in the country. Thus, most villages consider themselves ultimately to be agnates and abide by the law of exogamy.

Kinship Terminology. The Rukuba use Hawaiian cousin terminology with bifurcate-merging terms for maternal uncles.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. For the purposes of marriage, the Rukuba population, as a whole, is divided into two exogamous moieties. According to the ideational model, each village may belong to either moiety, and there are approximately the same number of villages in each exogamous moiety. Each village is also exogamous, and every girl from one moiety must, by definition, marry into the other. For premarital relations, however, each village was endogamous; every young girl had, prior to marriage, premarital relations with young men from other patrilines of the same village. No offspring could be borne of such unions; unwanted pregnancies were terminated by abortion. A girl could have premarital relations with only one man at a time, following the payment of a sort of "lover price." The relationship had to last at least six months, but it could continue for a longer period. A girl could have several of these unions in succession before she married out, around the age of 20. This system of premarital relations led, until its termination in the 1950s, to a unique form of preferential marriage: the eldest girl of a set of uterine sisters was betrothed to the son of her mother's last lover. Subsequent sisters were also engaged to boys from their mother's natal village, the whole operation being a delayed exchange: all the daughters of a woman had to be married in their mother's natal village. This practice occurred in conjunction with another type of marriage. As soon as a girl was betrothed to her preferential mate, any man from other villages of the girl's opposite moiety could court her and she could choose one among them to become her first husband. Only 9 percent of the women had their preferential suitor as future husband. The remaining majority married first the man they had selected by free choice. The woman stayed with him for a month or two and was then escorted to the preferential suitor. The stay with him of one month was compulsory, after which the girl, now a spouse, could either remain with him or go back to the first, deserted husband. After a year, a woman could choose to remain with the husband with whom she stayed, to join the husband she previously deserted (preferential or free choice), or to select a new husband from the right moiety. All these marriages remained valid and a woman had the right to return to any of her husbands. Nowadays the woman spends the whole year with her free-choice husband and can remain with him if she likes or marry another husband. The minimal stay with a husband is a year, but a woman can stay as long as she wishes. There is no bride-wealth refund because the woman is still considered married to all her husbands, although she cohabits with only one at a time. In case of contested paternity rights, the child belongs to the husband the woman names as the father. When a woman with one child under 5 years of age moves from one husband to another, the new husband has to take care of the child, who will be sent back to his or her true father after the age of 5 to 6 years. A husband can have several wives living elsewhere, but he can also have several living with him at the same time. The proportion of men having two wives or more living together with him is only 28 percent of married men, the rest having only one. Many husbands remain wifeless while waiting for one of their wives to come back or trying to marry a new one.

Domestic Unit. The typical family household consists of a walled compound of round mud huts. The entrance, which is the kitchen and/or pounding house, is used by all the women of the compound. The owner of the house has his own room; each wife has hers as well, as do the nubile daughters. Married sons establish similar compounds very close to the parental house, one married son remaining very often within the paternal enclosure. Square huts are also to be found, but corrugated iron roofs are exceptional.

Inheritance. Inheritance passes from father to sons and is divided equally. If there are no sons, the next agnate in linebrother or paternal cousinwill inherit the most important property: land, goats, hoes, and debts, if any.

Socialization. Boys undergo a compulsory three-stage initiation following a complex calendar encompassing all the villages in turn. The first stage is normally Icugo, a ritual that initiates and terminates an entire ten to twelve years' initiation cycle. The second state is izaru, the circumcision ceremony that every boy attends before he is 7. Nowadays, however, the actual circumcision is practiced soon after birth. The third state, aso, makes the boy ritually adult before he is 12. He is then taught the principal rules regarding marriage and adultery. No initiation pertains to girls, although they play a symbolic role in boys' initiation ceremonies.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each village is divided into patrilineal clans, which have complementary duties at the village level. One clan provides the chief, and another is responsible for both the control of witchcraft and for calling big communal or intertribal hunts. Yet another clan is in charge of the well-being of all the uterine nephews and nieces of the village. Lesser offices such as rainmaker, rain appeaser, or master of the village drum can be the prerogatives of other clan chiefs or are simply vested in houses of clans that already have a more important office. Each clan chief hears intraclan civil disputes; if not successful, the case may be brought to the village chief. Interclan civil disputes are dealt with by the clan chiefs, assisted by the village chief. Criminal cases are investigated by the clan chief or, more often, the village chief.

Political Organization. The Rukuba constitute a federation of villages, each village being a chiefdom. Several villages form a section comprised of villages that ultimately claim to have originated from the section head village. There are five such sections. The section head village has important ritual duties; its chief reckons the dates of all important panethnic rituals. Politically speaking, this chief can arbitrate conflicts between villages of his section if the involved parties ask him to do so. Two head villages have a more prominent ritual role in organizing, in turn, the kugo initiation ritual. Interethnic relations were rather particularistic, some villages or even clans being either "brothers" or enemies of other neighboring ethnic groups.

The Rukuba never acted as a coordinated unit against foreign enemies. After numerous administrative experiments carried out by the British, the Rukuba were finally united in a single district in 1936, and in the early 1950s they elected a single administrative chief, assisted by the village chiefs in council, section chiefs being the more prominent among them.

Social Control. During initiation, rules of proper behavior are taught regarding marriage prohibitions and injunctions, as well as the respect of chiefs. Witchcraft is controlled through meetings attended by clan representatives. Difficult cases were submitted to a panethnic ordeal, which has now lapsed. Civil cases are still settled by clans or village chiefs, but, since 1936, they may as well be brought to the Rukuba Central Court. Petty criminal cases are tried in this court; major ones are sent to the Divisional Court in Jos.

Conflict. Most intraethnic conflicts erupted during communal hunts, over the sharing of game. They were followed by retaliatory raids, but such outbreaks were usually quieted quickly. Interethnic conflicts flared up on the same occasions; there were mechanisms to make a truce, and relations rarely remained strained for long. The Rukuba victoriously repelled attacks from the Zaria Emirate's armies until the colonial era.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Rukuba believe that the prosperity and the well-being of the land and people rests in the physical person of the village chief, who is a scapegoat. 1f prosperity fails, or if drought, locust invasions, plagues, defeats in war, or deep dissensions between the villagers occur, the chief is deposed and replaced to remedy the situation. The village chief is a variation of James G. Frazer's "divine king"; he is forced to commit a transgression, which makes him good and bad at the same time. Like any of the other divine kings, his bad part is sacrificed by proxy at regular times and one of his alter egos is also killed in the two prominent ritual villages, the beneficial effect being shared by the other villages as well. An individual's well-being also depends on his "double" residing in his mother's natal village, under the care of a clan chief. The High God is beyond reach, and ancestors play almost no role. No more than 4 to 5 percent of the Rukuba are Christians (Evangelical Church of West Africa), but they constitute the most politically active and "modernist" group. Islam has made no inroad.

Religious Practitioners. The Rukuba have two kinds of local doctors: those curing with herbs and plants, and diviners. No special power is vested in the first type, whereas the second is credited with spiritual powers. The most sought-after diviners, however, come from neighboring tribes, and Rukuba diviners are, conversely, more known across the ethnic border. Some specialize in treating illnesses coming from the maternal side of the patient.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies are connected with initiations during which numerous goats are slaughtered. Agricultural rites are not spectacular, although each clan chief has to undertake them. The most secret rituals are those connected with the person of the chief, but most Rukuba men know them. Ritual knowledge can be shared by all men, but women are supposed to know nothing about it.

Arts. There is no art in the Western sense of the word. The Rukuba decorate their village ritual hut, their village sacred pots and drums, and, in one village only, there is a septennial private display of decorated objects for the benefit of people organizing the ritual.

Medicine. Traditional curing goes side by side with other methods of treating disease. Western medicines are eagerly sought from the missionaries and a dispensary that is well attended. Hospitals in the nearby town of Jos are frequently visited, especially by Christians.

Death and Afterlife. Chiefs, clan chiefs, blacksmiths, diviners, and witches reincarnate. Their souls stay in a shooting star, or somewhere else, before reentering a pregnant woman's womb. Other people's souls simply disappear; their influence may remain, temporarily, through their bones or through curses uttered when they were alive. Burial ceremonies and mourning practices are aimed at getting rid of the dead as completely and as soon as possible.


Muller, Jean-Claude (1973). "On Preferential/Prescriptive Marriage and the Function of Kinship Systems: The Rukuba Case (Benue-Plateau State, Nigeria)." American Anthropologist 75(5): 1563-1576.

Muller, Jean-Claude (1976a). Parenté et mariage chez les rukuba (État Benue-Plateau, Nigéria). Paris and The Hague: Mouton.

Muller, Jean-Claude (1976b). "Of Souls and Bones: The Living and the Dead among the Rukuba, Benue-Plateau State, Nigeria." Africa 46(3): 255-270.

Muller, Jean-Claude (1976c). "Replication, Scission, and Territory among the Rukuba (Nigeria)." Anthropos 71:738-767.

Muller, Jean-Claude (1980). Le roi bouc émissaire: Pouvoir et rituel chez les rukuba du Nigéria central. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Muller, Jean-Claude (1989). La calebasse sacrée: Initiations rukuba. Grenoble and Montreal: La Pensée Sauvage; Presses de l'Université de Montréal.