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ETHNONYM: Yakurr (the official Nigerian spelling)


Identification. The Yakö numbered 38,204 people at the last published census ( 1953) that listed their settlements separately. They have for the most part been administered from Obubra Town, but have variously been included in Ogoja Province (under British and early Nigerian administration), in Cross River State (in the 1970s) and, in Akwa Ibom State of southeastern Nigeria, West Africa.

Location. The territory of the Yakö, just over 150 square kilometers in area, centers on 5°50 N and 8°15 E and lies south and west of the middle Cross River. By road, the area is about 110 kilometers north of Calabar. The valleys are prone to flooding in the wet season; movement along the ridges is easier. The wet season begins with moderate rain in April and May, and heavier rains commence in June. In July there may be a break in the rains, but by August heavy rains return and normally continue until November, when there is a sharp drop in precipitation, followed by a drought that lasts from December to March. The drought of the dry season is exaggerated by the geology. As the population is concentrated into five very large settlements, the problem of obtaining a good water supply in the dry season has long been of concern to the people.

The natural vegetation of the area is that of dense tropical forest, transitional between the evergreen equatorial forest and the mixed deciduous forest of the area farther north. Much of this forest remains, or did until the latter half of the twentieth century, in the wettest, low-lying areas that present the greatest problem both for farming and for timber extraction. The drier, upland areas have, however, been farmed to the extent that few trees of any size remain. In consequence of this deforestation and because of the activities of hunters, few large mammals remain: elephants were extinct by the beginning of the twentieth century; buffalo were disappearing by the 1960s; leopards have long been rare; hippopotamuses, which were not uncommon on the Cross River while the "Dane gun" was the usual weapon of the hunter, have diminished in numbers owing to the increase in sophisticated weaponry since the Biafran war. Bush pigs, antelope, monkeys, lemurs, civets, porcupines, and pangolins, all formerly common animals, are now suffering severely, both from direct attack by humans and, more indirectly, from the loss of habitat.

Demography. The population of the Yakö has increased markedly throughout the twentieth century. By the mid1930s, the population was reported to have increased "rapidly" over the previous two generations. That this increase has certainly continued may be judged from the fact that a careful estimate of the population of the main town, Ugep, in 1935 placed it at 11,000, but that in 1953 this figure had risen to 17,567, despite the absence of any significant immigration.

Linguistic Affiliation. The main language, Kö, is of the Eastern Subgroup of the Delta-Cross Division (Cook 1969) of the Cross River Subbranch (Greenberg 1963) of the Benue-Congo Language Division. Its links are thus to languages to the south and east of Nigeria. Among four of the five main Yakö towns, only minor dialectal differences exist; the language of the town of Ekuri, in which no social research has been done but which is claimed to be Yakö, is classified by linguists as a markedly different dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

For the history of the Yakö prior to the twentieth century, one is dependent on oral tradition, first collected in the mid1930s. It has been related that the ancestors of the Yakö migrated northward, relatively recently and perhaps as late as the early nineteenth century, from the area of the Oban Hills, which lie to the southeast. These traditions sometimes suggest that various non-Yakö groups, as well as the proto-Yakö, dispersed from this area; however, the only other people known to share this tradition with the Yakö are the Olulumo of Okuni, who live separated from them, much farther up the Cross River, near Ikom. According to Yakö traditional accounts, the dispersal took place as a consequence of quarrels; their ancestors came overland, not by the river, in various groups over a number of years. According to these accounts, the migrants settled first at the present-day agro-towns of Idomi, Nko and Umor (present-day Ugep). Discontent at Umor led to the founding of Ekuri and Nkpani by dissidents. According to other traditional accounts, however, the residents of small, matrilineally based hamlets in the vicinity of these towns moved for safety into the security of the larger settlements because of warfare. These two sets of traditions are not ultimately incompatible. Traditions do not elaborate the nature of the "warfare," and there does not appear to have been either one major enemy or a particular fear of raids by external slave traders. There are, nevertheless, stories of sporadic conflict between the major Yakö towns, and also between Nko and the Mbembe-speaking village-group of Adun. Indeed, both the Adun and the Nko agree that the Igbo speakers now living in the border area between them are settlers who were invited in to form a buffer zone between their two societies. A further factor may have been that the members of some Yakö men's societies were particularly noted as headhunters. This activity was common to most local groups, but it is agreed, both by the Yakö themselves and by their neighbors, that they were outstanding for their success in this field. The fact that head-hunting was ritually forbidden only between fellow townsfolk, not between members of the different Yakö towns, may be a major factor in accounting for the striking size of the Yakö settlements (which were much larger than those of the neighboring Mbembe, for example, who ritually prohibited head-hunting between linked but separated villages). European influence began to have an effect only in the last years of the nineteenth century. In 1895 the British were engaged in extending their influence up the Cross River, particularly with a view to breaking the power of certain (non-Yakö) river trading settlements that were seeking to control all traffic on the river. That year, a small expedition of 200 members of the Constabulary and their indigenous allies attacked the Ekumuru town of Ediba, from which some traders regularly went to deal with the Yakö. Serious clashes took place the following year at the Yakö settlement of Ekuri, near the river. According to Adun traditions, influential traders had organized a resistance force consisting of groups from the Adun as well as the Yakö. This force was defeated, however, and Ekuri was burned by the British, apparently ending concerted opposition, although it was reported in 1905 that the Ekuri themselves were still defiant. By this time, however, a rudimentary administrative system had been established over the Yakö area, and warfare, although not at first including head-hunting, was effectively stopped. Prior to the establishment of British control, the main outsiders to visit the Yakö areas regularly were a few traders based in villages farther down the Cross River, especially from the area of Agwa Aguna. Individual traders established personal links with a particular town and enjoyed protected passage between that town and the river. In addition, associated with the traders, there came also cult experts, who seem to have organized profitable group trips to consult certain well-known oracles (especially the "Long Juju," in the Agwa Aguna area). Thus, although travel was not easy for anyone prior to the establishment of peaceful conditions by the British government, trade goods and new cults were able to circulate. Moreover, there was a considerable degree of cultural borrowing, so that, for example, men's associations with the same name have long been established not only in the different Yakö settlements but also in neighboring non-Yakö villages. Best-known of these associations was the Ekpe Society of Calabar, which many traders joined, probably because it provided them with useful links to local influential men, who considered membership prestigious. Local branches of Ekpe were certainly established in the nineteenth century: they are recorded by the first district officers in 1902. Christian missions and schools had also been established by the early 1930s, and by that time the district officers were making efforts to involve younger local men in new forms of administration. By the 1960s, the area had a high rate of literacy and political sophistication. By then, too, a few Yakö men who had gone on to higher and technical education were pursuing prominent careers outside the district. There was also some temporary migration of unskilled workers to the towns; this migration owed less to dire necessity than to the fact that young men were reluctant to earn money as hired laborers at home, perhaps because hired labor had become associated with work done by the somewhat despised, Igbo laborers who had immigrated temporarily from the Abakaliki area. The construction in the late 1960s and 1970s of a roadultimately stretching from Enugu to Calabar through the western end of the Yakö area, with a bridge over the Cross River (replacing a somewhat problematic ferry crossing)has greatly increased contacts with, and movement toward, the outside world. The district, although not entirely unscathed, was less damaged than most of eastern Nigeria by the events of the Biafran war, and it is still a predominantly agricultural district. No detailed study has been undertaken in this area since that war and since the road was built.


The Yakö live in large, compact, agro-towns that rank in size with many Yoruba towns. These towns have been referred to in the anthropological literature as "villages" only because most of their inhabitants farm. Each of the five Yakö towns was, prior to British rule, a politically independent unit, and the people began to refer to themselves as "Yakurr," instead of identifying themselves by the name of their town, only in the postindependence years. Each town except Idomi is divided into three or four small residential areas, or wardsyekpatu (sing. kekpatu ). Only exceptionally do such groups have any tradition of ultimate common descent; rather they are/were purely residential groups whose inhabitants farmed in the same general area. They were the main secular political units of the town, but they formed important ritual units only insofar as the rites were concerned with the defense of the area from external dangers. Until the post-1945 period, when questions of public health began to be seriously considered, a Yakö village seemed to be a continuous spread of compounds separated only by narrow alleyways. Each ward, however, had its own central assembly place, where certain shrines were located, where ward leaders and ward-based men's associations met, and where the men of an age set, organized on a ward rather than on a townwide basis, might also be called to meet. From the assembly place of each ward, a path led to the approximate center of the village, where a rather larger assembly place was located, close to the substantial compound of the town head. The compounds that composed the wards were normally approached through narrow alleyways leading into enclosed spaces that focused on the house of the compound head, which was flanked on both sides by the houses of his wives, each of whom was entitled to her own house. So far as possible, sons built within their father's compound. The houses were built of wood or, more usually, of mud daubed with wattle, and were roofed with a palm-frond thatch. This material decayed rapidly, and, because the houses of the dead were not repaired, there was usually room in the traditional compound for new houses or new occupants as they were needed.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Yakö are primarily agriculturists. Their main crop, except where the soil is exhausted, is the yam, and traditionally all other cultivation was subordinated to its requirements; however, subsidiary crops such as cocoyams, maize, okra, and pumpkins are also grown. Where the soil is poor, cassava, which is less demanding, may be grown instead of yams. In very wet areas, rice is a relatively recent introduction. Tree cropsbananas, plantains, kola nuts, papaws, and coconutsare grown within the village and along farm paths. The most important tree, however, is the oil palm, which is planted in groves and is protected when found growing wild in the bush. The Yakö acquire palm wine by climbing the tree and tapping the inflorescence; they can therefore satisfy their desire for wine without destroying the tree. The traditional social and ritual activities of the Yakö did not preclude their active involvement in palm-nut collection. Indeed, it seems to have been palm oil that particularly brought traders to the Yakö areas, and trade in palm oil long supplied Yakö men with their only important cash income.

Small domestic animals have long been of some significance: cats (as catchers of vermin), dogs (as scavengers), and chickens were found in almost every household. Sheep and dwarf goats were quite common. There were a few pigs and ducks, the latter valued particularly for ritual because of their association with water and "coolness." Originally, dwarf cattle were kept primarily as status symbols by a few wealthy men, but during the colonial period some of these animals were sold to Igbo, who came to buy them for reasons that were also related to prestige. In the 1950s an attempt was made by the veterinary service to make such animals of economic significance, and, to this end, bulls of a larger breed were lent to the Yakö towns.

Industrial Arts. There were very few specialist artisans among the Yakö. Exceptions were those who carved wooden ritual and ceremonial objects and other woodworkers. Blacksmiths were itinerant non-Yakö. There was no strong tradition of pottery or basket makingpots and baskets have long been supplied by traders. On the other hand, new skills have rapidly appeared: bicycle repairer, tailor, photographer, and lorry mechanic have become quite common occupations for young men.

Trade. Most local traders operated on a very small scale. The most common form of trading was carried on by men who, usually while also pursuing farming activities, bought up small quantities of palm oil from local households and transported it to the trading depots on the Cross River. Women were also petty traders, in palm kernels. Trade at the end of the nineteenth century seems to have centered on the exportation of palm oil and the importation of cloth, gunpowder, and salt. Fom then on, and right up through to the 1950s, trade experienced a steady growth, but one that was limited by the restrictions on the availability of products for sale. Four of the five Yakö towns lack easy access by water to the Cross River, and, for that reason, although the traders from downriver were, in general, keen to buy yams (and the Yakö had plenty of them), yams did not fetch a price high enough to warrant the cost of hiring people to carry them on their heads to collection points. Thus, until the road network was substantially improved, palm oil continued to be the main export. Each Yakö town had a biweekly market, but, until the 1940s and 1950s, these remained essentially places for the exchange of household surpluses and local food specialties. Non-Yakö women brought to market dried fish and various vegetable produce, and hunters brought dried meat from the forests to the east. To some extent, non-Yakö male traders seem to have entertained exaggerated fears of Yakö headhunting and to have been discouraged from making casual expeditions into Yakö territory, although a few who had good contacts visited regularly. The building of the bridge over the Cross River and of the road linking Calabar and Enugu has obviously transformed this situation.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was a complex formula for determining who did what aspect of farm work. At its simplest, men, at the beginning of the farming year, cleared the bush from the land to be farmed in that season. This is usually heavy work, and traditionally it was done by working parties of patrikinsmen, the size of which was related to the prestige of the farmer concerned. Clearing parties did the basic work, but the fanner, either on his own or with a small group of kinsmen, had to dig out most of the smaller roots and collect and burn the rubbish. Women then hoed the yam hills, and men planted the yams. Women weeded the crop and later put in plants other than yams on the sides of the mounds; men trained the yam vines so that they grew up the supports placed between every few yam hills. Women continued to weed throughout the growing season. At harvest time, the farmer dug up his yams and, if he had a substantial farm, carefully organized women and younger men so that they washed and carried the yams to his storehouse, where they were checked and tied separately to racks in big "barns." The main point at which labor constrained farming was in the hoeing of yam mounds: the Yakö, like the Mbembe, regarded it as beneath the dignity of a mature farmer to hoe his own yam mounds. Therefore, from the 1920s onward, working parties from northeastern Igbo groups on the right bank of the Cross River have been hired to do this work, at which they are particularly skilled. They work with hoes far larger than those used by Yakö women.

Land Tenure. Government legislation has made most Nigerian land, in principle, alienable, which must be effecting great changes in Yakö society. Until this legislation was passed, Yakö land had been considered inalienable. Land was claimed by the five agro-towns, each of which had its own exclusive territory. Beneath this level, the land was divided into great blocks extending outward from the town itself, with each block claimed by one of the wards of the town. The ward head had ultimate secular responsibility for the ward land, both on ordinary occasions (e.g., choosing the day the paths from the ward to the farmland were to be cleared at the beginning of the farming season), and in the event of serious disputes. These disputes, in practice, were likely to occur between the members of different patrikin groups because each ward was divided up territorially into patrilineal kin groups, within which most rights to land were inherited. Between these groups, there was no assertion of ultimate common descent; therefore, disputes could not be settled by senior kinsmen. It was the ward head and the prominent men within the ward, recognized formally as the leaders of the ward as a spatial unit, who had to ensure that quarrels over land did not disrupt the community. The lands of the different patrikin groups within a ward were often intermingled, thus occasioning fairly frequent disputes. In general, however, the men of one such kin group would, in any one year, make their farms along the same minor farm path. A senior man of the kin group, acting as the "Farm-Path Elder," sought to resolve any problems over land between men of the kin group. A young man, when he married, was allocated some of his father's land by his father; initially his farm would almost certainly be small, restricted by the limited number of essential seed yams that he and his wife could initially amass. When his yams grew in number, so that his father could no longer be expected to provide for him directly, the father was expected to go to the Farm-Path Elder to ask for land on the son's behalf. Thus plots of land were not necessarily passed directly from father to son; most land was controlled by the patrilineage, which retained authority over the plots once they had been initially cleared from forest, even though they were normally left fallow after one season's crops had been harvested. The normal expectation was that a man could claim sufficient land to plant all his seed yams, and in the mid-1930s it was commonplace for men of the same lineage to have farms of different sizes, depending upon their resources in yams and on the skill and dedication of the work force that they were able to command. As a consequence, old men seldom had the largest farms. Until the land of the ward as a whole came to be perceived as scarce, a man who came from a lineage that for some reason was short of land found it a relatively cheap and simple matter to obtain temporary rights to land in the area of a different lineage. Matrilineal kin groups claimed certain residuary rights to particular tracts of land. By the 1930s, these rights normally had been restricted to that of matrikin to enter such tracts on the death of an elder and freely to take palm wine from any suitable tree, even one already prepared for tapping by a man with a patrilineal claim to the land. The Forestry Department then paid a royalty to the town for felling certain particularly valuable timber in these areas, and the matrikin groups immediately and successfully claimed a share. Matrikin groups have ritual associations with water; accordingly, it was the matrikin and not the patrikin who could claim the right to any groves of the valuable raffia palm, which must be planted in swamps.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Yakö were the first group with double unilineal descent to be well described. The lowest-level patrilineal group was the eponama (pl. yeponama ), which traced descent to a common ancestry, three to five generations back. The men of this group normally lived with their wives in a cluster of several adjacent compounds and recognized a senior man as their head, although the position was not formally recognized. These patrilineages were aggregated into patricians (yepun ; sing. kepun ) that were also territorially compact. Each had a name that referred both to the group and to its dwelling area. In some contexts, the men would imply that they shared common descent from a patrilineal ancestor, but, when they were quarreling, they would assert distinct origins. Nevertheless, they all recognized the relevance of a common shrine (e-pund-det ; lit. "shrine of the patrician"), at which the dead of the patrician were supplicated by the obot kepun, a formal, primarily secular, official. This man was, ex officio, one of the leaders of the ward, although the majority of ward leaders were not heads of patricians. All those born within the patrician were bound by rules of exogamy. Matriclans (yajima ; sing. lejima ) were complementary to the patrilineal kin groups. Because residence was patrilocal for men whereas women moved out, the members of any matrilineal group were necessarily dispersed within a town and, to a limited extent (limited because most marriages were endogamous within a town), between towns. Formally, the rights and duties of the two sets of kin groups did not conflict. Patrikin were concerned with land, residence, and work. Matrikin groups were concerned with the transmission of property that could be physically moved and with claims over individuals. At death, an individual's wealth went to the matrikin, and responsibility for debts was borne by them. If an individual injured or killed another, recompense was paid between matrikin. A sorcerer was thought to be able to attack only a junior matrilineal relative, just as, in the past, only a senior matrikinsman could sell a junior into slavery. The ties of matrikinship were deeply ambivalent.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is complicated by the necessity, in formal contexts, of expressing relationships to Ego's own matrilineage and own patrilineage, as well as relationships to Ego's father's matrilineage and mother's patrilineage. In practice, most kin are addressed by name most of the time, and kinship terms are used primarily as terms of reference, except where particular deferenceusually because of a marked difference in ageneeds to be expressed, or where groups of kin gather for rites and ceremonies and have specific rights and dutiesparticularly at funerals. The mother's brother and all senior male matrikin are referred to by the same term as the one used for sons of Ego's own mother and her sisters: it is most simply translated as "brother"; however, the mother's brother may be addressed by a respectful term that is also used when speaking of one's own father. The father's brother is referred to and addressed by the term used for one's own father, and his children are, literally, "children of the father." A single reciprocal term (okpan ; pl. yakpay ) is used between Ego and the mother's patrikin and between Ego and children of the father's matrikin (and, thus, between Ego and the children of the mother's brother).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The nuclear family is the nucleus of the Yakö household, but the majority of middle-aged men have more than one wife; older men, however, tend not to be notably polygamous. Sororal polygamy was not approved. Men very seldom divorced their wives, but wives, certainly since at least the early twentieth century, have had considerable liberty to leave marriages they disliked and remarry, provided only that they did not remarry within the same patrician. The patrician that supplicates at the same e-pun-det shrine is an exogamous unit (despite any gossip about what may have been different ultimate origins). The matrilineage (but not the matriclan) is also exogamous. Kin are, of course, involved in marriage: the patrikin of the groom are concerned with the bride who is coming to live in their midst; her matrikin, who will be replenished through her offspring, are concerned ritually with her fertility, and, traditionally, they organized, for a girl's first marriage, both visits to matrilineal shrines and a clitoridectomy rite (female circumcision was common throughout much of the middle Cross River area). Other groups are, however, involved in marriages even more than the kin. For a first marriage, the age mates of the bride's mother and those of the groom's father play very important roles; a married couple turn for help in any marital difficulty mainly to their age mates, not to their kin. Ultimately, the town as a whole is concerned with the marriage of its women, given that the great majority of marriages are endogamous within the town.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, a girl did not take up residence with her husband's people until the birth of their first child. In her husband's compound, she had her own house and was not subservient to the wives who were already in residence. In the event of divorce, the wife had the right to take her younger children with her. Her daughters stayed with her and her new husband until they themselves married. Her sons were supposed to return to their father's compound, at least when they were old enough to farm; however, in practice, it seems to have been quite common for them to become effective adoptees into the patrikin groups of the stepfather.

Inheritance. The fact that houses and land have traditionally gone to patrikin and movable goods to matrikin is crucial to the distinct existence of patrikin and matrikin groups. By the mid-1930s, however, it was being reported that sons resented the transmission of the father's wealth to the matrikin. Whether inheritance is now effectively patrilineal is doubtful because debts are also inherited by the matrilineal heir. The Yakö have not been a heavily indebted people, but the outstanding men who had the most property to leave were likely to join various men's societies and omit to pay their full fees, which consequently became charges on their heirs; inheritance was not an unmixed blessing. There was no strict rule about inheritance in relation to particular children. Houses of the dead were allowed to fall into ruin, and the sites were then claimed by sons about to marry. Fallow land passed within the patriltneage, but not by strict division to brothers or sons. The main matrilineal heir was the person who was prepared to take responsibility for debts and the general cost of the funeral; this person then allocated the deceased's personal possessions to the kin, taking the main share for himself or herself.

Socialization. In Yakö society, as in others in the area, great emphasis was placed on a child becoming a well-behaved member of his or her age set. Children were taught from the age of 6 or 7 that they must not quarrel with their age mates; rather, they must cultivate the self-discipline to meet obligations toward them and settle any disputes in an amicable mannen It is preferable to accept decisions counter to one's interests than to alienate one's age mates.

Sociopolitical Organization

Although indigenous political integration did not extend beyond each agro-town, it is clear that so many people were resident in these settlements that their organization and the maintenance of relatively peaceful and orderly conditions within these towns depended on a high level of social and political skill.

Social Organization. Each town was divided into wards, which in turn were subdivided into smaller territorial units claimed by patricians. Within each ward, age sets cut across these smaller units and united men and women of the same age, regardless of kin affiliation. The political significance of this arrangement was, of course, particularly salient for men because they were residentially more restricted to patrikin areas than were the women. Each man was in many respects ultimately dependent on his age mates rather than on his kin. Since adjacent age sets were traditionally hostile to each other, rather like rival groups of football supporters, each set developed a strong esprit de corps that was an important counter to kin rivalries and provided a firm basis for work groups to be mobilized for communal activities on behalf of the ward. The many societies provided additional territorial rather than kinship links; the most important of them were solely for men and operated on a townwide basis. These societies imposed sanctions, sometimes as severe as death, on those who flouted their rules. They therefore became targets for action by the colonial administration in the very early years of the twentieth century. By the mid-1930s, it was already difficult to determine their precise political significance in the indigenous system. It seems probable, however, given the fact that their entrance fees were high, that they were to some extent vehicles for the exercise of power by the more wealthy members of the community.

Social Control. Problems of social control, when they involved fellow group members, were dealt with by the leaders of those groups; however, because the Yakö lived in such large settlements, other control mechanisms were also utilized, notably the granting of rights to important men's societies to punish particular categories of offenders by seizing and eating their matrikin's livestock. It was then in the interest of these kin to bring the recalcitrant members into line. As male matrikin were dispersed, this system had the advantage that such a sanction did not antagonize territorial groups.

Conflict. There was a specific war society (eblembe ) for each town. The most meritorious way of entry into such a society was by payment of a fee and proof of success as a warrior, especially the presentation of an enemy's head. Officeholders had titles indicating their military functions (e.g., Leader on the Path and Leader of the Rear Guard). Upon the death of a member, it was the duty of his patrilineage to supply a successor and pay a joining fee.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yakö recognized a creator, Obasi, who was invoked as the ultimate power in many rituals and at many shrines, but their beliefs about Obasi were not elaborated. More immediately significant were the Dead, the Yabö (who were not necessarily direct ancestors) and the various spirit agencies that might act independently (but more commonly were intermediaries with the Dead, who were the source of blessings and of all the information revealed to diviners). The Yakö borrowed and incorporated a wide range of cults from neighboring peoples, fitting any that seemed powerful into the appropriate category of spirit agency, hoping that they would be an effective defense against witches, sorcerers, and other malign influences. Each territorial and kinbased group had at least one associated cult. The Yakö were unusual as compared with the neighboring Mbembe (who were also people with double unilineal descent) in that they ascribed mystical powers to matrilineal priests. The head of a matriclan was a male priest who was believed through his induction rite to gain fellowship with the Dead: this enabled his spirit, or kidom, to mingle with them. By ritual, he could make fertile both women and the earth itself. Jointly, the matrilineal priests within each town performed the seasonal rituals that were considered essential for the well-being of all its people. These rituals, because they united people across the great secular divisions between wards and patrikin, seem to have been politically crucial in that they created a sense of town unity that transcended these divisions. The leader of the village, the obot lopon, was the ritually senior matriclan priest; as such, no matter what his patrilineal affiliation, he took up residence in a particular compound that was adjacent to the ritual center of the matrilineal cult. The obot lopon was in close contact with, and in some sense dominant over, the town's corporation of diviners. The final induction of a new diviner into the corporation depended on formal acceptance by the obot lopon. Matriclan priests and diviners each wore on one finger a ring given to them in the ritual of induction. It was this ring that enabled them to "see" and move among the Dead and the water-traveling sorcerers, who included sorcerers from the Dead among their number. Some believed that the wearer, however sick, could not die until this ring was removed. Priests and diviners were linked in ritual; in the absence of formal dogma, much of what people believed, the essential ideology, depended on what they were told by diviners when these were consulted about illness and misfortune. Matriclan priests seem generally to have denied that they used their powers for nefarious purposes, but the diviners so commonly ascribed death and illness to the sorcery activities of the priests that their clients must have doubted their innocence. The strength of the people's beliefs in the mystical powers of the matriclan priests seems to account for the politically significant role of the matriclan priests in uniting each town through matrilineal rituals, although effective secular power seems to have rested with the leaders of the wards. The balance was achieved not by some Machiavellian conspiracy but by the very potent beliefs about the mystic powers for good and ill that were controlled by these "Lords of the Rings"beliefs in some ways reminiscent of those ascribed to the chiefs of the Bangwa of southern Cameroon.

Religious Practitioners. A new matriclan priest, usually a middle-aged rather than an old man, was chosen by the elders of the clanin consultation with the other matriclan priests of the town because, in principle, the latter could veto the elders' choice. The rituals of induction then gave him his mystic powers. A new diviner, who might be male or female, first manifested signs of a kind of possession by a deceased diviner, always related, and only subsequently underwent a final induction by the senior diviner, in the presence of the other diviners and the matriclan priests. A new diviner, once possessed by a former diviner, could "see" the Dead and was driven/taken to the bush by them to be shown "medicines" and small objects of mystical power, which were then collected to form the core of a shrine through which the Dead could subsequently be contacted in séances. Public sign of the new vocation was given by the diviner when he or she brought uprooted "trees" back to the town and tossed leaves from the trees onto the veranda of each of the other diviners. Between this announcement and the final induction, the diviner could see and hear the Dead and those with mystic powersbut not ordinary people; he or she necessarily passed them in silence, without returning any greeting. At the final induction, the head of the diviners put medicines in the eye of the novice, who, looking at the sun, claimed to see certain stereotyped indications of blessing. The ring was put on the diviner's finger and, afterward, contact with the Dead was in the diviner's control. Effectively, the novice had returned, for most purposes, to the mundane world. Diviners were consulted when people had serious problems. Ailments believed to be minor were treated by men or women who used various leaves and roots as nonmystical cures.

Ceremonies. The principal Yakö ceremonies are linked to agriculture, to the life cycle of the individual, to the induction of diviners, to the induction and burial of priests, and to the induction and burial of members of important societies. The burial and funeral ceremonies for adults involved presentations of gifts between the different kin groups and social organizations to which the dead person belonged, and thus made manifest the complexity of each individual's social ties; naturally the funerals of the politically and ritually important were the most elaborate. The ceremonies of greatest general significance, however, both ritual and political, were the agricultural ceremonies, of which the main ones were those of First Planting, First Fruits, and Harvest. The rites were conducted by the matriclan priests, and the First Fruits and Harvest rites were highly elaborated and necessitated the collaboration of the most significant social groups in each town: the wards; the important men's societies and women's societies, with their masked dancers; and the corporation of diviners. The core rituals included processions lasting several days to all of the matriclan shrines and to other important shrines of the town. At least in formal terms, the Yakö acknowledged the dominant ritual position of the matriclan priests. The themes of the rites stressed the appeal to spiritual forces for the well-being of the town as a whole and for its defense against mystical enemies. In addition, especially through the parading of the men's societies, the ceremonies asserted the power of the town against secular external foes. During the First Fruits rites, which persisted into the 1950s, it was dangerous for a stranger from another place to travel within the territory of the celebrating town or wander through its streets at night.

Medicine. The Yakö regarded almost all but minor illnesses as the result of attacks or errors made by humans. They could be caused by witches; by water-trave ling sorcerers; by vengeful people who covertly placed small objects in powerful shrines and later removed them to wreak harm on some particular enemy; by ghosts of the recently dead; or by the spirits that were associated with shrines if, through some carelessness or greed, an individual trespassed on the places that they guarded. The early illnesses of infants were usually attributed to the desire for recognition by the reincarnating ancestor. It is possible to make certain generalizations about diagnosisfor example, that the conditions that involved pneumonia were likely to be ascribed to water-traveling sorcerers. The Yakö were, however, essentially pragmatic: if the treatment prescribed by the diviner who had made a particular diagnosis failed to result in a speedy cure, the patient could have recourse to another diviner who, finding out about the first failure, might diagnose not only a different treatment but a different cause.

Death and Afterlife. A person's spirit (kidom), which in the case of a matriclan priest, diviner, water sorcerer, or witch can travel separately from the living body, journeyed at the death of each individual to the linked town of the Dead (located beneath each town of the living), where behavior, involving farming and going to market, was much the same as in the town of the living. In the normal case, the proper burial rites insured a swift journey for the kidom; if, because of some unclean sickness, the rites were abnormal and the body were buried outside the town, then the transition was delayed. Until this transition had been effected, the dead person could not indwell a child. A dead person was not restricted to being reincarnated within a single child (diviners who had to name the reincarnating ancestor were quite likely to associate the name of a well-known person with several children). There were also some beliefs about Bad Dead: if the Bad Dead indwelt a child, he or she quickly died; a woman who lost a succession of children was assumed to be the victim of the Bad Dead and had to make special sacrifices. Except in this sense, however, no moral distinction was made between the different Dead. In dealing with the affairs of the living, the Dead were motivated by their own interests; they were not believed to make value judgments between the living based on the behavior of the living toward one another.


Cook, T. L. (1969). Benue-Congo Newsletter 6 (December). Cyclostyled.

Forde, Daryll (1951). Marriage and the Family among the Yakö in South-eastern Nigeria. London: Percy Lund Humphries & Co. for the International African Institute.

Forde, Daryll (1962). "Death and Succession: An Analysis of Yakö Mortuary Ritual." In Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations, edited by Max Gluckman. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Forde, Daryll (1964). Yakö Studies. London, New York, and Ibadan: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.

Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963). The Languages of Africa. Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication no. 25. The Hague: Mouton.

Harris, Rosemary (1957). Field notes.

Partridge, Charles (1905). Cross River Natives. London: Hutchinson & Co.


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