Gbaya people

Gbaya

Gbaya / Gbeya / Baya

The Gbaya, also Gbeya or Baya, are a people of western region of Central African Republic, east-central Cameroon, the north of the Republic of Congo, and the northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Numbering about 970,000 by the late 1800s, they originated in northern Nigeria. The Gbaya were known for their strong resistance to the French and slavery, and revolted against them for three years starting in 1928 when they were conscripted to work on the Congo-Ocean railway.

These widely scattered Gbaya populations have never been united. Rather, they are divided into many regional sub- groups. Each of these subgroups is in turn divided into many clans called zu duk. Members of the same clan consider themselves to be related to a common male ancestor. Today, however, clans no longer recall who their first ancestor was.

The Gbaya (pronounced by-uh) are one of the main cultural groups of northern equatorial Africa. They number about 1 million overall. Gbaya speakers live in four modern countries, mainly the Central African Republic and Cameroon, with smaller numbers in the Congo Republic and Zaire.

In rural areas, the Gbaya cultivate mainly maize, cassava, yams, peanuts, tobacco, coffee and rice, the latter two of which were introduced by the French. Today, many of the Gbaya people are Christians, though witchcraft is practiced, known as dua.

The lands inhabited by the Gbaya lie mainly between four and seven degrees north of the equator. They cover an area of about 120,000 square miles—about one and a half times the size of New York State. With a population of only 1 million people, this area is one of the least populated parts of central Africa. This allows plenty of space for farming, which is the main Gbaya occupation today. In the past, the Gbaya also hunted large and small animals, gathered wild plant foods, and fished in local streams and rivers.
Most of the Gbaya region is a high savanna, or grassland. Small forests are found in the river valleys. There are five months of dry season (November through March), and seven months of rainy season (April through October). Temperatures remain warm throughout the year.

Sub groups and languages

Subgroups of the Gbaya include the:

  • Bokoto
  • Kara
  • Kaka
  • Buli
  • Bwaka
  • Mbodomo
  • Lai
  • Dooka
  • Bofi
  • Biyanda
  • Gbeya,
  • Suma
  • Ali
  • Gbanu
  • Mbusuku
  • Yangere
  • Bokare
  • Yayuwe

Each of these Gbaya peoples speaks a different version or dialect of the Gbaya language. Some of the dialects are easily understood by speakers of other dialects. However, some dialects are so different that it is difficult for people from different regions to understand each other. The cultures of these Gbaya peoples also differ, but they are similar enough to indicate that the Gbaya groups all have a common origin.

(TP. C. Burnham Map)

Gbaya people map

History

The Gbaya numbered about 970,000 by the late 1800s, after fleeing the holy war of Usman dan Fodio in the Hausa area of northern Nigeria early in the century. In what is now northern Cameroon they experienced conflict with the Fulani ethnic group. The Gbaya were resistant to the French colonialists in the early 20th century. In the early 1920s there was a strong backlash after many of them were enslaved as porters and labourers, and developed into a revolt in 1928-1931 when conscription was introduced in the building of the Congo-Ocean railway.

The Gbaya people felt discriminated against in the political sphere, even after independence from the French. It was only in the 1990s that a notable number of Gbaya leaders began to be admitted into higher administrative positions in government. More recent estimates of the population differ markedly, from 1.2 million, down to 685,100, of which 358,000 are native to Cameroon.

 

Economic and cultural practices

In rural areas, the Gbaya cultivate mainly maize, cassava (staple food), yams, peanuts, tobacco, coffee and rice, the latter two of which were introduced by the French. The diamond industry took off in the late 1930s and still remains important. The agriculture method of Gbaya is called "swidden", a type of "slash and burn" farming where the forest is cleared, vegetation burnt on top of the cleared land, the farm used for a few years, then abandoned and the families move to a new area.

The Gbaya make an alcoholic beverage prepared with honey which is known as kuri. Kam, is a Gbaya porridge made from cassava. Today, most of the Gbaya people are Christians (50% Protestant, 33% Catholic), about 12% follows original indigenous beliefs, with only a minority of Muslims (3%). Witchcraft is known to be practiced, and is known to the people as dua.

Stories and rituals of the Gbaya people are a feature of everyday society. The rituals employ martial arts equipment such as two edged swords and throwing knives.

 

POLITICAL GROUPINGS AND LEADERSHIP

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Gbaya subgroups are divided into numerous clans, or zu duk. Before colonial rule, the zu duk avoided being ruled by a central government, but they worked together to resist political domination. Clans would join under the command of great leaders to ward off enemies. Otherwise, each Gbaya clan was an independent unit. Neighbouring clans sometimes fought over the available natural resources in their region.
Each clan lived in several small, scattered villages, or hamlets, each housing several dozen persons.
Under French colonial rule, small Gbaya hamlets were forced to join together into larger villages. These villages were under the authority of government-appointed headmen. These villages were organized into separate residential zones called ndok fu or nu begara.
In some cases, Gbaya war leaders became permanent chiefs. In the western regions these chiefs formed military and trade links with the Muslim Fulani states. The western Gbaya chiefdoms adopted many of the political customs of the Fulani, but the Gbaya further east resisted this foreign system of government. The Gbaya continued to resist all forms of centralized government well into the colonial period."

 

MAINTAINING SOCIAL ORDER

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Traditional Gbaya villages had no chief. All elders were considered equal. Because of this it could be difficult to settle disputes in the community. Long term feuds between families in a village were likely to divide the group. Opposing parties often went their separate ways to start new villages. Since the Gbaya traditionally planted few trees or other permanent crops, they were willing to move to new farmlands, which were readily available in the thinly populated savannas. Today, with the construction of government schools, clinics, wells, and other fixed facilities in many villages, people are not so likely to leave their villages because of a dispute. It does still happen, however.
Many conflicts in Gbaya villages are related to witchcraft. According to Gbaya belief, witch- craft is caused by a substance, known as dua, found in the abdomen of certain people. Dita gives its carrier the power to harm others. This witchcraft substance is thought to be inherited from a parent.
Despite the harm that may be caused by dua, the Gbaya do not believe that this power is necessarily evil. A Gbaya proverb states, "The cleverness of the tortoise is in the tortoise's belly." Some Gbaya folktales portray the tortoise as a trickster who often outwits other animals. In other words, the dua in some people's bellies may be used for good as well as for evil. The powers of famous leaders and priests or diviners are thought to come from dua.
When misfortune or disputes arise, a member of the village may be suspected of witchcraft. Villagers may consult a wau gbana, a person who is thought to have the power to detect witchcraft. If the accused person accepts that his or her dua might be causing the misfortune, that person can undergo a ceremony to "cool" the witchcraft force.
In the past, an accused person who insisted that he was innocent might be given a drink made from poisonous tree bark. If he vomited up the poison, he was considered innocent. If he died, he was guilty. The relatives of the accused, however, could contest the verdict. They might demand that there be a search for the actual dua in the dead person's belly. If none was found, the accusers might have to pay a large fine, or be ordered to give a child to the dead person's kin group. Today, such poison ordeals and dua autopsies are outlawed by the government. Belief in witchcraft is still common among the Gbaya, however. It continues to cause disputes in Gbaya communities."

 

LIVELIHOOD / AGRICULTURE, HUNTING, AND FISHING

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Most Gbaya are farmers. They practice a method known as shifting cultivation. First, trees and vegetation are cleared from a plot of land. Then the land is scorched with a controlled fire. After the soil has been cultivated for several years, it is left fallow for a decade or more. This allows the worn-out soil to become rich and fertile again. Shifting cultivation requires the farmers to move to new farmlands every few years.
Cassava, also called manioc, has been the main staple food crop among most Gbaya peoples since the 1700s. Related to the potato, cassava was brought to central Africa from Brazil by the Portuguese. The Gbaya prepare cassava as a stiff porridge called kam, which is eaten with vegetable or meat sauces.
Cassava has a number of advantages over the native foods that it replaced, such as millet, sorghum, and yams. First, it is easier to grow.
This is important because there was always a shortage of labour in this region. Second, cassava can be harvested throughout the year. This means that the crop does not need to be stored for long periods of time. Fresh tubers may be dug up whenever needed. This is a good way to prevent famine. Third, cassava can grow in most kinds of soil, as long as it has sufficient water.
Other important Gbaya crops include corn, peanuts, beans, sweet potatoes, and yams. Cotton was introduced during the French colonial period. It is now the main cash crop in some areas, especially in the Central African Republic.
Farm work in Gbaya society is done by both men and women. The women do most of the work. Men clear trees and bush from newly opened fields, using axes and machetes. Women are in charge of much of the day-to-day work, such as planting and weeding. Men and women each have separate cassava fields. However, women are expected to dig up the manioc roots and prepare them by soaking, chopping, drying, and pounding them into flour, and then sifting the flour. Most families also have corn fields. These are worked and harvested by the whole family.
In the past, the Gbaya spent a great deal of time hunting to add to their diet. Their region used to be rich in big animals, including elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion, wild pig, and several species of large antelope. Today, although there is no longer much big game, Gbaya still hunt smaller animals, such as duikers and other small antelope, monkeys, baboons, porcupines, cane rats, squirrels, snakes, and birds.
Two main hunting traditions exist among the Gbaya: the individual and the communal. Individuals hunt all year round using spears, crossbows, bows and poisoned arrows, and many varieties of traps. Individual hunting is a daily event without special rules. On the other hand, communal hunting occurs only at certain times of the year. Some Gbaya groups use long nets for their communal hunting. They drive the animals ahead of them to be caught and speared in nets that are hidden in the bush. Other groups of Gbaya use dogs to chase the game toward lines of waiting hunters. Communal hunting is a kind of festival. Able-bodied men leave the village on a day-long hunting expedition. The women spend most of the day preparing a feast to welcome home the hunters.
In addition to farming and hunting, the Gbaya also fish. Just as in hunting, the Gbaya have both individual and communal fishing traditions. Individual fishing with hook and line or traps is something that anyone can do routinely.

In the past, the whole community held a special fishing event every year. An eider, called the watt do, led the event. The community dammed a small river and then threw in crushed herbs that poisoned the fish.
The Gbaya also use other natural products of the forests and savannas for food, medicines, and crafts. They know how to use hundreds of species of plants in their environment. Men gather wild honey. Some even construct hives to attract swarms of wild bees. The honey is used by the women to make kuri, a fermented alcoholic drink, which is a seasonal replacement for beer made from corn."

 

LIVELIHOOD / MARKET AND TRADE

(TP. C. Burnham)

"In pre-colonial times, Gbaya crops were used entirely to feed family and friends. None of the food was sold for money. At that time, there was no money in daily circulation. The iron blade money mentioned above was used only for ceremonial exchanges, such as the payment a bride's father received from his son-in-law. There were no Gbaya marketplaces until the Hausa and Fulani traders introduced them in the 1800s.
Allied clans often bartered items or exchanged gifts. Long-term trade friendships were established between individuals from each clan. The leader of one clan would invite the leader of a nearby clan and his followers to come for an extended visit. The visitors were feasted by the hosts, gifts were exchanged, and marriages were arranged. The guests joined the hosts in farming and hunting activities. At the end of the visit, the guests were sent home with valuable gifts. In return, they would be obligated to invite their hosts to their village in the future.
Since the 1800s, however, the Gbaya have shared their región with members of other eth- nic groups who had originally come there to trade. Today, the Gbaya region is dotted with marketplace towns, where traders and customers of different ethnic groups congregate on certain days of the week to buy and sell. The Gbaya bring their agricultural and craft products to sell. From the Hausa and Fulani merchants they buy clothing, household wares, kerosene for their lamps, and other consumer goods.
Since the early 1900s, the Gbaya region has also been the home of Fulani nomads. The Fulani graze their large herds of cattle in the high pastures next to Gbaya villages. They trade their beef, milk, and butter for Gbaya crops. Traditionally, the Gbaya raise goats and chickens, but some have also taken up cattle raising in recent years."

 

BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Birth among the Gbaya takes place in the mother's house, surrounded by the close family. News of the coming birth is not spread widely in the village. This is to prevent witchcraft or other supernatural dangers from harming the mother or child. Older Gbaya women, or the mother's own mother, act as midwives. They have special knowledge of herbal medicines that ease the birth. The midwives vigorously massage the mother's abdomen to make the baby feel uncomfortable so that it will want to leave the womb. If there is a problem with the birth, the Gbaya believe that the mother may have com- mitted some fault. She is urged to confess publicly. This removes the danger to both herself and her child.
A child is usually named in honour of a senior relative or close friend of the family. The birth of twins, known as be dan, is considered to be a fortunate event. It can, however, bring the risk of supernatural danger to both the parents and the children. Twins in Gbaya society are always given special names—Zari and Gbane for female twins and Ngozo and Tuwe for male twins.
From the time of the twins' birth until they have learned to walk, their parents must observe certain behavioural rules. All four of them must undergo a special purification ceremony in a small hut that is built alongside the family house. On the day of the ceremony, the spirits are invited to enter the house by the blowing of a whistle. The leader of the ceremony takes the parents and the infant twins into the bush. There the leaves and bark of certain trees are collected to be used in a ceremonial bath in a stream. The wild pepper vine, known as gaa dan, is especially important in this ceremony. Its Gbaya name can be translated as "peace (of the) twins." Following the special bath, which washes away the dangers of twin births, the parents and babies return to the village for a feast of celebration.

There are reasons for the precautions taken at the birth of twins. The Gbaya believe that everyone has a spirit double, known as dan te, which normally remains invisible. When twins are born, one may represent the spirit double of the other. To the Gbaya, a twin birth does not happen by chance. It has been sent by the spirits. If the parents of twins do not follow the special rules of behaviour regarding twins, their children will die and return to the spirit world.

Early childhood is mostly a carefree time for the Gbaya. However, as soon as children can talk, they begin to learn the rules of good behavior. Children learn to respect their elders, even if the difference in age is small. In the Gbaya language, there are separate words for "eider brother" and "younger brother," as well as "eider sister" and "younger sister."The order of birth is very important.
From an early age, Gbaya children begin to look after their younger brothers and sisters and to do chores for their parents. They go with their parents to the fields and learn about farming. Young boys begin to hunt with small bows and spears made of sticks. It is a proud day when they bring home the first bird or small animal they kill. When girls are seven or eight, they learn how to cook by helping their mothers prepare cassava and other foods."

 

INITIATION

(TP. C. Burnham)

"In traditional Gbaya society, there were many ceremonies to celebrate the different life stages of both men and women. These initiations varied from one Gbaya group to another and could change according to fashion. Today, although many of these initiations have fallen away, initiated persons are still highly respected in Gbaya villages.
Circumcision for boys was carried out at about the age of five. The operation was not accompanied with a special ceremony. The initiation for children of eight to ten years of age was called diang for boys and naayeng for girls. The child must undergo minor ordeals, such as being rubbed on the buttocks with nettles with- out crying. The children were also taught special dances and had a feast. These childhood initiations were symbolic for the Gbaya.
An eider named Kombo Banda of the village of Bouli in Cameroon told the following story about initiation: Children used to wander in nature without food or guidance. They paid no attention to their parents' authority. But one day the parents prepared a large feast for the children and, after the feast, taught them the dance of diang. By accepting the food from their parents and by dancing under the direction of their elders, Gbaya children learned about the social ties and moral rules that bind a community together.

These simple childhood initiations were followed by more intensive initiation during teenage years. The bana for girls, and the labi for boys prepared the initiates for adulthood and marriage. The bana, a puberty ceremony practiced by Gbaya Kara groups of the north-western Central African Republic, was the most difficult of the girls' initiations. It involved physical ordeals as well as training in song, dance, and moral education.
The most widespread of the Gbaya initiations was the labi, for boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen. This elaborate ceremony, in its full form, lasted for three years. During this time, the boys lived in a bush encampment separated from the village. As Western-style education carne to the area in the 1950s, labi initiations conflicted with school attendance. The ceremony was first shortened, and then abolished. Today, the labi is practiced only in some of the more remote Gbaya regions in the Central African Republic.

The labi began with a ceremony symbolizing the "death" of the boys. They were "speared" by the senior initiator, the naminga, while swimming in a small pond. The "dead" boys were dragged from the water by initiated older men and carried off to the bush camp. There they were ceremonially revived. They were scarified on the stomach as a permanent reminder of their labi "death." The boys were forbidden to speak the Gbaya language until the end of the initiation period. Instead they had to learn the secret labi language reserved for initiated men. They were separated from women and children and were forbidden to reveal the secrets of the labi to uninitiated persons. Each boy was given a labi name or title. This indicated his particular role in the initiation camp and dances.
During the period of labi initiation, the boys were given lessons in hunting and bush craft, and trained for their life as adult members of the community. They were taught many songs in the labi language and trained in rigorous dances. At the end of their long period of initiation, the boys returned to the village. There they per- formed their elaborate dances in public. They were showered with gifts from their relatives, and their mothers prepared a feast to celebrate their rebirth as adult men."

 

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Marriage among the Gbaya is not just a union between two people; it is also a union between two kin groups. The Gbaya forbid marriages between members of the same clan, or zu duk, as well as between individuals who are related in any way. Each family wants its child's spouse to be of good character and hardworking. Prior to marriage, each family makes sure that there is no history of witchcraft in the other family.

The betrothal period lasts for a year or more so that the parents can be sure they have found a good match for their child.
Gbaya girls are considered ready for marriage once they have reached puberty. Most will be engaged by the age of sixteen. Gbaya boys wait until they are somewhat older, usually eighteen or nineteen. When a boy has found a girl he wishes to marry, he will show his intentions by giving a gift of a chicken or other meat to the girl's parents. If the girl and her parents are prepared to allow the boy to court her, they will prepare the gift as a meal for themselves. If they do not agree, they will return the gift uneaten.

A boy who is regarded as an acceptable suitor must begin to make bride wealth payments. These payments include money, cooking pans, pieces of cloth, goats, machetes, hoes, and spears. After these items are received, they are divided among the girl's parents and relatives. The amount of the bride wealth is negotiated by the families. It usually takes the suitor several years to pay in full. Today, the total amount can cost the equivalent of $100 or more, which is 25 to 50 percent of a typical Gbaya person's annual income. For a boy's first marriage, his father is likely to pay most of the bride wealth for his son.

During the engagement, the boy must also perform bride service for his future parents-in-law. He spends several periods of a week or more at the girl's village. There he helps with farm work, wood cutting, and house building. He also goes hunting with the girl's father. During these visits, he is allowed to enjoy meals with his fiancée. While the young man is in bride service, the girl's parents will observe their future son-in-law carefully. If he does not seem to be a good worker, the girl's parents may decide to repay the bride wealth and not give their daughter to him.

Often a girl has several suitors at one time. They all compete during the bride service period to win the favour of the girl. Eventually, she and her parents will pick one of the boys and return the bride wealth payments to the others. Today, Gbaya girls have more control over the choice of their husbands than in the past. Gbaya parents usually let their daughter marry the man of her choice.
During the betrothal period, the girl visits her prospective husband's village. There she helps his mother with chores around the house and shows what a good wife she will make. Since the girl will move in with her husband's family after marriage, they are particularly concerned to see that she is hardworking and respectable.

The future husband must build a new house near the other homes of his family and plant new fields for him and his wife. The young man must now settle down and become a responsible household head.

Many Gbaya fathers today complain that their sons do not take the preparation for marriage seriously enough. Fathers also complain that the older generation has lost control over the younger generation. They believe that this is because there is no longer a labi initiation, which used to train boys to become adults. Gbaya youths in the rural areas today are attracted by the more modern lifestyle of the towns and cities, which they learn about in school, on the radio, and from visitors to the village. Before settling down to a life of marriage and farming in the village, young Gbaya men often travel to town, where they visit relatives and seek paid employment.

The marriage of a new couple occurs when all the preparations to welcome the new bride to her husband's village are complete. The young man's family celebrates by having a feast. Moving away from home and joining her in- laws' village is a difficult transition for many Gbaya girls. Her husband must show his respect and support for his new wife or she may run away, back to her own family.

The birth of the couple's first child is a happy event in their marriage. Should the couple not have children after a year or two, they may decide to divorce. Other common causes of divorce include adultery and domestic violence. In the event of divorce, the wife's parents must pay back all of the bride wealth that they received at the time of the marriage. Because this repayment is often difficult, the families try to encourage the couple to settle their differences and stay together. The Gbaya marriage is seen as an important linkage between two family groups and not, as in other societies, mainly a personal relationship between the husband and wife.

A woman marrying into her husband's village is at first viewed as an outsider (called koo kana, "stranger woman"). As she bears children for her husband's family, she gains acceptance into the family. Older women who have had many children are highly respected members of the community. They may take on important roles in the community's ceremonial life.

Wealthy men in Gbaya society may sometimes practice polygyny, that is, marry more than one wife. In this way, they demonstrate their social status, father more children, and head a larger household. Women's attitudes toward polygyny vary considerably. In some cases, a first wife welcomes the arrival of a second one. The two women share the work and keep each other company. More often, however, a first wife discourages her husband from taking another wife, fearing that a second wife and her new children will compete for her husband's attention. Today, polygyny is becoming less common, but it is still practiced. Women are not the only ones opposing it. Men are also finding that it is increasingly difficult to support more than one wife."

 

AGING AND DEATH

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Age brings greater status for men and women in Gbaya society. As long as elders remain men- tally alert, their words command great respect. As senility sets in, however, the elderly are treated more and more like children. They are looked after and fed, but are also made fun of for their mental lapses. They are seen as ready to join the world of the ancestral spirits. When death eventually comes to them, their funerals are a mixture both of sadness for their departure and of celebration for their achievements and long life.

The elder's body is buried on the day of death in the courtyard of his house, accompanied by drumming, mock battles, and hunts per- formed by his friends. These symbolize his great deeds in life and are meant to honor him. The dead man's children are then called to the grave- side. At the time of his death, the man's children rub their faces with charcoal. This prevents his spirit from recognizing them and cursing them for any hard words that may have come between them. Each child now throws a piece of charcoal into the grave. The pieces of charcoal are counted to determine how many children the man had.

Next, the man's eldest son picks up a shield and declares, "I will take over for you. Go well!" Then the period of the funeral known as nana gore ("female relatives of the dead") begins. The dead man's younger brother collects the spears of all the mourners and sticks them in the ground. He then says that those present should "pulí the spears out of the ground to see what happens."

Anyone who pulís a spear from the ground is declaring his friendship for the dead man. But it is also at this moment that certain members of the dead man's family may blame other relatives for the man's death through witchcraft. The sisters and daughters of the dead eider often blame his wife. As a koo kana, a "stranger woman" to the village, she is not trusted. The suspected per- son may be ritually, that is symbolically, beaten by the dead man's female relatives.

When it is an aged person who has died, this nana gore ritual is done partly in jest. However, when it is a younger person who has died, the ritual is likely to be much more serious, because witchcraft is usually suspected as the cause of death. Few deaths in Gbaya society are thought to be due to natural causes alone. When a person is killed by snakebite or crushed by a falling Gbaya tree while preparing a field, the Gbaya usually suspect that a witch was the deeper cause behind the accident.

Following the day of the funeral, the widow (or widower) enters a period of mourning known as gera. During this time, he or she eats litde and does not wash. This period lasts for three days in the case of a man's death and four days for a woman's. (The Gbaya consider the number three as the "male" number and four as the "female" number.)

During gera, the dead person's spirit is thought to be lurking in the bush nearby. The surviving spouse uses certain herbs to keep the dead person's spirit from returning to the house. At the end of the gera, the surviving spouse must remove the dangerous "pollution" of death, known as simbo. Certain plants are used in a ritual bath to "cool" the danger of simbo. Following this ceremonial washing, the surviving spouse retums to regular daily life. However, he or she must continue to observe special rules of behaviour for a year, until the full mourning period has ended.

Some elders are especially important in their communities, or have earned reputations as great hunters, or, in the past, as great warriors. The family of such an eider may decide to commemorate his deeds several years after his death. The family holds a second funeral celebration, known as gbanga fio. Guests are invited from far and wide, and large quantities of food and corn beer are prepared for this feast. The eldest son of the dead man leads the ceremony, and there is dancing to the beat of large drums. At the end of the several days of celebration, the dead man's nephew (the son of his sister) sacrifices a goat or chicken beside the largest drum. He makes a short speech to the assembled crowd, asking the dead man to bless his living relatives."

 

WORLDVIEW, RELIGION, AND PHILOSOPHY

(TP. C. Burnham)

"Gbaya traditional religion includes a creator god, So e wi, along with various lesser spirits, so.
In this religion, human beings themselves are believed to be made up of several spiritual aspects. There is omi, "breath," which disappears at death. Dan te, literally "friend of the body," also called so te, "spirit of the body," is the spiritual essence of the person. It is this part that becomes an ancestor after death. Giyo te, a person's shadow, is an extension of a person and is sometimes associated with so te. Ho te, "phantom," is the part of a person that leaves the body during sleep and roams around.
The seat of a person's emotions and senses, according to the Gbaya, is in the liver, se. Many words that the Gbaya use to express their feel- ings contain this term. For example, yim se, "anger," literally means "pain in the liver," while dang se, "sorrow," literally means "bad liver."

So e wi, the creator, is a distant god that is not involved in day-to-day affairs. When Gbaya try to influence events through prayer or sacrifice, they first cali upon the spirits of close male or female ancestors, so da and so na.

There were no specialized priests or religious organization in traditional Gbaya society. All religious actions were carried out at the family or village level. In traditional religion, which is still followed today, the eldest son of a deceased man prays to his ancestors on behalf of his own immediate family and the families of his younger brothers. He sacrifices a chicken on an altar behind his house from time to time, asking his ancestors to give him and his relatives’ abundant food and good health.
At the beginning of the dry season, a senior eider leads the whole village in an annual sacrifice. He prays to the spirit of the place, 50 kao, while standing next to the large rock or tree where it lives. So kao is thought to control success in agriculture and hunting in the area. Sometimes a village suffers from poor crops or bad hunting, and sacrifices to so kao do not improve the situation. Then the village may decide to move its location, since "the kao has been ruined" in that place.

In addition to these regular prayers, the Gbaya also perform several ceremonies to counteract bad luck or to settle disputes that are troubling the village. The ceremonies zanga nu and pi gangmo both use water and tree leaves to "cool" the heat of supernatural dangers and to end arguments. As a Gbaya proverb declares, "A place of quarrels is a place of death." The Gbaya believe that arguments between members of the same village not only cause tensions, which may split the village apart, but can also bring curses against the place. In the pi gangmo ceremonies, a senior woman of the village plays a prominent role. She uses the leaves of the Gbaya "peace tree," sore, along with other ingredients, to purify and "cool" members of her village.

The Gbaya think that certain actions are contaminated with supernatural danger. Many Gbaya ceremonies are designed to wash away the simbo, or "dirt," of quarrels, fear, pollution, and death. Certain animals, such as the leopard and the eland (a large antelope), and people who were killed in war are thought of as carriers of simbo. A hunter or a warrior who has killed a simbo animal or person must undergo a cleans- ing ceremony before returning to his village.

Although many elements of Gbaya traditional religion are still observed today, Gbaya have now been in contact with Islam and Christianity for many years. Most Gbaya have been converted to one of these world religions. Sometimes aspects of traditional religion are combined with Islam or Christianity.
Islam was brought to the Gbaya by the Fulani during their jihad, or holy war, in the 1800s. Islam is still strongly used among the Gbaya groups in the northwest.
Today, many Gbaya are members of various Christian churches, including Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal. American and French missionaries began the conversion of the Gbaya to Christianity. Now many Gbaya have themselves been trained as pastors. Since there is no traditional Gbaya chief in a village, Gbaya pastors often play leading roles in their communities today."

 

MUSIC AND DANCE

(TP. C. Burnham)

Music and dance are important parts of Gbaya daily life. However, there are no professional musicians in Gbaya society. From early childhood, all Gbaya participate in communal singing and dancing. Children play the various Gbaya musical instruments—drums, thumb pianos (the sanza or timbiri), mouth-harps, rattles, and, in some areas, xylophones.
Those who have the skill and motivation continue to practice on their own. As adults they may gain a reputation in the village or region for their talent. These people are often called upon at feasts, dances, and ceremonies to play their instruments and lead the singing. They perform both well-loved traditional songs and pieces that they have composed themselves.
Today, many young Gbaya still learn to play traditional instruments and sing traditional.

 

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