Mambila people



The Mambilla or Mambila people of Nigeria live on the Mambilla plateau (in 'Sardauna' local government area of Taraba State in Nigeria). A small fraction of Mambilla migrants left the Mambilla Plateau for the Ndom Plain (also known as the Tikar Plain) on the Cameroon side of the international border as well as in a couple of small villages, such as New Namba, further north towards the towns of Gashaka and Banyo. The preferred ethnonym is spelt Mambila in Cameroon and Mambilla in Nigeria. "Norr" is also used (the word for person in Nigerian dialects of Mambilla) (Bami-Yuno, ms).

Mambila people map

The Mambila occupy the border regions of Nigeria and Cameroon, but pay little attention to the artificial borders made by these governments, crossing them at their leisure. There are an estimated 25,000 Mambila living in this area. The ancestors of the Mambila were members of the original Bantu language dispersion that began 2,000 years ago, but beyond this fact, little history is known of these people since few stories have survived through the generations.



The Mambilla / Mambila people of Nigeria and Cameroon regard themselves as a group with a common identity. They are the denizens of the Mambilla Region, and have been in their homeland for upwards of 4,000 years (Zeitlyn & Connell, 2003). In Nigerian dialects they refer to themselves as 'Norr' (the people) while in Cameroon there is a collective noun 'Ba' that is used in the unmarked sense to refer to the Mambilla, and also to refer to Mambilla in Cameroon on the Ndom or northern Tikar plain (see below) contrastively with neighbouring Mambilla on the highlands of the Mambilla plateau who can be referred to as "Bo ba bo". The populations of different Mambilla villages speak different dialects of Mambilla or closely related Mambiloid languages. They also share a set of closely related cultural practices, in particular a conjunction of masquerade and oath-taking called "suu", "shua", "sua" or "shuaga". In the Somie (Ndiba) dialect this is phonetically written as [ʃwaɣa]. See discussion in "Sua in Somie" cited below. A locally written French language historical source for Somie history is Zeitlyn Mial & Mbe 2000.

The Mambila language is a congeries of dialects and related languages. The SIL Ethnologue database gives two codes MCU for the Cameroonian dialects and MZK for the Nigerian dialects. See the survey work of Bruce Connell on the VIMS website cited below, and the article on Mambiloid languages. The Common Mambilla or Tungbo Dialect is the most widely understood Mambila dialect in Nigeria. It is also the literary language of Mambilla for the vast majority who inhabit the Mambilla Plateau. The Mambila New Testament known as 'Li Fa' and several Mambilla Language study texts are written in the Common Mambilla dialect for Nigeria. A New Testament in Ju Ba is also available for speakers of Cameroonian dialects.



Most Mambilla live on the Mambilla plateau with their modern capital at Bommi (Gembu in "Sardauna" Local Government. ). 6.713833°N 11.25002°E in Taraba State of Nigeria [Note that the traditional and historical name of this local government area has been "Mambilla", and that the "Sardauna" misnomer is a modern imposition by external or non-indigenous peoples, particularly, in conjunction with the defunct Jega Government of 1984]. This is a highland plateau, the northerly continuation of the Bamenda grassfields. The plateau is dissected by many rivers (notably the River Donga) leaving a complex geography of steep valleys separated by highlands (all of similar altitude). The Gang Peak, located in the northeastern corner of the Mambilla Plateau, on the Mambilla-Gashaka-Cameroon tri-point boundary zone, is Nigeria's loftiest landform. Villages are found both on the hilltops and on valley bottoms, and are relatively isolated from one another particularly during the rainy seasons when river crossings can be difficult (and impossible for motorised transport). Agriculture is concentrated on the valley bottoms while the highlands have been extensively grazed since the 1940s, i.e. since the immigration of cattle graziers towards the end of British administration (it was part of British Cameroon until the referendum of 1959/61). There has been overgrazing and erosion has caused considerable problems from the late 1970s onwards.

A smaller number of Mambilla, migrants from Nyo or Mvor in southern Mambilla Plateau and other villages, are to be found on the edge of the Ndom (northern Tikar) plain in Cameroon at the foot of the escarpment of the Mambilla Plateau. The principal Cameroonian villages are Atta, Sonkolong and Somié. This is an area which, beginning from about A.D 1790, they, in a piece-meal fashion, progressively captured from the Twumwu, a pre-Tikar group that inhabited the Ndom Plain (Zeitlyn & Connell, 2003). At an altitude of some 700 m, these Ndom villages live in a different ecological zone from those of the Plateau: for example, oil palm plantations and gallery forest are found there.



Linguistic evidence indicates that Mambila ancestors were members of the original Bantu linguistic split that occurred approximately 2,000 years ago. It is also probable, given the close similarities between languages spoken in the immediate area of northern Cameroon and adjacent Nigeria, that the split occurred in this very region. Descendants of the Bantu have expanded across Africa to the eastern coast and south to the Cape in the years since that split occurred. The Mambila themselves moved slightly southwards as a result of Fulani pressure from the North in the 17th and 18th centuries.



Traditional Mambila economy was based on the production of cereal crops including sorghum, millet, rice, and maize. Now they also grow bananas, yams, groundnuts, pumpkin, peppers, and many other small crops. Domestic animals include goats, chicken, dogs, and occasionally cattle. The Mambila and their neighbors, the Fulani, are very dependent on each other. The Mambila trade crops with the Fulani for milk when they are in the Mambila territory with their cattle. Some hunting and fishing is done, but neither contribute significantly to the daily economy. Both men and women are involved in farming.

Men and women share most of the labor, clearing land, planting, cultivating, harvesting, bamboo cutting, building homes, and making clay pipes for smoking. A kurum is a mutual assistance work group that the Mambila created to help each other with labor and social contact during dances and rituals associated with farming. Tasks that are held only for men are weaving cotton, blacksmithing, woodworking, terra cotta sculptures, and braiding fiber. Trade is passed down from father to son, but if a man has no sons, he will pass down his knowledge to a daughter. Besides the shared labor tasks, women take care of the children and making basketry. Children, however, are not allowed to work until the age of twelve.


Political Systems

Political authority within individual communities is invested in a hereditary headman, who is assisted in his duties by a council of elders. The Bamilike are matrilineal to a higher degree than most of their neighbors. Children become the property of the woman's family and are often cared for and adopted by the mother's brother. There are also secret masking societies, which contribute to community social order through initiation and public education.



Most of the people in this region have been influenced to some degree by the Moslem Fulani, and the Mambila are no exception. They have not forgotten their practice of commemorating and remembering the ancestors through sculpture and prayer. Both Moslem and Mambila religions exist side by side, each one serving its own purpose.

Today, the Mambila practice either Christianity or Islam along side their indigenous religion, which includes witchcraft, spider/crab divination, and rituals relating to lunar cycles. There is some disagreement as to whether the Mambila practice ancestor worship. Some aspects do exist, however, since many believe that when ones dies, the ancestors take their soul during the night and chiefs and other important leaders are buried in the granaries to promote life and prosperity.

Somié is a village rich in religions that coexist in a considerably harmonious relationship. Beside the traditional religion, Sua, which is practiced by most of the ethnic Mambila and arrived with the first wave of Mambila immigration in the 18th century, the main world
religions present are Christianity (66%) and Islam (approximately 33%). There are two Christian churches and, presently, a mosque is being built to accommodate the growing numbers of Nigerian Mambila immigrantas as well as other Muslim ethnicities. The coexistence of these religions is promoted by flexibility around the timing of ritual events, and chiefs of Mambila villages have been rescheduling dates for the Sua masquerades in order to enable Muslim Mambila to practice Ramadan as well as to participate in the masquerades.

The practice of Sua can be considered an ethnic marker and is the most important feature uniting Nigerian and Cameroonian Mambila. In addition to this, Mambila commonly subscribe additionally to one of the other world religions. To illustrate the widespread practice of Sua in Somié, Zeitlyn notes that he only knew “of one man (a catechist) who refused to use divination because of his Christian belief” (Zeitlyn, 1994:15). The main features of the Mambila traditional religion are the belief in witchcraft (lɔp), oath taking, and the Sua masquerades, which are held separately; the men’s every year and the women’s every two years.


Villages and culture

The Mambila live in small, localized family hamlets. A system of marriage exchange was traditionally practiced but is no longer followed. After marriage, new homesteads are established near the husband’s father’s hamlet. Most men have only one wife, however it is acceptable for a man to have more than one.



The Cameroon Mambila and the Nigeria Mambila differ in how their villages and government institutions are run. In Cameroon the government is a chiefdom, a social hierarchy where an individual’s rank is determined by his closeness to the chief. The chief has symbolic leadership where they are in control of the social, political, economic, and religious systems. In Nigeria the leadership is more informal. Leadership is invested in hereditary headmen who form a council of elders in each community. “Chiefs” have ritual authority, but no real political power. In both of these communities there is also a secret mask-making society, composed of men, who contribute to the social order through their initiation and public education roles.

The Mambila have a rather democratic society, with work shared between men and women, and are one of the only communities in West Africa where equality between individuals is stressed.



The Mambila Plateau lies north of the grasslands. The inhabitants developed unique art styles of sculpture made of clay, terracotta, pith, and wood. Wood carving is done primarily by men, yet there is no one specific specialist. Tools are a creation of the carver themselves, creating tools as needed. Things like chisels, curved knives, straight knives are made by the sculptor. Using these handmade tools leaves room for error and never leaves and entirely smooth surface. Sculptures with heart shaped faces symbolize the earliest artistic endeavors, while current mask display stylizations of birds, beasts, and humans. A majority of Mambila figures in the Mambila Plateau were taken by art traders in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving very few figures and sculptures to be documented. The most documented figures of the Mambila culture are Tadep and Kike figures.


The main purposes of tadep figures are to honor ancestors of the Mambila people. When creating the tadep the carver will only use one piece of wood, usually a soft wood like pith from a raffia palm. All tadep forms are of humans because they are created to honor and recognize ancestors.

Tadep figures serve many functions for the Mambila. Tadeps personify a healing spirit, protect the shelter from thieves, and encourage fertility. Tadeps are stored in the entrance way of a shelter for ceremonial objects that the elder in the community watches and maintains. These figures, along with other ceremonial objects, are hung above the entrance. The tadep figures are treated rather casually, if one falls to the ground it is left to decay and be pecked and kicked by chickens and goats. It is not uncommon for tadep figures to be replaced every year.

Common attributes among all tadep figures are the circular eyes, the almond shape mouth, the elongated nose connected to the eyebrows, the feet apart, and the hands in front of the body Noticeable in most tadep figures are holes, scratches, and a generally beat up appearance.

Manbila - Tadep figures

Tadep depict male and female pairs usually carved from low density wood. They can also depict singular figures of multiples of one sex. Kike are figures carved and made from the pith of raffia palm. and are larger statue type figures. These figures would often be placed inside of granaries, while other statues are displayed on the outside as well. These objects were sacra of associations related to illness and healing. Tadep and Kike were part of the Sauga association.

There are several eccentricities that set their art apart from other cultures. Mambila figures made of soft pith, and the attachment to shrines and sacred enclosures are something that only certain sexes are allowed to see. The pith figures were to act as embodiments of visiting ancestral spirits. Ancestral spirits guarded family treasures located within shrines by embodying these figurines. Another distinction is the annual application of their color scheme of red, white, and black to functioning objects. The male figure had a small opening in the abdomen as a receptacle for food particles, while the female figure had a blocked off abdomen opening.


Subsistence agriculture

As in many other parts of Africa (Etkin, et al, 1994) the economic base of Somie is intensive, largely non-mechanized agriculture supplemented by live stock raising (cattle monopolised by Fulbe people, pigs by Mambila, goats by both) and trade in food crops and
plant products, as well as locally manufactured commodities. Corn (Zea mays), cassava (Manihot esculenta), yam (Dioscoreaceae), cocoyam (taro, Colocasia esculenta), oilpalm (Elaeis guineensis) and groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea) are grown as staple crops and, since
the 1950s, coffee (Coffea robusta) as a major cash crop. Corn and groundnuts are increasingly being grown as a cash crop, by both men and women (figure 5). This production is supplemented by various leafy vegetables, wild plant collecting, small-scale livestock management (chicken, pigs, goats), fishing, trading plant related products (such as plantains (Musa spp.), basketry and crafts. Land tenure is gendered and men and women have their own fields, sharing the responsibility for household food production. Crop production is largely polycultural in fields and home gardens (kapti) of different sizes that host plant assemblages of varying complexities. Cultivation, weeding and harvesting are labour intensive human activities assisted by hired tractors for initial ploughing, and periods of intense fieldwork are often organised in work parties in order to get optimum access to labour from the community (Zeitlyn, 1994:54)7.


Tawong Festival

During the biannual dance that takes place in June or July and November or December, the young unmarried people of the villages are allowed freedom of sexual experimentation. Typically after the dancing and pairing off of the unmarried, they celebrate the planting of crops with a celebration that happens only for men. Men travel from village to village for festivities which include dance, sports, and form friendships that promote intertribal relations. Masks are worn during this time and can only be seen by men. The "Suah Bvur" is a mask of the first rank, typically like a helmet and worn over the head, resting on the wearers shoulders. It is always accompanied by a number of second rank masks like the "Suah Dua", which rest on top of the head. Almost all masks and art figures are kept from women as they are not allowed to see them, or be any part of them.

Mambila art Mambila art Mambila art


The market

Located in the centre of the village, the market of Somié is renowned in the wider are where vendors from as far as Bankim (c. 70 km away) trade imported consumer goods (torches, radios, cloth and clothing, domestic utensils, farming implements, cosmetics, paraffin and both Western and traditional medicine) with the villagers who trade cash crops such as corn (Zea mays) coffee (Coffea robusta) and the medicinally valued seeds of métok (Voacanga spp.), sell staple crops, fruits and vegetable, palm oil, crafts as well as cooked food and
snacks and locally produced corn beer (kpata) and palm wine. Since 1952, the market has been held every Saturday in order to increase chances to make money (Zeitlyn, 1994: 55).

Fluctuating prices for cash crops have been a concern for the chief, lately, who complained about difficulties to regulate prices, as villagers tend to sell their staple crop stores too cheaply. This tends to happen anytime people need money for various reasons, such as illness in the family, funerals and weddings, schooling expenses, bride wealth or the reroofing of a house. Some of these financial needs are met by membership of rotating credit societies, but petty cash for the commodities needed for everyday life is still largely generated by women’s trading activities in the market.


Agro- pastoralist conflict

The main conflict between the cattle raising Fulbe and other transhumant groups such as the Mbororo has bee caused by complex social, political, cultural and historical factors” (Gausset, 2005: 90; Hurault, 1998) and is known locally and Cameroon- wide as the “agropastoralist
conflict”. The Tikar Plain borders the Mambila Plateau in Nigeria, and has, for the past 30 to 40 years, been a transhumance destination during the dry season when cattle moves largely unsupervised during the night, eat cassava and dry season maize, damage coffee plantations and eat maize from storage granaries in the fields. “What is seen as a resource by herders (grass, movement, random bush fires) is seen as a nuisance by farmers, and vice versa (fields, fallow, and forested areas)” (Gausset, 2005:98). In sum, these dissonances lead to conflicting systems of management, rights and ownership, conflicting structures of power and justice (as the Muslim pastoralists have the support of the Lamido of Banyo), and conflicting ethics over who should come first (Gausset, 2005).