Mafa people

Mafa / Matakam

Mafa people

Mafa / Matakam / Mafahay / Mofa / Natakan

The Mafa also called Mafahay, is an ethnic group localized in northern Cameroon, Northern Nigeria and also scattered in other countries like Mali, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone.

Their primary language is Mafa. The primary religion practiced by the Mafa is Islam, a monotheistic religion built around the teachings of the Qur'an and of the prophet Muhammad.

Another toponym for the Mafa is ‘Wula’. Moisels map (1912-13) names a mountain ‘Wola’ or ‘Ula’ in Moskota (northeast of Mafa land), and the ‘Wula Mango’ and ‘Wula Hanko’ (Wula proper) east of Sukur. Duisburg (1927:194) speaks of the ‘mountain tribe Wola’ south of Wandala. ‘Wula’ is also used to refer to the former slave settlements in the east of Borno State. Hulla-Matakam (Martin 1970:31) is another, but more recent word to refer in a derogatory way to the Mafa as ‘Wula’. Wula means, presumably, non-believer or non-Moslem.



The Mafa occupy the centre of the Nothern Mandaras, consisting of the whole of the northern parts of the plateau of Mokolo and the mountain ranges north of Mokolo, leading down to the plain of Koza and reaching as far as the Moskota hills northwest of Koza. Mafa land consists of the cantons Moskota, Koza, Gaboua belonging to the arrondissement Koza and the canton Matakam-Sud belonging to the arrondissement Mokolo. There are about 1,000 Mafa in Kughum, a village in the southeast of the Gwoza Local Government Area, already in Nigeria.

Mafa people map



Globally, this group totals 365,200 in 2 countries. (, 2024)

The Mafa of Nigeria are numbering 9,200 and the Mafa of Cameroon are numbering 356,000

Mafa people map



No etymology for Mafa or Matakam is confirmed. Strumpell (1922:60f) was informed in 1906/07 (ibid:47) that the name ‘Matakam’ was given by the Fulbe, and that ‘Muffu’ or ‘Moffo’ (Mofu) and ‘Matakam’ refers to the same ‘tribe’ (ibid:60). Strumpell translates the name ‘Matakam’ as ‘the naked people’ (ibid). Moisel’s map (1912-13) refers to a mountain west of Mokolo as ‘Matakam’, but names the whole of Mafa land ‘Mufulu’. Lavergne (1944:20f) translates ‘mettayamen’ (pl. of ‘mettayamjo’) as an expression which refers negatively to ‘the nakedness of these primitive people’ (ibid). He says that for the Fulbe not wearing clothes was a sign of ‘poverty, lack of dignity, and inferioity’ (ibid) and that the word ‘mettayam’ later developed into ‘mettkam’ and finally ‘Matakam’. In Maasina fulfulde (Osborn at al 1993:221,386), what is close to the fulfulde of the area at the time, ‘mett’ means ‘disgust’ or ‘distress’, and ‘yam’ means ‘peace’ or ‘tranquillity’. Although the two roots have a contraticting meaning, Muller-Kosack (1999) says that they could well be linked to Lavergne’s legendary Fulbe lieutenant (ibid) who was astounded at having to face talks with the ‘formidable opponents’. Due to the derogatory connotations of the name ‘Matakam’ it is no longer in use today and is replaced by the autonym Mafa.


Tribal groups

Lavergne (1944:22f) informs us that the Mafa (Matakam) consist of two tribal sections: the ‘Mafa proper’ referred to as Maf-Mafa or ‘Mafahai’, and the ‘Bulahai’. Muller-Kosack (1997:409) informs us that ‘Bulahay’ is the name of a variety of beans, and that it is used metaphorically to refer to the hardheadedness of the Bulahay. The expression Bulahay has a derogatory connotation and they are better refered to as ‘Kokwarhay’, meaning montagnards (ibid:675). According to Lavergne (ibid) the ‘Bulahai’ spread from Cuvok (west of Mofu-Gudur). While the Mafahay migrated from the Roua and Sulede area, which is west of Durum (Mofu proper), in northwesterly direction, the Bulahay (see page Bulahay) migrated westwards alongside the southern borders of the Mafa land of today. The Bulahay also eventually moved northwards where they merged with the Mafahay and thus become Mafa.



According to Barreteau (1984:168ff) the Mafa speak three dialects which are mafa-west, mafa-centre and mafa-est. As such they belong together with wuzlam (Uldeme), muyang, mada, melokwo, zulgwa, dugwor (Dugur), merey (Meri), giziga (north and south) and mofu (north and south) cuvok and mefele (Bulahay) to the sub-group mafa-south.

There are three different Mafa dialects:



Muller-Kosack (1997:65-91) argues that Mafa ethnicity is not a colonial construction, but needs to be understood in the precolonial context of the slave economy in the wider region. The Mafa-isation of the centre of Northern Mandaras is presum- ably linked to the forming of the Mofu groups facing the plain of Diamare.


Ecology (natural environment)

The Mafa are considered mountain people because they “occupy the centre of the Nothern Mandaras, consisting of the
whole of the northern parts of the plateau of Mokolo and the mountain ranges north of Mokolo, leading down to the plain of
Koza and reaching as far as the Moskota hills northwest of Koza.”



They cultivate sorghum, and pearl millet as staples and a considerable variety of other cereals (e.g., eleusine) leguminous
(e.g., Vigna unguiculata) and root (e.g., sweet potatoes) crops, besides leafy vegetables, peppers, and fruits (limes and

They also keep cattle, sheep and goats (and more recently pigs)... and some poultry, mainly chickens but also ducks and
occasional guinea fowl.


Sexual division of production

The statement that, “After about seven months of pregnancy she cannot be involved in harvesting, grinding or cooking sorghum.” Leads me to believe that both men and women are involved in the labor of producing the food.


Land tenure

The sowing, hoeing and harvesting of sorghum is an intricate activity in religious terms and needs to take place in a ritually unified regional context. Sowing and harvesting still begins today at the highest level, which is Ziver, but we can only speculate whether this has to do with the fact that rainfall often starts earlier and ends later on the top of the mountains.
Mafa would possibly express this by saying that “freshness” enters Mafa land in Ziver, because this is where the rain should begin to fall. Rain itself is n@ya’a and, as such, possesses the mysterious force to germinate sorghum so that it can grow.
The mysterious forces of rain are regionally controlled by the biy Mudukwa (biy yam of Moudoukwa) who is seen by Mafa of Gouzda as responsible for the timing of the rain.

The fertility of land is a result of the intensive farming techniques Mafa apply, not just farming alone but also of successful rearing of cattle and the application of the manure produced.



The Mafa pottery was:
- Lower percentage of tall rim jars and an absence of rustication

- Much higher percentages of short rim jars with averted rims

- Presence of substantial number of short rim jars with exteriorly thickened lips

- Proportionately fewer black and red ware bowls, and more D-handles and a probable absence of the horn type

Another interesting thing was the presence of iron working in the Mafa culture. The Mafa’s smelting process is unique from others:

The most striking feature of Mafa iron working is the vertical tuyre, through which the air is forced down into the smelting furnace. Its vertical position confines the oxidizing zone to the very centre of the furnace, allowing the use of very high-grade, little slag producing ore. Part of the tuyre melts during the smelt, fluxing and contributing to the slag. The Mafa smelting was recorded in the 1950's by P. Hinderling and Ren Gardi, and reconstructed at the end of the 1980's by Nicholas David, Robert Heimann, David Killick and Michael Wayman, both on film and in publications.”


MAFA Blacksmiths

In the tradition of the Mafa, blacksmith’s are revered and according to the myth, all are descended from one man.
“At the beginning of time”, it says, “as the men of the tribe sat under the canopy of a spreading tree, they shook the limbs and fruits fell off. When they picked them up, they were hard, unripe. But one of the men had an extraordinary experience: the hard and unripe fruit in his hand suddenly became soft and ripe. At that point, the suprime spirit of the Mafa, Dzikile, said: “There, this man will be the blacksmith”. And that is why all of today’s blacksmiths descend from this man.”
To this day, Mafa maintain this concept that equates converting hard matter into soft matter, as happens in the blacksmiths furnace, with making unripe become ripe. Symbolically, they are the same concept.
The traditional Mafa blast furnace is not just a simple traditional instrument for smelting metal, it links technology and religion. It is a masterpiece of industrial engineering, but at the same time a sacrificial altar. It is a machine that eats up the mineral and gives birth to a usable metal; it is also a place for divine powers and a destination for offering rituals.
Until the 1970s, Mafa blacksmiths were still able to demonstrate their work.
Today, Mafa furnaces exist only in recollections, but nothing has changed in terms of forging. The idea of an African blacksmith who is at the same time an artisan, a shaman, a minister, a healer, a prophet has not changed at all. Still today among the Mafa, the blacksmith has an indisputable ancient and charismatic role, he is the Lord and the Master of Fire and its mysterious forces.

Mafa blacksmiths Mafa blacksmiths

Bride purchase

“The day a man marries he gives nine goats or whatever the father of his bride asks him as bridewealth. Even in case of poverty, a man would be obliged to pay this to his future father-in-law.”

“In the past, the bridewealth for a primary marriage consisted of at least nine goats. Today money is becoming more and more important as a means for marriage payments. Negotiating marriage payments was and still is a matter between the father of the bride and the bridegroom. A bride will only find out what exactly was given when she wants to marry someone else and her new husband is then obliged to compensate her former husband.80 The obligatory nine goats had not always been paid and often more than nine goats had been given, depending on how favourable the possible marriage was considered to be. Often other goods, preferably made of iron, were also added. Iron has now been replaced by money payments but goats are still considered as the main preference in marriage payment, although, even here, money is increasingly becoming an alternative.”


Inheritance patterns

“When a man is the oldest among a group of collateral brothers and his father and father’s father are deceased he will be
the elder of a joint family. Each of his collateral brothers and their married sons possess their own family homes but are at
the same time interlinked by ties of patrilocality and patrilineal descent.”


Role of males in conception

The male isn’t thought to contribute to conception, but instead spirits.
“Mafa do not believe that sexual intercourse is the only cause of conception. If the personal gods of husband and spouse do not have children the couple will not have children. The personal god of a human (zhigilé ndo) is as a male or female deity and as such a “child” of God and his wife. If the personal god is sterile how could the person this god is there for have children? This means that it is God who decides beforehand whether a baby is going to be conceived through sexual intercourse or not. Mafa express this procreation belief by saying that God himself slept with the woman.”

Examples of this belief: “when a women who walks by a river and afterwards becomes pregnant, it is believed that the water spirit slept with her. If a woman gives birth to twins it is a certain belief for traditional Mafa that the water spirit has made love to this mother.”


The mother’s role in procreation

A woman’s menstruation is very important because “Mafa believe that a woman is most fertile during menstruation because it is the blood which forms the child. A woman who does not menstruate cannot conceive.”
This belief stems from the idea that a “pre-pubertal girl or a postmenopausal woman which is seen as proof that menstruation is a sign of fertility.”



“As soon as the marriage is announced the actual marriage ceremony has to be completed within six days. These best friends play a very important role in the preparations as well as being ceremonial assistants at the first consummation of their marriage.” (7,138)
“...the bridegroom and his best man have prepared a large ceremonial sickle made of iron...the best man starts to beat his drum, signalling that he is ready to leave the house together with the bridegroom...they start to stroll through the local community. They stop at neighbourhood boundaries where they sit down for a rest. On their journey they visit the houses of some elders where they are given tobacco and a chicken. This goes on until the evening. During the following six days the bridegroom and bride remain physically separated.”

"Mafa men are not allowed to marry their clan sisters, fathers are obliged to give their daughters into marriage outside their own clan group.”
“Women are exchanged under the rule of neighboring patrilineal groups controlling not only the fertility of the land but also that of women. However, the women are not completely under the physical and ritual control of the patrilineal group although the land is. They still have ties with their patrilineal relations and often benefit from ritual occasions there and Mafa often remark that they marry the daughters of their enemies.”
“A young man and a young woman who get married for the first time in their life might have already been promised to each other in childhood by their fathers.”

Post-marital residence. “Due to the virilocal rule of post marital residence those females who are already married no longer reside in his
neighborhood and are therefore members of their husband’s joint family. However, in the case of a marriage break-down, the daughter of a man might temporarily return home to her father’s neighborhood or she might live at her brother’s place when she is old and has no son to take care of her.”



“The naming day the baby is taken out of the house. If it is a girl the family has to wait till sunset. A meal is shared between the visitors (neighbors, friends and relatives) with sesame, if it is a girl, and with okra, if it is a boy. The umbilical cord is placed with some of the food and ochre on a piece of calabash. The midwife pierces the placenta pot with an iron sickle and places the cord in the resulted hole.90 No-one other than the mother has been allowed to touch the umbilical cord. Next the mother comes out of the house together with the baby. Then the father gives the first name followed by the mother of the mother and father’s mother, who give the second and third names respectively. After that, neighbors and friends can also join in and give names. The father often consults the stones (pebble divination) before he decides which name he wants to give.”


Political system

“While chiefs existed, their power, spiritual rather than temporal, was and remains extremely limited and often divided between a chief, in Mafa bi dza, responsible on behalf of the community for the cult of the mountain, and another, the bi yam for rain- making and other cults associated with the crops. There is also a chief of the transformers, bi ngwaz1a, with other ritual responsibilities.”


Village and house organization

Every house has:

“All these rooms are interconnected and one can walk right through from the foyer to the kitchen. Other rooms are built onto the main string of rooms over time.”



"Funerals are directed by male transformers, though women transformers may sometimes be called in to bury small children, and infants, as probably elsewhere, are often buried by their parents.”
"There is also a concern with covering the face of the deceased either with a skin...Special treatment is accorded transformers, twins, and sometimes parents of twins among the Mafa, in that sheepskin is substituted for goatskin in wrapping the head.”


Bull festival

“The Mafa word for sacred bull and for the festival of its consecration is maray. The bull festival does not take place every year, but either every second, third, or fourth year, where a triennial cycle seems to be the way the majority of Mafa celebrate it, although no listing exists so far which would attribute the cycle of years to single communities.”


Myths (Creation)

We have seen earlier that the inhabitants of the celestial world consist of the great God (zhigilé m@biya’a) and his wife (ngwaz biy zhigilé) joined by the gods of humans and the envoys of God. All the different gods are the children of God. Like him and his wife they have a sexual identity, are also married and have children. Since personal gods are the divine mirror image of living humans and look after them in their “heavenly bag”, we can certainly assume that male personal gods have several wives. Being the divine counterparts of humans also exposes them to good or bad actions, although they do not seem to suffer the same physical death like the human beings they are born with.



An interesting aspect of their beliefs is their belief in the divinity of crabs, “First of all the crab originates from the water. She lives in rivers and her capacity to “know” what sorcerers are about to do to their fellow humans is seen to have been received from the water spirit. Mafa express this by saying that the water spirit gives the crab the intelligence to speak only the truth and nothing but the truth.”
Though they believe ”Life is not an abstract thing” the idea of transformation is not irrational. Which brings us to “the idea of the spirit of a person being contained in his physical body. Somebody can temporarily leave his physical body, but doing so proves dangerous because it puts the unity of body and mind at serious risk. The idea of the spirit as a shadow and its connection with the personal spirit pot protecting the spirit from injury also facilitates treatment in case the spirit gets lost. To re-establish the unity of body and mind the person is supposed to take his personal spirit pot and to catch the shadow of a bird soaring over the surface of the earth and then to close his spirit pot firmly and take it home. He is then supposed to keep his personal spirit pot closed until he has regained his full physical and mental strength.”

The primary religion practiced by the Mafa of Nigeria is animism, a religious worldview that natural physical entities--including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects--possess a spiritual essence.

The primary religion practiced by the Mafa of Cameroon is Sunni Islam, the largest branch of Islam. Sunni Muslims follow the teachings of the Qur'an and consider the first four caliphs to be the rightful successors of Muhammad.


Types of clothing

“Today cotton clothes (western and oriental types) are worn by almost everybody in Mafa land, whereas traditional costumes are only worn by very old people or in ritual contexts. The fact that in some villages biy gwala still wear their traditional costumes when they release the sacred bull and that the chief still remains separated from the rest of the community during that time emphasizes the religious character of the bull festival.”


Kinship systems

Sibling classification system. “If a father dies his oldest son inherits those sections of his father’s inner fields which contain a sacred site and all hisfather’s goods. It is the youngest son of a group of full-brothers who inherits all the goods of his mother, which mainly consist of chickens and goats. He does not necessarily retain them but distributes them among his brothers. However, it is his right to decide who gets what from his mother. With regard to a father’s goods, which also include the father’s house, it is the oldest son who has the right to istribute these among his 3.2 Home 149 brothers. However, he will always give the first share to his most senior half-brother. A father normally distributes land to his son.”



Mafa ethnography begins with Lavergne (1944), followed by Podlewski (1966), Martin (1970), Boisseau & Soula (1974), Hinderling (1984), Muller-Kosack (1987, 1997), Santen (1993) and Sterner (1998). A Mafa dictionary exists since 1990 (Barreteau & Le Bleis). The Mafa are quite well researched. More than fifty references of literature dealing exclusively with the Mafa can be given so far.


Children and Childbirth

“Gehard Muller-Kosack (pers.comm 2007) informed us that the Mafa associate fertility with fog, which is much appreciated following communal purification and reproduction rituals. For example, foggy weather on the days after bull festival (maray) is seen as very auspicious.”
“In case the first born child is a girl two corn stalks are left uncut near the house and if it is a boy three corn stalks remain. Mafa...want to prevent the sorghum from mysteriously disappearing. Another way of preventing the disappearance of the sorghum is to bind two (for a girl) and three (for a boy) strings of sorghum fiber around the tree which functions as the house shrine. These can only be removed after the sorghum has safely entered the father’s main granary. Since the number “one” remains invisible in Mafa ritual counting the end result comes always out to be odd for female and even for male.”

“Although female menstruation is seen as a sign of fertility a man is not permitted to have sexual intercourse during this time since a menstruating woman is seen as being impure. However, pregnancy is thought to be most likely to come about if intercourse takes place immediately after menstruation. Mafa say that due to the fact that there is always menstrual blood remaining in the body of a woman conception is also possible at other times between the periods. It appears to be a contradiction in terms that Mafa see women as being most fertile during menstruation but also consider them to be impure at this time and therefore, at the same time, avoid them.”

“If the baby kicks the mother on her ‘right’ side it will be a boy, but if this happens on the left it will be a girl’ (op.cit.). If a woman gives

birth during full moon it will be a girl.”

The Mafa distinguish between three personal spirit pots: spirit pot of a man, spirit pot of a Woman, spirit pots of children.



It is understood that the Mafahay, a Mafa tribe, migrated from Roua and Sulede (which is west of Durum (Mofu proper)), towards the northwest. The Bulahay tribe, meanwhile, migrated to the west, alongside the southern borders of the present Mafa territory. Eventually they also migrated northwards where they mixed with the Mafahay, becoming the present Mafa.



Traditional Mafa agriculture depends on a wide assortment of soil management techniques. The hillsides are secured with constructed terraces, that according to an author, "have reached a state of exceptional perfection". Other ethno-engineering procedures include :

Likewise, agriculturists in the mountains practice an extensive variety of soil fertility management procedures, including :

They also use an intensive livestock-raising system in the management of the fertility of their soil. Livestock includes smallstock and a limited amount of cattle. In the dry season between December and May, livestock is allowed to roam free, so he can consume crop residues and leaves of wild bushes.

During the farming season, livestock is put in a pen and fed. The manure that accumulates in the stables is collected, preserved and finally spread out in the fields at the end of the dry season. The intensity and ingenuity of Mafa nutrient management is illustrated by the fact that termites are used to digest harvest residues and then fed to the Chickens.