A rocky shoreline near the Bubi village of Ureca. (Truelsen photo)
Chapter 29: Botuku burial
The primitive Bubis did not use beds for sleep and rest. What served as a bed was a bare and poorly made wooden table of five feet by five-and-a-half feet by a quarter-inch. For a pillow there was a tree trunk, and, in its absence, the person’s arm. They placed the bed in the position of an inclined plane and went to sleep with knees drawn up and doubled over the abdomen, to keep the feet above wet and cold ground.
They used no covers at all, and to protect themselves from the discomfort of mosquitoes and night’s damp chill, they would light a fire in the bedroom, fueled with dry branches they stirred when the fire was dying. This did not warm them entirely, but only on one side. Nonetheless, in such a bed a Bubi rested just as comfortably as if pampered in a large feather bed. This was common among all, healthy and sick, save for a smaller difference when the big chiefs suffered a serious illness.
Just before 1900, one of the superior chiefs fell gravely ill. He ordered me summoned, that I might give him some medicine. Mbáteri, he said to me: bue ajo, ñe robba roomo, nko betahela ala o a bbiñe melesi, m’o ñoki kuma. I gave him a half bottle of fruit salt and he seemed relieved.
At my arrival, the second in command of the ritaka came to receive me, and he showed me to the chief’s bedroom. I bowed deeply to enter, as the door was excessively low. There appeared to my blinded eyes the sihlouette of an ancient, venerable man, ordinary in features yet Herculean. He had a single cloth around the waist and his head was bare, save for a tonsure of completely white hair.
He sat on deerskins laid on the ground between the legs of a relatively young woman of proper features, her expression modest and shy, adorned with the clothes Eve wore before the sin. The back of the chief was reclined over the poor woman’s stomach, and his head between her breasts. The custom existed that one of the district chief’s women always went entirely nude, as was verified in my frequent visits to the Bubi villages.
In the death and burial of the main botuku they observed substantially all that we have told of the death and burial of the plebeians, save some ceremonies required for the person’s high level of dignity.
Ascertained the death of the botuku, runners hurried to the chiefs of the neighboring districts and to all those that by law must assist with the funeral and burial. All came quickly, bringing each one a goat as a sign and recognition of the esteem and vassalage to the deceased. The person of highest-level gives the suitable orders, which they execute punctually. They give the name kakobori to the goat given as a sacrificial gift in honor of the dead.
They make a new, wide road from the village to the cemetery of the chiefs, which is located very far away. They begin excavating the grave, which will consist of two large and deep holes some six feet away from each other, which they will join at the bottom with a tunnel, and in it they will place the body of the botuku.
Back at the village, the botuku’s body is washed and adorned, seated on a stool and supported against the wall. In his right hand he holds the staff of command, his head is covered with the boloká, and on both sides they burn two small fires that give off much smoke and scarce flame to drive away the mosquitoes and flies and retard decomposition.
While the deceased is a presented body, the village keeps religious silence.
Once the time designated by law in which the body must remain in the house has elapsed, the nobles gather facing the deceased. The eldest dignitary, shouting, calls the name of the deceased to him, and, after a small time, they say he responds with the identical voice that he had in life, but sounds cavernous and as if he is very far away.
This ceremony complete, they slaughter some goats and wash the body with their blood. They extract a strip of skin from one of them that is about four feet long and six inches wide, and they tie it around the waist like a belt. They take they body out of the house, not by the door, as I have already said, and they place it on top of a litter of fern trunks covered with skins (lotambo loe chumbo). Those who carry the body are those who were appointed by the deceased before he died, and they begin a very quick march. While on the road they make many stops, each time slaughtering one or more goats, spreading their blood over the body. Sometimes the bearers of the dead go backward some one hundred fifty to two hundred yards, stop a moment, then make a swerving, dizzying run to the point where they began to go back.
The women assist in the funeral procession, but when the procession reaches the entrance to the cemetery (bònnò (N), bolèho (S)), it is illegal for those who were unfaithful to their husbands to enter the cemetery, because if they had the boldness to enter, they would surely die instantly. This belief had been received from their ancestors and was taught to them by their mothers. From this the Bubis intended to learn who had perpetuated adultery and would punish them according to the law of their fathers. Now no woman fears nor believes in such canards.
Once they reach the burial place, they deposit the body on the ground, and, before they lower it, they slaughter more goats and their blood is sprinkled over the deceased. Some descend into the holes to receive the body, which is placed in the underground excavation. The dead one is placed in this posture: he is seated on a stool, his back leaning against the wall; he has the staff of command in his right hand and the hat of sovereign power (boloká) on his head, knees bent. Once in place, he is again sprinkled with a large quantity of goat blood.
On other occasions he is seated on the stern of a small boat, grasping the oar as if about to row and to control the rudder. With this symbolism they expressed that, just as when the Bubis came to this island and the chiefs directed the cayucos, thus they still must set a course for the attainment of prosperity and happiness for their subjects.
After they covered both mouths of the tunnel with stakes and large buffalo hides, when refilling the two side holes they took care that no dirt enter the enclosure and injure the body. From here is the Bubi proverb: Eleppe eo Botuku e ta sieò bitoko: “The body of the chief does not touch the ground.”
The holes of the sepulcher refilled, they sacrifice still more goats, sprinkle their blood over the grave, and enclose it with living posts. At its head they plant a sacred iko tree or a palm tree.
The primary motive for offering so many goat sacrifices to the botuku’s soul and for sprinkling so much blood over his body and grave, is to appease him so that he doesn’t send calamities to his subjects from the place of the dead (borimó).
The formalities of burial concluded, they begin the mourning (raha), which lasts for an entire month. Meanwhile, they take inventory of the deceased’s belongings. Family members, excluding the youngest children and his women, divide his furniture among themselves; and the real estate passes entirely to his legitimate successor. A person from the Bubi nobility delivers the funeral prayer, and daily, at dawn and dusk, to the sound of a hollow trunk, they sing a hymn (bolelo or molelo). In the hymn they celebrate the deceased’s feats and heroic deeds.
I will put forth a model of the song of the molelo, according to one I heard in Boloko:
Tché kuma cho elela, puliñoe, to lo beta lo molelo, chi molelo mo ribedde. To bitchole, lo bitchole: “All the villages: to you we call, come, with you we hope to celebrate the molelo; but it is not just a molelo, but a container. We open, we open it.” And they continue singing about the most notable events of his reign. The raha or rahámba ends with a splendid funeral banquet, after which his successor is elected. This appointment does not fall to the deceased’s sons, but to the eldest male of the family. The widowed spouses start off the mourning, designated by law. They destroy and burn the village of the deceased chief, and the assistants return to their respective dwellings. The new chief is obligated to build an adoration hut to the soul of his nearest ancestor joined to his house.