Claudio Posa Bohome, a direct descendant of the last Bubi king, and an expert on Bioko's flora. (Truelsen photo)
Chapters 22 to 25: Royalty, villages
22: Coronation of a Botuku
Once the funeral honors of a deceased botuku are completed, which consist of the bochileri (internment), raha (mourning rites), and bolelo or molelo (hymns), his legitimate successor takes the throne to govern the district. There is no pomp or solemnity if this successor merely comes from the deceased chief’s already existing group of advisers. But, if all the men of his generation have passed away, a new chief will be selected based on his merits.
The rites for his election and coronation are dictated by established rules that must be observed.
The first rite is a secret meeting of the most notable and honorable elderly men of the district, who select the day for the ceremony. Then they prepare firewood that they call rionchila or riosochila, some bundles of dry palm reeds, called topao, which will serve for torches in nights without a moon, and a multitude of varied strings of chibo.
They build a small hut by the name of ribeká (N), riboho (NE), and lopando (SW). They place the rionchila and the bundle of reeds over its hearth to dry them out so they can use them when needed.
The hut built and arranged, the new chief and the principal woman over his household, known by the name borenna (NW), erere (S), enter to live for a week. During that time, the law forbids they eat anything other than meat and boiled yams with no condiments. No other person may taste their food, so if any surplus or residue remains it is illegal for anyone else to make use of it. It must be thrown into flames and burnt to cinders.
On the seventh day, the botuku, botukuari, and the notables of the district place the botuku under the shade of a tree called bosoppo (N), bosoppo (S), and bosompo (SW). This is a tree dedicated or consecrated to the souls of deceased botukus. Seated below the beneficent shade of the sacred tree, they call to the souls in the ommó (N), borimó (S), or those in the other world. They make entreaties to the spirits, imploring them to bless, protect, and take under their guardianship this new successor, so that he will never dishonor their memory or the throne that they occupied.
They sacrifice a goat to the ancestors of the botuku, and with its blood sprinkle the chest, shoulders and back of the new chief.
Later he is carried, accompanied on foot, to a palm tree where, in the presence of all, they require him to take the arch (loopa) and go up the tree to perform those operations required for the extraction of palm wine (bahu) and to cut the nuts or raceme from which they extract palm oil.
Once descended from the palm tree, the oldest of the notable ancients approaches him and in a grave and measured tone says to the new botuku: “From today and forward it is forbidden for you to go up the palm tree to extract wine or for other ends, and thus you will have a company of winemakers (rieba or riema) who will offer you daily the esaha.
That said, they presented him the first esaha, or a large calabash of palm wine, which he must drink to the residue, as no other person is permitted to try it.
These ceremonies carried out, the district nobles accompany the new botuku to the beach. He enters the sea to his chest and bathes his body to purify himself from stains contracted during his former life. Washed and purified, his body is anointed with their characteristic ndola and he is finely attired.
These preparations made, they begin the march toward their obesé or omesé (village), forming a large procession presided over by the botuku, singing songs that praise him, repeating very often the joea, which reveals great enthusiasm and extraordinary happiness. The retinue continues to walk, singing happily, until they encounter a passage obstructed with a barricade made of enormous tree trunks. A multitude of aggressive and threatening men surrounds them, shouting out orders for the entire escort to stop. They announce to the new botuku that if he doesn’t — right then and there — grant them such and some privileges, free them from old obligations, and exonerate them of this and that tax and tribute, they will not let him pass, nor enter the obesé, nor will they swear fidelity to him. The botuku, feigning that he is ignoring these insolent people with their ridiculous petitions and irrational pretensions, orders them to clear the road. But they prepare to fight, vowing no one will pass except over their cadavers.
The botuku, seeing all this impertinence and impudence, decides that rather than change this festive and happy day into a day of mourning, and, furthermore, pro bono pacis et in honorem tanti festi (1), acquiesces and solemnly swears to concede to all their demand. The conspirators give a cry of joyful victory: “Ieee!” (“Hooray!”) The road is cleared in a flash and the royal escort continues its march. They repeat this ruse two or three time from the beach to the obesé.
In arriving at the botapetapé (N), monakanaka (S) of the obesé, that is, at the superstitious arches in the entrances of Bubi villages, the royal escort makes a grand parade. The village comes en masse to receive the new botuku, salute him, and offer their respects. They accompany him with shouts and enthusiastic cries to the ritaka or rijata, this is, the royal palace.
Here he rests from the fatigue of the walk. They wipe dry his sweat, wash him, and anoint him once again with ndola. Once washed and anointed they cover his body with adornments considered truly rich and regal among them, including many strings of chibo, the small pieces of bleached shellfish, which in ancient times were the currency among the Bubis. His neck is encircled with a necklace of chibo, his chest surrounded with woven bands of shellfish, his waist with belts made with the same material, from which hangs a monkey pelt to defend his modesty. His arms and legs are encircled with a great quantity of strings and bracelets.
The necklaces they call batehoa (N) and matchoa (S); the chest bands npeara (NE) and biluba (SW); the belts are called benta (N) and menta (S); the leg adornments ncheka (NE) and mabilo (S); and, finally, the arm bands, in all of the districts and places, are called bipá.
In this way, loaded down with adornments that make his body movements torpid, he leaves the rijata or ritaka with great majesty and, accompanied by the court and village, makes his way to the public plaza. There they have placed a carved stone that will serve as the throne (eodda). Covered and decorated with leaves of biboto, it also serves as the chair of the botuku. Once seated, the most ancient and venerable man of the nobility takes the crown and places it on his head. He takes the scepter or staff of authority and places it in his right hand. Afterward, the village shouts: “Iééé! Iééé!”
The crown or cap of the chief, called in the north boloká and in Batete rekobombo, has two forms. The first is a cap of hide adorned with eight goat horns, two horns in the front, two in the back, and two on each side. Another version contains four goat horns. Seeing a Bubi with such a cap for the first time can be somewhat frightening.
This cap they used in the great feasts that were celebrated in memory of the deceased boobo (N), moomo (S).
The second form of chief’s crown consisted in a hood made of shellfish (chibo), finished in the front in the manner of a plume with a ewe tail (boruba), adorned with parrot (nko) and pheasant (nkiso) feathers.
The staff of command is the characteristic Bubi cane (saha), that in ancient times they all used for comfort and personal defense. The unique difference is that the staff of authority has a goat skull tied on top and below the handle they hang strings of shellfish as a tassel.
After the coronation, the same old one who crowned the new botuku puts both hands over the new chief’s men, and in a serious and solemn tone, says to them: “This is the chair of our fathers. I ask today that they help you, that they grant you long life. Govern well your village and they will grant you perpetual peace. While you live you will not eat salted foods nor impure animals nor will you drink water unless it comes from the mountains or from rain; you will not eat with persons of poor condition, nor slave, nor even of the middle class.” It is this way in Batete. In other districts they say: “The chair in which you are seated belongs to all the kings of our land. You, who have seated yourself in it, are a brother of them. Never more will you be able to eat malanga, nor deer, nor porcupine, nor things salted, nor will you drink other water than that of rain, and you must guard yourself well to not eat with people of lower and middle condition.” Next, they sacrifice goats to the souls of the deceased and with their blood they purify the new botuku and baita who form the royal council. Then they extract the fat from the goats (bajaba or majama) and with it make sausages that they tie around the neck to hang over the chest.
This is most repulsive, because they wear it several days and, naturally, it drains drop by drop on the chest and stomach. After three or four days it gives off an insufferable stench that is sickening to be near.
The coronation parties usually last one week, dancing the dance of the bells (bilebó) and a great variety of others.
23. Royal Palace
The royal Bubi palace (ritaka or rijata) resembles a fortress protected by a double barrier of stout stakes. In 1897, in the Biaja heights, we saw the Bubi palace of greatest grandeur and splendor, which belonged to the celebrated mochuku Moka. Another palace, inferior to his but with the appearance of a ruling savage residence, was the palace of Sibelo, mochukuari of Batete. The habitation of the so renowned and eventually dethroned Mechí, motukuari of Ombori and Balacha, placed next to that of Sibelo, appeared a wretched hut.
So that the reader can form a clear idea of a royal Bubi palace, we will describe that of Moka as it existed in March of 1899, the time of this great man’s death.
It was situated in the middle of the settlements belonging to the other subordinate chiefs. One entered it by a dense and shaded tree-lined path of sacred trees (iko). At the end of the path rose an arch a little bigger than the others that they have in all Bubi villages. This arch, adorned with bones, animal paws, and plumes from different birds, gave passage to a large patio, ordinarily found filthy with the excrement of goats, sheep, and chickens.
On one side they built a large and spacious hut with many doors. This was the boencha or boecha, or the town hall, where general assemblies were held and which also served as lodging for foreigners. On another side was the royal throne, which was similar to a pulpit made of wooden stakes. One ascended it by way of a rustic and primitive stairway of trunks. All classes of people, native and strangers, were permitted entrance to this patio.
Next came the fence that surrounded the ritaka, which had a door of movable sticks that gave passage to the first section. In the first section were the rooms of the household servants, with their respective families. Next came a second barrier that separated the rooms of the servants from those of the women and children of the mochuku. Entrance to these rooms was by a double stairway, made of crude trunks supported and tied to stakes driven into the ground.
From here there was a narrow alley leading to a small plaza, in the middle of which one came across a little more spacious hut that served as the chief’s dining room. Only persons of nobility and those very close of the chief were allowed here. Next came the royal bedroom.
Behind the bedroom were some very narrow alleys and corridors, in which there were placed in order of rank the bedrooms and kitchens of the spouses and concubines and their respective children younger than six years. When the children passed six, they slept in two separate and isolated departments, one for the boys and one for the young girls. It was impossible to enter these rooms without the chief knowing it.
Being sick in 1897, the mochuku Moka called me to his bedroom so that I could give him some of the chuaho choe moró, coffee liqueur, of which he was most fond. Thus, I was made aware of intimate Bubi things that have served me well. At those times the ritaka appeared a true village for the multitude of people that lived in its interior.
In this time, the Father Pablo Pardina and he who writes this made a census of the inhabitants of the plateau and mountains of Biapa. Moka had, among spouses and concubines, sixty women. The children were relatively scarce in number, but the staff of servants was numerous. The second mochuku, by the name of Sas Ebuera, possessed thirty to thirty-five women, with very few children and fewer still servants.
In total, the women of a man are given the name of banki (N) and mohiki (S). Among the most distinguished who live in the ritaka is the obele, the daughter of the oldest sister of the mochuku. She has no spouse in the palace, but serves as the family maid of honor. She assists in all the ceremonies, private and public, occupying a place of distinction at the side of her royal uncle. She eats with him and receives half of all those presentations or presents that the subordinates offer to the chief.
The guard (bobose) has the duty of accompanying the chief’s women when they must travel, guarding them and giving reports to the chief about their behavior. We have already talked about the other officials of the palace and the social scale.
The chiefs in their most successful times had an advisory body that understood the tribe’s most serious and important business. The chief presided at the assembly, which consisted of the main Bubi nobility. The first among them was the supreme priest (abba or bojiammé), which demonstrates that, even among the savage Bubi, religion never was separated from the state but, rather, both authorities walked together in agreement, mutually relying on and defending one another.
The second was the takabaala or takamaala, which is equal to commander of the army; the third was the botuku oboho, equivalent to the dean or senior member of the nobility. Occupying the fourth place was the korachó, who is president of the supreme tribunal. In the fifth place is the buac or sam, which is what we might call the minister of revenue. Sixth is the tchoko o botuku, that translates as director general of security, and, finally, the seventh was the looba lo botuku, which literally means the chief’s sword or knife, or executor of justice.
This body was simply consultative and never had a deliberative or decisive vote. It’s a notorious thing that before Spanish domination they exercised predominance and were a moral force in Bubi customs. The superior chiefs dominated their subjects with absolute, arbitrary, and despotic power. They claimed an unlimited, independent authority over both material things and their subjects, especially over the babala. They treated them as little more than slaves, demanding obedience, veneration, and respect that was almost idolatry.
The will of the chief was supreme law and it regulated and justified all. He determined the time of sowing and harvesting crops. In times long ago, all the subordinates were obliged to clear a yam field for the chief and perform all the work called for in the planting, cultivating and harvesting of yams, the main food of the Bubi. No one was allowed to plant, nor harvest, nor eat the first fruits before the chief; if someone dared to violate this law, he was punished with a strong fine.
Thus it happened a few years ago that the mochuku of Moeri and the mutukuari of Ombori and Balacha, who violated this custom, were punished with the fine of five goats each by Malabo, supreme chief of all the Bubis.
The woman who served the food to the botuku was required to crouch in front of him, supporting the plate with both hands, and was not permitted to look him in the face. When inferiors talked in public with the chief, he speaking to them or they speaking to him, they must crouch.
The chief enjoyed the privilege of taking and using his subordinates’ property at will, and in some northern districts chiefs had the right to the first fruits of the maidens.
If the chief desired some thing that he lacked, he sent his sam for it. He seized it and delivered it to the chief without consideration of private rights, nor did the harmed owner have the ability to resist, nor even protest, this violation of natural law.
In the year 1903 I was invited by one of the principals of Boetondo, a village of Bokoko, to a siome or festival that was celebrated to display their wealth in goat livestock, Bubi money, and yam plantings. I accepted the invitation and presented myself there. The banquet ended with a great deal of leftover game and goat meat, yams, palm wine and other imported liquors. It was followed by dancing the moande, silcanchá, sikoko, etc., and later the chief of the neighboring district, named Biebedda, summoned his assistants to the village grand plaza to address them. Among the many things he said, he lamented the devastation caused by a violent tornado. It came out of season, during yam planting.
He indicated that such a tornado was a sign that the ancestors’ spirits were offended because someone had been abusive of Bubi law and mocked their venerated traditions. He added that he had consulted with the district’s spirit protector as to what was the cause of this violent and malevolent tornado, and the spirit had said that it was caused by a particular person who had touched a certain sacred bell outside of the proper time. It turned out to be one such Boro, a native of the neighboring village Onsobó, and in penalty of such serious evil, he was imposed the fine of ten goats. From this one can clearly see how arbitrary and abusive they were in oppressing the weak and poor. No relation existed between the touch of the bell and the coming of the tornado, and, in spite of the absurdity, a poor man had to deliver all the goats he had to the unjust chief.
I had noted to this chief, with whom I was a close friend, the injustice of the fine. “I know it,” he answered, “but thus had said the morimó. Thus was the way of our fathers, and I cannot be of another way.”
When the chief was in love with some young, single woman, he ordered the uri, accompanied by the boboso, with a calabash of palm wine, to the home of the young lady. There they suspended the calabash in her doorway and, without saying a word, returned to the palace. The following day, the father or guardian of the young woman was required to bring her to the palace, even if she was eotó of another, thus trampling on the holy rights of chastity, honesty, and justice.
If the young virgin resolutely refused to cohabit with the chief, resisting his flattery and caresses, she was brutally raped. If she went along with the chief’s desires, she came to live in the rijata, in the position of borenne or erere, principal wife of the botuku.
This custom, which existed solely in some parts of the north, disappeared in 1909. Its demise stemmed from this following case:
A botuku raped a young virgin. She went to her future spouse, who was a learned young man, educated, who spoke well in Spanish. With her screams and tears she expressed the desperate fury she felt for the violence suffered and her vehement desire for revenge. The young man, considering the impossibility of his taking revenge on the chief, denounced the brutal crime to the authorities in Santa Isabel, asking them for justice. The authorities ordered the criminal to appear before a judge. He presented himself, accompanied by some notables of his village. Interrogated, he answered that he simply had made use of a privilege inherent in his rank of botuku, inherited from his elders.
The governor made him see that he had no such privilege. He admonished him not to repeat such an act and warned him he would be severely punished.
Nevertheless, in 1911, the eldest son of the chief of Batokopo raped a young woman of the besé of Baloeri (Botonós). She, indignant, advised her mother, and the mother appealed to the law, demanding justice be done. The chief ignored her protest. She then turned to the subordinate chief, who was Sachana, and he called together the elders of Baloeri. Meeting in the house of Sachana, they summoned the father and criminal. Both refused to appear before that tribunal, alleging its illegality and incompetence. The girl’s mother screamed in fury, despairing that the doors of justice were closed to her. She turned her vengeance on her innocent daughter, claiming she had been weak in not opposing the rape. She attacked the girl, hurling her to the ground and beating her terribly. Seeing the fury and frenzy of the mother, he that writes this seized her arm and raised her above the daughter.
25. Description of a Besé or Bubi Village
In twenty years, the habits and customs of the Bubi have changed considerably. Those changes are most visible in northern district villages.
In the better times of Bubi custom, five or ten minutes before arriving at a village one encountered an arch made of plain wooden poles from which hung a thousand amulets. Sheep tails, skulls and bones from various animals, chicken and pheasant feathers, antelope horns, sea and land snail shells, etc., as remains of the dead, revived the memory of their ancestors now living in the borimó or region of the dead. They called these arches betapetape (N) and menakanaka (SW).
On both sides of the arch they planted sacred iko trees to impede evil spirits attempting to enter the village and to protect the villagers from their perverse influences.
They also drove fern trunks into the ground, one of which supported a clay pot. In it they put water from perennial springs. With this ceremony they asked that the village’s good spirit protectors keep the spring-flow of births continual in the village, just as a perennial spring flows continually. Thus they hoped to ensure an increasing village population. Other times they filled the aforementioned pot with sea water. This signified that just as the sea receives all the impurities of the earth and is never corrupted, in the same way they asked that the sons of the town, however much they may suffer disease, illness or other vices, never would lose their power to procreate.
Above another fern trunk they placed a smooth, level stone. On it they adhered small sea snail shells, by means of a resin called bejola (N), majola (S).
At the same village entrance there was a grand plaza (riosa), and at its entrance and exit there were arches identical to those described. In the center of the plaza they built two small adoration huts dedicated to the spirit protectors and shaded by sacred trees. The larger celebrations of the village (baala (N), maala (S)) took place in this plaza. Grand pomp and ostentation to flaunt the family’s immense wealth marked these celebrations, with luxury and richness abounding in clothing and adornments. People of all the nearby districts and not a few from farther regions would come to these celebrations.
Continuing on came the town (obesé), which was divided in districts or settlements where subordinate chiefs lived with their family and staff of servants, and they were protected by a surrounding barricade made from stout stakes of tree ferns. Inside this barricade the living places were orderly, in the manner that we have said dealing with the royal palace, with identical arrangement. The huts are of the same form and capacity, built of the same materials, according to the regions. It is of such a way that if one had seen one Bubi hut, one had seen them all, and whoever visited a village, it was as if he had visited them all, except for some accidental modifications called for by the terrain or circumstance.
The configuration and form of a Bubi house used to be a rectangle, its lateral walls not more than five feet high; the fronts and backs relatively taller to form the angle of the roof. Those rooms that served as kitchen and bedrooms had only one door, and this was in front. The structures designated as reception or meeting rooms had many doors in all the walls. The height of the doors was equal to the lateral walls.
Many kitchens had two departments separated by a partition of fern and other tree trunks. In each there was a narrow door that connected both departments, and one of these was used as a pantry. Next to the fireplace or hearth were strong trunks driven in the ground with two crosspieces (reki (N), boalo (S)) on top, where they stored large quantities of drying firewood.
The walls of the Bubi houses consisted of some stakes pounded into the ground and tied together with vines. The roofs, in some parts, had an almost vertical slope and came to within three feet of the ground at the lower end. The rafters and laths of the roof were varieties of palm, on top of which they placed large palm leaves that they attached with rattan cords to the laths. To prevent tornadoes from blowing them off, they secured them with poles on top. There are many examples of these houses or huts on the island, and he who desires to contemplate them can take a little walk to the plateau of Biapa or Moka, by the heights of Balacha and other places.
To me, the typical Bubi village is that of Relebó de Balacha. In it one can contemplate, on their own terrain, all the ancient Bubi customs. It is the most reactionary village in its ideas and the most retrogressive in the laws, religious as well as civil.
There, just a little while ago, one could observe the cruel, barbaric, and savage custom of furrowing the faces of infants with those deep and bloody incisions.
On different occasions I visited that village, and always to me the inhabitants appeared to be the most proud and scornful of all those on the island. In one of my visits a cloudburst surprised me at the entrance of one of their neighborhoods. I ducked in the first of the houses.
Here I found a woman seated next to the hearth, who was nursing a little boy whose face was full of recent, horrible cuts that were just pitiful to see.
After greeting her, I asked her the reason her son’s face had been cut in such a horrible manner. She smiled and answered me with bored unconcern: “I had him cut with the goal of marking him to distinguish him from the other villages. Do you not see how all the dark-skinned have their trademark signs, that one is the mark of the Batas and Yaundes, and another is that of the Okús and Basas, and it is something that we receive from our parents?”
“This is very certain,” I answered her, “but the Bubi mark is the most cruel and barbaric of the signs of all the brown-skinned. Therefore, you must abandon it, as they have already done in all the villages of the island, and only you of Relebó continue to practice it.”
“It may be as you say,” she replied, “but to us it is illegal to abandon the customs and ways of our ancestors, of which one is the mark that they left to us, because no one is permitted to renounce the traditions of his parents and elders. If other Bubis have abandoned them, those are abominable, traitorous people, unworthy to carry the name Bubi.”
“When the traditional customs are honorable, is a thing abominable to forget them by disdain, but not when they are barbarian.”
“To you, the whites, it is a bad thing to cut the faces of the children, but for us it is very good.”
I could not move her from her position nor convince her, and she brusquely changed the conversation that displeased her, saying: Pale b’ori ichea, nbane kuma: “Father, give me tobacco, if you carry it.” I put my hand in my pocket and handed her a pair of leaves, and I said goodbye to her, as the rain had ceased.
1. Latin: For peace and the public good in honor of this great festival. -- Trans.