Cathedral Santa Isabel in Malabo, in September 2012. (B. Traeger photo)
Chapter 30 to 34: Agriculture to industry
30. Bubi Agriculture
Primitive Bubi agriculture was limited to cultivating yams and malanga, as those foods formed the base of their diet. Everyone contributed to yam planting and cultivation — men and women, little children and grown children — but only women planted and cultivated malanga.
Preparations for yam planting began as soon as the dry season started in mid-November. They never completely abandoned fields, but some years they let them lie fallow.
The first step in planting was to clear the terrain (rijocha). Then came cleaning or sweeping (rubori), leaving the field clean and smooth as a plaza, gathering up brush to burn it (richocho), and selecting canes or stakes (ribimbira) to make fencing.
Law and custom required building a fence around the yam field (eberi e bilo) to define it and protect it from damage by domestic and wild animals. If someone chose not to build a fence, that same law prohibited him from claiming reparation for damage and injury.
This law was based on the general custom of all domestic animals going about freely all day, unsupervised, as among the Bubi the shepherd trade was unknown. At night the animals would return to the houses of their respective owners.
The fence built, they devoted themselves to pulling out reed roots (ribemba or ujabaho.) This was done by three or four men using strong, wooden stakes sharpened on both sides (kèttè). They drove them deeply into the ground on three or four sides of the root, and, making a lever, pulled the root out with minimal force. Any dirt that was carried away was scraped off and they broke or cut the root into pieces (roopa), lined the pieces up (moapa), and placed them in the sun, where they would dry out and die.
Each subordinate chief, with his family and dependents, prepared a parcel of land — larger or smaller, depending on what was being planted — and fenced it. Later they divided it among the adult men, in different sizes, according to the amount of seeds (nkolu) that each one desired to sow (mohera or baepa.)
It was easy to determine the number of owners to a field by counting the parcels, as their yam rows each followed a different alignment.
The terrain divided, all of the chief’s relatives or dependents were required to help him plant his field. Once the sowing for the chief was finished, each individual could begin to work his own parcel. With the loèttè, or Bubi hoe, they loosened the site for each seed; later, with their hands, they dug a hole and put in a seed, carefully weeding around it. When the planting was finished, they drove in stakes to tie up (betola or metola) cords (epette or mepende), where later they would prop up the growing plant stalks and interweave their branches (róòmò).
They used a strong fiber taken from palm tree branches (basala masala) that, in splitting the stem, makes those previously mentioned cords. They hold up (motombia) the new growth and weave them through the branches (repera moóra). They spend the entire dry season (nchokó) doing this type of work.
At the end of June they harvest the first yams (biolalo). They first loosen the earth at the base of the plant (o bembela) and make small incisions in the bulb to take out many small yams (moena or ripolela). At this time the botukus of the district meet in the main place of worship, sacrifice some goats, eat their meat with the first yams, and at the end give thanks to the benefactor who gave them this yield. From this moment they will not work yams until the end of September, at which time they uproot them all (rutd).
The harvest finished, they build a fence in the same field, one part of which they cover with palm leaves to serve as a yam warehouse. This storage area they give the name eoppo (N); eobbo, esila (S); esapi, kuba (S). They mark which yams they are reserving to sell, which are for the consumption of the family (bilo, biole), and which are for seed (jutó, ndó, nkolu). When the leaves fall it is the sign the yams are ripe and it is time to harvest. Nevertheless, no one starts the harvest without the prior edict of the main chief, under pain of paying a substantial fine.
Among the many diverse classes of yams, there is one that grows yam-potatoes in its branches, and they cultivate it with singular care, giving it the name ritoa (S), batoa and matoa plural. The ritoa is in all resemblance just like the other yams, its only difference is that it also bears fruit in its branches.
After the harvest a large crowd of Bubis from all regions of the island joined together in the heights of Biapa or Moka to profess servitude to the supreme botuku of the tribe and to celebrate a solemn thanksgiving to the superior spirits and protectors of the race for the yam harvest. They had different games or dances, such as the loopo, boatte, cachá, etc. This solemnity completed, those of Moka would begin land and undergrowth clearing for new fields.
Malanga : The Bubi malanga (ejem) is much different than the American malanga. They brought it themselves from the continent, just as they brought the yam. Ejem cultivation is exclusively by the women. Its sowing generally takes place in May, when the yams are grown and their branches become interwoven in large and small cords. They plant the malanga in the same fields, placing it between yam plants.
When it is grown, they remove the dirt from the foot of the plant and gather it up joined to the stalk. This labor they call rona. Malanga is harvested in January. Once harvested, they cover it with dried yam branches (nchokó) to preserve it. The malanga meant for consumption they call ejem or chememí, and the fruits for seed, moamite.
Its cooking time is quite lengthy. They cook it in big batches at a time, as it keeps well once cooked, and it’s ordinarily eaten cold. The majority of the nobility, and some others, cannot eat it because they are basókosó or those who abstain.
There are innumerable vegetables and edible herbs in the Bubi diet, such as eggplant, ripeppé or ribembé; African tomatoes, lojiri, lonai, lonei, lochiké, lokaba, etc.; some small tomatoes called bokokoó, bosalasala sipopo, etc. The nourishing herbs that they use would be quite lengthy in listing, so I will name only one, the most exquisite of them, called koja (N), boja (S), bojodda (Bal.) and bobochá (Bat.)
They also carefully cultivate a tree called botola, boddola, bondola. They mix its crushed leaves with palm oil and sifted ash to make the ndola pomade used so much to adorn the body, soften the skin, treat colds and pneumonia, skin diseases, and alleviate the bother of mosquitoes and bug bites.
The malanga harvested, the women gather and celebrate a feast to Bisila, the woman spirit who taught them malanga cultivation.
31. Bubi Industries
The industries of the Bubi are, generally speaking, few and rudimentary, as they have few tools and use only primitive, natural instruments.
Their most important industry is the exploitation of the palm tree. This slender and beautiful tree, which Linne (1) called the king of the plant world, is perhaps the most useful and beneficial among those populating the tropical woods. The family palmae is quite numerous, but we are confining ourselves to the plants on this island, which pertain to the genus elaeis and the species guineensis.
On the average, their height is forty-two to fifty feet and can be greater. The palm crown usually numbers twenty to twenty-five leaves from thirteen to sixteen feet in length, according to the zone and strength of the vegetation. The leaves have a strong and thorny rib, with small leaves originating from the base. In the middle of the crown on the treetop, one finds a bud or shoot composed of a pure white, very fine tissue known in culinary arts as “heart of palm.”
The flowers of the palm tree are unisexual, gathered in separated inflorescence named raceme or regimes, and protected by a casing or husk. Sometimes they find both genuses united in the same raceme, and then it is given the name hermaphrodite.
The male flowers have an axis whose branches end in a dull point; they wither quickly and detach from the tree. The Bubis name these flowers boebo (N), moebo (S).
In fertilized female floras, the ovary appears very swollen. The ovary, of a greenish color in the beginning, later takes on a tint of dark violet and, in the end, a red-orange color, which is a sign that it is ripe and in season. The racemes are born in a cavity formed in the base of a large branch from the trunk.
The feminine raceme ebila is an ovoid mass armed with large or small thorns, depending on the tree. They have different names according to the regions: nammo (N), nabó (Basuala), mpita, (NE), and mbila (S).
The dates or olives are flesh-colored drupes, covered with meaty pulp, quite fibrous on the inside and rich in a fat and oily substance. They contain a pit or almond (boaka or moaka), from which they extract a dark, fine oil for frying and for use as a cosmetic. The same fruit gives two kinds of oil: one that is a reddish color, which is squeezed from the tender part of the date, and another of a lighter color, which is extracted from the kernel of the same.
Climbing a palm tree is arduous and, at times, dangerous, but the Bubi do it with admirable dexterity, agility and security. They climb using an arch or hoop known by the name eha (N), roopa (Bak.), loopa (S). This hoop is made of wood and consists of two rattan pieces held together securely with fibrous cords that come from a palm tree branch. The piece that rests on the climber’s body is made up of two thin plates, very well made, bent, two or three inches wide. The other, which hugs the trunk of the palm tree, is a very thin rattan, stripped of its own bark and covered with the cords mentioned before. One opens and closes the arch or hoop by means of a tie or knot, made with the ends of both pieces, which is extremely difficult to untie or break. The hoop hugs the climber to the trunk of the palm tree, leaving a space of about eighteen inches between the palm tree and his breast, which permits him to move upward comfortably with brusque effort.
In climbing, the hands support and move the hoop, the feet support and rest only in the cracks of the tree trunk, so that the body’s weight rests on only two points, the feet and lower back.
A fall from a palm tree ordinarily is fatal. When the Bubi climb, they usually carry a short-handled ax attached to the waist, and a sharp knife under the left arm. With the ax, they cut branches that obstruct them and the clusters of the bonga (rihimba), with the knife they do what they must to extract the mahu or palm wine. The women and children collect the clusters of bonga from the ground (rioka), putting them in a pile (rihari) and covering them to ferment.
A few days later, with ax, machete, or a pointed stick, they take the olives from the pine cone or raceme. They boil them in large caldrons, then place them in some holes lined with stones or sopa. Here, with stout poles, they crush and separate the pulp of the almond or pit. The women, with their hands, stir the skin so that all the olives are peeled. The crushing finished, the women take charge of removing any remaining skin (rinoá riloa’) from the almonds. They then put the separated pulp back in the caldrons, boiling it for a long time, until the oil comes off and floats to the top. With spoons or flat plates, they gather the oil and put it into containers. The boiled pulp they take out of the caldron, put in stone-lined holes (esésé), and press it or squeeze it with their hands (rimita, reeña), as they lack ad hoc instruments for the job. These operations they repeat several times, until the brine or skin won’t release a single drop more of oil.
In the olden days they kept the oil in vessels they made themselves, consisting of some baskets made with palm cords that were impermeable. These names were bajocho (N), bipusa (NE); ndebbo, riaha (S); and ntúa, nchúa (SW).
The brine or dry skin (mónnó) served them as tinder for fires before they were familiar with matches, and the almond shell they used as firewood or carbon. The almonds were also sold at the trading posts or a soft and fine oil was removed from them, as I have stated, to be used to beautify complexion and hair.
32. Other Uses of the Palm Tree
One of the benefits, and not a small one, that the Bubi obtains from the palm tree is that delicious liquor called palm wine — in Bubi bahu (N) and mahu (S). They take the white tissue from the core of the crown of the palm tree, cutting the peduncle of the male flower (etoa (N), motohó (S)). The female flowers are much respected, because when their fruit ripens they obtain from them the oil so necessary for their cooking.
The Bubi never cut down palm trees for oil and wine, as some tribes do on the neighboring coasts. They mock those who destroy a tree to take advantage of its fruit. The least expert can easily distinguish wine made from a living, standing palm tree from that of a dead or fallen tree. The first is clean and clear with a delicious and agreeable flavor, the second looks turbid and dirty, and tastes pasty and repugnant.
The first thing one must do to obtain this coveted drink is to go up the tree, as I have said before (ebaha) (opa), and cut four or five branches from the crown of the tree, below the raceme of the masculine flowers. The cut branches are left to rest at the base of the tree for a few days, then the winemaker returns.
The branch is cut with a knife, in circumference, the white tissue already uncovered. They apply the mouth of the calabash on the side and, if it is not possible to apply it directly to the branch, they put a leaf between the incision and the calabash (kobi) for a canal or funnel (moleka). The name nnoke (N), and nchoke (S) is given to that aforementioned incision, from which wine will flow for several days.
The Bubi visits the palm tree two times a day: in the north, in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the south at noon and at dusk. With his characteristic knife, he goes delving into the nnoke or nchoke, which is the spring from which originates the appealing liquor. The first visit of the day is given different names, in accordance with the districts: o koela (N), o epela (Baney), o koala (Baho), o ekola (Ureka), and o lekela (S), and the second daily visit is called o baha in all areas.
The amount of liquor that the palm tree can give daily depends on the industry of capability of the winemaker, on the vigor of the plant, on the phase of the moon, and on the season. On the average, according to testimony from the indigenous people, one palm tree gives a gallon or more of wine. During the first three or four days the wine lacks alcohol and presents itself as a very sweet and refreshing liquid. At this time, the Bubi just set it aside, or they use it as a purgative, because this sweet drink is an excellent laxative. The women and children also drink it. On the eighth day, the palm wine becomes a pleasant drink, substantial and nutritious. From day twelve it is an alcoholic drink, later turning sour, like strong vinegar.
We cannot ascertain the origin of foreigners giving palm wine the name of topé. We have asked many Bubi, old and young, this question and none has been able to answer satisfactorily. The Bubi calls it bahu (N), mahu (S), and when there is just a little wine they use diminutive toahu (N), choahu (S). Topé or toopé is the diminutive of boopé (N), and moopé (S), which means water. Thus, then, mpale toopé (N), mbane toopé (S) means: “Give me water and no wine.” To ask for wine in Bubi, we say: Mpale bahu or toahu (N), mbane mahu or choahu (S). If one asks for another strong liquor, one uses the word korono in all the districts.
The Bubi obtains from the palm tree not only wine to extinguish thirst, oil to season food and cosmetics to beautify the complexion and hair, but also nourishment and other benefits.
The marrow of the almond, when tender, is a refreshing and tender food, but when hard, it’s too difficult to chew and digest.
If it pleases you, you can make use of the white substance (etoa or motohó) from the inside of the plant’s crown. This is a very fine substance that they use as food at times just off the tree, at times in salad, and at other times cooked.
Others claim there is no food quite so delicious as a roasted small bird served between two small leaves of palm cabbage, which comes from palm leaf buds. The Bubis, however, abstain from this dish because harvesting buds can damage or kill plants. They maintain their palm trees meticulously.
Palm trees on this island have no endemic diseases. Some insects will attack them, but they cause no notable damage.
We will refer here to only two insect species that invade the palm trees. The first naturalists call oryctes nasicornis or the “rhinoceros beetle,” the second is rynchophorus or “snout beetle,” called saala (N) and mosiri (S) by the Bubi. These insects deposit their eggs inside a felled palm tree or a standing tree that has deep gashes in its trunk.
The indigenous know well when the eggs will mature to their larva state. Later, when the larva reach full size, the Bubi digs into the trunk and, deep inside, discovers a countless number of white, buttery worms that have formed in the plant’s sap. The Bubi prefers the worm arising from the insect rynchophorus to those that come from other insects. They are, they say, far more exquisite and delicate because of their greater fat content. They call these worms cheke (N), and ndúe (S); but if they come from a dead palm tree they call them mboho (S). They eat them in four ways: alive, roasted on strings, fried, and boiled seasoned with crushed fine spices. I have not dared to eat any living worms but, yes, I have had them in the other forms.
They also take nourishment from worms found in a tree named bosoppo (N), bosobbo (S), and bosombo (SW). These worms are always cooked and seasoned, never eaten alive, and are called biotto (N), bioddo (S), miobbo (Ureka), and miombo (S).
The primitive Bubis had no use for cotton from the palm tree (kiokio), but not so the civilized Bubis. They use it to make fresh and soft pillows and even mattresses.
They make fences for their fields with palm tree branches. Strong cords and slender fibers are pulled from the palms to manufacture and weave basketry and other woven goods.
Thus it remains demonstrated that the indigenous obtained numerous and important uses from the palm tree.
33. Bubi Pottery
Necessity is the mother of invention, and, thus, the more crude and primitive the needs of a village, the more rudimentary and elemental will be their industries and arts. As the needs of the primitive Bubis were quite simple, their industries were quite simple. Nonetheless, they came to possess some fundamental pottery.
In many places on the island, particularly in the southern zones, one finds a clay-like earth of a red-orange color by the name buem (N), toom (S), and tooma (SW). Bubi women used this to make simple vessels in a variety of sizes.
They pounded dry clay to a fine powder, removing small rocks and other foreign bodies. Then they made a small hole in the ground and put the clean, prepared clay in it. Then they poured a large quantity of clean water into the hole, soaking the clay. Later they kneaded it and beat it with sticks from a tree known by the name boute.
Once they had kneaded and beaten the clay just right, they would excavate another hole in the ground large enough to hold the vessel they were about to make. They lined the bottom and sides of the hole with leaves (bioboubo (N) and kokoho (S)), to keep the kneaded clay from ordinary dirt. They put the clay in the hole and with their hands modeled a vessel, then covered it over with the before-mentioned leaves until it was dry enough. Afterward, they placed the vessel in the direct rays of the sun, first covered and later uncovered, until it was completely hard.
If they desired their clay pots baked in a fire, they placed the molded pottery in the sun’s rays, covered with the same leaves, then lit a bonfire and put them in it, maintaining the fire with dried herbs. They did not make lids, so if a pot held some food that needed to be covered, they used clean leaves or another twin pot placed on top, face down. In excavations, some vessels have been uncovered that have pretty drawings on them. (2) The Bubi, though, were unfamiliar with varnishes. If they engraved some simple figure in the clay, they made it by means of a pointed stick.
They served their food on wooden plates (binene (N), ejao (S), eha (Babiaoma)) made from the yellow African wood ilomba (3). the Bubis call bololo and from another tree by the name botobbe or botombe. They also used shells from large ground snails (ntochi, nchosi) and sea snails (bilola, bilona) as plates. In the same way, they found dry and hard shells of the fruit from the tree boboba boboma made very handy and economical drinking glasses.
34. Other Manual Skills
The Bubis were well skilled in basketry weaving. To make their creations more elaborate, they used palm branch bark and filaments from the climbing plant ekori, which they call lokori and also beokoko or mokoko. They make conical baskets (boateo (N), boaso (Baney), moateo (S), moancho (SW)) with palm branch bark, and use these to catch crayfish. They take filaments from the same bark to make other baskets, woven very tightly, with lids made from the same material and smeared with oil sediment to leave them impermeable. Small baskets made of this material (sijotcho (N), sinchúa kombo (SW)) were used to carry money.
With the fibers of ekori they worked finer, better-made baskets of diverse sizes that had different names, according to the districts: etuka’ (N), echúa’ (Baney), echuká or epala (Bakake), risoká or eala (S), eddá (Balacha), etchá (Ombori); eha (Batete) and nsoká (Ureka).
From the same fibers they made hats, or, better said, helmets for use by the young men, as the women went with their heads uncovered. Monkey skin (mochi or monchi) they used for hats and loincloths.
The Balachas of San Carlos wear wide hats made by tying the skin of a deer (chou) onto a wooden hoop. They are useful in times of rain and strong sun.
They use the fiber lokori to make arm and leg bands (bipá). They also weave strings of various colored beads, and of chibo, to adorn the wrists, neck, legs, and waist. Wrist and ankle adornments are called toara (N), and mabilo (S); belts (boúta (N), moúta (S)) woven with Bubi money are called riboko (N), ebetá and mololo (S). They used to wear their belts of different sizes and colors on bare skin. Such adornments have passed from fashion today, save for wrist bands or bracelets.
The making of their pomade ndola is somewhat curious. It’s made of water, fine ash, leaves from the bondola bush, and palm oil, which gives it a reddish color. The tools for making it include two rocks that are used to crush the bondola leaves. The bottom rock they distinguish with the name of rojo or roho and the top one with the name of kosa. The bottom rock they mount on a forked stake, called ripecha (N), ribecho (S), and ribencho (SW).
To make ndola, a woman sits on the ground, the forked stake placed between her legs, and the rojo or roho in its mounted position on top of the stake. At her side is a small tin with water, a piece of calabash with ash, and a bundle of bondola leaves. She grinds softly with the kosa over the rojo. From time to time she wets the kosa with water and sprinkles some ashes on top. When this work is finished, they mix the mass with palm oil and the pomade is finished.
In days of antiquity, the Bubis lacked touchwood, or flint, and certainly phosphorous, but they found a way to make fire, that element so indispensable and necessary for life. They began their fires by means of vigorously rubbing two sticks together. One of the sticks had to be very dry, and they called it bototo (N), bopio (S). The other was thinner and stronger, and they distinguished it with the names of mpialo and mpiano. They placed the bototo or bopio on the ground, a man taking the mpialo or mpiano and inclining on his knees over the bopio. He rubbed, at first softly, with the mpiano until a small canal opened in the bopio. The canal made, he began scrubbing it with all his force, producing a very fine powder which, with continued rubbing, caught on fire.
(1). Reference to Karl Von Linné, 18th century Swedish naturalist who designed the binomial nomenclature system of classifying plants and animals that is the basis of modern taxonomy. --Trans.]
(2). Some claim that these vessels with drawings were not made by Bubis, but by another people that may have existed before theirs.
(3). Pycnanthus anglolensis. -- Trans.]