Translator Colleen Truelsen verified Father Antonio Aymemí's history and translation during three visits to Bioko Island, the latest as fieldwork toward a master's degree in anthropology, (Truelsen photo)
Bioko's indigenous Bubi tribe
By Colleen Truelsen
Its original name, bestowed by a Portuguese sailor in 1472, was Formosa (the beautiful). When noted English explorer Henry M. Stanley saw it in 1884, the natural beauty of Bioko Island, to him, was "extraordinary ... the pearl of the Gulf of Guinea."
With its towering volcanic peaks, thick, green-velvet blanket oflush rainforests and distinctive black sand beaches, Bioko is indeed a picture of tropical paradise. And to that paradise, some 3,000 years ago, fighting brutal surf in hand-dug canoes, came the original inhabitants -- the Bubi tribe.
Isolated on their island from the West African mainland, they formed a society, language and religion that was theirs alone, different from their mainland Bantu relatives and left to develop, undisturbed. Even slave-hunting, resource-hungry Europeans w3re intimidated by the Bubi's legendary savagery, more likely to their their vessels to the comparatively easy trading and slaving offered on the mainland shoreline. "A savage and cruel people live there," wrote a Portuguese explorer in the mid 1700s. But if they had openly welcomed the white men in huge vessels, the Bubi most likley would have found themselves shackled in the bowels of those boats, bound for New World plantations.
The Bubi were distrustful -- perhaps their kind god Rupe, watching from high atop the 10,000-foot Pico Basile, warned them of explorers and traders true motives? The slaughter of an entire English crew by a Batette Bubi tribe in 1810 is among the more dramatic stories of their response to infiltrators.
Who are the Bubi?
Protected and watched over by Rupe, harassed by malevolent spirits permitted to bring disease and adversity to the physical world, the Bubi were, and are today, people living in harsh beauty where they raise families, try to make a living, sing, dance and cope with politics and the changing world around them.
Just like the rest of us.
Author's note: How can we be sure of the Bubi history that we have? We can and we can't; artifacts are quickly swallowed by the efficient recyling of the equatorial rainforest. And as the Bubi mayor of Malabo once was quoted as saying, "The Bubi have no grandparents," the older people of the tribe slain during the murderous regime of Fang dictator Macias Nguema from 1968 until his overthrow by current President Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo in 1979.
Relying on oral legends, linguistic studies, conjecture and parallel histories of other tribes, various authors and scholars have written not very many books on Bioko and the Bubi, most of them in Spanish, as that was the country of final ownership before 1968 independence.
Much of this article you are reading was taken from the book "Los Bubis en Fernando Poo," by Father Antonio Aymemi (Imprenta de Galo Saez, Madrid, 1942). Father Aymemi was a Spanish Catholic missionary who lived on the island ministering to his "beloved Bubis" from 1894 until his death on Sept. 29, 1941. This dedicated priest learned the Bubi language, tried to understand the reasons behind their rituals, recorded their stories and left behind written history, hoping that not only the rest of the world but the children of the Bubi would be able to remember their traditions and beliefs.
Other oustanding and recommended English-language works that contribute to the study of the Bubi are:
--From Slavery to Neoslavery: The Bight of Biafra and Fernando Poo in the Era of Abolision -- 1827, 1930, by Ibrahim K. Sundiata (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).
--Equatorial Guinea: Colonhialsm, State Terror, and the Search for Stability, by Sundiata, (Westview Press Inc., 1990)
--Small is not Always Beautiful, the Story of Equatorial Guinea, Max Liniger (C. Hurst & Co., 1988).
Linguistic studies suggest the Bubi were among the first Bantu tribes to leave their Nigerian/Camaroon-area homeland, maybe 5,000 years ago, and migrate southeast, settling on the coast of what is now southern Cameroon or northern Gabon. The far-away, green peaks of Bioko would have been visible to them on clear days, but any daring attempt to risk lives and travel across fierce ocean would come only through adversity.
So it came, some 3,000 years ago, when another tribe, more warring and more numerous, invaded the Bubi's beach homelandk, forcing them into hard labor and slavery. They must have stared with longing across the water at those peaceful, mysterious peaks nearly 100 miles away. They began to hold the promise of peace and freedom.
No African tribes were known as seafarers. The Bubi, as shore-dwelling, fishing people, probably had a little more canoe-engineering knowledge than most. But when a plan for escape began to develop, they knew it would take the largest trees of the mainland forest to make the strongest canoes for their bold, desperate plan -- which was to leave, not all at once, but by subtribes, under cover of darkness over a period of several months, and flee to that distant land.
The work on the canoes was done in secret. Supplies were gathered and loaded under the very noses of their captors. And the plan worked. The first tribe launched its boats after midnight , without discovery, and they rowed with palm leaf oars, in complete happiness and security, the story goes.
According to legend, all the migration was done within one year, primarily between mid-November and mid-March.
The subtribes settled in rings of territoriality around the island, where they landed depending on wind, current, luck and when they arrived -- the last tribes getting some of the more steep, inhospitable terrain. (Which would provoke constant intra-tribal warfare as they sought to better their situation.)
Those who ended up on the northeast side of the island, where the capital city of Malabo is now, had the easiest landing, thanks to the natural harbor. Others fought giant, craggy boulders and pounding surf to make their landings on the southern edge, in the vicinity of Punta Santiago.
The names of small villages that today circle the island still preserve the memory of some of those tribes or origin -- the Baney, Batate, Baho, Bakake. The Biabba tribe, later the city was named Riabba, is considered the first to arrive. The last, and the most beleagured as they looked for room to settle, were the Batete and Bokoko.
An unfortunate incident involving some forgotten yams gave the early Batetes the worst location on the island. Dragging ashore on the difficult southern end, the Batates and Bokokos found themselves forced to negotiate living with the already-settled Barekas. They shortly realized they had forgotten to brin gtheir favorite "rae" yam-plantings. The Barekas, already disgruntled at having to share their land with the new arrivals, apparently did not feel like sharing any of their "rae" plants with the newcomers.
So, the Batates stole some.
Moaddo, the Baraka's leader, banished both the Batates and the Bokokos (guilty by association, it seems) from the coastal area. They headed inland, began fighting amongst themselves, and split off -- the Bokokos going one way, the Batetes ending up in the steep, inland Gran Caldera area. It was here they took on a fiercesome reputation, letting their hair and beards grow wild and making themselves a constant threat to the tribes around them. That is, until they finally moved over the mountain top and defeated a tribe that had a more favorable location.
Not that that meant peace. Throughout their early history, the Bubi tribes led a cantankerous, non-unified existence as each tried to expand and prosper on a small, isolated island.
Polygamy, with an elevation in status and power depending on the number of wives a man could accumulate, brought about much of the intra-tribal Bubi fighting that plagued Bioko for centuries. So, too, do scarce resources figure in to the legend of Bubi savagery.
Bioko is just 26 miles wide and 45 miles long. Once the Bubi made the perilous journey across the ocean to the island, seafaring was forgotten and they settled in to make do with the land, and the people, that were there.
But if a man wanted to improve his status, wanted to show his wealth and power and become a village or district leader, it was his animals, his yam production, his shell money and how many wives he could support that mattered. With a limited number of women available to each tribe, however, therein came the conflict: women and children were the spoils of war, as tribes attempted to steal these precious commodities from one another.
The intra-tribal wars tell of continuous, bloody wars of one district against another; one town against another; one family against another; and enless private vendettas. For example, the woods near Boloko, close to San Carlos, were the preferred site of the Batat3es to attack the Baloketos. Hiding in the thicket, they waited for the Baloketos to come down to the beach, leaping out and killing the adult males, carrying off the women and children. The assault of travelers, too, was a common problem, Aymemi writes.
While they honed their fighting skills stealing wives, the Bubi were turning themselves into a formidable people. So it was in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries when Europeans began their cruel harvesting of slaves along the West African coast, any thoughts of an easy landing on Bioko (then called Fernando Poo) were soon dismissed. On Bioko, there were no tribal kings selling off nearby enemy tribesmen. The Bubi were suspicious, unfriendly and deadly to strangers who tried to land on their island. Wouldn't this have seemed a good way to rid of the annoying tribe next door, to sell off their men and take their women? Among the ancient Bubi, apparently, in-family fighting stopped at the shoreline. Those strangers who were allowed to settle on the fringes of the coast were traders who could serve a purpose for the Bubi in getting them guns and knives in exchange for palm oil.
The island, though, was too strategic and necessary as a fresh-water source and provision-providing resource for European trading and slaving ships to simply be avoided altogether. Constant, tentative landings were made by the Portuguese, Spanish and sometimes the English. It was the English, in 1810, who experienced first-hand just how unwelcoming the Bubi could be to strangers in their harbors.
An English vessel, stopping by for fresh water, found itself stalked by boatloads of patrolling Batetes. The tribesmen launched an attack on the sailors with accurate, deadly spears. Every man on board was killed.
The faces, too, of the Bubi stabbed European hearts with fear. Deep furrows cut into foreheads and cheeks presented a scarred countenance that implied warfare and pain. What we know, however, from Father Aymemi's work, is those scars were made on Bubi children to mark them as tribe members, should they be stolen from their island by slave traders. Bubi parents hoped that, with their faces thus scarred, should children find themselves in a strange land surrounded by strangers, they could recognize other Bubi by their facial scars.
It was a practice that continued until the late 19th century, until they were sure, finally, their children were safe.
Spirits and spirit locations
In the Bubi religion, the beginning is Rupe (called Eri on southern parts of the island), a supreme being who created all and oversees all.
Spiritj layering best describes the spirit/physical world as explained by the Bubi. There are three parts to the other world: "Labakoppua," or heaven and angels; "Ommo ich'ori," or hell and bad angels, and "Ommo boeboe," or limbo.
After the over-world layers, island life involved the sharing of Bioko between the Bubi tribes and spirits that were both good and bad. The bad ones are always to blame for disease and injuries or bad luck. Father Aymemí describes one way of warding off the evil spirits' evil plans this way:
"In the better times of the Bubi customs, some five or 10 minutes before arriving at a village, one would encounter an arch built with plain sticks and hung with thousands of amulets -- things such as tails of sheep, animal skulls and bones, chicken and pheasant feathers, horns of antelope, shells of sea snails and land snails, and more. Thus, like the spoils of the dead, they enlived the remembrance of their ancestors who live in Borimo, or the region of the dead. On both sides of this arch they plant sacred "iko" trees, with the goal to impede the entrance of the village by bad spirits and gave themselves from their perverse influence. (Father Aymemí also expresses his relief, elsewhere in his book, that the Bubi did not use any human bones in any of their rituals but, rather, held human remains in great reverence.)
"Placed on either side were ferns and earthenware pots. One pot would hold water from a spring, and in a ceremony the Bubi would ask that the good spirits protect the village, just as in the manner that a spring will continue to flow, so, too, would Bubi births continue to flow, uninterrupted, assuring a population increase.
"Other villages might fill the pot with sea water, and this signifies that, just as the sea receives all the dirt of the earth, it's never corrupted. In this same way, it was hoped the people of the village, however much they might suffer from sickness and their vices, would never lose the virtue of their procreation."
A blending between the spirit world and the physical world on Bioko mean s nearly every distinctive landmark was associated with a Bubi spirit -- the rivers, the lakes, the mountains -- all considered a point of specific spiritual energy. Ibrahim Sundiata writes of menhirs found throughout the island commemorating sacred events and of trees "considered the great terrestrial wand of the spirits, and their vitality was a sign of continued productivity of the area."
Should you travel to the island look for:
-- The energy of the spirit Chiba resonating within Pico Basile;
-- Esaha's power deep within Lake Claret;
--Lombe in the Balacha lagoon;
--Moalala in the cavern de Riasaka;
--Lopelo in Lake Loreto;
--Jioba in the Rebola grotto;
--Ole in the Tudela river.
And try not to disturb any rock formations you might find in these areas. As author Sundiata tells us, they could be there for a reason:
"Venerated erect-standing stones are, indeed, still found throughout the island. These stones, however, did not serve as the image of a diety, but rather the image of spiritual energy -- energy essential to the fecundity and vitality of the locale. During the nineteenth century many people moved to new zones for reasons of trade and abandoned the menhirs in their region. Later, when many were rediscovered, the Bubi averred that the stones had not been erected by humans, but instead were signs from the spirits. Many menhirs were located at commercial crossroads and places for palavers.
"Sacred stones had three functions: They were places where this world encountered the world of the spirits; places that acknowledged the presence of the earth goddess; and places that marked the initial settlement of families. ... Memorial stones are especially abundant in plalces like Batete, Moka (formerly Riabba), Ureka and Ombori. At times there was only one stone, which represented the founding male. At times there were two, representing the founding couple. In other cases there was a third, smaller, stone which represented "basoome" (children). Because the menhirs were exposed to the elements, small chapels were built close to them for the maintenance of perpetual fires. The chapel was marked by small stones, and the sacred precinct was protected by rites of purification. The principal function of rites before "earth-mother" monoliths was to ensure agricultural and human reproduction."
-- (From "Equatorial Guinea: Colonialism, State Terror and the Search for Stability."
Bubi folklore consists of stories of the animals in the rainforest that are delightful entertainment as well as interesting records of the animals that lived on the isloand and the Bubi's impressions of their personalities and habits. Other folk stories tell of sorcerer mischief and of witches trying to snatch children. Still othrs explain everyday things people wonder about.
The first story, "The Snake and the Crab," was recorded by Father Aymemí. The next three stories: "Why Monkeys Don't Have Houses," "Why the Dog Eats Bones," and "How the Thumb Came to be Separated from the Other Fingers" are fronmm a marvelous book (in Spanish) called "Cuentos Bubis de Guinea Ecuatorial," written by Jacint Creus, Antonia Brunat and Pilar Curulla working with the Hispanic-Guinea Cultural Center in Malabo. It was printed in 1992, the culmination of six years work.
The Snake and the Crab
Once upon a time neighbors in the jungle were suffering from a harsh food shortage. So severe was their hunger that they began to attack and devour one another.
There were two neighbors, a black snake, named Mappa, and a river crab , named Iteke. One day Mappa said to Iteke: "In spite of the hunger that is ruining our country and the fact that our companions are eating one another and, that I, if I wanted to, could eat you, I don't want to hurt you. We have always been good neighbors and lived in peace and friendship. I only want to propose a method where neither of us will die, and that will serve to prolong our lives."
"Very good!" said Iteke. "Explain it to me."
Mappa continued: "You, Iteke, have many legs and without much trouble you can detach them and let them serve us as food during these critical times."
Iteke, fearing reprisal, accepted this proposal. So it was that daily Mappa would cut off one of Iteke's legs, season it, and both would eat it. This continued until Iteke noticed that he had been deprived of all his small legs, and that only a few large ones were left. He mentioned this, meekly, to Mappa and suggested that Mappa loan a bit of his large tail to their food supply.
Replied Mappa: "I cannot loan any of my tail. On the contrary, to do so would kill me."
Iteke did not believe this, so when Mappa was sleeping, Iteke cut a piece off the tail and prepared it. Later, Iteke invited Mappa to eat.
Mappa replied: "Friend, I can't. I feel indisposed."
Iteke said to him: "You ate all of my feet, and with only a little piece of your tail cut off, you feel sick?"
Mappa replied: "Friend, I cannot move."
Iteke left Mappa's house to get some firewood. When he returned to the house, he called out fo Mappa: "Friend, help me unload." Mappa did not answer. Iteke threw his bundle of wood on the ground and began to move things around, uncovering the pots, but could not find Mappa. Then he found him, dead, behind a rock.
At that moment he began to sing: "Ah, Mappa, Mappa! You ate my legs, I gave your tail a little snip, and how quickly you died."
Then Iteke made his way home to the river.
Why Monkeys don't have Houses
The monkeys of the forest went to a town to see how the people lived. When they saw that men lived in houses they said: "We must also build houses to shelter and cover us." And so they cut sticks and wove fronds but then the rainy season arrived and they had to stop their work.
When the dry season returned the sun was shining , its rays penetrating the forest and restoring the vivid colors of flora and fruit. The monkeys, then, began to eat and forgot about building their houses. When the rain returned it reminded them of their work, so they said: "As soon as the dry season returns, we'll finish building."
Nevertheless, again it was fruits that attracted them more the next dry season. They shrugged and crossed their arms: "Why do we want houses, if the trees give us abundant fruit and we are covered by night's darkness?" And they abandoned their work.
So it is that the monkeys don't live in houses, and when its night or it rains, they group in the big trees of the forest the shelter them just fine.
Why the Dog Eats Bones
(Note: A pangolin is a toothless, scaly mammal found in Asia and Africa, that feeds on ants and termites and is able to roll itself into a ball when attacked.)
All of the animals lived in the same village and considered the pangolin their father. He lived in a wooden house and each day, two animals were sent to bring him his food.
One day it was the dog's and goat's turn to bring the food. As the dog was much faster, he ran far ahead of the goat. Then he hid and quickly ate all of the food he was carrying. Only the bones were left. When the old goat arrived, the dog slyly smeared oil on her beard so it would look as if she alone had eaten the food.
They arrived at the pangolin's home where the dog lied and said they had only been able to find bones for food that day. The pangolin did not want to protest and began to gnaw at the bones. Their hardness made him lose some teeth, but still he was solicitous. The following day the dog and the goat returned to attend to him and, again, they brought only bones.
And so this went on for days, until the pangolin had no teeth left. Then he lost his temper. He called the entire village together to address the animals:
"One of you has been tricking me all of these days! I want you to get in a line and all of you to walk over this trap I've built. It will show me the guilty party."
One by one, all of the animals did as the pangolin said, beginning to sing a song as they did so. The goat, one of the main suspects, was first in line. But the dog managed to position himself as the last in line. So it was when he passed over the pangolin's mysterious trap he was found guilty.
The animals were very angry with him, and decided from that moment on he could only eat bones. And so it was the rest of his life.
How the Thumb Came to be Separated from the Other Fingers
Five friends were walking, as they always did, meandering up and down, going from one place to the other.
One day the youngest proposed: "We can't continue this way all of our lives. We must find a house where we are sheltered and where we can sit and talk as we please."
And the next one said: "I will be the chief."
And the next one answered: "No, I am larger than you. You will be the servant. I am hungry, when are we going to eat?
And the next one said: "Soon we'll look for some food and if we can't find any, we can steal some."
And the fifth protested: "If you're going to be thieves, bossy and argumentative, I am going to live separate from you."
And he did, leaving his friends and finding a place below and away from them.
These, then, are the five friends:
The small finger made the house.
The ring finger was the servant to them.
The middle finger was always hungry.
The index finger preferred to steal rather than work.
And the thumb was the one who left the rest.