Political and Religious Authority of the Village Chief
Every village is under the rule of a masculine chief. The chief, usually an outsider, is chosen by all the members of the village. His principal duties are:
a) Responsibility for the worship of the village's guardian spirit (Unikan Orebok). Every day, the chief has to pray and make offerings for the well-being of the inhabitants.
b) To preside at religious ceremonies and the meetings of the elders in the central square.
c) To keep alive, with the help of his wife, the sacred fire he has received from the Dufuntu the day of his consecration.
d) To act as the center of unity for the different activities of the village. Because of the equal opportunities given both men and women in religious and economic activities, conflicts and misunderstandings are frequent in their everyday life. The chief, because of his dealings both with men an women in their ceremonies, is in a position to solve conflicts and restore communication between the parties. His ability to make peace is enhanced because he is an outsider who can act as a true neutral party.
e) To administer justice. Peace and harmony are the two things all members of the village most desire. They believe that when conflicts arise or when an injustice has been done against somebody, the spirits of the village are upset. The harmony between the two worlds is broken and must be restored. Furthermore, if accidentally or purposely some human blood touches the earth, there must be some compensation through the sacrifice of an animal, a cow or a goat according to the gravity of the offense. If no blood was involved as happens in quarrels and some beatings, it is enough to make offerings to the spirit Orebok in the presence of the Council of the Elders. The chief, together with them, decides the amount of restoration to be made in order to please the spirit Orebok and re-establish his protection over the village.
f) To control the land properties of the village and its distribution at the beginning of every agricultural year. This does not mean absolute power of the chief, who very often has to work harder than the other members in order to maintain his reputation and wealth, which enables him to be hospitable to them. Normally, all the land of the village belongs to the chief. The members of the village pay a small percentage of the crops to him, to compensate him for his expenses in the sacrifices performed in the community and to help him be hospitable to the people. They also reimburse him for the time he is away from his farm, performing religious ceremonies. Taxes are much higher and mandatory if members of another village ask to do agricultural work on the land of the village, which happens when people move to the island of Rubane where the land is plentiful.
In March 1976, I had the opportunity to be present at the ceremonies for the consecration of Coia, the new chief of the village of Bruce on Bubaque Island. He'd been selected by the elders of Bruce in 1974, from his village of Bijante, because of his membership to the same clan of Bruce, Oracuma, together with his reputation as a peaceful man and as a skillful and hard worker - all qualities much needed to run the big village of Bruce.
On the night of March 20, at least one hundred people from Bruce came to Bijante to take the chief-to-be and his belongings. He was wearing only a loincloth made of goatskin and his hands were bound. They accompanied him to Bruce and thrust him naked into the sacred hut. The following evening, the sacred drum started sending the message to all the villages of the island:
We have the chief, we have the chief.
All those present in the village, men and women young and old, started dancing and clapping their hands for the big event and the happiness it was bringing to everybody.
Many ceremonies were performed in the following days. A cow was killed in front of the new chief's sacred hut, in order to protect his dwelling and to help him deal with the spirit Orebok and the souls of the ancestors. A second cow was killed for the new sacred fire. The Dufuntu built two new houses, the kabango kaunikan and the naˇ, symbols of the village chief's presence.
During the week of ceremonies, Coia received instructions from the two chiefs present from Canhabaque Island. The chief of Bijante was not present because he was sick and hospitalized, but a messenger was sent to him twice to ask instructions, because the people of Bruce didn't know if they were performing the ritual correctly. This episode deepened my understanding of the Bijagos' attitude toward their religious beliefs and practices; it is not important the technical knowledge as given to them, but actual knowledge from their personal and active participation in the ceremonies, that is to say their personal experience.
The two chiefs from Canhabaque were chosen because of the special relationship between the two islands since ancient times. During the long week of ceremonies, the two chiefs instructed Coia in some of the secrets of Bijago traditions and told of their own experiences.
The tradition is to make gifts when these secrets are given, unless this so-called "secret information" is worthless. The new chief had to reward the informants each time special information was given him, and Coia ran out of tobacco and often had to send villagers to bring more in order to please the two chiefs.
A new life of contacts was established between the living and dead members of Bruce, through the person of the new chief, who had the capacity to talk with the ancestors and with Orebok. A Bijago chief knows how to communicate with the world of spirits. Of course, the competence of a chief grows mainly through the years he stays in office. His knowledge and seniority increase his value among the other chiefs of Bijago society.
Within Bijago society, all the individuals have the same opportunities for wealth and for rank, if they belong to the lineage of the village. It is a general belief of the Bijagos that if one is too superior over the others, he may become dangerous. Furthermore, it is expected that one will share his wealth by distributing some of it among the village's needy. When somebody is asked how many animals he possesses, the answer is never the truth. Many times people give cattle and goats to relatives living in other villages or on other islands, in order to avoid giving them away during certain ceremonies. They try to keep their wealth a secret. They may be accused of witchcraft if they're too wealthy and fortunate. Hard work, however, is always appreciated and considered the main cause of wealth and good luck, as well as success as a lover or spouse.
Land worked with the slash-and-burn technique is divided every year according to the needs of the families. Mango trees belong to all the members of the village, but oil palm trees - especially good ones that give wine continuously - are owned by the families that fertilize them.
Moveable goods, such as animals, clothes, and personal utensils, are personally owned. Most of them are buried or destroyed upon the death of the owner; others are kept by the members of his clan.
Marriage and Age Classes
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