Koma women of Alantika Mountains. Middle Africa
The Koma people have been hiding in their mountainous habitat for eons but their existence was officially discovered in 1986 by a corps member. In Nigeria where when the Koma tribe was discovered the people described them as primitive, naked people, backward people and pagans. In fact, the mountain on which Koma resides was named Alantika which in Kanuri language means ‘Allah hasn’t yet arrived’ due to the fact that the Koma tribal people living in the Alantika Mountains keep their traditional African religion and their ancient traditions despite being surrounded by Islamic societies in the nearby Faro Valley.
Koma tribe woman at her farm. Alantika Mountain, Cameroon. Courtesy Middle Africa
The disparaging remarks against Koma people for keeping to their ancient tradition since their discovery has has not halted as Nigerian media keep assaulting their their way of life. “Koma is not one of Nigeria's stories with fairly-tale flavor,” the Nigerian newspaper The Spectator reported in July 2010. “When Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) broke the news about the startling discovery in the then-Gongola State (Northern Nigeria) of a horde of primitive people whose women used leaves to cover their private parts while men wore animal skins and children romped about the countryside butt-naked — stone-age cultural practices — the whole country was shocked to the marrow. Later, they were identified as Koma people of the Atlantika Mountains in Jada Local Government Area of the present day Adamawa State. They occupied a remote hilly terrain lying along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. The year of the discovery was 1986.
Koma people playing drum
“(One-quarter century) after this jaw-dropping story first hit the limelight, the people of Koma are still floundering in their 'Dark Age.' The Nigeria Television Authority continued that one "cold fact is that the Koma people are yet to be weaned of some of the primitive ways. There still exists a defiant few among this mountain-dwelling tribe who strut around naked or near-naked in broad daylight. Others even go to farm or come to their markets in their state of semi-nudity."
The Koma people became recognized as Nigerians in 1961, a year after independence, along with the old provinces of northern Cameroun. Today Koma is part of the seven districts of Ganye local Government in Adamawa State.
Some International NGO`s such as Middle Africa are closely working with the Koma communities and the Kingdom of Wangay so that the region preserves in natural beauty and its cultural diversity. Anthropologists and Human Right Activists who believe that responsible tourism can help preserve the Koma culture and ameliorate their daily lives must get involved so that the Alantika Mountains and Faro valley do not suffer the negative effects of massive tourism like it has happened in other tribal regions of the world.
Koma girl carrying a baby on her back
Location and tribe
The Atlantika Mountains are an extension of the Cameroon line of volcanic mountains, spanning the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. They lie to the southeast of Yola, the capital of Adamawa State in Nigeria, and southwest of the Mandara mountains.
In Cameroon, they are part of the North Region. They are north of the Adamawa Plateau and west of the Faro National Park in Cameroon. The massif rises to about 1,300 metres (4,300 ft) above the Faro River, a tributary of the Benue River. The range includes a belt of volcanoes, most of which are inactive.
Koma Bagi people of Adamawa State, Nigeria
There are 21 Koma villages in the Cameroonian side of the Alantika Mountains and 17 villages on the Nigerian side. The Koma people are divided into three main sub-ethnic groups - The Beiya and Damti, the majority of whom dwell in the hills, and the Vomni who live in the adjoining lowlands. In the plains and lowlands are also other ethnic groups who over the years have displaced the hill dwellers - the Verre, the Bata, the Fulani, the Hausa and Chamba.
Koma people from Lugga village near Tchamba. Cameroon
The Koma proper, as the hill-dwellers are now called, are spread through the South and Southwest of the Alantika/Adamawa mountain ranges to the centre of these hills, where they share common grounds with the Vomni - Koma related groups, most of whom are now settled in the foothills.
Generally, the Koma groups can be divided into hill and plain dwellers. The Koma plain dwellers live in the periphery of the Fulani, Chamba, Verre, and Bata Settlements in the lowlands, where they farm, live in temporary shelters, and attend markets. Most Koma plain-dwellers have ethnic links and permanent homes in the hills to which they retire seasonally, periodically or daily depending on the distance between lowland fam and uphill "homes".
The Verre share close ethnic and linguistic ties with the Koma; however, they see the Koma as inferiors and refer to them in Fulani as backward peoples. Even those among the Vomni who have in recent years come down from the hills refer to the Moma derisively as "load carriers" (Goumne).
Koma mother and her kids
On the Cameroon side,The Koma are divided between two different clans: the Koma Kadam (East side) and the Koma Kompana (West side), and all their villages are controlled by the Lamido or Emir of Wangay (Cameroon side) and the Emir of Nassarao (Nigerian side) who profess the Islamic religion. The Koma have to pay taxes (in species) to the landlords of the Alantika Mountains. In the last 20 years some Christian missionaries have constructed missions in the Alantika Mountains but there are few conversions till this day.
Koma girls in their hut
The Koma have their own language, known as Koma, with an estimated 61,000 speakers. It is a member of the Niger Congo language group.
The history of the Koma people appears to have begun towards the end of the 16th Century during the successive waves of migrations of the Bata, Chamba, Marghi and Higi from the North and East of Africa towards the Upper Benue Valley'.
Koma family from Alantika Mountains.
For nearly two centuries, these waves of migrations seemed to have involved a grim struggle of these invaders for dominance and control over this fertile region. The Koma, who were then a relatively small and unorganised group living around the Faro valley, were pushed up into the hills by the Bata people.
Koma lady playing drum
These internecine struggles also favoured the success of the Fulani Jihad of the 19th Century which led to the overthrow of a number of societies and the conquest of such groups as the Verre, Who either became enslaved or escaped into the safety of the hills of the Alantika as the Koma did. The lowland Verre, Who became the middlemen of the Fulani, organised periodic tax raids on the hills. Hence the average Koma man and woman view the Verre with suspicion and would want to maintain his/her identity in many forms, body decoration and dress inclusive.
In the 1950's a ban was placed on imported textiles which usually passed through the hands of the lowland Verre, Fulani and Chamba middlemen to the hill-dwelling Koma. Preference was expressed for the relatively scarce but locally produced cloth.
The large population of Koma now found in the foothill and plains of the Alantika/Adamawa mountains is a recent development in response to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, and also the result of various colonization policies adopted from 1900-1960 (NISSEN 1963 : 197).
German occupation of the area was shortlived and rather ineffective. The Fulani overlords (the Lamidos) continued to rule the Koma and extort taxes from them by organised raids to the hills. With the conclusion of the first world war the Germans renounced their claims to the Cameroons in favour of the Allied Powers. As
a result, the Adamawa area, which includes the Koma, was placed under British Mandate.
A year after Nigeria's independence in 1961, as a result of a plebiscite the Koma became recognised as Nigerians along with the old Adamawa/Saduana provinces of the Northern.
Today the Koma-Vommi District is one of the seven districts in the Ganye local governanent area, with head quarters at Nassarawo in the plains. The District Head of Koma people has his operational headquarters in the plains.
One can, however, see Koma women proudly dressed in waist leaves and beads bringing their wares of guinea corn, beer, tobacco and fruits to the lowland-markets of Betti, Choncha and Karlahi. No markets exist in the hills.
Koma boy in front of hut
The occupation of the Koma hill-dwellers centres around farming, hunting and gathering.Except for hunting, both men and women engage in cultivation, weeding and gathering. Women often have their own farms separate from their male counterparts. However, both cooperate at appropriate times in helping with each others' farms.
Koma people in the farm
This has been made more easily possible by the three farming systems which the ecology favours - hill-top farming which favours multi-cropping of millet (maiwa), maize ('forrer) and groundnuts; Valley-farming, whose warmer temperatures favour cultivation of guinea corn and tobacco; and open-plain farming, which
favours the cultivation of groundnuts.
Division of labour
The nuclear family of a man, his wife/wives and adult children constitute the regular work force on a farm. While younger sons and daughters take care of the babies at home in the hills, the parents go to the valleys and plains to cultivate and tend their farm.
The children at home also scare away birds and troublesome rodents from the domestic farms. There are no specialised chores of work which women are thought incapable of carrying out. Women weed, hoe, dig and harvest crops as men do. Men help to carry children on their backs with leather skins as women do. There is a high degree of cooperation and collaboration. Women brew, men weave and also cook.
Koma woman grinding a stuff
Another source of labour is the organisation of work parties (SOL) based on reciprocity and equivalent returns. These are organised at the Peak of the weeding seasons (July-September) when the domestic labour force becomes rather inadequate. Age-mates, friends and affines always constitute the core of work parties. The number of farm hands a man and his wife can muster depends on the number of such voluntary contracts they have entered into and honoured in the past, as well as on their general net of social relations. The investment cost includes the provisions of meals cooked by women and wine provided by men.
Koma girl weaving
During recesses from work, both men and women, husbands/wives sit in circles as they do in the markets, eating freely together, exchanging fumes of tobacco pipes and drinking from the same cup. Women are not usually segregated from men, whereas they are amongst the Higi and in most Islamised comnmunities in the neighbouring lowlands, where women are kept in purdah. Nor is the Koma women's lot like that of their Gwari counterparts in the Niger State of Nigeria, who exist essentially as "donkeys" carrying loads for their husbands. In the latter society, only men till the land and harvest the crops. it is the duty of the husbands to provide loads while it is the duty of the wife to carry them. However, for carrying their loads, a certain portion of the yields goes to the wife as compensation for services rendered. From these, she buys essential requirements such as clothing for herself and her children.
Inside a Koma hut in the upper village of Nagalpa - grinding next to the music. Carsten ten Brink
However, the Koma field materials reveal a considerable degree of sharing, and cooperation in agricultural and most economic activities, between men and women. In fact, women have control over the granaries from where the daily supplies of food for the household are fetched.
Koma woman from Alantika Mountain making fire for food preparation.
One cannot therefore talk of a strict division of labour in the agricultural sphere amongst the Koma people. However, it is only men Who hunt. Hunting serves as a means of procurement of meat and protection for crops against the menace of monkeys, baboons and a variety of birds and rodents.
Both men and women gather forest products such as bananas, locust beans and canarium which is used for producing oil and used for body lubrication.
Koma tribe old lady smoking pipe, Cameroon. renat.o
Markets do not exist in the hills but in the lowlands where the Koma trade with the Fulani, Bata, Chamba and other tribes. From them, the hill-dwellers procure scarce items of clothing which are used by men on ceremonial occasions. They also buy Salt, beeds enamel plates and agricultural implements such as hoes and
Koma woman pouring grain
The Koma women usually bring their guinea corn, tobacco and millets down for sale. In turn, they use the proceeds to buy needed commodities. Large quantities of beer brewed by both men and women are carried in elongated baskets to the lowland markets for either sale or on-the-spot consumption.
Thus, the market is also a socio-spatial venue for interactions between distant hill and lowland friends, siblings and affines. The Koma hill-dwellers and their migrant lowland farmers sit in groups after the day’s sales to drink, gossip and exchange views. Males and females, bride and groom all sit down in circles to exchange pleasantries. The men in their textile dress and the women with their lubricated bodies and waist
leaves feel apparently free and uninhibited in their interactions with one another. They show no signs of inferiority before their more elaborately- dressed Fulani, Chamba and Bata neighbours. The language of commerce between the Koma and non-Koma groups such as the Verre is Hausa which the Koma hill dwellers are beginning to learn. However, the Verre, Koma and Chamba speaks a related dialect (Momi), recently identified as part of the Verre Duru group of the Adamawa family of languages.
Amongst the hiIl-dwellers, a moral economy which involves sharing, reciprocity and direct exchanges between neighbours, affines and siblings prevails. Money in the modern sense is only used in transactions between the hills and the lowland.
Koma people dancing
Marriage and Inheritance
Marriage amongst the hill-dwelling Koma, as with their Verre lowlanders is endogamous and polygynous. Levirate marriage is also practised amongst the Koma. These serve to promote their cultural and ethnic identities, which they cherish in the face of historical and present-day realities.
It is estimated that, between the ages of 10 and l4, both sexes undergo puberty rituals which involve circumcision for boys and extraction of teeth for girls. These are prerequisites for bethrothal and marriage. They are also visible signs of maturity. The ceremonies are controlled in groups and at village levels (usually after the harvest season, between the months of October and January) by a group of ritual functionaries
called the Kene-Mari.
Koma old ladies
At their proclamation all families assemble their "ripe" candidates for the initiation. In the midst of dancing and drumming, a male candidate is called forward. He is made to stand before a selected crowd that excludes women. He is made to use a metal sickle to hold his neck and head in an upright position. He is not expected to shiver or show signs of fear while the Priest takes hold of his penis and removes the outer skin. His male
supporters and father are expected not to shake their bodies or legs. This is done in homeopathetic
identification with the circumcising candidate. The candidate usually helps himself to concoctions of local herbs and brew which are believed to act as local anaesthesia. Should he yell, he brings shame to his family and friends. Such a boy is unlikely to find a marriage partner in his locality.
A candidate who goes through the test/circumcision neither shaking nor showing signs of fear is a pride to his family. He becomes a man in the social/virile sense, and can thenceforth Wear the penis sheath made of grasses. Such a candidate is symbolically liberated from the mother Who may not, except under the pain of death, see the son's genitals from then on. He is thereafter also qualified to adorn himself with ceremonial clothes.
Koma people dancing
In a separate group, the girls are organised for extraction of one of their upper incisor teeth by ritual experts. In similar settings, the ritual test involves pain and the final triumph of a nubile candidate, who thenceforth decorates herself with beads and rubs her body with oil and camwood (field observation, 1986).
Thus, between the ages of about 14 and 17, nubile boys and girls are free to interact and make choices based on village stories and gossips of successes and failures in rite of passage involved in the puberty rituals. Brides and grooms are then free to engage themselves to marry, and make their conjugal intentions known to their parents by reciprocal token gifts (damsa).
Initial relationships are accepted by payment of bride service in the form of weeding in a prospective in-law’s farm or garden plot.
Finally, the man pays bride wealth in the form of goats, chickens and some token cash of about two Naira (approximately two French Francs).
Koma woman with her kids at Alantika Mountains, Cameroun. Middle Africa
Residence is initially virilocal and after a year or two of rendering service to the groom’s parents and preferably at the birth of a baby, a couple moves out to build their own huts and granaries. The brief period of virilocal residence is also to enable both partners to accumulate some capital to set up a new home. This period also serves as one of tutelage under the eyes of the parents-in-law. The woman learns domestic
duties, how to nurture a family and the nuances of the culture of the community. At their new abode,
the woman is expected to send periodic meals to her parents -in-laws.
The funeralof Koma people are accompanied by dance, and dance is attended by relatives who come with the gifts of millet and meat. © Tina Ponzellini
At the death of a husband, fixed property such as his huts and farmlands go to his eldest living brother Who takes care of the estate. This brother, also takes his wives, and children born of this new union will continue to bear the name of the deceased kin. However, a woman is free to remarry any other person other than the deceased kin's brother. Children from such re-marriage belong to the new husband.
At a woman's death, the daughters inherit her livestock, her farms, domestic utensils such as artifacts for body decorations, beads, pigments and decorated hoes. Any forms of nut products are regarded as a woman's exclusive property, while bows and arrows belong to the first son of the deceased male.
Koma baby suckling the mothers breast
Socio-political structure (Authority and leaders)
Koma Society is an acephalous one. There is no single tribal head over the whole of the Koma groups,which are made up of over thirty hamlets dotted over the Alantika hills and the adjoining lowlands. Each hamlet, however, has a group of all-male ritual functionaries (Kpane ) led by a Priest King (Kene Mari). The Kene-Mari-in- Council settles disputes between individuals and groups within hamlets and between them. Cases of homicide between neighbouring hamlets are settled by vengeance if compensation is not made in good time.
Disputes between men and women, wife come under the adjudication of -in-Council. Elders are also generally respected in the society.
Koma girl holding her sibling
At the family level, the head of the family, be a living husband or a brother to the deceased, has authority over disputes. Ultimately life is regulated by en e the hamlet deity on and secular powers are invoked.
Koma woman playing with her baby
The Koma people believe in the existence of a supreme being variously called Zum or Nu. These words are also used for the sun. The neighbouring Chamba also use the same word Su for the sun, as well as for Almighty God.
In order to get what man likes within the unalterable wheel of God's arrangements, the Koma recognise the powers of local deities such as Kene which can be appealed to for health, vitality and fertility. Each hamlet and household has her Ken, shrine under the charge of male ritual functionaries, Kene-Mari who is assisted by male prophets, Kpani.
Koma woman smoking a pipe
The Koma aver that Kene decreed from time immemorial that while women should only wear girdle of local leaves (arama), the men could put on lobs of leather or local Cotton (Bentin).
Even when items of textiles and modern clothes started being donated by missionaries and philanthropic organisations in recent times, they were kept as special and prized possession, whose adornment by men was only approved by the Chief Priest. Thus the relative scarcity of these items made them prestige/ceremonial possessions over which women had no access. This was further sanctioned by religion.
Koma woman being carried away
Nowadays, with the gradual opening-up of the Koma country by the present Nigerian/Cameroonian
administration, Koma men are much more receptive to wearing modern clothes at most times/occasions. Thus clothes are climbing down from the prestige sphere to the reach of almost everyone except women.
The belief still holds firmly that if women wear clothes, they would incur the wrath of the gods with visitation of either death or barrenness.
When the government authorities made it mandatory in some markets for people to Wear clothes, the women would put cloth wrappers over the leaves only in the market, and remove them on their way back to the hills (field observation).
Dress and Decoration
The Koma people's mode of dressing is unique when compared to these of their lowland neighbours. Infant boys and girls, before their puberty rites go almost nude with only small patches of leaves to hide the pubic and genital regions from public view. Their hair is left undecorated but cut with locally-fashioned metal blades at regular intervals.
Old Nigerian and Cameroonian coins, and talisman made from leather are often strung on the neck of children.
After the puberty rituals which confer nubile status on both sexes, the girls then begin to deck their waist with coloured beads of red, white and blue upon the local leaves which are changed daily.
The girls begin to lubricate their bodies with red camwood mixed with oil from the shea-butternut or caneriunan which gives them alluring appearances. According to the extraction of girls' upper incisors also ad beauty and nubility. Mammary glands are also lubricated and fashioned by mothers to give them fresh, ripened and glittering appearances. Young girls and women keep their hair shining by the application of brown alluvial clay mixed with the some oil giving the head dressing a Rastafarian appearance.
Koma Baggi Tribe woman from Adamawa State,Nigeria, wearing their traditional leaves cover and dread-lock hair
Decorated hoes are prestige and status symbols for women who have borne many children and have demonstrated economic well- being by their ability to feed the household from their numerous granaries. These non-utilitarian polished hoes are hung on the right shoulder as part of leisurely dress worn at such occasions as marriage ceremonies and drinking parties held at various market places.
The greater the degree of decorations and designs on the hoes, the greater the number of children and economic power the women are likely to have. Such women now enjoy the privileges of owning tobacco pipes just as their male counterparts do. During menopause, women are free to sit with men and exchange drinks and tobacco, even with men Who are not their husbands. These groups of elderly women also carry the privilege of wearing labial rings on their lower lips.
Men, on the other hand, do not put on leaves but wear special waist pants sewn from either leather or cotton. Shirts and various combinations of traditional and western-styled dress are today worn by men alone. On festive occasions, Koma men put on the Hausa/Fulani type of flowing garments (Babariga) similar to those of their lowland neighbours.
Koma woman and her child
The males wear penis sheaths, under their clothes/leather skin. A man is identified by his bow and arrow, a leather bag, a double-edged knife tucked on a waist belt and the smoking pipe.
On the other hand, the lowland neighbours of the Koma have been acculturated into the Islamic pattern of life with its accompanying mode of dressing. Men and women do not expose "sensitive" parts of their bodies. Any woman married under the Islamic tenets always covers her head and the greater part of the face. The men don hats on most ceremonial occasions but there are no prohibitions against leaving male hair uncovered. Young Fulani girls decorate their hair, enlongated with additional strands inherited from their mothers or matrikiras.
In the whole, what in the lowlands are everyday forms of dress, assume prestige and ceremonial roles among the Koma hill-dwellers. However, most migrant Koma, except the females, are beginning to adopt their lowlandl neighbours style of dressing.
Thus the Koma women stand out as a unique symbols of Koma resistance to change before non-Koma and outsiders. Within the society itself women exercise a remarkable degree of economic power in their access, control and deployment of resources. How then does one explain the differences in the mode of male/female body decorations in relationship to more or less egalitarian socio-economic relations between the sexes?
Among the Komas, a twin birth is regarded as evil, and twins are considered abominable so much so that until recently babies of multiple births used to be buried alive with the women who had the 'misfortune' of being their mothers. This obnoxious practice of twins killing is out of vogue among Komas who dwell on the plains, but in the out-of-the-way settlements on the hills, the ancient practice still thrives untainted.