In the Lives of Individuals

Wampana in 1960

Wampana as a school teacher in 1974

Wampana was the son of the most progressive man in Kirngu, and his father insisted on him attending school, even though the Church of the Brethren school was not free. He proved an apt student, fell under the influence of a gifted and unusual teacher, Malam Bulama Birdling, and as you see by 1974 was a prosperous teacher with a handsome family. I am saddened to report that he died in 1976.

T he passage of time inevitably brings changes. When anthropologist speak of change they usually mean culture change, and we will look into that important subject shortly. Now, I wish to look at a much subtler form of change. My protracted contact with the Margi has made it possible for me to observe those lesser changes that constitute the dynamics of continuing social life. I speak primarily of aging and the succession of generations. Anthropologists rarely do intense investigations into the process of aging, very likely because typically we go to the field when we are young and have yet to feel that cold wind on our own necks. I realize now that in my earlier trips I treated the topic of aging too perfunctorily. However, when I returned in 1981 at the age of 54 and then in 1987 at 60, aging was no longer merely an academic topic for me. I was a different person, and, further, my Margi contemporaries were different as well.

To my surprise, I found that we had changed in very similar ways: we had survived the maturation of our children and seen them marry and launch out on their own, feeling a bit diminished in the process, we had struggled with the aging and death of our parents, and we were suffering from the infirmities and physiological changes that were not only inconvenient but signaled our loss of mastery of the worlds we had known. Aging, as it turned out, was a cross-cultural experience that courses in anthropology had never taught me.

In the following pictures I wish to show my friends as they appeared at different times in their lives.

Ijidi in 1960

Ijidi in 1960 at age 33

Ularamu in 1960

Ularamu in 1960 at age 33

Ijidi and Ularamu were very typical of the young men of Kirngu in 1960. They were prosperous with large families and, seemingly, bright futures ahead of them. They were very traditional and both un-educated. Ijidi was the son of the former ptil, while Ularamu was a favorite of Ptil Yarkur and frequently consulted with him

Ijidi in 1987

Ijidi in 1987 at age 60

Ularamu in 1987

Ularamu in 1987 at age 61

Ijidi survived the intervening years as the same cheerful, carefree friend (albeit with fewer teeth). However, lacking an education, he never attained the status expected of him. If Ularamu looks drawn in this picture, that was a portent of a sad future. I received a letter telling me that he had gone "mad" and had died in chains; such a horrible end for so promising a young man.

Ngwayel in 1960

Ngwayel in 1960; about 15

Ngwayel in 1974

Ngwayel in 1974; about 29

Unquestionably, without the benefits of scientific medicine, time takes a greater toll on women because of the rigors of childbirth. At left, Ngwayel, dressed for the celebration of the birth of twins, is seen a short time before she married and, at right, some fourteen years later. The wound on her cheek was the result of a fight with another of her husband's wives.

Askarju in 1960

Askarju in 1960

Askarju in 1974

Askarju in 1981

At left you see a repeated picture; Askarju, the bold flirtatious beauty whom I introduced in the section on women. If in 1981 her beauty had faded, I am happy to report that her personality was even more irrepressible.


In the section on Women you were introduced to the Margi institution of the Malabjagu, wherein post-menopausal women leave their husbands' compounds and assume a new social status. They establish new compounds and, to a remarkable extent, new identities. In the following pictures we see two views of Nyabari, who was the wife who cooked for Ptil and probably the most admired woman in the kingdom.

Nyabari in 1960

Nyabari in 1960


Nyabari in 1974

Nyabari in 1981

At left she was attending a funeral, and her wealth is indicated by the elaborate cloth she has wrapped around her waist. At right she is pictured in 1981, and again she is dressed considerably better than other women. But at that time, she was well past menopause and should have been a malabjagu and no longer a wife of Ptil . But that was not the case, which brings us finally to the topic of Culture Change.


In Culture

The traditional interest of anthropology in change has been in social and cultural change, and, as we have seen often in the pages above, there have been very conspicuous changes in the Gulak area between 1959 and 1987. A vivid example can be seen in the contrast between the following two pictures.

Kirngu 1960


Gulak 1987


The 1960 photograph was taken from Humbili looking directly west into the Nigerian plains. In the right foreground is Kirngu; far to the left is Gulak, a small cluster of buildings that was the four year old District Headquarters. A bit left of center is the Dispensary and Primary School run by the Church of the Brethren.

The 1987 photograph was taken from a much higher elevation on Mount Gulak and has a more southerly perspective. Kirngu (renamed Jalingo) is in the immediate foreground; Gulak is in the distance and has spread toward the new road. Two new state schools are visible as is a small hospital which replaced the Mission Dispensary. But the most apparent difference between the two photographs is the increase in population indicated by the addition of housing (and shade trees). There were three types of population growth; natural growth, which approximately doubled in that time span, growth from relocation of peoples from the mountains—Humbili lost population—and the growth of the District Headquarters.

Culture change and individual change are not the same thing; the aging discussed above obviously is not an example of culture change; those changes were normal to every culture. Nor is every instance of an individual departing from his cultural tradition an example of changing culture. It is when individual choices cluster and become popular choices and when this behavior is accepted by their neighbors that culture changes. But we must ask ourselves, what is it that causes choices to cluster; why do groups of people in a society begin to make similar choices: what causes culture change?

The most consistent driving force of change is, as it has been throughout history, the growth of population. As a population grows and resources become scarce, individuals are forced to seek new solutions to old problems.

Until about 1960 the Mandara Margi had resisted all efforts to get them to change; first from their Fulbe overlords in the 19th century, then subsequently from both British colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. At that time few were aware of the significant increases in population that Mandara populations were experiencing. It was only in the mid 1970s, as I analyzed my 1973-74 data and discovered raw data from a French survey (Podlewski 1961) of the Mafa who live adjacent to the Margi—which raw data was ignored in the final conclusions, that I was alerted to the growth of the Margi population. There were two types of population growth; natural growth of approximately 2.6%, at which rate the population would double in 29 years, growth from relocation of peoples from the mountains—Humbili lost population. In hindsight we know that they were “on the verge;” they were at the tipping point. The triggering events were several: a United Nations plebiscite, regional incorporation into Muslim Northern Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70 and the establishment of a subsequent standing army, and, finally, an expanding Nigerian economy.

In 1959 and 1961 two plebiscites were held to determine the national status of the peoples of the Northern British Cameroons, which was a United Nations Trusteeship. They were first asked to choose between joining Nigeria and staying under the United Nations; in the second plebiscite they had to choose between the independent nations of Nigeria and Cameroon. Although the elections, for the Margi, were recast in terms of local issues, the choices required knowledge of the world at large. Suddenly the provincial, self-sufficient culture of the Margi was inadequate.

Plebiscite in 1959

Plebiscite in 1959

As we know, they chose Nigeria and became a part of Northern Nigeria, the predominantly Muslim region of the country. After their experience in the plebiscites, they realized that they could keep control of themselves only by participating in local and regional politics. Although they had for decades resisted Islam in the form of the Fulbe who ruled them, they now realized that in order to succeed within the Northern Nigerian system adamant resistance was futile. As if to confirm their new awareness, in mid 1960s, every one of the traditional ptil of the Mandara Margi converted to Islam including Ptil Yarkur, who took as his Muslim name, Damburam. A majority of Kirngu followed suit, and the village name was changed to Jalingo.

Islam and Christianity were avenues of modernization for these provincial people. As they adopted behaviors which they associated with Islam or Christianity, they eschewed customs which they now thought of as "pagan." For example, converts asserted that neither caste nor slavery nor the institution of the malabjagu was permitted in their new world views. Consequently the marriages to female ingkyagu discussed above were socially acceptable, slavery was no longer recognized (although slavery had been outlawed for many years, it still existed in 1960), and as noted above Nyabari continued as an active wife of Damburam. In addition, it is very important to understand that for these Margi, the arbiters of Islam were the Fulbe, the only Muslims they had known; in fact the word they use to mean Islam, i.e., Plesar, is the Margi word for Fulbe. Thus, when Ptil told me that he had become a Muslim, he literally told me that he had become a Fulbe, though, to be honest, he recognized the paradox in that statement and we had a laugh about the confusion. Nonetheless, when Margi became Muslim to a great extent they became Fulbe which entailed culture traits not necessarily a part of Islam.

I do not wish to overstate the extent of change; the more drastic changes are limited to converts to Islam or Christianity. But participation in politics and the attendant knowledge of a wider political life is not so limited, nor was/is enlistment in the military (see below), though few pagans enlistees returned as pagans. Even for the provincials who remained Margi, change has come. When Ptil Yarkur converted to Islam he piously refused to engage in any of the traditional Margi public rituals. However, the symbolic position of the ptil in Margi culture was such that he was essential to those rituals; consequently, with that single conversion, public rituals ended. Traditional religion--the Margi world view--became moribund.

The Nigerian Civil War, although fought many miles away had a great effect upon the area. Twenty-six men from Kirngu, which at that time had a population of approximately 400, enlisted in the army, six of whom were killed, including Baraia, a son of Ptil who can be seen sitting behind Ijidi in the 1960 photograph above. It was not the war itself which changed the area so much as the military life which followed. Military allotments to dependents pumped previously unheard of sums into the local economy, and the housing of dependents in the places of deployment meant that wives and children were not only exposed to other parts and peoples of the nation but they enjoyed a life style vastly different from that in Gulak. I remember hearing a young boy in 1973 describe in awe living in a multistoried building with lighting that could be activated by a switch on the wall.

Finally, as I have observed on each of my returning visits to Gulak, the much maligned Nigerian economy has steadily improved, bringing not only consumer goods, but medical care and education into this long neglected area. They are living fuller, easier, healthier lives; they cannot and will not return to their former ways.

In the past, when populations were small, relatively stable, and isolated, social and cultural evolution required innovation, but today, with so much interaction among culturally heterogeneous populations, there is simply an array of cultural and technological options from which to choose more effective adaptations. That is largely what the Margi are doing, and as they do so they are perhaps not so much changing their culture as leaving it to join another.

They are leaving their provincial, tradition bound society for one more cosmopolitan, which one can hope will be but a step on their journey to becoming Nigerians.

Ethnographer's Notes >>