Ethno-history suggests that the Margi moved into their present locations from the mountains and highlands of what is today Cameroon. There has never been an accurate census of the speakers of Margi, but they probably number at least 250,000. They are not and have never been a unified group, their ancestors having migrated as separate clans with distinctive customs into the area following several different routes. The vast majority settled in the wide Yedseram River basin in Nigeria, but the later arrivals--the subject of this exhibition--did not entirely make it out of the mountains and still reside in the valleys and peaks of the Mandara Mountains that today form a portion of the border between Nigeria and the Republic of Cameroon.
They have a varied political history. In addition to their own political systems, they have survived under a plethora of European administrations. They were a part of German Kamerun from 1899 to 1918, under the French from 1918 to 1922, then in British Northern Cameroons from 1922 to 1960, and finally, after two United Nations plebiscites, they joined Nigeria. It is a remote area: until 1949, it was officially designated "Closed Territory," i.e. one needed permission to enter it, there was not an all-season road through the district until 1959 nor a paved one until 1981, and throughout all of my field work there was no electricity, sanitation, or safe drinking water.
Although the Mandaras are not high, they are very rugged with boulders and volcanic cores in profusion. Clan communities are situated only as the topography permits: here concentrated upon a mountain peak; there dispersed along a plateau, as in the photograph at the right. Old Kirngu, the royal village of the political unit featured in this presentation, was located atop Mount Gulak --from which the photographs for the panoramic mosaic were taken—and was a classic example of a compact aggregation. On the other hand Humbili, which had approximately the same number of households as Kirngu, covered at least ten times the land area of the latter. (It is spread along the central two-thirds of the foreground of the panoramic photograph.) The mountain topography had important consequences for all the Mandara populations; not only were there no large social or political units, but the people were independent, resourceful, and provincial with little knowledge of the world beyond. (In 1956, at the urging of the Colonial government, Kirngu was relocated to the base of its mountain.)
The land in the mountains is fertile, and by industrious farming techniques such as using low terraces, the populations have thrived. Their ability to exploit their habitat is largely based upon their mastery of iron technology, by which they are able to make the farming implements--principally the short handled hoe and the sickle--and weapons of self defense by which they maintained their independence from the intrusive Fulbe (also known as Fulani) who raided and enslaved them well into the first quarter of the 20th century. Their iron technology was intricately tied into the social fabric of Margi society, which was divided into two castes. The dominant caste was composed of farmers, called mbilim, and it was they who smelted magnetite into stock iron, while the second caste, the ingkyagu, who by tradition did not farm, fabricated the implements. (Women of the ingkyagu caste were the society's potters, and, indeed, all crafts --including mortuary practices-- were the province of ingkyagu.) Thus the two castes were united in a symbiotic relationship, each producing something that the other required, and both the stronger because of their specialties. By 1959 smelting was rapidly disappearing due to the abundance of scrap metal from a variety of sources. The photograph of the smelting furnace in this exhibition was taken in a very remote village. By the mid 1960s the caste system was dissolving as a result of intermarriage and conversions to Islam and Christianity; topics to which we will return.
Finally, it must be noted that in this remote habitat the population had been little effected by scientific medicine. It is estimated that in 1959, approximately 17% of infants died in their first year; one half would die by about 9 years of age, and life expectancy from birth was but 24 years. This, of course, did not mean that there were no old people, for once the rigors and dangers of early life were survived, chances of a long life were much better. For example, a person who survived to be 25 could expect to live until he or she (the data are not sex specific) was 35, should he/she live to be 50 the expected age of death was 64, and a 70 year old had an additional expectancy of 5 years --not far from our life expectancy at that time. Among these photographs are three persons of advanced age: Thlama, who was 88 at the time I took his photograph, Suduyu, a widow of Thlama's father, who was approximately the same age as Thlama, and Birma Dali, who--with his father--was sold into slavery for head baskets of sorghum probably in the great famine of 1908. Nonetheless, it was a young population; approximately 45% were younger than 15 and only 11% were 50 or older. (All ages indicated in this web site are as of the dates the photographs were taken.)
If most of the people in these photographs look strong, healthy, and handsome, as I think they do, you must remember that these are the survivors of a terrible winnowing process. No public ritual was more common than the funeral.