Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought

Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought

by Alma Gottlieb


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253326072
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/28/1992
Series: African Systems of Thought Ser.
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

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Under the Kapok Tree

Identity and Difference in Beng Thought

By Alma Gottlieb

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 Alma Gottlieb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92252-2


The Beng in the World of Ideas

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"


"The Beng" is the kind of phrase that is now problematic in anthropology. In Africa in particular, a large group of works by anthropologists, historians, and political scientists has shown convincingly how fluid the "ethnic group" has been in many parts of Africa (e.g., Salamone 1975, Schultz 1984). These works have also shown that the social boundaries we scholars have relied upon, even held dear, are complex constructions with heterogeneous origins (e.g., Arens 1975, Nurse and Spear 1985), in some cases quite recent ones at that (e.g., Kopytoff, ed., 1987; Weiskel 1976, 1978; Zilberg 1989). In all likelihood, most Third World populations in Africa and elsewhere were far less isolated from one another before Europeans set foot in their lands than we in the West have tended to assume. With contact and trade often came deep mutual influence through intermarriage and active circulation of social and religious customs, including dances, healing practices, individual spirits, and occult arts. Yet in Africa, European colonial officers were all too eager to divide their subject populations into tightly bounded groups the better to rule them. The current South African situation demonstrates all too devastatingly how destructive to the lives of Africans our own reified Western categories have been (Gordon 1988).

Does the revelation of the precolonial openness of certain social groups, coupled with the pernicious colonial insistence on discrete groups, render the notion of ethnicity in Africa wholly irrelevant? I think not. While ethnicity in all likelihood was, and in many cases still is, far more fluid in most of Africa than anthropologists have until recently depicted, nevertheless it is an important feature of the mental and political landscapes today. Not only is Western journalistic discourse singlemindedly oriented toward the exotically ethnocentric notion of "tribalism," but African governmental officials periodically issue declarations against the divisive forces of that same "tribalism." Even more importantly, African villagers themselves speak of their own ethnic groups in a variety of ways, ranging from pride to self-conscious ambivalence, that attest to the staying power of the concept itself. "Members" of different groups may point to different factors that for them constitute the most important criteria in distinguishing their ethnic identity from their neighbors'—customs such as mode of reckoning descent or determining postmarital residence, initiation rituals, dress or scarification style, house style, language. None of these factors constitutes an "objective" index of ethnicity. Indeed, my own position approaches the radically relativist notion that an ethnic group is any group of people who consider themselves one, for whatever reasons they adduce and as a means of contrasting themselves with some postulated Others (compare, e.g., Poyer 1988).

By this standard, the Beng of Côte d'Ivoire "are" an "ethnic group." It is true that they offer different responses to a question such as "Are the Beng a separate people?" depending on the questioner and the context. For instance, in government offices, when asked their race for noting on their national identification cards, Beng often answer "Baule"—the name of the ethnic group that is not only numerically important (with a population of about 1.5 million) but that in many ways dominates Ivoirian affairs and has high prestige, due in good part to President Houphouët-Boigny's Baule origin. In this official context, the Beng affiliate themselves to another group because in their own country, as well as in the anthropological literature, they are an extraordinarily obscure people who, as we shall see, have endeavored in many ways to keep to themselves. One modern mode of doing so has been essentially through social chameleonism: blending into the colors of the local ethnic foliage. But paradoxically, this attempt at superficial ethnic melting has as its deeper aim the preservation of what is conceived by many Beng as a bedrock of ethnic differentiation. I do not take the indigenous emphasis of the Beng on their own ethnic identity to indicate that "the Beng" as such have existed as a homogeneous ethnic unity since time immemorial (cf. Lehman 1967). Yet I do think that their own contemporary perspective needs to be taken seriously as a valid one. At least in their own view and at this historical juncture, the Beng "are" an ethnic group (cf. Lehman 1979:233).

In their statements, language is generally adduced as the bottom line: Beng speak their own language, which, while it contains lexical and other elements from surrounding languages (including Jula and Baule), is nevertheless a coherent language that the Beng recognize as such. Indeed, while I was conducting my initial research among the Beng in 1979–80, a cultural revival of sorts was occurring that centered quite self-consciously on language. Young men had begun composing songs in Beng for the first time; previously the Beng sang songs in Baule and Jula. One such song, often sung as the opening of an evening's entertainment, proclaimed:

They say there are no songs in Beng,
They say there are no songs in Beng.
But they lie that there are no songs in Beng.
The world says there are no songs in Beng.

The audiences at these events beamed and often hummed along with pleasure at this song, and the day afterward I often heard villagers of all ages listening to tapes of the previous evening, rewinding frequently to that first tune. In view of this, it may not be surprising that to the degree that I was accepted by the Beng, that acceptance was based initially on the fact that I was studying their language, which is rarely learned by any outsider, let alone a Westerner. And of my works on the Beng, the one that has generated the most excitement has been a Beng-English dictionary (Gottlieb n.d.).

Still, there are serious theoretical difficulties with using the criterion of language as a simple index of ethnicity (see Lehman 1979). In the Beng case, for instance, some villages that border on Baule territory are now "going Baule," as the Beng put it, by which they mean that only a few old people in those villages still speak the Beng language. In other villages in which the Beng language remains paramount, most Beng are at least trilingual, speaking both Baule and Jula quite fluently (and often Ando and some Jimini—and sometimes French as well). In ways such as this, language and ethnicity shade into one another quite actively.

If the possibility of self-definition by means of language is less than crystal clear for the Beng, this too is the case for their general vision of their ethnic identity. Indeed, a fundamental paradox lies at the base of Beng visions of their own ethnicity. On one hand, Beng see themselves firmly as an ethnic enclave. They now claim (with probably only partial accuracy) that formerly there was no ethnic intermarriage (indeed, as we shall see in chapter 4, one ideal of their alliance system is endogamy within the heart of the matriclan). Yet, considering that the Beng have a population of only about 10,000 (Côte d'Ivoire 1984), this scenario may not be far off the mark. In any case, until very recently, Beng generally did aim to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the modern Ivoirian world. Both young and old people readily conceded to me that they have been far more conservative about maintaining their traditional life-style than have members of many other Ivoirian ethnic groups with whom they are familiar.

Despite this, in precolonial times the Beng were hardly an ethnic island with no bridge to the surrounding shore. In fact, as we shall see in chapter 6, they had a large network of relations with neighboring ethnic groups. The traders who came to their villages must have carried news as well as commercial goods with them. And it is likely that at least an occasional marriage took place between the Beng and the traders. In short, the Beng were hardly isolated in fact, despite a certain mental outlook that still stresses ethnic insularity.

Nor are the Beng frozen in some precolonial time warp. As we will also see in chapter 6, the wider world has affected all Beng to varying degrees, though some enthusiastically extol the advantages of Western influence while others roundly bemoan it. This variation in individual reaction also reflects a structural ambivalence concerning Western imports, as we shall explore.

Considered ethnologically, Beng culture appears an interesting hybrid. Those who have studied, or are members of, neighboring cultures—the matrilineal Jimini (a Senufo subgroup) to the immediate north, whose language is in the Gur family; the patrilineal Jula farther to the north, whose Northern Mande language is distantly related to Beng, which is a Southern Mande language; the matrilaterally inclined Baule to the west and south, whose language is in the Twi family; and the matrilaterally inclined Ando (once thought to be a Baule subgroup but now considered a related but independent ethnic group)—such people will doubtless recognize striking similarities to specific Beng customs and beliefs (see map 1). By no means do the Beng offer a "pure" culture all of whose customs are created and produced by them alone.

What is known of Beng history that might shed light on this situation? Unfortunately, tantalizingly little. To the Beng themselves, history appears to play a far less determinative role in daily life than it does, say, in the well-organized, expansionist states found in other parts of Africa in which an endogamous group of oral historians (for example, the jeliw or griots among the various Northern Mande peoples) is responsible for remembering and reciting the kingdom's illustrious past, especially the military exploits of its famous leaders (Vansina 1965). In contrast to such societies, the Beng of M'Bahiakro are avowed pacifists and have done all they could to avoid war. Their history is of a much quieter sort. If told by them, it would emphasize events that are no less significant in the lives of the individual but that perhaps lend themselves less readily to recital in a formal context by a professional "historian."

Most Beng living today are content with the seemingly stereotyped version of their history that is current among them. It postulates an origin in Ghana and a western migration into Côte d'Ivoire, including a traumatic crossing of the Comoe River. This myth, which is corroborated in other published accounts of the Beng (e.g., Person 1971:n.p.; Salverte-Marmier and Salverte-Marmier 1966:18), is widely known in the Baule world, where it is accepted as the orthodox version of that group's history (for a critical analysis of it by a Western historian, see Weiskel 1976, 1978). Other peoples in Côte d'Ivoire have begun adopting at least parts of the myth because of the general prestige it seems to add to one's personal and group history, owing to the generally valued place that the Baule now occupy in contemporary Ivoirian affairs.

As for the Beng, such an understanding of their history may indeed be "legitimate" (accurate from the Western historian's point of view) for at least a portion (perhaps a recent portion) of their history, but from linguistic evidence it is unlikely that this myth tells the whole story. The Beng language is part of the Mande family of languages, and this fact would suggest that at some point in the very distant past, the Beng lived closer to the Mande heartland, which was on the border of present-day Mali and Guinea. The linguist Charles Bird (personal communication) estimates that the Beng, like the other Southern Mande groups, must have split off from this Mande heartland no less than 2,000 years ago (and see Welmers 1960, Loucou 1984:72–73), and it is thus understandable that this phase in their history is quite lost to the current generation. Still, if they could not account for their linguistic relation to the Northern Mande-speaking peoples, some Beng elders did account for their linguistic relation to the other Southern Mande groups in Côte d'Ivoire, who live in the western portion of the country (see map 2). One oral history I collected outlines a circuitous series of migrations beginning in Ghana, as with the more commonly claimed route, but then moving northwest to Guinea, Mali, and Liberia, then doubling back east to Côte d'Ivoire, where the Beng are said to have first stayed a short time with the Guro, another Southern Mande group, before finally moving farther east to their current location (see map 3).

In pondering the several versions of such migration routes that I was told, mutually contradictory as they are on the geopolitical specifics, I have detected a common thread: hints that the Beng may have been refugees at several points—perhaps even most—of their history. They say they are pacifists in that when faced with attackers, their reaction is to flee. Elders told me that this was the response to both African and European aggressors. For instance, during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the Guinean Muslim crusader, Samori, endeavored to build a vast Islamic empire in West Africa (Person 1968a, 1968b, 1975). As the Beng recount it, at one point Samori's soldiers reached the northern border of the Beng territory and announced that they would attack the Beng villages the next morning. The Beng elders prayed to their most powerful shrine to be spared, and they fled successfully into the forest.

Likewise, according to older Beng, French administrators looking to recruit laborers for "public works" projects in a campaign of forced labor were often faced with the same response. There was no armed resistance against the French, as, say, the neighboring Baule offered (Weiskel 1980). For the Beng, the reason must be found in traditional religious ideology: an act of homicide performed by a Beng person is said to bring death swiftly to the perpetrator, as punishment by the Earth for the sin. Once having killed another person, the only way to avoid this fate is to engage in a year-long series of arduous rituals of atonement. The fact that this taboo against killing is considered by the Beng to be relevant even for acts of defense in the face of group aggression against them would seem to suggest a refugee mentality that accords somewhat with the oral histories I collected. In at least one stopping place in the migratory circuit just described, the Beng were said to have tried to make peace for the Guro. (The very name Beng, according to a king I spoke with, means "meeting," an appropriate ethnonym for the Beng who, he said, at an earlier time lived in a multiethnic area where they convened meetings as mediators and peacemakers for the other groups when the latter had affairs and disputes that needed to be judged.) But having failed in this particular effort, they fled east.

In short, the previous paragraph aside, given the difficulty I had eliciting anything but brief, stereotyped historical sketches of only very recent history, my impression is that there is a general lack of developed indigenous historiography that is noticeable among the Beng, in comparison to other ethnic groups that do have highly developed institutional historical traditions. Assuming this is accurate—and not an artifact of my own relationship to Beng elders who, it is always possible, may have had their own reasons for concealing Beng history from me—it may speak to an overall "this-worldly" focus that is in fact quite prevalent. This is most obviously revealed in the striking emphasis on the Earth itself—which, as we shall see, is the focus of Beng religion.


My first impressions of the Beng were full of contrasts and contradictions. While the people seemed poor, and embarrassed in my presence by their poverty, they also seemed dignified and self-possessed. If at times they were irrepressibly curious about my husband and me, at other times they appeared distressingly aloof toward us. Most villagers spoke no European language and in general seemed as distant from a Western consciousness as I could imagine; yet our newly proclaimed host, André, who did speak French, the national language, was moved to ask us on our first day about a bizarre radio report he had once heard that America had sent people to the moon.


Excerpted from Under the Kapok Tree by Alma Gottlieb. Copyright © 1992 Alma Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. The Beng in the World of Ideas
2. Of Kapoks and the Earth
3. Double Descent as a System of Thought
4. The Marriages of Cousins
5. Hunting Dogs and Laughing Hyenas
6. Commodities

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