The JENGU Cult
The JENGU Cult
A Jengu (plural Miengu) is a water spirit and deity in the traditional beliefs of the Sawa ethnic groups of Cameroon, particularly the Duala peoples. Among the Bakweri, the name is Liengu (plural Maengu). They are similar to West African Mami Wata figures, though belief in miengu likely predates most Mami Wata traditions.
The miengu´s appearance differs from people to people, but they are typically said to be beautiful, mermaid-like figures with long, wooly hair and gap-toothed smiles. They live in rivers and the sea and bring good fortune to those who worship them. They can also cure disease and act as intermediaries between worshippers and the world of spirits. For this reason, a jengu cult has long enjoyed popularity among the Duala peoples. Among the Bakweri, this cult is also an important part of a young girl´s rite of passage into adulthood.
Jengu as deity
"Jengu" may refer to a single deity, as well. In some traditions, this god replaces the class of miengu spirits, while in others, it acts as their leader. Among the Isubu, for example, this god is called Jengu, and is depicted as a man with backwards feet.
Bakweri belief talks of a female deity named Mojili or Mojele. Mojili became the progenitor of the maengu when she lost a bet with Moto, the ancestor of mankind, over who could build the longer-lasting fire. Moto won the right to stay in the village, but Mojili was forced to flee to the sea. The Bakweri still worship Mojili as the ruler of the maengu. In fact, her name is so powerful, that many believe that children under seven may die if they hear it uttered. By extension of this tale, the maengu are said to be the wives of the rats, as the ancestor of the rats also lost the bet and fled to the forest.
Another Bakweri tradition names this goddess Liengu la Mwanja and makes her the consort of Efasa-Moto, god of Mount Fako (Mount Cameroon). Long ago, the two formed an understanding that Efasa-Moto would live on the mountain, while Liengu la Mwanja would inhabit the sea. When lava from Mount Fako´s 1992 eruption made it all the way to the ocean, many hailed it as a sign that the god was visiting his wife.
The Duala and related groups hold the jengu cult in high importance. The cult may have originated with peoples further west, possibly the Ijo, and then passed from people to people, reaching the Batanga at its most eastward extent. In the earliest days, jengu-worship centred on the water spirits as the source of four boons: crayfish, the end of the rainy season in one of the world´s wettest regions, victory in the pirogue races, and protection from epidemics of disease. Among the Duala proper, membership was originally reserved to "free" (pure-blooded) Duala, a stipulation that even excluded members of the prestigious Akwa clan due to one of their ancestors being a Bassa woman. Observations by European traders and explorers prove that jengu-worship was well established by the early 19th century. Early missionaries largely failed in their attempts to suppress it.
The cult is still active in Cameroon´s Littoral and Southwest Provinces. Both males and females are eligible to join, though this openness may be a fairly recent development. Jengu-worship is primarily male among the Duala proper, but among the Bakweri, on the other hand, the cult is primarily for women.
Ceremonies and rituals
Jengu worship centres on a secret society led by an individual known as the ekale. This person traditionally wears a mask at all meetings, though this practice all but died out by the mid-20th century. Anyone can supplicate the miengu, however, and the simplest rituals involve nothing more than prayers or sacrifices to the deities before fishing or traveling by water.
Early jengu worshippers performed rituals in pirogues on the Wouri River, its tributaries and estuary, and on nearby islands. The person would first dress in ceremonial garb, a cape, skirt, and headdress of raffia fronds, and carry palm fronds and wooden paddles. He would then summon the miengu and offer them oblations of food and drink. He might also visit a jengu shrine further up the Wouri.
Much jengu worship is related to healing and medicine, and the miengu are called upon when mainstream healing fails. For example, a jengu doctor can treat a patient by first sacrificing a cock and goat. He then administers a vomit-inducing medicine and waves a small stool over the patient´s head. The one treated must then follow a series of taboos. Among the Bakweri, this rite is known as Liengu la Vafea.
The highest-profile miengu ceremony today is the annual Ngondo celebration in Douala, first held in 1949. The night before the fête´s culmination, members of the jengu cult hold a private ceremony at Jebale Island on the Wouri. There they sacrifice to the water spirits and prepare a package of gifts. The next day, this offering is presented to the miengu during a public ceremony on a beach near Douala. One cult member dives into the sea with the gift and stays down as long as possible. Afterward, he returns with a message from the miengu about the year to come.
The rites observed by the Bakweri people of Mount Cameroon serve as an example of similar rituals among other coastal groups. For the inland Bakweri, liengu-worship is a rite of passage for young girls between the ages of 8 and 10. When a girl reaches this age, cult members sequester her for several months. During this time, the girl must wear a dress made of fern fronds and observe a series of taboos. After this period, she is a full member of the cult.
Toward the coast, the Bakweri practice two major induction rituals. In the Liengu la Ndiva, cult members take a seizure or collapse as a sign that a young girl is ready for induction. A cult member then speaks to her in a secret liengu language, and if she seems to understand any of it, a traditional healer begins the initiation rites. The girl must live in seclusion for several months, during which she must follow a strict set of taboos and may see visions of spirits. She also receives a secret name and teaching in the secret liengu language. Eventually, the healer releases her into the custody of a group of strong men and a number of women singing in the liengu language. The men take turns carrying her until she reaches the middle of a stream. There, the healer plunges her in, inducting her into the cult. Meanwhile, other cult members attempt to capture a crab from the waters, as this animal represents the liengu spirit. The new member´s taboos remain, however, and she must live in seclusion for several more months. Finally, the cult holds a feast in her honour, and the initiation comes to an end. The entire process takes the better part of a year.
An alternate Bakweri initiation ritual is the Liengu la Mongbango. If a young girl disappears into the bush, her female relatives try to track her down by singing to her in the liengu language and carrying cult insignia made of wicker. When they find her, they hide her away for several months (outsiders may visit, however). Afterward, the cult prepares a feast for the girl. She and her sponsor then go alone into the forest. The initiate dresses in traditional regalia of fern fronds and rubs her body with red camwood. She is then led back to the village tied to the middle of a long rope. Two groups play a tug of war over her until the rope breaks, and she collapses. The cult members call to her nine times in the liengu language, which causes her to stand back up. After a few more weeks of taboos, a traditional healer bathes her in a stream, and her initiation ends. This process also takes most of a year.
• Austen, Ralph A. and Derrick, Jonathan (1999). Middlemen of the Cameroons Rivers: The Duala and their Hinterland c. 1600 – c. 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• "The Liengu Cult (Mermaid Cult)". Bakwerirama.
• Ardener, Edwin (1975). "Man, Mouse, Ape and Water Spirit". Belief and the Problem of Women.
• Martin, Wose Yangange. "Efasa Moto, the God of Mount Fako".
• Monga, Yvette (2000). "<< Au village! >>: Space, culture and politics in Cameroon". Cahier d´Études Africaines, 160.
• Wilcox, Rosalinde G. (2002). "Commercial transactions and cultural interactions from the Delta to Douala and beyond". African Arts Spring.
Bakwerirama at www.bakweri.com
The Liengu Cult (Mermaid Cult)
By Dibussi Tande
The Liengu cult is primarily as a medicinal rite that leads to the induction of the patient into the powerful mermaid cult. According to Edwin Ardener in “Belief and the Problem of Women”, the Liengu beliefs and rites actually consist of:
…various different combinations producing a patchwork of several women’s rites all of which are linked by the name LIENGU... they are all enacted, however, as a response to a fit or seizure that comes mainly upon adolescent girls but also upon older women.
Edwin Ardener (like Carl Bender, 50 years before him) distinguishes three types of Liengu rites:
1) LIENGU LA NDIVA (ndiva: ‘deep water’). It is the rite that retains the closest connection with water spirits. In this case:
“the sickness attacks the girl or woman, characteristically causing her to fall over the fireplace, so that she knocks out one of the three stones that are used to support cooking pots. A woman versed in this form of Liengu then comes and addresses her in a secret liengu language. If she shows any sign of comprehension, a liengu Doctor (male or female) is called...”
after performing certain traditional rites the girl is then kept in seclusion. During this period a woman sponsor teaches her the liengu language and gives her a liengu name. She is subject to a number of taboos. After several months the doctor returns. She is picked up and carried in turn one by one by men chosen for their strength, until they reach the deep part of the stream where the doctor pushes her in. Women who accompany them sing liengu songs, and the company tries to catch a crab, representing the water spirit. After this rite, the girl is regarded as being a familiar of water spirits and one of the liengu women. After another period of seclusion, the woman comes out to a feast, and she is finally regarded by men as finally immune from any attack by the water spirits.
2) LIENGU LA MONGBANGO. It differs from ndiva in many respects. For example, the symptom is sometimes said to be the girl disappearing into the bush as if attracted by spirits. She is then sought by a group of female relatives singing to her in liengu language, and when she is found, is taken to the seclusion room. Unlike the NDIVA case, she is not secluded for the entire period of the rite. After a few months, a feast is made which is traditionally all eaten on the ground, after which the girl is allowed to go out, although still subject to taboos. After a further period of nine months, a sheep is killed and a similar feast made, the girl and her liengu woman sponsor being secluded in an enclosure in the bush. She is now dressed in fern-fronds (“senge” or “njombi”) rubbed with camwood, and led through the village tied to the middle of a long rope held by her companions in front and behind. Outside her house, both sets of people pull the rope, as in a tug of war, until the rope comes apart, when the girl falls down, as if dead. She is revived by being called nine times in the liengu language, after which she gets up, and is dressed in new clothing. After a few weeks, she is washed in a stream by the doctor to show that she is free from taboos she observed during the rites. Both with ndiva and mongbango the rites extend for about a year.
3) LIENGU LA VEFEA. It reduces the procedure to essentially to the killing of a goat and a young cock, and the drinking of the vomiting medicine followed by food taboos. The medicine is the same in all rites. Among the upper Bakweri who live furthest from the sea, an even more generalized liengu rite seems to have existed in which a simple “rite de passage” aspect is very noticeable. It is said that every daughter was put through liengu at about 8 to 10 years of age so that she be fertile. She would wear fern-fronds and be secluded for a period, apparently shorter than the above examples.
A more colorful but equally accurate description of the liengu rite is found in Carl Bender’s 1925 publication, Religious and ethical beliefs of African Negroes: Duala and Wakweliland.
For example, Bender reveals that during the seclusion period of the liengu la Ndiva, the patient sees spirits from time to time, and at the sight of these, she cries; iso, iso! (We, we). On hearing this, the spirits disappear. Also, upon stepping out of the stream at the end of her seclusion, she cries: Ena Linua o! (Abbreviation of two favorite female names Enanga and Limunge) to which the crowd join in chorus; “Amba Ena Linua” (Truly Enanga Limunge)
With regards to the Liengu la Monbwango, Bender reveals that when the missing girl is being sought after, members of the search party carry in their hands the insignia of the liengu, the NJOLA (made of wicker-work) and shout out in liengu dialect; “Mandone so njo mbembi njilo e?” (Who is it that hides in the bush?’)
Bender sheds more light on the Liengu la Vefea (which he spells ‘wevea’) by revealing that it shields its devotees against diseases of the head, the lungs, and other internal organs. If a woman or girl is afflicted and there is little or no hope for recovery, her relatives set her apart for liengu la vefea. The rites begin with the victim holding a low stool and lifting it high above her head, at the same time crying in the dialect of the liengu la vefea: (Iso nge, bane fe na nja e?” (We are it, who are the others?”)
According to Bender;
“The maengu are held in high esteem among the Wakweli and are credited with superhuman powers. When the witch doctor and his means fail, the Liengu is called. She appears by night and imitates the call of the liengu near the hut where her services are required. In every such instance the patient is claimed by the Liengu.”
Ardener, Edwin. “Belief and the Problem of Women” in Ardener, Shirley (ed). Perceiving Women. London: Malaby Press, 1975.
Bender, Carl Jacob. Religious and ethical beliefs of African Negroes. Little blue book; no. 798. Girard Kansas, Haldeman Julius Co. 1924.