RITES OF PASSAGE OF THE NGAS PEOPLE OF PLATEAU, NIGERIA
African Traditional Religion has become part of the African lifestyle in such a way that separating one from the other is as good as annihilating the African continent and its inhabitants. This, we shall see in the way the Ngas people gave themselves to be molded, nurtured and cultured by their religion and traditions. Against this backdrop, emphasis will be made on the historical, religious and social life of the Ngas man, since we cannot separate his religious life from his social life.
For the purpose of this work, the writer will be limiting his research on one part of the Ngas people. We have the Hill Ngas and the Plain Ngas. The writer will write about the traditional religion of the Plain Ngas, inhabiting Amper, Kabwir, and other areas of Ampang East, Dawaki and Gyangyang in Kanke Local Government of Plateau State.
The beliefs and practices of the Ngas religion looks similar from one town to another, but also have some differences because the way things are done in one village varies from the other.
The Ngas people are currently inhibiting the land of Pankshin and Kanke Local Government Areas in the Central Zone of Plateau State, Nigeria, some 120 kilometers and 150 kilometers respectively from Jos, the Plateau State capital. Pankshin occupies a land area of about 1523.6271 Sq. km, while kanke occupies a land area of about 926.0634 Sq. km respectively.
These people are said to have migrated from Egypt, Sudan or Chad to the Borno region. They set out of Borno, sometime between 1100 and 1350 A.D in search of a place to farm and care for their animals until they reach their current land which is called by the Ngas people Yil Ngas (Ngas land). The Plain Ngas settled in the areas of Amper, Kabwir, Dawaki, Ampang East and Gyangyang, about 600 to 800 metres above the sea level while the Hill Ngas occupies the mountains of Pankshin, Wokkos, Garam and many other places ranging from 800 to 1400 metres above the sea level.
THE CONCEPT OF A SUPREME BEING
The Ngas people believe in a Supreme Being called “Nen”. They do not have any other name that is revered as that of Nen because of his attributes. The omniscience of God is revealed in this statement, “Nen do gombi man!” meaning that God is all knowing. He is the Almighty, “Nen warang dung”, and the ever present God, “Nen gi”. He is also the God of justice and the God of the children, poor people, widows and orphans, and the sustainer of all things. However, he cannot be called upon directly, except during a serious need or when justice is denied.
THE CONCEPT OF THE SPIRIT WORLD
Spirits play a very important role in the beliefs of the Ngas religion. They are believed to have come from God to help mankind. These spirits are called “Zigol mwa” or “Kwi mwa”. The good spirits are called “Zigol rit mwa” or “Kwi rit mwa,” they bring blessings and stand between man and God. They are not and cannot be associated with evil. According to The Angas Creation Myth in a Christian Perspective, Kangdim says that “the process of multiplication started when the last spirit “Tingwut” gave birth to a son called “Kolji”. It was Kolji who was responsible for the generation of bad spirits” (T.C.N.N Reserch Buletin, number 11, November, 1981:3). These evil spirits bring about curses and all sorts of misfortune to the entire community. The evil spirits are called “Zigol bis mwa” or “Kwi bis mwa”. It was believed therefore that Nen is not the originator of evil, which is why he placed the good spirits to help mankind.
THE CONCEPT OF SALVATION
The Ngas people believe that there is life after death, where one’s spirit goes, stays for some time as the ancestor or living dead (wong) and comes back to be reincarnated or reborn.
They also believe in a concept of a ‘heaven’ called Zwal Sara (The Sara Hills). It was believed that when a person dies, what determines his life is how he gets to Sara. Rev. Dr. Gotom, in an oral interview said that, “Zwal Sara was said to be a blissful place, where they spend time enjoying and playing music”. They often say that “ngo sa bis mwa run Sara da ka!” meaning that the wicked and evil people will never get to Sara. Therefore, since the evil people cannot get to Sara, they come back as “Kapwan” (ghost) and torment people. The elders of the land are responsible for chasing the kapwan away, and his end is that he will continue to reduce in size and shape until he is finally picked up be a hawk (nkalin).
Another belief is that when a young person dies in battle or is attacked in the bush, provided women are not aware of it, the person will be called home by the elders. However, only particular sets of people are usually called home, they are called “jep rit mwa” or “gyemrit” meaning the blessed children or blessed child. But when the news of that fellow gets home before he arrives, the elders will talk to him and after which he lives to a distant land and lives his life as a normal human being. This belief is still held today, especially for those in the armed forces, which serves as a sign of security and protection in case of death in the battle field or accidents.
WORSHIP OF THE HIGH GOD
Worship is not directly to Nen because he is very remote from man. In an effort to reach him, they “wap kum” and “won mwa,” meaning the worship of idols, ancestor and divinities. Worship is usually done in the shrine “Lit”. It is in the shrine that the sacrifices and prayers that involve the whole community are carried out. This is done through the sprinkling of blood, water, mos (beer) and certain crops depending on the kind of sacrifice. Yilji captures this in the Ngas Concept of God and Spiritual Beings, a T.C.N.N Buletin as:
The Ngas traditionalists offer sacrifices to their ancestors but with the understanding that Nen who knows and sees everything will bring blessings as a result of their worship and prayers. Thus it appears as if the ancestors are not worshiped as such, but are mediators and fellow worshippers on a higher level, who also posses divine powers.(Number 16, February 1986:30-31).
However, failure to sacrifice to these ancestors and spirits will result to serious misfortune and calamity upon the whole community.
Fellowship meal (gwim) is usually prepared and the whole community partakes in it. This is to purify the community against tormenting people with evil spirits called “ne zi” or any act that is considered a taboo like stealing or adultery.
MAJOR DIVINITIES AND THEIR FUNCTIONS
Kangdim in his work, The High God in African Tradition Religion mentions the following as the most important divinities in Ngas land: Tau, Yer, Kumpel, Poting, Tar, Gashi, and Fwan (T.C.N.N Research Bulletin, number 9, April, 1981:21). Worship to these divinities is marked by festivals either in the dry or rainy season.
TAU - this is a male divinity that is responsible for blessing the whole community in terms of fertility of humans, animals and farm crops. However, when sacrifices are not offered to him, or something goes wrong, he brings misfortune on the whole community.
YER-This is a female divinity responsible for the defense of the territory of the inhabitants. She also maintained peace and order in the community.
Moral purity of the people is maintained by her and she could kill a person involve who is involved in fornication, adultery and theft except the person confess and sacrifices are offered to appease her.
KUMPEL-Is responsible for the fertility of women as well as the potency of men.
POTING- This is a highly respected divinity because he brings about the riches and wealth of the community in every dimension. Individuals seeking personal fortune goes into agreement with this divinity; he promises them wealth in exchange of human’s life every year. Even though the individual becomes rich, it is usually short-lived because when he sacrifices all the members of his family, poting will also kill him in the end.
TAR- This is the moon divinity, and is responsible for the harvest and bringing in the new year (dry season). He is usually celebrated at the end of the rainy season, around October before the people harvest their farm produce.
GASHI- This is the war divinity and must be consulted before going for any battle. He also defenses the kingship against wickedness and evil intentions.
FWAN-It means rain. This rain divinity is directly responsible for the rains. Sacrifices are made before the rain, during and after the rain to avoid drought or limited rainfall.
THE RITES OF PASSAGE OF THE NGAS PEOPLE
PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH
In the Ngas culture, when a woman takes in, serious attention is given to her because she may be carrying one of the ancestors. The pregnant woman is usually taken care of by the elderly women in the family. Just some few months or weeks to her delivery, certain herbs like “sin njamma” and “yom mwal” are giving to the woman to ease delivery. Mr. Goyin Gotus says that “once these herbs are giving to her, she will deliver without having difficulty” (interviewed in Jos). The circumstances surrounding the birth of a child determine the name that will be given to him or her. If the child is born in the night, his or her name will be “Gopar” or “Napar”, and this form the basis for naming. In some instances, Nen is used in the names giving go people, for example, Nenrot or Nenfot means God loves or God hears respectively.
Twins have special names; if they are both males, their names are Jan and Dakom; if they are both females, Ngas call them Janna and Nakom. If they are mixed, that is male and female or female and male, the first person retains the first name above while the second person retains the last name whether male or female.
In Ngas traditional religion, only males are circumcised. Circumcision (Vwang) is usually carried out on young adults who are getting to a new phase in their lives. This stage marks the beginning of education into the Ngas religion. The young adults are camped in a far place away from home, this rite of separation usually last for about 30 to 60 days, and many mysteries of worship, the ancestors and the spirits will be revealed to them. This is the period to test and know who is who among the young men. The brave are referred to as real men (gomis), while the weak might never get to the end. If a person dies during this period, the slogan is that “won se kora”, meaning that the ancestors have eaten him up.
No woman is allowed to see “wong” or the participants. Therefore, when wong is coming, the slogan used to inform people about his presence is “mat lammo!” meaning that all women should hide or disappear. This also holds for male children who are not circumcised because they are considered as women.
The first and most important thing for any male to be a man is circumcision. Part of the training is that you will be severely beaten to an extent that if you are not brave you will die. Another form of training is that they will introduce you to “wong mwa” (ancestors). From there, you will also be taken by night to go and see the graves of your ancestors. Before the end of the camp, you will be taken to “Lit” (shrine), and there, you will be taught how to worship the ancestors and some basics or rudiments of the traditional religious system will be revealed. Gonet says that ““Manok” or “wong gum” is concerned with the circumcision and initiation of boys” (1994:60). This “wong” instills discipline and removes fear from the young men, he also removes the women nature out of them so that they hold sacred everything that is done and this cannot be revealed to any woman, not even your mother or wife later in the future.
At the end of this initiation, the rite of incorporation into the community is marked by a festival, welcoming the warriors back home, not as the boys who left some months back but as men, tested and trusted. During this celebration, the Ngolong (chief) will come to the village square to welcome them. The families of the initiated men will also come with gifts for them. Family in Ngas land includes the father, mother, grand and great grandparents as well as uncles and everybody that is related to them. The gifts for these young warriors include: Pas (spear), banne (traditional attire), skin of wild animals and different things will be presented to them.
It is imperative to say that initiation into the traditional religion does not end after the circumcision, but that as one grows in obedience and dedication to the worship of “wong wma,” the more the person is initiated into more forms and ways of worship. The key to this is being truthful and living a morally pure life.
From this stage, you are not to engage in fornication or adultery, because you will become “ngo sa bis” an evil person and as such cut off from the shrine worship. In fact, the greatest evil that one can do is to go into sexual relationship with somebody’s wife. You will be an outcast and it will never end well with you. This is illustrated in the statement that “ngo sa bis khi rap kin” meaning that associating with this kind of person is putting yourself at risk or under attack by the ancestors.
The first criteria for marriage in Ngas land is that the man must be circumcised, while the woman must have experienced menstruation (but le nyi). There is a kind of dance called “Nahiet” and if a man knows how to sing, dance or play the drum (kung) very well, ladies will usually rally round him. If he likes any of them, he will have to inform his parents to investigate her family and thereafter start the process. Another way of getting to know who you want to marry may be an interest of the parents; in a way of continuing with friendship, parents can organize that their children marry each other. A young man may also have interest in a lady and approach her (kwem). If she agrees, he will relate it to his parents.
After this stage, the parents of the young man will go and introduce themselves to the family of the lady, and inform them about the interest of their son. They usually go with “taba” (tobacco). Before the parents agree, the lady must be consulted first before any one smokes the tobacco. If the says yes, she is pledging and agreeing that the process of marriage should continue, but if she says no then nothing will go on again.
The next thing after the tobacco is “kin” (salt). The salt will be share to all the extended members of the family, informing them that their daughter is about to marry. After this period, the friends of the young man will snatch the girl to his home. Since they are not yet married, the girl will stay with his mother. The following day, she will be taken back to her parents with four to five goats as dowry. The man will then organize his friends to go and farm for his in-laws.
The man will build houses, usually round shape, and harvest grasses that will be used to roof the houses. The lady will in turn invite her friends to assist her in weaving the grasses for the roofing, as well as building the places for cooking and house work. She will still return home to her parents before she comes back fully as a wife.
The women in her family will then organize a send-forth for her. What they do is to educate her on how to run her family. They also tell her that this is how we do things in our clan, so if you go, do this and that.
DEATH AND BURIAL
When a person dies, the Ngas people usually mourn (mep) for three days. This is a period of wailing, where the relatives of the deceased and the whole community come together to sympathize with each other because they are fully integrated. After three days, the mourning is concluded (mwa fat pi), but the impact of the lost remains with the community for a while.
When an elderly person dies, it is said that he has joined the ancestors, and a lot of shrine worship and sacrifices will be done before burial. Conversely, when a young person dies, the wailing is usually more because they believe that somebody must be responsible for his death. Mr. Gompil Y Bonkul said that “he will grieve his son very well because he knows that somebody or a witch is responsible for his death” (interviewed in Amper). This concept is reflected even today in the sense that when a person dies, the first consideration is who killed him.
Burial is done by digging a grave (tun), usually in the form of a well, and the deceased is placed sitting down of a stone, facing the East, and a big stone is rolled to seal the tomb. The deceased is usually dressed in the traditional attire to meet the ancestors. Very few people are allowed to see or touch the dead body, it is sacred and a taboo for children or women to touch it. Very elderly men as well as the men perform the burial rites. Sacrifices are done to send the deceased ancestor to the spirit realm where he can watch over them as the living dead.
The chief’s (Ngolong) tomb is just one, and when he dies, the tomb of the former Ngolong will be reopen, the bones of the former chief will be put aside so that the deceased chief will be buried. Burial of the chief also include rites and sacrifices to the ancestors.
Having gone through this tribe and carefully study it’s concept of God, spirits and the world in general, the writer will say that no matter how great these traditions seem, our final stand as Christians is the biblical concept of God, spirits, and how man can worship God in truth and in spirit. Any attempt to go out of this is going back to the traditional religion of our past ancestor.
It is mind bogging to see that the traditionalists gave themselves completely to the unknown God who is far away from them, yet committed to him in upholding purity and rites in their worship.
The way these people were able to put themselves in worship is really commendable; the scriptures made it clear that in the conscience of man, he knows that somebody somewhere who is bigger and better than him is responsible for all that is around him.
The shocking thing is that many so called ‘Christians’ today are neither Christians nor traditionalists. While thinking that they are out of traditional worship, they have not fully giving themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. Until we come to reality in Christ, we will be a lost generation who just exist without real essence or purpose in life.
The quest for God and how to worship him was the soul of Africa by African traditionalists. They tried to reach to God but could not reach him because they worked base on what their ancestors passed to them. For us Christians today, Christ has set a pattern for us to follow and unless we go after him, we may as well be chasing shadows like the people of the old.
It is my prayer that you will not just read this document and feel proud about the Rites of Passage of the Ngas People but that you will value your relationship with God even better than any other relationship.
God bless you, amen.
Raphaels Shiknet Manasseh
Gonet, Ishaya. Angas Traditional Religious Sacrifices and its Influence on Christians in Amper district of Pankshin LGC, of Plateau State. Jos: JETS Thesis, 1994.
Kangdim, Jotham. The High God in African Traditional Religion. Bukuru: TCNN Research Bulletin, Number 9, 1981.
_____________ The Angas Creation Myth in Christian Perspective. Bukuru: TCNN Research Bulletin, Number 11, 1981.
Yilji, Deshi. The Ngas Concept of God and Spirit Beings. Bukuru: TCNN Research Bulletin, Number 16, 1986.
Bonkul, Gompil. Oral interview. Amper, kanke: 3rd October, 2009.
Gotus, Goyin. Oral interview. Jos: 10th October, 2009.
Rev.Dr. Musa Gotom.Oral interview. Jos: 7th October, 2009.