Bagirmi - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Precolonial religious notions were syncretic and, at least in part, varied with class. Officials tended to be Muslims, who at the same time affirmed the divinity of their king. Many food producers appear to have been unaware of the finer points of either Islam or the Bagirmi conception of divine kingship. Islam appeared to be expanding during the 1970s; especially popular was the Tidjaniya Brotherhood.

Precolonial Bagirmi appear often to have held conflicting religious ideas. For example, officials professed that there was one Supreme Being, Allah, while at the same time they insisted that their ruler was the earthly incarnation of the two forces mao and karkata, which animated all things in the universe. Food producers, for their part, appear to have believed that shetani (devils) were responsible for many of their afflictions. They also believed that Allah was responsible for all things, including afflictions.

The Barma, it will be recalled, are linguistically related to the Kenga and traditionally trace the origin of Bagirmi to a migration from Kenga territory. Kenga religion is dominated by beliefs in margai (genies of places). There is a report that some Bagirmi also believe in margai.

Religious Practitioners. Two types of officials conducted rituals, which officials were likely to attend. Islamic specialists, whom the Barma called mallams , performed Muslim ceremonials, and officials themselves performed the rituals associated with the sovereign's divinity. Food producers tended to be served by mallams, but they were also served by a variety of non-Islamic practitioners, about whom little is known.

Ceremonies. Two sorts of ceremonials tended to dominate the religious life of officials in the precolonial state. There were the normal Islamic rituals, such as Id al-Kabir or Id elFitr, as well as those that pertained to divine kingship. The latter included the ruler's installation, his observance of the sunset, and his funeral. Next to nothing is known about the precolonial, non-Islamic rituals of food producers.

Arts. Traditional music and dance celebrated the ruler in precolonial times. Visual arts were weakly developed; there was no painting, and sculpting was restricted to designs on wooden implements.

Medicine. There is scant knowledge of precolonial Bagirmi medical practices. During the 1970s, much illness, both physical and mental, appears to have been attributed to sorcery and to the actions of shetani.

Death and Afterlife. Very little is known about precolonial, non-Muslim ideas of death and afterlife. Devils and sorcerers were believed to cause some deaths in the 1970s. Conventional Islamic attitudes toward death and afterlife were gaining in currency in the 1970s.


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