May 24, 2011

The Berom People of Plateau State

The sad events in Plateau State Nigeria since 2001 have thrown up issues to the surface. A lot of people, particularly in southern Nigeria, who often thought that everybody in the north is Hausa have been pushed to begin to ask questions as to who the other tribes are. In answering such questions as it concerns Plateau State the Berom often come into the spotlight.

Da Paul Gyang, a traditional ruler of Vyara, in Jos South of the State, gave an insight into the Berom culture with the hope that it will answer some of the questions that have been on the lips of many regarding the identity of Berom people.

Academic works as to the origin of Berom are conflicting, but mythology has it that the Berom people are from the Congo area of Central Africa. Today, they are found in four of the seventeen local government areas of Plateau State that includes a large part of Barkin Ladi and Riyom, the whole of Jos South and some parts of Jos North. These local governments are all in the north of Plateau State, the most developed part of the state.

The Berom traditional culture, like those of most African tribes is at the danger of extinction to exist only in history. As a consequence, Da Gyang spoke of the culture only in retrospect. He blames the tribulations in the land for the increasing inability of the people to uphold ancestral ways of life. To him, successive administrative regimes must take a lion share of the blame for the gradual demise of the culture of the people. 

Gyang talked about traditional matrimony among the Berom people. Parents, he says, used to contract marriages between their songs and a girl from a family they hold in high esteem. An esteemed family is usually one that has a tradition of industry and without any abhorrent reputation. Tall girls are seen as those with little ability to carry heavy loads, while short girls with pronounced calves are considered strong and industrious. Secondary reasons for the choice of an eventual wife are also taken into consideration. The boy could check for what, in his eyes, constitutes beauty.

Once a boy has developed interest in a girl, the next thing is courtship. Courtship in native Berom culture involves a lot of commitment, usually in kind, from the side of the man. It is the reason why young Berom men, in those days, often tried to shorten the period of courtship as much as possible. Part of the commitment involved cultivating a piece of land for the family of the future bride every year, while the courtship lasts. Usually, parents get informed that their daughter is involved with a young man when it comes to their notice that an outsider is cultivating a piece of land for them. They would ask their daughter who will then confirm her romance with the stranger. The commitment also involves building a house for the in-laws. All these are in addition to shouldering the needs of the girl, which could also involve her cosmetics and occasional purchases of a goat.

The next step is the formal declaration of the intention of the boy. This is done through his parents who go to their in-laws-to-be to state that they have seen a “green leaf” and they have come to declare their interest in it. In Berom culture, even the declaration of intention for the wedding of a girl can be extremely expensive. There is usually a goat for the girl, and other presents to the parents that may include olive oil, goat, and a small pyramidal heap of beniseed, potash, etc. There is also a traditional brew by the name of vwere-berom.

The actual bride price involves giving a horse, a big ox and another goat, referred to as a rope to be used in dragging the ox. This is meant to be given to the mother of the bride.

On the wedding day, announcement is made by both families inviting their friends and relations. There will usually be food, meat, vwere-berom. The bride is dressed with native bandanna, bangles, nasal rings, spectacular earrings, shin wears and other paraphnalia. She is led by other women to her matrimonial home.

After the wedding the bride doesn’t commence sleeping with her husband immediately. Rather she sleeps with her mother-in-law for some weeks. Then, one day, she is told that she is going to sleep in her husband’s room. Most brides often find this decision difficult and will often refuse to cooperate, crying in the process. It takes a lot of persuasion. Sometimes the mother-in-law would suggest that the two of them should sleep in that room together. In the course of the night she would sneak out, leaving her daughter-in-law who is then joined by her husband. It is customary for people to eaves-drop to find out if ‘something’ did happen while the new couple was left alone. This day is also the day of virginity test. Earlier in the day, an animal is slaughtered and the hide is spread on the bed. After sexual intercourse, the groom throws a blood-stained skin outside so that people can see that the girl had, indeed, been a virgin. Where the girl has not been a virgin, and the groom is aware of his gilt, they could arrange so that the husband can inflict injuries on the delicate organs of the girl with his nail. Through this gimmick, the people are fooled.

The first blessings of marriage everyone will expect are children. When they come they are a confirmation that the marriage has indeed received the blessing of the people and even the gods. Children in Beromland are named after wild animals. Bot for instance is a frog, a name given to a pestering child who cries and swells up like a frog when desiring attention. Gyang is a male antelope. Names among the Berom are also given to record the circumstance surrounding their birth. Somebody born while the mother was on her way going somewhere is usually named ‘Gwong’ which means ‘road.’

Berom people have had a system of inheritance similar to that of the modern day. Fathers often make known the heir among their children. In addition to that, they often make apparent how their possessions should be shared among their children in the event of their death. It is therefore the responsibility of the heir to see to it that the will of his father is done. Where a man had no children or had only female children, his possessions are shared among his immediate relations.

Bareness or the exclusive birth of female children is usually seen as a tribulation resulting from disregard to the wishes of the gods or ancestors. One could plead for forgiveness by saying incantations and waving a small bunch of glowing grass around his face, after which he throws it to the ground with relatives throwing water on it, signifying that the issue has been buried.

In some African communities, tilling the soil is an area that is solely the jurisdiction of men. Among the Berom, however, tilling the soil by women is an intrinsic element of the culture. The Berom people take pride in the abundance of food in the house. That comes only when there are enough hands to till the soil and grow the crops. In addition to tilling the soil, women are also involved in harvesting and transportation of the harvest to the house. 

When one dies in Beromland, his uncles are the first to be told of the sad news. As a matter of fact uncles are so critical to the life of an individual that they are the first to be informed when he becomes critically ill. Wailing that always follows the death of an individual was the means by which such heartbreaking news often travelled far. Death persons in Berom culture are usually dressed with the coats of animals and laid in horizontal tunnels usually connected to the surface by a vertical shaft.

 The grave in Beromland is a means of establishing the cordiality or otherwise between a dead person and a living relations. Intimate relations would insist on reposing in the same grave. If there was a rift between a dead man and his living relation it comes to the surface when the living insists on having a private grave in the event of his death.

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