12 Abisi War and Headhunting

Fighting and War

Abisi distinguishes different types of armed struggles: fighting, /tipah/ and war /rlikɔŋ/. Fights are mainly brawls between people. Yelling /kiɲo/, threats and insults may grow into a violent quarrel and include beatings and the use of sticks and stones.
Quarrels may be arbitrated by the house head /uyikirat/ if it happens between people of the same house. When it’s between young men of the same patriline, the Sarkin Samari, a youth chief and his organization will tend to it.


Stick fighting


These fights between Abisi segments or siblings (at∫inak) are like fights between neighboring populations considered friends /anↄ/ are called /ileŋ ki∫i miyi/ to “bleed” because first blood could be enough to stop the fight.
Fights may be trivial like disputes about sharing beer between older persons. It may also be more important when it’s about men’s competition for married women, those “grass-wives” marriages when women are courted in secret, hiding during an activity near the bush such as gathering grass or wood.
Since it always implies men of different sections, it has a great disruptive potential, sections “brothers” will cooperate against the “thieves” section.
Sometimes, spontaneous struggles resulting from minor conflicts may be amplified and imply many other fighters.
Inter-ethnic conflicts often erupt in moments of great excitements such as during a ceremonial funeral or a great annual hunt. Abisi even had a special provocation song that prompted fights : /urↄbageja/

Quarrels between rivals for Kiso girls

Rivalry about women between section was common and there were often fights.
One day a Nigertin man was killed by a Giribom. They could not respond with force because they were too small a group but their power was more political than physical.
Abisi have a decentralized power system. Many functions, some administrative, others ritual are distributed in all sections and in different patrilines. All of them are necessary for everybody’s good life.
Here, the Nigertin play their big sacred drum not just for themselves but for the good of all, not only for entertainment but mainly for the spiritual power it exhibits.

War Medicine

War, from Abisi perspective, took place when some foreigners were raiding and trying to loot their settlements. War was a planned activity, with military strategies, and resulted in a loss of life and eventually, by head-taking of killed enemies. As a matter of fact, the latter activity was the main criterion to distinguish battles from real war.
The weapons used during major conflicts were hunting weapons. The foot soldier was an archer and used a skin shield; the cavalier used metal tip spears.
 Warriors also used various war medicines. One was drunk in a buffalo horn so that the warrior would obtain its strength.
Another medicine aimed to prevent the enemy from snatching his weapons from his hands and make him invisible.
They would fill a calabash with this medicine and have the warrior hold it tight between two fists so that his hold would be strengthened .
To give more power to arrows, these were kept in a acha granary (fonio) so that they would partake the power of this ancestral food. To fetch these arrows in time of needs, the warrior had to drink a special protective medicine and be very careful when he entered the granary. It was very dangerous to be wounded by such a powerful poisoned arrow.

Relative Violence of Armed Conflicts

The simplest fighting was against the Ribam with whom Abisi have important ritual links such as inviting each other to their ceremonial funeral. On many occasions, these rituals ended in fights. Abisi say they would provoke Ribam by signing, “The Ribam are girls, they are soft, soft.”
The Abisi, outnumbered the Ribam and exercised a certain dominance over them. They say that Ribam had previously wanted to integrate with them but the chief /uyikut/ refused because of witchcraft allegations.
In addition, Abisi mentioned old disputes with Ribam about some bush fields that they had to give them after the British administration of the territories.
Relations of dominance and inter-ethnic provocations were also suffered by Abisi, mainly from the Amo.
These, they say, regularly attacked them “to see if we were strong” because Amo believed them to be vulnerable given that they outnumbered them.
Abisi houses on the slope of the hill were not well protected and more subject to Amo raids. Amo warriors were so eager to loot these houses that some say they even brought salt and pepper to eat right away the domestic animals they would kill.

Rules of engagements: do not shoot a friend!

To decide of an attack, Abisi chiefs would sit on their rocks in front all uyikirat and discuss until they attained a consensus about what to do. Abisi would watch the attackers advance in the plain from the highest point of the Hill.
The war chief would then blow the war horn and give the rally signal to all warriors. Once in contact with the enemies, forces were formally deployed in lines but fighting was not triggered immediately.
Individuals with friends or acquaintances among the opponents advanced to greet them. In due time, the friends took a stand face to face but aimed men on the left of their comrade in order not to hurt each other.
When the horn was blown, war archers fired their arrows and the first group to escape would be pursued by the horsemen cavalry of the opposite group, while their own riders were trying to protect their escape.
The fleeing archers could attempt a counter-offensive. Archers from the center of their rank gave off laterally as soon as possible to outflank the attackers between two semicircles which locked them in a vise and compelling them to disperse.
Restoration of peace was done by sharing a goat given by the defeated and ritually consumed on the battle site by representatives of the two groups which, in Abisi case, came from the Uban section of Agurasin.
Some say that the goat was not yet shared and that war could go on anytime! To recall Amo wars Abisi composed a song called Sarala Barbajkan
However, a defeat could bring retaliation using ambush tactics. The story of Paja in the next chapter shall illustrate this situation in a battle against Kurama, northern neighbors of Abisi.

Head hunting

Abisi distinguishes between the heads obtained during an organized war and those obtained by predation. When abisi were at war with some Plateau people they did not as I was told, «captured people to keep them as slaves ».
They would rather cut off their heads. «We beheaded especially Amo enemies and those of some Rukuba and Kurama. »
The warrior would carry the head on the point of his spear to the Abisi Mogaji (head-hunting chief) who kept it in a cave.
The actual size of the losses in these battles is difficult to evaluate; some give the example of a couple of heads baskets for a total of 60 killed.
This is probably overvalued and may mean, in the duodecimal system used by Abisi that it is simply a high number. Headhunting took place when warriors-hunters had to go far away from the hill for Fulani cow hunting, ubar ena .

Headhunting during Ubar Ena

This hunt was held on the occasion of the roofing of the Abisi Mogaji’s ritual hut. In this case, his uterine nephews (his sister’s sons) and men from his section had to provide the roofing grass.
The purpose was to kill a cow of the Bororo Fulani nomad’s herds and bring back the dorsal hump and the head.


Young Fulani herders were prey to headhunters


The meat was eaten but the skull was used to make seats for riner women which rested their arms on the long horns with satisfaction.
The warriors also had to behead a Fulani man. The Abisi Mogaji would keep it in a cave for a year until the flesh had rotted and fallen.
These heads were then placed in the ritual hut but the heads of the non-Fulani remained in the cave.

War Heroes: the /berdje/

The hunter who succeeded in bringing back a Fulani head, became a /berdje/, a hero and was publicly celebrated. The chiefs would give him a horse, lances, cowries, and salt. He was considered rich and was respected, people had to salute him when crossing his path.
The abolition of inter-ethnic war by the intervention of the “Pax Britannica” has obviously taken away any real content of the warrior heroism and it is in reality given much significance by seniors to enhance their ancestor’s values and, in turn, themselves in front of the young puzzled by their past credentials.
I do not know much about Abisi’s philosophy of what is Human Nature that would explain their philosophical views about headhunting.
One thing seems possible is that the human head is possibly seen as the seat of a personal spiritual entity called /ibik/.
This is deducted from the saying that some perceptive individuals could dream of future fights and foresee who was going to die.
They would then take a bag of food to these people who would put them into termite mounds near the hill so that, if their head was ever cut off, their personal spirit /ibik/ was not captured but came back there.
Taking human heads and of special animals could be a way to take over the powers of their /ibik/ and to neutralize it.
Other examples will be described later about hunter heroes and chief enthronement ritual which tends to confirm this.