Master of the Killer Ants

Jaglavak, Prince of Insects:
A Cameroon People's Alliance With an Ant
by Christian Seignobos

The Mofu, who live in the Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon, have developed a rich lore about their insects and have a particularly impressive entomological vocabulary. This may be in part because insects are virtually the only other creatures living on their jumble of boulders and terraces.

The Mofu eat certain insects, though this practice seems to have been more widespread in the past than it is now. Insects are also used in medicine and agriculture, serve as omens, and are even the object of board games. And for the Mofu, certain insects "speak" while others, like bees and mosquitoes, are socially neutral.

The jaglavak

The Mofu are particularly interested in two types of insects, those involved in the growth and conservation of grain sorghum, their stable crop, and those ants or termites that live in social groups. The Mofu relate these social insects to their own politico-religious beliefs as well as to their systems of kinship and social relations. Among ant species, those of the Dorylus genus, a type of driver ant that is known to the Mofu as jaglavak, hold a special place.

The Mofu associate the jaglavak with termites, which is logical because jaglavak soldiers resemble those of certain species of the termite order, Isoptera. The Dorylus ants live in underground communities, sometimes in large numbers, without building visible nests. Their ferocity in attacking termites and the fact that no other insects appear able to resist them have conferred upon the jaglavak a position of eminence. Yet the jaglavak seemingly avoids other insects that are "organized as it is," according to the Mofu, including two species of termites that they know as the mananeh (Microcerotermes solidus) and the ndakkol (Trinervitermes trinervius), and especially the gula ant (Megaponera sp.).

Chief of the massif

There are several "interpretations" of the jaglavak. In relation to other insects, the jaglavak is defined by kinship and relations of alliance or power. Some say the termite mananeh is its "cousin"; others say the mananeh is the "prince of the plain insects" and rival of the jaglavak. The jaglavak's ndaw kuli (what the Mofu call its "intimate friend"), who stands in for the head of the family in sacrifices (kuli), is singel gagazana, a red ant (Pheidole sp.), while another ant, ndroa (Lepisiota sp.), is the mananeh's "intimate friend." The jaglavak is considered the chief of the entire massif, from Wazang to Meri (see map at right), while other ants constitute "local chiefs." The classification scheme is rough, and its composition varies by region. One wonders, was it once more firmly fixed?

By virtue of an ancient alliance, the jaglavak are believed to aid the Movo in times of trouble.

The Mofu see correlations between chiefs of the massifs and chiefs of the animal realm. The panther and the Mofu chief are one and the same; the chief commands the panthers. When a panther is killed on a massif, by rule the skin goes to the chief, who either keeps or disposes of the head and whiskers. He is supposed to eat the eyes and give the liver to his sons. The last act involved in the ritual burial of the massif chiefs is the turning over of the mortuary bundle into the grave, which is accomplished by pushing it while turning away and imitating the panther's snarl.

In certain Mofu mountain ranges, and also among the Jimi and the Gude, the crocodile was perceived as the chief of water-dwelling animals. The death of a crocodile would be announced to the chief as that of a relative would be, and people would cry over it. When one was slaughtered, the chief would ritually eat its tongue.

The jaglavak, for its part, held the role of "prince of insects." In the past, Mofu mountain chiefs would closely follow the jaglavak's movements and behavior to find omens. If there was combat between the jaglavak and the ant ndroa, for example, seers would interpret the repercussions of this combat for the massif chiefdom. For the Zumaya, the clan of the Douvangar chief, the jaglavak furnished the war stone, which would be found in its nest. In the absence of a stone, in other massifs, such as that of the Meri people, before combat people might put some jaglavak on a pointed stone against which they would then rub their spearheads.

The "prince" and the Movo

The Mofu use the jaglavak to explain their own history, in particular the case of the Movo. The jaglavak is supposed to be the equivalent of the Movo people, who are now dispersed among the Mofu. Long ago, the Movo possessed a powerful chiefdom on the banks of the seasonal river Mayo Tsanaga, in the foothills facing the principal point of entry into the Mandara Mountains. This chiefdom was to give rise to the Gudur chiefdom, installed higher up the mountain. In the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, the Movo dominated the Mofu massifs and foothills and well beyond. Crushed by the Wandala kingdom, from which they had originated, and then dispersed by the Peuls, the Movo took refuge in the Mofu massifs.

Today, the Movo are viewed as clans that inspire respect, fear, indeed ostracism. Thus, the Movo are accused of sending caterpillars into the sorghum crop and in the past have been accused of sending locusts. And when a Movo individual is buried, it is deemed necessary to spread ashes on the path where the cadaver has passed, in order to prevent worms and other granary predators from touching grain supplies.

The jaglavak is often designated as "the red insect," referring to the color that is the emblem of the Movo. And a parallel can be seen in the fact that the jaglavak are Dorylus ants, which move from place to place and do not seem to have a territory, just like the Movo, who no longer have their own chiefdoms. But like the jaglavak, the Movo are feared for their power to harm. And by virtue of an ancient alliance, the jaglavak are believed to aid the Movo in times of trouble, including cleaning up their compounds by chasing out undesirable insects, because the jaglavak is commonly entrusted with chasing vermin out of infested dwellings.

Jaglavak to the rescue

The Mofu who sees his compound invaded by termites and ants calls on the jaglavak for help. Dorylus colonies are not easy to find. After identifying the nest or colony of jaglavak on the move, the Mofu removes from the colony several hundred to a thousand, or even more, Dorylus soldiers. He puts them into a calabash or new clay pot, sometimes in leaves of the large-leaved rock fig (Ficus abutilifolia). Among the Mofu, these leaves are used, for example, for wrapping sacred objects, rain stones, and the meat of the maray (the bull sacrificed at the feast of the massif).

They fear the jaglavak might kill them in the night, during their sleep, by entering their nostrils.

When the Mofu carrying the ants arrive at the compound, people salute the jaglavak in different ways, clicking their fingers or striking the head of a hoe with a stone. The head of the family declares, "Today we have a distinguished guest," and then asks the jaglavak to chase out these harmful insects—such as the momok (a generic term for termites) and Trinervitermes ants from the straw of the roof, and Macrotermes subhyalinus termites from the sorghum stems protecting the walls—as well as snakes. They ask the jaglavak, however, not to touch people and to spare their animals, for they fear the jaglavak might kill them in the night, during their sleep, by entering their nostrils. Yet our informants were unable to cite any specific instances of such an act of aggression.

The Mofu put the jaglavak on the ground within an ocher circle from which extends a path, also traced in ocher, that leads toward the area of the most badly infested house. The Mofu admit that they do not see the jaglavak operate, but they claim that two or three weeks later, the harmful insects have disappeared, and the jaglavak as well, for they do not remain in the compound, unlike the gula ant (which the Kapsiki, another ethnic group of the Mandara Mountains, enlist for the same job).

One might wonder about the conduct of the Dorylus soldiers deprived of the mass effect of the colony. Do they disperse an odor that causes other insects to flee?

A waning tradition?

Jaglavak lore varies from massif to massif and depends on which clans are in or out of power. Today, however, for the Mofu who come down to the plains and go to work in urban areas, everything concerning insects, including the role of the jaglavak, is seen as belonging to the past.

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Red Jaglavak

The Mofu people seek out this elusive ant, which they call jaglavak, when termites threaten their homes and crops. Drawing (not to scale) is by Henri-Pierre Aberlenc.

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Map of Mofu territory

The Mofu inhabit the dry Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon, 200 miles south of Lake Chad. On the map above, peoples and places mentioned in this article appear in red, while on the inset, the location of the Mofu within Cameroon is indicated by a black dot.

See a gallery of drawings Gallery thumb

Three drawings by the author. From top to bottom: a Mofu-made enclosure to catch termites; a boy plays with a pet beetle; and three views of a felt hat made from butterfly silk. See a gallery of more of Seignobos's drawings.

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Mofu village

A jarful of jaglavak ants can clear a Mofu dwelling of termites within a matter of weeks.

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Kid with mantis

With the lure of cities and modern life increasingly felt in the Mandara Mountains, will younger generations of Mofu maintain the close ties their forebears have long had with insects?

Christian Seignobos

Christian Seignobos, a scientific adviser to the original French version of "Master of the Killer Ants," is Director of Research at the Institute of Research for Development, a tropics-oriented scientific organization based in Paris. This article is adapted from "Jaglavak, Prince des Insectes chez les Mofu du Nord-Cameroun," an article that Seignobos presented at a 1997 scientific colloqium in Orleans, France. The original article was translated for NOVA by Lili Porten. For a more in-depth article on the Mofu and the jaglavak that Seignobos wrote with two entomologists, see "Les Mofu et Leurs Insectes" (note: article in French).

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