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 thendakkol (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), 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.
*The Mofu ("People of the Mountains") comprise several peoples in northern Cameroon who, while speaking different languages, call themselves "Mofu" or are referred to that way. This article concerns the Northern or Diamare Mofu, population about 55,000, in particular the Mofu of the Douvangar and Wazang massifs (see map in article).
**The Jimi and the Gude, who live in the central Mandara Mountains, are two of several ethnic groups of northern Cameroon, besides the Mofu, that are mentioned in this article. They include, in order of appearance, the Meri, Gudur, Wandala, Peuls, and Kapsiki. Many of these groups speak their own languages, which are among some 270 languages spoken in Cameroon.
***The materialization of power through the possession of stones is a trait of Mofu culture. Besides war stones, these include rain stones, stones to make livestock prosper, and stones to protect sorghum. The latter were "discovered" in the nest of the gula ant. The connotation here is explicit and linked to the fact that, during severe famines, people excavated anthills to find sorghum seeds to eat or even sow.