Bakota

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The Bakota are an important ethnic group whose principal location is the northeast of the country of Gabon in Central Africa. They call their language iKota. They are also known as Kota, Kuta, and iKuta. Their neighbors, the Fang, call them Mekora. Because the Bakota are organized along patriarchal lines, they have developed many subgroups based on various patriarchies. Thus, one can find Menzambi, Bougom, Sake, Ikota-la-hua, and Ndambomo people who will say they are also Bakota. In effect, these are subclans with their own particular style and accent of speaking the iKota language.
The meaning of the term Bakota is controversial, but it seems likely that the idea of bonding is central to the meaning in the iKota language; this is in line with much of the thinking in African philosophy. When people come together in family, they are bonded in one way or another. It might be consanguine or it might be by experience and political connection. Thus, the Bakota are said to be people who have tied themselves to each other in a deeply spiritual and physical sense. The word kota means to “bind.”
Figure. Reliquary figure. From Bakota, Gabon. In this area of Africa, nearly all groups venerated the relics of ancestors, which they kept in containers with other objects that impart power. The container holding the bones and other magical substances was often surmounted by a carved head or figure (reliquary).

Source: Giraudon/Art Resource, New York.

Quite clearly, the Bakota are a united and coherent people, but what is the source of this unity? In most cases, the patriarchy rules among the various clans of Bakota, but in some cases, such as the Mahongwe, which literally means “of the father,” it appears that this group has really adopted a matriarchal system of lineage. Therefore, one finds a patriarchy that has to share space with matrilin-eality among speakers of iKota. The fact that the Mahongwe have adopted a matriarchal system of descent lineage puts them in line with numerous West African and Central African groups.
The Bakota suffered the same fate as other ethnic groups in Africa when European colonization came and divided up members of their families. Indeed, the Bakota are most densely populated in Ogouee-Ivindo province in northeastern Gabon. Their population can also be found in Congo-Brazzaville and among the Batanga group, in neighboring Cameroon. One of the facts of Bakota life is that the people are conscious of their numerous relations outside of Gabon; although there are national boundaries, the communities view themselves as closely connected despite such political borders.
Known for their deeply spiritual beliefs, the Bakota have produced some of the most significant art in Africa. Their conception of ancestral or guardian personalities has evoked some of the more singularly spectacular sculpture of such figures. The work is usually done in copper or brass, but may also be done in wood. These figures are relics of the great ancestors or spirits of some distant force that protected the people during times of trouble.
Among the most popular order of secrets among the Bakota is the Bwete, which is usually composed of men who have shown a special relationship to the society and culture by their ritual and ceremonial purity. Given that the Bakota practice circumcision and widow purification, certain men and women are granted knowledge of these secrets, whereas others are not.
Most authorities on Gabonese society believe that the Kota are quite egalitarian as a community and that openness on all matters of social and political action, as well as work and responsibilities, fall equally on all people and cross all lines of age, occupation, and gender. It is only in the most secret of secrets, such as circumcision and widow purification, that there are special officiates.
The Bakota people value their customs, traditions, and ancient ancestors, and the children are brought up to accept this way of celebrating unity and community. They respect the elders; ritualize all holy days related to birth, puberty, and death; and believe that the highest moral ideal is found in the concept of Ewele—that is, basically character, pride of being.

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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2006). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Universities Press of America.
  • Mary, A. Le défi du syncrétisme: Le travail symbolique de la religion d'Eboga, Gabon. Paris: Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales.