"Let's Understand Each Other!"
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"Let's Understand Each Other!"

Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations in the Forest of Alliances

About the Book

"Let's Understand Each Other!" is a revision of the author's 1995 PhD dissertation. It was almost published, then wasn't, in 2008. The upside of that disappointment was that the author retained publication rights and could then do with the book much more as he simply pleased. The resulting scholarly-popular hybrid excels in respects any mere scholarly revision he might have managed, featuring as it does over 320 photos (mostly color), personal asides throughout, a trio of illustrative tales in translation, and affordability for all.

The book is the first English-language monograph on any part(s) of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's Mangbetu amalgam; its foreword is by the Italian anthropologist and Mangbetu scholar Stefano Allovio. (The author and Allovio are the only two anthropologists to have written their dissertations on any part(s) of the Mangbetu.)

The book is about Meegye-Mangbetu area death (as opposed to homicide) compensations as major ritual, as practiced at least through a May 2001 (part-)community decision to largely abandon them. The author interprets these compensations, after a neglected aspect of Van Gennep (1960 [1909]), as intergroup rites of passage. These rites permitted the reestablishment of a marriage alliance's náágáágá 'mutual understanding' after a death-occasioned, essentially symbolic náapwʉ 'war' had disrupted it. The author's analysis has these compensations, too, as occasions for valuating marriage alliances, as well, through time, as a means to perpetual alliance. The analysis's focus on alliance is complemented by that of Allovio (1998, 1999) in his study of Meegye-Mangbetu circumcision.

The book's front and back matter include (front) a dedication, Allovio's foreword, a section on transcription and translation of all non-English language material (of which there is much in the Mangbetu language's Meegye dialect), and acknowledgments, as well as (back) a glossary of key terms, a guide to pronouncing area proper names, and references. The body has a substantial preface, eight chapters, an appendix, and, interspersed among them, a prelude, two interludes, and a postlude.

The preface notes a dozen ways in which the book differs from the dissertation—e.g., the book is a popular-scholarly hybrid; the book has many less language data than the dissertation; it also explains how the author conducted at least most of his field researches—e.g., under the aegis of a Zairean Protestant church communauté; while working as a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International); mostly through use of the Meegye dialect.

The first chapter/introduction notes the problem, prior to the author's dissertation, of the lack of anthropological sources, especially monographs, on Central Africa's Mangbetu amalgam; it further notes how Hutereau's (1909) material on Mangbetu and Meegye death compensations suggested they would be a rich means by which to understand these peoples; it summarizes the book's thesis and acknowledges its main theoretical debts—viz., to Van Gennep on rites of passage, to Weiner (1976) on women's and men's complementary value and power, to British structuralism (especially certain writings of Fortes and Radcliffe-Brown), and to a Boasian anthropological-linguistic tradition that values indigenous-language texts—such as, e.g., the formal women's and men's dialogues of Meegye-Mangbetu death compensations; and finally, it reviews relevant anthropological, linguistic, and other literature.

The second chapter presents the setting of area death compensations (as the author found them) and its significance to them. This includes the area's location (in northeastern Congo/Zaire, Central Africa), geography (forest transitioning into savannah-forest mix), and demography; their economics (primarily swidden horticulture), history (including people movements that provided a group ancestral to the Meegye, Mangbetu, and several others with new neighbors from whom they borrowed elements and the structure of their compensations), and politics (with chiefs/centralized political authority a relatively recent experience for area peoples); their principal speech forms (the Meegye dialect of Mangbetu, the region's Bangala (as the area's language of wider communication), and high government's French); and the southern Meegye-Mangbetu village (and Protestant mission) of Egbita.

The third chapter treats social-structural and cultural elements of area death compensations. Among the compensations' social-structural elements were the kinship (esp., patrilineal, matrilateral, cognatic) and marriage(-with-bridewealth) relations that figured so prominently in area compensations—where, e.g., in the paradigmatic compensation, broadly speaking, the deceased's fathers paid it to their uncles (i.e., to the deceased's mother's brothers). Among their cultural elements was the idea that the ground for a compensation was culpable neglect of a structurally-assigned custodial responsibility for a person, one concerned group vis-à-vis another—where, e.g., again in the paradigmatic compensation and broadly speaking, a deceased was said to die as the custodial responsibility of their father's group vis-à-vis their mother's, with their father's group thus deemed culpable for their death and liable for the compensation vis-à-vis their mother's group.

The fourth chapter treats linguistic (including sociolinguistic) elements of area compensations. It does so from the author's interest in Mangbetu linguistics, and given both that the compensations' fullest forms featured both women's and men's formal dialogues, and also that the analysis of chapter 7's case study is much focused on that case's four compensation(-related) dialogues (see the appendix). Among the linguistic elements treated are categories of Meegye's tense-aspect system (e.g., there are three past and three nonpast tenses in Meegye), all deployed more or less subconsciously in normal speech (compensation-dialogue speech included); another linguistic element is terms of address—with, e.g., use of a personal name to address an opposed dialogue spokesperson more than likely to have had a very different import/effect than use of an appropriate relationship term.

The fifth and sixth chapters treat, respectively, the death-ritual context and ethnography of area death compensations. Death compensations were by far the most substantive part of Meegye-Mangbetu death ritual. Broadly and normally speaking, the paradigmatic compensation involved the following: the deceased's uncles (i.e., their mother's patrikin) being apprised of their death by their fathers; the uncles then coming with symbolic war (simulacre de combat in one French source) against the fathers; the fathers fleeing this war (without right, customarily, to resist it); the uncles eventually calming and sitting down at the death place (where the deceased was laid out for viewing and mourning before burial) to await the compensation; the fathers, out of sight at a certain remove from the uncles, pooled together their respective contributions to the compensation, then came, sat down opposite the uncles, and dialoguing about and paid them the compensation. There were two nonparadigmatic compensations—a major one paid for a married woman's death by her husband's patrikin to those of his deceased wife, and a relatively minor one sometimes paid (depending on whether the relationship concerned had been appropriately active) by the deceased's patrikin to, theoretically, any number of cognatically-related ancestral groups to whom the deceased was a sister's child. One or more men's formal dialogues were a part of every compensation; a women's food-prestation and accompanying formal dialogue—complementary to the men's in function—were a part of at least some.

The seventh chapter presents a detailed case study of an Egbita villager's death and death compensation. It illustrates many parts of the book's ethnography and analysis of area compensations. As noted already, its analysis is greatly in relation to the four compensation(-related) dialogues that were a part of the case and that appear in the appendix.

The eighth chapter/conclusion includes sections on the May 2001 "large(/great/grand) assembly of the Mangbetu," which decided to at least largely stop paying death compensations—and news of which came as a surprise to the author; on understanding (rather than defiance) as a Meegye-Mangbetu ethos, this in light of what death compensations appear to the author to tell us (and were one were to choose to identify an ethos); and on ideas for further area and regional researches on death compensations.

The postlude contains various thoughts the author has had through the years about his study of Meegye-Mangbetu death compensations. They include ones about these compensations and culture change. They are more personal reflections than intended as any further contribution to the book's study.

The appendix contains the four dialogues of chapter 7's case study, at full length, in their Meegye-dialect form, and with amplified free translation. (Improvements on and corrections to the dialogues' translations and all related analysis are more than welcome.)

Each of the prelude and two interludes features a Meegye-dialect tale in translation, with related explanatory comments. The tales relate, by the author's analysis of them, either to material from one or more nearby parts of the book or to the theme of the book as a whole.

The book has asides (aka gray boxes) interspersed throughout the book's chapters. These are, for the author, more or less personal, and intended to provide the book popular appeal to complement its scholarly content.

An abundance of photos—mostly color—enlivens virtually every part of the book. The reader is enabled thereby to visually appreciate much, not just about the book's death-compensation subject matter, but also about its context(s).

About the Author

Rob McKee
Robert Guy McKee

Robert Guy McKee (Rob) was born September 21, 1952 at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, MD. He grew up in upstate New York and Framingham, MA, graduating from Rush-Henrietta High School (south of Rochester, NY) in 1970. His bachelor’s degree (1975), in Social Relations, is from Harvard; his master’s (1985) and doctorate (1995), both in Anthropology, are from the University of Rochester.

Rob married Carol Elaine Chiapperino on January 3, 1976. They became members of Wycliffe Bible Translators later that year and served nineteen years in Africa with Wycliffe’s partner organization, SIL International. From 2010 to the present, Rob has been part of the faculty at Dallas International University (formerly the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics) in southwest Dallas. For most of this time, he taught cultural anthropology courses.

Besides Mangbetu linguistics and anthropology, Rob's professional interests include Christian anthropology, tale analysis, subtitles in ethnographic film, lynchings in Kenya, and more. He has published several Mangbetu linguistics papers (e.g., "Concerning Meegye and Mangbetu's Bilabial Trills"). His first two Leanpub books, both initially published in 2021, are Destination: Christian Anthropology and Lynchings in Modern Kenya: A Continuing Human Rights Scandal.

Rob and his wife reside in Duncanville, TX, just outside Dallas. They have four adult daughters and seven grandchildren.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Foreword
  • Transcription and Translation of Meegye and Other Non-English Speech Forms
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface
  • Prelude Chicken and Crocodile: A tale of the forest of alliances
  • Chapter One: Introduction
    • 1.1 Meegye-Mangbetu death compensations as intergroup rites of passage and a means to perpetual alliance
    • 1.2 Women’s involvements in Meegye-Mangbetu death compensations and the issue of Mangbetu women’s status
    • 1.3 Meegye-Mangbetu death compensations as composite formations
    • 1.4 Death-compensation dialogue transcription and analysis
    • 1.5 The study in relation to other relevant literature
    • 1.5.1 Concerning the Mangbetu literature as a whole
    • 1.5.2 Concerning regional and Mangbetu mortuary compensations
    • 1.5.3 Concerning Meegye-dialect and other relevant linguistics
    • 1.5.4 Concerning the wider anthropological literature on death ritual
  • Chapter Two: The Setting: Its Genesis and Significance
    • 2.1 Location, geography, and demography
    • 2.2 Economics
    • 2.3 History
    • 2.4 Politics
    • 2.5 Principal speech forms
    • 2.6 The southern Meeegye-Mangbetu village of Egbita
  • Interlude 1 How Makote got its shape: An area tale about marriage
  • Chapter Three: Structural and Cultural Elements of Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations
    • 3.1 Important social relations (and other, nonstructural elements)
    • 3.2 Important social groups
    • 3.3 Important cultural elements (and other, noncultural elements)
  • Chapter Four: Linguistic Elements of Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations
    • 4.1 Relevant Meegye linguistics and sociolinguistics
    • 4.2 Nontraditional politics, nontraditional religion, and code switching
  • Chapter Five: The Death-Ritual Context of Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations
    • 5.1 From death through burial
    • 5.2 From burial through the end-of-mourning celebration
    • 5.3 Other death-related and death-ritual activities
    • 5.4 Variables affecting the practice and elaboration of death-ritual activities
  • Interlude 2 Snail and Blue Duiker: An area tale of street smarts versus pecs
  • Chapter Six: Ethnography of Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations
    • 6.1 The paradigmatic death compensation
    • 6.2 Nonparadigmatic death compensations
  • Chapter Seven: Detailed Case Study of an Egbita Villager’s Death Compensation
    • 7.1 Relevant summary of Citizen Musene bha’s life and death
    • 7.2 Description and analysis of Musene bha’s wake, burial, and death compensation
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion
    • 8.1 The May 2001 community decision to stop paying death compensations
    • 8.2 Understanding (not defiance) as a Meegye-Mangbetu ethos
    • 8.3 Concerning further area and regional researches
  • Postlude Some Reflections on My Study of Meegye-Mangbetu Death Compensations
  • Appendix: Death-Compensation Dialogues of Chapter 7’s Case Study, with Amplified Free Translation
    • I. The burial-permission dialogue
    • II. The postponement dialogue
    • III. The women’s food-prestation dialogue
    • IV. The combined men’s food-prestation and main-compensation dialogue
  • Glossary of Selected Terms
  • Pronunciation Guide for Meegye Proper Names Transliterated in Roman Script
  • References
  • Notes

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