African traditions and religious syncretism: Introduction to the Mvett

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The way we would like to investigate it, the idea of a religious syncretism can only be clear if we disregard the current view, which the Jewish-Christian centuries have continued to popularize.

Knowing that initiation is the basis which has regulated the majority of African societies, the question is: what was the substantial doctrine of these initiations? Only a study which includes their secret and sacred teachings can allow us to establish a link between their religious approach and the basis of orthodox Christian thinking.

The etymologists quote two sources of the word “religion”: relegere (to pick, to collect), and religare (to link).

The Old Testament mentions a rupture between Adam, the primordial man, and his first home, Eden. The New Testament enunciates the plan of redemption, the regeneration, the return to that house. The initiator of that plan is Christ.

The structure which this allegory of the Old and the New Testament proposes is not exclusive to the Bible. Several founding tales deal with this same theme, presenting man in his current condition as an entity who is cut off from his original matrix. Religion as described above can be seen as a set of teachings and practices which will allow man (Adam in the case of the Bible) to reconnect with the habitat that is now lost (Eden). In the light of this, and if we consider this original rupture, religion might see and define itself, by its knowledge and its application, as a way of initiation, a Gnosis, a renaissance. Here the meanings of the notions of initiation and religion are integrated.

In this context, there is, among the “African initiation traditions”, one which aligns itself with the following liberating schematics: The separation from the original home (Adam was expelled from Paradise according to the Bible), then the process of “religare” (to pick, to collect, to link) which allows man, who was expelled from Paradise, to reconnect with this original world, and return to it.

Our study case would here be the Mvett, which has been chosen from among many African initiatory traditions.

Definitions of the Mvett

To define the Mvett poses some problems concerning its language of expression. In the geographical area in which the Mvett has its roots (Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Gunea and a part of Congo-Brazzaville) there are more than 300 languages, amongst which are the Fang, the Ntumu and the Bulu. These three sister languages are the ones which are used for the narrations and the epics of the Mvett. An absolute mastery of its onomastic, metaphoric, semantic and polysemous fields is necessary to grasp the conceptual paradigm of the Mvett. The Mvett as a narration is, first and foremost, an epic. As an epic, it contains three genres :

  • 1) The Mvettbibone, the Mvett of the lovers, which appears in anecdotes of couples - libidinal escapades of the players of the Mvett or of fictional people.
  • 2) The Mvettengubi or Bingubi, is a minor genre which is responsible for lyrical songs, fables, historical tales and children’s stories.
  • 3) The Mvett Ekang, an important genre, also called Mvettbeyem or the Mvett of “those who know”. This Mvett tells the story of two peoples – the immortal ones, the Ekang; and the mortal Okü, who try to get the secret of immortality from the Ekang.

We are going to focus on this latter genre, to analyze the Mvett Ekang as to whether it is an initiatory and religious tradition.

The Mvett Ekang, an epic battle

The basis of the epic of the Mvett Ekang is the tragic plot which opposes the Ekang and the Okü.

For it to be accessible, the allegorical epic of the Mvett-Ekang requires the listeners to have a certain knowledge of the sacred language and of its codes through which the mysteries of the Ekang can be accessed. We have to say that the Mvett-Ekang shares this accessibility issue with the Bible, the Mahabharata, and the Book of the Coming Forth by Day or, as it is also called, the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The term Mvett is made up of the expressions Ave’e (to awaken), Avet (to get up, to rise) and Mvebe (the breath).

Grégoire Biyogo (2004)[1] says: «The Mvett (…) reaches, from the content point of view, to that which is perfect, refusing finitude and incompleteness as well as any original limitation and death (of the body as well as of the spirit). The Mvett refuses death. It is THIS which is gained through the sorrow of growing up, of growth, of transforming oneself quantitatively and qualitatively. It is the impulse towards perfection, eternity, openness for the absolute, for the Eyo’o. The Mvett wants to imitate Eyo’o, the Absolute(?), in the inaugural act of creation through the prolongation of creation, in the repetition of eternity, in the work of art.”.

If the term Ekang in the expression Mvett-Ekang means the immortals, its complex language origins offer a net of meanings whose sense comes back to the idea of a singular race, of an ideal, of a prototype. Ekanga also means “bridge”, Nkang means root and Ekang image, writing. However, in the epic, the term Ekang designates the immortals, who are opposed to the aspirations of the mortal Okü.

So, who are the Okü? The term Okü is composed of the root ou Kui, which means leaving or exit. or Kui can also be defined as Ku, meaning to fall, or as Nkua or Nkwa - the one who has fallen.

We said earlier that the Mvett-Ekang tells the story of the mortal people of Okü (exit, fallen), who want to know the secret of immortality, which is carefully guarded by the immortal Ekang. We ask ourselves where the mortal Okü “emerged or fell” from, that they had to beg the Ekang (race-root, race-image, race-bridge) for the secret of immortality. Is it not obvious then to make parallels between the expressions of “carrier of images”, “root-race” or “Freemasons and builders” - terms, which are well known in Gnostic Christianity?

Even more anecdotal is the person Mebegue Me Nkwa, who is a progenitor of the Mvett.

Mebegue literally means “I carry”, or the fact of carrying, or “the one who carries”. When comparing the Ekang and the Okü, there is the idea of a duality in the ontological sense. In other words, the battle between the Ekang and the Okü occurs on a battle field which is “carried or borne” by a certain “Mebegue” who we will talk about later. The confrontation of Ekang and Okü does not only lead to the idea of two antagonistic fields, but to the idea of a man, an Ekang – Mebegue – Me – Nkwa, who carries two diametrically opposed natures in his own chest: a microcosm in which an immortal one and a mortal one joust.

If our aim is to present the Mvett as a way, as knowledge, as the Gnosis, it is important to expand the field of analysis. The Mvett was first revealed to the Beti peoples, consisting of the Fang, Ntumu and Bulu language groups, who are now spread throughout Central Africa. Thus it is fundamental to think of the Mvett as a part of the Beti cultures, and to integrate it into their migratory cycles with their following phases:

  • Amata (Migration)
  • Odjambogha (the tree or the obstacle)
  • The Coma of OYONO Ada Ngono, or the revelation of the Mvett.

The next article about the Mvett will be about the Genesis according to the Mvett, or the Mystery of the OYONO ADA NGONO. That presentation will not dwell too much on the first two points above (Amata and Odjambogha), and will focus on the last one. The reason for this is that we can only grasp the meaning of the Genesis according to the Mvett by having a deep understanding of the “Mystery of the Oyono Ada Ngono”, the person through whom the Mvett was revealed to the Beti people.


[1] BIYOGO Grégoire, Encyclopédie Du Mvett, Paris, Ed Menaibuc, 2004, P. 124.




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