MUST READ: The History of Swem

The Swem

There is a popular belief that Swem is in a forest and consists of a big clay pot deep in the ground with only the neck above the ground level. It is surrounded by a type of grass known as ayande, which is like sugar cane. Inside this forest, there are all kinds of predators and they abound in it. Leopards, elephants, snakes, tigers, and wasps/bees are all found in the forest. If a man goes into the forest having defied Swem, these predators will pursue him and unless the person is well versed in witchcraft, he will not be able to out-maneuver all of them and they will kill him. The Tiv say a lot of frightening things about Swem. In springtime, when a great number of migrating birds fly about, the Tiv attach special importance to birds flying from north to south. They say that the birds are the top-most elder witches in the land who have come together and become birds to go to Swem to take care of problems related to Tivland.  When the session is over and the elders are leaving, they each take different things from Swem back to their people. The witch-elders who are not kind-hearted would choose to take hunger to their people, so people that year would witness a great famine. Others carry smallpox to their people and they are almost wiped out.  Still others in this group choose whooping cough and many of their people die of it. Some will take birds that devour millet and in that year no one harvests any millet.

But the elders that are kind-hearted choose good things for their people, so that the land is blessed when they come back from Swem. The people prosper; their women give birth to children; game abounds. There is an aura of good luck throughout that year and everything goes well.

Why it is Called Swem Ikaragbe

Ikaragbe was a person from the people of NôngovvHe took part in eating human flesh. He gave up all his siblings for this and when there was no one left to give up, he was asked to submit himself. He became afraid and fled to Utyusha. He sojourned there and his kinsmen looked for him but could not find him. It just happened that Kpamberakpa, a man from Ikaragbe’s people, also journeyed to Utyusha. He went to a drinking house and, during the drinking, the sharer poured a drink and asked that it be given to Ikaragbe. When Kpamberakpa heard this he asked which Ikaragbe was to be given the drink.  The people of Utyushaanswered that it is Ikaragbe from Nôngovv. Kpamberakpa beat his chest and remonstrated, “Is this not the Ikaragbe we searched for in all parts of Tivland but never found?”

      Immediately Kpamberakpa left and later related this to his kinsmen. When they heard this, they appointed Kpamberakpa and Anyamagere, since they were valiant men, to go and bring back Ikaragbe. They selected a few other Nôngovv people and set off.

When they arrived, the Utyusha tried to protect Ikaragbe, insisting that they would not give him to them. But the Nôngovv said if they would not give up the man who belonged to them [the Nôngovv], then they should give them a person of Utyusha extraction so that they could kill him instead. Both parties stood firm. It was difficult to resolve this amicably, but Ikaragbe persuaded the Utyusha to let him go with his own people. When they [the Nôngovv] set off with him, he asked them to allow him to show them something before they took him away. He led and they followed closely behind until they reached a great forest. Ikaragbe asked his kinsmen to get settled and when they did, he fetched a big clay pot and filled it with ashes.  He took a slice of ironwood and thrust it into the pot and he put on top of it stone ijembe Aôndo [‘axes of God’].  He also took an ayandegh shrub and stuck it inside the pot.

When he finished, he lay down and rested his head on it and his wife sat beside him on her calabash. Then he told his kinsmen to go with him to kill him so that, in the whole of Tivland, if anyone did any wrong, no matter where he ran and hid, he would be found out and punished. After this Nôngovv set off with him and started going back with him.

When they took him to the road they started singing. The lead singer called out, “Kpamberakpa bring me the fugitive,” and they chorused: hee e ee, Anyamagbere bring me the fugitive, Hee e ee.” This is why every Tiv person knows this song.

When they brought Ikeragbe back to Nôngov, they killed him! A few days later, Kpamberakpa and Anyamagere got swollen feet and died. When this was heard, people said that they died because they had killed Ikaragbe without mercy. Even though Ikaragbe had done something wrong, he had pleaded with them and had erected a shrine of swem, had even lain on it, but they did not leave off and had killed him anyway. So the spirit of the akombo[swem] killed them. So if anybody kills another in this manner, swem will kill the person. Thus swem, [its emblem, the pot] from that moment on, became the spiritual force on which oaths were invoked during judgments and misunderstandings.

Invoking swem

Whenever there is desire to invoke swem, a small clay pot is filled with ashes and a slice of ironwood is thrust into it. Then a stone ‘axe of god’ is put on top of the wood, together with ayandegh, a weed very much like sugar cane—just as was done by Ikaragbe. Nowadays, anybody with affiliations with other strong spiritual forces will bring their symbol and add it to the swem. After this, kwamegh [a circlet] is tied around the small clay pot; this is howswem is performed for judgments. When someone falls sick, the above is done but then an arrow is also thrust into it and a knife also placed onto it.

The rite for arbitration is performed when the elders are contending with someone over an evil that he is alleged to have performed and the person refuses to agree to the allegation. The swem is invoked and the person is asked to swear on it, so that, if what had been alleged is the truth, the spirit of the swem will strike the person dead, but if he is innocent, he will live. The person will come forward and say an oath, to the effect that if what is being said about him is true and that if he is just denying it, may the swem cause him to have a swollen stomach and swollen feet and kill him, but if the allegation against him is false let swem exonerate him. After saying this, the person will either touch theswem with his hands or will lift it to his head. Now if the person swears falsely, theswem will strike him with swollen stomach and feet and the person dies, but if he is really innocent nothing happens to him.

As for swem and sickness, if someone falls sick and his kinsmen do all that is possible but the sickness refuses to go away, the sick person will elect swem as the final method to find the truth behind the sickness. The sick person sends children to invite all his kinsmen to his compound. When all of them are gathered, the sick man brings out the swem that he made and says, “I have not called you here for nothing; this sickness is killing me and I don’t know what evil I have done.  This is why I call you so that I can swear an oath to you before I die. Since I was born and grew up here, I have never slept with another’s wife; I have not caused sickness to any one’s son; I have not eaten any human meat. I have always lived rightly, yet death is coming to me unjustly. This is why I called you to come so that I can give you my word and then break the swem. I am guilty in any way let me die and you be in peace, but if I did nothing and yet I am being killed unjustly, let the swemintervene and kill my enemy. This is my oath and I desire to hear from you to breakthe swem.”

His kinsmen reply, “We have heard your sworn oath well but do not break the swembecause your sickness will be cured.” Then one by one, those present stand before the swem and swear an oath: “I have had no hand in the death of my kinsman and I say this with all my heart. “After all of them say this oath, the sick man is asked to lie down and lay his head on the swem. The sick man thereafter preserves the swem.  Some people die even after they do this, but some are cured of their sickness.

Another sick man, when he performed theswem and called his kinsmen together, no matter how they pleaded with him not to break it [the swem pot], he broke it. He just carried the swem and then broke it even as his kinsmen shouted stop stop stop!People say that it was the sickness that bothered our kinsman and moved his mind to break the swem.

If Waigba lives among his mother’s kinsmen and he has fallen sick, he swears an oath with his mother’s kinsmen: “You kinsmen of my mother, I was helpless with my people and that was why I ran to you so that you would know what is wrong with me—I am being witch hunted by my people. Then I came to you.  Look, here too, I am not faring any better than I was with my own people. Because of this, I have made this swem, stuck an arrow and a knife in it, and poured on akombo a igba. I call you to witness my oath to breakswem and let me die, for if you had not heard my words and I just died like that, you would say I ate human flesh with my kinsmen and that is why they have searched me out and killed me. For this, let me swear an oath. If the cause of my running away from my kinsmen to be with you is because of my partaking of human flesh, but my kinsman with ‘whom I have eaten’ has come and connived with somebody among my mother’s kinsmen to tell on me, it is all right, for I am committed rightly in my ways. If I am guilty of this, let me be slaughtered with the knife on theswem, and then may you all reside in abundance with peace in your land and have spells of extraordinary good luck. May this be done unto me if I have done this with one among you of my mother’s kinsmen. But if I have not eaten of human flesh, neither with my kinsmen nor my mother’s kinsmen, and am being killed unjustly, your land shall be desecrated; whenever you go to war, this arrow on theswem will kill many of you for this unjust death: that you killed me!”

After making this oath, he would take theswem-pot [the emblem] and break it. But sometimes his mother’s kinsmen prevail upon the sick person not to break it; at such times, the sick one will lie down and rest his head against the swem. This is how swem is performed by one living among his mother’s kinsmen.

When a person desires to situate a market among his people, he will call together the elders of the land; when they all come he tells them his desire to establish a market. When the elders accede to his request, he dresses up the swem and makes his oath: “If anybody uses witchcraft against this market, let this swem strike such, a witch.” The elders then will jointly hold the swem[pot] and place it into a hole at the foot of the akinde [tree] in the center of the market square.

In the old days, every major event in Tivland that was agreed upon by the elders was concluded by swearing on swem, so that after the event any elders that deviated and went against his earlier agreement-accord would be killed by theswem.

In the old days, swem played a major role in the affairs of Tiv people, especially to determine borderline truth, but nowadays it is not the case. Today some people do swear on swem but it is observed to fulfill social expectations and not with the seriousness with which it was done in the past.

In the courts, brought about by the traditions of the Whiteman, when the chiefs are judging and there is need to bring in swem, as in the days of old when a case reached a point where swem would make the one falsely testifying to become afraid and to swear on swem. But no one is afraid nowadays. Today, when the judges in the process of court proceedings perceive that someone is falsely denying an allegation leveled against him, and if the issue is a major one, then swem is brought in for the person to swear on, so that if there is truth in his denials he will be acquitted; if the allegations are true but he is just denying them falsely, just let swemharm him. But because there is no serious belief in swem any more, even the guilty will not harbor any fear, but instead will quickly swear on swem. When two people are involved in litigation and both of them stick to their positions without giving ground, the judges will now cause swem or any akombo to be brought for them to swear on, in order that the one who swears falsely shall be killed by swem or the other spiritual forces. But both of them then emphasize their innocence and swear onswem; neither harbors a guilty conscience to prevent him from swearing.

      Even when somebody is known by his kinsmen to have really committed an offense and is taken to court, his people encourage him to stick to one view no matter how insistent his accuser is.  They say he should stick to his words repeatedly. He should not say one thing this time and another the next time, for the court will acquit him if he sticks to one view. And even if swem is brought for him to swear on, he should not hesitate but swear.  They say it is us, your people, who will kill you and we have not killed you. There is no deity that ever kills; it is the witches who kill.  Swem does not kill.  If you foolishly fear swem and refuse to swear on it, you will be imprisoned.

      So in court, it is the guilty one who is very eager to swear. Sometimes the judges are reminded about swem by the accusedwho says, “I am telling the truth but it seems you are not satisfied. Therefore bring out swem so that I can swear on it to establish my innocence.” When the swem is brought in, the guilty person will be the first to swear on theswem.

The main reason why swem is no longer dreaded as it used to be is the abuse to which it has been subjected to in the courts. Swem has become something upon which one contrives to get an acquittal from the Whiteman; it is not used in the traditional way as originally conceived. The chiefs and judges in Tivland know this but they are shying away from it so that the Whiteman will not know the truth. If someone had the courage to reveal this to the Whiteman, the chiefs and judges would not be happy with him, as this was used as a last resort to exonerate them from the Whiteman. This is all there is about swem ikaragbe. As knowledge increases and innovations occur in different parts of Tivland, knowledge needed to develop idolatry grows—although people are not willing to emphasize idolatry; actually the practice of idolatry is on the decline. There is an increase in the number of magical powers that exist [mbaakombo] and this increase has been brought about by some people within the communities.

(Culled from Histroy of the Tiv By Akiga Sai 1935) 

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