Goemai (also Ankwe) is an Afro-Asiatic (Chadic, West Chadic A) language spoken in the Great Muri Plains region of Plateau State in central Nigeria, between the Jos Plateau and Benue River. Goemai is also the name of the ethnic group of speakers of the Goemai language. The name ‘Ankwe’ has been used to refer to the people, especially in older literature and to outsiders.
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The Goemai are located in the Shendam, Gerkawa, and Namu districts in the Plateau State of Nigeria. They are closely related to the Jukun, who live south of them, and the Ngas, who are located north of them. Goemailand is fertile and well watered. It is the basis for the Goemai being an agricultural society. They are tribal, divided into clans, and each clan has its own chief-priest.
The Goemai trace their origin to the son of an Ngas Chief. In the nineteenth century, the Goemai were the largest ethnic group in the lowlands. Goemailand, with Shendam at its center, continues to show much Ngas culture; while the southern centers of Damshin, Shemankar, and Kwande still share the Jukun culture influence from Jukun immigrants who mixed with the southern Goemai. Although the Jukun and Ngas are historically and culturally related to the Goemai, the differences in the three groups’ languages confirm their distinctness as separate groups.
The Goemai practice subsistence farming, mainly raising ginger, millet, guinea corn, beans, and fruit. They also grow rice, peanuts, pumpkins, and tomatoes. Some cattle are kept because they are fundamental in fertilizing the fields.
The Goemai live in round, mud-walled huts grouped into enclosed family compounds (villages). Each hut has two cylindrical walls. The inner walls serve as a granary, while the space between it and the outer wall are their living quarters.
Each Goemai village has a chief-priest who answers to the tribal chief (king), the supreme governmental and religious leader of the Goemai tribe. Their system of government is quite organized; the chief-priests form an advisory council and act as officials to the king. There are officials who function as military commanders (intermediaries between the Goemai and outside groups), cooks, and barbers (performing the coronation process), to name a few. The chief-priests also perform the actual religious duties.
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All Goemai share the custom of filing their top and bottom front teeth. However, many customs and beliefs only pertain to the office of king. For instance, the king may not look upon the Benue River or he will die. Traditionally, upon his death, the king’s favorite wife, horse, and servant were buried in the same grave with him. Also, no one may plant their farms until the king’s farm is planted. The most striking physical symbol of kingship is the “sacred hairlock” that is held with an ivory pin and disk containing stones that symbolize the various crops his people cultivate.
Customs and beliefs, likewise, are specific to commoners. Boys are circumcised at the age of seven. A ceremony marks the occasion and a special dance takes place around them. The dancers throw themselves on the ground rolling over and over at the boys’ feet.
Marriage is also important. A man desiring a wife will bring her a mat with cloth rolled inside. She will return it and others, brought by other suitors, to the man of her choice. When the bride-price is paid, the bride is covered in a big cloth and led to the groom’s compound. She is followed there by girls crawling along the ground like snakes. Until the marriage is consummated, the bride may not go out or do ordinary work and her food is brought to her.
Religious Belief System
Though the majority of the Goemai are Christians, some still hold to ethnic religionist beliefs which are manifested in most aspects of their daily lives. Some believe in a supreme god and a household god (the god of their particular compound). Divination and cults centering around ancestral spirits and rain, among others, are practiced. Pebbles are cast on the ground making symbols, which determine events. A Goemai will not kill a hawk or a crowned-crane for fear he die or become a fool. They regard the feathers of such birds as symbols of strength and the owl is considered a bird of evil omen.
Featured Image Source: The Metropolitan
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