They lead the mbori (goat) to the Temple. The drums have been beating since dawn; the “plante” gets started, and “the leopard roars…”
The words “Abakuá” and “Ñañigo” provoke both fascination and fear. Myths and prejudices surround the social behavior and beliefs of an organization that was founded in 1836, in the Regla district of Havana.
It is an all-male association, but interestingly, it was a woman, Lydia Cabrera, who first shed light on the secret society of the Abakuá with her book, published in 1958. More recently, another woman, Odalys Pérez Martínez, a specialist in criminal law, co-authored (with journalist Ramón Torres Zayas) La Sociedad Abakuá y el estigma de la criminalidad (The Society of the Abakuá and the stigma of criminality).
The following day, somebody praises the dance of a “little devil”; rumors spread about an “uprising” that will “make blood run”; they predict a war between the powers of Regla and Guanabacoa…
“The image of the Abakuá man as a criminal led me to make it the subject of my thesis for my master’s degree in criminology,” Pérez Martínez says. “But neither my professional experience nor statistical analysis on the issue reflects a higher incidence of crime among that group than among the rest of society.”
Prejudice about the Abakuá dates back to the colonial era, and stems from the negative propaganda associated with the fear of slave uprisings. It was compounded by the secretive nature and mysteries surrounding the culture of ñañiguismo, as it is known.
However, in daily life, an Abakuá man looks and acts like any other. He does not wear any special emblems referring to his status, and unlike the Masons, he does not use any secret gestures.
While Abakuá members do use some of the same phrases that their ancestors did in Africa, it is only for religious purposes, not for everyday oral or written communication. Some of these expressions have become popular sayings, such as “Ekue mbori aborekin ñangue,” which means “The goat that breaks the drum will pay for it with his hide.”
However, sometimes people use refrains from the Abakuá moral code that can cause misunderstandings. What does it mean when somebody says “To be a man, you don’t have to be Abakuá, but to be Abakuá you have to be a man”?
“The concept of ‘manliness’ depends on a subjective interpretation,” Pérez Martínez says. “And that depends on one’s cultural education and on psychological and sociological factors such as a person’s family, school and community. Some Abakuás view it as being ‘a good father, son and brother.’”
Asked about the expression that refers to “cleansing honor with blood,” Odalys said, “On the contrary; they advocate being ambia koneyó (sincere friends) and solidarity among ecobios (brothers in religion).”
The Abakuá’s roots go back to the slave trade. The Carabalíes (people from the Calabar region of Africa) who were brought to Cuba maintained their legends and their secret societies from Africa.
In their juegos or potencias (chapters or lodges), members are divided into plazas (hierarchs) and obonekues (initiates), and aspiring members are indiseme. The iremes, or little devils, are a manifestation of ancestors’ spirits. They use different types of Ereniyós (graphics): Gandos (drawn on the ground for ceremonial purposes), Anaforuanas (signatures representing the hierarchs), and Sellos (which identify each potencia).
Anyone can enter the plante; in fact, women are there as spectators. The initiation ceremony is about to begin…. The hunter (Ekueñón) goes out to the Mountain (the Temple’s patio) and captures, in his drum, the voices of the spirits of Sikán and Tanzé. After that, the indiseme form a line, are purified, and are THEN admitted into the Fambá (sacred room).
The myth that explains the exclusively male nature of this association is the story of Sikán, daughter of the chief of the Efó tribe. In the story, she draws water from the river and catches the Tanzé, the Sacred Fish. The Nasakó (shaman) recommends that the princess be locked up, and then orders her sacrificed. According to one of the many versions of this legend, Sikán flees and reveals the secret to her boyfriend, who is from the Efik, a rival tribe, and she is punished for that treason with death.
“In a historical sense, we should note the transfer of power from a matriarchy to a patriarchy among African tribes,” says Pérez Martínez, a descendant of Sikán. “And also, the majority of people who were brought here as slaves were male, because in Africa today, there are organizations of this type that accept women.”
A Cuban Justice Ministry resolution passed in 2005 officially recognizes the Asociación Abakuá de Cuba (Abakuá Association of Cuba), and its regulations outlining the requirements for membership are public information.
In the year 2000, a census counted 173 juegos and 20,842 members. However, those numbers have grown steadily, and contrary to what many people think, it is not just “a black thing” (on Dec. 24, 1863, the first juego of white initiates was consecrated). Abakuá members include quite a few intellectuals and professionals.
“A proposal is being considered to recognize it [the Society of the Abakuá] as national heritage, taking into account that it is a phenomenon exclusive to Cuba, especially in the places where it came into being, in Havana, Cárdenas and Matanzas. Also, its association with our national history; recognizing the fact that five ecobios were killed on Nov. 27, 1871, when they tried to prevent the execution by firing squad of a group of medical students, to save one of their brothers in religion.”
About what occurred in the Fambá, only the initiates can speak…. Now they are filing out, consecrated, amid drumming, singing and much joy.