The paper re-examines principles of social organization in pre-colonial Equatorial Africa, suggesting that the imagery of ‘accumulation’ of ‘wealth in people’ is not wrong, but not flexible enough to encompass the centrality of knowledge in these societies. People were singularized repositories of a differentiated and expanding repertoire of knowledge, as well as being structured kin (as in the kinship model) and generic dependents and followers (as in the wealth-in-people model). We argue that social mobilization was in part based on the mobilization of different bodies of knowledge, and leadership was the capacity to bring them together effectively, even if for a short time and specific purpose. We refer to this process as composition and distinguish it from accumulation.
The paper has three parts. The first substitutes an oral epic from southern Cameroon for an ethnography of the principles by which people pursued agendas and mobilized followings in their own political worlds. Colonial rule may have institutionalized pre-colonial political hierarchies, but it completely altered the terms for political mobilization. Hence the historical record is very limited for making inferences about how ‘wealth-in-people’ operated in action, under pre-colonial conditions. The second critiques the evolutionary assumptions about simple societies that still color the models of Equatorial societies. The third revisits the ethnography to illuminate the principles of composition. The conclusion makes inferences and suggestions with respect to aspects of pre-colonial social history.