Kumstvo (Montenegro)

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Kumstvo
Location: Montenegro
Montenegro map.png
Author: Klavs Sedlenieks
Affiliation: Riga Stradins University, Latvia

Original Text: Klavs Sedlenieks, Riga Stradins University, Latvia

Kumstvo (from kum a godfather, kuma – a godmother) is an informal network based on fictive kinship in Montenegro (a similar term associated with slightly different practices exists elsewhere in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia). Kumstvo is one of the most venerated social institutions in Montenegro, often described with the words ‘kumstvo je svetinja’ (‘kumstvo is holy’). Kumstvo plays a significant role in the informal ties that permeate Montenegrin society. Kumovi just like blood relatives are supposed to help each other and in most cases they do so in spite of formal bureaucratic ideals, thus often leading to nepotism.

Aleksandar Ranković, considered the third most powerful official in Yugoslavia and witness at Tito's wedding

Kumstvo is usually established by а person serving as a godparent, either in the baptism of a child or as а witness at a wedding, and thus is formally established through an official ceremony. Nevertheless, other means of initiating kumstvo that are not related to formal ceremonies are also described in the available literature. In contrast to other similar institutions e.g. Latin American compadrazgo, Montenegrin kumstvo eschews hierarchical relations. After kumstvo has been established, all members of the nuclear families involved become kumovi (plural from, kum (m) or kuma (f)) to each other and are considered relatives for several generations (historically the relatedness could be counted up to the seventh degree[1]).

The choice of a kumstvo partner or kum/kuma is preferably made on the basis of prior friendship and kumstvo itself then serves as a formalisation of such friendship. Thus kumovi are usually best friends and kumstvo is a proof of a very deep and important relationship. However, an offer to become a kum even if it comes from someone who is not a close friend is considered an offer that should not be refused. An offer to become a kum is considered a great honour and a ground for pride. In almost all cases an offer of kumstvo to a previously unknown person is done through baptism of a child, and such cases clearly indicate the presence of vertical relationships that (similarly to godparenthood in other areas) require the godfather to take care of the godchild. Kumstvo can be established across religions (although not in accord with the Christian idea of godparenthood where the godparent should be a spiritual parent already experienced in the particular faith) at an event celebrating first haircut of the child (called šišano kumstvo), or during the circumcision ceremony (only regarding boys) if the parents are Muslim.

The ideal basis of Montenegrin kumstvo is a prior affectionate connection between the would-be kumovi and therefore calculated cases of kumstvo offers are treated with some contempt. Nevertheless, because according to the tradition one is obliged to accept kumstvo offers, historical sources provide evidence of tactical usage of kumstvo, e.g., a thief could offer kumstvo if caught in action, or a drowning man could offer it to oblige a passer-by to help him. Up to the end of 19th century kumstvo was also widely used in the final phase of ending blood-feuds as a means to seal relationships between previously feuding families[2]. Historical sources also describe the use of kumstvo for medical purposes, such as seeking a new kum if a child becomes sick. In such cases the parents would place the child at a crossroads and the first person to approach would be offered kumstvo [3]. The idea was that the choice of kum was left to destiny or God’s will, and could bring about a change in the child’s fortune. Contemporary kumstvo, however, rarely if ever has such tactical usage.

Similar institutions to kumstvo can be found elsewhere in the world. The term kum and derived terms associated with the process of becoming a kum are known across Eastern Europe (compare: kummi (‘godmother’ in Finnish), kūms/kūma (Latvian), кум/кума (Russian), kmotor/kmotra (Czeck and Slovak), kum/kuma (Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian). Тhe particularities of the institution may differ from country to country, while in other societies a similar institution may be described by a different term. All Christian confessions have the institution of godparenthood: a person or a group of persons invited to become a spiritual parent of a newly baptised person. The number of godparents varies greatly, as does the role of the godparent in the life of godchild.

The most well-known counterpart of kumstvo is Compadrazgo in the Iberian peninsula and especially Latin America. Compadrazgo shares many essential features with Montenegrin kumstvo, however these features vary from place to place in Latin America. Latin American compadrazgo is almost invariably created at a baptism of a child and establishes a strong bond between the three parties involved. Particularly important is the tie between the co-parents. Refusing an offer to become a compadre is almost impossible. Literature describes both vertical (class-external, mostly seeking a compadre from a higher social class) as well as horizontal (class-internal) choices of compadre. In some places, strategic choice of a compadre from an upper social class is treated with contempt[4], while in other cases it is a common guiding principle. The compadre can be chosen either from among relatives or from people who are not kin; again, preferences vary regionally. Although the Latin American tradition of compadrazgo has undeniable roots in Europe and Christianity, some authors[5][6] point out that the pre-Columbian Aztecs may have had a similar institution with very similar implications.

The functionality of kumstvo (as well as compadrazgo) is almost invariably linked with the possibility of extending one’s network of support and allegiance beyond that of kin relations. A person born in Montenegro finds themself embedded in various networks that tend to define not only personal affiliations, but quite often political alliances too. An individual belongs to a particular linguistic and religious group, family (patrilineage or bratstvo), and geographic area. None of these can be changed by the individual to suit his or her particular life-course. Thus, kumstvo can provide a means of breaking away from the rigid frames of the prescribed networks. Because kumstvo is not exclusively a Christian endeavour, kumstvo links can be created across national and religious borders if necessary.

Kumstvo depends on and reinforces the strength of kin-relations as a structuring element of Montenegrin society. Since the tendency of the modern bureaucratic nation-state is to minimise the importance of kin-relations in society, kumstvo and obligations of mutual help have a strong potential of conflict with the bureaucratic principles of governance. It is therefore often associated with nepotism and political corruption, and is invariably interpreted in relation to the functioning of the state[7][8].

The flourishing of kumstvo in Montenegro and surrounding areas can be seen as related to the historical nature and trajectory of the state in these countries. As with other Eastern European countries, the Montenegrin state has been subject to considerable political, geographical and ideological upheavals throughout its history. In this context, trust in state institutions tend to be comparatively low, while trust in traditional forms and principles of organising day-to-day business (including kumstvo) is often much higher. A person who has a wide and well-integrated group of blood and fictive relatives has much better prospects in life than a person who lacks it. Having a kum, just like having a relative or simply an acquaintance, is not necessarily a source of abuse in every case of dealing with state bureaucracies and similar interactions, but on average will put a person in a better position. As a result, residents of Montenegro who have recently immigrated from other areas (e.g. Kosovo) and whose relatives and kumovi have stayed behind may typically complain of a lack of general support that reduces chances of success compared to long-term residents. With time, this problem is remedied by intermarriage and in particular by means of kumstvo – the latter being more flexible and more reliant on the networking capabilities of the particular individual rather than on his or her ascribed status[9][10].

In contrast to membership of a family group or bratstvo that is advertised publicly via one’s surname, kumstvo relations are not generally public knowledge. Helping one’s relatives is a fundamental obligation for most people in Montenegro, but it is publicly suspicious if an office starts to be filled with people sharing the same surname. Kumstvo is more concealed (although it is by no means a secret), but cooperation between kumovi may be even more intense and trustworthy. Knowledge of who is whose kum can therefore provide an insight into internal alliances that might not be visible at the surface. Investigative journalists in the Montenegrin media often draw on such knowledge when they describe formally undefined relations among government officials or politicians and other influential players.

Notes

  1. Tomašić, Dinko. 1948. Personality and culture in Eastern European politics. New York: G.W. Stewart.
  2. Boehm, Christopher. 1984. Blood Revenge. The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  3. Hammel, Eugene A. 1968. Alternative Social Structures and Ritual Relations. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  4. Mintz, Sidney W, and Eric E. R. Wolf. 1950. 'An Analysis of Ritual Co-Parenthood (Compadrazgo).' Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6(4):341-368.
  5. Halbich, Marek. 2010. 'Ritual Compadrazgo as an instrument of interethnic and social Adaptation among the Rarámuri in Northwestern Mexico' Accessed September 27, 2011. http://lidemesta.cz/index.php?id=702
  6. Mintz, Sidney W, and Eric E. R. Wolf. 1950. 'An Analysis of Ritual Co-Parenthood (Compadrazgo).' Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6(4):341-368.
  7. Mintz, Sidney W, and Eric E. R. Wolf. 1950. 'An Analysis of Ritual Co-Parenthood (Compadrazgo).' Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6(4):341-368.
  8. Tomašić, Dinko. 1948. Personality and culture in Eastern European politics. New York: G.W. Stewart.
  9. Boehm, Christopher. 1984. Blood Revenge. The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  10. Boehm, Christopher. 1984. Blood Revenge. The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.