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SYNONYMS: Much of the literature uses “Azande” Some early writers refer to the “Niam-Niam,” but this term is now regarded as inaccurate. The westernmost groups call themselves “Nzakara” and are so termed in the literature
Identification and Location. The Zande, whose homelands lie within three modern African states (Republic of the South Sudan, RDC, Central African Republic), constitute a large and complex amalgam of originally distinct ethnic groups, united by culture and, to a considerable extent, by political institutions and by language. Because they originated in kingdoms founded by conquest, however, some scattered enclaves of earlier peoples still speak their original languages.
The Zande homeland extends for some 800 kilometers from west to east (13° to 30° E, i.e., from the Kotto River, a tributary of the Ubangi, to the foothills of the Bahr-al-Ghazal watershed) and about 400 kilometers from north to south (from 6° to 3° N, most of their land lying north of the Uele River). Most, therefore, live in sparsely wooded savanna country—a vast plain crossed by many small, tree-fringed streams—but the Zande of the Congo Basin live on the threshold of tropical rain forest, which grows denser with proximity to the equator. The habitat, climate, rainfall, and vegetation are thus quite divergent; in general, the rains fall from April to October, but the pattern varies not only geographically but also over time.
Demography. There are said to be approximately a million Zande (about 300,000 of them Nzakara speakers). Of these, about 400,000 live in Zaire, 300,000 in Sudan, and 300,000 in the Central African Republic—where the population is said to be decreasing.
Linguistic Affiliation. In terms of Greenberg's categories (1963), the Zande language belongs to the Eastern Branch of the Adamawa-Eastern Language Family in the Niger-Congo Group; a newer classification places Zande within the Ubangi Branch of the Adamawa-Ubangi Group. Zande and Nzakara speech forms are mutually comprehensible, although these languages differ in some 30 percent of their lexicon.
History and Culture
The Zande were formed by military conquest, beginning probably in the first half of the eighteenth century; they were led by two different dynasties that were similar in organization yet differed in origin and political strategy. The Vungara clan, starting out from near present-day Rafai, in the south of the Central African Republic, overran a large number of small preexisting peoples, whom they incorporated—politically, but also, in varying degrees, culturally and linguistically—into the main body of the Zande people. Their kingdoms—from Zemio eastward—remained both fissiparous and expansionist until the era of European colonization. Over the same period, a non-Zande dynasty, the Bandia, starting out from southwest of Bangassou in northern Zaire, expanded first east and then north; their territorial expansion seems to have ended around 1855, to be followed by in-depth consolidation. In contrast to the Vungara, the Bandia, although they remained a distinct “foreign” dynasty, adopted the Nzakara/Zande language and customs of their subjects. Both dynasties apparently owe their success to superior political and military organization; they seem to have possessed no determining technological superiority. Both still constitute a recognizable aristocracy in the areas of their former domination.
A number of important cultural features are said to have been derived from the Mangbetu, a similarly organized people living to the south of the Uele River who were never subdued by the Zande. Contact and sporadic conflict with Arabs seem to date from the second half of the eighteenth century but resulted in neither Arab domination nor any profound cultural influence—except for the acquisition of guns, which helped safeguard continued Zande autonomy and reinforced the existing political system.
The first European travelers arrived in the 1860s. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Zande came under three different colonial administrations—Belgian, French, and Anglo-Egyptian, the frontiers of which have been inherited by their respective successor states.
The main impact of colonial rule was, at first, the end of the wars that had up to then been both culturally and structurally endemic between the Vungara-led kingdoms. Colonial administrations also imposed changes in the settlement pattern (away from the traditional scattered homesteads along the banks of streams, toward settlement along newly built or widened roads). In addition, they introduced labor recruitment for government or concessionary-company projects, particularly road building and cotton growing. In other respects the Azande were—except near the towns—shielded by colonial officials from Arab and other outside influences. Since independence, British officials in Sudan have been replaced largely by northern, Islamic Sudanese; many Zande are said to have trickled across the border into Zaire.
The traditional settlement pattern, later revived with some variations toward the end of the colonial period, was in scattered homesteads, often widely separated from each other by cultivations and forest. Each was home to one man, his wife or wives, his children, and other unmarried dependents. His nearest neighbors were, in precolonial times, usually his closest male relatives and their households. A chief or his deputy would settle near a stream, with kinsmen and clients nearby, connected by radial paths; a king's court was a more elaborate version of the same plan: it was connected by narrow but well-maintained roads to the homesteads of chiefs. More recent settlements range from towns with modern health and educational facilities to hamlets comprising three or four homesteads, still sited in traditional fashion near a stream. Homesteads include two main types of traditional thatched huts: an older, round type with conical roof and a newer, square, gable-roofed type. Also traditional are round clay granaries, usually with access through a movable roof or lid, which are often used as temporary shelters during periods of intensive cultivation. In towns, new houses are usually square; a corrugated-iron or sheet-metal roof is a sign of relative wealth.
Subsistence. In western Zande country, cassava has displaced the former main food staple, eleusine millet. Maize, rice, sorghum, sweet potatoes, peanuts, squashes, okra, legumes, greens, and bananas are grown in fields and gardens. Goats have now been added to the traditional domestic animals, dogs and chickens. The diet is supplemented by the game men hunt and the fish women catch. In the dry season, termites are eaten as a delicacy.
In colonial times, traditional patterns of shifting cultivation were disrupted by cotton growing and other economic schemes and consequent resettlement. Hunting became less important, but it is still practiced away from the main roads. A number of new activities generated cash income. Some men worked for wages on government projects; tobacco was grown as well as cotton, and some craft products were sold.
Since independence, coffee has become an important cash crop in western Zandeland, and in many areas some cotton is still grown. Roads have everywhere deteriorated, however, making it more difficult to market crops. Some villages off the main road remain virtually self-sufficient, buying “luxury items” such as manufactured soap, cloth, and kitchen utensils with money from the sale of subsistence-crop surpluses, any local cash crop, game, craft work, palm wine, or cassava spirits.
Industrial. The Zande have long been known as expert blacksmiths, potters, and wood carvers; many of their techniques were borrowed from the Mangbetu. A few smiths still operate as nearly full-time specialists, but most of their work consists of repairing blades and tools; iron smelting has ceased. Zande still make pots, carve wooden utensils, and weave baskets and mats.
Trade. Markets are a comparatively recent introduction but are increasingly relied upon as more Zande live in or near towns, and self-sufficiency decreases.
Division of Labor. Subsistence cultivation was and remains the province of women, who also prepare and cook food and make palm wine and cassava spirits. Men build and maintain traditional homesteads, hunt, and practice the various crafts; they are also, where applicable, the wage earners. Commoners formerly provided labor in the extensive eleusine plantations that enabled kings to feed large numbers of retainers and visitors at court.
Land Tenure. The homestead and its surrounding gardens and fields long remained the main landholding unit; homesteads were separated from each other by considerable stretches of bush, which made it easy for them to shift their locations and for a younger kinsman to set up his own near that of the lineage head. Modern resettlement has disrupted this pattern. Cultivable areas are, in Sudan at least, subject to artificial limitation: married sons often have to reside some distance from the paternal homestead.
Kin Groups and Descent. The society as a whole exhibits a strong patrilineal bias, but relationships are not traced back for more than a couple of generations; local ties have long been based on cognatic, political, and personal criteria rather than on unilineal descent. Accordingly, there is very little interest in tracing the interrelationships of the widely dispersed named patriclans, many of which undoubtedly represent remnants of Zande-conquered peoples.
Kinship Terminology. Simple terms exist for mother and parallel kin (except mother's brother) of her lineage and generation, for father and parallel kin of his lineage and generation, for mother's brother and matrilateral cross cousins, for own-generation same-sex parallel elder kin, and for own-generation same-sex parallel younger kin; there are two terms (male/female Ego) for same-generation opposite-sex parallel kin and for child and parallel members of child's generation, and there is a mutual term for grandparent/grandchild. All other terms are compound.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Marriage is normally contracted by payment of bride-wealth. It is virilocal and ideally polygynous, although, in practice, not many men are able to afford more than one wife. Kings and nobles had more wives than other men, many of them of commoner origin; they would occasionally give wives “for nothing” to reward retainers and warriors. Traditional bride-wealth took the form of iron spears; Zande rulers formerly provided their pages and courtiers with spears to enable them to marry, but the Bandia dynasty of the Nzakara seems to have provided wives directly instead. In the 1920s it became easier for young men to marry; they were no longer dependent on their elders for bride-wealth spears but could buy their own with money earned in the service of the European administration. Nowadays most bride-wealth is in cash, although it may also include goats, cloth, sacks of cassava, and so forth. A young man's family usually contributes, but he often scrapes together some of the money himself, and thus has some say in the matter.
Domestic Unit. Within the traditional homestead, each wife had her own sleeping hut for herself and her young children, but the hut of a man's senior wife might be rather better built. Such homesteads are still the rule in villages off the main road. In towns and large villages, administrative and mission influence has resulted in second and subsequent wives often living alone, with only occasional visits from the husband.
Inheritance. The property of commoners, their wives, and any debts or vengeance obligations are inherited by their patrilineal male kin. Competition often arises between representatives of the senior and junior branches of a lineage. It is important to the Zande that organic witchcraft, mangu, may be transmitted by a man to some of his sons and by a woman to some of her daughters.
Socialization. Small children share their mother's life, and girls may do so until marriage, thus learning women's occupations. In precolonial days, many boys served as pages at royal or noble courts. When these courts disappeared, ritual circumcision of pubescent boys in the forest (almost certainly borrowed from neighboring tribes) replaced such service as an initiation into manhood. This tradition has also fallen into disuse.
Social Organization. The homestead remains the common unit for most day-to-day activities, although men congregate in larger numbers for activities such as hunting. In colonial times, closed associations, open to both sexes, were important for the collective performance of magical rites. These associations, probably of non-Zande origin, remain popular in present-day Zaire. They have been described as quite elaborately organized, but individual associations seem to have been short-lived. Kings and princes, as well as both colonial and postcolonial governments, have generally regarded them with disfavor.
Political Organization. In precolonial times, the vast Zande homeland consisted of a number of tribal kingdoms, separated from each other by wide fringes of unpopulated bush. Among Zande speakers, most of these kingdoms, the number and sizes of which varied over time, were ruled by members of the Vungara dynasty, except for the westernmost kingdom, Rafai. In Rafai the ruler was, like those of the similarly organized Nzakara kingdoms, a member of the Bandia dynasty, which was recognized by the Vungara as its equal. These kingdoms, born of conquest, were sustained by more or less continual warfare.
Each kingdom was divided into provinces, which were administered mainly by the king's younger agnates, although in some eastern Vungara kingdoms Bandia governors were also at times appointed. In each kingdom, the central province was under the monarch's personal rule. Governors, although bound to pay tribute and assist the king in war, had considerable autonomy and ruled over deputies of their own. In each kingdom and each province, the ruler's court was centrally situated, and roads radiated out from it to the courts or homesteads of subordinates.
Under colonial rule, and even where the British preference for “indirect rule” held sway, this political system inevitably decayed. Western-style education produced new leaders; in Sudan, in 1954, an educated commoner defeated the son of the ruling prince in a local election. In the Central African Republic, mayors and village chiefs are still often of Vungara or Bandia descent, but national-level officials, usually non-Zande, are appointed from the capital.
Social Control. Day-to-day behavior is largely governed by the universal belief that most misfortunes are caused by witchcraft and that a witch will only attack those against whom he has a grudge. In precolonial days, serious accusations (e.g., of adultery or of murder by witchcraft) were brought to a ruler's court and resolved by oracle consultations in the ruler's presence. For adultery with a nonroyal wife, fines were exacted; witchcraft resulting in death was generally settled by magical vengeance. The adulterous lover of a royal wife, or a persistently murderous witch, might be put to death. Nowadays serious accusations (e.g., of witchcraft in connection with deaths by drowning or other accidents) can be handled by consulting a Nagidi prophetess and may, if her verdict is confirmed by local-government courts, result in prison sentences.
Conflict. Within the Vungara dynasty, conflict normally resulted in war, especially over succession to a recently dead king, but also in cases of rebellion against a reigning one. Changes in the number and size of kingdoms ensued. Among commoners, conflict, when not resolved amicably, was usually carried on by magical means directed against a suspected witch by the opposing party.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Zande tend to attribute a soul, mbisimo (under certain circumstances separable from the body), to both animate and inanimate beings; in traditional belief, the souls of people became ghosts after death. Ghosts were believed to inhabit earth caverns in the bush, as did the Supreme Being, Mbori, who partook in their ghostly nature. In Nzakara-speaking areas, where the word “Mbori” did not exist, “Zagi” referred not only to the Supreme Being, but also to the outside universe in general, and ancestor spirits had concomitantly greater importance. Mission influence has ensured that Mbori is today almost universally associated with the Christian God and that the ghosts, once regarded as potentially benevolent, propitiable ancestors, are more and more associated with evil. Catholic and Protestant congregations are well established and numerous, and have, widely if superficially, affected traditional beliefs and other cultural features. Belief in witchcraft remains important, however, and both belief in and the practice of magic seem to be on the increase.
Witchcraft, mangu, is seen as an organic phenomenon, hereditary in the male line for men, and in the female for women. It need not be conscious; its action is understood as psychic. A witch sends out his or her “witch soul,” mbisimo mangu, said to be visible at night, to consume the mbisimo pasio, “flesh soul,” of the victim's organs. Witches are also believed to cause other kinds of misfortune by less clearly defined means. Although their mode of action is mysterious, witches are not seen as in any way supernatural, but as part of the normal order of things. They are believed not to be able to operate at any great distance; commoners are usually unable to bewitch nobles or vice versa. Witchcraft is assumed to be at least a factor in all misfortune; for remedial action, it is thus important to identify the witch. Identification was formerly achieved through divination by witch doctors or by means of various oracles, especially one in which a poison, benge, was administered to chickens, the outcome depending on whether or not the fowl survived. The use of benge was already severely discouraged in colonial times, and such oracles are now used very rarely, and never officially. Witch doctors are largely a phenomenon of the past, as are the closed associations through which people formerly sought both offensive and defensive magic. For consultations, including the identification of witches, recourse is now often to (generally female) diviners, who are prophetesses of the “native” Zande Christian church (Nzapa Zande), which now shares the people's allegiance with the European and American missions.
Religious Practitioners. The traditional cult of domestic ancestor shrines required no specialized priesthood. Matters of witchcraft and magic have always been determined by part-time specialists/practitioners. Witch doctors, who were trained in the use of magical medicines, operated at public séances; Nagidi are believed to derive their power directly from God and are, for day-to-day purposes, consulted in private.
Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies were formerly witch doctors' séances. One or more witch doctors, in colorful ceremonial dress, would dance and sing to musical accompaniment before commencing their divination. The circumcision of pubescent boys also forms part of an elaborate series of ceremonies; others were associated with initiation into the (now defunct) magical-medicine associations.
Arts. Music, both instrumental and vocal, is very important in Zande culture; traditional instruments—wooden gongs, skin drums, whistles, xylophones, and large bow harps—also accompany singing and dancing. Harps are occasionally decorated with carved human heads; otherwise, nonutilitarian carving is poorly developed.
Medicine. Zande apply generally known common-sense cures to minor ailments. All serious diseases are attributed to witchcraft and are accordingly combated by magical medicine. The general term ngua, which originally meant simply “plant” or “tree,” once covered both good and bad “medicines” of every sort. Nowadays Zande distinguish between protective or curative “medicine,” which is increasingly becoming known by the Arabic term dawa, and ngua used as vengeance “medicine.” Magical “medicines” are used, not only to ward off (or avenge) misfortune, but to obtain successful harvests, human fertility, good hunting, and other benefits, including job promotions and success in examinations. Such “medicines” are bought from people believed to have the requisite knowledge; payment is held indispensable if they are to be efficacious.
Death and Afterlife. All deaths, except those of very small children, are attributed to witchcraft or magic and call for magical vengeance. Upon death, the soul (mbisimo) becomes a ghost, which in some sense may be present in the homestead ghost shrine, but also dwells with other ghosts and with the Supreme Being, Mbori, in earth caves in the forest.
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Calonne-Beaufaict, A. de (1921). Azande. Brussels: Lamertin.
Dampierre, E. de (1967). Un ancien royaume bandia du Haut-Oubangui. Paris: Plon.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1971). The Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963). The Languages of Africa. Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication no. 25. The Hague: Mouton.
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This article from The Encyclopedia of World Cultures CD-ROM (Copyright Macmillan 1998). Do not reproduce in any form.