African Tribes: meet the most popular tribes in Africa
African Tribes: meet the most popular tribes in Africa
African Tribe: Ashanti
The Ashanti also commonly go by the name Asante. They are found in Western Sub-Saharan Africa, in modern-day Ghana and Ivory Coast. Perhaps surprisingly, one aspect of family life within Ashanti society is that it has a slight matriarchal slant to it, where the mother’s clan is considered the most important, with a child inheriting from its mother flesh and blood (known as ‘mogya’). The child inherits its soul from its father (known as ‘ntoro’). The Ashanti consider that a child is closer to the mother’s clan than the father’s. The Ashanti live in large extended families together in huts or other homes that are set up around a courtyard. The household is very much a patriarchal system however, with the eldest brother being the head of the household. He is chosen by the elders in the community. He is given the title of either Father or Housefather and is obeyed and has authority everyone. Boys are trained in a particular skill of their father’s choice at around the age of 8 or 9, and are responsible for paying for their education at school. Perhaps a unique and fascinating feature of learning the Ashanti language involves the boys learning how to use ‘talking drums’, almost always by their mother’s brother (so their uncle). They are used for learning the Ashanti language, but are also used in various ceremonies. Therefore, they are very important feature of life for the Ashanti. Girls on the other hand are taught cooking and housekeeping skills by their mothers. They also work in the fields, harvesting crops, and go to collect water for the community. Ashanti men can often by polygamous, but nevertheless marriage is very important to the Ashanti. Men can use polygamy to show generosity in supporting a large family. Many marriages are in fact ‘arranged marriages’ as women often do not meet their husbands until they are married, and women are not allowed to marry anyone without their family’s prior consent. The government hierarchy in Ashanti culture is shaped like a pyramid, yet is also Confederalist in its organisation. At the very top is a king who is head of the the Ashanti Confederacy Council, a group comprising of the most prominent village chiefs. These prominent and most esteemed of village chiefs will have control over several other ‘district’ chiefs. A district chief is on the third level of the hierarchy and presides over a District Council of Elders, which is then again split into sub-chiefs. Sub-chiefs head a village and brings a village together. Finally, there is a ‘Village Head Council’ which is made up of the heads of the households in the village. The Ashanti spirituality and religion is a fascinating melting pot of animist beliefs: Ashanti believe that certain humans, animals and plants in nature can have supernatural powers, and they firmly believe every living being in nature has a soul of its own. They also believe in the supernatural: Witches, forest monsters (akin to Nordic ‘Elves’) and fairies are woven into their belief systems and folklore. Being animist, they also worship ancestors, higher gods that transcend the earthly, natural world, and ‘Nyame’, who is the “Supreme Being” in Ashanti religion. These spiritual beliefs also influence the rites performed in marriages, funerals, puberty and births. Interestingly, there is a sacred relic that the Ashanti hold extremely dear to their culture, called “the golden stool”. There is a great legend surrounding it that is told orally, down generations by the elders of the Ashanti. It is very carefully protected and no one has ever been allowed to sit on it since its mysterious arrival. It has not even touched the ground. It is believed to represent the worship of ancestors, the community spirit and the very soul of the entire nation of the Ashanti. Ashanti art is known for its cloths. Before weaving was introduced they used bark cloth for clothing, but now with their weaving abilities cotton and silk is predominant. Women are the ones who pick cotton and spin materials into the thread, but interestingly only the men are allowed to weave. There are numerous different patterns woven, each with its own name and meaning; It can represent social status, a certain clan, a proverb, or the sex of the one wearing it. Patterns are not exclusively woven into cloth and silk however. They can also be ‘stamped’ onto it in many designs. Pottery is a skill taught exclusively to daughters by mothers and numerous colours of clay are available for them to utilise. Occasionally, Ashanti will also do woodcarving and metal casting, completing an impressive set of skill-sets, arts and crafts. Overall, the Ashanti are interesting for their devotion to family and respect for their ancestors. “The golden stool” also adds an eclectic air of mystery to their religion, along with their folklore beliefs in entities such as forest monsters and witches.
African Tribe: Berber
The Berber people are indigenous to Northern Africa, and are mainly found scattered across the Saharan and coastal regions, from Siwa Oasis in the far West of Egypt, all the way to Morocco. They are also found in smaller pockets further south in nations such as Niger and Burkina Faso. Most however, live in Morocco, where 40% of the total population is made up of Berber peoples. Carbon dating has shown that they have lived in Africa since at least 3000BC. The reason the Berber live mainly in the Saharan desert and the Atlas Mountains is because when Arabs invaded and ultimately conquered Northern Africa by 700AD, they persecuted Berbers and pushed them out into these harsh remote regions. Slowly but surely, the Berber culture and identity is disappearing because they are being assimilated into Arabic culture and adopting their language. Nevertheless, there are still well over 60 million Berbers living in Africa, and a smaller diaspora living outside the continent. Berbers are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but small minorities also follow Christianity, Judaism or the traditional Berber faith, which is polytheist and animist in nature. Berbers are not a single ethnic group who share a single ethnicity. Instead, they have a range of Afro-Asiatic ancestries and are identified by more of a shared sense of history, geography and language. What gives Berber’s a particular sense of unity is their constant struggle for power against the Arabs that lasted for many centuries. Family life in Berber society can vary widely from region to region and tribe to tribe. Indeed, many leaders in the past were women who led great battles against Arabic and French occupiers, the most famous of all being Kabylia who fought for the Berber tribes against French colonialism. Today things are slightly more patriarchal in some tribes, with men having the choice of women to marry, however in some cases the decision is taken by the families, and in the Tuareg tribe it is actually the woman who chooses the man she would like to marry! In this sense, it depends on the tribe whether the society is primarily patriarchal or matriarchal. The division of labour today is split, with women primarily involved in the housework, and crafts like pottery and weaving, whilst men traditionally raise sheep and cattle. However today many Berbers also work in quarrying, flour mills, and practice craft-making skills such as woodcarving. Berbers make most of their homes out of clay or goat hair into huts. The Berber language is known as Tamazight by Berbers, and it is actually a family of closely related languages and dialects that are entirely indigenous to North Africa. “Tamazight is being used increasingly to name a ‘standardised’ form of Berber that is attempting to ‘unite’ all the dialects. However, the written script is rarely taught and the language remains a mainly oral language only. Nevertheless, after decades of persecution in Morocco, Berber finally became an official language under the constitution in 2011 and has been an official language in Algeria since 2001. One great festival in Berber culture is known as the Festival of Fantasia – or “the game of gunpowder”. Berbers used to be extremely skilled horseback riders in battles, and today that skill is preserved in festivals such as these. Expert riders dress in eloquent and colourful traditional clothing and then run their horses in a straight line for 200 metres before firing their rifles into the air at exactly the same time. This requires complete synchronicity and skill between the riders. Although this was originally a war strategy designed to inspire terror in their enemies, today it’s used in various ceremonies and is a cultural rite, especially to mark the end of a wedding ceremony. Finally, Berber art and craft is very much influenced by their nomadic lifestyle, with tribes moving to good grazing spots for their livestock and to ensure they have a good supply to water and shelter. This constant movement allows the women in the tribe to collect numerous varieties of plants from whatever region they migrate to, and they will then use them to dye wool (provided by their livestock) and cotton. With the wool, they will weave tapestry carpets which are often sold at souks and indeed to many tourists who visit Morocco in particular. The patterns woven into the kilms are unique and highly distinctive to the tribe and region. For example, Moroccan Berber women are famous for embellishing their kilims with seguins, but Berber weavers from different regions will generally use diamond and triangle-like designs. Berber art on the other hand is designed around being functional, wearable and usable, with pottery, furniture, fabrics, jewellery and carpets being their forte. Berbers are easy to visit and interact with in nations like Morocco, where they make up 40% of the population. Taking tours into the desert ergs on camel back and spending the night chatting with and eating with Bebers is a popular and fantastic experience. The variation in tribes is also interesting, with some being more matriarchal than patriarchal, a rather unique social aspect for tribal groups. And of course, many tourists end up buying and going home with one of their infamous woven carpets, which are known and loved throughout the region.
African Tribe: Bobo
The Bobo people are a homogeneous ethnic group who have been living in the Burkina Faso and Mali region for centuries. They are an agricultural, rural society that has a very strong spiritual belief system that is based on respect for nature. Their religion is tied very closely with all other aspects of their lives, reflected in their political organisation, social hierarchies and even their farming techniques. The Bobo believe in a creator god named Wuro, who cannot be described, being beyond human comprehension. This is why there are no sculptures or symbols representing Wuro. Wuro created the world and ordered everything into dualisms: males/females, culture/nature, villages/bushland and so forth. This dualistic belief system is the core identity of the Bobo people and is absolutely essential in understanding them. The balances between each dualistic force Wuro created are seen as delicate and can easily be put into disorder by certain human actions that can lead to unbalances and problems. For example, improper farming techniques can lead to destroying the equilibrium between culture/nature or village/bushland, such as when crops (or foraged fruits and herbs) are gathered in the bush and bought into the village. When this occurs, the Bobo will seek to restore this balance and equilibrium between humans and nature through ceremonies and sacrifices, and indeed maintaining the balance between nature and humans is the main goal and ethos of the Bobo. The second God in Bobo religion is called Dwo, and he is only revealed when an individual wears a mask dedicated to Dwo. His spirit then blends with the spirit of the wearer and the Bobo can then communicate with Dwo to see what his will is. Although the Bobo comprise only 100,000 people, there society is highly decentralised. Each village has their own way of organising a “political system”. But one common aspect is that the Bobo do not ever place political power in the hands of one individual, and indeed the very idea is unthinkable. This makes them more communal in socio-political structure than many other tribes in Africa, though each village does have a system which follows an individual patriline, which essentially gives rights, title and powers to people related through male kin, giving it a patriarchal slant. Bobo language is essentially separated into two languages: Northern Bobo dialects such as Yaba and Tankri, and Southern Bobo with dialects such as Sya and Zara. The two language groups are only 30% intelligible with each other, making them both quite distinctive from each other. With agricultural being of primary importance to the Bobo (for both spiritual and practical reasons), their trade is based around the cultivation of cotton, which they sell to textile mills. The Bobo had co-operative labour systems – reinforcing the communal identity of their society – prior to the arrival of European colonialism, but it saw a decline under colonial rule. The main crops grown by the Bobo are millet, yams and maize. The art of the Bobo is based around their spiritual belief system, and involves spectacular and striking masks that are designed to incarnate the power of their second God, Dwo. Although the Bobo are few in number, they are special for their dualistic spiritual beliefs that permeate all aspects of their life. Their communal approach to organising society is also rather unique, and although some of their co-operative labour systems were destroyed during the colonial era, these systems still exist amongst certain Bobo.
African Tribe: Hutus and Tutsis
If there are only two ethnic groups or tribes most people have heard of in Africa, the Hutus and Tutsis are probably the ones. And sadly, it’s for all the wrong reasons associated with the horrific Rwandan and Burundi genocides that took place in 1994, that resulted in deaths of an estimated 1-2 million people in a matter of months. This civil war would also spill over to Zaire (now the DR Congo) to become what is now widely known as the “Great African War” or the “African World War”, such was its horrendous death toll involving several African nations and militias and ended in with a death toll approaching 5 million people. But these two tribes and ethnic groups should not – of course – be defined by a comparatively tiny period of their history which was based around a bloody genocide. A few theories exist based on the origins of Hutu and Tutsi origins, but recent theories suggest that the real distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was not racial, but instead became a class or caste division, in which Tutsi herded cattle and Hutu were mainly agricultural farmers. This theory seems to be backed up by the fact that the word “Tutsi” originally meant “a person rich in cattle”. The language that the Hutu and Tutsi’s share is commonly known as Banyarwanda. By around 1700, their were about 8 Hutu and Tutsi kingdoms. One of those Kingdom’s gave rise to the modern day state of Rwanda and was called the Kingdom of Rwanda, who were ruled by a clan called the Nyiginya clan, who were Tutsi. This kingdom became the most dominant kingdom in the 1750’s and spread via military conquest. The king at the time of the kingdom’s dominance was named King Kigeli Rwaburgiri. He created a series of laws collectively called “Ubuhake”, that gave Tutsis a higher social and economic status if they ceded cattle to either Hutu or Tutsi customers, in exchange for economic and personal service, but also a system where Hutu were forced to work for Tutsi chiefs. These changes in laws are unquestionably one of the causes of deeper divisions and disharmony between Hutu and Tutsi people. These divisions and resentments were deepened even further when Germany took control of Rwanda. The Germans believed the Tutsi were superior to Hutus because they believed Tutsis were originally from Ethiopia, and therefore more ‘Caucasian’ than the Hutu and thus racially superior. Therefore, they decided to rule Rwanda through the monarchy. The Belgians eventually took control of Rwanda after World War I but continued to rule Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi in the same way. They governed through the Tutsi monarchy like the Germans before them, but also privatised agricultural collectives belonging to Hutus, making the Tutsi even more powerful over their Hutu kin. Towards the end of the colonial era Belgium did modernise the country with infrastructure, public health and education projects, but the Tutsi supremacy over the disenfranchised Hutu remained and became even worse as the Hutu essentially became slaves indentured into large scale forced labour. After World War II, an emancipation movemnet was growing within the Hutu community in Rwanda, and the Catholic Church sympathised with the Hutu in this matter. They gave more education to Hutu people and gave them prominent positions within the church. In response, the outraged Tutsi monarchy and elite demanded independence from the Hutu, as they saw the Hutu becoming more equal and threatening to their power base. In 1957, the Hutu wrote a manifesto called the “Bahutu Manifesto” that was the first written document to distinguish the Tutsi and Hutu as two separate races. It also demanded that Tutsis transfer power to Hutus. In 1959, things began to really turn violent between the Tutsi and Hutu, with attacks and reprisal attacks occurring between the two groups. By this stage, the Catholic Church and the Belgian Colonial government supported the Hutu and wanted to overturn Tutsi dominance in both Rwanda and Burundi. By the 1960s, the Belgians forcibly replaced the Tutsi chiefs with Hutu chiefs and organised an election where the results called for a Hutu dominated republic to be created. This lead rapidly to the Rwandan Revolution and the country became independent in 1962. With the Hutu essentially reduced to the status of slaves for the past century, now that they were in power they began a series of bloody purges against the Tutsi. Years of oppression had now come out as rage and genocide. Tutsis fled the country to escape these purges, into the neighbouring nations of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire. They were given refugee-status by these nations, and in their exile were determined to return to their native Rwanda. They formed armed militias know as Inyenzi (“Cockroaches”) who started to launch attacks into Rwanda. However, these were unsuccessful, and simply led to more bloodshed with revenge killings against Tutsi and Tutsi refugees by the Hutu. By 1964, an estimated 300,000 Tutsi had fled Rwanda and remained in exile for the next 3 decades. Meanwhile, the Hutu continued to marginalise and persecute Tutsi in Rwanda itself. During the next three decades the population of Rwanda would increase dramatically from 1.6 million to 7.5 million by 1991, which lead to increased competition for land (with Rwanda having the highest population density in Africa). This was also a triggering factor for the horrific genocide that would occur in 1994, a few years later. The Rwanda Civil War started in October of 1990, when a force of 4,000 Tutsi rebels – called the ‘Rwanda Patriotic Front’ (RPF) – from Uganda planned to invade Rwanda, however France and Zaire intervened and supported the Rwanda government and repelled the invasion within days. The RPF retreated through Uganda and into the northern mountains of Rwanda. From there, they rearmed and re-organised their militia and turned to the Tutsi diaspora to increase recruitment and build an even stronger army, built on the rage the Tutsi felt of being exiles for over three decades. The RPF began a series of hit and run attacks against Rwanda border towns and by 1993 the Rwandan government agreed to peacetalks. However, these broke down quickly due to numerous Hutu extremist groups forming militias of their own and launching attacks against the RPF. Peacetalks did eventually start again after the attacks subsided, and a UN peacekeeping force was sent in when a fragile peace agreement was agreed upon between the RPF and the Rwandan government. However, this was not to last. A movement called the Hutu Power Movement became a major political and ideological force throughout Rwanda, that was far right-wing and had several militias supporting it. These militias started to massacre Tutsi populations, and the Hutu dominated Rwandan government actively supported these massacres. This escalated to a boiling point in 1993, when members in the Rwandan government and the Hutu Power militias planned a genocide against all Tutsi people in Rwanda. A “final solution” type scenario. The Power groups began taking over media stations and stirring up racial hatred of Tutsis, and machetes were imported into the country in their millions. These machetes were handed out to the Hutu populations as weapons. In October, the Hutu president of Burundi was assassinated by Tutsi extremists, which lead to even more fear and hatred towards Tutsis. The Power movement used this opportunity to finally carry out their idea of a “final solution” against the Tutsi, exploiting the Hutu anger of this assassination. The Power leadership began arming the Hutu militias with AK-47s and other heavy weapons. The nation then descended into a grim civil war. Killings spread throughout major cities and towns in Rwanda on April 7th 1994. During April and May, militias aided by the local populations (armed with machetes) continued the genocide and mass killings at an alarming rate. It is estimated up to 800,000 Rwandans were murdered during this short period alone. The goal was to kill every Tutsi living in Rwanda, with no exceptions even for babies. The genocide only ended when the RPF took control of Kigali, on the 4th of July, and were in control of the country, with a small French-led UN force in south-west Rwanda, who had unfortunately arrived far too late to stop any of the killings. The genocide was over. However, their were now two million Hutu refugees who fled into Zaire, and a total death toll estimated to be between 1.2-2 million people, within just 100 days, which equates to between 7-10 people every minute. A terrifying statistic. The aftermath also led to a chain of events which caused the “Great African War” and the break up of Zaire into the Democratic Republic of Congo, while domestically Rwanda only finished the long process of trialling potential murders, war-criminals and conspirators in 2012. It is also thought that around 300,000 Rwandans are now left with HIV, due to militias using rape as a ‘weapon of war’. The United Nations reputation was also severely tarnished due their inaction in preventing the genocide: In fact, many U.N soldiers saw brutal acts of mass murders right in front of them, but were ordered not to intervene unless attacked first. The U.S were also heavily criticised because they knew about the plans for a genocide, but did not want to intervene because of heavily publicised failed interventions in Somalia that lead to the deaths of several US soldiers. The genocide is also a dark testament to how colonial interference still leads to problems in the global African community to this very day, and it remains one of the most horrific atrocities in human history. Sadly, the relationship between Hutu and Tutsis has almost always been one of conflict, with one group oppressing the other in periodic cycles. This was greatly magnified and made even worse under colonialism, and when colonial powers did eventually pull out and leave Africa, the resentment between both tribes had become so fierce that it eventually led to the genocide in Rwanda, which then caused the spark that caused the “African World War”, and even had an impact on the world stage, with the United Nation’s reputation heavily tarnished by the horrific tragedy.
African Tribe: Igbo
Based in what is modern day Nigeria, the Igbos are one of the three dominant ethnic groups in the nation alongside the Yorubas and Hausas. The Igbos, however, live in a region in Nigeria called Igboland, almost exclusively composed of the Igbo people themselves. The Igbos language would be especially fascinating to linguists. It comes from a language tree in West Africa called the ‘Kwa languages’. What makes it particularly unique is that it has numerous different pitches and inflections (similar to tonal languages) but each upward or downward inflection on a word can completely alter its meaning. It sounds complicated, but the advantage of this system is that the vocabulary is very small, because so many words can be altered simply by changing the pitch and/or inflection when speaking it. Also interestingly for any indigenous language, idioms and proverbs also play a vital role. For someone learning the Igbo language, learning these idioms, proverbs and all the pitches and inflections can be extremely difficult, however they are more important than learning the vocabulary of words themselves, because really these are also the vocabulary. In fact, someone who doesn’t use all the idioms and proverbs in speech is easily identifiable as a beginner in learning the language. The social structure of the Igbo is comprised of villages numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand people, living in extended families. This is similar to many other lifestyles and social structures found elsewhere in Africa. However, a unique aspect to the Igbos is that no single ruler, king or chieftain controls the people. Instead, decisions are made by virtually the whole community living in the village. In this way, it is extremely democratic and communalistic, especially when compared to other tribes in Africa. There are certain groups or institutions that enforce the will of the people and maintain the egalitarian nature of society , such as a council of elders, a council of chiefs, women’s associations and secret societies. The Igbo put special emphasis on both this communalism but also on an individuals actions. In spiritual life, the Igbos are extremely religious, following a polytheist system which has many gods and deities. They believe that there are three levels of divine entities: The highest level is the supreme god referred too as “Chukwu”. Beneath Chukwu are lesser gods who are collectively named “Umuagbara”, and on the third and final level are the “Ndi Ichie”, who are quite literately considered the spirits of dead people and ancestors. The Igbos also firmly believe in reincarnation. Bizarrely, their system of reincarnation overlaps with many ideas found in the Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Death to the Igbo is seen a transitional phase, as when someone dies they start a new life in the spirit world. But this is only temporary, as after some time in the spirit world the person is then reincarnated as a new human-being. And so the cycle continues. Each village has priests and priestesses who help in all spiritual affairs, conducting various rituals and ceremonies. Also, since the Igbos firmly believe that everything in life is controlled by the Chukwu and the gods, there are always diviners in a village, practising various forms of eclectic divination techniques, in order to try and predict the future. However, there is unfortunately a massive negative side to what is otherwise a beautifully unique culture, with an almost utopian sounding social system. That is, when the British invaded and colonised Igboland in the early 1500’s, they tarnished this egalitarian culture by changing the Igbo’s attitudes towards women in society negatively, so they came to see them as second-class citizens. Inevitably, this lead to a more Patriarchal society and today women are sometimes treated like slaves, with no rights or civil liberties. Women are also forced to learn “womanly” subjects in some schools, such as housekeeping, which enforces this sexism. However, not all of Igbo society has been corrupted in this way, and there do exist villages that still maintain the original egalitarian social systems of old. As for crafts and art, the Igbo men prefer to wear loose-fitting cotton clothing and loincloths, while women wrap cloth around themselves and their heads. However, Ibos wear no clothing until they reach puberty. They create masks made from wood, fabrics or even just from vegetation. The masks are primarily used alongside traditional Igbo music, which incorporates percussion instruments such as the udu; a type of clay jug, an ekwe, which is created from a specially hollowed log and the ogene, which is a hand bell made from forged iron. Other instruments are wind instruments, such as opi, which is essentially a flute. Arguably the most popular musical form amongst the Igbo is called “Highlife”. Infact, it is so popular it has become extremely popular all over West Africa, and is often described as a fusion of the jazz genre with traditional Igbo music. The Igbo people are undoubtedly one of the most unique tribes and ethnic groups in Africa, known for their unique communalistic society, their East Asian-like polytheistic religion, influential music and highly eclectic language. You will seldom come across a tribe that is so fascinating on so many different levels.
African Tribe: Pygmies
Contrary to popular belief in the West, the term “Pygmy” does not always refer to any ethnic group across the world who have an unusually short average height (below 1.5 metres), though the term can be legitimately used in this way, in which case it could refer to any of the ethnic groups with this short height from South-East Asia to South America. However, the Pygmy people of Africa is actually an umbrella term refer to the numerous ‘Pygmy’ people that can include the Twa, Bambuti, Batwa, Bayaka, and the Bagyeli peoples, who are scattered over a vast region of Africa, including the modern nation states of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazaaville, Cameroon, Gabon, Rwanda, Uganda and the Central African Republic. In many of these places, they are recognised by anthropologists as being the very first inhabitants of these regions, which also makes them some of the earliest humans in the world. As expected, these different Pygmy groups speak numerous different languages, most of which are just off-shoots of the languages of neighbouring non-Pygmy people. However, despite this, there are a few common words shared between the widely scattered Pygmy tribes, which points to the possibility of them having a shared, universal language in the past. One example of a shared word is a vitally important one to the Pygmy: That is, “Jengi”, which means forest spirit. This word is so important to Pygmy people, because they are – and always have been – forest dwellers. As such, their culture knows numerous healing herbs, plants and animals of their forests intimately. Instead of being an agricultural society, Pygmy people have kept many tenants of hunter-gather societies: They sustain themselves by hunting animals such as pigs, monkeys and antelopes. They also fish and are quite famous for collecting honey using smoke to dull the bee’s senses whilst another climbs the tree to collect the honey. They also forage for wild yams, numerous species of berries and other plants. This dependence on the forest has shaped their spiritual beliefs and social structure: To them, the forest is seen as a god that gives them gifts of life, providing for all of their needs. All Pygmy groups have close ties to neighbouring farming villages, and will sometimes work for them or more often exchange forest produce they have collected or hunted for their crops and other necessities. Sadly however, in recent times these exchanges have not always been fair, and people have exploited Pygmies, mainly when a Pygmy tribe has lost control of the forest or its resources has been greatly diminished. Even more sadly, it is globalisation and the threat of logging that is seeing many Pygmy people see their rainforest homes being destroyed. In some cases, where they have tried to resist logging companies, Pygmy people have been murdered by loggers and their private security forces. This is a hugely contentious issue in these regions in Africa and has been bought to the attention of the west by groups such as Survival International and Amnesty International. Sadly, the entire Pygmy way of life and culture is being systematically destroyed by projects sponsored by the World Bank in Cameroon, where a oil pipeline has been built through Pygmy land and has caused oil spills damaging the fragile ecosystem of their rainforests. Pygmy people’s rights are often deprived by national governments, who are more interested in revenue from natural resource extraction than the preservation and civil liberties of indigenous peoples such as the Pygmy. This is a great tragedy not only for the Pygmy peoples, but for what they can offer humanity in their medicinal herbal knowledge (which could lead to modern medicines being discovered to combat endemic diseases such as cancer and HIV), as well as their unique musical traditions that are vocal and rich in polyphonic harmonies, describing the life of a hunter-gatherer and the gifts and sacredness of the rainforests. Things are so bad for the Batwa Pygmy that they are barely surviving in Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo, as almost all of their rainforest has been completely destroyed. Most have been forced into homelessness, begging or if they are lucky, get low-paying jobs as labourers. Things, however, may slowly be changing for the better for the Pygmy and their still seems like there is a real opportunity to save their culture and way of life: Pressure from Survival International and other western human rights groups has returned a response from the World Bank stating that they will invite an independent social and environmental watchdog to oversee the building of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline through Pygmy land to minimalise the environmental and social impact on them and their rainforests. Pygmy’s – despite their modern-day plight – provide a fascinating insight into the oldest, most ancient way humans used to live: As hunter-gatherers. They are a microcosm of the “hunter-gatherer” era of early humankind, and that alone makes this unique culture and people worth saving.
African Tribe: Tuareg
The Tuareg are nomadic people who live and migrate around the northern Mali regions of the Saharan desert. Their social structure is comprised of small tribes that are made up of family members generally numbering from 30 to 100. The livestock they keep reflects their nomadic lifestyle: Camels, goats, and chickens that can be moved with ease and are happy to graze different lands and topographies, having foraging type eating habits. In the family unit, women do household tasks, and process milk, make butter, prepare animal skins and make clothes and bedding from skin. They also collect fire wood and water. Men drive camel caravans, and are responsible for selling the livestock, or they exchange it for millet in towns which then can then use for making bread (one of their staples). However, it is not uncommon for the men to also purchase or trade for sugar and tea. On the whole, however, the Tuareg people are subsistence farmers who consume themselves whatever livestock they raise. The Tuareg language is actually an offshoot of the Berber language tree, and it has a modest 1.2 million speakers. The origins of the Tuareg is quite sketchy: Anthropologists have carbon dated graves to around the 4th and 5th century AD, and historical accounts exist describing interactions with the Tuareg people from the 10th century AD. Interestingly, a few accepted theories have linked the Tuareg to the early ancient Egyptian civilisation. During the colonial period (from the 1800’s), the Tuaregs were organised into several dominant confederations, each ruled by a supreme, all-powerful chief, who was advised by a clan of elders, called Imegharan. Towards the end of the 1800’s, the Tuareg came into direct conflict with French colonial invaders in the central Sahara. Although the Tuareg’s were fearsome warriors whose swords were – and still are to this day – their most valued possession (passed down from generation generation), they were unfortunately no match for the French, armed with superior weapons such as muskets and early rifles. Nevertheless, they fought fiercely and inflicted substantial casualties on the French side, despite experiencing horrendous casualties of their own. After a long war the Tuareg were subdued, and signed peace treaties in Mali and Niger. Their confederacy was dismantled and put under French governance. When independence from European colonialism came to Africa, the Tuareg faced new challenges that continue to today. Their nomadic lifestyle is under threat in the face of growing urbanisation and they have been forced to resettle in areas that have changed their nomadic lifestyle into a sedentary one. Other factors threatening their way of life is climate change induced drought, and government policies that force them to resettle and restrict their migration to increasingly stringent border-controls. That said, the Tuaregs can still be found with their camel-caravans in the central parts of the Sahara, still living their nomadic lifestyles. Their culture is well and truly still alive, but for how much longer due to these political and environmental push factors, no one can say?
African Tribe: Yoruba
The Yoruba people make up a huge part of the population in the Southwestern and Northern regions of Nigeria, as well as Southern and Central Benin. The total population stands at around 40 million people spread across these regions. Other populations are found in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone , Togo and Ghana. More than just a tribe, they are actually one of the biggest ethnic groups in Africa. The Yoruba language is a tonal language, and is the largest language spoken by native speakers in the whole Niger-Congo language tree. The Yoruba have a substantial diaspora that date as far back to the Atlantic slave trade, which means there are Yoruba people to be found in countries in the Caribbean such as Cuba, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada. There are also branches in Brazil, and recent migrations in the 1970’s were economic migrates seeking better life’s in countries such as the United Kingdom and the US. The Yoruba originated from another ethnic group called the Oyo who traded heavily with the Portuguese who gave them large supplies of guns. However, when the Yoruba became a distinct tribe from the Oyo, they were unable to push back the advances of the Fulani empire, who invaded them and pushed them further and further South. By the late 1800’s, they were forced to sign a treaty with the Fulani, and in 1901 the British colonised them. This part of Yoruba history is actually why the Yoruba still hold onto their ancient religion, which is polytheist and animist: Their animosity towards the Fulani – who were Islamic evangelists – made them resist the Islamic religion because of they were worst enemies. The Yoruba believe in reincarnation, but only within the family, which is known as Atunwa. This essentially means that the transition of a soul can only reincarnate back into its original family lineage. So it is quite possible for your uncle to be your former son, or your sister to be your former mother according to the Atunwa belief. The supreme god is actually thought of a “state of existence” (much like Buddhist “Nirvana”, or perhaps “Shakti” in one branch of Hinduism) – and is called Olodumare. Olodumare is considered to be source of all creation. Olodumare created the supreme god, Obatala, who them created numerous other gods to help develop the earth and nature bloom. The Vodun (or Voodoo) faith, shares some similarities with the Yoruba religion, but originated from a different ethnic group. The Yoruba society is mainly agricultural, but significant pockets (around 15%) are merchants and engage in crafts and arts such as exquisitely carved ivory, to beadwork, pottery and masks used in traditional dances. In fact, Yoruba arts and crafts are considered some of the finest in Africa, and their beadwork features in crowns worn by monarchs all over Africa. Yoruban blacksmiths are also talented in making sculptures made from iron, through techniques such as hand-beating, welding and casting. They even have a god honoured after iron, named Ogun. Art and craftwork is so important to Yoruba because it is used in a way to honour all of their 401 gods and ancestors. Although traditionally agriculturalists, Yoruba people today are unique in that they have accepted urbanisation and many form their own large groups in cities (instead of village groups). In fact, most the largest cities in Nigeria and Benin are predominantly inhabited by Yoruba. Yoruba culture is popular for its fascinating and unique religion, as well as their widespread diaspora that has held on to their cultural identity extremely well. Couple this, with some of the best art and craftwork produced in Africa, and the Yoruba are certainly one of the most fascinating and rightfully popular cultures in Africa.
African Tribe: San Bushmen
Found exclusively in modern day Botswana, the San Bushmen have for centuries lived in this rather harsh, arid environment, where it rarely ever rains at all. It probably comes as no surprise then that they see water as the most valuable commodity in life, where it has an almost ‘holy’ and sacred place in their minds. Remarkably, the San Bushmen have survived here for so long by essentially leading a ‘hunter-gatherer’ lifestyle. They dress in simple loincloths, and depend upon setting traps for, and hunting animals for their sustenance. They use simple but effective swing bows to hunt. They also feed on tubers and roots – which also provides them with precious drinking water. They are also known for smoking Zebra dung tobacco! To say the San Bushmen are unique would be a massive understatement: If you ever find yourself in Botswana, take time out from your safari and hire a guide to go and visit this amazing culture. If anything, they are a true testament to the resourcefulness and hardiness of humans, and give a glimpse into the way our ancient human hunter-gatherer ancestors lived.
African Tribe: Maasai
If you have ever watched a BBC documentary on Africa, or any documentary for that matter, it is highly likely you have heard of the Maasai, one of the most famous tribes in all of Africa, and often considered synonymous with the continent in the minds of many westerners. Found primarily in Kenya, but also Tanzania and other nations in East Africa, the Maasai are famous for their beaded jewellery, their reliance of cow herding and as fierce warriors. Indeed, most Masaai today use cattle as currency: Masaai men – for example – have to pay a dowry consisting of a number of cows to their future wife’s family in order for the marriage to go ahead. This has inevitably meant that battles are fought between tribes who try to steal cattle from each other! This has lead to cattle being guarded in each village by young male warriors. Needless to say, this is serious business. They are primarily meat eaters, and are known for drinking the milk of their cattle as well as the blood. They are also known for using tree bark from a certain tree that they claim treats and cures malaria, as well as being knowledgable in numerous other medicinal herbs. They occasionally trade cattle for other foods and products today, though in the past they lived and relied solely on their cattle herds for everything to sustain themselves. Today, some Maasai have been forced to become urbanised due to growing populations and more pressure on land use, making cattle grazing harder for them to sustain. However, the Maasai still living stringently to their traditions are easy to find with a guide, and can make for a fantastic experience of an authentic indigenous culture.
African Tribe: Zulu
The Zulu are the largest ethnic group found in South Africa, with over 11 million people. Perhaps famous in the minds of many westerners – unfortunately for many negative reasons – due to the battles with the British, where they were slaughtered in their thousands, the Zulus today are perhaps slowly but surely becoming better know for their unique and beautiful craftwork: Coloured beads, baskets and carvings, but also their elaborate cow skins on the feet and shoulders of the male warriors, to make them look larger and more menacing to enemies. The Zulu believe in a single creator god called “Nkulunkkulu”, but he does not interact with humans and has no interest in their daily lives. Instead, the Zulu have to communicate with various spirits and use divination techniques to interact with their dead ancestors, for advice and in times of crisis. Zulu firmly believe that all ‘bad things’ happen in their lives because spirits are offended or someone has been using ‘evil sorcery’. Nothing just happens because of “bad luck” or through natural causes to the Zulu. Today, like many other ethnic groups and tribes in Africa, the Zulu are being increasingly urbanised, due to environmental and economic reasons. However, the Zulu society is evenly split, with 50% living in urban areas engaging in domestic work, but still the other 50% work in rural areas on farms.
African Tribe: Bemba
The Bemba are exclusively found in the northeastern region of Zambia, where they are the largest ethnic group in the entire Northern Province of the nation. The Bemba are actually composed of 18 different ethnic groups, so Bemba is more an umbrella term for all these groups rather than an individual ethnic group in their own right. Nevertheless, the Bemba people all speak the same Bemba language, and are often called “the forest people”, giving them a shared identity. The region the Bemba people live is blessed with plentiful water sources and consistent rainfall, and the topography is covered with scrub, bush and small trees. However, the soil quality is poor. This is what you would define as being the typical African ‘Savannah’ type of environment. This environment has lead to the Bemba being rural subsistence farmers, who live in villages consisting of huts, numbering from 30-50. The population of these village communities can vary from 60 to 160 people. Each individual village is a central political system in its own right, but a part of a wider district, made of at least 5 villages. Each village in a district generally cooperates with each other. The communities are self-sufficient, and the main crops grown are millet and cassava, as well as peas, maize, beans and sorghum. Supplementary foods can include squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, bananas, peanuts and cucumbers. However, because the soil is poor, once its fertility wears out, the village will re-locate to better soils for growing. These migrations occur predominantly on foot, but if long distances are needed to be traversed, then they will utilise buses that rarely come to such remote areas inhabited by the Bemba. Many Zambians today in Zambida are multilingual, and as the Bemba are the most dominant group, Bemba is the most common language spoken there. English is also important and is used by government and businessmen of high prestige within the social elite. The Bemba people go back to the days of a legendary chief called Chitimukulu, and indeed the state is still ruled by him, with his office being inherited. He is thought to have supernatural, amgical powers. The traditional belief system of the Bemba was based around the higher god called Leza. He is believed to live in the sky and controls everything from thunder to fertility to both men and women, as well as being a source of magical powers one can draw upon. Today however, most people in Zambia have rejected this traditional religion in favour of Christianity, which was bought over in the 19th century by European missionaries. Only a few pockets remain where people follow the traditional Bemba belief system. Today, the Bemba suffer from a few major problems, such as disease. Malaria is particularly prevalent due to the high rainfall their region receives. Malnutrition is also a major problem, and life expectancy is only 54 years for females, and 52 for males. However, literacy rates have been consistently increasingly since the British granted them independence, the only problem being that the lack of schools available to the Bemba means they cannot capitalise on the opportunities increased literacy could give them.
African Tribe: Xhosa
The Xhousa are found in the Eastern Cape region South Africa, as well as the southern and central regions of the country, and in small pockets of in Zimbabwe, where they are known as Mfengu. They are part of the Bantu ethnic group, and in Zimbabwe its language is called isiXhosa, which is officially a recognised national Zimbabwean language. The Xhosa speak their language with is well-known for its clicking sounds, making it an extremely hard language to learn for Westerners and even the best linguists. The Xhosa is actually made up from several other “sub-tribes”, making it more an umbrella term for this group rather than one distinguishable tribe in its own right. These include: Mpondo, Xesibe, Mpondomise, Thembu, Bhaca and Mfengu. However, the Mpondo are the most dominant and popular amongst them all. There are two interesting theories about the origins of the Xhosa people: One claims the name “Xhosa” comes from a legendary leader king called uXhosa. The other theory is considered a bit more of a ‘fringe’ theory, but nonetheless many academics find it plausible: It claims that the name “Xhosa” was given to this semi-mythical king by the ‘San Bushmen’, which means “fierce” or “angry” in the San language. As of 2016, there are around 8 million Xhousa in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Xhosa people were affected greatly by Dutch and British colonial expansions: They were forced East by British colonial forces after 20 years of conflict known as the Cape Frontier Wars. Many tribes were forced to flee into the Xhosa territories from British expansion, and the Xhosa people received these scattered tribes and for the most part they assimilated peacefully into the Xhosa culture and traditional way of life. They Xhosa named them Mfengu, which means “wanderers”. This event was known as “mfecane”, meaning “the scattering”. Over time these tribes were fully assimilated into Xhosa society. The Xhosa were forced into the modern wage economy of South Africa early, due to famines and lung diseases that killed most the Xhosa’s cattle between 1856-1858. However, this has the implication of Xhosa forming trade unions very early in history, and thus today a high percentage of Xhosa represents the leadership in the African National Congress (the ANC), South Africa’s ruling dominant political party since the end of apartheid. Xhosa society is very much based around its myths, folklore and religion. Their traditional religion includes diviners known as “amagqirha”, and interestingly this is a job that is taken up almost solely by women, who have to complete 5 years as an apprentice before becoming a fully-fledged Amagqirha. The Xhosa also tell their folklore stories through an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. The people that tell these stories are named Imbongi, which means “praise singer”. These people live close to the chief’s house, where the chief conducts all his political activity ruling over his people. The Xhosa have a supreme being called Thixo or Qamata, but it is their ancestors who act as a link between humans and the supreme being. Xhosa honour them in rituals in order to bring good fortune. Dreams are also considered to be messages from ancestors and are linked to divination. Although many Xhosa are now Christian, many do still follow these traditional beliefs, and some even combine Christianity with their tradition beliefs. A tradition that has caused some controversy is male circumcision – which is a seen as a rite of passage for male Xhosa: An estimated 825 deaths have been linked to circumcision since 1994, and circumcision with the same blade for multiple males, has lead to increased transmission of HIV, which is sadly a major problem still in South Africa. Traditional foods for the Xhosa include beef, mutton, goat, milk, pumpkins, maize, beans, vegetables, the sap of an aloe (called “ikhowa”) and a mushroom endemic to the wet Amatola and Winterberg Mountains, where the Xhosa settled. Xhosa art and craft work includes beadwork, weaving, pottery and woodwork. Their traditional music form features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, and some stringed-instruments. In addition, several films are being filmed in the Xhosa language, and Xhosa poetry is also and up and coming art form. Today, the Xhosa make up 18% of the total South African population. Since apartheid, adult literacy rates have grown from 30% to 75%. Xhosa language is still spoken in primary schools, but in secondary education it is replaced by English. However, Xhosa can be studied at university, as both a language and also as a cultural studies programme. However, despite these positive achievements in modern times, rural Xhosa living in the Eastern Cape are still the most impoverished tribe in South Africa. This is causing mass migrations from rural areas to cities such as Cape Town where the Xhosa feel they can find better opportunities, but thankfully much of their culture is retained despite this increased urbanisation.
Although some of the major tribes of Africa have been discussed at length above, there are literately thousands of other tribes and ethnic groups in Africa, some smaller and more obscure, but nonetheless equally as fascinating and unique. Here is a brief description of 5 of these ‘minor tribes’:
African Tribe: Chugga
The annual wildebeest migration in Tanzania was made infamous by BBC’s phenomenal documentary series, “Africa”. But other than this and other world class safaris on offer there, the Chagga tribe represents some of Tanzania’s finest culture. They are a tribe living on the slopes of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, and Mount Meru. They are known for their extremely vibrant and colourful clothing, and for their folklore and extremely lavish celebrations, which may explain their popularity with visitors to the region.
African Tribe: Mbororo
Hailing from the nation of Chad, the Mbororo tribe has one of the most popular celebrations in this part of Saharan Africa called the Gerewol Festival. All the people from all the villages in the Mbororo tribe gather together for a week long celebration, that is very colourful, with men decorating their bodies wearing make-up and lavish jewellery, and young men get to display themselves to women in attempt to woo them! Indeed, this is the way Mbororo find their partner and potential soul mate! In between this courtship, expect a week packed full of traditional Fula music, dance competitions, and the drinking of a fermented bark that is believed to be a psychedelic substance which also allows men to dance for hours in the hot desert sun in order to increase their chances of finding a potential suitor! It is now one of most popular and most admired festivals in all of Africa, and certainly unmissable if you are visiting Chad during the date of the festival (which varies every year).
African Tribe: Venda
The Vendas originate from central Africa, and what makes this tribe interesting is that they are essentially a mix of the Nguni and Sotho tribal cultures. Vendas don’t eat pork and are heavily involved in ancestor worship. Men in the tribe are circumcised and tend to practice polygamy and have multiple wives. Water is seen as sacred and the most important element within nature, and this has impacted their way of life greatly: They build ancient and holy sites near rivers and lakes so that they can interact with divine spirits via the medium of their ancestors.
African Tribe: Himba
The Himba are found exclusively in Northern Namibia, and have some infamy with the tribesmen painting their bodies using red clay mixed with butter. It’s because of this tradition that they are known by many in Africa as the “Red People”. They also have a fascinating tradition where they keep a fire alive constantly in their village, because they regard fire to be so holy. They believe the fire allows their ancestors to mediate for them with the supreme being in their belief system known as Mukuru.
African Tribe: Pedi
The Pedi tribe comes from Northern Sotho, located in the far north-east of modern day South Africa. Boys in the Pedi culture are initiated early, where they have to look after and learn to guard cattle, while girls are given initiation necklaces. The necklaces come from various admirers (potential suitors) and this serves as their rite of passage. Indeed, most of the Pedi culture is based around union and marriage. One example of this is where teenage girls wear their hair in a circular matted cup, with their breasts uncovered until the day their marriage finally comes.
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