African Tribes

Europe over more than two millenia of over devestating conflict has organized itself along ethnic and linguistic lines. This has not occurred in Africa. Most modern African states reflect the boundareies drawn by European colonial powers in the 19th century during the scramble for Africa. The Europeans commonly ignored tribal and linguistic afinities among African peoples. This mean that tribal groups were often fracrtured and separated by the European imposed boundaries. Thus modern
African states commonly are composed of multiple tribal groups. And many tribal groups populate multiple countries. We have begun to collect information on some of these tribal groups. This is not a subject we know much about, but as with much of HBC, wecare interested in leaning more and encourage readers to add their insights.

The Afar people inhabit the Horn of Africa are and are concentrated in Ethiopia and areas of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. They are a nomadic people who eke out a living in a rocky, arid enviroment. They also inhabit the Awash Valley and the forests of northern Djibouti. The popuulation totals about 3 million people. They speak Afar. Their lives are built around the livestock they heard, goats, camels, and sometimes cattle. Religion also plays an important part of their lives. Most Afars converted to Islam (10th century). There are also a few Christians. Afar clothing is an interesting blend of Arab and African influences. The women perhaps reflecting the prevalence of Islam traditionally wear head scarves, but go bare breasted.

Abayudaya meaning the "People of Judah", similar to the Jewish term Children of Israel, are a Ugandan group which practices Judaism. They belong to the Baganda tribe of eastern Uganda aroun the town of Mbale. Unlike Ethiopian Jews they are not genetically linked to the Hebrew people of Israel or the Diaspora.

The term Bedouin evolved from the Arabic term "badawi" meaning "desert-dweller". It is a term that has been generally applied first the Arabian nomadic pastoralists, but has come to be used to describe the nomadic peoples living in the desert belt extending from the Arabian Peninsula, Negev, and Sinai through the North African Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean. The Bedouin are divided into two main groups which is reflected in their Arabic dialects. There are eastern and western Bedouin, divided roughly along the Egyptian-Libyan border. The Bedouin are more of a people defined by life style than ethnicity. The Bedouin of Arabia are of Semetic origins. Other Bedouins have more varied origins. The Bedouin are known for a nomadic life style, but their movement is primarily seasonal, and based on the availability of water and grazing conditins. When there is some precipitation they may move deeper into the desert, but during more arid periods move back to areas where water is more available. Given the desert environment, the Bedouin are particularly known for herding camels, but also heard other livestock like sheep, goats and cattle. There are also known for their Handicraft work. The Musli outburst allowed the Arabian Bedouins to move out of the Arabian Peninsula, brining Islam and the Arabic language with them. First they moved to Syria and Egypt (7th century). Gradually the Bedouin moved west, but primarily into North Africa rather than sub-Saharan Africa. The Bedouin population is declining. The nomadic life style was limited by modern national boundaries and the desire of people for a more affluent, sedentary life style.

The Dinka people live in the southern Sudan along both sides of the White Nile. The Dinka are one of the branches of the Nilotes. They are known for centuries as Dinka, but they actually call themselves Moinjaang, "People of the people." The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan. The Dinka groups retain the traditional pastoral life of the Nilotes, but have added agriculture in some areas, growing grains, peanuts, beans, corn (maize) and other crops. Women do most of the agriculture, but men clear forest for the gardening sites. There are because of the climate usually two plantings per year. Some are fishers. The boys tend goats and sheep while the men are responsible for the cattle. The cattle are central to the Dinka culture Before the coming of the British the Dinka did not live in villages, but travelled in family groups living in temporary homesteads with their cattle.

The origins of the Fula are a matter of conjecture. There are atraditions of Semetic origins. Others speculate that the Fula arose from the mixing of proto-Berbers of North Africa and the Bafur Saharan people. Several other theories exist. We do know of any DNA studies. The Fula or Fulani (also Fulbe) today are an important ethnic group of about 25 million people spread 20 countries throughout Western Africa into Central Africa as well as the northern Sudan. The Fula are most prominnt in Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, but are found in mumbers throughout West Africa as well as nothwestern Cental Africa and the northen Sudan. The bulk of the Fula people live from Lake Chad east to the Atlantic Ovean. While a major West African group, the Fula are a minority in all of the different countries they ingabit. They are most prominsnt in Guina (about 40 percent). The Fulani have traditionally been nomadic pastoralist and trading people which is why they are so widely distributed throughout West Africa. They have traditionally hearded cattle, goats and sheep across the extensive dry interior of West and Central Africa south of the Sahara. They thus pursued a life different and separate from the more settled agricultural populations because their lives and social organization was determined by the needs of the animals they hearded. Their language is Fula which is classified within the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family.

We have some limited information on individual Ethiopian tribal groups. Many of the most destinctive tribes live in the Omo Valley. We have not yet found much information on the Ebore / Abore. We know that they are one of the Omo Valley tribes which practice body painting. The girls shave their heads until they are married.

Hamar / Hammere
The Hamar / Hammere are a small tribe found in southwestern Ethiopia. They have been described as one of the vanishing tribes of the Omo Valley. They live in Hamer Bena woreda (district). This is a well-wattered fertile part of the Omo River valley. This is part of the ebub Omo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region. The Hamar are aeople still lrgely untouched by the modern world. They are for the most part pastoralists with a high value placed on livestock, especially cattle. A 1994 census reported a population of about 40,000 people. Very few members of the tribe have educations beyond the primary level. The language of the Hamer people is Hamer-Banna which is in the Afro-Asiatic language family. Hamer-Banna is an Omotic language and is primarly spoken in the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia by the Hamer tribe. Hamer boys traditionally wear mud body painting. An important Hamar tribal ritual is an initiation ceremony, the jumping of the bulls ceremony. One aspect of the ceremony is that the female relatives of the individual undergoing the bull-jumping test are whipped during the trial.

The Mangbetu are found in the northern Congo (Zaire) and Democrativ Republic ofthe Congo, along the border with the Central African Republic and Sudan. They speak Mangbetuti related to central Sudanic languages. Before the development of DNA techniques, linguistics was a principal tool of scholars studying pre-literate groups like African tribes and Native Anerican tribes. Thus it is believed that the Mangbetu began migrated from the central and southern Sudan south (Mid-18th century). During this migration they apparently encounteted Bantu peoples migrating north. They are believed to have reched the northern Congo (early-19tyh century). The area was inhabited by the Mbuti--pygmy people. They also absorbef migratory waves of eastern peoples. The modern Mangbetu are a mixed group produced from cultural interactions and inter-marriage with the Bantu and pygmy people they encountered as a result of their migration. Nabiembale briefly established a kingdom of some importance regionally. It was overcome by Islamic Sudanic slavers estanlished a level of control over the area. This is also known as the Swahili raids. This was during the Mhadist revolt in the Sudan. The slavers set up Islamic sultanates. They controlled the area until expelled by the Belgians. The Mangbetu are not a tribe in the normal sence as an ethnic group. The Mangbetu were a ruling aristocracy which dominated the area. Most of those ruled were not of Mangbetu ancestry. They are most notable for highly developed art and music as well as their characteristic scull elongation. This is called 'lipombo' and was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes.

Ethiopia's tribal groups are centered in different geographic regions and play a major role in the country's cultural and political life. The Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia is an especially interesting area of Ethiopia ethnicallyAbout 50 percent of Ethiopia's ethnic groups live there. One of the small tribes in the valley is the Mursi. The Mursi are one of the many small tribal groups in Ethiopia. Despite their small size, the Mursi are one of the most recognizable African tribes. The Mursi are noted for their their clay lip plates and primitive life style. The women deform the bottom lip with a wooden disk. The Mursi boy here was photographed in 1995. Mursi children and men until recently always went naked. Still now most children and men wear no clothing when they are in their villages. They do, however, commonly paint their bodies. The boy in the photograph here wears nothing but has destinctive body painting. In many primitive cultures these paintings were a substitute for clothing.

The San people of the southern African Kalahari are better known as the Bushmen. The Kalahari is a vast desert that extends over South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. The San are a hunter gattering people that eke out a living by hunting wild game and gathering roots and tubers. They are noted for their "click " language. The San may be the oldest culture in the world with a history dating back over a 1000,000 years. There is no written record, but San rock art can be seen throughout southern Africa. There range has become more limited in the past two millenia as first the more advanced Bantu-speaking tribes pushed them from the more fertile areas into the Kalahari. White farmers more recently intensified this process. [Thomas]

Another destinctive tribe is the Tuareg of the southern Sahara, a people who for milenia dominated the Saharan cammel caravans. The Tuaregs are a nomadic Berber people. They inhabit the Saharan regions of North Africa (Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso). Tuareg is an Arabic contemptuous term meaning "abandoned by God". They call themselves "Imohag" i.e. "free men". The Tuareg dominated the trans-Saharan camel caravans which were the main stay of regional commerce until the 20th century. They became Muslims, but preserved many pre-Islamic traditions and do not strictly follow many Islamic rituals. The Tuareg for years resisted European domination. Among the Tuareg the women have a great freedom and participate in family and tribal decisions. Descent and inheritance are both through the maternal line. We have only limited information on clothing at this time. The men cover the face (today only in some circumstance), the women never and the young children commonly go naked.

The Xhosa people are some of the inhabitants of southern Africa at the time Europeans began settling the Cape (16th century). The Xhosa are Bantu speakers. Xhosa is today the second most common South African home language, after Zulu to which Xhosa is actually strongly related. Xhosa-speaking peoples conceas a nation. They are divided into several tribes with related but distinct histories and tradituions. The Xhosa people once inhabited the southern and central-southern parts of what is now South Africa. The Xhosa people inhabited an area well north of the Cape in an area betweem Bushman's River and the Kei River. They wwere what might be called stock farmers, meaning they kept heards of lifestock and farmed. Eventually the Europeans began moving into this area. The first Europeans were the Trek Boers who began moving into the area from the West. The two groups both kept livestock and thus competed for grazing land. Quarrels eventually became more serious and led to actual wars (19th century). The colonial authorities sought to avoid conflict by the only practical method--keeping white and black settlements separate. And the Fish River was chosen as the border. As the colony developed, however, the white population expanded and with the acquisition of modern arms developed a far superior military capability. White settlers thus began to increasingly annex land and subjegate the Xhosa and other blacks. White settlers evenntually had control of the land once occpied by the Xhosa (mid-19th century). The African Union which formed the modern state of South Africa was founded (1910). It united the British Cape Colony and the formerly indeperndent Bohr Republics. It was a democratic state for whites, but the Xhosa and other African people were denied the right to vote. During the subsequent Aparheid era, native people were made to move into 'homelands' where they were allowed to purchase land. For the Xhosa these were Ciskei and Transkei.

Perhaps the best known African tribal groups is the Zulus in South Africa. The Zulu now live in the KwaZuluNatal province of South Africa. Zulu legend trace their origins to the patriarch Zulu, the son of a Nguni chief in the Congo basin of central Africa. The Zulu people began to migrate south towards Natal where they eventually settled (16th centuty). The Zulu were not a people with a string central organization, but rather many relared clans. This was aboutvthe same time that the Dutch arrived in South Africa. The most admired figure in Zulu history is King (1816-28). Shaka was a gifted political and military leader. He united the various clans into a single centralized tribe which as they were no longer fighting each other, emerged as the most powerful tribal group in sothern Africa. He developed effective battle tactics and innovative formations. He demanded undending loyalty and discipline from his soldiers, including celibacy. Violations of his discipline could mean death. Not only were the Zulu clans united, but other conquered tribes were incorporated into the Zulus. The Zulus has 1,500 soldiers when Shaka became king and at the time of his death there were 50,000 soldiers. The Zulu came to dominate much of the eastern coastal regions and interior of South Africa. The Zulu were first confronted by the Dutch Afrikaners. Later they had to face the British. The Zulu War was the most serious challenge the British faced from an African tribal group (1879). The war rnded the Zulu's existence as an independent kingdom. Chief Bambatha led the final Zulu uprising against the British (1906). The Zulu like other South African tribes were subjected to an increasingly harsh series of racist laws under South Africa's Apartheid system.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. The Harmless People. This is the ground-nreajing study of the San people. Thomas has updated the book with The Old Way: A Story of the First People (Picador, 2007). 

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