LOCATION: Southern Sudan; Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire)
POPULATION: 1 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Azande (Niger-Congo group)
RELIGION: Mangu (witchcraft)
The ethnic term Azande refers to a culturally diverse group of peoples who, over the past two hundred years, have been brought together under the governments of a number of distinct kingdoms. Little is known of their history prior to this period. Reliable first-hand accounts of the Azande only began to appear toward the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1950s, however, the Azande had become well known to anthropologists through the work of British anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902–73).
It is widely accepted that the ancestors of Azande society migrated from the west into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the southern Sudan beginning in the 1600s. Because of their relative isolation from Westerners, the Azande practiced many traditional beliefs and customs well into the twentieth century. Azande now live across the borders of three modern nation-states. In recent decades they have been more exposed to the effects of market economies, missionary education, and related cultural influences.
Reliable estimates of population figures for the Azande are not available. In the 1950s, it was estimated that some one million people considered themselves ethnically Azande. Azande territory covers a vast expanse of land from the fringes of the upper Nile basin in the southern Sudan to the borders of semitropical rain forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of Azande country is marked by the open savanna (grassland) forest laced with streams that comprise the Nile/Congo divide. Throughout this region of Africa, there is a season of occasional rain (roughly from April to October), followed by a dry season (from November to March) when rain seldom falls.
Azande belongs to the Niger-Congo group of languages. Approximately five dialects of Azande are spoken throughout the area they occupy. Some groups speak languages unrelated to Azande. Most Azande also speak rural dialects of Arabic, French, or English. The Azande language is tonal, so that identical words have different meanings according to the tone of pronunciation.
Traditional Azande culture is rich and highly developed. The anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard collected hundreds of Azande folktales and legends and published as many as he could in the Azande language with English translations. The most famous Azande tales center on the imagined activities of the trickster Ture. The character of a trickster is common to folklore throughout the world. Typically, the trickster is an animal or human hero who disobeys and makes fun of the accepted order of things by doing the opposite of the expected behavior. The Azande character of Ture is also closely related to an important element of traditional Azande folklore known as sanza, or double-speak. Sanza includes ambiguous remarks or actions intended to have double meanings. Azande use sanza in conversations between princes and commoners, husbands and wives, at beer parties, and in the language of love.
Azande typically believe that misfortune, death, and the complications of life are the result of mangu, or witchcraft. Where the Western notion of divinity appears in Azande culture, it is most likely the result of contact with outsiders and the result of Islamic and Christian influences. During the period of British colonial rule in this part of Africa, policy dictated that formal education was to be provided by practitioners of various Christian faiths. Thus, becoming Christian was often a consequence of becoming literate (able to read and write). By the 1990s, some Azande practiced Islam or Christianity, but beliefs about causation, death, and misfortune still revolve around mangu.
The Azande clans consist of several families with a common ancestor or ancestors. They gather for important occasions, including weddings and funerals.
Before colonization, boys were often initiated into manhood by serving the Azande nobility. Later, a ritual circumcision, held in the forest, became common, although this practice has also been discontinued. Girls are initiated into their gender role by observing and assisting their mothers. Traditionally, in order to marry, an Azande male had to present the bride's family with a payment (called bridewealth), normally consisting of a certain number of iron spears. Today, the bride-wealth is usually paid in cash or in the form of material goods such as cloth, cassava, or goats.
Social identity was largely established by membership in a specific kinship group, by the division of labor, by the larger patriarchal social order (with men in authority), and by the hierarchical order of Azande political life. Thus, one was born a commoner or a member of the royalty, or was incorporated into this order through warfare or slavery.
One of the central aspects of life among the Azande is their belief in witchcraft. It is used to explain and cope with all kinds of difficulties. Rather than singling out particular individuals as witches, the Azande believe that anyone is capable of causing the misfortunes of another person by ill will toward that person—even if he is unaware of doing so. (Women are excluded from the tradition surrounding witchcraft.) When something bad happens to an Azande, he must first find out who caused it. For minor problems, an Azande consults an oracle (something or someone in communication with the spirit world) that he reaches by rubbing two pieces of wood together as he tries out the names of different suspects. The guilty one is identified when the pieces stick together instead of rubbing smoothly against each other.
For major misfortunes, the "chicken oracle" is consulted. In one version of this procedure, poison is placed on the beak of a chicken. The guilty party is the individual whose name is spoken at the moment when the chicken dies. Once the guilty one has been pinpointed, the victim confronts him and asks him to stop his witchcraft. On hearing of his misdeeds, the "witch" has no trouble believing that he is indeed the cause of his tribesman's misfortunes. He makes amends by expressing his goodwill toward the victim and spitting on the wing of the dead chicken.
In precolonial times, Azande homesteads were typically widely scattered. A common pattern was for men who shared patrilineal ancestry (tracing descent through the father's line) to live in the same general area. Traditionally, huts were made of wood and mud. Each homestead was surrounded by gardens where a man and one or more of his wives grew staple crops, from sorghum to cassava. Homesteads of closely related relatives were interconnected by footpaths through the savanna. During the colonial period, in a supposed effort to eradicate sleeping sickness, many Azande were forced to move from this type of settlement. As a result, many Azande found themselves living in European-style villages of parallel straight streets, often living next to people who were strangers rather than relatives or kin. This change had a significant impact on Azande culture.
Traditional Azande society was highly patriarchal. Men held all positions of public authority, and women were subservient (in a lesser, obedient, position) to their husbands. Marriages were contracted through the exchange of bridewealth. Commoner men were usually able to marry only one woman. However, nobles, and in particular kings, had many women as wives. Children were reared by their birth mothers and by a host of patrilineal kin living in nearby homesteads. Children were socialized early on about cultivating domesticated plants. Boys in particular were taught about hunting and fishing.
Azande women wear cloth skirts. Infants and children wear necklaces made from chains of metal rings. Some Azande also have their heads wrapped in cord, which is thought to protect their brains from evil spirits. In the past, Azande musicians wore costumes consisting of a cloth skirt, an elaborate headdress, and beads and bangles on the arms and around the ankles.
The traditional dietary staple of the Azande is a type of grain called eleusine. In the western portion of the group's territory, this has been replaced by cassava. Other crops include rice, maize (corn), sorghum, squash, peas, beans, okra, peanuts, greens, and bananas. To supplement their diet, the men hunt game and the women catch fish. Chicken and eggs are considered delicacies, as are termites during the dry season. Beverages include palm wine and alcoholic drinks made from cassava.
Some Azande live in towns with modern educational facilities. Access to Western-style education has had social and political effects. In some areas, power traditionally held by the royal nobility has passed to better-educated commoners.
Both vocal and instrumental music, as well as dance, play a significant role in Azande culture. The most common traditional musical instrument is a small, bow-shaped, harp-like instrument. It is often decorated with a small carved human head at one end. The Azande also make a variety of other instruments, many with designs that include human or animal forms. One is a mandolin-like stringed instrument modeled on the human figure. Another is the sanza, made of wood or hollowed gourds. It is similar to a xylophone but in the shape of a dancing woman, with arms and legs jutting out from the body of the instrument. Other typical instruments include a bell in the shape of a stylized human figure with the arms used as handles, and drums shaped like cattle.
In addition to a variety of functional items, Azande artwork includes carved wooden sculptures thought to have been given as gifts by tribal chiefs.
With the introduction of cash and growing crops for sale, many Azande now supplement their labor with small subsistence gardens. This is common in sub-Saharan Africa.
Typical sports among the Azande include sparring, which serves as a way for males to practice their combat skills.
Singing and dancing are major forms of entertainment among the Azande, especially at feasts and other celebrations. Storytelling is another popular form of recreation.
Functional artwork includes wood, bark, and pottery storage boxes. Another item is the distinctive Azande throwing knife, the multibladed shongo , which is used in combat. It is made of copper or steel and adorned with elaborate patterns. Some of these knives are also used as bridewealth. Other folk art includes pots, wooden utensils, and woven mats and baskets.
At the time of this writing, the Azande, along with hundreds of thousands of the people living in the southern Sudan, are in the midst of a second civil war following the end of colonial rule. Many Azande have fled the Sudan to live in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. As a result, much of traditional Azande culture and custom has ceased to exist.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. The Azande: History and Political Institutions. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1937.
Schildkrout, Enid. African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.
World Travel Guide. [Online] http://www.wtgonline.com/country/zr/gen.html , 1998.