Mongo - Sociopolitical Organization



Villages usually ranged in size from 100 to 300 people. As a cohesive unit, the village undertook certain large tasks, such as clearing the forest, and formed a defensive unit against outside attacks. Community affairs were administered by a council of compound elders and the bokulaka (village chief), an elder who had received the council's recognition as group leader. In times of war and instability, dispersed Mongo villages often formed districts, which were essentially territiorial alliances intended to provide for a stronger common defense. In contrast to the situation in the villages, decisions at the district level were made by a loose collection of village chiefs, other prominent male seniors, and medicine men, who were respected for their war magic and divination skills.

The Mongo distinguished gradations in social status in three broad categories: those with authority, those with inferior status, and those with no voice at all in local matters. At the top of village society were the leaders of compounds, who were the dominant "big-men" of the Mongo. They administered the internal affairs of their compounds, delegated tasks and managed food production, acted as arbitrators of disputes, and represented the compounds to the outside world. Within the villages, they formed the councils of elders that governed according to ancestral laws and regulated external relations. These village leaders held special signs of office, consumed the best portions of the hunt, had the most wives, and received respect and deference from the entire community.

There were several categories of people with inferior status in Mongo society. The largest group with low status were the women, who clearly occupied a lower social rung than the men. Although economically incorporated into her husband's family, a wife remained a member of her own family politically, and she had little say in the larger issues concerning the community. Women were given the monotonous task of gathering foods and forest products; men gathered only the items that were considered more prestigious. With few exceptions, women did not possess individual property and could not dispose of the fruits of their labor without the consent of their husbands. They also received harsher penalties than men for social infractions such as adultery.

Refugees, maternal kin, and slaves were other groups with low status in Mongo society. They were all considered inferior to the resident kin group and were dependent upon the reigning big-men. The refugees were groups of people, usually comprising one or two household compounds, who had fled their homes because of war, famine, or epidemics. Groups or individuals sometimes left their own household compounds to find refuge with their maternal kin for personal reasons (such as being denied bride-price or being obliged to leave following serious offenses, such as murder).

Most slaves were captured as a consequence of small-scale warfare. Separated from the protection of their kin, slaves had no rights. They were completely dependent on their patrons—politically, economically, and socially. In most cases, slaves were well treated even though they remained socially inferior. Their loyalty was ensured through controlled assimilation by their masters, who provided the slaves with wives and land. Masters also protected their slaves from the abuse and exploitation of others.

Kinship and seniority were both important in Mongo society. Political authority was based on wealth, but it was legitimized according to genealogical descent. Once established, big-men maintained or increased their power through land allocation, matrimonial exchange, and rights of appropriation, which were all expressed in terms of kinship and seniority. Young men were expected to follow the direction of their elders because they, too, would eventually inherit positions of power and prestige.


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