views updated


ETHNONYMS: Amangbetu, Kingbetu, Mambetto, Mangbettu, Nemangbetu


The Mangbetu live in the northeastern corner of Zaire. They are distinctive in that they are the founders of one of the few centralized political systems in Central Africa. The territory that was eventually ruled by Mangbetu stretched about 300 kilometers east from the Uele River Basin and about 150 kilometers north from the Nepoko River. The number of people under Mangbetu control has been estimated at between 80,000 and 150,000. A 1959 census reported about 150,000 people in Mangbetu territories, and a 1985 count lists 650,000 Mangbetu speakers in Zaire.

The land occupied by the Mangbetu is a transitional zone in which environmental conditions vary considerably from north to south. Within 200 kilometers north to south, rainfall patterns range from almost no dry season to a dry season of three to four months; vegetation ranges from tropical forests, to forest-savanna mixture, to gallery forests, to wooded savanna. In this ecological zone, there is a variety of wild plant and animal life that exceeds that of the more uniform forest in the south or the savanna in the north. The Mangbetu, for example, traditionally hunted both the okapis of the forest and the zebras of the savanna.

A large range of domesticated plants can be found in the region as well. The long annual rainy season provides plenty of moisture for crops. In the dry season, there is ample time to cut down, dry, and burn trees for gardening. Numerous forests provide land for shifting agriculture. Regularly planted crops include grains (e.g., sesame, millet, maize), African and Asian yams, oil palms, sweet manioc, and the Mangbetu staplessweet potatoes and plantain bananas.

The favorable environment of the forest-savanna ecosystem has been attractive to a large variety of human groups. Immigrants from east and west tended to remain in this abundantly rich area rather than to move on. Immigrants from the north were drawn to the area by its resources and were blocked from moving farther south by the forest barrier. The resulting clashes and intermarriages have contributed to the region's ethnic and cultural variety. There are at least fifteen dialects belonging to three different language families, which, in turn, are parts of two major linguistic groupings (Keim 1979). The Mangbetu, along with five other groups, speak the Kere language (more often known as "Mangbetu"). Kere is classified as being in the Central Sudanic Language Family, which is part of a larger grouping of Chari-Nile languages.

History and Cultural Relations

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Mangbetu were only one of many small groups of people that were settling on the northern edge of the Zaire rain forest. At that time, the Mangbetu leader, Nabiembali, gathered a following of warriors and moved north across the upper Bomokandi River to subdue groups of Mangbele and Mabisanga. Not long afterward, he continued Mangbetu expansion by conquering other peoples in the area, among them groups of Madi, Bangba, Mayogo, Mayvu, Makango, and Barambo. The major significance of Nabiembali's conquests was that he incorporated non-Kere-speaking peoples into his kingdom. His conquests represented the first time that power had been wielded on a territorial basis.

The Mangbetu are basically patrilineal. At the same time, the maternal uncles of a man are very important. It was formerly a common practice for a strong nephew to be accepted as a ruler over his maternal kin. The nephew's son then became heir to his father's power. Tied in with these practices was the tradition of giving women to unrelated groups or exchanging women with them. This practice was accepted throughout the region as a form of peacemaking or alliance, but Nabiembaliand the Mangbetu who followed himturned the custom into an institution of control over the many ethnic groups that were represented among their subjects. One of the primary advantages of this practice was that it could give a weak clan a strong leader, through the clan's maternal ties; however, Nabiembali used the practice in reverse. He developed a strategy of marrying many wives, not only to increase productivity, display his wealth, and have many sons, but also to legitimize his conquests and extend his control. His policy worked to the extent that some of his sons were accepted as rulers among their mothers' peoples. However, because his sons sought to extend their own power and the influence of their maternal clans (over which they ruled), and because they challenged the authority of their father, both centralized power and the extent of Mangbetu rule were eventually weakened.

The justification of Mangbetu leadership was related to two concepts, nataate and nakira. "Nataate," loosely translated, refers to one's capacity to do, or one's social skills. "Nakira" refers to one's intelligence or one's technical and mental skills. Nataate is the dynamic power that exists within a person and makes him respected by others. Nakira is the ability one has in almost any endeavor, but particularly in dancing, singing, and public speaking. The Mangbetu criterion for succession was a combination of hereditary links and ability. Superior nataate and nakira were considered seriously in the choice of a successor to the ruler; therefore, an incompetent firstborn son might be rejected in favor of a more competent younger brother. In practice, many succession problems resulted from this imprecise formula for the transfer of power.

The Mangbetu achieved a very high level of technological and material development, as indicated by early reports from European explorers. For example, Georg Schweinfurth, the first European to reach the area, visited Mbunza, the Mangbetu ruler, in 1870, and described thousands of subjects at Mbunza's court as well as hundreds of nobles and courtiers. Within the capital, there were many large buildings; smaller huts filled with animal skins, feathered hats, and necklaces; and an armory of iron spears, piles of knives, and hundreds of polished copper lances. Mbunza's household included musicians, eunuchs, jesters, ballad singers, dancers, and bodyguards. Surrounding the capital were large, cultivated fields and orchards of oil palms and other trees (Schweinfurth 1874).

Much of the Mangbetu material culture was probably borrowed from conquered peoples, but the Mangbetu encouraged the development of all the arts of the peoples under their control. Examples of their crafts include intricately forged chains and knives with carved ivory handles; geometric decoration of bodies, pots, mats, and houses; a distinctive coiffure that emphasized their artifically elongated heads; carefully carved stools, dishes, gongs, trumpets, and canoes; and finely formed human heads made out of clay and wood.


The religion of the Mangbetu is reflected in their material culture. The material wealth of "great rulers" included many items that were reserved for their exclusive use and that symbolized their links with divine authority. For example, the skin, tails, teeth, and claws of leopards were sacred and were reserved for the use of the king alone; the nekire (whistle) and bangbwa (war drum) were used exclusively by the king to protect his people or goods or to bring good luck. The king was also believed to have the ability to control rain, which he used not to help with the crops but to permit outdoor gatherings and to serve as a weapon in war.

In the nineteenth century another supernatural force entered into Mangbetu society, possibly in the context of a secret society that was focused on Mangbetu opposition to colonialism, but perhaps even earlier, in the 1850s. In the beginning, this force, called nebeli, seems to have been a potion that could attract animals to traps and subdue feared animals. Later, it was used to defeat enemies. Eventually, its use was incorporated into the rituals of a secret society, also known as nebeli, the purpose of which was to protect the larger community and its culture. Most Mangbetu leaders of the twentieth century were nebeli members, and most used the society to strengthen their rule over their subjects.

Belgian colonialism, beginning early in the twentieth century, drasticallly changed Mangbetu society. Generally speaking, there was acceptance of Belgian rule without full Mangbetu cooperation or participation in the Belgian administrative system. The Mangbetu and their subjects accepted Christianity very slowly and sent few of their children to European schools. Mangbetu production of cash crops was lower and more painfully extracted than elsewhere in the Belgian colony. When towns grew up around administrative and commercial centers, the Mangbetu participated in relatively small numbers. By contrast, other groups, especially the Budu, became clerks, servants, drivers, laborers, vendors, and students.

A prevailing explanation for Budu successes (and Mangbetu failures) is that the Budu were under attack from the Mangbetu at the time of colonial contact, and so conformed to European wishes in order to save themselves. Conversely, the Mangbetu, who were proud conquerors, withdrew in defiance and preferred to reminisce about past glories and plot a return to power. It is clear that Mangbetu prestige suffered with their loss of slaves, the end of raiding, the disgrace of being conquered, and other such humiliations, but colonial policies also kept the Mangbetu from developing more successfully. By prohibiting the entrepreneurial activity of lineages, by reducing the prestige of the Mangbetu court, by regulating succession, and by reinforcing the power of the "great rulers" to keep subjects in line, the colonizers effectively suppressed Mangbetu culture.


Anstey, Roger (1962). Britain and the Congo in the Nineteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press.

Denis, Paul (1961). Histoire des mangbetu et des matshaga jusqu'à l'arivée des belges. Archives d'ethnographie, no. 2. Tervueren: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale.

Keim, Curtis A. (1979). Precolonial Mangbetu Rule: Political and Economic Factors in Nineteenth-Century Mangbetu History (Northeast Zaire). Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International

Kottack, Conrad (1972). "Ecological Variables in the Origin and Evolution of African States: The Buganda Example." Comparative Studies in Society and History 14:351-380.

Miracle, Marvin (1967). Agriculture in the Congo Basin: Tradition and Change in African Rural Economies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Murdock, George P. (1959). Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York: McGraw Hill.

Richards, Audrey I. (1960). East African Chiefs. New York: Praeger.

Schweinfurth, Georg (1874). In the Heart of Africa: Three Years' Travels and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa from 1868-1871. Translated by Ellen E. Frewer. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Bros.

Sundstrom, Lars (1974). The Exchange Economy of Pre-Colonial Tropical Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press.