Ritual Messengers

The Peoples of Central Africa

Harp. Zande. Upper Zaïre. Wood, fibre, beads, skin.
© Africa-Museum, Tervuren

  The Mangbetu and Zande

Those who belong to the Mangbetu linguistic group live in the province of Upper Zaïre, between the Uele River in the north and the Bomokandi River in the south. For a long time, a number of ethnic groups (including the Mangbetu themselves) with cultural and political affinities have been called, collectively, "Mangbetu," which has led to considerable confusion — particularly in attributing cultural objects.

Much of the Mangbetu's art was produced during the second half of the nineteenth century, a period in which their sovereigns actively developed a court art. The German explorer G. Schweinfurth, received by King Munza in 1870, left ample testimony as to the luxurious lifestyle surrounding the monarch.

Aside from a few examples of statuary, the Mangbetu are known primarily for their applied arts: knives, pottery, pipe bowls, boxes, musical instruments, etc. These objects often include anthropomorphic figures with elongated heads and elaborate hairstyles, as well as body painting and scarification, both of which were practised in the region by the Mangbetu and some of their "acculturated" neighbours.

The Zande inhabit the zone between the north of Zaïre, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Although of different origin, they have maintained constant relations with the Mangbetu, turbulent or peaceful according to the circumstances and the period. The Zande established themselves in the region during the expansion of the Avongara clan, dominating conquered territories by setting up their own minor chiefs under Avongara command.

For the purposes of the mani society's activities, the Zande produced numerous statuettes called yanda, whose magic powers favoured, among other things, success in hunting and fertility in initiates. The appearance of yanda (elements added or a coating of oil or other magic potion) was often the result of the statue being used in ritual practices.

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