The Zande (or Azande, using the Zande plural prefix a-) are popular in anthropological literature thanks to the works of prominent British ethnographer, E. E. Evans-Pritchard. They are well known for the brilliant political success of their noble clans, their Trickster tales, their music, and especially for their beliefs in witchcraft, magic, and oracles.
The Zande live along the Nile-Congo watershed in the very center of Africa. Numbering between 500,000 and 800,000, they live in the three modern-day countries of Congo (ex-Zaire), Sudan, and Central African Republic. Most of Zandeland is rolling savanna crossed with streams along which dense forests grow. The year is broken up into a summer dry season and a winter rainy season with the constantly warm temperatures to be expected just a few degrees north of the equator.
The Zande practice shifting agriculture; the main crops are eleusine millet, sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts, squash, and various greens. Families work garden plots within a few miles of their village. They also hunt, fish, and collect termites, fruit, yams, and other wild foods. The typical Zande meal is a very consistent porridge made of either millet or cassava, served with meat or vegetable sauce. Millet or cassava beer is popular and plays an important role in ceremonial feasts and rituals.
Families used to live in scattered homesteads grouped loosely around a prince’s court. Today however, as a result of colonial edicts, villages have been located along roads and market towns have sprung up at the old courts of kings. Clan membership passes through the father’s line, and although it has become rare since the arrival of European and American missionaries, polygyny was common. Each wife had her own hut in a common courtyard. Bridewealth— ceremonial spears in the past, money or domestic goods today—seals the marriage contract.
In the early 1700s, two noble clans began consolidating political power and expanding into new territories, resulting in about a dozen kingdoms. A kingdom consisted of a royal court, ruled by a Vungara or Bandia king, who then sent his sons or loyal commoners to serve as governors of his provinces.
The Zande-speaking Vungara clan originated near modern-day Rafai (along the Chinko river) and expanded eastward, slowly assimilating neighboring groups, who then adopted Zande language and customs. In his book Azande History and Political Institutions, Evans-Pritchard argues that the Vungara were able to take political advantage of the surplus resulting from the recent development of agriculture. The Vungara kings and princes, by using permanent battalions of young warriors and the temporary labor of adult men to work their fields, and also by receiving tribute from the surrounding area, were able to control a very large amount of food, which they then redistributed in a way that strengthened their authority. The Vungara courts assured stability, military protection, and justice for peoples that until then had been small-scale, autonomous groups. Food was given generously to feed the courtiers, the battalions and their leaders, and commoners who came to the court for redress of wrongs or with requests. Perhaps most importantly, the kings gave bridewealth (in the form of marriage spears) to anyone who asked. They also gave wives to loyal governors, military leaders, and others who had shown them great service or loyalty. The Vungara thus established a political stronghold in the region by being strong but also by being generous. The rulers and subjects benefited mutually: The Vungara depended on their subjects for warriors, labor, and tribute; the subjects in turn benefited from their generosity, protection, and courts of justice. It was this system that allowed the Vungara to evolve to a ruling clan, and to bring social hierarchy to peoples who until then had been small, autonomous, egalitarian groups. Wars were fought not so much to expand territory as to gain subjects, who would then contribute to building up the kingdom. The Vungara kingdoms, which included peoples of various ethnic groups, were very unstable, and a 20-year period saw a new set of kingdoms; the Vungara princes, especially in the newer, easternmost regions, were each other’s worst enemy.
At about the same time, and in the same way, the Ngbandi-speaking Bandia clan migrated north from south of the Uele River and formed the kingdoms of Bangassou, Rafai, and Hilou in western Zandeland; the Bandia rulers adopted the language and customs of the Zande- and Nzakara-speakers they ruled. Eric de Dampierre underscores the effective use of the traditional system of kinship and alliance by the Bandia. The Bandia were foreigners and needed to get into the good graces of the local Nzakara and Zande population. They did this by supplying wives not to their relatives but to their subjects. Women went from being exchanged by lineage elders to being distributed by Bandia rulers. By controlling the circulation of women, the Bandia developed clienteles at the expense of the traditional, egalitarian lineage system. Gradually, allegiance replaced alliance. Residence was no longer based on kin groupings, but on client groupings. Unlike the Vungara kingdoms, the Bandia kingdoms in western Zandeland were very stable. Annual wars were fought not to expand territory or to incorporate more subjects into the kingdoms, but to bring back women and girls to give away as wives to subjects as they pleased.
Zande (and Nzakara) kings maintained standing armies and received Arab traders and European explorers at their royal courts, which were social and political centers of a blossoming Zande civilization, complete with bodyguards, courtiers, and harp-playing minstrels. The more-or-less simultaneous arrival of Belgian, French, and British colonizers at the end of the 19th century disrupted the dynamics of the kingdoms. As treaties were signed (and a few Vungara kings forcefully deposed), European military officers, administrators, and traders penetrated Zandeland, and were soon followed by Christian missionaries. Colonial governments undermined the authority of the royal clans by allowing dissatisfied subjects to apply to European-style courts for redress and by putting a halt to military expeditions. The Vungara expansion was halted, and the Bandia were no longer able to distribute women as needed to maintain their authority.
Evans-Pritchard’s book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937) is a classic in and outside of anthropology. Zande beliefs in witchcraft have often been used as an example of primitive beliefs. Evans-Pritchard’s use of the terms witchcraft, magic, and sorcery, based on the Zande concepts, has been widely followed by other anthropologists.
The Zande believe that illness, death, and other misfortunes are usually due to the ill will of a fellow human rather than coincidence or bad luck. For the Zande, two types of causes merge to cause misfortune. The sensitive cause is visible, and is on the level of common sense; the mystical cause is invisible and explains why a particular person suffered a particular misfortune in a particular place at a particular time. For example, if a buffalo gores a man, the sensitive cause is the buffalo, and Zande will agree that the victim died because a buffalo gored him. But the buffalo would not have killed the man if a mystical cause had not put him in its path.
Witchcraft ( mangu) is the most common mystical cause. Witchcraft is an inherited organic substance in the abdomen of some men and women that is awakened by greed, jealousy, spite, and other such emotions. Typical consequences of witchcraft are crop failure, unsuccessful hunting, a house fire, a hunting accident, illness, and death. If a misfortune occurs, especially if it is ongoing, the victim’s family seeks out the witch in order to have him or her withdraw, or “cool” the witchcraft. They do this through oracles, which are objects that give yes-no answers to questions posed. The most effective oracle was a poison used on chickens; the oracle operator would drop a few drops of poison into its mouth while asking a yes-no question about the alleged witch. If the chicken died, the answer was “yes”; if it lived, the answer was “no,” according to how the question was phrased. The termite oracle calls for two branches to be inserted into a termite mound overnight. If the branch on the left comes out cleaner than the one on the right, the answer is “yes,” and vice-versa. Once the oracle reveals the witch, the family presents its accusation. A man or woman accused of witchcraft generally claims innocence, takes a sip of water and blows it out, and states that if it were his or her witchcraft which was causing the illness, the organ would now remain cool and the harmful influence would end. Zande are less interested in finding out who among them is a witch than finding the witchcraft responsible for ongoing illness or bad luck.
Another mystical cause that can trigger misfortune is magic. The Zande word ngua has several English translations: plant, tree, stick, wood, medicine, drug, poison, and magic. The Zande can name over three hundred plant varieties, most of which are used to make medicines for common aches and illnesses. They make no distinction between a plant’s “real” versus “magical” effects. Plants are used in a more magical sense to protect property (such as to protect a house from burglary during its owner’s absence), for good luck while hunting, and to ensure good health (by protecting from witchcraft). The Zande believe that some people also use plants to cause illness or misfortune. It is this harmful magic or sorcery that, along with witchcraft, is cited as a cause of death and misfortune. It seems probable that magic has long been increasing in variety and in importance among the Zande, and that “bad magic,” in particular, is relatively new. Closed magic associations, or secret societies, proliferated in Zandeland at the turn of the last century; they were not condoned by the noble clans, and they were declared illegal by colonial governments. Furthermore, while, in the past, a witch guilty of murder was executed or made to pay compensation, it became the rule to use vengeance magic to kill a witch who has caused the death of a kinsman.
Witch doctors (abinza) were men (and, exceptionally, women) who, through plants, acquired the power to discern witchcraft. Those who desired to become witch doctors went through a long apprenticeship in which they learned which plants to eat and how to prepare them properly. At the request of a head of household, two or more witch doctors would hold a public séance to clear the air of witchcraft. By dancing the wild avure dance to frenzied drumming, they were able to see witchcraft. Witch doctors prophesied and made revelations about witchcraft, but they were not considered as reliable as the poison or termite oracles. It could therefore be said that witch doctors had a greater role in collectively stymieing and reducing the threat of witchcraft than in revealing or punishing actual cases of witchcraft. Oracles and magic are private acts, and must be kept hidden from others, lest witchcraft interfere with their efficacy. Witch doctors, on the contrary, held their séances in public, before crowds, actively seeking out witchcraft in order to thwart it, and were not at all threatened by it. Thus, a unique function of theirs was to publicly acknowledge the existence of witchcraft and actively fight against it.
The ancestors, too, influence the lives of the living. Long after a person dies, when no one alive remembers him or her, the soul merges with a collectivity of ancestors’ souls called atoro. They are often blamed for such misfortunes as epidemics or droughts, which affect the whole village rather than individuals who may have inspired ill will in a neighbor who happened to be a witch. Most families have a sort of altar (tuka) to the ancestors where they make offerings, such as the first fruits of harvest, to keep the ancestors appeased.
Finally, there is a Zande word, mbori, for a supreme being or power. Evans-Pritchard argued (and more recent research concurs) that the term only recently came to refer to a supreme being akin to the Christian God, and that “Fate” might have been a better translation for the term than “God.” Mbori is very common in Zande names, such as Mboriundare, which could be translated as “Fate be good to me” or “God help me,” depending on the translator. If no other mystical cause for misfortune or death can be found, and especially in the case of the death of an elderly man or woman, the Zande may simple say it was mbori who decided it was that person’s time to die; in other words, it was fate, or it was God’s will.
The Zande are veritable oral artists. Their tales, songs, proverbs, and daily rhetoric reveal enjoyment of language, incredible improvisational skill, and cleverness in using metaphorical allusions and double entendres.
The largest category of “oral literature” is sangbature, or tales of the Trickster. There are hundreds of versions of the tales, although most storytellers use the same few dozen episodes, weaving them together differently at each telling. The hero’s name is Ture, which literally means “spider,” and he has been called a Trickster because of his cleverness mixed with gluttony and a penchant for getting himself into trouble, often with hilarious consequences. The Trickster tales are actually chantefables, or narrative mixed with song. The Trickster tales are generally not etiological (that is, they do not explain why something is the way it is), nor are they moral lessons. They are told only in the evening, and include ritualized openings and endings. There is never any mention of witchcraft in the tales; and although magic abounds, it is not typical Zande magic (for protection or vengeance), but instead magical means to accomplish extraordinary feats.
A second category of tales is pa-anya, or animal fables, which differ from Trickster tales by their length (they are very short), the absence of Ture, the absence of song, and their etiological bent. Animal fables explain some feature of the animal world, such as why ants and termites fight each other, why leopards have spots, or why monkeys live in trees.
Finally, one of the most impressive verbal arts of the Zande is their use of hundreds of proverbs (sanza), which have literal meanings but also hidden meanings that vary according to the speaker and the situation. The Zande use this roundabout way of speaking through proverbs to insult, criticize, tease, or accuse, which they can then later deny doing. This is especially important in a society in which offensive remarks can result in witchcraft. Many of the proverbs refer to animals and show the Zande’s intimate knowledge of wildlife.
The Zande are expert musicians, both instrumental and vocal. The Zande five-string harp (kundi) is world-renowned; it uses a pentatonic scale and often features a beautifully sculpted head on the end of the bow. The harpist plays intricate rhythms while simultaneously and ingeniously improvising words to a song. The songs are extremely poetic; in fact, harp-players should actually be called poets who accompany their poems with their instrument. Harpists were common at the courts of kings and princes, the equivalent of minstrels in European royal courts. But since the demise of the kingdoms and the courts, the harp has lost its popularity in favor of the more dance-oriented xylophone.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937). Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1967). The Zande trickster. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1971). Azande history and political institutions. Oxford: Clarendon.