Zaire Table of Contents
Figure 9. Distribution of Principal Ethnic Groups
Source: Based on information from Jan Vansina, Introduction a l'ethnographie du Congo, Kinshasa, 1966.
Northwestern and north-central Zaire, more specifically the subregions of Ubangi and Mongala in ╔quateur Region, have been occupied by speakers of the eastern section of the Adamawa-Eastern language family since their arrival in the seventeenth or eighteenth century (see fig. 9). They are classed into three major ethnic groups, namely the Ngbandi, the Ngbaka, and the Bandaspeaking groups (of which the Mbanja are the most important). Conflicts and migrations have dispersed these groups to some degree; the Mbanja in particular do not occupy a contiguous territory.
Northeastern Zaire, specifically in the subregion of Bas-Uele and the northern portions of Haut-Uele--both in Haut-Za´re--is peopled by a heterogeneous group called the Zande, also speakers of the eastern section of the Adamawa-Eastern language family. The Zande are sometimes divided into two sections: to the east, the Vungara and to the west, the Bandiya. Each section has taken its name from the clan providing the ruling house in the areas included in it. The Vungara are the larger of the two, and the following sketch has been based on data from them.
The Zande emerged as a people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when groups of hunters, probably divided into an aristocracy called the Vungara and commoners called the Mbomu, penetrated the area and subjugated the Bantu-speaking and AdamawaEastern -speaking peoples they found there. The dynamic of the conquest was influenced by the rules of succession to the monarchy among the Vungara. A man took his father's throne only when he had vanquished those of his brothers who chose to compete for it. One or more of the losing brothers, a prince or princes without land or people, then undertook to find and rule a previously unconquered people. This process continued through the nineteenth century until a large area and a wide assortment of peoples had been dominated by the Zande Vungara. The outcome was a rich mixture of the cultures of conqueror and conquered.
Most of the peoples speaking Central Sudanic languages entered the forest north and northeast of the Congo River basin. The Mangbetu and the Mamvu are the most important of these groups. Like the Zande, the Mangbetu established states incorporating other peoples and established distinctions between aristocrats and commoners. Also like the Zande, their influence extended beyond their realm to neighboring groups. The Mamvu, grouped by one source together with the Mangutu, Mvuba, and Balese into a larger Mamvu cluster, were characterized by small-scale political units; the Balese and the Mvuba are even said to have lacked chiefs.
In the far northeast, in the highlands area northwest of Lake Albert and bordered by Uganda and Sudan, live a collection of groups that speak languages from each of the four language families found in Zaire. In general, they traditionally constituted smallscale polities based on a system of patrilineal descent groups. The one exception are the Alur, the only significant group in Zaire to speak an Eastern Sudanic language. The Alur, most of whom live in Uganda, erected fairly large-scale states but with a simple administrative structure. Chiefs were seen as primarily religious figures controlling rain and interceding with the ancestors. Politically, their main task was moderating and limiting conflict between lineages. Their fertility and peacekeeping roles made them attractive to neighboring groups and helped the Alur to expand and dominate the commoner groups. The indigenous people came to think of Alur chiefs as capable of putting a stop to interlineage feuds and invited nearby chiefs to send them a ruler. It was largely in this way rather than by conquest (as with the Zande and Mangbetu) that Alur chieftainship expanded.
In general, the peoples stretching from the far northwest to the far northeast stood on the sidelines during the ethnically based competition that characterized the independence and postindependence periods. Remote from the chief urban centers and penetrated rather late by missions and modern education, they have only recently become engaged in the Zairian polity and economy. Although Mobutu is of Ngbandi origin, he is more commonly seen in Kinshasa and elsewhere as a man of ╔quateur Region, rather than as an ethnic Ngbandi or man of the far north.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents