Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents




Men offering to sell a cayman, Équateur Region


Women on their way to the market, Équateur

In most cases, the boundaries of indigenous societies, defined as politically autonomous units, were narrower than ethnic boundaries established on the basis of linguistic and cultural similarity. A community was often just a cluster of villages or hamlets, and even that cluster might consist of descent groups, each of which was in some ways autonomous or potentially so (that is, it might move out and establish itself elsewhere). This autonomy was by no means absolute, however. Lineages, and sometimes villages, were exogamous and therefore relied on other groups for spouses, which in turn led to connections of political relevance between lineages. In addition, marital and other cross-cutting ties, such as trade ties or secret societies, sometimes cut across ethnic boundaries, particularly at the territorial periphery of the group.

The environmental range inhabited by Zairian communities and their varied origins made for substantial differences of detail in their patterns of subsistence and modes of sociopolitical organization. Nevertheless, the characteristic way in which most groups came to the places where they finally settled was conducive to a good deal of interpenetration of communities with different traditions and the transfer of aspects of culture from one community to another. Typically, a people entered a region not as a wave inundating or driving out its earlier inhabitants but as small bands filtering in, sometimes conquering, sometimes pushing out, and sometimes peacefully absorbing the communities already there. In a number of cases, these processes were still continuing in the early 1990s.

Communities sharing language and culture were often thinly scattered in a given area. The widespread practice of shifting cultivation meant that each village required a good deal of land, much of which was not under cultivation at any time. If the population of a village or related hamlets grew substantially, some segment of it, usually defined as a lineage, would leave to establish itself elsewhere. The establishment of colonial rule eventually put an end to such movements, however. The Belgians insisted that villages be combined and stabilized, in part to make administrative control easier, in part so that cash cropping could be encouraged.

With very few exceptions, indigenous Zairian communities had chiefs of some kind. There was, however, a good deal of variation in the scale of the entity under a single head and therefore in the extent to which any chiefdom was marked by a hierarchy of chiefs. There were also considerable differences in the secular authority of chiefs at any level.

Chieftainship was linked in principle, and often in fact, to the system of unilineal (patrilineal or matrilineal) descent groups that provided the basic sociopolitical framework of most Zairian groups. The politically significant descent groups were often those localized in a single village or a cluster of related villages.

Another feature of precolonial Zairian societies was the existence of some form of slavery, usually as a result of warfare. The precise social and economic position of slaves varied from society to society. Rarely, if ever, was it exactly like the chattel slavery characteristic of much of the New World. In traditional Zairian societies, slaves had some rights and could improve their position to some extent. Nevertheless, slaves, and often their descendants, were in a marginal position.

Of the varied sociopolitical patterns characteristic of indigenous Zairian communities, only some elements, altered and adapted during the colonial era and since independence, remain significant in the lives of Zairians generally and those in rural areas particularly. Broadly, the persisting units are the local communities, often changed by the aggregation of smaller units into larger ones; the descent groups, which bear a variable relationship to local communities; and the networks of kin connections in which each individual is involved.

In general, the range of fairly important kin is wider than that in the West and has not appreciably narrowed, even in modernday urban society, in part because many urban Zairians maintain ties with the rural areas from which they come, in part because kin ties provide ways of coping with some of the difficulties of urban life. In some cases, obligations to kin become burdensome in an urban context, particularly to those who have had some degree of success and are expected to help new arrivals. Kin may be more trustworthy than others, however, and for the ambitious person they may provide a nucleus of dependents and followers necessary to further success.

In a number of the more complex chiefdoms, aspects of the hierarchy have survived. Some traditional chiefs still wield considerable influence. Many do not, however. Moreover, disputes over succession were not uncommon in the precolonial era and have persisted into the modern period so that at any time a group may be divided among factions supporting specific claimants to the chiefdom.

With very few exceptions, indigenous Zairian communities distinguished their members on some scale of worthiness based on age and sex, and such distinctions persist. In general, other things being equal, age requires respect, although seniority does not necessarily confer access to the office of highest status in the descent group or local community. Again in general, males have higher status than females, despite the presence in many communities of matrilineal descent groups and matrilineally based succession and inheritance.

Data as of December 1993

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Zaire Table of Contents