Beti/Beti-Pahuin

Beti/Beti-Pahuin

The Beti are composed of 20 Bantu speak-ing peoples living mainly in Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome´ and Principe. There are two main divi-sions, the Beti and the Fang, which are the northern and southern division of the same people. Population figures for indi-vidual ethnic groups are difficult to deduce following independence, where such distinctions can be seen as counterproduc-tive to nation building, but it is estimated that the Fang in Gabon and Cameroon number 800,000.

Other sources give num-bers for the Fang at over 2 million and for the Fang and Beti at over 3 million spread over three main countries. Whether Fang or Beti, all speak different dialects of the same Bantu language called Beti. Beti includes a third group, the Bulu, which makes up about one-third of the Beti-Fang in Cameroon. Bulu speak a dialect that is spoken by some 800,000 people in southern Cameroon, and is further divided by more local dialects of Bene, Yelinda, Yembana, Yengono, and Zaman. All of the regional dialects are considered to be dialects of one main language, Beti, and all of them are mutually intelligible.

Originally, the Beti and Fang migrated from east of the Sanaga River and moved primarily as well-armed farming families into western Cameroon and Gabon. Their migration began perhaps in the 17th or 18th century. It has been noted that the term Fang or Pahouin come from lan-guage shifts of “p” and “f” in the Myene language, since Myene-speakers served as translators for 19th-century French, British, and German explorers. The Beti and Fang call themselves after their line-age; thus there are a number of different groups who claim a common identity. The Beti and Fang were pressured by raids by the Fulbe in the early 19th century and moved into areas with lower population densities.

Among the first Europeans to contact the Beti and Fang was Franco-American Paul du Chaillu, whose book Voyages et aventures dans l’Afrique ´equatoriale was published in 1863. His journey took place in 1856, and he seems to be the first Euro-pean to visit them. Du Chaillu had been told by peoples along the coast that the Fang were cannibals and their warnings seemed to be true when he noticed heaps of human bones, though in truth these were bones of Fang ancestors kept in sacred areas where so and ngil initiations took place.

Rumors of cannibalism were sustained by other 19th-century travelers and explorers such as by Mary Kingsley’s 1893–1895 expedition. Her book about her travels, when translated from French, was entitled A Victorian Woman Explorer among the Man-eaters. The first true eth-nographic account was produced in 1912 by Father Trilles, who learned to speak the Beti language.

European powers did not establish them-selves in Beti and Fang areas until near the end of the 19th century. In 1884, the Germans created the colony of Kamerun. German rule was harsh, but following World War I, in 1920, the German colony was divided between the French and the British. Most of the region inhabited by the Beti andFangwenttotheFrench,who found it hard to defeat them. During the French colonial period, large numbers of men were taken away to work in large-scale commercial timber and plantation production, which left too few at home to produce enough food, resulting in famine. Starvation was followed by outbreaks of contagious diseases such as smallpox and influenza, which initiated strong Fang nationalism.

Beti-Pahuin/ Fang society is formed at the level of the village. Each village is a fortified outpost in its organization, reflecting the manner of their penetration into the rain forest. Social organization is based on patrilineal lineages or ayon/mvog, but each village is independent of others. Each village is ruled by a headman of the most important lineage with a coun-cil made up of the heads of the other line-ages living there.

Important in the traditional belief sys-tem are the bones of important ancestors that used to be periodically paraded in the community and kept in reliquary boxes called byeri. Byeri were stored near the bed of the head of household along with personal fetishes. Fang wood carvings of byeri proved to be some of the most beau-tiful and collectable African art with naturalistic human features and “a distinc-tive oily patina (that) was instantly appealing to collectors and artists alike” (Bacquart, 124).

In addition to the reli-quaries containing ancestors’ bones, masks were used in initiation ceremonies called so and ngil, representing the spirit of the forest in the form of animals such as the snake, red antelope, and so forth. So and ngil are both the names of the masks as well as names of initiation cer-emonies; so masks tend to be of horned animals, while ngil masks usually have a human face. Like the byeri figures, collec-tors and museums were interested in ngil masks and “since the thirties, every major international collection of ‘Negro arts’ and then ‘tribal arts’ has had to have a ngil mask from the Fang” (Perrois, 44).

Initia-tionintothewearingofsuchmaskswas organized more like societies because those who had been initiated also helped in policing during other ceremonies, espe-cially those ceremonies that brought out the bones of the ancestors to be viewed or paraded. Such displays of human bones led to rumors of Beti-Pahuin/Fang canni-balism. So common was the belief about their cannibalism and warlike demeanor that the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs decided to set his novel Tarzan in the Beti-Pahuin/Fang area.

Between 1910 and 1920, French colonial authorities sup-pressed so and ngil societies and a new form emerged called ngontang,meaning young white girl. Ngongtang masks are helmet masks colored white and many are “janus” faced (two faces) and are used during funeral ceremonies. Since the colonial era, many Beti-Pahuin/Fang are Christians or belong to local Christian churches that blend traditional belief with Christianity.

Each Beti-Pahuin/Fang community was built like a fortress with a single street lined with houses and defended by watch-towers. The villages were also protected by traps making it difficult to surprise any such village. Houses were built to be small with one single room and a single, small entrance. The Beti-Pahuin/Fang practiced double exogamy—marriage out from the lineages of both mothers and fathers—but group genealogy was passed on in melan initiation. They also practiced a type of potlatch called mebala, in which the rich redistribute excess wealth to less prosperous members of the community.

The modern community has been split between three main countries with very different histories. Gabon became inde-pendent in 1960, Cameroon in 1961, and Equatorial Guinea in 1968. Equatorial Guinea has been controlled since indepen-dence by Fang from the Esangui lineage. The government is accused of human rights violations, and the president is accused of authorizing the arrest and tor-ture of political opposition leaders.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Jungle Tales of Tar-zan. http://www.literature.org/authors/burroughs-edgar-rice/jungle-tales-of-tarzan (accessed May 3, 2010).

“Fang.” http://www.encyclopedia.farlex.com/ Fang (accessed May 3, 2010).

“Fang Information.” http://www.uiowa.edu/ ~africart/toc/people/Fang (accessed May 3, 2010).

Mbaku, John Mukum. Culture and Customs of Cameroon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.