The Mangbetu People


The Mangbetu (also called Mengbetu, Guruguru, Mangutu, Mombouttou, Mon-gbetu, and Ngbetu) are a Central Sudanic people and their language, called Meng-betu or Nemangbetu, belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language phylum. Both the people and their language are also called Amang-betu, Kingbetu, and Mambetto. Some 620,000 people speak the language, though other sources give the number as no more than 40,000. There are six dialects of the language, of which Medje is the most widely spoken. In addition to their own lan-guage, the trade and administrative lan-guages of Lingala and Swahili are widely known and spoken by the Mangbetu.

The Mangbetu live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (for-merly Zaire) and are among the neighbors to the Mbuti pygmies and to the Zande.TheMangbetuarrivedintheir current location in the 18th century, moving south from the Sudan, and engaged the Zande in warfare over regional dominance. The Mangbetu proper only refers to the lineages of the elite as they absorbed Bantu and pygmy peoples under their control. The elite were able to set up a strong state with a centralized authority of a king who administered in the districts through his sons.

However, the slave raids of the 1870s and 1880s greatly weakened the power of the king and the Mangbetu broke up into a number of smaller king-doms called Sultanates ruled by Muslim Swahili-speaking petty chiefs. The well-known Swahili slaver Tippu Tib, his son Sayfu, and their former slave/general Ngong Leteta set up slaving dependencies in the interior, far from European control. Belgian authority arrived in the 1890s and expelled the slavers, establishing instead colonial authority. Mangbetu chiefs regained some power and authority, but were themselves subjects of the Belgians rather than of their king.

Mangbetu society was, and is still, based on farming. The light tropical soils are not able to sustain their numbers, and while the women maintain most of the farming, the men fish and hunt. The Belgian demands for labor changed much of the economy to wages earned by men working even outside of their home area. Inthepast, menworkedincommercial rubber farms, and today, many work in the lumber industry.The Mangbetu are well known for their music and art. Their music has been recorded starting in the colonial period. They use several instruments including the finger piano and the harp, both of which are frequently finely carved and are as much pieces of fine art for their beauty as they are musical instruments.

Mangbetu art depicts very realistic images of people, which some think is itself due to the influence of European art on them. Most of the examples date only from the end of the 19th century following contact with Europeans; thus there is no proof for realism in their art before that time, but it is just as likely that their art has always portrayed human figures realistically. It is always possible to immediately recognize Mangbetu pieces because of their distinc-tive elongated heads and funnel-shaped hairstyles.The Mangbetu custom of elongating the head by binding an infant’s head made them easily recognizable. The length of the head was given even greater emphasis because of the hairstyle that was pulled up, making a funnel.

The custom only wanedinthe 20thcenturywithgreater exposure to the outside and is now very rarely practiced. The Mangbetu were also stigmatized by accusations of cannibal-ism, partially because of their practice of filing men’s teeth into sharp points to give them a fierce look. Some scholars note that in the interior region of the Congo River, some peoples did practice cannibal-ism as a means to magically gain the power of a dead enemy by eating his flesh.

It is argued today that if the Mangbetu, like other interior peoples, practiced any form of cannibalism, it was due to the unstable political and economic condi-tions of the 1870s and 1880s caused by the constant fear of slave raids. Europeans were informed of their cannibalism by others, and it seems very little real research was done to verify the accusation. Today, it is generally held that they did not practice cannibalism at all.

However, due to the weakened condition of the people due to failed crops, raids, migrations, and the like, the entire interior population was devastated by an outbreak of trypanoso-miasis or sleeping sickness in the 1880s that caused a large number of deaths.The Mangbetu warriors were armed with spears and throwing knives. They, like the Zande, did not use bows and arrows in warfare as they were seen as Mbuti pygmy weapons and not worthy of true warriors.

Once they became exposed to guns, they added guns to their weap-onry, though they did not have easy access to them. Arabs, Swahilis, and Europeans armed with modern weapons remained militarily superior through the end of the colonial period. While the Zande, under the rule of the capable Gbudwe, was able to bring order and unity to his people, the Mangbetu had no one of equal merit to organize them. When the Belgians moved in to replace the Swahili rulers, Lewis notes, a Mangbetu chief said:

Foreigners have always deceived us. We have been the prey in succession to the Zandes, the Turks, and the Arabs. Are the Whites worth more?No, beyond doubt; But whatever they be, our territory is today freed from the presence of any foreigners, and to introduce another would be an act of cowardice. I do not wish to be a slave to anyone, and I will fight all Whites. (Lewis, 69) Resistance to the Belgians began in the 1890s.

Given the close proximity of the Mangbetu to the border region of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, reconquered from the Mahdi’s followers in 1898, it was important to both France and Belgium to secure their control over the area.By 1892, the Belgians haddefeatedthe remainingMuslimSwahili states, and in 1904, Great Britain and France formally agreed that the Nile and its sources would be seen as British, and that the Congo and its watershed would fall to France and Belgium; thus, the Mangbetu became subjects mainly of the Belgians.

The Belgians enacted a law that organized the Congo into chieftaincies that ruled in their name to help bring down the costs of managing the colony, and the Mangbetu had enough of their original political struc-ture in place for the Belgians to rule through the king and his deputies. Following independence, the structure did not change, andeventodaytheMangbetukingisrecog-nized by the state to be a local authority, but under the direct control of the central state. John A. Shoup

Further Reading

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

Lewis, David Levering.The Race to Fashoda European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa. London: Blooms-bury, 1988.

“Mangbetu.” (accessed December 20, 2010).

“Mangbetu Information.” (accessed December 20, 2010).

“Mangbetu Tribe of Africa.” (accessed December 20, 2010).