1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Niam-Niam

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

NIAM-NIAM (Zandeh, A-Zandeh), a people of Central Africa, of mixed Negroid descent. With kindred tribes, they stretch from the While Nile above the Sobat confluence to the Shari affluent of Lake Chad, and from the Bahr-el-Arab, about 10°N., nearly to the equator. Their political ascendancy, weakened by the incessant attacks of the Arab-Nubian slave-raiders before the rise of the Sudanese mahdi in 1882, was afterwards broken by the forces of the Congo Free State and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The term Niam-Niam appears to be of Dinka origin, meaning in that language “great eaters,” with reference, as is supposed, to their cannibalistic propensities. They are called Babungera by the Mangbettu (Monbuttu), A-Madyaka by the Diur, Mundo or Manyanya by the Bongo, Makaraka or Kakaraka by the Mittu. But Niam-Niam has been adopted and generalized by the Sudan and Nubian Mahommedans. Their native name is Zandeh (pl. A-Zandeh), which is current throughout the eastern Niam-Niam domain, a region estimated by Georg Schweinfurth, who visited the country in 1870, at about 48,000 sq. m., with a population of at least two millions. But these by no means constitute a uniform ethnical group, for within this area is the large Madi nation, differing altogether in speech and even in some respects physically from the ordinary Niam-Niam type. Apart also from numerous tribal divisions, the eastern Niam-Niam proper form three very distinct branches. The bleak northern highlands bordering east on the Bongo and north on Dar-Fertit are occupied by the Banda Niam-Niam. To the southwards are the more civilized Belanda Niam-Niam, who hold the fertile hilly territory of the Nile-Congo watershed. Very different from either are the so-called “White” Niam-Niam, neighbours of the Madi of the Makua-Welle river basin. Their complexion is of a lighter bronze tint, and they are distinguished from the other branches of the family by their tall stature, symmetrical figure, long kinky hair and beard and higher social culture. They wear cotton garments, obtained by barter for ivory, copper and iron, and have a tendency to political unity under one chief.[1]

There is, however, a very distinct Niam-Niam type, one of the most marked in the whole of Africa. “These beings,” remarks Schweinfurth, on his first introduction to them, “stood out like creatures of another world . . . a people of a marked and most distinct nationality, and that in Africa and amongst Africans is saying much.” They are of medium height and powerful build. The great space between the eyes, which are almond-shaped and slightly slanting, gives them a peculiar expression. They have a very short nose, with correspondingly long upper lip; woolly hair; a very round head, agreeing in this respect with the Bongo of the Bahr-el-Ghazal but differing from the great majority of the other African dark races; features generally round, with less jaw-projection and altogether more regular than the typical Negro; of a ruddy brown or chocolate colour, scarcely ever black, but occasionally bronze and even olive.

The average Niam-Niam is distinguished by some excellent qualities, such as frankness, courage, an instinctive love of art, and above all a genuine and lasting affection for his women, such as is betrayed by no other African race. By tribal custom the men are all hunters, armed with long knives and spears and carrying oblong shields of wicker-work; the women all tillers of the soil, which with little toil yields abundant crops of cereals, yams, manioc, colocasia and Virginian tobacco. Both sexes wear large pins of ivory, iron, monkey or human bone stuck in their hair, and stain their skin with red camwood and the oil of a wild berry. The Niam-Niam are intelligent, skilful builders, and proficient in many native industries. Prominent among these are their earthenware vessels, which display considerable symmetry; iron smelting and metal work, such as swords, knives and spears; wood carvings, such as stools, benches, bowls and tobacco pipes, of varied and intricate design and often admirable works of art. They are great smokers, and very fond of music. Of the ox, horse, ass or camel they have no knowledge; the only domestic animals are poultry, and a breed of dogs, like small wolf-hounds, with smooth red hair, twisted tail like a porker's, large ears, pointed nose and four-clawed hind feet. These curious little “greyhounds” join in the chase with small wooden bells round the neck, and are thus soon found when lost in the woods.

The Niam-Niam are distinguished by their elaborate headdresses (they formerly wore a sort of big full-buttomed wig, and Dr W. Junker actually saw elderly people in these), and peculiar tattoo markings — square patterns on forehead, temples or cheeks, an X-shaped figure in a cartouche below the chest, and various zigzag, straight or dotted lines on the upper arm and breast. Most of them file the incisors. From the malted grain of a species of eleusine they brew good beer, of a sparkling brown or reddish colour and pleasant bitter taste, derived from the stalk of the same cereal.

In this widespread Negroid family are now provisionally grouped the Makaraka, intermingled with the Mundu, and the Babukur in the north-east (Bahr-el-Ghazal); the Krej, Banda and N'Sakkara in the north-west (Dar-Fertit, and thence to the upper Shari); the Banziri, Ndris, Togbo, Languassi, Dakoa, Ngapu, Wia-Wia, Manja, Awaka, Akunga and others about both slopes of the Congo-Chad water-parting. These last, who give such an enormous westward extension to the family, present much the same physical characters as the Zandeh proper, and speak dialects of the widely diffused Ndris language, which is not Bantu, but appears to show affinities with Zandeh.

This great division ethnologists are even disposed to connect with the Fula of west and central Sudan, and to substitute for the now exploded “Nuba-Fula” a “Zandeh-Fula” family, resulting from various secular interminglings between the true negroes and the Berbers of North Africa. Such crossings have undoubtedly been in progress since prehistoric times over an enormous area south of the Sahara (Africa: Ethnology), and are almost everywhere marked by certain constant characters, such as long ringlety or kinky black hair, coppery, reddish or bronze shades of complexion, brachycephalic (round) head, often highly pronounced, and indicated outwardly by an unusually wide space between the orbits, and generally by somewhat softened negro features. But, owing to the different environments and to the different initial ratios of intermixture, the transitional forms are almost endless, so that it becomes difficult to constitute distinct ethnical groups without calling in the aid of language. Where type and speech correspond, as to a large extent is the case with most of the above-mentioned tribes, even strict systematists will be disposed to constitute separate ethnical groups, at least as working hypotheses, always allowing for the somewhat untrustworthy nature of the linguistic factor. In the case under consideration Fula has no kind of connexion with Zandeh speech, but this by no means precludes the possibility of racial connexion.

Beyond a few meagre vocabularies no materials have yet been collected for the study of the Zandeh language, which, except in the Madi country, appears to be everywhere spoken with considerable uniformity in the eastern Niam-Niam lands. Its phonetic system, such as initial mb and vowel auslaut, affiliates it, not to the Libyan, as has been asserted, but to the Negro linguistic type. Within this order of speech its pronominal prefix inflection points to affinity rather with the southern Bantu than with the Sudan group of languages. Thus the personal plural a-, as in A-Zandeh, A-Madi, A-Banga, &c., would appear to be identical in origin and meaning with the Bantu wa-, as in Wa-Ganda, Wa-Swaheli, Wa-Sambara, &c. There is also the same dearth of abstract terms, which renders the translation of Scripture into the Negro tongues such a difficult task. Compare gumbah, an expression for the Deity, really meaning “lightning,” with the Chinyanja chuuta = thunder = God (?) and the Zuju Unkulunkulu = great-grandfather, also adopted by the missionaries as the nearest equivalent for the Deity in that language.

Politically the dismembered Zandeh empire and dependent principalities are divided up between France, which claims the “sultanates” of Rafai, Dinda, Zemio and Tambura in the Mbomu valley, with all the peoples in Fertit and the Shari basin; Belgium, which administers the eastern section between the Mbomu and the upper Welle; and Great Britain, to whose share have fallen the Makaraka and other Niam-Niam groups of the Bahr-el-Ghazal region.

See John Petherick, Egypt, the Soudan and Central Africa (1861); Carlo Piaggia's “Account of the Niam-Niam,” communicated by the Marchese O. Antinori to the Bolletino of the Italian Geographical Society (1868), pp. 91-168; G. A. Schweinfurth, Heart of Africa (English edition, 1873); G. Casati, “Journey to the Niam-Niam Country,” in Esploratore for August 1883, and Ten Years in Equatoria (1891); F. R. Bohndorff, Reisen in Central Africa (1885); Dr W. Junker, “Rundreise in dem siidlichen Niamniam-Lande,” in Petermann's Mittheilungen for May 1883, English edition, Travels in Africa (1890).


  1. About the middle of the 19th century, most of the eastern Niam-Niam lands appear to have been subject to Yapaty, son of Mabengeh. But after his death they were distributed amongst his seven sons, Renjy, Balia, Perkye, Tombo, Bazimbey, Manuba; and in 1870 there were already fourteen reigning princes of this dynasty, besides several of doubtful relationship with the line of Mabengeh. In the Niam-Niam districts visited by the traders from the Egyptian Sudan there were at that time altogether as many as thirty-five independent chiefs. But reports were current of a very powerful “sultan” named Mofio, whose empire lay some 300 m. farther west. Another large state, founded in the Welle region by Kipa (Kifa), brother of Yapaty, also fell to pieces after his death in 1868. The powerful chiefs Bakangoi and Kanna, visited in 1883 by G. Casati, were sons of this Kipa, whose grave near Kanna's village was still watched by twenty-five “vestals,” bound, under penalty of death, to keep a fire constantly burning, and to preserve their chastity inviolate (Esploratore, August 1883).