The Fang people, also known as Fãn or Pahouin, are a Bantu ethnic group found in Equatorial Guinea, northern Gabon, and southern Cameroon. Representing about 85% of the total population of Equatorial Guinea, concentrated in the Río Muni region, the Fang people are its largest ethnic group. The Fang are also the largest ethnic group in Gabon, making up about a quarter of the population. In other countries, in the regions they live, they are one of the most significant and influential ethnic groups notably in Cameroon.
Fang villages are located in forest clearings. They consist in a small number of huts made of trunks, branches and straw; the roof is conic or in two slopes and the greatest part of the daily activity (cooking, cereal grinding, banana paste making in large mortars) is performed outside, as the interior of the huts is dark, small, badly aerated and it is only used for sleeping sheltered against rains.
“The Fang believe in the supreme God, Mebere, who is viewed as the creator of the known world. Mebere not only blew life into Earth, but also the creator of the first ancestor, Zambe or Sekume, who was fashioned from clay and whose form was first as a lizard. Mebere placed this lizard in the waters for 8 days; on the final day, the lizard gratefully emerged from the water as a man. The Fang also believe that Mebere was one god with three different aspects: Nzame, Mbere, and Nkwa. These three parts consulted with one another during the creation process and particularly in the creation of the first man. It was the Mbere and Nkwa parts of the god that suggested that there be a chief of the Earth; whereas the elephant, the monkey, and the leopard were all considered, this first creation was named Fam and was given three things from each part of his god. He received strength from Nzame, leadership from Mbere, and beauty from Nkwa.
Unfortunately, Fam became arrogant and attempted to usurp the authority of his god. Mebere could not tolerate this and destroyed the Earth with the exception of Fam, who had been promised to never experience death. Mbere then desired to create a chief of the Earth that would be reflective of the god's own image and therefore created the new man known as Zambe or Sekume. This new creation became the first ancestor of the Fang. Mbere created a woman whom he called Mbongwe from a tree. Fam, now with no dominion and forced to live below the Earth, is believed to still find his way to the surface of Earth to harm the descendants of Zambe/Sekume. The Fang also believed that Zambe, the first ancestor, was the creator of the races.”
Fang people speak a Bantu language known as Fang. Fang is an important transnational language of western equatorial Africa spoken altogether by over 1,520,000 people distributed in southern Cameroon (ca. 130,000), continental Equatorial Guinea (ca. 665,500), Gabon (704,000), and Congo (Brazzaville) (8,500). Fang belongs to A70 (Beti-Fang, Ewondo-Fang) of the “zone” A of Bantu languages together with four language localized in southern Cameroon: Eton (52,000 speakers), Ewondo (578,000 speakers), Bebele-Bebil (30,000 speakers) and Bulu (-Bene) (174,000 speakers). The five A70 languages are closely related on a level of partial mutual intelligibility. The peoples who speak these languages feel as if they are part of an inter-ethnic entity called be-tí (‘lords’).
There are many different variants of Fang in Gabon and Cameroon. Maho (2009) lists Southwest Fang as a distinct language. The other dialects are Ntumu, Okak, Make, Atsi (Batsi), Nzaman (Zaman), Mveny.
The Fang people who are part of Beti-Pahuin complex migration pattern were previously thought to have migrated into the territory of present-day Cameroon from the Azande area of Sudan. However, Fang oral history and legends speak about terrible battles their ancestors fought against warriors covered by long clothes and riding horses. The legends say that the Fang people were expelled from their former territories by red giants; fleeing from them, they reached a river they could not cross, but an enormous snake formed an arch with its body and family after family could move to the other bank. But a woman killed the snake and the other Fangs could not cross the river.
The Fang oral history seem to bear the truth! The present historical evidence based on linguistics and archeological evidence has shown that the Fang people, including the larger Pahuin group originated in the forests south of the Sanaga River region in Cameroon, not far from their current territory. At some point they crossed the Sanaga and moved north until they reached the upper Kadéï River. They soon came under attack there from the Vute or Mbum people, so they fled further north to the eastern Adamawa Plateau.
The Beti-Pahuin groups would not remain there long, however. Their migration coincided with the jihad and Fulbe (Fula) conquests of Usman Dan Fodio and his lieutenant, Modibo Adama, in the early 19th century. Under pressure from Fulbe raiders, the Vute moved once more into Beti-Pahuin lands, and the Beti-Pahuin were forced to relocate once again. They moved south and west in a series of waves. The first group included the Bulu and Fang, who split somewhere near what is today the town of Ebolowa.
The Bulu followed the Nyong River westward, while the Fang turned south and followed the Dja River valley into the southernmost territories of modern Cameroon and into the area of present-day Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Then the Ntumu and Mvae (Fang subgroups) moved toward present-day Gabon. The Beti, including the Ewondo, moved south in the final wave and settled north of their Bulu and Fang relatives.
During this migration the Fang, who were a historically warlike people, had no trouble dominating the tribes the encountered near the coast. They were especially fierce warriors and even gained a reputation for cannibalism, which they embraced as it would prevent outsiders from making unwelcome contact out of fear.
Prior to Fang’s arrival in Gabon, the Mpongwe (Myene-speakers) are the exclusive trade partners of the Europeans. The first reference to Fang in Gabon was by travelor and historian T.E. Bowdich in 1819. First contacts between Fang and Europeans: Wilson (1843) in his description of the country near the mouth of the Gaboon written in "The Missionary Herald." vol. XXXIX. June 1843 narrated how Fangs in 1844 progressively entered the Estuary and from 1866 made a Southward movement to Ogooué river.
The arrival of the fangs in their new territory profoundly reshuffled the populational and linguistic landscape. The previously installed ethnic groups such as Kele, Kota and others left their territory after forcefully being pushed away by the war-like Fang. In fact, Osyeba or Makina (Shiwa) people who occupied much larger area before arrival of Fang but decided to stayed underwent process of gradual cultural and linguistic assimilation.
At the time French trade dominated the area, and it was clear that the Fang had become drawn by the prospect of direct trade with Europeans, rather than relying on coastal middle-men. Their complex imperial history was marked by forced labor on large farms, and periods of violence.
For further reading on Fang history see "The origins of the Fang: language, culture and genes, Myth and reality by L. J. van der Veen (DDL, UMR 5596, Lyon) Research with J.-M. Hombert (Lyon), P. Mouguiama-Daouda (Lyon-Libreville), D. Comas (Barcelone), L. Quintana-Murci (Paris), L. Sica
(Franceville, Gabon) et al.
The rain forests surrounding the Fang is subjected to slash and burn techniques, combined with crop rotation to yield agricultural products. By moving crops from year to year, erosion and soil depletion is avoided. The main crops grown are plantains and manioc. Large knives are used to clear the forests, and most of the cultivation is done with a hoe.
Fang people also engage in fishing. Men fish using traps and large nets. Women too can fish using rods and hooks. In streams, men use bag nets, manipulated by long sticks, for fishing. The Fang people also use traps for hunting all kind of animals, from birds to elephants. Before the introduction of the fire arms, the Fangs hunted using crossbows, machetes, spears, arrows with iron tips, from forest buffalo to antelopes, chimps, gorillas and elephants. One of the most appreciated dishes by the Fangs are the Goliath frogs (Conraua goliath), world's largest living frogs (30 cm or one foot in body length, weighing 3 kg or 7 pounds). Coastal Fangs also fish in the sea from their fragile canoes, and sea turtles are considered an exquisite dish.
Recently, the Fang have growing cocoa as a cash crop and trading asset. Much of the rainforest has been cleared to provide timber. Petroleum exports also play a large role in the economies of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Historically the Fang have been encouraged to grow and trade coffee, as the climate is ideal for such growth.
In subsistence farming villages men are responsible for hunting, livestock, while women spend majority of their time tending to crops. In urban settings many men have joined civil service and armed forces, with women relegated to administrative positions.
Villages are often areas in rainforest adjacent to small clearing for agriculture. Each village is lead by a male who is the descendant of the man who founded the village, therefore land is passed down indefinitely.
Single villages consist of a man and his wife/wives along with the resulting children, usually between 7-10 people, with villages sometimes associating to form clans. These clans can be in close association, almost creating super-villages.
Villages stay on the same land throughout the year, simply growing different
One male leader from each village will be part of ngil committee, which has judiciary, political, and religious authority; committees will be formed by males from many different villages. Some villages will associate to create clans. The ngil committee of the clan will have one preeminent male or clan leader. Historically, the Esangui clan has exercised extreme power. This is an association of villages descended from a common ancestor. The first president of Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Macias Nguema, was a member of this clan.
Society is strongly patrilineal, with resources and power passed down among male descendants. Young bachelors still live with father’s village, but once of age, expected to marry outside of village and create new hut with bride in close proximity to father’s.
They have a patrilineal kinship social structure. The villages have been traditionally linked through lineage. They are exogamous, particularly on the father's side. Polygamy was accepted in the culture of the Fang people. The independence of villages from each other is notable, and they are famed for their knowledge of animals, plants and herbs in the Equatorial forests they live in. They are traditionally farmers and hunters, but became major cocoa farmers during the colonial era.
Under French colonial rule, they converted to Christianity. However, after independence their interest in their own traditional religion, called Biere, also spelled Byeri, has returned, and many practice syncretic ideas and rites. One of the syncretic traditions among Fang people is called Bwiti, a monotheistic religion that celebrates Christian Easter but over four days with group dancing, singing and psychedelic drinks.
The art works of Fang people, particularly from wood, iron and steatite, are regionally famous. Their wooden masks and idol carvings are on display at numerous museums of the world.
The Fang practiced a form of monotheism with strong emphasis on ancestor worship. The Fangs believe in the existence of a mighty and eternal god, called Mebe'e, who created the world and all living creatures, but, disgusted with the evilness of his creation, He pretended not to know about the world and left Ndzame, the common father and ancestor of all the clans, to rule the world.
Each person considers his/her life is determined by the influence of the spirits of the ancestors. To achieve their mediation for solving the daily life hardships, the Fangs practice the cult of the ancestors. Ancestors are considered spiritual guides and are highly influential in the lives of future generations. They also set the moral standard for the Fang community, and it is believed that the ancestors can communicate to their descendants through dreams and visions. Although the ancestors who are honored can be both male and female, male ancestors are more likely to be revered because of the patrilineal structure of Fang society.
The focus of the cult was in other times the bieri, a box made of tree bark in which they preserved the bones of an important person, and over which they placed a figurine representing his spirit. This figurine and the masks used during the ritual dances represented Fang art works.
The Fang began assimilating aspects of Christianity and bieri into a hybrid religion, bwiti. Many Christian missionaries mistook the reliquary figurines for falsely worshipped idols, and attempted to destroy them. The missionaries did not understand that the Fang believed their masks and figurines had no inherent powers. Instead these figures acted as important intermediaries between ancestors and the living.
The ensemble of Fang peoples practice a cult devoted to ancestor lineages, the bieri, whose aim is to both protect themselves from the deceased and to recruit their aid in matters of daily life. This familial cult does not monopolize the Fang’s religious universe, for it coexists with other beliefs and rituals of a more collective character. It is the bieri, or ancestor sculpture, which has most obviously given rise to the making of remarkable wooden sculpture.
The statuary of the Fang can be classified into three main groups: heads on long necks, half-figures and full figures, standing or seated. Carved with great simplicity, at the same time they exhibit a high degree of sophistication in the coordination of bulbous forms. The neck is often a massive cylindrical form. The arms have various positions: hands clasped in front of the body (sometimes holding an object); held in front of the chest or attached to it; hands resting on the knees in the seated figures. The navel is often exaggerated into a cylindrical form. Legs are short, stunted. Usually there is a domed, wide forehead and the eyebrows often form arcs with the nose. The eyes are often made of metal roundlets. The bieri would be consulted when the village was to change location, when a new crop was planted, during a palaver, or before going hunting, fishing, or to war. But once separated from the reliquary chest, the sculpted object would lose its sacred value and could be destroyed.
The ritual consisted of prayers, libations, and sacrifices offered to the ancestor, whose scull would be rubbed with powder and paint each time. With its large head, long body, and short extremities, the Fang bieri had the proportion of a newborn, thus emphasizing the group’s continuity with its ancestor and with the three classes of the society: the “not-yet-born,” the living, and the dead. The relics were essentially skull fragments, or sometimes complete skulls, jawbones, teeth and small bones. The bieri also served for therapeutic rituals and, above all, for the initiation of young males during the great so festival.
The Fang used masks in their secret societies. The ngil (gorilla) masks were worn by members of a male society of the same name during the initiation of new members and the persecution of wrong-doers. Masqueraders, clad in raffia costumes and attended by helpers, would materialize in the village after dark, illuminated by flickering torchlight. Fang masks, such as those worn by itinerant troubadours and for hunting and punishing sorcerers, are painted white with facial features outlined in black. Typical are large, elongated masks covered with kaolin and featuring a face that was usually heart-shaped with a long, fine nose.
Apparently it has been linked with the dead and ancestors, since white is their color. The ngontang dance society also used white masks, sometimes in the form of a four-sided helmet-mask with bulging forehead and eyebrows in heart-shaped arcs. The ngontang mask symbolizes a ‘young white girl’. The so, or red antelope was connected with an initiation that lasted several months; these masks sport long horns.
Special spoons were carved and used to administer magically sustaining nourishment as part of traditional initiation rites. An individual man’s spoon was a preciously guarded possession that was carried on his person in a shoulder bag when he traveled and was placed on his tomb when he past away.
One of the most popular art forms attributed to the Fang culture are the wooden reliquary heads, many of which contain the skull or bones of ancestors. There is a characteristic heart-shaped, concave face and large bulbous forehead. The heads are very abstract and focus on geometric form and covered in a black patina. Some appear to 'cry', which is streaks of resin made from a mixture of palm oil and other seed oils. The heads are tied to the ideas of welfare and social power.
Heads are an effigy and can be affixed to a wooden reliquary box/barrel. The bones and skulls of deceased leaders are kept in cylindrical boxes that are decorated with wooden sculptured figures. These bones are believed to be have special powers that protect the well-being of the community. The bones are always within the possession of the deceased leader's family and it's kept hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated and of women.
Throughout Gabon, these figures serve as talisman or guardian to protect the remains of ancestors. Known as bieri, byeri or mwan bian, these reliquary figures widely range in style, but most common characteristics are:
Music plays a central to the oral history of the Fang. The mvet is a musical instrument popular in the Fang society, which is played by the mbomo mvet. The instrument is a chordophone with attached resonators. Often, one resonator is regarded as 'male' and the other as 'female'. Some mvet come with two, three, or even five strings. To become a master mbomo mvet takes years of dedication and sacrifice.
The mbomo mvet will often pass through villages once a month to play at the council house where all members of the village will gather to be entertained. Members of the community participate by keeping time while the mbomo mvet plays the sings praises to the ancestors.
Musical instruments – like the harp, its ends sculpted into lovely figurines – allowed communication with the hereafter. Blacksmiths bellows, many quite beautiful, were sculpted in the shape of figures; there are also small metal disks featuring heads, called “passport-masks”, the Fang attached these to their arms.
Headbands were often worn by warriors, with ornate protrusion above forehead. The male leader of the village would wear what is known as a “ngil” costume during ceremonies. This leader was endowed with judicial and political powers. The focal point of the ngil costume was a large and vertically stretched mask. The mask was a symbol of retribution and was meant to strike fear into any sorcerers or criminals that may be attempting to harm the village. They were often painted white to express the power of dead spirits.
Women were not allowed to become the leaders of villages or clans, and therefore were prohibited from wearing ngil costumes. They were also forbidden from wearing the headband of the warriors.
The Fang believe each person is made of a body and a soul. The soul gives life to the body. Therefore, when the body dies, the soul lives on. Ancestors are believed to possess even more power as spirits than they had as living people. This is particularly true if the dead had lived honorably and had died in a similar fashion.