Zande people


Zande / Azande

The Azande (plural of "Zande" in the Zande language) are an ethnic group of North Central Africa.

They live primarily in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in south-central and southwestern part of South Sudan, and in southeastern Central African Republic. The Congolese Azande live in Orientale Province, specifically along the Uele River; Isiro, Dungu, Kisangani and Duruma. The Central African Azande live in the districts of Rafaï, Bangasu and Obo. The Azande of South Sudan live in Central, Western Equatoria and Western Bahr al-Ghazal States, Yei, Maridi, Yambio, Tombura, Deim Zubeir, Wau Town and Momoi.

Zande people

Name and language

The word Azande means the people who possess much land, and refers to their history as conquering warriors. Variant spellings include Adio (Makaraka), Zande, Zandeh, A-Zandeh and Sandeh. The name Niam-Niam (or Nyam-Nyam) was frequently used by foreigners to refer to the Azande in the 18th and early 19th century. This name is probably of Dinka origin, and means great eaters in that language (as well as being an onomatopoeia), supposedly referring to cannibalistic propensities. This name for the Azande was in use by other tribes in South Sudan, and later adopted by westerners. Today the name Niam-Niam is considered pejorative.

Zande people


The Azande population is spread over three Central African countries: South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Azande territory extends from the fringes of the South-central and Southwest Upper basin of South Sudan to the semitropical rain forests in Congo, and into the Central African Republic. The Azande is the third largest nationality in South Sudan. They are found in Maridi, Yambio and Tambura districts in the tropical rain forest belt of western Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal.

Estimates of Azande speakers reported in SIL Ethnologue (2009) are 730,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (undated, perhaps from the 1970s), 62,000 in the Central African Republic (1996 estimate) and 350,000 in South Sudan (1982 estimate).



The Azande speak Zande, which they call Pa-Zande (also known as Pa-Dio, Zandi, Azande, Sande, Kizande, Bazande), which has an estimated 1.1 million speakers. "Zande Language" is also used to refer to related languages in addition to Azande proper: including Adio, Barambu, Apambia (Bakpo), Geme, Kpatiri and Nzakara.



Traditionally, the individual homestead of each couple and their children is the focus of the economic system. The construction and maintenance of homes are constant occupations, especially owing to the toll taken on them by weather, insects, animals, and fast-growing vegetation.

Homes are built of mud and grass framed on wooden poles and thatched with grass. (One addition to traditional Zande homes is the European introduction of doors fitted with hinges and locks.) In addition to this living space, each household unit has a granary for storing millet. Houses are built around courtyards, which provide ideal places for gathering and conversation. These enclosed courtyards are seen as a window into the household life. Their upkeep is critical since they are seen as evidence of the responsibility or industriousness of their owners. Reining (1966:69) reports that his Zande informants would comment on the state of disrepair of their neighbor’s homestead, and “analyzed courtyards as reflections of the inhabitants.” They did not exempt themselves from such scrutiny; he continues: “I received a number of apologies from the heads of households about the state of their courtyards, with full explanations for the deficiencies of which they were ashamed” (Reining 1966:69).

The traditional courtyard arrangement appeared to have changed very little with European contact (Reining 1966), with the arrangement of each courtyard reflecting the composition of the household to which it is attached. Because each woman must have her own house and granary, a polygynous household will have numerous homes and granaries around its courtyard. In a monogamous household, the average courtyard space is about 65 feet in its largest dimension.

Households with more adult women may have yards that are 100 feet square. Courtyards belonging to the households of chiefs are double this size. “Kitchen gardens” are planted adjacent to the courtyards. These are used for plants that don’t require large-scale harvesting or great attention. Pineapple, mango, papaya, and miscellaneous perennial plants used for meals immediately upon picking are found in these plots.

Zande people Zande people

Social and political organizations

The Azande were organized into chiefdoms that can also be called kingdoms. Avongara were the nobility and passed it down through their linage. Chiefs had many jobs within the chiefdoms such as military, economic, and political leaders. All the unmarried men in the society are used as laborers and warriors. Within the chiefdoms clan affiliation was not stressed as important at the local level. They had “local groups” that were similar to “political organizations”.

The Azande society is divided into the royal clans – the Avungara, centred on their great leader Gbudwe, his two sons Yambio and Tambura; and the commoners, most of who could have been incorporated into the Azande through wars, conquest and assimilation. Azande settlements are solitary i.e. a household consisting of the man and his wife (or wives), nevertheless they ascribes to certain social norms and practices.


Traditional Authority

The Azande socio-political system is an intricate admixture of feudalism, traditional, political and administrative authority and witchcraft, charm, etc. After the destruction of their kingdom, the Azande now have chiefs, mostly from the royal clan who combine judicial and spiritual prowess.
The chief invokes witchcraft and oracles, for which the Azande are renowned, to determine and administer justice on those suspected of crimes including adultery, murder through bewitching or evil eyes. In the old days, thieves had their ears cut off and their backs scored with a knife leaving large permanent scars.

Another punishment was to break open an ant-hill and tie the offender on the top of it, intense pain being caused by the armies of soldier ants that would swarm over him. Men suspected of witchcraft, and also occasionally thieves, might be confined in their house and burnt alive. Men accused of committing adultery, especially with their Chiefs’ wives, if not killed outright were emasculated and in addition had their hands, ears and lips cut off.

Zande people


The Azande practice shifting cultivation (that is, no crop rotation, and incorporating a fallowing period), relying mostly on maize and millet, gourds and pumpkins, manioc and bananas, groundnuts, and beans. The tsetsefly, problematic o animals as well as humans, makes cattle herding impossible. Whatever meat is consumed is secured through hunting. There is also a tradition of using forested areas to gather plants they do not cultivate. Dogs and chickens are the only domesticated animals.

The region has ample rainfall and many springs. These were a focus of Zande life, because they provided usable water nearly year-round. Water for daily use was carried from stream to homestead and the washing, among other activities, was done at the riverbanks. In fact, the stream was central to Zande life in conceptual as well as practical terms. For example, distance is expressed by the number of streams between the points in question; the length of a journey is the number of streams crossed during travel. When asked about an exact location (such as an individual’s birthplace) the answer will be the stream nearest that location. Given the centrality of the stream to the Azande, their relocation by the European administration caused major disruption in their cultural beliefs and practices.

The year consists of two seasons, one rainy and one dry. During the rainy summer, Azande cultivate their land. Although they have a long growing season and no frosts, the soil is not rich and insects are troublesome. As the hot, dry weather begins, crops mature and are harvested.

Hunting was most feasible in the dry season, when tall grasses had died or were burned and when the harvest was over. During the rains, vegetation was too dense to allow necessary visibility. Because rivers were low during this dry season, fish were more accessible. Men employed basket traps, which they set in the rapids of rivers; women dammed the streams into small shallow pools, drained them by bailing, and collected the fish, snakes, and crustaceans that remained. Termites were a favorite food, and their high fat and protein content made them a nutritious part of the diet.

In pre-European days, each family was an independent unit of production. Iron tools and spears were used as bridewealth items, but in general there was no tradition of exchange between households, which consisted of a wife or wives, husband, their children, and other dependents (such as widowed elderly). There was a sexual division of labor, and both women’s and men’s work were necessary to maintain an efficiently functioning household. Construction and repair of the house and granary were the responsibility of men. The arduous task of maintaining the courtyard and its gardens fell solely to women. Wealth, possessed mainly by chiefs, was primarily in the form of foodstuffs; the tradition of destroying a person’s worldly goods upon death left little chance of inheritance of property.

Azande have no tradition of occupational specialization. All manufacturing and craftswork were considered largely avocations, done by most. Woodworking and pottery, making nets and baskets, and crafting clothing out of bark were the most important of these skills.



Among the Azande, clan affiliation was not stressed at the local level. E. E. Evans- Pritchard (1971), the ethnographer most responsible for knowledge about the Azande, found, as he endeavored to gather genealogies, that “except in the royal clan, genealogical relationships between clansmen were very seldom known and usually quite untraceable” (p. 14). Local groups, according to Evans-Pritchard, are, in essence, political units. He reports that his discovering members of the same clan living near one another is due as much to chance as anything else.

Zande people


In pre-European times, the Azande were organized into a number of chiefdoms (sometimes called kingdoms), each of which was independent from the others. The Avongara were nobility; in the days of Zande chiefdoms, it was to Avongara lineages that chiefs belonged. Despite the fact that chiefs of differing groups all belonged to the same clan, there was ongoing hostility and warfare between them. Chiefs ruled their lands and peoples by appointing emissaries (usually sons, but always Avongara) who were sent out to manage various sections of their territories. Within these communities, commoners were deputized to aid in administration.
Chiefs functioned as military leaders, economic leaders, and political leaders. Unmarried men were recruited into groups that functioned both as warriors and laborers on the king’s lands. The governors of the territories had gardens which were also worked by these troops. Both governors and chiefs collected food from the peoples in their domain (provincial governors sending to the chief a portion of their tribute as well) to be redistributed. In addition to food, spears and other items (often payment for fines or bridewealth) were redistributed by the chiefs.



Several miles of unsettled forest and bush were maintained between chiefdoms. Watch was kept on these borders by trusted sentinels who were designated to build their houses along these boundaries. During the rainy season when grass grew tall and provided good cover, surprise attacks were made on these border sentries, usually ordered by the provincial leader. He undertook this action on his own, without permission granted from the chief. Counsel, however, was sought from a poison oracle, a process wherein poison is administered to an animal while questions are posed to the inhabiting spirit. The poisoned animal’s behavior, as well as the point at which it succumbed to the poison, were interpreted by those with such skills. Information was obtained concerning the most propitious days and place for the raid, the expected level of casualties, and which companies of warriors should be entrusted with the most dangerous duties. If the oracle indicated that the time was not right for victory, the plans were abandoned.

The oracle also designated a suitable time and place for the attack, and the proper individual to act as a spy. This individual was sent to report on as many aspects of the homestead to be raided as he could determine. Often the spy went under the pretense of visiting a relative or wishing to trade. The best time for a raid was on a feast day when men would be involved in the festivities, not likely to be armed, and quite likely to be drunk. To determine the exact day of the feast, the spy would plan his visit during the preparations for the festivities. Because beer was always brewed for the celebration, the spy could determine the feast day based on the stage of the brewing process.

A successful raid yielded tools, arms, food, and chickens, some of which were sent to the chief for redistribution. Whatever could not be carried off was destroyed. Huts and granaries were burned.

In addition to raids, there were larger mobilizations of war campaigns on a grand scale. These were ordered by the chief, after having consulted his own poison oracle, and might continue over a period of weeks. While knives and spears were used exclusively in raids, the introduction of rifl es into these larger confrontations resulted in a shift from hand-to-hand combat to shots being fi red from a distance. Only when ammunition was exhausted would those warriors wielding spears converge on the enemy.

Zande people


The traditional Zande system of marriage was greatly disrupted by European involvement. Administrators legislated broad changes, especially regarding bride payment, divorce, and age at marriage. Although many of these were ostensibly designed to improve the status of women, ethnographer Reining (1966:61–62) regards them rather as “an experiment in altering some aspects of a culture without providing for changes in values. . . . [illustrating] the unpredictability of arbitrary cultural changes.” Azande did not share the European view that marriage was especially disadvantageous to women, whom they never regarded as servile, despite administrative interpretation of their customs.

Traditionally, the instigation for marriage among the Azande came from the potential groom. When a man wanted to marry a woman, he asked an intermediary to approach her father with his offer. Unless the suitor was deemed undesirable immediately, her father would discuss the matter first with his brothers and sisters, and next with the woman in question. If she was agreeable, the money sent with the intermediary was accepted.

Several days later, the suitor would visit his promised bride’s parents, bringing gifts and demonstrating his respect. In turn, their daughter visited her suitor’s home for a “trial period” of several weeks, after which she returned to her parents’ home to make her final decision regarding the marriage.
During the time spent in reflection by the woman, the groom-to-be consulted oracles to determine whether the marriage, should it occur, would be a happy one. If both oracle and woman regarded the match favorably, the bride’s family traveled to the home of the groom, where the ceremony took place. The marriage was sealed with the installation of the new bride’s own cooking hearth. Reining (1966) describes traditional Zande marriage as a process that continues indefinitely over time, with a protracted payment of bride-price. A small part of the price was paid at the time of the marriage ceremony, but in reality a husband was always indebted to his wife’s family. It was always his responsibility to help in his in-laws’ fields, and he had mortuary obligations in the event of a death in his wife’s family.

The material payment of the agreed-upon bride-price was not, in fact, as important as the attitude and behavior of a husband to his wife and her parents (Reining 1966). If he was a gentle, loving husband and labored adequately for her parents, remuneration could be forestalled for years. This was often, in reality, the situation preferred by in-laws: it afforded them considerable influence over their daughter’s husband. If the husband was not performing his duties adequately, the wife’s parents might insist that their daughter move back to their home, forcing the husband to negotiate with her parents for her return. Thus, the relationship of primary emphasis in marriage was that of a son-in-law and his wife’s parents. In polygynous situations, a man who had a good relationship with his in-laws often expressed the desire to marry his wife’s sister because of the advantages of a good relationship with in-laws.
The topic of homosexuality in Azande culture has been regularly addressed, especially in the context of the unmarried warriors, who, during the several years spent living apart from women, had homosexual relations with the boys who were apprentice warriors. These practices, however, were not necessarily maintained as a lifelong pattern of sexual orientation. Generally, after their experiences with so-called “boy-wives,” the warriors entered into heterosexual marriages.

Less attention has been paid to Azande lesbianism, relationships that were often formed between co-wives. Although there is not a wealth of information concerning these practices, according to Evans-Pritchard (1970:1429), “All Azande I have known well enough to discuss this matter have asserted . . . that female (Evans-Pritchard 1970). In addition to assuring both the emotional and economic support of the partner, it has been suggested that this formalization (a ritual akin to Zande “blood brotherhood”) may have both widened a woman’s trade network and enhanced her position in the community. Blackwood (in Suggs and Miracle 1993) interprets these relationships as indicating that Azande men’s control over women did not extend into the realm of activities between women. homosexuality . . . was practiced in polygamous homes.” Zande husbands felt threatened by such activities, yet could not stop them; thus, women usually kept the sexual nature of their friendships secret (Blackwood in Suggs and Miracle 1993). Two Zande women who wished to formalize their relationship could do so in a ritual that created a permanent bond.



Azande tradition prevents a pregnant woman from eating certain foods e.g. meat of waterbuck or a kind of sweet potato called mene, because it is believed to cause a miscarriage. There is no special ceremony at the birth of a child.

 However, four days after the infant’s cord has been cut a fire of green leaves is made at the threshold of the house. The mother with the child in her arms sits in the smoke for about half an hour. This is said to make the child strong. The remains of the fire are not thrown away but carefully placed on one of the paths leading to the village to prevent child’s ill health.



The Azande circumcise their boys as a tradition. This is performed when the boy has reached the age of nineteen. There is no special occasion. The Azande however don’t circumcise their girls. This circumcision of the boys has no relation with Islam.


Religious Belief

Azande believe in an all powerful supreme Being, Mbori. Mbori is defi ned by Evans-Pritchard (1937:11) as “a ghostly being to whom the creation of the world is attributed.” Missionaries and government officials writing about the Azande attempted to create out of Mbori a deity that would fi t
their own tradition. Evans-Pritchard, however, warns against looking for religion, as organized elsewhere, in Azande culture. Mbori is not convincingly portrayed by the Azande as a god analogous to the supreme being as found elsewhere. They have no shrines to Mbori and no materials used in worship. There is only one ceremony in which his name is invoked, and that is performed infrequently at best. When he attempted to pursue the topic of theology, and Mbori in particular, Evans-Pritchard found the Azande “bored by the subject . . . and unable to express more than the vaguest ideas about him.”
Apart from belief in Mbori, many also holds parallel belief system, including reverence for the ancestors.


Religious Practitioners

The traditional cult of domestic ancestor shrines required no specialized priesthood. Matters of witchcraft and magic have always been determined by part-time specialists/practitioners. Witch doctors, who were trained in the use of magical medicines, operated at public séances; Nagidi are believed to derive their power directly from God and are, for day-to-day purposes, consulted in private.



The most important ceremonies were formerly witch doctors' séances. One or more witch doctors, in colorful ceremonial dress, would dance and sing to musical accompaniment before commencing their divination. The circumcision of pubescent boys also forms part of an elaborate series of ceremonies; others were associated with initiation into the (now defunct) magical-medicine associations.



Music, both instrumental and vocal, is very important in Zande culture; traditional instruments—wooden gongs, skin drums, whistles, xylophones, and large bow harps—also accompany singing and dancing. Harps are occasionally decorated with carved human heads; otherwise, nonutilitarian carving is poorly developed.



Zande apply generally known common-sense cures to minor ailments. All serious diseases are attributed to witchcraft and are accordingly combated by magical medicine. The general term ngua, which originally meant simply “plant” or “tree,” once covered both good and bad “medicines” of every sort. Nowadays Zande distinguish between protective or curative “medicine,” which is increasingly becoming known by the Arabic term dawa, and ngua used as vengeance “medicine.” Magical “medicines” are used, not only to ward off (or avenge) misfortune, but to obtain successful harvests, human fertility, good hunting, and other benefits, including job promotions and success in examinations. Such “medicines” are bought from people believed to have the requisite knowledge; payment is held indispensable if they are to be efficacious.


Death and Afterlife

All deaths, except those of very small children, are attributed to witchcraft or magic and call for magical vengeance. Upon death, the soul (mbisimo) becomes a ghost, which in some sense may be present in the homestead ghost shrine, but also dwells with other ghosts and with the Supreme Being, Mbori, in earth caves in the forest.

There are no outward signs of mourning except for widows. At the moment of a husband’s death a women tears off their clothes and ornaments and remain so until his burial. They cut and keep their hair short for about a year during which time she is not allowed to eat certain food. The death of a man may cause desertion of his village and none of his wives may enter it.

All his personal domestic articles are broken up. In the old days people were buried in a sitting position with their chins on their knees. Immediately over the body a roof of wood and grass was placed and the grave then filled in, a pile of stones being placed on the top.

The men are buried facing east and women facing west. The explanation for this is that a man, when he gets up in the morning, always looks first to the east to see if dawn is near, and a woman, when the sun is about to set, goes to fetch wood and water to prepare the evening meal.

The Chief and elders of the Zande village of Dakwa perform local rituals to exorcise the spirits from former child soldiers. Image by Marcus Bleasdale. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2010.



The Azande are perhaps better known for their pervasive belief in witchcraft than for any other aspect of their culture. However, in his classic description of witchcraft among the Azande, Evans-Pritchard asks the reader to be aware “that the Zande cannot analyze his doctrines as I have done for him. . . . It is no use saying to a Zande ‘Now tell me what you Azande think about witchcraft’ because the subject is too general and indeterminate . . . to be described concisely. But it is possible to extract the principles of their thought from dozens of situations in which witchcraft is called upon to explain happenings. . . . Their philosophy is explicit, but it is not formally stated as a doctrine” (1937:70). (In such situations, an anthropologist endeavors to construct such a “doctrine” through fieldwork. The resulting product may look quite dissimilar from the indigenous view [Barrett 1991].)

Witchcraft is thought to be an actual physical property residing inside some individuals, who may themselves be unaware of their power. It is inherited, passed from father to son and mother to daughter. Azande believe that if the soul of the father is more powerful, the child conceived will be a boy; if the mother’s soul substance is greater, their child will be a girl. Thus, although every child is a product of both parents, each also has more of one particular parent’s soul. And if that parent is a witch, inheriting this inherent power to do harm is inevitable.

Because this property is organic, it grows as a person grows. Therefore an older witch is a more dangerous witch. Children, whose witchcraft substance is small, are never accused of major acts of harm (such as murder). They can, however, cause minor misfortunes for other children.

Unlike sorcery, which employs charms and spells, witchcraft is deployed by sheer willpower. Witches send the spirit of their own witchcraft entity to eat the flesh and organs of their intended victims. Thus, a witch may be at home asleep at the time illness or injury occurs. It is the “soul of the witchcraft” that travels through the night. This substance cannot travel great distances, however, and it is for this reason that the Azande feel more secure if they are able to live at a distance from their neighbors. The “short-range” nature of witchcraft allows the perpetrator to be more accurately identified; all those beyond the limits of a witch’s capabilities, even with evil intent, may be eliminated. If a person is taken ill while traveling, it is that location where illness struck in which the witch must be found.

The Azande believe that witchcraft is at the base of all misfortune, great or small. If a potter opens his kiln only to discover his pottery cracked, he intimates witchcraft; if a child stubs her toe at play, she suspects witchcraft; if a hunter is gored by an elephant, he lays blame for the injury squarely on a witch. Azande entertain no concept of “accidental” death. People die only as victims of murder, whether committed by witches or by the magic of revenge reserved for retaliation against suspected witches.

Despite these convictions, the Azande do not live in constant terror of witches (Nanda 1991). In fact, Douglas (1980) reminds us that Evans-Pritchard’s assessment of the Azande was that they were the happiest and most carefree peoples of the Sudan. “The feelings of an Azande man, on finding that he has been bewitched, are not terror, but hearty indignation as one of us might feel on finding himself the victim of embezzlement” (Douglas 1980:1).
Since a witch’s motivation is not random, but rather envy or hatred directed at a specific person, a victim searches for a suspect among those with whom he has argued, or in a person who may have cause to be jealous of him. How then can he identify his aggressor? For this, and other purposes, the Azande consult a variety of oracles.



The Azande consult oracles regarding a wide range of things about which they need information. They ask for guidance in planning a marriage, taking a journey, building a house, organizing a raid. In addition to whatever their current misfortune may be, they inquire about whether their health will be endangered in the future.

In pre-European times, Zande chiefs consulted oracles to confirm their military decisions, but chiefs were also charged with judicial duties. Every accusation was brought before the chief to adjudicate. To this end, he employed several people whose responsibility it was to assist in the consultation of oracles. It has been said that the Azande belief in witchcraft is the supporting framework of their entire judicial system (Mair 1974:221).

An oracle is a device for revelation. Among the Azande there are many from which to choose, with varying reputations for reliability. By far the most powerful is benge, the poison oracle, used by men alone. Its decisions are relied upon without question, and no undertaking of great import is attempted without its authorization. In attempting to convey its centrality, a Zande informant of Evans-Pritchard drew the analogy between the books of Europeans and the poison oracle of his own people. All the knowledge, guidance, memory, and truth that are derived from trusted Western writings reside for the Azande within the poison oracle. Evans-Pritchard came to view it as less a ritual than a necessity:

For how can a Zande do without his poison oracle? His life would be of little worth. Witches would make his wife and children sick and would destroy his crops and render his hunting useless. Every endeavour would be frustrated, every labour and pain would be to no purpose. At any moment a witch might kill him and he could do nothing to protect himself and his family. Men would violate his wife and steal his goods, and how would he be able to identify and avenge himself on adulterer and thief? Without the aid of his poison oracle he knows that he is helpless and at the mercy of every evil person. It is his guide and counsellor (1937:262–263).

Despite this seeming indispensability, later ethnographers have pointed out that benge poison, expensive and difficult to obtain, was most likely an oracle available regularly only to men of wealth. This limitation may have acted both to engender social obligations and to grant power and prestige. A man who cannot afford the costly poison, or who does not possess the proper chicken to which the poison must be administered, asks a wealthier kinsman, or deputy of the chief, to consult the oracle on his behalf. It is his duty to oblige. It is older men who are likely to have the means to seek counsel from the oracle: this access to information gives them power over younger men. They not only can ask the oracles about the intentions and behaviors of their juniors, but also are always supported in their decisions by the considerable weight of oracular authority, to which younger or poorer men have no direct access, and so cannot challenge (Evans-Pritchard 1937).

The benge poison ordeal is an elaborate procedure, requiring great skill and finesse in both the administration of the poison and the posing of the questions. Poison is administered, by an expert in the task, to a small chicken. The expert must know how much poison is necessary, how much time should elapse between doses, whether it should be shaken to distribute the poison, how long and firmly the chicken should be held, and in what position. Each barely perceptible movement made by the bird is significant to the trained eye.

Once the poison has been administered, the order in which questions are asked, whether they are phrased in a positive or negative frame, must all be determined by the questioner. The oracle is addressed as if it were a person. Every detail of the situation in question is explained, and each individual question may be embedded in fi ve or ten minutes of speech. The benge poison shows its answer by responding through the chicken to the directive, “If this is true, benge kill the fowl” or “If this is not the truth, benge spare the fowl.” Each answer is then tested by repeating the interpretation of its reply, prefaced with the question, “Did the oracle speak the truth in saying. . .” (Mair 1974).

An oracle more readily available to all is the termite oracle. This is used as often by women as men, and even children may participate. Two branches are cut, each from a different tree. They are inserted together into a termite mound and left overnight. The answer is indicated by which branch has been eaten. Though certainly less elaborate and costly than the benge oracle, consulting termites is a time-consuming affair, since only one question may be posed at a time and one must wait all night long for the answer.

Least reliable but most convenient is the rubbing-board oracle, a device resembling a Ouija board, made of two small pieces of wood, easily carried to be consulted anywhere, at any time. One small piece of wood is carved with a handle and is rubbed across the top of a second piece, fashioned with legs to stand on. Questions are asked as the wood is moved; as it sticks or catches, so the answer is revealed.

A group of boy circumcision initiates (agangasi) wearing grass fibre skirts, in a line performing a circumcision dance (gbere agangasi) with their sponsor (identifed as Yakobo) standing beside them holding a spray of plant leaves. A wooden dance gong (gugu) can just be seen behind them. circa 1927. [Southern Sudan] Western Equatoria Yambio.


Accusing a Witch

There are two distinct sorts of accusations of witchcraft: one in which illness or misfortune has occurred, the other after someone has died. These differ in both the function of accusing an individual and the ramifications of being found guilty.

The aim of accusing a person of witchcraft in the former situation is to bring about some resolution to the conflict that induced the attack and to return the relationship to equilibrium. Speaking ill of a person, or even wishing someone injury, is ineffectual without a social tie: the curse of a stranger cannot do harm.

Thus, a relationship with the accused is a prerequisite for bewitchment. (An individual must be suspected, or else his or her name could not have been presented to the oracle for confirmation or denial of guilt.)

When the chicken dies during the benge poison ordeal, a wing is cut off, placed on a stick, and brought to the local deputy of the chief, telling him the name of the individual confirmed by the benge. A messenger, sent with the wing to the alleged witch, places it on the ground, and announces that benge has been consulted regarding the illness of the accuser. Usually this charge is met with denial of any ill intent. At the very least the accused pleads ignorance of harm derived from his or her own mangu, or witchcraft substance. As a demonstration of good faith, the alleged witch takes a mouthful of water, and sprays it over the wing. So doing, she or he beseeches the mangu to become inactive, allowing the victim to recover. The messenger reports these events to the chief’s deputy.

In the event of a “murder,” the aim is not pacification but revenge. Restoring amicable relations is clearly not possible; a postmortem accusation is an indictment leading to heavy compensation, sometimes paid with the witch’s own life. Exacting such a toll permanently alters the relationship between the kin group of the victim and that of the accused (McLeod 1972).


Witchcraft in Its Social Setting

The Azande chiefdom is formally structured in a clear-cut hierarchy, from the chiefs at the top through their deputies, armies, local governors, and ending with individual householders. Built into this structure is the elimination of most opportunities for unequal competition: that is, chiefly lineages did not compete with those lesser, nor did the rich with the poor, or parents with their children.

As Douglas (1980) has observed, accusations of witchcraft arise only in those social situations that fall outside of the political structure. Thus, co-wives might accuse each other, as might rivals in other arenas. Because witches could be unintentionally dangerous, their mangu could be set into motion by understandable resentments and jealousies. The accusation and eventual demonstration of remorse will set these ill feelings to rights. Events that can be explained by an individual’s lack of technical skill (such as the shoddy work of an inexperienced carpenter) or by personally motivated actions are not likely to be involved in the realm of witchcraft.

As Parsons (1969:195) observes, one can imagine many motivations for people to claim that witchcraft was at the root of their adultery, but this would result in ridicule, “because everybody knows witches don’t do that.”
Witchcraft beliefs can function effectively as a way of managing the anxiety resulting from random misfortune. This is evidenced by the prominence given to illness and death as occasions for witchcraft accusations.


Witchcraft as Social Control and Leveling Mechanism

Witchcraft may serve as an effective agent of social control. The lengthy process involved in making an accusation acts to forestall hasty and emotional confrontations. Charges must have group support behind them and are not leveled carelessly.

An individual’s behavior can be guided by the knowledge that wrongdoing might likely result in retaliatory witchcraft. Additionally, cognizance that jealous or hostile behavior might place one in a position of being suspect should misfortune occur might lead one to be quite circumspect. Wishing to be neither suspect nor victim, the Azande possess, in witchcraft, both an effective sanction against socially disruptive behavior and a vehicle for handling hostility.
Because an individual with great wealth is likely to engender the jealousy of others and the attendant bewitchment, Azande are not likely to attempt to outproduce one another. It is in this way that witchcraft acts as a leveling mechanism, indirectly keeping wealth balanced.


The “Logic” of Azande Witchcraft

The attribution of the cause of all misfortune to witchcraft may seem extreme. In fact, Evans-Pritchard himself engaged in lively debate with informants who described as witchcraft events that seemed to him the result of entirely “natural” phenomena. He eventually recognized that they did, in fact, have a very clear understanding about the contribution of the natural world to their misfortune.

When Evans-Pritchard suggested to a boy, whose foot had been injured when he tripped over a tree stump, that a witch could not possibly have placed the tree stump in his way, the boy agreed. He recognized that nature had contributed the tree stump and, further, that the tree stump had cut his foot. His evidence of witchcraft was simply that despite his vigilance in watching out for tree stumps, as well as his safe passage on that same path hundreds of other times, this time he had been injured. This time, there was witchcraft.

Along these same lines, when a granary collapsed, injuring several people who had been sitting in its shade, Azande saw no contradiction in their dual assertions that termites had eaten at the legs of the building, resulting in its collapse, and that witchcraft was responsible. They further admitted that no witch had “sent” the people underneath the granary in order to trap them: it was afternoon, and they were merely seeking shade. While we would call this series of events coincidence, or perhaps “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Azande are able to form an explanatory link between these events. That link is During his stay in the Sudan, Evans-Pritchard witnessed the suicide of a man who was angry with his brothers. Although his despair over his confl ict was well known, and when his body was found hanging from a tree, all readily acknowledged that he had, in fact, hanged himself, the cause of death was considered witchcraft. At Evans-Pritchard’s behest, a Zande friend explained:

. . . only crazy people commit suicide; if everyone who was angry with his
brothers committed suicide there would soon be no people left in the world;
if this man had not been bewitched he would not have done what he did do"

Once the supernatural premise that people have witchcraft substance in them and can harm others with it is granted, the Zande argument becomes logical.

These beliefs concerning witchcraft endure today, with some modifi cations. Resettlement has forced them to accept living in closer quarters, depending upon screens to keep them out of their neighbors’ view, if not their reach. When asked about fears concerning the proximity of witches, the Azande report that they feel able to relocate should misfortune occur. This would remove them from any nearby threat.