The Bete people also known as Magwe, Tsien, Bokya and Kpwe; are ancient hunting, patriarchal, hard-working agricultural and culturally unique ethnic group that forms a subset of the larger Kru-speaking people residing in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Liberia. Bete people lives precisely in the southwestern and southern-central parts of Côte d'Ivoire, between the Akan ethnic groups to the east and the Guro tribe to the north. They occupy towns and villages in the regions of Saloa, Soubre and Gagnoa.
The Bete are a little-studied Ivory Coast group and with their population of over 825,000 people constitutes 6% of Ivory Coast`s population and are therefore classified as minorities. Despite their minority status they have powerful individuals and intellectuals among them.
The Bete have strong cultural and artistic links to the Dan, the We (Gwere) and the Guro, among others. To render the hostile forces of the forest material, they sculpted a type of mask that would provoke terror: the gre, with its grimacing face, distorted features, facial protuberances, horned heads, bulging forehead, tubular eyes, and wild animals' teeth.
The Bete speak Bété cluster of languages which forms part of Kru languages which also belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language family.
The various Bete languages are:
1. Bété Gagnoa, also known as Eastern Bété, Gagnoua-Bété and Shyen. It is spoken in Fromager Region, Gagnoa subprefecture; Marahoue Region, Sinfra subprefecture; some in northern Sud-Bandama Region.
The various dialects are Gbadi (Badie, Gbadie), Guebie, Kpakolo, Nekedi, Niabre, Zadie and Zebie.
2. Bété Guiberoua, also known as Central Bété or Western Bété. It is spoken in Bas-Sassandra Region, Soubre, Buyo, Gregbeu, and Ouaragahio subprefectures; Haut-Sassandra Region, Daloua, Issia, and Guiberoua subprefectures; western Fromager and southwest Marahoue regions.
The various dialects are Guiberoua, Soubré. Reportedly most similar to Godié [god].
3. Bété Daloa, also known as Daloua Bété or Northern Bété. It is also spoken in Haut-Sassandra Region, Daloa subprefecture.
Bete people share common historical and migration origins with the parent Kru ethnic group. It is believed that successive waves of migration brought them overland from the east and north, and by the sea. The Bete came in groups which has been identified to be around ninety-three sub-groups. They first settled on the left shore of the Sassandra River before dispersing to their current dwelling places.
The Bete who were historically hunters are mainly into agriculture (subsistence farming), they only grow what is needed by the tribe. In recent times many of them are into commercial farming. They are one of the Ivory coast ethnic groups that can boast of big Cocao and coffee farms. The commercialization of their farming activities have linked them to Ivory Coast`s market economy.
The Bete society is a patriarchal and patrilineal one and they live – under the ancestors’ authority – in small “headless” villages. Social control was exercised by the leading member of individual lineages (of which there were several in each village) who exercised judicial and financial power within the community. Spiritual authority was wielded with an array of paraphernalia, notably including the “gre” mask, a horned and decorated creation (originating with the We) designed to instill terror in the onlooker, to quell social unrest, and to be worn when meting out justice after conflict.
Statuary is uncommon, and is based around feminine iconography that refers to the mythical mother figure. There is no recognised liturgical function, although some early reports indicate that a pair of figures was often placed under a rain shelter in a village in order to represent the founders. This evocation of a primeval couple has widespread resonance in African culture. Rare figures with exaggerated genitalia are probably linked to a magico-religious appeal for fertility; alternatively, they may have constituted a more general role, evoking or celebrating the fertility of the village/land, its founders, or the forest from which the people made their living.
It is known as one of the most progressive tribes due to the focus on individual rights. A "chief" is chosen by the people based on who is the wisest. This leader stays in power until his death or any wrongdoing. Then another chief is chosen based on wisdom.
Men and women play equal roles in society as well. Bete women are widely known as the most outspoken of any other tribes.
As far as courtship, the men of the Bete tribe travel outside of the village to date. Dating within the tribe is not allowed because of the belief that the village is a family unit. Ethnically diverse marriages are strongly encouraged.Before dating begins men ask about the woman's family to make sure there is no trace of any relation.Marriage is not possible if the couple is related in any way. The men do not leave the village when marriage. Rather, the wife is brought into the man's tribe. This is because the man is expected to provide a home and land. He has already inherited land from his father,so the women must travel to outside of their villages for financial security. The wedding is discussed only among the bride and groom. It is meant to be a surprise for the parents, particularly the woman's parents. The date of the wedding is set and the wife's family is invited to the groom's village to celebrate. The woman's family then visits to make sure the woman is marrying of her own free will. This is a polite formality. When she has said that she is sure of her decision then congratulations is acceptable. The wedding ceremony takes one week. Each day is a celebration of the bride and she is treated like a queen.
Polygamy is a common practice. Men usually have no more than three wives. When a man decides to have another wife, the first wife often becomes a sort of mother to her. The original wife may choose to be head of all other wives. This is a common practice but not an obligation. Any wife may choose to leave their husbands' if he decides to marry another woman. Often, the original wife will make the second wife feel unwelcome in order to make her leave instead. In some cases the wives will get along and become friends.
Divorce is also very common. A wife can decide to leave her husband and go back to her home village whenever she chooses and is not obligated to give her husband any notice or explanation. The husband in turn can choose to kick his wife out of his home. Counseling among friends is very common in marital disputes.
Because of education, these traditions are usually only practiced by people still living in the villages. When the children move to cities and go to universities they usually adopt Western traditions of marriage.
They maintain a harmonious relationship between nature and the ancestors. The vast majorities follow their traditional African religion and believe in the God (Lago) however; they do not worship this God. They believe in the spirit world to guide and protect them through daily life. These spirits they believe are found in nature, namely rivers, rocks, forests etc. Sacrifices of worldly possessions are made to the spirits to appease them especially during troubling times.
Religion, omnipresent in Bete life, aims to maintain a harmonious relationship between nature and the ancestors who are responsible for the welfare of the tribe. Today the vast majority still follow their traditional African religion, believing in a creator God Lago, but do not pray to or worship him. Instead they seek help from many lesser spirits supposed to have supernatural power to help them, or give protection--spirits of their ancestors, spirits that inhabit trees, rivers, rocks, etc. They observe many customs and taboos and make sacrifices of eggs, chickens, cows, etc. Each ritual focuses on the maintenance and care of good relations with the world of ancestors, so as to assure the protection of the lineages. The religious cults give rise to numerous mask performances, during the course of which the music assumes fundamental importance. The apprenticeship of male youngsters particularly concentrates on the mastery of these arts. In fact, within a village context the men form into veritable dance societies, membership in which is indispensable.
Spiritual authority was wielded with an array of paraphernalia, notably including the “gre” mask, a horned and decorated creation (originating with the We) designed to instill terror in the onlooker, to quell social unrest, and to be worn when meting out justice after conflict.
Statuary is uncommon, and is based around feminine iconography that refers to a mythical mother figure. No recognized liturgical function was found, although some reports indicate that a pair of figures was often placed under a village rain shelter to represent its founders. This evocation of a primeval couple has widespread resonance in African culture. Rare figures with exaggerated genitalia are probably linked to a magico-religious fertility appeal. Alternatively, they may have constituted a more general role, evoking or celebrating the fertility of the village/land, its founders or the forest from which the people made their living.
The men of the Bete tribe travel outside of the village to find marriage partners. Choosing a partner within the tribe is not allowed because of the belief that the village is a family unit. Ethnically diverse marriages are strongly encouraged. Before dating begins men ask about the woman's family to prevent an intra-familial match. Marriage is forbidden if the couple is related in any way. Husbands remain in their home village after marriage. Wives join the husband's tribe. The husband is expected to provide a home and land (usually inherited) for his wife.
The marriage is discussed only among the bride and groom and is meant to be a surprise for the parents, particularly the woman's parents. The date of the wedding is set and the wife's family is invited to the groom's village to celebrate. The woman's family then visits to make sure the woman is marrying of her own free will. This is a polite formality. When she has said that she is sure of her decision, then congratulations are welcomed. The wedding ceremony takes one week. Each day is a celebration of the bride and she is treated royally.
Polygamy is common. Husbands typically have no more than three wives. When a man decides to marry again, the first wife becomes a sort of mother to her. The original wife may choose to become the head of the group of wives. This is a common practice but not an obligation. Any wife may choose to separate if her husband marries another woman. The original wife may attempt to make the second wife feel unwelcome to make her leave instead. Alternatively, the wives get along.
Divorce is very common. A wife can leave her husband and return to her home village whenever she chooses without notice or explanation. The husband in turn can choose to kick his wife out. Counseling among friends is very common in marital disputes.
Traditions are mostly practiced by people still living in villages. When the children move to cities, they usually adopt Western traditions.
Bete carvers are renowned for one particular type of face mask, the gre or nyabwa , which has exaggerated, grimacing distorted features – a large protruding mouth, facial protuberances, bulging forehead, elongated nose, with nostrils sometimes extending to each side of the face, and globular or bulging slit eyes set beneath a high-domed forehead carved with a medium ridge. In earlier days, this mask presided over the ceremony held when peace was restored after armed conflicts and it participated in sessions of customary justice. This type of mask was also worn to prepare men for war; the masks offered magical protection by instilling fear and terror in potential enemies. Nowadays, it is worn for a variety of ceremonies, including entertainment dances.
The Bete have carved elegant statues, stylistically influenced by their neighbors the Guro. Bete statues were usually carved as standing figures displaying set-apart legs, an elongated torso with square shoulders, an elongated columnar neck supporting an oblong head with a pointed chin, an incised mouth and a high-domed, smooth forehead under a helmet-like coiffure. Bete figures exhibit hand positions, which are difficult to interpret, as well as touches of white pigment. Male and female figures are displayed in shelters or shrines to represent the founders of the community. They incarnate the conceptual ideal of spiritual perfection and moral strength and its connection to physical beauty. Other smaller statuettes may have been carved to represent spouses from the other world, a tradition inspired by the Baule.