Ndowe people


Ndowe / Kombe / Combe / Ngumbi / Playeros

Ndowe are an African ethnic group, members of the Bantu group, who are Coastal people of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Gabon.

The Spanish referred to them as playeros, or "beach dwellers"

They are native speakers of the Kombe language.

Population estimated (2015) was 300,000-400,000

País Ndowe (Ndowe Country) occupies the coastal región and the islands of Corsico Bay on the Gulf of Guinea, forming Litoral Province of Equatorial Guinea.

Kombe people map

Ndowe is a name broadly given to the Bantu-speaking coastal people of Equatorial Guinea.

It is a minority people who probably came to the mainland with the Fang, in the 12th and 13th centuries. They occupied the coast which earned them the name of “beachmen”: those of the beach. The social organization of the Ndowé is similar to that of the Fang and is hierarchical in families, cities, lineages and clans.

Settling along the Mbini, or Muni, River and its affluents and the beaehes, they fished, hunted, and grew cassava, malanga, and plantains. Living in scattered village communities linked by lineage and clans, they were inereasingly dominated by the more politieally centralized Fang and prevented from settling inland. Despite frequent confliets, intermarriage between the Ndowe and the Fang was common, as it was between the Ndowe and the Bayele "Pygmy" peoples. The most unifying forcé among Ndowe communities was the transethnic Bwiti, adopted at the end of the i8oos, which promotes "one-heartness" among its followers.

Ndowe people

Tribal groups of Ndowe people

Ndowe people

The two primary ethnic groups who speak the Kombe language are:

The BOUMBA, including the tribes:

The BONGWE, including the tribes:

Ndowe people

Sociopolitical organization

Sociopolitical is acephalic; each clan has a chief, who is in turn advised by the council of chiefs of the different lineages. The family or «dyanga» is the political and economical unit. Structurization is patrilineal and exogamous. Inheritance and succession to chief status is likewise paternal in line and in order of age among males.
As most of these patrilineal societies, the Beach Peoples are polygynic; however, as pointed out by Iv ANGA (1992), monogamous marriage has existed for over 150 years, clearly influenced by evangelization. As in the case of the Fang, «ebonda» or «wealth of the bride» also exists among the Beach Peoples, whereby marriage alliances are established when the family of the groom pays material tribute to the family of the bride in return for ceding one of the clan's females. In turn, the clan of the groom acquires the rights over both the woman and her descendants, which come to belong to the clan.

Ndowe people

Initiation rites

These peoples have multiple initiation and transition rites, such as «esube» (or circumcision at birth) in addition to others that are celebrated upon reaching puberty. The main purpose of these rites is to introduce the individual to the community and to adult status, while reinforcing the feeling of belonging to the group. These initiation ceremonies demand courage, discipline, resistance and the overcoming of pain. Secret societies are also widespread, and membership is a matter of family tradition, social status, etc. Only those individuals who form part of these societies are regarded as being able to perceive events in the metaphysical world. The belief in a universal force may be manifested in different ways, as an expression of their beliefs regarding plants, animals, the sun, moon, sea or fire.

Ndowe people

Okuyi - Mekuyo rites

The Okuyi (plural: Mekuyo, also known as Ukuyi, Ocuya, Mokoi, Mukudj, Ikwara, Okukwe and Mbwanda, in Equatorial Guinea (Spanish): Mamarracho) is a rite of passage practised by several Bantu ethnic groups in different countries mainly across the west coast of Central Africa. Some of the countries where the rite is exercised include Cameroon in West Central Africa, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Traditionally, the rite is performed at numerous special occasions including funerals and weddings. Usually when an infant reaches four months of age or when a child becomes an adolescent, an Okuyi ritual is applied as well. Today, the Mekuyo rite is exercised by a range of ethnic peoples within the Bantu cluster. The coastal community known as Ndowe, also known as playeros, is a primary example, as peoples across Equatorial Guinea frequently perform the ritual in public. Gabon has two chief ethnic groups that exercise the Okuyi rite including the Mpongwe and Galwa from Lambaréné, Gabon. The man in the custome is usually the leader of the group.

The history of the Mekuyo can be traced back to Gabon. The dance is believed to have originated from the rites of passages initiated by western and southern ethnic groups like the Mpongwe and from the Galwa region. It was in the mid-nineteenth century when the Benga people, who are both native to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, introduced the ethnic performance to the island of Corisco and Cabo San Juan. At the end of the century, the coastal group of the Kombe people had extended the routine to Mbini. By the beginning of the twentieth century, several clans in Bata such as the Punta Mbonda had embraced the Mekuyo tradition. Throughout the Mekuyo’s history there have been several famous Ukuyi performers. Some of the most famous are from Equatorial Guinea such as Alonga from Corisco and Boso bua Ndondjo from Mbini. Well known Okuyi dancers from the Litoral Province include Kungulu, Ngadi, Aduma and Ngüende a limba from Ekuku.

Ndowe people

The typical Okuyi performer wears a large, loose costume that is said to resemble the spirit of the clan members’ ancestors. The ancestors are illustrated by the dancers as tranquil and serene and suggest that they were the people who safeguarded, counselled, and educated them from the residence of the deceased. Okuyi costumes are made either from the raffia palm, a tree native to tropical African nations, or bamboo. In the process of manufacture, the underlying outfit is produced using the woven fabric hessian. The thick textile forms the suit for the performer. After that design is complete, the material is covered by frills made from raffia palm which are woven into the hessian fabric. Performers usually wear black socks made of cotton on their feet as well as on their hands. Every dancer carries through his presentation wearing a mask made of a soft local wood known in Ndowe as ikuka (Alstonia congensis), a species from the evergreen tree genus Alstonia. The man in the costume is usually the leader of the group.

In Gabon, the styles and colors generally remain the same throughout the country but in Equatorial Guinea, the types change depending on the location within the country. Hanging down from the mouth of the Okuyi is the skin of the servaline genet (Genetta servalina), a small forest cat. The skin has the role of protecting the Okuyi from bad spirits that threaten him. There is a relation with the Egyptian mythology of the feline type accompanying the journey of the soul of the dead, to the underworld. For the dead Okuyi who embodies the soul as well from the underworld symbolised by the genetta skin hanging from the mouth of the mask. The face mask on each performer is essential to identify the Okuyi. In Equatorial Guinea masks differ from one another, but in Gabon the design has been kept constant since the nineteenth century. The design is basically a black chin and a black forehead with white covering the cheeks and upper face sides. The dark red eyes remain closed, as a sign that the person represented is dead. This contrasts with masks from Equatorial Guinea as the face masks range from geometrical forms to human faces. The majority of the masks have the eyes closed and very few have them open. Some masks that Mekuyo wear have a mirror attached on the forehead which also is used as a talisman. Mekuyo dancers also wear a cape known as an ecapa which is usually white and often features not only the name of the Okuyi dancer but also his birth place and birth date.

In Equatorial Guinea, there are commonly three principal colors painted on the wooden mask: white, red and black. These three colors represent diverse aspects which are illustrated to the audience but are mainly targeted to the initiated person who is the centre of the rite of passage. The colors on the mask aim to link in cosmogony to the ritual as the Mekuyo tradition is related to cosmos which are the customary dwellings of the spirits. The black on the mask typically symbolises darkness and death. The red displays the fight a person must perform during life, the strength needed to do so, the blood involved and the birth. The white demonstrates life, semen and the ancestors which the mask is supposed to portray.

Ndowe people


There are many types of Okuyi rituals exercised in several countries across Africa. In Equatorial Guinea, performances generally last approximately three hours, from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. mostly on Sundays. Performances usually consist of the Ukuyi dancer dancing in short and fast episodes as he stomps his feet on the ground usually to a beat played by three drums and wooden sticks. At the same time, a female chorus sing in the background chanting greetings and welcomes to the Mekuyo. Usually the Okuyi holds palm leaves or tall ibito branches or spears which gives them balance. The malanga leaves known as poto are used as a medium to plant the ibito. Palm branches are used to bless the members of the audience. The ibito is traditionally planted into the ground by the Mekuyo at the beginning of the ceremony in front of the chorus. The base of the ibito plant has a sack held by several poto leaves holding numerous barks from a variety of trees. This is supposed to provide security for the Mekuyo as well as for the members of the crowd.

In all performances, the Mekuyo are assisted by the Mboni, which are a group of initiated young men who have the responsibility to care and assist the Mekuyo and encourage the dancing and singing. The Mboni also have the job to groom and carry the masks. The Okuyi’s identity is strictly secret and nobody in the audience is meant to know who is under the costume. The Mboni might become an Okuyi in the future. They are typically meant to be very agile and skilful dancers and musicians as well.

For infants

One of the most common types of rituals is for new mothers and their babies. When an infant reaches about four months of age, it is taken for a Mekuyo rite of passage where it enters another stage of his or her life. In the past, the Ukuyi used to take the baby from the mother and most of the time the baby didn't cry. As the baby was entering its new stage, a chorus was chanted around the baby. Together they sang several songs, one of them being a tune about a panther taking the baby. However, in the present, the mother is permitted to hold the infant at all times in most of the rites. The actual ritual involves the mother and child being placed in the centre of the ring surrounded by the chorus and the audience, the mother holds the baby and sits on a chair. The Okuyi points at the baby with the malanga or sometimes a spear as a way to bless them. Then, water which has been previously placed in a bucket is sprinkled on the baby. The Okuyi dances around the baby and mother as they sit.


The Mekuyo are known for their intermittent dances. In funeral performances the primary mourner traditionally sits on a chair in the middle of an open area and surrounding him or her is an Okuyi dancing in his normal method similar to the new mother's rite "djae". Like during most of the dances, the Mekuyo uses the palm, fern leaves or skins to bless both the mourner and the members of the audience.


The songs featured in the Mekuyo presentations are normally in a polyrhythmic style. The instruments used are a certain type of drum known as Ngoma drums with the biggest kind being named the monduma. Traditionally, these drums used to be buried in the trunk of various banana trees. It is this that caused the sound to be heard as a deeper pitch. This was accompanied by the mosomba drum or, as it was called by the Kombe people, the ikubi. However, substitutes for drums are often used. One of the most common alternatives is a metal bucket filled with stones.

Chants that are sung with the instruments are sometimes done in the old Benga language, proving incomprehensible for the actual people who perform them and listen to them. Often however, the tunes are sung in the language of the people who chant them. The songs’ introductions are commenced by the males who give the first opening tones, then the women follow. Women are the key voices of the chorus in Mekuyo dances as the Okuyi requires the female voice to dance appositely. The lyrics of the melodies the choir sings educate the listeners about everyday life possessions, experiences and traditional folklore. A common theme is reality of the Ndowe kinfolk or events that have happened to important people of the community in the past. The songs are an important way to communicate historical knowledge. This information is then passed to others through the singing and used as an expression to form a frame of the dances of the Mekuyo. In funerals, the Mekuyo music and dance is used to break the mourning period and bring hope to all the mourners for the future.