Teke people


Teke / Bateke / Tyo / Tio

The Teke people, or Bateke also known as the Tyo or Tio, are a Bantu Central African ethnic group that speak the Teke languages. Its population is situated mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, with a minority in Gabon. Omar Bongo, who was President of Gabon in the late 20th century, was a Teke.

Teke map

Ethnography and traditions

The name of the tribe shows what the occupation of the tribe was: trading. The word teke means 'to buy'. The economy of the Teke is mainly based on farming maize, millet and tobacco, but the Teke are also hunters, skilled fishermen and traders. The Teke lived in an area across Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. The mfumu was the head of the family and his prestige grew as family members increased. The Teke sometimes chose blacksmiths as chiefs. The blacksmiths were important in the community and this occupation was passed down from father to son.

In terms of life of the Teke, the village chief was chosen as religious leader, he was the most important tribal member and he would keep all the potions and spiritual bones that would be used in traditional ceremonies to speak to the spirits and rule safety over his people.

Teke masks are mainly used in traditional dancing ceremonies such as wedding, funeral and initiation ceremonies of young men entering adult hood. The mask is also used as a social and political identifier of social structure within a tribe or family. The Teke or Kidumu people are well known for their Teke masks, which are round flat disk-like wooden masks that have abstract patterns and geometric motifs with horizontal lines that are painted in earthly colors, mainly dark blue, blacks, browns and clays. The traditional Teke masks all have triangle shaped noses. The masks have narrow eye slits to enable the masker to see without being seen. They have holes pierced along the edge for the attachment of a woven raffia dress with feathers and fibers. The mask is held in place with a bite bar at the back that the wearer holds in his teeth. The dress would add to the mask's costume and conceal the wearer. The masks originate from the upper Ogowe region.

The French first arrived in what is now the Republic of Congo in the 1880s, and occupied the Congo until 1960. During this colonial period, traditional Teke ceremonies were very few. Under the French, the Teke people suffered heavily from colonial exploitation. The French government was gathering land for its own use and damaging traditional economies, including massive displacement of people. The Teke Kingdom signed a treaty with the French in 1883 that gave the French land in return for protection. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza oversaw French interests. A small settlement along the Congo River was renamed Brazzaville and eventually became the federal capital of French Equatorial Africa. In the 1960s the Teke people started to gain back their independence and traditional life started to flourish once again.



The word Teke means ‘to buy’ in the Bateke language, therefore the name of the Teke tribe is presumably derived from the fact that they were merchant traders dealing specifically in maize, millet and tobacco. The tribe also occupied themselves with hunting and fishing. The Teke traditionally chose blacksmiths as chiefs because this was an occupation perceived to be one of supreme importance with skills passed on from generation to generation. The chief was the most important member, as his role was to keep the tribe safe through the practice of traditional ceremonies and to keep the peace within his community. During the 1800s the Teke territory was colonised by the French. This led to the displacement of tribe members and the loss of many traditional practices.


Like most Congolese tribes, the Teke are a very spiritual people. They believe in practicing African traditional religion, which involves spirits and the protection of ancestors. Voodoo practices such as spells, curses, and sacrifices are also practised. The Teke people had tribal chiefs who were chosen to be religious leaders. These chiefs were highly respected, and no one ever doubted any decision they made. Today, most Teke families still have tribal chiefs, however this tradition is dying out in modern society. The Teke people are well known for their artwork, specifically their masks. The masks are often used in traditional ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and the initiation ceremonies of young men entering into adulthood. There is usually one tribunal chief who has the right over the life and death of all family members and is often called upon as a ‘mfumu mpugu’, a term used to describe a person of royal descendent. The tribunal chief has the right to decide upon the fate of a family member when they have done something wrong or broken the law.

Today most of the traditions, including mask-making, performing ceremonial dances and other African traditional practices, are still carried out and celebrated by many people.

Like many other cultures, the Teke people have a unique cultural dress code. They typically wear outfits made out of rafia, which is a palm tree native to tropical mainland Africa and Madagascar. The leaves are dried and used to make hats, baskets, mats and clothes. The Teke also incorporate a mixture of prints into their outfits, as well as leopard and cheetah furs. Traditional body paints known as ‘kaolin’ are made of a white, fired clay and used for face and body decoration.


The Teke or Tyos (Tios) speak the Kiteke language or Etyo," which is a Bantu language belonging to the larger Niger-Congo language family.

These plateaus also represent distinct Bantu language groups in the B70-B79 range (Guthrie 1953). Numerous attempts have been made to classify the languages and thus the people, with various authors attempting to subdivide them into as many as 16 sub-groups (Sautter 1960) or as few as Guthrie’s ten. Work conducted by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Linton 2008) over the past 10 years in both the Republic of Congo and Gabon indicates that there are 12 language subgroups comprising approximately 390,000 speakers in the three countries.



Bateke economy is mostly agrarian. There are two large-scale types of cultivation that are conducted: forest plantations (ngwunu) and savanna plantations (ntieni). Additionally there are small gardens behind houses in the village (obugha). Trees are planted throughout the village.

Forest plantations (ngwunu): These plantations are the major source of cultivated foods. These are generally jointly managed by married persons who split the labour into the male role of cutting down the large trees in the new plantation, and the female role of planting, weeding, and harvesting. Sometimes single women desiring a plantation will solicit labour from the youth or unmarried men and compensate them with food, alcohol, or money. Some members of the elite as well as city-dwellers from the village will engage the village women’s association to make plantations in their absence. Additionally, some women will go into town to help their urban relatives make plantations there or to make smaller secondary plantations for their own consumption during frequent town stays.
Early in the long dry season in June, men and women set about clearing the brush in the subcanopy of the forest. By early July, the men begin the task of chopping down the large trees. The vegetation is left to dry and by mid-August the plantations are ready to burn. Planting begins in September or October. Crops planted in ngwunu include manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz), three to four varieties of forest yams (Dioscorea sp.), calabash (Lagenaria sp.), small amounts of corn (Zea mays L.), Talinum triangulare (Jacq.) Willd., Basella alba L., Celosia argentea L., Solanum sp. (ntiangui) and gourds for their oil seeds (Cucumeropsis mannii Naudin). Extensive plantations of pineapple (Ananas comosus (L.) Merr.) are planted, something that began in the 1950s. These are used for wine making. Formerly, wine was only made from the naturalised and smaller species of Ananas sativus Schult. & Schult. f. which is found in the forest, some hunting camps, and old village sites. Some women still gather these pineapples, which are sweeter, for wine making. This is locally referred to as the Bateke pineapple (kantu atege)

Savanna cultivation (antieni): Following the planting of ngwunu, in October and November women create plantations or antieni. These plantations are largely for yams but may also contain manioc. This process occurs in new savanna not far from the village but outside the goat grazing zone. Antieni (sometimes called apayi or ekala) can be created in groups or alone. The process consists of using a large hoe to overturn the sod, creating long furrows (ekala) numbering about 20 in the average plantation. These furrows are then planted with at least three varieties of savanna yam (e.g. mva) and one variety of a tuber (njolo) in the mint family. Also planted are Bateke groundnuts (Vigna subterranea (L.) Verdc.), oseille (Rumex sp.), tobacco (Nicotiana sp.), and sesame (Sesamum radiatum Schumach. & Thonn.). The knife which was used to divide the yam roots which were planted is left in the savanna plantations, struck in the ground, until the first leaves of the yams grow. This ensures success of the plantation.
These plantations require little maintenance. Once they are planted, they are left until the harvest period: February-March for the leaf and seed crops, and July-August for the root crops. Antieni are guarded against predation (particularly against bush pig) and by burning of the tall grass surrounding the plantation just after it is planted. This also avoids accidental fires later destroying the crops.

Dawn gardens (obugha):  Behind houses in the village, small vegetable or medicinal plant gardens are created. Vansina called these small easily-accessible areas, “dawn gardens”. These are surrounded by fences to keep the goats out, and the soil is often improved by the addition of vegetable compost. Vegetables cultivated include aubergine (Solanum sp.), oseille, hot peppers (Capsicum anuum L.), taro (Colocasia esculenta (L.) Schott), and sometimes tomatoes (Lycopersicon sp.). Medicinal plants include non-natives such as Sansevieria Thunb., njuma-njuma (Ocimum sp.), and Lantana camara L. Banana trees (Musa sp.) are sometimes planted in these gardens to commemorate a birth. It is here that the placenta of the new-born is buried; later, when severely sick, this person may have a healing ceremony conducted under his/her tree.

Cultivated fruit trees:  Non-native fruit trees are often planted in village forests. These trees sometimes indicate the former homesteads of deceased relatives. The primary tree species planted are mango (Mangifera indica L.), avocado (Persea americana Mill.), oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.), and atanga (Dacryodes edulis) trees. Despite their scattered nature throughout the village, fruit trees always have an owner who has a right to the harvest. The harvest of these trees is normally consumed by the owner’s household, but sometimes surplus fruit may be sold. Oil palm, one of the most important plants in village life, yields many products including oil, fruit, fibre, and fermentable sap. Only a few decades ago, the cutting down of an oil palm to make palm wine was forbidden since a tree provided much more than wine. Wine was only harvested by climbing to the top and securing the sap without killing the tree. Now, oil palms are regularly cut down for making palm wine.

Hunting:  Hunting is a passion for the Bateke. Since part of this study is related to the savanna hunting tradition, this form of hunting will be described in detail later.  Cable traps are sometimes set around plantations or along trap-lines. These are checked regularly. Animals trapped this way include porcupine or small gazelles. Sometimes men will hunt alone in the savanna or forest with guns. These can be short excursions or long expeditions on foot, involving camping. Prey of various sizes is targeted including medium-sized birds.
Hunting is sometimes done by groups of 6-7 men. The party uses a long light-weight net (now made of synthetic materials and purchased ready-made) and dogs to hunt porcupine and small antelope. Previously, stouter nets called awungu were used to catch bush-pig, a craft which was introduced to the Bateke by the neighbouring Obamba forest people at a time when bush pig were devastating their plantations. Today, these stout nets are no longer used nor are bush pig caught in anything but traps or with guns. However, net hunting for porcupine continues. Post hunt, long lengths of these nets can be found drying in the sun behind houses.
Hunting with dogs is the norm. Formerly dogs would wear ndimbi bells that would aid hunters in distinguishing their dogs in the forest. Today, dogs are used to drive game into nets or to run down game that has been shot.

Fishing:  Fish supplements the animal protein in diet throughout the year. While salted and smoked fish are sometimes bought in town, fresh fish is regularly caught with a variety of methods. Sometimes a solitary affair, most active fishing occurs by people working in groups.
Passive fishing: the capture of fish in the absence of the fisher by means of nets, traps, or hooks.


Social Organisation among the Teke

This is not a centralized state, and the authority of the king is above all religious. The Teke king is sacred. He plays an intermediary role between the spirits and the living. He is the guarantee of both fertility and cosmic order. He was aided by three people that made him undergo a series of enthronement rites over a period of two years. The diviner (Nganga) predicted the duration of the king’s reign by carrying out magical processes. The griots recalled past history, such as the justice and courage of kings.  The king’s main duty was to preserve the prosperity of his kingdom by carrying out specific rituals.

Each family came under the orders of the chief of the family who had absolute life and death rights over the family members. The greater the family unit, the greater the prestige of the chief, and chiefs would take on increasing numbers of slaves in order to increase this prestige.

The village elected a chief and this chief was subordinate to the clan chief who controlled several villages. The chief of the clan possessed a fetish figure called’ father of the earth’, which was a large wooden statue. The lower back of the statue had a band of cloth around it, a piece of metal was stuck in the belly button and the eyes were made from two fragments of mother of pearl. This fetish figure guaranteed the well being and the fertility of the village’s inhabitants. This figure presided over festivities and rituals. It was the guardian of order and could exclude anybody that behaved badly.
At a religious level, the village chief chosen to be the religious chief was the most important. He owned a basket containing the bone remains of ancestors and  magical statues.

The Teke often chose the blacksmith as the village chief, he was an important figure and his responsibility was hereditary. The diviner (Nganga), who was at the same time a healer and a witch, was very powerful. He was paid to give personal statues their protecting powers, and to play the role of priest in case of death or illness. His tools were a mirror, several statuettes, a feather duster, and a rattle made from a hollow dry fruit.

Among the masculine Mungala society, the clan chiefs and the diviners (Nganga) assured the education of the future initiates.

To create a new village the diviner uses a magical statuette and a bell. He tries to obtain the ancestor’s agreement when choosing the position of the new village. Once the Nganga has found it, the men dig a hole, pour in some palm wine and then fill the hole in with white clay. The aim is to thank the ancestors and to obtain their protection.


Religious Belief

The Teke believed in a Supreme Being and creator of the universe, called Nzami. However, they only worshipped an ancestral cult under the supervision of the diviner (Nganga). The Teke worshipped the cult of the genies or spirits of nature. They hoped to obtain their assistance, and when they went hunting they carried with them a small statue to bring them luck.

Nganga means sage, magician, judge, or priest. A person becomes Nganga either by inheriting the position or following a dream. The Nganga owns a statuette containing the soul of an ancestor called Tamakuwi. He is also capable of uncovering witches.

Among the Teke, the cult of the ancestors is very important. The ancestors live in the sacred forests, near rivers, in clearings, in caves…If the descendants do not honour their ancestors they believe that they will come back to torment them, be it with sickness, or mental illness. In order to avoid this, each family worships its ancestors. This cult materializes itself in anthropomorphic statues.


Teke Statues

Teke statues have a religious function, but are above all used for their magical qualities. The Teke have two sorts of statue: the Nkida which do not have a magical charge, and the Butti which do.

Teke statues are small in size, between 15 and 80 cm. There are generally parallel lines along the cheeks that represent tattoos. The forms are squat. The style of the statues is ‘cubist’ with angular forms and a helm shaped coiffure. The trapezoid beard is a sign of authority and prestige among the Teke. The mouth has important ritualistic significance; half open but doesn’t reveal the teeth. The arms are usually down by the sides, bent at a right angle, the hands placed on either side of the stomach; sometimes they have a magical charge or ‘bilongo’. The legs are usually bent, but there are some squatting statues. Teke statues are rarely feminine.

The statue may have been made by the Nganga or the person who wants to own it, perhaps the family chief. It is also possible that a professional sculptor was charged with both the making and sale of the statue.

Nkida statues represent an important person that has passed on (a famous hunter, a father or mother of a large family, a great cook, a well known warrior, a good fisherman, a great warrior…). This statue is uniquely representative; it does not carry a magical charge.

A Butti statue is only effective if it has been consecrated by a diviner or Nganga. The diviner puts a series of diverse ingredients in a small cavity in the statue’s stomach. For a magical statue this might be; vegetable matter, animal or minerals, and if it is a statue of an ancestor, the magical charge might contain hair, nails, or pieces of the dead person’s skin. This mixture is called ‘Bilongo’ or remedy. The reliquary statues of the ancestors are kept in houses and worshipped. They generally have a beautiful shiny patina due to the large number of oil libations, red powder, and fruit and seeds that have been chewed and spat out. The status of the ancestor represented by the statue is signified by a metal necklace.

In order to obtain the services of the magical Butti statue, the first day of the new or full moon, an ointment made of red powder and oil are made for the statue. These rites take place in the morning and might occur before a hunt, a journey, or an important sale… Janus statues are those of the chiefs.
The form of Bilongo often indicates the function of the statue.

Before leaving for a big game hunt, the diviner calls upon the divine forces. Small statues of between 6 and 12 cm are carried on the hunter’s arms to protect the expedition. Similarly to the other statues, their stomachs are covered in a poultice made of animal matter.

A special statuette, with a cylindrical impasto is used by the Nganga to ease the pains of pregnant women. After the birth, the placenta is buried in the house where the child will be raised. Part of the placenta is also used to mix in with the ingredients for the statue’s magical charge and will protect the child up until puberty. This statue is placed above the burial point of the placenta.

As well as his usual tools (bell made from brass or wood, mirror, feather duster), the Nganga owns a certain number of small statues. One of these, called ‘Matompa’, helps to avoid sleep sickness (trypanosomiasis). For the ceremony dedicated to the fight against this illness, the diviner sacrifices a number of chickens and kid goats, according to the wealth of the village. The animal’s blood is mixed with certain magical substances and is introduced into the hollow space in the statue’s stomach. The statue is then wrapped in a piece of cloth which is attached with a piece of string to the neck and hips. When the statue is finished it is offered to the chief. The ceremony ends in a dance.

Teke Masks

The Teke from the North West, notably the Tsaye, used small disc shaped masks in the framework of their secret society called Kidumu. This political and religious society intervened in all the major events in the social life of the village, notably: the marriage of a notary, a chief’s death, circumcision, an alliance, a judgement. The mask wearer danced alone accompanied by an orchestra at the end of the ceremony.

These round flat masks, divided horizontally by a strip, are decorated with abstract geometric motifs, white, black, blue, red or brown. Holes were made around the edge in order to hook on a costume made of raffia, feathers and fibres which hid the dancer. Two slits allowed the dancer to see out without being seen. At the back of the mask, a roll on three sides surrounded the dancer’s head.

Teke mask

Bateke dogs and cats

The Teke historically breed dogs and cats for domestic purposes. The chien Bateke is a small lean hunting dog with a short, medium gray coat. The chat Bateke is large cat with nearly the same coloring as the dog. These animals constitute landraces, rather than formal breeds (they are not recognized by any major fancier and breeder organizations). A majority of domesticated cats and dogs in areas bordering the Congo River are of these breeds, though ownership of domesticated animals in general is rare in the region.