The Beti-Pahuin are a Bantu group of related peoples who inhabit the rain forest regions of Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe. Though they separate themselves into several individual ethnic groups, they all share a common history and culture.
They were numbered at an estimated 3,320,000 individuals in the late 20th century and are the largest ethnic group in both Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Their languages, from the Bantu subgroup of the Niger–Congo language family, are mutually intelligible and are thus sometimes considered to be dialects of a single tongue, called Beti.
The Beti-Pahuin are made up of over 20 individual ethnic groups. Altogether, they inhabit a territory of forests and rolling hills that stretches from the Sanaga River in the north to Equatorial Guinea and the northern halves of Gabon to Congo to the south, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the west to the Dja River in the east.
Due to a long shared history and a great deal of intermarriage between the various groups, distinguishing different peoples can often prove difficult. Nevertheless, a northern-southern distinction is sometimes drawn, or the peoples are classified along linguistic lines.
The first grouping, called the Beti, consists of the Ewondo (more precisely Kolo), Bane, Fang (more precisely M'fang), Mbida-Mbane, Mvog-Nyenge, and Eton (or Iton). The Eton are further subdivided into the Eton-Beti, Eton-Beloua, and Beloua-Eton.
The Ewondo, or Yaunde, are centred on Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, which was named for them. They also populate the eastern Mefou division and the Mfoundi and Nyong and So divisions in the Centre Province. The remainder of their territory lies in the northern portions of the Ocean division in the South Province. Their language (or Beti dialect), also called Ewondo, is the most widely spoken of the Beti languages in Cameroon, with an estimated 1,200,000 speakers in 1982. It serves as a lingua franca in Yaoundé and much of the rest of Cameroon's Centre and South Provinces.
The Fang (or Fan) form the second group. Individual ethnic groups include the Fang proper, the Ntumu, the Mvae, and the Okak. Fang territories begin at the southern edge of Cameroon south of Kribi, Djoum, and Mvangan in the South Province and continue south across the border, including all of Rio Muni in Equatorial Guinea and south into Gabon and Congo.
The Fang are present in greatest numbers in Gabon, Equatorial Guinea (including the island of Bioko), and São Tomé and Príncipe and small numbers in the Congo. In Equatorial Guinea the Fang have been the politically dominant group since independence, not only in Rio Muni on the mainland but also on the island of Bioko where they are a minority. They are the most numerous of the Beti-Pahuin peoples and their language was estimated to have had more than 858,000 speakers in 1993.
The third grouping is called the Bulu and makes up about a third of all Beti-Pahuin in Cameroon. The Bulu include the Bulu proper of Sangmélima, Kribi, and Ebolowa, the Fong and Zaman of the Dja River valley, the Yengono, Yembama and Yelinda of the Nyong River valley, and the Yesum, Yebekanga, Yekebolo, and Mvele.
These peoples are primarily concentrated in the Ntem and Dja and Lobo divisions of Cameroon's South Province, though they also live as far north as the Upper Sanaga and Nyong and Mfoumou divisions in the Centre Province and as far east as the Upper Nyong division in the East Province. They numbered as many as 660,000 in the late 20th century, and their language, called Bulu, is spoken by approximately 800,000 people as a second language.
In addition, several other peoples are currently being assimilated or "Pahuinised" by their Beti-Pahuin neighbours. These include the Manguissa, Yekaba, Bamvele, Evuzok, Batchanga (Tsinga), Omvang, Yetude, and, to some extent, the Baka.
Early population movements
The Beti-Pahuin's exact origins are unclear. At one point, they were thought to have migrated into the territory of present-day Cameroon from the Azande area of Sudan, but the current belief is that they originated in the forests south of the Sanaga River, 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 process, the migrants encountered other ethnic groups. The invaders were militarily superior, however, they were able to absorb and "Pahuinise" most of the indigenous groups they encountered. Those peoples who refused or resisted assimilation had no choice but to flee. One such group was the Maka, who were living south of the Lom River but who fled south and east upon the Beti-Pahuin's arrival.
These migrations also coincided with the apex of European trade off the Cameroonian coast. The newly claimed jungle and near-coastal territories of the Beti-Pahuin allowed them to ensconce themselves into a lucrative role as middlemen; in exchange for European goods, they provided items such as kola nuts, ivory, and slaves. After the establishment of a British naval presence in 1827 to hinder the West African slave trade, Beti-Pahuin merchants widened their operations to include such products as palm kernels and rubber (though slaves continued to be sold secretly).
Beginning in 1887, German colonisers penetrated Beti-Pahuin territory to search for individuals to enslave on their coastal plantations. They also stopped the coastward migration of the peoples. Meanwhile, the French stopped further Fang penetration into their colony at Gabon, though the Fang of Equatorial Guinea continued unimpeded toward the sea and began using copper and iron money introduced by the Spanish.
In time, the Germans expanded their Cameroonian plantations inland, and the Beti-Pahuin formed the easiest and most accessible source of enslaved labour to work them, to build the accompanying road network, and to serve as sexual prisoners for the German overseers. The Germans also outlawed or tried to suppress native customs that they deemed "barbaric" or unsavoury, such as the sacrifice of a chief's wives after his death and the sso initiation rite. Among these alleged barbaric practices the Germans were to outlaw, slavery and sexual exploitation at the hands of the Germans was not one of them.
It was not long before the Beti-Pahuin showed resistance. The Bulus revolted first, in 1891. Their main complaint was that the coming of the Germans had stripped them of their profitable position as traders. The rebellion was squelched in 1895. Later that year, Ewondo chiefs of the Mvog Betsi clan were deemed "disruptive" and whipped before their village. In response, the villagers killed the men who did the whipping, and the Ewondos rose up over the insult. This rebellion lasted less than a year before the Germans suppressed it. Elements of the Bane and Mbidambani also led rebellions.
In response to these aggressive actions, the Germans instigated a policy of removing uncooperative chiefs from power and propping up puppet rulers and paramount chiefs in their places. The most well known example of this is the 1911 appointment of the German-sympathiser and interpreter Charles Atangana, a member of the Mvog Atemenge sub-lineage, as paramount chief of the Ewondo and Bane. The Bulu feared that their trade relations and autonomy would be threatened by Atangana's appointment. Martin-Paul Samba led an uprising in 1912, but it was quelled.
French colonial rule of Cameroon began in 1916 and largely followed in the German mold. Plantations multiplied and expanded as the French concentrated chiefly on cocoa. Meanwhile, the Beti-Pahuin continued to supply a significant source of free labour. The French also maintained a system of indoctrinating and installing handpicked tribal rulers. However, as France granted increasing levels of self-rule to its African holdings, the Beti-Pahuin were quick to seize upon it. An early example was the Bulu tribal union, a group of representatives from all clans who met to establish common tribal policies.
Since the end of the colonial period in the 1960s, the Beti-Pahuin have succeeded in making themselves politically important in both Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Likewise, the Fang make up some 80-90% of the population of Equatorial Guinea, which has allowed them to become politically dominant in that country. The large number of Beti-Pahuin involved in lucrative enterprises such as cocoa and coffee farming also lends them a strong economic influence.
Lifestyle and settlement patterns
The Beti-Pahuin peoples organise themselves according to a series of patrilineal kinships. The family (a man, his wife or wives, and his children) forms the backbone of this system. Several families of a common lineage live together in a village, and in turn, several related villages form a clan. These clans come under the nominal rule of a chief, who is also traditionally regarded as a religious authority. Nevertheless, these individuals, though still highly regarded, hold very little actual power today, and in some of the southern Beti-Pahuin groups, the office of chief has disappeared altogether. Most decision-making at the village or clan level is done by consensus.
The majority of the Beti-Pahuin ethnic groups live in small, roadside villages of no more than a few hundred inhabitants. These villages are mostly linear, with houses paralleling the road and backed by forest. The typical dwelling unit is constructed of dried-mud bricks placed onto a bamboo frame and roofed with raffia-palm fronds. In recent times, metal roofing has become increasingly common, and wealthier individuals may construct their homes in concrete.
Beti-Pahuin territory also includes a number of sizable towns and cities, most of which were begun by the Germans or French. Here, settlements are more in the European pattern, with a network of streets, various neighbourhoods, and central administrative or commercial districts.
Most individuals maintain an agrarian lifestyle. Manioc and maize form the staple crops with plantains, yams, and groundnuts also playing a vital role (in fact, "Ewondo" and "Yaoundé" mean "groundnut"). A variety of forest products, such as greens, insects, mushrooms, and various palm products, supplements the diet. Livestock is limited to small animals that may be left to forage unattended, such as goats, pigs, and chickens.
These are typically saved for special occasions such as funerals or New Year's Day. Instead, the main source of animal protein during the year, comes from bushmeat, that is, wild game such as pangolin, porcupine, and monkey brought in by jungle hunters. Likewise, fishing is central to the lives of many Beti-Pahuin, particularly in Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe. Toward Yaoundé in Cameroon and other large towns, bushmeat forms a substantial form of income for many villagers, who sell their kills to passing vehicles for sale in the urban centres.
In addition, a substantial number of Beti-Pahuin are involved in the cocoa plantations that dot the territory of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Cameroon's south. Most of these are Bulus or Fangs, since their territory contains the largest concentration of plantations. In contrast, the Ewondos farther north often find work as unskilled labour, as their environment is much more urbanised.
As late as the colonial period, many Beti-Pahuin were highly skilled workers in wood, ivory, and soapstone. They were particularly noted for their lively masks. Today, however, very little of this traditional craft is still pursued, though missionary groups have encouraged some carvers to continue to practice with an eye toward the tourist market.
Most Beti-Pahuin peoples were Christianised by 1939 (though the Fang were also influenced by the Mitsogo). At this time, much of their traditional culture was abandoned, including much native dance and song. Nevertheless, the native animist beliefs were never completely extinguished, and traditional practices have enjoyed a resurgence since 1945, such as the Bwiti religion and, as has a flowering of new styles of music and dance, such as the Bikutsi of the Ewondos.
Thus, today many Beti-Pahuin consider themselves Christian, go to church on Sundays, and then attend various secret societies or visit a traditional healer at other times during the week. Other people dispense with Christianity altogether. A firm belief in witchcraft also persists among much of the population, and even today, sorcery is a punishable offense in some areas.
Most Beti-Pahuin peoples also speak their countries’ official languages: Spanish in Equatorial Guinea (Annobonese in Annobón); French in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon; Portuguese, Angolar, Principense, and Forro in São Tomé and Príncipe, English in Cameroon.
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- Neba, Aaron, Ph.D. (1999) Modern Geography of the Republic of Cameroon, 3rd ed. Bamenda: Neba Publishers.
- Ngoh, Victor Julius (1996) History of Cameroon Since 1800. Limbé: Presbook.