Ethnic Groups and Languages
The population of Côte d'Ivoire is ethnically diverse. More than sixty indigenous ethnic groups are often cited, although this number may be reduced to seven clusters of ethnic groups by classifying small units together on the basis of common cultural and historical characteristics. These may be reduced to four major cultural regions--the East Atlantic (primarily Akan), West Atlantic (primarily Kru), Voltaic, and Mandé--differentiated in terms of environment, economic activity, language, and overall cultural characteristics. In the southern half of the country, East Atlantic and West Atlantic cultures, separated by the Bandama River, each make up almost one-third of the indigenous population. Roughly onethird of the indigenous population lives in the north, including Voltaic peoples in the northeast and Mandé in the northwest.
In Côte d'Ivoire, as across Africa, national boundaries reflect the impact of colonial rule as much as present-day political reality, bringing nationalism into conflict with centuries of evolving ethnic identification. Each of Côte d'Ivoire's large cultural groupings has more members outside the nation than within. As a result, many Ivoirians have strong cultural and social ties with people in neighboring countries. These centrifugal pressures provided a challenge to political leaders in the 1980s, as they did to the governors of the former French colony.
Most representatives of East Atlantic cultures are Akan peoples, speakers of languages within the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Many are descendants of eighteenth-century migrants from the kingdom of Asante. The largest Akan populations in Côte d'Ivoire are the Baoulé, who make up nearly 15 percent of the total population, and the Agni (Anyi), who make up only about 3 percent of the total. Much larger Akan populations live in Ghana and Togo. Akan societies are generally organized into farming communities but have a history of highly centralized chiefdoms and kingdoms tracing descent through maternal links. In the region that is now Côte d'Ivoire, they did not form large empires like the Asante of Ghana.
Smaller groups live in the southeastern lagoon region, where contact and intermarriage between the Akan and earlier inhabitants have resulted in ways of life that reflect elements of several cultural traditions. These Lagoon cultures comprise about 5 percent of the population. They depend on fishing and crop cultivation for subsistence and are not organized into centralized polities above the village level.
Across the Bandama River, West Atlantic cultures are represented by Kru peoples, probably the oldest of Côte d'Ivoire's present-day ethnic groups. Traditional Kru societies were organized into villages relying on hunting and gathering for subsistence and descent groups tracing relationships through male forebears. They rarely formed centralized chiefdoms. The largest Kru population in Côte d'Ivoire is the Bété, who made up about 6 percent of the population in the 1980s.
In the north, cultural differences are greater than in the south. Descendants of early Mandé conquerors occupy territory in the northwest, stretching into northern Guinea and Mali. The nation of Mali took its name from one of the largest of these societies, the Malinké. In the 1980s, Mandé peoples--including the Malinké, Bambara, Juula, and smaller, related groups--made up about 17 percent of the population of Côte d'Ivoire.
To the east of the Mandé are Voltaic peoples. The most numerous of these, the Sénoufo, made up about 10 percent of the total population in the 1980s. The Sénoufo migrated to their present location from the northwest in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both historical periods are still in evidence in two forms of social organization found in the area--one based on small descent groups and the other on more complex confederations similar to those of the Mandé.
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