West Atlantic Cultures

West Atlantic Cultures

The dominant peoples in the southwest region, where the forest zone reaches the coastal lagoons, are the Kru. Kru languages are a subgroup within the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo language family, related to those of the Akan and lagoon peoples to their east. Kru societies are found along the coast from Monrovia, Liberia, to the Bandama River in Côte d'Ivoire. They include the Bété, Dida, Guéré, Wobé, and several smaller groups.

Kru cultures generally lack the centralization characteristic of the Akan to the east. The basic social unit is the patrilineage, tracing descent through males to a common male ancestor for both men and women. The lineage, which usually coincides with a village, is further subdivided into segments or branches. Village leadership may be exercised by a council of elders, sometimes headed by a chief whose power is limited by the council. The result is an uncentralized, but not anarchic, society. Few status distinctions are recognized other than age and lineage membership, although many Krou people kept slaves from neighboring societies before the arrival of European slave traders. Villages maintain ties based on presumed common descent, reinforced by ceremonial exchanges and gifts. Unrelated villages maintained neutral relations but were rarely united into a larger polity until the colonial era.

For their livelihood, the Kru rely on farming supplemented by hunting in forest areas. Land is held collectively by members of a village but is worked by individual lineage branches or families. Age groups were traditionally assigned military and religious responsibilities, and they still organized communal work projects in the late 1980s. Women were important in the village, with responsibilities for most activity concerning crops. They also formed age groups or village councils, which were traditionally consulted before implementing political decisions, although women's councils lost influence under colonial rule.

The Bété, the largest Kru society, are probably the descendants of groups pushed southward from savanna woodland to forested areas by warfare to the north. They are divided into patrilineage-based villages, often allied with other villages by tracing descent to a common ancestor. Lineage exogamy prohibits marriage within the patrilineage and contributes to links among patrilineages through intermarriage.

Marriage is a family responsibility, as it is in many societies. The family of the groom compensates the family of the bride for their loss, a practice crudely translated as "brideprice ." This exchange legitimizes children of the marriage, who are considered members of their father's patrilineage, while their mother retains her membership in her father's lineage.

Polygyny, or plural marriage by Bété men, remained relatively common in the 1980s, although as in all societies, it was an expensive means of gaining prestige, sexual access, and children, and it was not recognized by Ivoirian law. Divorce, although not common, was socially acceptable and allowed children to retain their membership in their father's patrilineage even if they continued to live with their mother.

In the twentieth century, the Bété have been recognized for their success in cash cropping and for their widespread acceptance of Christianity. They have a strong ethnic consciousness despite these foreign influences and have been active both within the government and in antigovernment dissent groups since independence. They also have a long history of resistance to foreign domination and strong beliefs in their own cultural superiority.

Around the Bété are a number of smaller groups, including the Dida, Guéré, Wobé, Neyo, Niaboua, and several others. Most are organized into farming villages, with a greater dependence on fishing along the coast. Many villages share common basic features with neighboring groups, and most have an ethnically mixed labor force and large immigrant population. Some have adopted myths of origin of other groups to legitimize their pride in their past, and many maintain strong loyalties to the region, despite their apparent mixed origins.

The Southern Mandé

Dan and Gouro cultures of western Côte d'Ivoire share numerous culture traits in common with the Kru peoples to their south, but they speak languages related to that of the Mandé to their north. Their traditional political organization was not complex, resembling the villages of the southwest more than the highly centralized polities of the Mandé. Because of their cultural eclecticism, the Dan, Gouro, and smaller, related groups of westcentral Côte d'Ivoire are sometimes classified as Southern Mandé or "Peripheral Mandé," a label they would reject. They made up slightly less than 8 percent of the total population in the late 1980s.


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