Bété People: Ancient Warriors, Hunters And Culturally Unique People Of Côte D`Ivoire
In our serialized presentation of the diverse cultures of Ivory Coast, the month of December is dedicated to the Bétés; also known as Magwe, Tsien, Bokya and Kpwe.
An ancient hunting, patriarchal, hard-working agricultural and culturally unique ethnic group that forms a subset of the larger Kru-speaking people of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Liberia. The Bétés live precisely in the South-Western and South-Central parts of Côte d'Ivoire, between the Akan ethnic groups to the East and the Guro tribe to the North. They occupy towns and villages in the regions of Daloa, Soubré and Gagnoa.
They represent about 18% of the country's population, making it the second largest ethnic group in the country after the Baoulés. Orignally from the Krou group which includes Wés and Didas, the reasons for the migration of the Bétés remains unknown. Some Bétés migrated to the Divo area to blend into an indigenous population and form another ethnic group, the Didas.
To the Bétés, are associated the Kouya, the Niédéboua, and the Niaboua. The language intonation is different whether one is in Gagnoa or Daloa, moreover, the Bétés of Gagnoa have a social organization closed to the Akans and the neighboring southern regions. Those of Daloa and Issia, with proximity to the West have an institution of the mask. They are, with the Sénoufos, one of the earliest people to have lived on the territory called "Ivory Coast" since 1893.
The Bétés speak Bété, a cluster of languages which forms part of Kru languages also belonging to the larger Niger-Congo language family.
The languge was decoded by iconic Bété erudite Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, painter, poet and author of the famous Bété Alphabets who died on 28th February 2014 in Yopougon (Abdijan). He was honored by his peers on 24th April 2014 at the museum of Civilizations in Ivory Coast during a preview of the exhibition “Life and Works of Bruly Bouabré”.
The Bétés who were historically hunters have turned to farming (subsistence farming), they only grow what is needed by the tribe. In recent times many of them ventured into commercial farming due to the Cocoa belt natural environment. They are one of the only Ivory Coast ethnic groups proprietors of the largest Cocoa and coffee farms. The commercialization of their farming activities has linked them to Ivory Coast`s market economy.
Bété wear a traditional loincloth called tapa or gloko in Bété of Daloa. Tapa is obtained from tree bark and dyed.
The Bété society is a patriarchal and patrilineal. Social control is exercised by the leading member of individual lineages (of which there are several in each village) who exercised judicial and financial power within the community. Spiritual authority is wielded with an array of paraphernalia, notably the “grè” mask, a horned and decorated wooden sculpture (originating from the Wè) designed to instill terror in the onlooker, to quell social unrest, and to be worn when rendering out justice after conflict.
Statuary art is uncommon, and is based around feminine iconography that refers to the mythical mother figure. There is no recognised liturgical function, although some early reports indicate that a pair of figures was often placed under a rain shelter in a village in order to represent the founders. This evocation of a primeval couple has widespread resonance in African culture. Rare figures with exaggerated genitalia are probably linked to a magico-religious appeal for fertility; alternatively, they may have constituted a more general role, evoking or celebrating the fertility of the village/land, its founders, or the forest from which the people made their living.
It is known as one of the most progressive tribes due to the focus on individual rights. A "chief" is chosen by the people based on who is the wisest. This leader stays in power until his death or any wrongdoing. Then another chief is chosen based on wisdom.
Men and women play equal roles in society as well. Bété women are widely known as the most outspoken of any other tribes.
As far as courtship, the men of the Bété tribes travel outside of the village to date. Dating within the tribe is not allowed because of the belief that the village is a family unit. Ethnically diverse marriages are strongly encouraged. Before dating begins men ask about the woman's family to make sure there is no trace of any relation. Marriage is not possible if the couple is related in any way. Men do not leave the village for marriage. Rather, the wife is brought into the man's tribe. This is because the man is expected to provide home and land. He has already inherited land from his father, so the woman must travel outside of her village for financial security.
The wedding is discussed only among the bride and groom. It is meant to be a surprise for the parents, particularly the woman's parents. The date of the wedding is set and the wife's family is invited to the groom's village to celebrate. The woman's family then visits to make sure the woman is marrying of her own free will. This is a polite formality. When she is sure of her decision then congratulations are acceptable. The wedding ceremony takes one week. Each day is a celebration of the bride and she is treated like a queen.
Polygamy is a common practice. Men usually have no more than three wives. When a man decides to have another wife, the first wife often becomes a sort of mother to the new one. Thefirst wife may choose to be leader of the court. This is a common practice but not an obligation. Any wife may choose to leave their husband if he decides to marry another woman. Often, the firt wife will make the second wife feel unwelcome in order to make her leave instead. In most cases, wives get along and become a good family unit.
Divorce is also very common. A wife can decide to leave her husband and go back to her home village whenever she chooses and is not obligated to give her husband any notice or explanation. The husband in turn can choose to kick his wife out of his home. Counseling among friends is very common in marital disputes.
With modernism, these traditions are usually only practiced by people still living in the villages. When the children move to cities to work and study they usually adopt Western traditions of marriage.They maintain a harmonious relationship between nature and the ancestors. The vast majorities follow their traditional African religion and believe in the God (Lago) however; they do not worship this God. They believe in the spirit world to guide and protect them through daily life. These spirits are found in nature, namely rivers, rocks, forests etc. Sacrifices of worldly possessions are made to the spirits to appease them especially during troubling times.
Published/Updated by Meyan Clark Nanguy/ Ivory coast Tribune