Get to know the Azande people

The AzandeTribe

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They call themselves Azande although they are known simply as Zande by others.


Demography and Geography

The Azande is the third largest nationality in South Sudan. They are found in Maridi, Yambio and Tambura districts in the tropical rain forest belt of western Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal . The Azande are also found in DR Congo and Central African Republic; areas, which originally constituted part of the great Azande Kingdom destroyed by the Belgian, French, Mahdist and finally the British in the context of the European scramble for Africa.


Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

The Azande land is tropical rain forest that enjoys high annual rainfall. This has rendered it a very high agricultural potential area. The Azande are agrarian as a dictate of the physical environment. They engage in subsistence production of food crops mainly maize, cassava, telebun, yams, fruits: mangoes, citrus, pineapples, palm trees , coffee, etc. They also have exotic and economically important hard wood trees such as mahogany, teak, Cinderella are found in Zandeland. The Azande engage in hunting and fishing as part of their economic activities.


In 1948 The Equatoria Project Board was established to exploit the huge economic potential of the Zandeland. The Nzara agro-industrial complex was founded to gin and weave cloth, produce edible oil, soap and other produce from the cotton the Azande people were encourage to grow as a cash crop. This project helped monetise and link the Azande economy to other markets in South Sudan.


Mythology and History

There is no sensational origin of the Azande people. The general myth is that the Azande clans return to life once they die. They are incarnated in the form of some animal, which are mostly lion – for the biggest chiefs of the royal clan, leopard, python, snake, wart-hog, rat and lightning. The death of the animal is therefore the end of all things. Men will not kill the animal they believe they turn into except in self-defence.



The Azande speak Zande language. The Azande are a Bantu group and their language bears a lot of similarities to the other Bantu languages.


Society, social events, attitudes and customs

The Azande society is divided into the royal clans – the Avungara, centred on their great leader Gbudwe, his two sons Yambio and Tambura; and the commoners, most of who could have been incorporated into the Azande through wars, conquest and assimilation. Azande settlements are solitary i.e. a household consisting of the man and his wife (or wives), nevertheless they ascribes to certain social norms and practices.



Azande tradition prevents a pregnant woman from eating certain foods e.g. meat of waterbuck or a kind of sweet potato called mene, because it is believed to cause a miscarriage. There is no special ceremony at the birth of a child. However, four days after the infant’s cord has been cut a fire of green leaves is made at the threshold of the house. The mother with the child in her arms sits in the smoke for about half an hour. This is said to make the child strong. The remains of the fire are not thrown away but carefully placed on one of the paths leading to the village to prevent child’s ill health.



The Azande circumcise their boys as a tradition. This is performed when the boy has reached the age of nineteen. There is no special occasion. The Azande however don’t circumcise their girls. This circumcision of the boys has no relation with Islam.



The Azande have no special ceremonies connected with marriage. In the early days a dowry of about 20 spears was paid. A marriage system peculiar to the Azande is that two men may arrange to marry each other’s sisters, this being a convenient arrangement when they have no spears to pay. Man may begin to pay dowry for a prospective bride when she is still an infant – a kind of pawning.


Death and Burial

There are no outward signs of mourning except for widows. At the moment of a husband’s death a women tears off their clothes and ornaments and remain so until his burial. They cut and keep their hair short for about a year during which time she is not allowed to eat certain food. The death of a man may cause desertion of his village and none of his wives may enter it.


All his personal domestic articles are broken up. In the old days people were buried in a sitting position with their chins on their knees. Immediately over the body a roof of wood and grass was placed and the grave then filled in, a pile of stones being placed on the top.


The men are buried facing east and women facing west. The explanation for this is that a man, when he gets up in the morning, always looks first to the east to see if dawn is near, and a woman, when the sun is about to set, goes to fetch wood and water to prepare the evening meal.


Political Organisation and Traditional Authority

The Azande socio-political system is an intricate admixture of feudalism, traditional, political and administrative authority and witchcraft, charm, etc. After the destruction of their kingdom, the Azande now have chiefs, mostly from the royal clan who combine judicial and spiritual prowess.


The chief invokes witchcraft and oracles, for which the Azande are renowned, to determine and administer justice on those suspected of crimes including adultery, murder through bewitching or evil eyes. In the old days, thieves had their ears cut off and their backs scored with a knife leaving large permanent scars.


Another punishment was to break open an ant-hill and tie the offender on the top of it, intense pain being caused by the armies of soldier ants that would swarm over him. Men suspected of witchcraft, and also occasionally thieves, might be confined in their house and burnt alive. Men accused of committing adultery, especially with their Chiefs’ wives, if not killed outright were emasculated and in addition had their hands, ears and lips cut off.


Spirituality and Customs

The Azande demonstrate a high degree of superstition and are prone to witchcraft and charms. There is nothing as a natural death among the Azande. No matter the cause of a person”s death, he/she is supposed to have been bewitched. The Azande believe that certain people afflicted with mangu cause everyone’s death.


If the relations think they knew the Borromangu responsible, they go to their chief and ask him to consult Bengye, telling him the name of the person they suspect. The toe and finger nails and hair of the diseased are placed near the chickens during the ceremony should Bengye confirm their suspicions the relations demand compensation from the Borromangu or his relations.


Should the relations not have suspicions of anyone in particular, they consult Bengye to see if they should call in the services of a witch doctor. If they receive an affirmative answer, they give the finger and the nails and hair to him and ask him to find out who is the guilty party.


Witch doctors could also be consulted to bring rain. A whistle made out of a certain kind of wood is blown and the witch doctor raises his hand several times in the direction in which the rain will come.


Culture: Arts, Music, Literature, Handicrafts

The Azande culture and art is rich and is expressed in songs, music and dance in self-praise. There is an intricate system of oracles and folklore which remained largely oral.


Dances: The Azande dance is performed predominantly at night during full moons. The men stand in circle moving their feel in lime to the drums and swaying their bodies and heads from side to side the forearms are held parallel to the ground with the palms of the hand turned upwards.


At times the whole circle goes round in file with the women forming an inner circle. They dance to the sound of the drums and sing topical songs more often rather obscene. Different songs require different ways of beating the drums and all have a chorus in which everyone joins.


Handicraft: The Azande produce excellent bark-cloth, baskets woven from barks and leaves of palm, different types and varieties of wooden craft, tables and chairs, bow and arrows and special iron knives and swords.


Neighbours and Relations with Foreigners: The Azande have had difficult relations with the neighbours namely the Moro, Mundu, Pöjulu and the small groups in Bahr el Ghazal due to their expansionist policy of their King Gbudwe in the eighteenth century. The Azande fought the French and the Belgians, the Mahdist to maintain their independence. They tried in vain to subdue the Dinka in Bahr el Ghazal.


Latest Developments: The Azande land has a high potential in agriculture and forestry. Thus on the eve of Sudan’s independence the colonial administration established the Equatoria Project Board to run an agro-industrial complex in Nzara, which produced cloth, oil, soap, sugar and timber. That changed the social and economic configuration of the Azande land. All this has been disrupted by war.


Diaspora: Because of the war, large communities of Sudanese Azande now live outside the Sudan particularly in DR Congo and Central African Republic. A few have migrated to East Africa and overseas.

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