1902 Encyclopedia > Niam-Niam


NIAM-NIAM, a numerous and widespread Central African race, who were first visited by John Petherick in 1858, and have since been more fully described, especially by Piaggia, Dr Schweinfurth, Dr W. Junker, Potagos, and G. Casati. But none of these explorers have penetrated more than a few miles from the upper Nile and Welle basins into the Niam-Niam domain, which consequently still remains for the most part an unknown land. Its limits are determined on the east by the Bongo and Monbuttu territories, about 28° E. long., and on the north as far as 20° E. long. by Dar-Fertit and Dar-Banda, about 7° N. lat. But in other directions they extend for unknown distances on the south towards the middle Congo, westwards along the Kuta. (upper Shari?) probably to the Fan country, which is now known to stretch from the Ogoway basin for a vast space towards the north-east. Nearly the whole of equatorial Africa, from the neighbourhood of Lake Albert Nyanza to the Atlantic, east and west, and from the Congo to the headwaters of the Shari, south and north, would thus appear to be divided between the two great cannibal nations of the Fans on the west and Niam-Niam on the east. Their common cannibalism, combined with some other characteristics, has suggested a possible ethnical relationship of these two peoples, which, however, has not been confirmed by a close examination of the respective physical types. The Fans, like the Fulahs of Soudan, seem to be fundamentally distinct from the Negro stock, although more or less affected by Negro elements, whereas the Niam-Niam, notwithstanding certain marked peculiarities, cannot be severed ethnically from that connexion.

Affinities have also been sought for them amongst the neighbouring Krej tribes, amongst the Nubas of Kordofan and the Nile, and even amongst the Soudanese Fulahs, but, in the absence of more ample details, any attempt to determine the relations of the Niam-Niam to the surrounding peoples must be regarded as premature.

The term Niam-Niam, by which they are best knownl to the neighbouring populations, appears to be of Dinka origin, meaning in that language "great eaters," with reference, as is supposed, to their cannibalistic propensities. The most general national name is Zandey (pl. A-Zandey), which seems to be current throughout the eastern NiamNiam domain, a region estimated by Schweinfurth (ii. p. 4) at about 48,000 square miles, with a population of at least two millions. But these by no means constitute a. uniform ethnical group, for within this area is the large nation,2 differing altogether in speech and even in some respects physically from the ordinary Niam-Niain type. Apart also from numerous tribal divisions, the eastern Niam-Niam proper form three very distinct branches, presenting considerable varieties in appearance, language, usage, and general culture. The bleak, northern highlands bordering east on the Bongos and north on DarFertit are occupied by the Banda Niam-Niam, a rude and savage people, rather of a black-brown than of a red complexion, omnivorous in taste, devouring apes, reptiles, insects, and apparently human flesh, practising circumcision, and wearing a broad strip of bast or even mere foliage round the loins. These are succeeded southwards by the more civilized Belanda Niam-Niam, who hold the fertile hilly territory about the headwaters of the Abu-Dinga, Beni, Dembo, and other western tributaries of the White Nile. They are of a very dark red' or coppery colour, of middle size, and somewhat regular features, betraying distinctly Negro blood chiefly in their woolly hair and thick lips. Their costume is even more scanty than that. of the Banda, but special attention is paid to the hair, which often presents the most elaborate designs, more picturesque than conducive to the comfort of the wearer. They cultivate durrah, maize, sesame, bananas, batatas, and are skilled wood and ivory carvers, and workers in iron, producing knives, spears, chains, bracelets, and other ornaments in this metal, which abounds in their country. Very different from either of the foregoing are the so-called "White" Niain-Niam, neighbours of and probably often confounded with the already mentioned A-Madi of the Makua-Welle river basin. The complexion seems to be more of a bronze tint, and they are distinguished from the other branches of the family by their tall stature, symmetrical figure, long kinky hair and beard, and higher social culture. They wear cotton garments, obtained by barter for ivory, copper, and iron, are fond of music and dancing, occasionally form powerful political states, which, however, are liable to disintegration at the death of the founder,3 and in many respects present certain affinities with the Baghirmi and other Negroid peoples of the Chad basin. But so little is yet known of the institutions and internal condition of the Niam-Niam race that these divisions cannot be accepted as finally established. At the same time there can be no doubt at all about the existence of a very distinct Niam-Niam type, which is one of the most marked in the whole of Africa. "These beings," remarks Schweinfurth, on his first introduction to them, Africa and amongst Africans is saying much " (i. p. 437).

Their most salient characteristics appear to be - great space between the orbits, giving them at once a peculiarly savage and frank expression ; very short nose, with correspondingly long upper lip ; woolly hair much longer than that of any other Negro people ; head of a pronounced brachycephalous type, agreeing in this respect with the Bongos of the White Nile, but differing from the great majority of the other African dark races, who are distinctly dolichocephalic ; features generally round:less prognathous, and altogether more regular than the typical Negro ; ruddy brown or chocolate colour, like that of a cigar, scarcely ever black, but occasionally bronze and even olive (Petheriek) ; symmetrical figures, about the middle size, robust and active. These points seem to indicate a large commingling of Negro and foreign elements, but in what proportion and from what source it `would be unsafe to conjecture in the absence of trustworthy anthropometrieal data. At present all that can be said with any certainty is that the A-Zandey are to be regarded as rather of mixed Negroid than of pure Negro stock.

Their traditions, customs, political and religious institutions, and general culture seem to point at the same conclusion. The savagery of most tribes, their pronounced cannibalism, agricultural and hunting rather than pastoral habits, universal belief in sorcery and fetichism, may be credited to the Negro element, while to foreign influences may be attributed their great intelligence, shown especially in the skilful structure of their dwellings and in the remarkable taste and proficiency displayed in the native industries. Prominent among these are their earthenware vessels of faultless symmetry ; iron-smelting and metal works such as scimitars, knives, and spears; wood carvings such as stools, benches, bowls, tobacco pipes of varied and intricate design, and often "admirable works of art" (Schweinfurth). It may also be stated that their reputation for extreme ferocity appears to have been greatly exaggerated by early report, although on the other hand the charge of cannibalism in its very worst forms has been fully confirmed by the latest European observers. Nevertheless the A-Zandey, who everywhere present those sharp contrasts of habits and temperament so characteristic of mixed races, are distinguished by some excellent qualities, such as frankness, courage, an instinctive love of art, and above all a genuine and lasting affection for their women, such as is betrayed by no other African race. "A husband will spare no sacrifice to redeem an imprisoned wife; and the Nubians, being acquainted with this, turn it to profitable account in the ivory trade. They are quite aware that whoever possesses a female hostage can obtain almost any compensation from a Niam-niam " (Schweinfurth, i. p, 472).

Beyond a few meagre vocabularies no materials have yet been collected for the study of the Zandey language, which, except in the A-Madi country, appears to be everywhere spoken with considerable uniformity in the eastern Niam-niain lands. Its phonetic system, such as initial sob and vowel aitslaut, affiliates it, not to the Libyan, as has been asserted, but to the Negro linguistic type. Within this order of speech its pronominal prefix inflexion points to affinity rather with the southern Bantu than with the Soudan group of languages. Thus the personal plural a-, as in A-Zandey, A-Madi, A-Bangs, &c., would appear to be identical in origin and meaning with the Bantu sea-, as in Wa-Ganda, -Wa-Swaheli, WaZambara, &c. There is also the same dearth of abstract terms, which renders the translation of Scripture into the Negro tongues such a hopeless task. Compare gumbah, an expression for the deity, really meaning "lightning," with the Chinyanja chituta=t1ttender= God(?) and the ZuluUnkulunkula= great-grandfather, also adopted by the missionaries as the nearest equivalent for the deity in that language.

Bibliography. - John Petherick, Egypt, the Soudan, and Central Africa, 1861; Piaggia's "Account of the Nlam-Niam," communicated by the Marchese 0. Antinori to the Bolletino of the Italian Geographical Society, 1568, pp. 91-168; Schweinfurth, Heart of Africa, English edition, 1873; G. Casati's "Journey to the Niam-Niam Country,' in Esploratore for August 1883 ; Dr W. Junker, " Rundreise in dem siidlichen Niamniam-Lande," in Petermann's Mitt heilungen for May 1883. (A. 11. K.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries