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Caste system in Africa: Wikis


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Countries in Africa who have societies with caste systems within their borders include Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, and Somalia.


West Africa

The Osu caste system in Nigeria and southern Cameroon, can be traced back to an indigenous religious belief system, practiced within the Igbo nation. It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalists that the Osus are people historically owned by deities, and are therefore considered to be a 'living sacrifice', an outcaste, untouchable and sub-human (similar to the Roman practice of homo sacer); this system received literary attention when it became a key plot point in No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe. People regarded as modern-day Osu in Igboland are descendants of individuals who volunteered and were sacrificed to the various gods. These fore-fathers pledged themselves and their descendants to these gods. They enjoyed protection and privileges but were segregated from ordinary folks. These Osu people married, fraternized and socialized among themselves. The practice continued to this day. An ordinary Igbo person would not marry or permit any of his relations to marry an Osu person. In a few instances where that has happened, every member of that non-Osu who married an Osu became infested and were regarded as Osu. It can be said that the only aspect of Igbo life that keeps the Osu segregation intact is marriage. An Osu could and could only marry a fellow Osu, and no more.It is a taboo and abhorent for an Osu to marry a non-Osu - love or lust being immaterial.

Among the Mande societies in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Ghana people are divided by occupation and ethnic ties. The highest hierarchy in the Mande caste system, the Horon (nobles/freeborn), are traditionally farmers, fisherman, warriors and animal breeders, the lowest caste are the Jonow, a "slave" caste, made up of people whose ancestors were enslaved by other Africans during tribal wars. An important feature of this system are castes based on trade, such as blacksmiths and griots.

The Wolof hierarchical caste system in Senegal is divided into three main groups, the Geer (freeborn/nobles), jaam (slaves and slave descendants) and the outcasted neeno (people of caste). In various parts of West Africa, Fula(ni) societies also have caste divisions; in Mali, non-noble/freeborn people (those not technically Fulɓe) are called yimɓe pulaaku (people in the Fula culture).

East Africa

In Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo it is known as ubuhake. The Tutsi, who comprise about 15% of the population of these areas, were the ruling, Cattle-owning caste.Below them were the Hutu, the farmers about 80% of the population. Fewer than 3% of the population are Twa or Pygmies. During the German suzerainty over Rwanda and Burundi, the authorities reinforced the system by employing Tutsis in hegemonic roles. The Belgian colonialists who succeeded them after World War I continued this policy, instituting 'ethnic' identity cards. They also incorporated subsidiary populations, such as the Hima and the Baganwa, into the Tutsi.

After independence, tensions intensified. In 1972, Tutsis were responsible for a wholesale massacre of Hutus. In the 1990s, Hutus responded with counter-massacres.

Horn of Africa

The traditionally nomadic Somali people are divided into clans, wherein the Rahanweyn agro-pastoral clans and the occupational clans such as the Madhiban are sometimes treated as outcasts.[1]

The caste system found amongst the Borana in the North Eastern Province of Kenya and southern Ethiopia is divided into four distinct castes. At the top, there are Borana Gutu (Pure), followed by Gabbra, then Sakuye, and Watta, a traditional hunter-gatherer caste, being the last. The Watta are condemned to life-long servitude for members of the higher castes. Among the Tuareg societies found in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, exists a similar caste system, where the Bellah slave caste is treated as slaves to other castes.

In Ethiopia, the outcaste groups include the Weyto, who live on the shores of Lake Tana and are despised for eating Hippopotamus meat; and the Felasha (or Beta Israel), who made their living from ironworking and pottery until they emigrated to Israel.

See also


  1. ^ I. M. Lewis, A pastoral democracy: a study of pastoralism and politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, (LIT Verlag Berlin-Hamburg-Münster: 1999), pp.13-14

External links



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