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African identities

The Mangbetu people of DRC

Today we are going to the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet the Mangbetu people, popular for their elongated heads, music and art.



The Mangbetu refers  to an amalgam of linguistically and culturally-related people in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The group comprises of the Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi and Abelu. The language of the Mangbetu is referred to as Kingbetu.

The Mangbetu are found deep in the rain-forest area and they engage in animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and gathering. They can be found between the Ituri and Uele Rivers near the towns of Poko, Isiro and Rungu. They are said to have initially come from modern day Sudan before migrating. While settling down in their current location, the Mangbetu established their kingdom under Nabiembali who had warriors. He subdued various tribes and ruled over them.

Among the Mangbetu, the father’s family paid death compensations regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death of the person. This compensation is as a result of the belief in witchcraft which is believed to be inherited by girls from their mothers and by boys from their fathers.

A Mangbetu drummer (notice the beautifully decorated cottage-wall). Photo: Attilio Gatti/collection of old photos/Flickr

Mainly a patrilineal ethnic group, the Mangbetu engage in the cultivating of yams, rice, palm oil, maize and bananas. The men are the only ones allowed to milk cows. Livestock is seen as a symbol of wealth and is used to pay bride price.

Mangbetus are adept at making musical instruments. Photo: Attilio Gatti/collection of old photos/Flickr

Just like many other African ethnic groups, the Mangbetu believed in a god called Kilima or Noro. They believed that human souls could be reborn as animals.

When the Europeans came, they observed that the Mangbetu were sophisticated politically and had highly developed art and music. Iron spears, sculpted pots, knives and copper lances are among the tools found in the kingdom, an evidence of technological advancement then.


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The Mangbetu carved wooden figures that were believed to be ancestral portraits. Their harps were popular because of the various symbols carved on them.

Most importantly, the Mangbetu were known for their elongated heads. The custom of skull elongation was known as lipombo and it was seen as a status symbol among the ruling class. The practice was outlawed by the Belgian government. The hairstyle the Mangbetu women wore was at a time fashionable.

American  artists Beyonce and Nina Simone once wore hairstyles linked to the Magbentu tribe.

The process of elongating the skull began at birth. The baby’s head was tightly wrapped with a cloth until the desired shape had been achieved. This practice was also traced to the Mayan and Egyptians.

A Decorative Mangbetu Pot from the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Brooklyn Museum/Creative Commons