The current distribution of Bantu social groups is commonly considered to be a consequence of a relatively recent population expansion in Central Western Africa. While there is a substantial consensus regarding the centre of origin of Bantu (the Benue River Valley, between South East Nigeria and Western Cameroon), the identification of the area from where the population expansion actually started, the relation between the processes leading to the spread of languages and peoples and the relevance of local migratory events remain controversial.
In light of this statement, this paper is an attempt to describe the social groups among the Western Bantu with special reference to what necessitated the establishment of such groups and show why the Eastern Bantu failed to form any organised social group during this migration. According to Marten (2006) t he term Bantu refers to a family of languages which is widespread in most of Sub-Saharan continent and is currently spoken by almost 220 million people.
To discuss this topic at hand more comprehensively, this presentation is developed along four lines of argument. The first section will define key concept in the presentation while the second will describe the social groups among the Western Bantu with special referen ce to what necessitated the establishment of such social gro ups. The third and fourth sections will focus on why the Eastern Bantu failed to establish the social groups and give a short and snappy conclusion in order to sum up the presentation respectively. The western Bantu came through the Congo, from the Luba-Lunda Empire. They were explorers, who wanted the excitements of different lifestyles. Three social groups formed the framework of the ancestral society. These social groups were: the house which was the smallest unit of co-operation, the village which denoted the unit of protection and finally the district which represented the unit of settlement. These three units were interrelated in different ways making the entire system flexible and decentralised. The flexibility and decentralisation could be seen in the way the units operated. Each household chose freely which village its members wanted to belong to; each village in turn chose freely other villages as allies to form a district. (Vansina: 1990: 73).
Over t ime some houses grew while others vanished. Sometimes, a household was so powerful that it could absorb other houses or even establish its own village. Each house had recognised leaders and big men were often chosen on account of their achievement and the ir positions were not subject to inheritance.
April and Donald (1996) describe in detail two of the three units which formed the social groups among the Western Bantu. The house was the basic social unit and acted as the establishment of a big man. Often a fter the death of the founder, a house continued and was taken over by a rival house completely in order to increase its membership. The ideal labour force needed determined the membership o f the household. The houses were neither patrilineal nor matrilineal hence there were no lineages. When a house had over a membership of 100, it made up a village. In a village each house had its own area of control. Some sheds were used for industrial work such as weaving or iron-smiting and others. In each village, a central place called square was chosen as a place of authority w here court cases were heard and collective decisions made.
On the other hand Shillington (2005), commenting on the largest Bantu social group, contends that when groups of villages realised that they could no longer exist in isolation with each other as the need for common defence and security, trade and inter -marriage became apparent, districts were established. This was the largest social group and was an alliance of houses instead of villages as such they had neither a chief nor a principal village. An overall agreement was sufficient for the day to day running of the district. Having described the social groups among the Western Bantu and why such units were established, this section will show why the Eastern Bantu failed to form such organised social groups during their migration.
Greenberg (1992) observes that there are a number of reasons that can be attributed to the Eastern Bantu’s lack of social organisation and social cohesion. Principal of these include the slow pace with which they migrated, the sudden change in weather pattern encountered during their migration, and the adjustments in means of socio -economic sustainability. Schcenbrun (1997) echoes Greenberg’s assertion as he contends that Eastern Bantu’s first attempt to migrate did not yield much in terms of change in their life style as they only moved slightly further away from their original place of settlement. However, the peak of their migration occurred after 300 BC when they met the sudanic people. Here the climate was uniquely dissimilar to what they initially experienced in their homeland. From the observations by Greenberg and Schcenbrun, it is clear that the fact that the Eastern Bantu did not move much away from their original settlement did little to change their lifestyles.
However when they did move further, the sudden change in weather pattern affected their means of production for economic sustainability. This adjustment in mode of production made the Eastern Bant u to adopt hunting and long distance trade as means of survival. Initially the Eastern Bantu grew bananas which they bartered with the Pygmies for meat. As the population of Bantu grew, the Pygmies ’ hunting grounds were hijacked. This forced them to migrat e and some Eastern Bantu be came hunters while others resorted to long distance trade. This apparent nomadic life and lack of stability was the greatest reason the Eastern Bantu failed to form organised social groups.
In conclusion it is worth noting that t he Western Bantu established three social units namely the house, the village and the district. The house was the basic unit of cooperation . The village provided means of settling disputes and collective decision making. The district was an important unit for common defence and security. On the contrary, the Eastern Bantu were less organised and could not form organised social group s.
April, G and Donald, L. 1996. Understanding Contemporary Africa. London: Lynne Reiner. Greenberg J.H. 1992. Linguistic evidence regarding Bantu Origins. Journal of African History, 13, 189–216.
Marten, L. 2006. Bantu Classification, Bantu Trees and Phylogenetic Methods, and Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge: Mc Donald Institute of Archaeological Resear ch Schcenbrun, D.L. 1997. The Historical Reconstruction of Great Lakes Bantu Cultural Vocabulary. Koln: Rudiger Loppe.
Shillington, K. 2005. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Vansina, J. “New linguistics evidence on the expansion of Bantu”, Journal of African History 36: 173-195, 1995.