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African People & Culture

Introduction | African Tribes | Art & Craft | Music & Dance | African Weddings | African Festivals & Events | People & Culture Books | People and Culture Posters | People & Culture Photographs | African Language Books |

Information and images kindly provided by Africa Imports


| Dogon | Fang | Fulani | Senufo | Wolof | Yoruba | Zulu

There are many different people groups and tribes across the continent of Africa - with their culture varying from tribe to tribe. We have included only a few on this page and will be adding to the list regularly


The Bobo peple have lived in western Burkina Faso and Mali for centuries. They are known for their masks which are worn with elaborate outfits for celebrations. Primarily agricultral people they also cultivate cotton which they use to trade with others.

The main goal of Bobo culture is to restore balanced nature which man inherently destroys. The order is mainly restored through sacrifices and ceremonies. The primary god of the Bobo is Wuro who is responsible for ordering the land. The second god is Dwo who is revealed during masking ceremonies. Dwo chooses to live in a mask until worn, when his spirit is caught up in the spirit of the wearer who is then able to communicate to others Dwo's will.


The Dogon are a cliff-dwelling people who live in Southeastern Mali and Burkina Faso. Among the people groups in Africa they are unique in that they have kept and continued to develop their own culture even in the midst of Islamic invasions which have conquered and adapted many of the current people groups

Until the 1930's the Dogon were very insulated from the outside world and resisted any foreign influence. Through oral tradition it is said that they originated from the west bank of the Niger River, around 1490 A.D. they were fleeing from the Mossi people and entered the Bandiagara cliffs region. There they have lived ever since. Because of their refuge in the cliffs they were able to resist the Muslims, the French, and others who have attempted to conquer them.

The Dogon are divided into family groups which are responsible for different spheres of Dogon life. The Awa society is responsible for much of the spiritual functions of Dogon culture concerning death and mourning periods, they are communicate with the ancestor spirits. The Lebe are the group responsible for the agricultural spirits. They build many different alters out of clay and dirt.

In their artwork they are well-known for their masks which are used in various ceremonies and rituals. The masks are known as "inima," they are thought to contain the life force which is known as "nyama." There are over 65 different kinds of masks used for ceremonies. Their woodwork is amazing and is known for the different, "primitive" look which has disappeared from much African pieces. The Dogon use mainly red, black, and white colors as well as many varieties of browns developed from the reddish sand like dirt which surrounds the country. Dogon artwork is all intricately hand carved and much of it has much cultural significance.


The Fang are especially known for their guardian figures which they attached to wooden boxes containing bones of the ancestors. The bones, by tradition, are said to contain the power of the dead person, in fact, the same amount of power that the person had while still alive.

The Fang mainly inhabit the hot, humid, equatorial rain forests of Gabon, making up 80% of the Gabonese population. They are of medium height and have a relatively powerful build and pride themselves greatly on their physical beauty.

The Fang are reported to have moved from the northeast centuries ago and settled in the region to farm. Because they are a warrior like people they quickly conquered the native inhabitants. Many ethnic groups still fear the Fang because of their powerful aggressive tendencies. The Fang are also known for their older practice of cannibalism, which they practiced unashamedly during the 17th centuries and earlier. Using slash and burn techniques to Fang still farm as their chief occupation, though, during the early years of European settlement many resorted to elephant hunting to provide ivory for the traders.

Leadership in Fang villages is inherited and the leader is usually supposed to be descended from the family who started the village. The leader also serves as the spiritual leader, able to communicate with the ancestors of the village. He does this by the wearing of masks, which are also an important feature of Fang artwork.


The Fulani people of West Africa The Fulani people of West Africa are the largest nomadic group in the world.

As a people group they actually contain a large number of people from diverse groups who were conquered and became a part of the Fulani through the spread of Islam. The original Fulani however are of the North African or middle eastern origin and have lighter skin, thinner lips, and straighter hair. They are known as "white people" to many Africans. The first group of people in West Africa to convert to Islam through jihads, or holy wars, they were able to take over much of West Africa and establish themselves not only as a religious force but also as a political and economical force. The Fulani are a very proud people, they are the missionaries of Islam and ended up conquering much of West Africa.

The Fulani are primarily nomadic herders and traders. Through their nomadic lifestyle, they established numerous trade routes in West Africa. Many times the Fulani go to local marketers and interact with the people there getting news and spreading it through much of West Africa.

The most important object in Fulani society is cattle, and there are many names, traditions, and taboos concerning cattle. The number of cows a person owns is a sign of his wealth. This has caused significant conflict in recent months between the Fulani and other ethnic groups. The reason for this is that the cows will many times go into the fields and eat the grain of local farmers. With increasing numbers of other transportation being used the Fulani are at risk of losing their identity as nomads and are being forced to settle in farms and villages. This sometimes creates other problems, because the Fulani are very proud people of their unique culture and used to ruling over the other people.

Another difference between the Fulani and other African people is that the Fulani have a huge respect for beauty. Beauty is considered very important and one of the ways this is shown is through tattoos that are put all over the body. A distinguishing feature of a Fulani can be their lips, which are many times a blackish color from the use of Henna or tattooing done on the mouth. Being brave and fearless are very important for the Fulani as is seen by their numerous weapons. One tradition is that when 2 boys reach coming of age they two boys hit each other with their staffs not showing any pain but instead laughing. Many have died in these ceremonies which are now against the law in many countries but continue to be practiced.

The Fulani normally raise large amounts of cattle and have therefore settled in large plain areas of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. The Fulani hold to a strict caste system. The 4 caste subdivisions are the nobility, merchants, blacksmiths, and descendents of slaves of wealthy Fulani.

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The Senufo are a group of people living in northern Cote d'Ivoire and Mali. They are known as excellent farmers and are made up of a number of different groups who moved south to Mali and Cote d'Ivoire in the 15 and 16th centuries.

The Senefou follow a strict caste-like system, in which the farmer is at the top and the musicians are on the bottom rung of the society. Farming is a huge part of the Senefou culture even for those who do not belong to the farmer caste. A very communal society people will often take turns working on each others lands and trading off and on. There is almost always a group in each village which is made up of men ages 15-35 who work in fields and with what they are given provide a huge festival during the dry season for the village. Local games to see how fast someone can hoe a field are also performed to make the work more enjoyable. One of the great honors for a Senefou male is to become the sambali, or champion cultivator. The sambali is respected throughout the region and in his old age is given predominantly leadership roles. Another society for Senefou males is the poro. The poro is usually located in the forest and serves as a school for young men until they reach adulthood. Much sculptured work is made in the poro this is where much of the wood carvings, brass sculptures, and masks are made. Sometimes these are sold to local artisans. The greatest achievement for a Senefou woman is the ability to cook well. If a girl or woman cannot cook well it is a great shame to the family, especially the mother. The womans society, known as the sandogo is mainly responsible for divination.

A very animistic society the Senefou believe that everything is a result of the ancestor spirits. If a ritual is not performed correctly then the spirit will cause draught, infertility, or prolonged illness.


The Wolof are one of the largest people groups that inhabit modern-day Senegal. They live anywhere from the desert area of the Sahara to the rain forests. Traditionally many Wolof lived in small villages governed by an extended family unit but now most Wolof move to cities where they are able to get jobs.

Most Wolof are Muslim, in fact to be Wolof is many times thought to be Muslim. Their most popular art form is beautiful amulets which contain beautifully written sections of the Koran. These papers are enclosed in silver for jewelry or in leather as a carrying bag. Wolof are also known as the merchants of West Africa, they are very aggressive in trading, which is a big part of their history. Historically a role the Wolof are especially known for is their involvement in the slave trade. They worked capturing, transporting, and selling slaves from the port in Dakar, and with this have been involved in many different people groups.

Culturally, clothing is very important to the Wolof, who are a style conscious society. To a Wolof what you wear says a tremendous amount about you. Women will dress elaborately, many times going into debt just to be dressed up to an occasion. They also wear elaborate hair styles and makeup. The Wolof are known as the trend-setters of West Africa. The family unit is very important to the Wolof. Many times a man and all his brothers and their wives and children will live together in a single compound. Many Wolof are also polygamous, however, polygamy doesn't seem to be considered natural to many of the Wolof who soon after obtaining a second wife are divorced from their first.


The Yoruba people live in Southwest Nigeria and Benin. They have developed a variety of different artistic forms including pottery, weaving, beadwork, metalwork, and mask making. Most artwork is made to honor the gods and ancestors and since there are more then 401 known gods to the Yoruba there is much sculpture and artwork made. Because of the vastness in the number of gods, the Yoruba have been compared to the ancient Greeks in the amount of gods and in the similarities between the structures of the gods.

The Yoruba have started to become quite popular among Africans all over the world who claim the Yoruba as their family roots and follow the religion and culture of the Yoruba. Many claim that they are part of the Diaspora of the Yoruba as slaves.

The Yoruba originated from a people known as the Oyo who arose and became quite popular by their trading with the Portugues which gave them a large supply of guns. However, they were unable to push back the Fulani who invaded them and pushed much of the Yoruba to the south. In the late 1800's the Yoruba formed a treaty with the Fulani and in 1901 they were colonized by the British. Because of their enmity with the Fulani who are the great Islam evangelists most of the Yoruba do not hold to Islam but instead worship many of the gods and spirits that the Yoruba hold to. Economically the Yoruba primarily engage in agriculture, with about 15% of the people employed as merchants or artists and craftsman.

One of the features that make the Yoruba unique is their tendency to form into large city groups instead of small village groups. Most of the large cities of Nigeria and Benin are inhabited almost solely by Yoruba.


The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. They are well known for their beautiful brightly colored beads and baskets as well as other small carvings.

The Zulu believe that they are descendents from a chief from the Congo area, and in the 16th century migrated south picking up many of the traditions and customs of the San who also inhabited this South African area. During the 17th and 18th centuries many of the most powerful chiefs made treaties and gave control of the Zulu villages to the British. This caused much conflict because the Zulu had strong patriarchal village government systems so they fought against the British but couldn't win because of the small strength they possessed. Finally, after much of the Zulu area had been given to the British the Zulu people decided as a whole that they didn't want to be under British rule and in 1879 war erupted between the British and the Zulu. Though the Zulu succeeded at first they were in 6 months conquered by the British who exiled the Zulu Kings and divided up the Zulu kingdom. In 1906 another Zulu uprising was lead and the Zulu continue to try to gain back what they consider to be their ancient kingdom.

The Zulu believe in a creator god known as Nkulunkulu, but this god does not interact with humans and has no interest in everyday life. Therefore, most Zulus interact on a day to day level with the spirits. In order to interact with the spirits the Zulu must use divination to interact with the ancestors. All misfortune is a result of a evil sorcery or offended spirits, nothing just happens because of natural causes.

The Zulu are practically divided in half with about 50% living in cities and engaging in domestic work and another 50% working on farms. It is very difficult for Zulu to get very good jobs in the South African economy because they have not been trained and the racism in South Africa is extreme.

Information and images kindly provided by Africa Imports

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