East Atlantic Cultures

Ivory Coast Table of Contents


Akan societies are best known for the large kingdom of Asante, which evolved in what is now Ghana. The westernmost Akan peoples--the Agni, Baoulé, and several smaller groups--are descendants of people who fled from Asante and now make up about one-fifth of the Ivoirian population.

Historians believe that Akan civilization evolved in stages, beginning about A.D. 1000, forming urban settlements by about A.D. 1400, and giving rise to the Asante and other large kingdoms by about A.D. 1600. They became known for their elaborate use of gold, their military organization, and their success in international trade. Military expertise probably provided the basis for their regional dominance, but their dramatic success from A.D. 1600 on also resulted from their use of slaves in gold mining and agriculture and from the spread of Islam.

Most Akan societies are organized into matrilineages (abusua). Each lineage is identified with a home village or section of a town, although lineage members may be dispersed. Lineages demonstrate their autonomy with respect to other similar groups through the ownership of a symbolic chair or stool, named for the female founder of the lineage. Possession of the ritually important stool is seen as vital to the existence of the group. Large lineages may segment into branches, each led by an elder or headman, but a branch does not possess a stool as a symbol of its social autonomy.

Despite their matrifocal center, Akan societies are dominated by men. Men occupy most leadership positions, but they succeed former leaders based on their relationship through their mothers and sisters. Thus, a leader is succeeded, and his valuable property is inherited, by his brother or his sister's son.

Matrilineal descent and inheritance produce particular strains in the social fabric under the pressures of modernization. Tensions often arise between a man's sons, who help him acquire wealth and property, and his sister's sons, who may inherit it. Similarly, a man is expected to support children of deceased maternal relatives, a demand that may conflict with the interests of his own children. Akan people used to cope with this contradiction by allowing a senior woman in the lineage to rule that a matrilineal relative had to relinquish his rights in favor of a man's son. More recently, the Ivoirian government has refused to enforce legal claims to matrilineal rights and has condemned, but not eliminated, practices related to matrilineal descent.

Agni political organization was derived from its lineage foundations, in that lineages grouped in villages were united as a chiefdom. The chief served as the guardian and protector of this domain and as priest, judge, administrator, and custodian of the sacred stool, which in the 1980s was still recognized as a symbol of unity of the entire chiefdom. An Agni chief was succeeded by a man nominated by the senior women of the lineage. This nominee, usually one of the deceased chief's matrilineal heirs, was confirmed, or on rare occasions rejected, by a council of lineage elders. Most of the chiefs' traditional political authority has been eroded or transformed by modern national law, but their ritual authority remained important in the 1980s, confirmed by their custody of the sacred stool.

The Agni were particularly successful at assimilating other groups into their political organization, with the result that many people in the southeast trace their ancestry both to Agni chiefdoms and to smaller, distinct societies that fell under Agni control. One mechanism of assimilation was grouping semiautonomous chiefdoms under an Agni paramount chief, who held ultimate authority over his subjects. In at least four regions, these polities evolved into kingdoms--Indénié, Moronou, Comoénou, and Sanwi--which still evoke strong loyalties and ethnic pride. The continuing importance of the kingdoms was demonstrated in 1959 and 1969, when Sanwi attempted to secede from Côte d'Ivoire in the hope of demonstrating Agni autonomy from Baoulé domination.

In 1988 the Baoulé constituted about 15 percent of the population, making this the nation's largest indigenous ethnic group, although the Agni population in neighboring states was larger. Baoulé society was less highly centralized than the Agni, with villages grouped into small chiefdoms. Baoulé agricultural successes were remarkable, however, partly because of careful control of land, which was held in common by an entire village and redistributed each year to those most efficient at cultivating it. Hunting supplemented agriculture.

The Baoulé were also successful in absorbing neighboring peoples into their society by political means and intermarriage. Baoulé women married freely into other societies, in part because their children inherited their lineage membership from their mother. As a result, many Baoulé still have extended kin ties reaching into other ethnic communities, and this network provides political support for Baoulé politicians. Assimilation by the Baoulé also involved the transfer of their myth of origin--which emphasized the value of agriculture, respect for authority, and individual sacrifice for society--to smaller neighboring groups.

Ivoirian president Houphouët-Boigny has used his Baoulé identity pragmatically to pursue political goals. For example, he refused to name a successor to his presidency, saying that to do so was not in keeping with tradition. At the same time, he condemned the Baoulé traditional practice of matrilineal inheritance and descent for failing to strengthen the unity of the nuclear family, which he considers the pillar of modern Ivoirian society and the mainstay of economic development.

Most influential among smaller Akan cultures of eastern Côte d'Ivoire are the Abron (Brong in Ghana), Abouré, Ehotilé, and Nzima. Together they make up only about 2 percent of the total population. All are matrilineal peoples with a heterogeneous population and mixed economy. None achieved the elaborate political centralization of the Agni nor the postindependence importance of the Baoulé.

Lagoon Cultures

Along the coastline from the nation's eastern border to the Bandama River is a series of lagoons, where fishing and trading dominate local economies. Lagoon societies include the Mekyibo, Attié, Mbato, Ebrié, Abidji, Adioukrou, Alladian, Avikam, Abbé, and others, each of which, in turn, is known by a variety of names within the region and is subdivided into smaller groups.

Residents of inland villages are subsistence farmers, and many lagoon peoples produce cash crops. Although not Akan language speakers, they speak related Kwa languages and are organized into matrilineages and chiefdoms similar to the Agni and Baoulé to the north. This cultural assimilation reflects the local history of occasional domination by Akan armies from the north. Ebrié, Attié, and Adioukrou societies are further segmented into age classes organized for warfare, mutual aid, and communal work projects. Age groups continued to operate in the 1980s, providing an important source of social cohesion.

Although the nation's capital, Abidjan, is in traditional Ebrié territory, the Ebrié made up less than 10 percent of the population of the city in the late 1980s. Many local groups have been displaced by Akan peoples and others moving into the densely populated southeast corner of the nation. Some of these survive in scattered villages; others were absorbed into the coastal economy by early French arrivals and flourished under this arrangement. As a result, this complex and heterogeneous lagoon region exhibits an eclectic variety of cultural and linguistic traits that defy simple classification.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress