Bongo people (South Sudan)

The Bongo are a Central Sudanic speaking ethnic group, living at the eastern side of the Albert Nile River in northwestern Uganda and in neighbouring South Sudan in small, scattered settlements south and east of Wau. They speak the Bongo language, one of the Bongo-Baka languages. In the early 1990s, their number was estimated at 200.000 people, with 40% Muslims.[1] Unlike the Dinka and other Nilotic ethnic groups, the Bongo are not a cattle herding people and do not use cows for bride price. Subsistence farming and hunting is the primary source of food, though money is obtained by working in forestry, building, selling honey, and other various means. Before imported metalwork became available, they were known for their traditional production of iron tools.[2]

Since the 1970s, large size wooden Bongo funerary sculptures of male figures have been collected in Europe and described as important examples of African tribal art.


Drawing of Bongo traditional funerary site by Georg Schweinfurth

Georg August Schweinfurth, a German explorer, who lived two years among the Bongo around 1865, reported that before the advent of the slave-raiders, c. 1850, they numbered at least 300,000. Slave-raiders, and later the Mahdist followers from northern Sudan greatly reduced their numbers, and it was not until the establishment of effective control by the colonial Sudan government during 1904 and up to 1906 that recuperation of the population was possible.[3] Before the 20th century, Bongo men wore only a loin-cloth, and many dozen iron rings on the arms (arranged to form a sort of armour), while the women had simply a girdle, to which was attached a tuft of grass. Both sexes now largely use cotton cloths as dresses. The tribal ornaments consisted of nails or plugs, which were passed through the lower lip. The women often wore a disk several inches in diameter in this fashion, together with a ring or a bit of straw in the upper lip, straws in the alae of the nostrils, and a ring in the septum. The Bongo, unlike other inhabitants of the upper Nile, are not mainly cattle-breeders, but employ their time in agriculture. The crops mostly cultivated were sorghum, tobacco, sesame and durra.[3]

In the late 1920s, British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard visited and later described the lifestyle and history of the Bongo people.[4] In 1963, Catholic missionary Stefano Santandrea of the Comboni Mission published his Concise grammar outline of the Bongo language.[5]

Bongo ethnic sculpture

Bongo grave post at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, France

The African Art collection of the Pacific Lutheran University in Washington State in the US holds a rare wooden Bongo grave post in the shape of a male figure. Such sculptures and their cultural use were described by Stefano Santandrea after his extended stay with the Bongo community in the mid-1960s.[6][7]

Further, the catalogue "Bongo - Monumental statuary from Southern Sudan" presents pictures and art historical descriptions of a number of life-size statues. These were erected at the graves of important members of the Bongo communities and constitute a specific artistic tradition of this ethnic group. Starting in the 1970s, these sculptures have been collected by European travellers and were later sold to museums or private collections in Europe and other Western countries.[8] One of these grave posts, measuring 240 cm in height, is exhibited in the section of African artefacts at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.[9]

In August 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited a commemorative male sculpture of the late 19th century in its section of African Arts. According to Christian Duponcheel, the person who had collected the work in southern Sudan, this sculpture had been placed "since before 1914 in a market in the town of Tonj where commercial transactions between Bongo and Nuer populations took place. There, it was said to help keep trade relations harmonious."[10]


  1. ^ Olson, James Stuart; Meur, Charles (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  2. ^ "Bongo | people". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-06-16.
  3. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bongo". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 204–205.
  4. ^ Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1929). "The Bongo". Sudan Notes and Records. 12 (1): 1–61. ISSN 0375-2984. JSTOR 41719404 – via JSTOR.
  5. ^ Santandrea, Stefano (1963). A concise grammar outline of the Bongo language (Sudan, Bahr el Ghazal Province). Rome: Printed by the Sodality of St. Peter Clavér. OCLC 197049.
  6. ^ "Learn More: Bongo Grave Post | African Art Collection". Pacific Lutheran University. Retrieved 2021-06-16.
  7. ^ A Catholic priest in the Comboni Mission, Santandrea is the author of approximately twenty books and shorter texts on linguistics, anthropology, geography, and history. Their common link was the Bahr el-Ghazal region, where he dedicated himself for the most part to the mission of being a priest. In A Popular History of Wau, he recalled that the old city of Wau, which he described as a modest village, had been noted since the 1860s in a number of accounts (von Heuglin 1869; Schweinfurth 1984) but that it had disappeared following a Mahdist attack in the spring of 1884 (Santandrea 1964, 17).
  8. ^ de Grunne, Bernard (2011). "Bongo - Monumental statuary from Southern Sudan". Issuu. Archived from the original on 2014-10-19. Retrieved 2021-06-16.
  9. ^ Musée du quai Branly. "Bongo - Search". Archived from the original on 2021-10-26. Retrieved 2021-10-26.
  10. ^ The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2018). "Identity, Meaning, Function: Reclaiming the Histories of The Met's Bongo Ngya". Archived from the original on 2020-01-01. Retrieved 2021-10-26.

Further reading

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1929). The Bongo, Sudan Notes and Records, Vol. 12, pp. 1-61.
  • Fath, Sébastien (2013). Christian Missions and the Construction of South Sudan. Evangelization, Humanitarian Work, and International Activism in Wau. In Afrique contemporaine, vol. 246, issue 2, pp. 99 to 110
  • de Grunne, Bernard (2011). Bongo - Monumental statuary from Southern Sudan. Brussels, Belgium
  • Kronenberg, Andreas; Kronenberg, Waltraud. (1960) Wooden carvings in the South Western Sudan. Kush: Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service VIII, pp. 275-281
  • Kronenberg, Andreas; Kronenberg, Waltraud; Schweinfurth, Georg. (1981) Die Bongo. Bauern und Jäger im Südsudan. Wiesbaden ISBN 3515033017, 9783515033015 OCLC 924862935
  • Krüger, Klaus-Jochen (1999). The arts of Bahr-el-Ghazal. Funerary sculpture of the Bongo and Belanda. Tribal Arts, 22 - Winter-Spring 1999-2000, pp. 82-100
  • Santandrea, Stefano (1964). A tribal history of the western Bahr el Ghazal. Bologna: Editrice Nigrizia. OCLC 466459667.
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