Cultural Overview

The Beng are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Côte d'Ivoire. The Beng language is part of the Mande language family. Most Beng are multilingual so as to communicate with their neighbors, whereas few non-Beng learn to speak the Beng language.

The majority of Beng practice a mixed economy of farming, hunting, and gathering. Since the 1980s, crop prices have dwindled precipitously, diminishing the cash base for smallholder farmers. Beng households consist typically of a man, his wife or wives, all their unmarried daughters, all their sons, and their married sons' wives and children. Until the 1960s, such families shared a large round house. The newly independent government required smaller square houses for all new constructions, but extended families still inhabit adjacent buildings surrounding an open courtyard. A two-layered system of clans ("dual descent") crosscuts the family structure, with each individual belonging to one clan traced in the female line and another traced in the male line. Neither men nor women change clan membership on marriage.

In theory, most villages are ruled by a male and female chief. Male chiefs hear cases of disputes that can be resolved at the local level. The villages are grouped into two regions, each of which is ruled jointly by a king and queen who, as with village chief pairs, are usually cousins belonging to the same matriclan and are classified as siblings (Gottlieb, 1989). The king hears legal cases that involve intervillage disputes or crises. Serious crimes such as grand theft or murder are referred to the national court system.

Until recently, nearly all Beng were adherents of their indigenous religion, which highlights the role of ancestors, partially independent bush spirits, and spirits affiliated with the earth, with all these entities seen as loosely subordinate to an overarching but distant sky god (eci) (Gottlieb, 1992/1996; Gottlieb & Graham, 1993/1994). Traditional religious practitioners communicate with these various spiritual entities on behalf of individuals or groups who seek protection from witchcraft, relief from sicknesses caused by spiritual disruptions, thanks for wishes granted or good luck experienced, or atonement for past sins.

In the past few decades, many Beng have embraced Islam and a smaller number have endorsed Christianity. However, some devotional practices of their traditional religion remain.

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