Apr 25, 2012

Weapons & Warriors: The Living Nightmares of the Congo

Art by Steven DeVon Jones
The Azande people were expansionist tribes. The name Azande in fact means “The People who rule much land.” Their warriors were the fiercest in the region of Africa from Sudan to the Congo. The Azande weapons of choice were frightening enough, but what made the Zande Warrior a nightmare come to life was the legends that grew around them.

The Zande Warriors were masters of psychological warfare. They sharpened their teeth and rushed into battle shouting “Nyam Nyam.” Outsiders called the Zande Warriors Niam-Niam, which means great eaters. The Azande played up this myth and would sometimes carve up the dead and make them appear is if they had been half eaten. The Azande took no prisoners and many of their neighbors believed they were cannibals. It's hard to stand against a warrior that you truly believe is going to eat you if he gets the chance. The term Niam-Niam today is an expression of disapproval and criticism and is no longer embraced by the modern Azande peoples.

Another terrifying act the Zande Warriors practiced was beheading. They were not the only tribes in these regions of Africa that practiced a particular ritual of beheading. The victim would be tied on his knees with his arms pulled behind his back to stretch his chest. Then a branch or pole would be pulled down over their head and rope would be tied around his skull to stretch his neck and keep his head pulled back.

Once the person was positioned, the Zande would use his Makraka and chop through the neck. The pull of the taught branch and the weight of the victim created a slingshot effect once the blade cut through. The branch or pole being pulled not only flings the head, it assists the blade in slicing through as it separates the flesh instead of allowing the head to fall forward and squeeze the blade. The head would literally fly off into the jungle. Finding a pile of headless bodies or a pile of heads would unnerve most sane people. I'm not sure I should even mention that such a quick removal of the head would not cause the body to die instantly either. It would still struggle instinctively to escape before the blood stops flowing through its heart.

Despite these terrifying acts their warriors did to expand and defend their lands, the Azande were quite intelligent. They were not the cannibalistic barbarians that they were perceived to be. They were great metallurgists, as evidenced with their ingenious blades. They were excellent builders and craftsmen. The women farmed and worked the land while the men were hunters or warriors. They had an organized structure of tribal government and designated oracles that gave advice about magic which all Azande believed was present in everyone. The people of the Azande have descendants today that live in South Sudan and Northeastern Congo.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.


  1. It's refreshing to find someone who doesn't accept wholesale all reports of African cultures as cannibalistic. I'd like to know where you learned about Azande deceptions as it relates to cannibalism. Thanks.

    1. I've been trying to find out where I was told about the cannibalism thing, but for the life of me, I can't remember. It is probably something I heard from one of the many documentaries or history shows I've watched over the years. I'll keep looking for you, and if I have any luck finding that, I'll reply here. It's possible one place I heard it was from a show called The Deadliest Warrior, which is a ridiculous show pitting different era and cultural warriors against each other, but there were some tidbits of knowledge that could be gleaned from their cultural representatives. I can't say that is my source, but they did have an episode with a Zande warrior.