Bantu is used as a general label for the 300-600 ethnic groups in Africa who speak the Bantu languages, distributed from Cameroon east across central Africa and eastern Africa to Southern Africa. The bantu family is fragmented into hundreds of individual groups, none of them larger than a few million people (the largest being the Zulu with some 10 million).The bantu language-Swahili with its 5-10 million speakers is of super-regional importance as tens of millions fluently command it as as a second language.

The word `Bantu’, and its variations, means `the people’ or `humans’ .Versions of this word occur in all Bantu languages, for example, as `watu’ in Swahili;`batu’ in Lingala;`bato’ in Duala;`abanto’ in Gusii;`andu’ in Kikuyu;`abantu’ in Zulu,Runyakitara and Ganda;`vanhu’ in Shona and `vandu’ in some Luhya dialects.

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Current scholarly understanding places the ancestral proto-bantu homeland near the southwestern modern boundary of Nigeria and Cameroon, around 4000 years ago (2000 BC),and regards the Bantu languages as a branch of the Niger-Congo family.

Knowledge of iron had made its way into West Africa by the fifth century BC, long after the region had mastered agriculture. With the knowledge of iron, they were able to make iron tools for agriculture such as hoes as well as arrows and spears which they used for hunting and warfare. The use of iron tools in crop production consequently led to rapid uincrease3 in population therefore necessitating the need to migrate in search for more land to settle on and on which to carry out agriculture.

About the time of Christ, this migration began as negroid people from the central Benue river valley around the present day border between Nigeria and Cameroon pushed south and south east into the forest of the Congo river basin. These Bantu speakers seem to have been relatively few in number perhaps only several hundreds-but they were able to move quickly through the rainforest via the Congo drainage system until they emerged at the southern fringe of the forest in what is today the Luba country of northern Katanga.

From this point, a lightly wooded area unlike their original homeland along the Benue, the Bantu apparently developed rapidly in numbers and expanded in all directions-moving southward across the Zambezi to form the civilization that produced present day Zimbabwe, pushing eastward into the high plains where they fanned out in a complex movement that enveloped the plateau and the coast of East Africa, and doubling back through the forest to absorb the pygmy people of Congo. With iron spears, they would have been formidable both as warriors and hunters, and their iron implements would have effected a revolution in cultivation, even in East Africa where cereals were probably already known. Thus they were in a position both to attract and assimilate other people, imposing upon them their language until the population of Africa south of the Equator had been converted substantially into iron age speakers of the Bantu.

The extent and the rate of advance of the Bantu migrants is difficult to da5te with any precision. They may have reached the east African coast near Cape Delgado by the fourth century AD. In the person of Claudius Ptolemy’s. Iron workers were in the Zambezi valley early in the Christian era, and the savanna north of the Zambezi contained agriculturalists perhaps as soon as the first century AD. Below the Zambezi there were very early iron sites while a full scale iron-age culture was established between the Zambezi and Limpopo by the end of the fourth century. There is no assurance that all this was the 2work of the early Bantu settlers; however, the most plausible alternative is that these iron-age sites resulted from an infiltrating Bantu economy and culture by rtesid3ent bushmanoid peoples wit5h t5he prospect of Bantu settlers soon to follow. Indeed, during the ensuing centuries the record of Bantu occupation of Rhodesia became evident with the development of the Zimbabwe culture, and the southward movement continued beyond the Limpopo which Bantu speakers crossed by the eleventh century, pushing south as far as the Transkei where they arrived in the sixteenth century and possibly much earlier.

In the Bantu heartland located in the Luba-Lunda region of the Congo, an elaborate culture began flourishing in the eighth and ninth centuries AD, based on Katanga copper and trade with the East African coast. To the east in the area of the great lakes, there is evidence of Bantu migration, possibly spreading north from a nucleus in the Zambezi valley and establishing an ironworking culture in Rwanda, Uganda, and Western Kenya during the last half of the first millennium after Christ. In this region, however, the Bantu movement was complicated by Nilotic speakers and other peoples. In western Uganda and Rwanda, pastoral groups known as the Hima and Tutsi had established themselves over the Bantu farmers by the end of the fifteenth century, but at this point the Hima kingdom was invaded by the Nilotic Luo who poured into Uganda and Western Kenya establishing a series of states north and west of Lake Victoria. Of these, Bunyoro was at once the largest and most powerful, and Buganda, the most compact and homogeneous, thus exhibiting a unity that was later to make it one of the most important powers in East Africa.

Farther to the east, the Bantu migration encountered another nilotic intrusion from the north in the form of pastoralists who presumably had come down the arid highland steppe along the Rift Valley even before the arrival of the Bantu, who thereby made the Bantu detour slightly southward in their movement to the east, and who eventually formed a north-south wedge between the Bantu of the great lakes and those of the eastern highlands and the coast. East of this Nilotic wedge, the Bantu centered on two nuclear points-the Taita Hills near Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Shungwaya district lying between the Juba and Tana rivers in Somalia. Most of the Eastern Bantu peoples have traditions of origin in Shungwaya; it has been hypothesized, therefore, that when the first Bantu reached the eastern coast, they migrated north and south, the northern group eventually settling in the Shungwaya area. Later there developed a series of secondary migrations-first, the Kikuyu and the Kamba who moved into the interior highlands during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, then additional groups including the Segeju and Meru, Giriama and Taita, who left Shungwaya between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These later migrations were stimulated by pressures on Shungwaya from Cushitic Galla and Somali pushing southward from the foothills of Ethiopian massif. The Giriama and the Taita finally arrived at the Taita hills which became a dispersal centre in its own right, the point of origin for such modern groups as the Chagga and Shambaa. Others like the Sejegu on or near the coast, but the meru broke away, marched inland, and eventually came to rest near the kikuyu on the north east side of mount Kenya . Although the process by which the Bantu expansion occurred is necessarily a matter of conjecture, there were at work a number of related factors shaping the pattern of migration. First of all, though farmers, the Bantu knew only unsophisticated slash-and-burn cultivation which quickly exhausted the land and necessitated a virtually continuous movement by small groups of village units to new areas where better land was available. Furthermore, the Bantu farmers supplemented agriculture with hunting, another factor that tended to keep them on the move.

Rudimentary as it was, however, Bantu cultivation made possible a rapidly and steadily expanding population which in turn was a powerful propellant to further migration. Relocation took place in response to the laws of marriage, inheritance and lineage, but movements also resulted when groups became dissatisfied over questions of political or economic rights, and broke away from the parent community to form a new clan or tribe in a new area. Hence, soil exhaustion combined with population increase to produce a rapid, dynamic migration. By and large, the spread of the Bantu appears to have been peaceful, and their absorption of indigenous peoples was through the persuasiveness of a more advanced culture rather than by force of arms. Occasionally however, the process built up pressures; at any rate, the peaceful spread of peoples was punctuated from time to time with explosive marches by groups organized on a military footing. The basis for this eruptions is probably to be found in land hunger even though their immediate objective appears superficially to have been little more destructive conquest, for example, the late sixteenth century movements of the Jaga who burst into Kongo and Angola from a point somewhere in the African interior, the Zimba who devastated the east African coast during much of the same years and the early nineteenth century population explosions in southern Africa following the military conquests of the Zulu chieftain Shaka. There is little evidence available to explain the destructive march of the Zimba.

As for the Jaga, motivation is also uncertain although contemporary accounts of their tactics have survived. They lived in fortified camps permanently mobilized for war, their numbers were small but their military organization highly developed, and their conquest of more populous but less belligerent people involved the cultural and political absorption of captives into the Jaga complex. Thus a vast community and an enormous area were affected, all from the modest beginning of a handful original Jaga warriors. An analogous assimilation of conquered people was characteristic of the Zulu expansionism and the series of military migrations it touched off; witness, for example, the Ngoni, Ndebele, Kololo, and others whose strength was so profoundly augmented by large scale accretions of foreign elements as they ranged in a desperate search for security. In this instances, the motive seems clearer. Land hunger and population pressures set the Zulu in motion and was at the heart of the military migrations that followed. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Jaga might have been similarly motivated, that, in fact, all these militant movements were essentially an accelerated version of the more orderly and peaceful expansion of the Bantu people.


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