ALTERNATE NAMES: Kongo
LOCATION: Congo River region (Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Republic of the Congo)
POPULATION: 3.3 million
RELIGION: Christianity; Kimbanguism; indigenous beliefs
The solidarity of the Bakongo people has a long history based on the splendor of the ancient Kongo kingdom and the cultural unity of the Kikongo language. Founded in the fifteenth century AD , the kingdom was discovered by Portuguese explorer Diego Cao when he landed at the mouth of the Congo River in 1484. As trade developed with the Portuguese, Mbanza Bata, located south of the Congo, became the capital (later known as San Salvador). Portuguese missionaries baptized King Nzinga Mbemba (?–1550), who adopted the Christian name Afonso I. Within a few years, the kingdom was exchanging ambassadors with Portugal and the Vatican.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the Kongo kingdom had virtually ceased to exist. Invasions by neighboring groups from the east severely weakened it, and it became controlled by Portugal. In the seventeenth century, British, Dutch, and French slave ships reportedly carried 13 million persons from the Kongo kingdom to the New World. Ironically, the king and his subjects profited financially from the trade as their kingdom crumbled beneath them. In 1884–85 at the Conference of Berlin, the European powers divided the kingdom among the French, Belgian, and Portuguese. By the end of the nineteenth century, little remained of the once great Kongo civilization.
The twentieth century has seen a rebirth of Kongo nationalism and culture. The Kimbanguist religious movement gained a strong following in the 1920s and became a springboard for anticolonial sentiment. European historians and missionaries, including Georges Balandier and Father Van Wing also helped by uncovering the glorious past of the kingdom. Their enthusiasm inspired Bakongo intellectuals in the Belgian Congo to demand immediate independence in 1956. They founded a political party, whose candidates won the vast majority of municipal seats in 1959, leading to the election of President Joseph Kasavubu (1910–69), a Mukongo, as the Congo's first president.
While Kongo secessionist movements have come and gone, currently a group of fundamentalists is trying to gain independence for the Bakongo, and wants to establish a Kongo federal state composed of five provinces. It would bring together Bakongo living in the southern Congo, the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, the lower province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa, formerly Zaire), and northern Angola. Its name would be Kongo Dia Ntotela (the United States of the Kongo).
The Bakongo are a blend of peoples who assimilated the Kongo culture and language over time. The kingdom consisted of some thirty groups at its beginning. Its original inhabitants occupied a narrow corridor south of the Congo River from present-day Kinshasa to the port city of Matadi in the lower Congo. Through conflict, conquest, and treaties, they came to dominate neighboring tribes, including the Bambata, the Mayumbe, the Basolongo, the Kakongo, the Basundi, and the Babuende. These peoples gradually adopted the Bakongo culture and through intermarriage blended completely with the Bakongo.
The Kongo kingdom once covered about 116 square miles (300 square kilometers). Its boundaries extended as far as the Nkisi River to the east, the Dande River to the south, the Congo (Zaire) River to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The greater kingdom of the sixteenth century extended another 62 miles (100 kilometers) east to the Kwango River and 124 miles (200 kilometers) further north to the Kwilu River. Today, the Bakongo peoples still live in their ancestral homeland. It is quite mountainous and has a dry season lasting from May to August or September. Of the three ecological zones to the south of the Congo River, the hilly middle zone receives the most annual rainfall (55 inches/140 centimeters) and has relatively fertile soils and moderately warm temperatures. Consequently, it is more densely populated than the dry, sandy coastal region and the infertile arid plateau to the east.
There are about 1.6 million Bakongo living in Angola, 1.1 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), and 600,000 in the Republic of the Congo, where they are the largest ethnic group. In Angola, they are the third-largest group, making up 14 percent of the population.
The Bakongo speak various dialects of Kikongo, similar to the Kikongo spoken in the ancient kingdom. These dialects differ widely across the region; some can hardly be understood by speakers of other dialects. To further its nation-building efforts after independence, the government of the former Zaire created a standardized version of the language, which incorporated elements of the many variants. Standard Kikongo is used in elementary schools throughout the Lower Province and Bandundu, and is called Mono Kotuba (State Kikongo). In 1992, Kikongo speakers in all countries numbered 3,217,000, the majority of whom lived in Angola. In the Republic of the Congo, Kikongo speakers account for 46 percent of the population.
Legends trace Bakongo ancestry to Ne Kongo Nimi, who is said to have had three children whose descendants, grouped into three clans, form the Kongo nation. The children of Ne Kongo Nimi were called Bana ba Ne Kongo, literally "the children of Ne Kongo." The abbreviation became Bakongo. Proverbs, fables, legends, and tales occupy an important place in daily life. Some popular legends only have basic elements that stay the same, since storytellers add their own spice and take great freedoms in dressing up the traditional legends. One popular character, Monimambu, is known to the Bakongo and other peoples through oral and written literature. He is not a hero—rather he is a fictional figure with human weaknesses and feelings who has some successes but makes mistakes, too. His adventures are entertaining, but the stories not only amuse, they teach lessons as well. A favorite animal figure in Bakongo tales is the leopard.
The Bakongo recognize Dona Beatrice as a Kongolese heroine. Born Kimpa Vita, she became a Christian martyr, and later a symbol of Congolese nationhood. She lived in a time of great crisis. Rivalries had torn apart the kingdom, and the capital of San Salvador had been in ruins since 1678. In 1703, at the age of twenty-two, Beatrice sought to restore the grandeur of the Kongo. She warned of divine punishment if the capital were not reoccupied. Within two years she established a new religious teaching and renewed the Church. But her opposition to foreign missionaries led to her death. Controlled by the Portuguese, King Pedro IV arrested her. She was tried by a Church tribunal for heresy, condemned, and burned at the stake. Her idealism and sacrifice inspired a tradition of mysticism among the Bakongo, and she is considered a precursor to the twentieth-century prophet Simon Kimbangu (1889–1951).
The Bakongo were among the first sub-Saharan African peoples to adopt Christianity and, as a kingdom, had diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In the colonial period, Belgian missionaries established Catholic seminaries in the villages of Lemfu and Mayidi and built mission churches and schools throughout Lower Congo.
According to the traditional religion of the Bakongo, the creator of the universe, called Nzambe, lives above a world of ancestor spirits. Many people believe that when a family member dies a normal death, he or she joins this spirit world (or village) of the ancestors, who look after the living and protect the descendants to whom they have left their lands. Spirits of those who die violent and untimely deaths are thought to be without rest until their deaths have been avenged. Sorcerers are hired to discover through the use of fetishes or charms called nkisi who was responsible for the death. In addition, healing practices and traditional religion go hand in hand. Traditional healers called nganga may be consulted for herbal treatments or to root out kindoki (witches practicing black magic, who are thought to cause illness through ill-will, and to eat the souls of their victims by night).
These beliefs have mixed with Christianity, and they have produced new sects. In the 1920s, Simon Kimbangu, a member of the English Baptist Mission Church, claimed to have received a vision from God, calling him to preach the Word and to heal the sick. He taught the law of Moses and spoke against sorcery, fetishes, charms, and polygamy (having more than one spouse at the same time). When he began to speak against the Church and the colonial government, the Belgians arrested him and sentenced him to death. Later his sentence was changed to life in prison, where he died in 1951. Eventually Kimbanguism gained legal recognition from the state, and its Church became a strong supporter of the Mobutu regime. Presently, some 300,000 active members belong to the Kimbangu Church, most of them living in the Lower Congo.
Given the political uncertainty in their countries of residence, the Bakongo celebrate secular holidays quietly these days. However, the Kimbanguists make an annual pilgrimage to the Kamba River to honor their prophet. At the river they offer sacrifices, pray, ask for blessings, and take some of the water, which is considered holy. Kimbanguists believe in Jesus as the son of God and therefore commemorate Christmas and Easter, which are major holidays.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bakongo celebrate Parents Day, (August 1) along with their fellow citizens. On this holiday, people go to cemeteries in the morning to spruce up family graves. The grave sites may be overgrown with tall, dry elephant grass, which is burned away, creating an Armageddon-like atmosphere. In the evenings, families get together to share a festive meal with the extended family.
The Bakongo believe in a close relationship between the unborn, the living, and the dead. If they are Christian, they baptize their children. At birth, there is a ritual called a kobota elingi (which literally means "what a pleasure it is to give birth"), a party to which friends and relatives come to share in the parents' joy and to celebrate the continuity of the family.
Until recently, initiation (Longo) held an important place among the rites of passage. Longo teaches children the secrets of Bakongo traditions necessary to taking on the responsibilities of adulthood. During Longo, children learn adult behavior, including control of their physical and emotional reactions to evil, suffering, and death. The ceremonies differ in form, duration, and name among the different Bakongo subgroups. In the past they lasted up to two months. Nowadays, given Westernization and rigid school calendars, fewer children undergo the rite.
Death is a passage to the next dimension, the spirit village of the ancestors. In the past, Kongo tombs were very large, built of wood or stone, and resembled small homes into which the family of the deceased placed furniture and personal objects. The corpse was dressed in fine clothing and placed in a position recalling his or her trade. Graves these days are often marked with no more than concrete crosses, but some still exhibit elaborate stonework and stone crosses that reflect Portuguese influence. The more elaborate graves have statues of friends and family mounted on and around the tomb. Some tombs are so detailed that they truly are works of art.
Bakongo are friendly people who typically greet each other both verbally and by shaking hands. The familiar greeting in Kikongo is Mbote, Tata/Mama. Kolele? (Hello, Sir/Madam. What news?) Respect for authority figures and the elderly is shown by holding the left hand to the right wrist when shaking hands. Men commonly hold hands in public as a sign of friendship. Children are always supposed to receive objects with two hands.
Although young people may initiate courtship, marriage is often arranged by the family, with older siblings or extended family members suggesting possible mates.
Living conditions are poor for most Bakongo. Rural families typically live in one-or two-room mudbrick huts with thatch or tin roofs, and without electricity. Cooking is done mostly outside. Windows are unscreened, allowing flies and mosquitoes to come in. Water sources are mostly unprotected and often become contaminated. Infectious and parasitic diseases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC) cause more than 50 percent of all deaths. Children under the age of five, who make up 20 percent of the DROC population, account for 80 percent of deaths. Their daily diets generally do not have enough vitamins, minerals, or protein. Despite poor road networks, much of the agricultural produce of the Lower Congo region goes to feed urban populations in Brazzaville, Kinshasa, and Luanda.
The Bakongo family lives as a nuclear unit and is usually monogamous (only one husband and one wife). Although women typically give birth to as many as ten children, diseases and other illnesses cause many of the children to die while they are still infants or toddlers. Nevertheless, children are a sign of wealth, and parents consider themselves blessed to have many children.
The Bakongo are matriarchal. Children belong to their mother's lineage, and the maternal uncle is in charge of them even while their father is alive. The maternal uncle decides where his sister's children will study and what career they will pursue. If a man succeeds in life but refuses to help the family, he may be strongly criticized by his uncle. On the other hand, in the case of certain misfortunes, the uncle himself may be blamed—uncles have even been stoned when they were suspected of wrongdoing. However, European patriarchal ways have begun to weaken this traditional system.
In ancient times, the Bakongo wore clothing made from bark softened by pounding. However, through their long association with the West, the Bakongo have adopted Western clothing. Photographs from the late 1880s show them wearing suits over their sarong (long wraparound skirts). They generally are considered to be very proper dressers by other Congolese. Women adopt the latest local fashions and hairstyles, which change every few months. The mainstay is the African sarong (pagne). Many families are forced to buy used clothing at the markets; children typically wear T-shirts, shorts, and loose cotton overshirts for everyday wear.
The Bakongo are better known for their fashions than for their cuisine. Typically, they eat three meals a day. For breakfast, a village family eats a dough-like ball made from cassava flour (fufu) with the previous day's sauce. Diners use their fingers, and before eating, they wash their hands in a basin of warm water. Some people may have coffee and French bread, which is baked locally throughout the region.
The midday meal is the largest of the day. Bakongo enjoy one of several sauces, eaten with fufu or with rice. Cassava leaves (saka saka), pounded and cooked, are always a favorite. Dried salted fish (makayabu) or sardines are added to make a rich saka saka. Another local favorite is pounded sesame seeds (wangila), to which small dried shrimp are added. Pounded squash seeds (mbika), seasoned with lots of hot pepper and wrapped in banana leaves, are sold at roadside stands and are a popular snack for travelers. The most common dish is white beans cooked in a palm oil sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and hot pepper. The beans are eaten with rice, fufu, or chikwange (a cassava loaf prepared in banana leaves).
Supper generally consists of leftovers, but chikwange with a piece of makayabu covered in hot pepper sauce is very satisfying, especially when washed down with beer. Kin (Kinshasa) sept jours (meaning "Kinshasa seven-day loaf") is a giant chikwange, so large that it reportedly takes a whole family a week to eat it.
The Bakongo are fond of palm wine. Palm juice is tapped from the top of the coconut palm trunk. It ferments within hours and must be drunk the next day. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, people sit under mango trees, enjoying the milky, tangy drink. They also make sugar cane wine (nguila), fruit wines, and homemade gin (cinq cents). It is customary to pour a small amount on the ground for the ancestors before drinking.
Because of their long history of contact with European missionaries, the Bakongo have enjoyed relatively high levels of literacy and education. Currently, most parents want to send their children to high school and beyond, but many children from average families are obliged to drop out, at least temporarily, for financial reasons. Thus it is not uncommon to find twenty-year-olds in some high schools.
Kongo court art ranks with that of the Bakuba of Kasai and the Baluba of Katanga, tribes of the southeastern DROC. One type of statue—the mintadi, or "chief"—was a large piece of sculpture designed to "replace" the chief at court while he was at war or visiting the king in San Salvador. These statues, of which few remain, were sculpted of stone or wood and showed the chief's rank. Another type—"maternity"—depicted a mother and child. In their resemblance to portrayals of the Virgin Mary, these show a Catholic influence and are notable for both their nonstylized realism and their serenity.
Kikongo has a centuries-old tradition of both oral and written literature. Kikongo verse is rich in proverbs, fables, riddles, and folk tales. Parts of the Bible were translated into Kikongo in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Except for the urban migrant, most Bakongo are subsistence farmers with small patches of cassava, beans, and vegetables. Fruit tree plantations are common in some areas. Generally, farming is only moderately productive because of the dry climate and infertile soils along the coast and into the plateau regions. Along the coast, however, fishing provides a livelihood for many people. The development of industry, promised in the 1970s, never materialized.
In all three countries that are home to the Bakongo, soccer is the national participant and spectator sport. Boys and young men play it wherever and whenever possible. As a rule, though, people find much less time to play sports than in the West. Even on Sundays, they may farm their fields or tend fruit trees in order to have a good harvest.
Besides playing and watching soccer, people love to tell stories. With no electricity for reading or watching television, people grow up listening to and learning to tell tales. Nearly everyone enjoys music and dancing. Kinshasa and Brazzaville are centers for Central African music, which is enjoyed throughout the continent. Luanda is famous for its nightclubs. Young people, especially, are continually learning the latest dances. On Saturday nights, townsfolk go to cinemas or to theatrical performances. Others go to bars to dance and socialize.
Traditionally, Bakongo artisans have excelled in woodcarving, sculpting, painting, and stonework. An example of their intricate carving is found in their wooden bowl covers that have human figures for handles. They also specialize in scepters (fancy royal staffs), ankle bells, cowtail flyswatters, and bottles for medicinal and magical powders, often displaying images of people and animals. Masks, on the other hand, have been less important to the Bakongo than to other people, such as the Luba.
One unique type of folk art is the fetish, which is an animal carved from wood and driven full of nails. The Mayumbe near the coast paint calabashes (gourds), decorating them with hunting scenes and colorful geometric designs.
The Bakongo face many of the same problems as their fellow citizens in their native countries. They must cope with uncontrolled urbanization, collapsing state health care systems, a lack of well-paid jobs, and economic instability.
Politically, Kongo nationalists have never accepted the division of their ancient kingdom at the conference of Berlin in 1884–85. They argue that the partition was a European decision in which no Congolese participated. Consequently, since the 1950s in Angola, Holden Roberto and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) opposed first the Portuguese and then the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) regime. Their goal was the reunification of the Bakongo spread across three countries. Their activities have resulted in repression and massacres, the most recent of these occurred in January 1993 on "Bloody Friday" when between 4,000 and 6,000 Bakongo were killed. Bakongo in Angola are also endangered because the regime links them with the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels. Although Bakongo make up 14 percent of the Angolan population, they hold only 2.5 percent of the seats in the legislature.
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MacGaffey, Wyatt. Religion and Society in Central Africa: The BaKongo of Lower Zaire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.