Kongo - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Matrilineal descent groups of every level are led by a headman ( nkazi ) with at least nominal authority. Civil affairs, subject to traditional or "customary" regulation ( fu kia nsi ), are managed by committees consisting, as appropriate, of representatives of an individual's father's and mother's clans, along with patrifilial children and grandchildren. Such bilateral committees also represent the individual or his lineage at weddings, funerals, and lawsuits. In the conduct of such affairs, the skill of the orator ( nzonzi ), that is, the ability to influence the gathering by authoritative references to tradition and apt proverbs, is greatly esteemed. Official communications and conclusions are registered by exchanging symbolic gifts of food and money.

Political Organization. Indigenous chieftainship no longer has any effective existence, although, in Zaire, the government, for its own purposes, occasionally convenes people it regards as "customary chiefs." Local politics focuses on rights to land—that is, the rights of the "first occupant." Others who wish to use the land, acknowledging the primacy of the owning house, are supposed to be the descendants of slaves or refugees. Arguments about who is a slave and who is not depend on the recitation of tradition and pedigree, supported by the testimony of neighboring descent groups, and may drag on for generations. The basic unit of rural government in Zaire, roughly corresponding to a U.S. county, is the "collectivity," known in colonial times as the "sector" and, later, as the "commune." Its officers, elected or appointed as the policy of the day may decree, form the lowest rank of the national territorial bureaucracy, which is responsible for local taxation, road maintenance, and public order. The Kongo area in northern Angola has been ravaged by civil war for decades.

Social Control. Elders are believed to exercise a kind of witchcraft on behalf of their dependents, but also to use it against them should they feel that their wishes have been ignored. They may also be accused of misusing this power. Witchcraft capacity ( kundu ) is said to be acquired from other witches for a fee, ultimately requiring the sacrifice of a relative to be "eaten" by the witch coven.

Conflict. The BaKongo have a reputation as a nonviolent people. Physical violence is, in fact, rare among them, although they think of themselves as under constant attack by hostile relatives and neighbors, "witches" exercising occult powers. Appropriate committees of elders mediate disputes, and diviners may be consulted in serious cases; often the diviner is a "prophet" ( ngunza ) of a Christian denomination.

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