Lunda - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, it was believed that Nzambi, the supreme deity, created the universe and all its inhabitants. He endowed each type of living entity with a unique set of capacities that alone determine its fortune. Humans were uniquely blessed with the gift of intellect. Nzambi plays no role in the day-to-day interaction of his creation, nor does he favor any one of his creatures over the others. He requires no formal worship. Human appeals for supernatural intervention are directed mostly toward the ancestors. The spirits of the dead tend to remain in the area where they resided during life, and they continue to be concerned with the welfare of their living kin. Ancestral spirits particularly wish to be remembered for their contributions to the world of the living. Remembrance takes three forms: mentioning an ancestor's name in daily conversation, propitiating an ancestor during communal meals, and naming a newborn after a favored ancestor. Neglected ancestors are said to afflict their living kin with a range of diseases, primarily infertility for women and lack of hunting success for men. Ancestors may also afflict kin who are not living properly (e.g., quarreling and not sharing).

The Lunda metaphysical world is also inhabited by a variety of invisible beings with sinister intent toward humans. These beings, under the nominal control of human witches, can likewise cause debilitating illness and even death if not discovered and neutralized.

The twentieth-century influx of U.S. and European missionaries into Lunda territory has led to a proliferation of religious beliefs. Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and independent churches now dot the landscape. The earliest missionaries adopted the local term, Nzambi, to refer to the High God, implying in some respects that they were not attempting to introduce a new God but were simply bringing new information about the old Lunda High God. All local religions thus proclaim Nzambi as the supreme deity. They differ, however, in their beliefs about Nzambi's secular and spiritual requirements, preferred forms of worship, areas of intervention, and the benefits offered.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, it was the task of diviners to ascertain whether it was an ancestor or an invisible being who was responsible for a particular human affliction. A chimbuki (medicine man) would then be responsible for performing an elaborate ritual that would appease and neutralize the afflicting entity. The chimbuki would be assisted in the ritual by a coterie of individuals who have themselves been afflicted, yet survived the same sort of metaphysically induced illness being experienced by the patient. Herbal medicines (both ingested and applied to the patient's body), the manipulation of symbolic objects, and the adherence to strict taboos on foods and personal behavior are the dominant features of such rituals.

Today priest, pastors, deacons, and spiritual counselors of various sorts compete for prominence with traditional healers. The majority of Lunda regularly attend one of the Christian churches in their area, yet most still rely on herbal medicines and participate in traditional healing rituals.

Ceremonies. In addition to the vast repertoire of curing rituals, the Lunda perform ceremonies to mark most important transitions in life (i.e., birth, marriage, coming of age, and death). The boys' initiation rite ( mukanda ) and the girls' initiation rite ( nkanga ) are the most elaborate. Mukanda today is a month-long ritual during which time groups of boys, mostly between the ages of 10 and 15, are isolated in forest camps where they are first circumcised, then instructed and tested in productive skills, cultural history, and social etiquette. They are also subjected to hard labor and harsh discipline. Mukanda begins and ends with a public ceremony that entails round-the-clock singing, dancing, feasting, storytelling, and perhaps the appearance of masked figures believed to be the embodiment of nature spirits. Mukanda is heavily laden with symbolism meant to signify the cultural unity of all Lunda men, at one level, and the interrelatedness of all Lunda, male and female, at another. Upon completion of mukanda, a boy received the full complement of rights and duties bestowed on all adult Lunda males.

Nkanga differs markedly from mukanda. Girls are initiated individually in the village, rather than in groups in the forest. They are relieved of all physical labor, pampered, groomed, and sung to, for up to three months. They are not subjected to any physical operation. Like the boys, however, they are instructed in productive skills, cultural history, and social etiquette. Much of the instructional focus and symbolic expression is on augmenting reproductive capacity and on child-rearing competency. For most of nkanga, a girl remains isolated from males in a small seclusion hut, where she is regularly visited by elder women from the surrounding area. A young attendant is assigned to each girl, to be her constant companion and to attend to her every need. A girl is to remain silent throughout nkanga, speaking only in whispers to her attendant should the need arise. Nkanga, likewise, begins and ends with a well-attended public ceremony characterized by great revelry, most notably the singing of ribald songs extolling female virtues while denigrating male vices. Symbolically, nkanga possesses many levels of meaning. It expresses the unity of females in opposition to males, while simultaneously asserting the unity of all Lunda under matrilineal principles of social organization. Like mukanda, nkanga also symbolizes the death of one's former self, and rebirth as a new social persona. Gifts, primarily clothing and cash, are heaped on the new adult member of society.

Arts. A few professional wood-carvers and basket makers continue to produce locally. Most decorative objects, music, and performances, however, are produced by dedicated amateurs, solely for local enjoyment.

Medicine. The Lunda can be described as botanists par excellence. Nearly a hundred different medicinal plants have been recorded as being in use, from which herbal specialists can concoct a vast array of composite remedies. Even very young children tend to be competent in the preparation of herbal remedies for such simple ailments as headaches, stomach aches, colds, influenza, and muscle aches and pains. The local population also accepts and seeks out Western pharmaceutical drugs, viewing them as being akin to traditional herbal preparations, albeit more powerful because they are believed to be more concentrated, especially injections. Nevertheless, most individuals in rural areas still try one or more herbal preparations before resolving to visit a clinic. This is so in part because most traditional medicines can be gathered in the course of daily activities such as going to the fields and gardens, drawing water from the river, trekking to distant pastures to round up the goats and sheep, or going to the bush to hunt, trap, or fish. A visit to one of the few clinics in the area, however, tends to break up the daily routine, often forcing people to walk great distances, to wait in long lines, perhaps only to receive pills instead of the much more highly desired injections. Elaborate curing rituals are the prescribed medicine for spirit-induced ailments.

Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to either natural or supernatural causes. It is invariably accompanied by accusations of witchcraft, threats of retaliation, the questioning of long-standing relationships, and, occasionally, divination to ascertain the true cause of death. In the case of married individuals, the surviving spouse is generally required to pay a substantial sum ( mpepi ) to the lineage of the deceased, regardless of culpability. Individuals are buried in cemeteries shared by clusters of villages. A complex cleansing ritual is performed to remove the aura of death from the village and to appease the recently departed and ease his or her passage into the afterlife. Traditionally, it was believed that the spirit of a deceased individual remained in the area he or she inhabited during life, watching over living kin and reestablishing contacts with friends and relatives who had died earlier. Today the multiplicity of ideas about the afterlife spawned by various Christian denominations competes for prominence with traditional notions.


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