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Identification and Location. The Pende occupy a territory that extends from the banks of the Lutshima, a tributary of the Kwilu, to the Kasai. The Kwilu crosses this territory, as does another large stream, the Loange, forming a boundary between the Zairean provinces of Bandundu (formerly, Léopoldville) and Kasai and separating administratively the western Pende from the eastern Pende (or Pende-Kasai). The latter differ markedly in language, certain customs, artistic styles, and economic development from the western group, which is the focus of this article. They have as neighbors, to the south, the Sonde, Lunda, and Cokwe; and, to the east, along the Kasai, the Luluwa and Luba-Kasai. Along the Loange, the western Pende adjoin the Wongo and Lele; to the north, they share a border with the Mbun (Mbunda) and Mbala. The Mbala and Kwese inhabit areas to the west of the western Pende; the Kwese language resembles that of the Pende, but the Kwese lack their artistic gifts. Torday (1913) describes as Kwese three districts that he visited in 1906: Moshinga, Ndala, and Samba. The district heads who reviewed this text affirmed that they always called one another "Pende." He describes as "Pindi" the remainder of Pende territory.

Demography. The last colonial census (1959) indicated that there were 200,000 western Pende and another 40,000 Pende in Kasai, the whole divided into about fifty districts of varying populationfrom a few hundred (e.g., Niegenene, with 420) to more than 20,000 (e.g., Moshinga, with 23,000). According to figures released prior to the 1988 elections, the Pende may have numbered 450,000 at that time. The high birthrate made double that number probable. But the Mulele rebellion produced a good many victims (except in Kasai, which was not involved). With the disappearance of medical service, and the increase in dietary deficiencies (in proteins and salt), infant mortality has become higher than ever. Emigration to the cities of Kikwit, Leverville, and Bandundu is also occurring.

History and Cultural Relations

There is no memory of being led solely by one great chief of the Pende in Angola, where they were subjects of sovereigns such as Ngola and Kasanji. Fleeing from slave raids carried out by Lunda chiefs like Mwata Kombana, their neighbor, who claimed to be their suzerain, the Pende emigrated from the area of the Cuanza and upper Kwango. They did not recognize the suzerainty of Mwata Kombana because he could not defend them from Cokwe invaders. At first retreating from the Cokwe, the Pende became refugees among the Mbun; in 1892 the Pende, with the help of the Mbun, defeated the Cokwe and took back their original territory. The arrival of European colonists ended hostilities and any Lunda claim of suzerainty. Certain elements of precolonial relations remain, however, as evidenced by Lunda-Pende marriages, Pende who were retained as slaves among the Cokwe, and mixed Pende-Mbun villages in the north.


The Pende used to live in hamlets scattered along or close to streams, but the sanitary authorities regrouped them into big villages on the plateau and imposed a clearing of 50 meters around the village. Villagers were thus less exposed to tsetse flies and mosquitoes. Some Pende divided themselves up again, however, into traditional hamlets formed from lineage segments.

Pende keep goats, pigs, chickens, and a few dogs. Millet, maize, manioc, and peanuts are cultivated. At Kilembe, some sorghum plants were still being grown near a few huts, intended solely to be prepared for offerings of their customary food to the dead. Sorghum had been part of the traditional diet, but a disease (possibly ergot) made it too dangerous to eat: "Sorghum has killed many men," they say. The basic food is now a flourhalf manioc, half millet or maizeaccompanied sometimes by meat or, most often, by a vegetable, such as manioc leaves.


Western Pende territory is a plateau with an average elevation of 800 meters, incised by seagoing rivers and smaller streams. The plateau forest has disappeared; the last original forest among the western Pende, the forest of Mulwa, was razed by an agent full of zeal for the war effort (1940-1945) and the planting of fibers (Urena ). The humus rapidly disappeared, replaced by sterile white sand. Forested corridors remain in the valleys, along watercourses. On the plateau, thickets of small trees that are resistant to bush firesparticularly mikhoso (Erythrophleum africanus ) thickets, which nourish edible caterpillarsand numerous palm trees and natural oil-palm groves of Elaeis guineensis, which, until 1960, fed many oil works, are important sources of jobs and wages. Among the Pende of Kasai, the forest has likewise disappeared, and there are no more oil palms. The western Pende traditionally went as far as Tshikapa to sell their oil. Since 1960, the oil works have no longer operated except for local needs (including those of the Pende-Kasai and neighboring tribes). The efforts that were first made before 1960 to get the western Pende accustomed to cattle raising are being continued, and herds of cattle are now given to some Pende farmers. The colonial authorities also pushed for the creation of pools or fish ponds along the brooks. The western Pende energetically undertook the job of digging out pools and making dikes, work that was foreign to them. In 1956 they were ahead of all the other territories in the number and area covered by ponds, and they are still maintaining them. None of these initiatives was proposed to the Pende-Kasai, who have remained less prosperous and less developed. Although they live in a mining region, they have refused mine work. They have not yet been touched by the most elementary economic initiatives.

Founded in 1901, the Kasai Company, with a view to harvesting rubber from Landolphia thollonii plants, established three processing posts, at Kandale, Bienge, and Dumba. A man named O. Bombeek, who directed them and who provided both Hilton-Simpson (1911) and Torday (1913) with information, related that 2 to 3 tons of rubber were produced per month at Dumba, compared with 6 to 7 tons at Bienge and Kandale. The Cokwe came to the latter post to trade rubber for palm oil (a 2-liter calabash of oil for 1 kilogram of rubber), which Bombeek used to buy from the Pende. The collapse of the price of rubber in 1913 put an end to this commerce. The local economy then turned to exploiting palm oil, an activity that was more suited to the tastes and aptitudes of the Pende, who are good climbers and fruit cutters; they were recruited in large numbers to work on plantations. This activity probably insured some decades of prosperity (prior to independence) for the Pende and the oil works.


The Pende live in matrilineal clans and lineages. In the district, the top clan, or manda (which is generally divided into three lineages, each furnishing the chief in turn) is the first to have arrived in a territory, hence the first to have buried its dead there. The earth belongs to the dead and therefore to those who represent them, their descendants. The area that is occupied in each district is hunting territory and is thus vast. Lineages who arrive later are authorized to settle there and farm, but each one owes a tribute from the hunt and one or two wives to the top clan, which thus becomes "father" of the whole group of subjects. It decides about arranging for bush fires and collective hunts. Marriage being virilocal, the clans are dispersed, with a top lineage in one district and others as "subjects" in other districts. Thus, one can ask a man, "Where do you have your hat [cheffal ]?"that is to say, "Where is your clan chief?"

Because virilocal postmarital residence is the usual pattern, a son could either choose to live with his father or join his uterine uncle; a girl lives with her parents until she marries and leaves for her husband's home. Women are either regularly "traveling" or "married," but never "in the village," and therefore one should, in theory, expect to find in a village only the men of the lineage and their families. Occasionally, however, divorced women or widows who have come back to their brothers' homes are among the villagers. The reality is in fact more complicated. Most of the lineages and villages and all of the top lineages have their own slaves, who are called "children" or "grandchildren" and are bound to their purchasers by a fictive relationship. This relationship is transmitted by the women. Ancient slave stocks enjoy the prestige of being associated with the owning lineage. The lineage that furnishes the top wife and the chief's minister is guardian of the regalia (kifumu ) and the only lineage able to manipulate them (for certain ones have a magic power, and the chief is dissociated from all magic). The top wife is superintendent of the cultivation of crops, and the women must effectively choose lands for this or that crop and decide on the duration of fallow periods. The transmission of the Pende agricultural tradition from mother to daughter is theoretically impossible under a discordant regime, in which the women are perpetually going to and fro, never "at home, in the village," and the fields are cultivated by outsiders. As a matter of fact, except for the top wife, many other women contract a "union on the premises," the slaves ensuring a matrilocal as well as a matrilineal society. It is difficult to know who is a slave, for any allusion to such status in conversation is prohibited and constitutes a grave offense, especially its revelation to an outsider. De Sousberghe succeeded in ascertaining that in two villages at Totshi at least half of the villagers were slaves. The colonial authority had prohibited all sales, but had authorized clans to buy back any slave member. This authorization permitted sales to take place, disguised as "buying back," with the evocation of fictive genealogy in the palaver. In 1956 de Sousberghe recorded at Gungu the palaver, or the so-called buying back, of a woman called Kienda and her descendants. Subsequently, de Sousberghe learned that she had been "bought back" twice: the second palaver denounced the "errors" in the genealogy that had previously been invoked.

Marriage and Family

Traditionally, polygyny was practiced on a limited basis (three or four wives), and men generally added an inherited wife as they grew older. Marriage was concluded without the remittance of assets, but the prospective groom did bring a calabash of palm wine to the father of the girl, whereupon the marriage was concluded on the spot. When outside influences changed this practice to the extent that Pende women could relocate to distant places and be lost to their families, payment of assets was introduced. At the same time, the missionaries, convinced that the payment of assets was an essential element and a factor of stability in Bantu marriage, required evidence of such payment before any celebration could be held. The Pende say, therefore, that the payment of assets was introduced by the missionaries, although in fact several factors played a part.

For the Pende, the child comes entirely from the father; the mother receives from him the seed that she carries and nourishes, just as the earth nourishes the seeds that it receives. The child's gratitude accrues to her only because of "the weight of the belly and the birth pains." It would be a grave offense to say that a child resembles his or her uterine uncle, an allusion that implies incest between the mother and her brother; the child necessarily resembles its father. At present, great importance is attached to the education of children, including girls, and fathers are inclined to consent to the heavy sacrifices that are involved. Having invested thus in educating their children, the fathers have the final say about everything the children do. Their authority increases, and, reciprocally, so does the attachment of their children to them. Land rights are always inherited from the maternal side, however.

Preferential union (i.e., union between relatives) is traditionally called marriage "at home," gu mujiba, contrasted with marriage "abroad," gu balakaji. A father has the right to order his son to take a wife from his own lineage "to give back his face to his lineage." A father's sister often wants her brother's son to marry one of her daughters, whom she has presented to him from his youngest age on as "your little wife." A boy finds it still more dangerous to displease her than to displease his father. Her authority is as great and her curse more to be feared than that of his own father. Refusal brings imminent penalty. From another point of view, the father and the uterine uncle have the duty of procuring a wife for their son or nephew. A young man has first to make application to his father: "Father, give me a wife from behind your back," that is, a wife of your lineage. Or he might address his uterine uncle, asking him for one of his descendants. A widower grandfather could require that he be given one of his granddaughtersnot only a classificatory granddaughter but even his own granddaughter.

Sociopolitical Organization

Those who possess authority possess it in the name of the ancestors. They must be faithful to the rules that were left by them and be exemplary in conduct, especially in sexual matters. They are responsible for the transmission of the life that was received from them. Around the middle of the twentieth century, a chief was dismissed because he had seen his sister's nudity, which amounts to incest. It is those in authority who speak in public and who practice nearly all of the trades (smith, sculptor, weaver, tanner, healer, diviner, musician or singer, hunter, and public orator). The women's jobs are raising crops and preparing food, making pottery, and freshwater fishing. It is said of the local lineage chief (there is no chief of the whole clan), an old man, that "he holds, controls, the seed" (wakwata mbuto ); he is the guardian of the fecundity of the lineage. Of the chief of the district, they say that "he holds, controls the earth" (wakwata mavu ). The earth is considerd to be the source of fecundity or life, in the widest sense, of the universe and the stars. Yongo, a Moshinga chief, said that he had to sleep alone "in the entry [ha khukhe ] when the moon is in its last quarter so that it might come back to its full brightness," whereas to abstain from sexual relations in the light of day would be an offense against the sun. He must also sleep alone when several women of the district are pregnant, so that they may be able to bring their pregnancy to term. For the whole group, continence is to be observed from sowing time, especially of millet (millet is the chief of the seed and has its own storehouse), until the first shoots appear. The top wife gathers some of the shoots, prepares them, and presents them to the chief. When he has eaten them, he can resume sexual relations. People announce that the chief has slept (with his wife), and the next day the lineage chiefs follow his example, then all of the people. Similarly, the hunters, several days before the hunts, and the chief with them, even if he does not take part, are expected to abstain from sexual relations. Artists or artisansthe smith, the sculptor of masks, dressers of these masks for dancing, the dancers themselves, and the player of the big drumoften have to observe continence before undertaking their activities. Continence is imposed on the ngambi (lawyer-judge) for eight days before he can pick up the sculptured can that he handles at the palaver, and for as many more before putting it back in its compartment. But it is on the chief that such periods of continence and other prohibitions are imposed in large numbers. In certain districts, as at Niegenene, complete continence with the wearing of a condom was imposed from the time of a chief's investiture. The chief was obliged to send back his wife or wives, and a brother's wife brought him his meals.


The Pende refer to God by three names: Nzambi, Kalunga, and Mawese. "Nzambi" is probably the most recent. "Kalunga" is also the name of the abode of the dead, but western Pende say, "Our dead have left for Mawese; it is he who showed our ancestors the customs and the hamba [the object or rite bequeathed by the ancestors through which one enters into communication with the guardian spirits and renders them favorable], which they have transmitted to us."

God made everything. To the Pende, he is the great chief, but a faraway chief. The ancestors who are their immediate masters, implicated in all acts of life, for everything belongs to them. One does not share a kola nut or a calabash of palm wine without reserving a small part for them, either thrown or poured on the ground while saying, "This is for you."

The Pende individual believes that by mastering genetic power, which enables him to conquer time and death, he can also master his environment. In the person of the chief, this environment stretches to the stars. It is the universe conceived, it is true, as a living whole. The chief is a cosmocrator, but a cosmocrator who may initially be humiliated. The chief is chosen from the district lineage, a fearsome choice. The man thus designated often refuses and flees. He is seized and severely beaten, so severely that, if the chief designated is aged or is judged to be too feeble to undergo such treatment without endangering his life, a brother who is younger or more robust is chosen to undergo it in his place. The western Pende used to hasten the end of a moribund chief by wringing his neck, but such practices were prohibited by the colonial authorities. One aspect remains mysterious: the chief may not go near the masks that are considered to be a manifestation of circumcision. He, like the women and children, may see them only from afar. The Pende say that "the chief is like a woman" or that "he has become a woman by the investiture." Nevertheless, the dance area is situated near the chiefs hutbut it remains empty, and the door has to stay open lest the women be threatened with sterility. This prohibition appears to betray an antagonism between a chiefs power and the rite of circumcision. The first embodies fecundity, parental values, and diachronic bonds. The second is the expression of a solidarity that is synchronous with age classes. Modesty, with which the Pende child was impregnated in the family surroundings, is attacked during the circumcision rites by repeated allusions to the sexual organs of the father and mother of each candidate, allusions judged to be intolerable in everyday life. The Christian missionaries decreed that the Pende could not subject their children to such rites, and, given that most Pende had become Christian, circumcision ceremonies have not been held in the region since well before the mid-twentieth century.


Delaere, J. (1950). "À propos de cousins croisés." Bulletin des Jurisdictions Indigènes (Elisabethville), no. 7.

Delaere, J. (1942). "Nzambi-Maweze." Anthropos 37(11): 620-628.

Hilton-Simpson, M. W. (1911). Land and Peoples of the Kasai. London.

Nicolaï, H. (1963) Le kwilu. Cemubac-Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Sousberghe, Léon de (1954). "Étuis péniens ou gaines de chasteté chez les pende." Africa (London), July.

Sousberghe, Léon de (1955). Structures de parenté et d'alliance d'après les formules pende. Brussels: Académie Royale des Sciences Coloniales.

Sousberghe, Léon de (1961). Deux palabres d'esclave chez les pende. Brussels: Académie Royale des Sciences d'Outre-Mer.

Sousberghe, Léon de (1963). Les pende: Aspect des structures sociales et politiques. Annales du Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale. Sciences Humaines, no. 46. Tervueren.

Torday, E. (1913). Camp and Tramp in African Wilds. London.

LÉON DE SOUSBERGHE (Translated by Jean H. Winchell)