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ETHNONYMS: Basuku, Bayaka, Yaka


Identification. "Suku" is the term now accepted by the Suku themselves and in Zaire and in the ethnographic literature. Just before and after 1900, they were often referred to as "Yaka" or, more specifically, "Yaka of MiniKongo" (the title of the Suku king)in contrast with their neighbors, the Yaka proper, who are ruled by the king titled kasongo lunda.

Location. The Suku occupy an irregularly shaped, roughly rectangular area, approximately 60 to 80 kilometers east to west and 180 kilometers north to south, between 5° and 7° N and 17°30 and 18°15 E, in the Kwango subregion of the Bandundu region. Located at an elevation of about 750 meters, the area consists of rolling savannas and savanna-woodland, cut by swift rivers and streams. A May-to-September dry, cool season alternates with a rainy season.

Demography. At the mid-twentieth century, the Suku numbered about 80,000, with a population density of 5 to 6 persons per square kilometer. At present, the population may be approaching 150,000, about one-third of it residing more or less permanently in urban centers, particularly Kinshasa.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Suku language is part of the Kongo Cluster within Central Bantu, closely related to Yaka and the various Kongo dialects.

History and Cultural Relations

The Suku polity was founded by refugees from the middle Kwango River area, which was being conquered by Lunda invaders in the seventeenth century. Although the Suku are culturally akin to the Kongo peoples, their political organization and nomenclature carry a distinct Lunda imprint. After shallow and sporadic contacts with the Portuguese in the nineteenth century, in the 1890s the Suku came under the control of the Congo Free State (eventually the Belgian Congo). European traders appeared early in the twentieth century; serious missionary (Catholic and Protestant) and government presence commenced in the late 1920s. From the 1930s, the Suku economy, lacking local resources, became progressively dependent on labor migration to plantations and urban centers.


Traditionally, settlements were small (rarely with more than fifty inhabitants) and scattered. Colonial authorities regrouped them into larger clusters of several hundred inhabitants. Traditional houses are rectangular (2.4 to 3.0 meters by 4.5 to 6.0 meters), usually of two rooms, and consist of a wooden framework covered with grass. The colonial period introduced the typical pan-African modern house of wattle-and-daub or clay-brick walls and a tin roof.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden gardens supply manioc, the staple food, supplemented by sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, beans, peas, maize, and peanuts, with occasional bananas and "European" vegetables. Several varieties of palm are tapped for "wine." Grubs and caterpillars are collected, and there is fishing and hunting and trapping of antelopes, monkeys, rodents, and birds. Dogs, goats, pigs, and chickens are the main domestic animals. Owing to the distance from markets, there are no food exports of any commercial importance. Cash to pay for imports has come from local employment, mainly at the missions and with the government, and the savings and remittances of migrant labor.

Industrial Arts. Houses, furniture, bows, and simple utensils are usually made by the users. Artisans supply the more specialized objects, such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and weirs, mortars, drums, hoes, knives, arrows, axes, adzes, and ritual objects. Pottery is made by women. These items are (and were traditionally) sold for shell money by the artisans. Importation of many largely nonutilitarian items began with the colonial period.

Trade. In the nineteenth century the Suku profited from a trade that channeled oil and raffia from the forested areas to the north in exchange for cloth, beads, guns and gunpowder, and shell money from the Angolan coast. With the imposition of colonial boundaries, this trading network lapsed, and Sukuland became an economic backwater, with only migrant labor as its main resource.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, except for miniscule tobacco and medicinal gardens and the tapping of palm wine, cultivation was entirely in the hands of women, who also made pottery. All the other crafts were men's, as were such professions as diviner, judge, kingroup and political chief, and the majority of ritual specialists. Men also hunted the larger animals, did most of the fishing and trapping, and kept dogs, pigs, and goats. All specializations were part-time, and every Suku was engaged in a range of activities. The modern economy expanded men's choices primarily; it brought laboring jobs, mostly in distant towns and plantations, and some new occupations, such as domestic servant for expatriates, clerk, driver, policeman, medical assistant, and teacher, and, since independence, higher political, bureaucratic, and professional positions.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, ownership rights in land (as in everything) belonged to kin groups. The open bush was subdivided into large sections bounded by streams, usually of a score or more square kilometers. Control over such a section had primarily to do with hunting: a leg of any large game caught in it was owed to its owner's lineage, and only the owners were entitled to fire the bush for the large collective hunts of the dry season. Installing a new village also required the permission and ritual sanction of the owner's lineage. Land was free for cultivation, involving only a very minor ritual tribute. Separate usufruct rights were held over palm trees (tapped for wine), fishing sites, and small patches of rich soil used for peanut planting. This system had remained intact during the colonial period and has undergone no fundamental changes since Zairean independence.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic unit of social life is the autonomous matrilineage, seldom of more than forty members, which functions as a very strongly corporate, property-holding, marriage-arranging, and bride-wealth-collecting unit. Traditionally, it was jurally responsible for all its members' actions, and it held life-and-death and selling rights over its members. It is also the unit of all mystical and ritual functions. The lineage is localized within an area of convenient communication (some twenty kilometers across), its membership dispersed among the villages of this neighborhood; the lineage owns one of the villages, which serves as its headquarters, and in which its head (its oldest male) resides. Lineage dispersal results from Suku residence rules. Upon marriage, a woman joins her husband. A man resides near his father at least until the father's death and usually with the father's brothers after that. As they grow older, the men trickle into the lineage headquarters. Several such autonomous but related matrilineages recognized their common identity through occasional actions such as a symbolic sharing of bride-wealth receipts. They regard themselves as chapters of a larger kin group: thus, a member of one lineage, moving into the neighborhood of another, will be incorporated into the latter. In addition to the matrilineage, the Suku also recognize what might be called a patrikindred or a truncated patrilineage that includes all patridescendants of one's father and his patribrothers.

Kinship Terminology. The pattern of the kinship terminological system is Iroquois. It is skewed in a Crow manner in that upon the demise of the father's generation in the father's lineage, the father's sisters' sons succeed to its social and terminological position and all the linked relatives are reclassified accordingly. Beyond the active core of the kin network (including mainly those in one's matrilineage, father's matrilineage, and patrikindred and their spouses, and one's wife's matrilineage), the kin terms are infinitely extendable through successive recognizable links.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, about a fifth of married men were polygynous. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Traditional marriage involves a transfer of rights from a woman's lineage to the groom's, in exchange for money and a sacrificial goat. Included are rights of sexual possession and exclusion; rights to her domestic and agricultural labor; and eventually, rights to a son's lifetime assistance and to a portion of a daughter's bride-wealth as compensation for rearing her. Lineage filiation rights remain with the wife's lineage. Divorce (which is not infrequent) and a wife's death reverse these transfers, but the amount of returned bride-wealth is discounted for each child and the length of the wife's services. No reimbursement is due if the widow remarries within the husband's lineage. A slight preference is expressed for a man to marry his father's sister's daughter.

Domestic Unit. Newlyweds set up in a separate compound near the man's father. In terms of lineage affiliation (and therefore economic, jural, and ritual interests), the domestic unit is divided between the husband and the wife-and-herchildren cluster. Polygyny simply adds more such independent clusters to the compound.

Inheritance. The property-owning unit being the matrilineage, all the wealth of a deceased person reverts to his or her lineage's control, being effectively allocated to its elders. The one exception is the inheritance by the sons of the father's hunting paraphernalia. Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a tendency to expand the portion of goods inherited by sons.

Socialization. Personhood is achieved a few weeks after birth at a coming-out and naming ceremony. Breast-feeding, eventually supplemented with food, lasts until the age of 2 or 3, during which there is a taboo on sexual intercourse. Children continually experience casual close body contact with adults and other children. Boys are left very free until late adolescence, learning routine skills by participation and imitation; by contrast, girls from an early age are an indispensable part of the household's labor force. Groups of adolescent boys are taken into adulthood through circumcision rites, lasting for weeks and involving the acquisition of new adult names. No comparable rites of passage exist for girls. All these patterns have had to accommodate to the ever-growing presence of schools from the 1930s on.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The primary groups of loyalty are one's own matrilineage and the village, which involves the patrikindred and the father's matrilineage. Given male patrilocality and household virilocality, one's everyday life tends to focus on the village, whereas one's economic, jural, and ritual obligations focus on the dispersed matrilineage. Although this sometimes leads to conflicts of loyalty, it also provides a certain relief from the near-totalistic demands of one's lineage. Status achievement was traditionally a matter of aging: for both males and females, eldership (from middle-age on) brings with it an ever-increasing involvement in the affairs of one's lineage, surrounding community, and region. Nowadays status is also bolstered by education, position in the larger Zairean society, and wealth. Traditionally, there was little wealth differentiation among lineages; the main variable in social power lay in the size of the lineage.

Political Organization. The political organization of the Suku kingdom was pyramidal. The royal lineage (whose current head was the king) stood at the apex and also ruled directly its own immediate region. The rest of Sukuland was divided into about a dozen regional chieftaincies (of unequal size and occasionally subject to fission), each controlled by a specific lineage holding the right to its chiefship. The larger of these were subdivided into several smaller subordinate chieftaincies; the smaller ones were not. Below this, the political organization was coterminous with relations among the local matrilineages. The main concerns of the formal political system were prestige and tribute. Tribute flowed upward through each successive level to the king. The political system was also formally concerned with ensuring public order, but it lacked effective institutionalized means (such as police or standing troops) for doing so, and the chiefs' order-keeping roles were played out capriciously, sporadically, and often reluctantly.

Social Control. Traditionally, social control depended primarily on mechanisms usually characteristic of acephalous societies. Lineages were totally autonomous in their internal affairs, and the elders' control rested on their formal power to curse and their suspected witchcraft, a control tempered by fear of witchcraft accusations. Between lineages, most conflicts were conditioned by the need of every corporate lineage to redress any imbalance in its relationship with every other lineage. Any lasting indebtedness upset this balance. Most conflicts arose from theft, property destruction, homicide, marriage-payment obligations, and infringement of sexual rights. The aggrieved party frequently resorted to violent self-help or to an attack on a third party, forcibly involving it in the settlement process. Conflicts between lineages could also be taken to independently practicing arbitrators who relied on argument or divination. Since the colonial period, customary courts, with powers of enforcing decisions, have been dealing with civil and minor criminal cases, and government courts have been dealing with serious crimes.

Conflict. The only armed conflict with a neighboring group in Suku history lay at the foundation of the Suku polity, with the defeat of the Lunda-Yaka attempt to subdue the fleeing Suku king. Since then, conflicts with neighboring groups occurred locally at the level of lineages, the methods of settlement being the same as those between Suku lineages.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The key traditional elements were the Creator, medicines, the powers of eldership, witchcraft, and divination. The Creator was akin to a logical postulate of a first cause, with no direct impact on everyday activities. A variety of individually held medicines allowed for magical action, beneficent or nefarious, or both. A lineage-held medicine was one that had brought misfortunes to the lineage and had to be ritually taken in and nurtured to prevent further depredations. Lineage elders had the power to curse their juniors, withdrawing from them the mystical protection of the lineage against misfortunes. Witches (whose power was acquired at birth from other witches) were regarded ambivalently: they could promote lineage interests but had occasionally to "consume" lineage members. Thus, a misfortune, such as a sickness, could arise from one or several of these sources. It was the diviner's role to sort them out and indicate the necessary countermeasures. This conceptual system of dealing with misfortunes was not always satisfactory in practice, resulting in periodic revitalization-type movements that predate colonial control. These movements and Christianization have gradually undermined the integrity of the traditional system. At present, what is left are discrete bits and pieces of it, operating in conjunction with various Western Christian (Catholic and Protestant) and modern Afro-Christian beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, aside from diviners, there were no fully engaged religious specialists. All lineage heads performed the basic lineage rituals (such as marriages, burials, appeals to dead elders, curses), and all political chiefs performed the basic chiefly rituals (harvest, hunts, installation of chiefs and villages). Circumcision rituals were conducted by part-time ritual entrepreneurs. Lineage medicines were maintained by lineage members initiated for that purpose. At present, religious specialists are found in the Christian churches and in Afro-Christian movements.

Ceremonies. In addition to circumcision, the outstanding public rite was Kita, a periodic rite of revitalization of the society as a whole involving all men and women not previously initiated. Other public rituals included the founding of a new village, the chiefly first-fruits ritual, and the initiation and installation of new lineage and regional chiefs and the king. The most frequent rituals were those having to do with medicines: acquiring them for a lineage, curing their victims, or renovating their force, but these were private lineage rituals.

Arts. The outstanding nonspecialist performing arts included singing, dancing, telling of parables and tales, and playing drums and thumb pianos. Decorative artistry finds expression in hairstyling and in mat, basket, and gourd making. More specialized artistic elaboration appears in the manufacture of pottery, tobacco mortars, drinking cups, bowls, axes, adzes, knives, bracelets, and stools and in the carving of ritual figures and dance masks.

Medicine. Herbalism, which is the basis for treatment of minor diseases, is a part-time specialty. Other methods of curing by ritual specialists are inextricably bound with "mystical" notions of "medicines" (see "Religious Beliefs," "Religious Practitioners," and "Ceremonies") that bring misfortunes and provide the ritual means of curing them. Misfortunes as a class incorporate both disease and unfortunate events (such as bad luck or poor hunting), and both could also be brought about by witchcraft and magic. Western medicine has been widely accepted as a way of dealing with physical systems, but not the deeper causes of disease.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place within a day of death. Traditionally, the corpse is placed in a small subterranean niche; nowadays caskets are also used. The grave site is marked with objects such as glasses, plates, and chairs. There is a firm recognition (coupled with a profound agnosticism about the details) of life after death and of the influence of the dead on the living. Occasionally, one has contact with the dead, in the form of ghosts, but the dead with whom one has a persistent relationship are the dead of one's own lineage. The power of one's dead elders (ancestors) is an enhanced version of their power while alive, and one communicates with them at the grave sites, cajoling them for help in everyday events. As with the living elders in formal matters, the dead elders are treated as a collectivity. These notions have continued among Christian Suku, who find some measure of support for them in Christian and, especially, Catholic beliefs.


Kopytoff, Igor (1964). "Family and Lineage among the Suku of the Congo." In The Family Estate in Africa, edited by Robert F. Gray and P. H. Gulliver, 83-116. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kopytoff, Igor ([1965] 1988). "The Suku of Southwestern Congo." In The Peoples of Africa, edited by James L. Gibbs, Jr., 441-478. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Kopytoff, Igor (1977). "Matrilineality, Residence, and Residential Zones." American Ethnologist 4:539-558.

Kopytoff, Igor (1981). "Knowledge and Belief in Suku Thought." Africa 51:709-723.

Lamal, F. (1965). "Basuku et bayaka des districts Kwango et Kwilu au Congo." Annales, Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Sciences Humaines, no. 56.

Torday, E., and T. A. Joyce (1906). "Notes on the Ethnography of the Ba-Yaka." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 36:39-58.