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ETHNONYMS: Bembe, Kongo, Kunyi, Manianga, Mboma, Mpangu, Ndibu, Ntandu, (N)Sandi, Solongo, Vili, Yombe, all with or without the plural prefix "Ba." "MuKongo" or "Mwisi Kongo" refers to an individual. The people call their homeland "Kongo." The language is KiKongo (KiBembe, etc.)


Identification. The BaKongo, numbering three to four million, live in west-central Africa, in a roughly triangular area extending from Pointe-Noire, Congo, in the north, to Luanda, Angola, in the south, and inland to Kinshasa, Zaire. The unitary character of the Kongo group and the identity of the various subgroups are artifacts of colonial rule and ethnography.

Location. Neither the internal nor the external boundaries of the Kongo group can be defined with any precision. The northern part of the Kongo territory is forested, whereas the southern is mainly savanna grasslands with forest galleries. The Zaire (Congo) River fights its way to the sea by a series of cataracts from Malebo Pool, between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, through the rugged Crystal Mountains, whose elevations range from 200 to 400 meters. The vegetation does not differ from that of other parts of tropical Africa; the soil is predominantly lateritic, varying in fertility from the forested bottomlands to the coarse grass and sparse orchard-bush of nearly barren hills. The long dry season lasts from mid-May to September, the short rainy season from October to mid-December, the short dry season from mid-December to February, and the long rainy season from February to mid-May. The average temperature in Brazzaville is 25° C. Because the upper waters of the Zaire extend north of the equator, the flow of the river is fairly constant; high water levels occur in mid-December, low water levels between 15 July and 15 August. Until about 1900, the fauna included lions, hippopotamuses, leopards, elephants, several species of antelope, chimpanzees, giant otters, buffalo, gorillas, and snakes of many kinds, poisonous and nonpoisonous. Animals frequently hunted included wild pigs, cane-cutter rodents, civet cats, bats, and field rats. Fish abound in the rivers. Virtually all large animals except crocodiles have now been killed off by hunters and, since 1970, as a consequence of increasingly rapid destruction of forest habitats. Natural resources include petroleum (in the Cabinda enclave, on the coast) and noncommercial amounts of gold, bauxite, and copper.

Demography. In 1960 the Kongo population in Zaire (Belgian Congo) was approximately 951,000, not including the city of Kinshasa, whose population of 70,000 was about half Kongo. A similar number of BaKongo were located in Congo (formerly the French colony of Moyen Congo), with a corresponding concentration in Brazzaville. By 1970, the population of the major urban areas had tripled; it continued to grow thereafter, although, since 1990, there has been some return to rural areas, for economic and political reasons. Demographic information pertaining to the BaKongo of Angola is lacking; northern Angola was embroiled in civil war during most of the thirty years after 1960, when thousands of Kongo refugees moved temporarily to Zaire. In general, the BaKongo of Zaire are much better documented than those of either Angola or Congo.

Linguistic Affiliation. KiKongo is a Western Bantu language whose several dialects constitute Group H of M. Guthrie's classification. A form of KiKingo, called KiLeta, functions as a lingua franca for many Kongo-related peoples further east. The younger generation of BaKongo in Congo and Zaire, especially in the cities, speak only Lingala, which is increasingly becoming the national language of Zaire.

History and Cultural Relations

The legendary origin of most of the Kongo peoples is Mbanza Kongo, the capital of the Kongo Kingdom, founded perhaps in the thirteenth century but long since reduced to a villageSão Salvadorin northern Angola. In 1485 the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao brought the first Europeans to Kongo. Shortly afterward, most of the nobility converted to Christianity. During the sixteenth century, Kongo maintained diplomatic relations with Portugal and the Vatican.

The growth of the Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century favored the development of petty states on the coast, notably the kingdom of Loango in modern Cabinda. Increasing Portuguese intervention in Kongo politics, culminating in the defeat of the Kongo king in 1665, brought to an end the relatively centralized period of Kongo government, despite an effort in 1704, led by the prophet Beatrice Kimpa Vita, to revive the kingdom. By the eighteenth century, the typical Kongo settlement was a village of from 200 to 500 inhabitants. The BaKongo were thereafter increasingly integrated into the Atlantic commerce. Their main function was to act as porters and middlemen between the European stations on the coast and the Tio and BoBangi traders at Malebo Pool, where navigation downstream on the Zaire ceased to be possible. The population was stratified into free and slave. From the effective end of the slave trade in 1863 until the creation of the Free State in 1885, slaves were used mostly for agricultural production intended for the European settlements on the coast.

When the European powers divided Africa among themselves in 1885, the Zaire Basin, named the "Congo Free State," was allotted to Leopold II, king of the Belgians. His agents, led by Henry Morton Stanley, took over the interior, including the territory of the BaKongo, where they set up police posts, established trade routes of their own, and more or less forcibly recruited much of the male population as porters and laborers. Similarly violent processes of occupation in the neighboring French and Portuguese colonies, with associated epidemics of sleeping sickness, killed off as much as three-quarters of the population.

In 1908 international protest and fiscal mismanagement forced Leopold to hand over his colony to Belgium, as the Belgian Congo. Effective administration of all three colonial territories was in place by about 1920. Thereafter, the combined effect of state and, more especially, Catholic- and Protestant-mission education, helped to make the BaKongo one of the most Westernized and most influential groups in French Congo, Belgian Congo, and Angola, although they never formed a coherent international bloc. In 1960 Kongo politicians emerged as heads of newly independent states in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, only to be replaced during subsequent civil strife.


Besides the capital cities of Brazzaville (Congo) and Kinshasa (Zaire), the principal urban centers are the ports of Pointe-Noire, Matadi, and Borna. BaKongo predominate in the many towns of their home region but are also found in towns and cities throughout their respective countries. In their own rural areas, BaKongo live in scattered villages varying in population from a few dozen to a few hundred persons. Constructed of adobe, burned brick, or wattle and daub, with roofs of thatch or corrugated iron, the houses shelter single individuals or married couples. Usually, there are two rooms, the inner one reserved for sleeping and storage. A separate kitchen at the back of the house is the center of the female domain.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most men and many women work, or seek work, in urban areas for most of their working lives. The rural population consists disproportionately of children and elderly people. In urban areas, wages are rarely sufficient to support even a single individual; therefore, people depend on innumerable petty occupations, legal and illegal, to make ends meet. In rural areas, families export as much food to town as they can, earning cash with which to pay taxes and school fees and to buy hardware, clothes, and small luxuries. Domestic animals include goats, sheep, pigs, and poultry; commercial cattle ranches supply meat to the towns. The BaKongo grow manioc, several kinds of yam, maize, peanuts, and various pulses, as well as bananas, avocados, citrus fruits, and palm nuts. A major handicap to the rural economy is the expense and unreliability of transportation. After 1985, the national economy virtually disintegrated, leaving most BaKongo, urban and rural, in dire straits.

Industrial Arts. In rural areas, some men weave baskets and mats, and a few continue the traditional techniques of ironworking; a few women make pots.

Trade. Villages within reach of a truck route may hold a market on Saturdays. Unlicensed traders bring manufactured goods from town for sale or barter, and may make cash advances to rural producers. In town, most women supplement their incomes by buying goods in small quantities and selling still smaller amounts, but a certain number have become successful wholesalers and importers.

Division of Labor. Although both women and men work for wages when they can, men predominate in the better-paying and more prestigious occupations. In rural areas, men cultivate forest crops, including fruit trees, whereas savanna crops are appropriate to women. Men hunt; women fish and catch small rodents.

Land Tenure. In principle, in Zaire all land belongs to the state, from which commercial developers may obtain use rights. In practice, in rural areas unattractive to capitalists, traditional rules of land tenure prevail. Land is owned by matrilineal descent groups called "houses" and is available for use to the members of the house, to in-marrying women, and to the children and grandchildren of male members. Fruit trees, also inherited matrilineally, are owned separately from the land on which they stand.


Kin Groups and Descent. In Zairean law, all traditional kinship groupings have been abolished and replaced by a modified type of European family. In practice, every MuKongo identifies himself by reference to his mother's clan and the village in which it is domiciled. Exogamous local sections of each matrilineal clan are divided into landowning houses, and these, in turn, into lineages functioning as inheritance groups.

Kinship Terminology. BaKongo can trace their relationship to others through only one of several routes, depending on the situation. Two persons occupying the same status with respect to any third party are said to be "siblings," mpangi. When reckoning is by clans, this principle generates a terminological pattern of the Crow type, in which mother's brother's daughter is equated with "child," mwana, and father's sister's daughter with "father," se. When reckoning is traced from individual to individual, the pattern becomes Hawaiian, meaning that all cousins are called "sibling." Most kinship terms apply to relatives of either sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy is required by law, but many men have long-standing, quasi-domestic relationships with more than one woman. Traditionally, marriage with a classificatory patrilateral cross cousin was preferred, but no one may marry into a closely related lineage. Couples are expected to go through traditional wedding formalities, but official recognition is extended only to legally registered marriages. A man is obliged to support his children, whether he married their mother or not, and there is no status of illegitimacy.

Domestic Unit. By tradition, a married woman and man have separate budgets, the wife being responsible for the provision of food (except meat) and the husband for clothes and other bought goods. Each disposes independently of any surplus, but in Zaire the government favors making women dependent on their husbands. Children are raised cooperatively by neighboring and related women.

Inheritance. Increasingly, especially in urban areas, children inherit from their fathers.

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 landthat 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.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The BaKongo are Christians, mostly Catholic, but with a strong Protestant minority in all three countries, affiliated with British, U.S., and Swedish evangelical missions. Church-related schools and hospitals provide the best available education and medical care. Between 10 and 15 percent of the population belong to local Pentecostal churches, most of which trace their origin to the celebrated Kongo prophet Simon Kimbangu, who preached and healed the sick for a few months in 1921 before being imprisoned for life by the Belgian authorities. His son Joseph Diangienda (deceased) founded and led the now international Church of Jesus Christ on the Earth by the Prophet Simon Kimbangu. Kimbanguist-related movements have included Khakism in Congo in the 1930s and Tokoism in Angola in the 1950s.

Arts. Indigenous arts, including sculpture and music, have been almost entirely suppressed by European influence. The traditional pentatonic scale can still be heard in the songs of women, especially as sung at funerals and in connection with the cult of twins. A variety of percussion instruments and idiophones (drums, silt gongs, clapperless bells, rattles) are employed at parties and religious services. In Kinshasa, the BaKongo contribute substantially to Zaire's internationally famous popular dance music.

Medicine. BaKongo of all walks of life commonly consult healers and magical experts (nganga ) to deal with not only illnesses but also afflictions such as marital disputes, unemployment, traffic accidents, and theft. Such experts, concentrated in the towns, include non-BaKongo. A distinction is made between afflictions sent by God, which are "natural," and those in which an element of witchcraft is involved. Sufferers and their families commonly essay a series of treatments for the same problem, visiting both the diviner and the hospital.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are important occasions of social gathering and family expenditure. Ideally, the bodies of the dead should be taken back to their natal villages if death occurs in town. Cemeteries are considered to be dangerous places, not to be visited casually. The land of the dead is thought of as situated on the other side of a body of water, sometimes identified with the Atlantic. The life of the dead continues that of the living in another place but inverts it, in such a way that to the dead, who become white, nighttime is daylight. All exceptional powers among the living are thought to be obtained from the dead, either legitimately, as in the case of chiefs and elders, or illegitimately, in the case of witches. In modern belief, benevolent powers from the land of the dead tend to be consolidated under the name "Holy Spirit," and evil powers as "Satan."


Bockie, Simon (1993). Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dupré, Georges (1985). Naissances d'une société: Historique et histoire chez les Beeme du Congo. Paris: OSTROM.

Janzen, John M. (1978). The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

MacGaffey, Wyatt (1970). Custom and Government in the Lower Congo. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

MacGaffey, Wyatt (1986). Religion and Society in Central Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thornton, John K. (1983). The Kingdom of Kongo. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.