Pioneering on the Congo

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[When it is decided to initiate a number of people into the ndembo society] those who wish to enter the mystery are instructed by the doctor to feign sudden death at a sign from him. Accordingly, in some public place the novice falls down as though dead. Funeral cloth or a blanket is laid upon him; the doctor beats the ground round the ’dead’ person with plantain stalks, and after singing, and gun firing, and dancing, he is borne away to the vela stockade outside the town. He is said to have "died ndembo." The singularly impressionable nature of the black race is evidenced by the strange manifestations of hysteria during the pseudo-revivals in Jamaica. In the same way it appears that when the ndembo doctor has induced a number of young people of both sexes to "die ndembo," the sight of the feigned deaths often induces a form of hysteria among other natives, who fall, and are actually carried off in a state of catalepsy. I have never seen it myself, but it has been so distinctly stated and described to me by natives, who would otherwise know nothing of such a condition, that there can be no doubt that such is the case.

Sometimes the novices may be few, twenty, or perhaps fifty, but we have heard of cases of two hundred people being initiated together.

In the vela they are supposed to decompose and decay, until but one bone of each novice is left in charge of the doctor: They remain in the vela for a term varying from three months to three years. No clothes are worn, for "there is no shame in ndembo"; the bodies of the novices are rubbed with red ocher, arnatto red, or powdered camwood. Both sexes live together, and the grossest immoralities are practiced; in this respect, however, some districts are worse than others, but the King of Congo, long before we went out to him, had prohibited the custom in the town of San Salvador, as too vile to be permitted; for the same reason it is not allowed in some other towns. These were, however, but a few exceptions; the vile and senseless custom was almost universal.

In the vela, an attempt is made to teach a secret language. The vocabulary is small, and very feeble in ingenuity. Some articles are called by fancy names, many being very simple in construction; the eye is called nembweno, "the possessor of sight"; the ear, nengwila, "the lord of hearing." Many words are obscured by adding the prefix ne to them, with lwa at the end of the word: nediambulwa = diambu, "a word." A few fancy verbs are substituted for the commonest actions, yalala = kwenda, "to go," and so forth. The common people are not allowed to see those undergoing the ’mystery’; a drum is beaten to warn off intruders when the initiates go to bathe or fetch firewood.

When the term appointed is at an end, preparations are made for the ’resurrection’ of those who have "died ndembo." Parents and relatives have to make certain payments to the doctor, and the news is spread that, on a certain market day, there will be a grand resurrection at the market. All the countryside collects to the fete.

The initiates, now called nganga, "knowing ones," are clothed in fine cloths, sent by their friends, and are led with reddened skins in solemn procession to the market, and file two or three times round the crowd assembled. All have a tassel of palm fiber on their arms. After the march round, the mystery is complete, and mothers and friends hug the long-lost nganga. The nganga are instructed to pretend to know nobody and nothing. They appear dazed, and cannot talk. They want whatever they see, seize whatever takes their fancy; no one is allowed to resist, because "they do not know any better." They behave like lunatics, and pretend not to know how to eat; even food has to be masticated for them, so well do they act their part. After a few days the excitement and interest of the deception wears off, and they gradually resume intelligence. If anyone asks curious questions as to the land of the dead whence they have come, they stick a piece of grass behind their ears, and pretend to be perfectly unconscious of being addressed.1

1Bentley, W.H.n/an/an/an/a, , 1: 285–287 (London: The Religious Tract Society; New York: Fleming H. Revell & Company. By permission).

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Chicago: Pioneering on the Congo in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Pioneering on the Congo, Vol. 1, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Pioneering on the Congo. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from