Études Bakongo

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During the time which elapses between the nomination and the installation, an old chief, formerly the crowned chief himself, is entrusted with the education of the candidate; an old woman, usually a ndona nkento [woman chief], takes charge of the girl. They try to obtain above all from their pupils evenness of temper and gentleness—a quieted heart, as they say. They (the candidates) must avoid all outbursts of anger or passion, abruptness of movement, even all haste in gait. They are taught to speak sedately.

(NOTE: The two candidates, whom I met and who were perhaps fourteen years old, were more reserved and serious than their age warranted. Their words, gestures, attitudes expressed a certain dignity and at the same time a remarkable modesty. They were also cleaner and better dressed than other boys. They did not have the shifty eyes which distinguish the Bakongo of their age. They kept their glances lowered or fixed them long and sedately upon their interlocutor. They seemed dreamy and melancholy. The two old ba ndona, whom I saw, were completely distinguished from their contemporaries by their serious manner and stately gait.)

In addition to the duties and rites of their future position, the candidates are taught all the traditions of the clan. The boy also learns the language and the proverbs of the palavers. For one or two months preceding the installation, the boy and the girl, together with one or two young men in the capacity of guardian witnesses, withdraw into the forest and live there hidden in a hut built for them. During the day they lie there on the skin of a kimpiti antelope. Throughout the day they are permitted to go out only in case of need; at such times, the guardian goes out in advance and utters a loud cry to warn people who might be in the neighborhood to go away. Formerly the penalty of death punished the curious or the imprudent one who looked at the candidates; now they are let off with a heavy fine.

The Installation (yadika). As in the case of the naming of the candidates, there is a full gathering of the clan. The ceremonies last at least three days. On the first day the assembly decrees that nothing stands in the way of the installation. Toward evening the candidates are brought to the "house of the ancestors"—nzo i bakulu. In this hut on a branch covered with a kimpiti skin is hung the basket of the ancestors, lukobi lu bakulu. For the occasion it is adorned with a bunch of lemba-lemba.

It is upon the old chief that the duty falls of leading in the chosen ones. During this time all the inhabitants have had to hide themselves. The next morning, the men go to the cemetery; there the members of the clan climb into the surrounding trees or cling to the branches of the mbota which overlook the tombs. The drums beat, while the chant resounds:

K’ uleki ko, e mambu wa, ma wa. K’ unimbi ko, e mambu wa, ma wa. E sidi sa, zibula makutu, tuwa mambu.

Sleep not, the things, listen to them, listen to them. Slumber not, the things, listen to them, listen to them. Oh! I have spoken, open your ears, we hear the things.

During this time the young men scatter into the surrounding regions and try to kill a bird called ntietie. The success of this rather easy hunt is the proof that the shades of the ancestors approve of the installation.

When they return, the crowned chief leads the candidates by the hand to the house of the ancestors. The young man seats himself on a leopard skin, the girl on a mat. All those present group themselves in front of the hut. Drums beat and ivory trumpets resound. The chief then unfastens two iron bracelets from his wrist and puts one of them on each candidate. He removes his headdress, the mpu, and places it upon the young man’s head. At this moment all the spectators burst into sharp cries and clap their hands frantically to greet their new crowned chief. Palm leaves woven into bracelets are brought; the old chief hands them to the newly installed one and he bestows them upon all the members of the clan. Then he seats himself again and receives in his hands the basket of the ancestors. The old chief then addresses him as follows: "Behold, you are installed on the nkuwu (leopard skin). It is for tomisa nsi, ’to act in such a way that the country will prosper.’ Guard carefully the nsiku mi mpu: the laws imposed upon crowned chiefs. Accomplish faithfully the will of our ancestors. Establish no fetishes and introduce none in your dwelling. Beware of touching a gun or of going hunting. When you have grown old, consecrate (tumba) another chief to rule in your place."

Then he addresses the audience: "Behold! I have installed your chief upon the leopard skin. He is henceforth your chief, the chief of all of you. Without consulting him you shall undertake no matter of business within your clan. If he is opposed to it, you shall abandon it at once. Whatever his advice or command, scorn it not. He who scorns it is violating the law of the crown:let him ask his chief for peace and pay the fine. Of every animal killed in hunting, you shall give him a quarter; from every animal paid as a fine, you shall offer him, in addition to a fourth part, the heart. For you are his subjects and he is your great chief.

"If he leaves the village, he shall not go on foot, but you shall carry him. He shall not leave his residence except for important affairs in the interest of the clan or the country. You shall never entangle him in affairs with the white man. If he calls you together, you shall all respond to his call. You shall do everything that he tells you to do. As for the ndona nkento, you shall respect her highly. Let no one touch her. Let her give peace to women. She shall choose her husband and shall inhabit no other village than her own. She shall not be given in marriage in return for money but a kinsunda goat shall be offered for her. Her marriage shall be broken only by death."

At the festival which follows, the newly crowned chief forms a group apart with the chief who installed him and the older men. The young ndona remains with the aged matrons. The next day the installation fees are paid. The figure was formerly very high for "mu mpu mu zingila nsi" is the crown which makes the country live and endure. Among other gifts, it was necessary to offer to the chief in charge of the installation a fourth of the first nine kimpiti antelopes killed in the hunt.

The Woman Chief. The ndona nkento, having arrived at marriageable age, chooses a fiancé. If the proposal which she transmits to the young man through the medium of her maternal uncle is approved, the fiancé’s clan brings a kinsunda goat which has borne young once; the marriage feast is celebrated according to the traditional forms. A common meal at which the goat is divided into as many pieces as there are guests and inhabitants of the village brings it to an end. The husband cannot have any other women; he is very strictly held to monogamy and conjugal fidelity. In the same manner, adultery on the part of the ndona nkento formerly resulted in the death of the two guilty ones, who were burned alive. Their ashes were thrown into the river. The marriage is broken only by the death of one of the two partners. If the husband dies, the wife is not permitted to marry a second time.

The ndona nkento of Kingombe, a person who had reached a very advanced age, had lost her husband the year following her marriage. She lived always as a respected widow. If the ndona nkento dies, the husband is free and may follow the customs of the polygamous.

The principal duty of the ndona nkento is: swanga lugemba: to give peace. She practices this ministry especially with regard to women, whose conflicts she settles. She reconciles female enemies and as a sign of peace traces on their temples and foreheads a line with mpemba, white clay, which she keeps carefully in a small vase. She also grants peace on the occasion of a treachery. This crime is punished by Nzambi by diverse penalties, particularly by sterility. The guilty person sees his cultivations laid waste, his home destroyed. For these misfortunes there is only one remedy: to confess the fault to the ndona nkento and receive the white line.

The same thing happens in the case of a bad and unreasoned oath. A man loses one of his children. In his vexation he swears: I will beget no more children; if I beget again, may mindia consume me! As he says these words he strikes the ground three times with his heel. He has committed a wrong and has sworn by the ancestors. Restored to better feelings he may have himself relieved of this oath by the ndona nkento and receive the white line. He kneels before her, says his palaver to her, confesses his fault. She replies: "Buta, ulela: beget, be strong." She traces on his face a line of white clay, extending from the nose to the hair and another on his temples. Then she says: "Peace is yours, perjure yourself no more, utter no more bad oaths."

These religious women chiefs are surrounded by a great respect which, moreover, they deserve. This institution seems at first sight a chance part of the social framework of the people. This compulsory monogamy appears to be of Christian origin, as well as the name ndona. On the other hand, there is nothing either in the role they play or in the rites carried out which does not bear the Bakongo seal. . . . This institution may go back to the period in which the matriarchate granted to women a more important social role.

The Crowned Chief and the Cult of the Ancestors. It is he who has the care of the basket of the ancestors and this basket is the principal feature of the only socially compulsory cult of the Bakongo. It is kept in the nzo i bakulu: the house of the ancestors.

This hut adjoins that of the chief and is not different from ordinary huts. It contains a bifurcated branch of a tree planted in the ground and bearing the basket. In the middle of the hut, between two stones, there burns a fire which may never be extinguished. A small boy is entrusted with the care of it. In the evening some hard logs are placed on it to burn all night. No other object, especially no fetishes, may be introduced into the hut. The basket is round and measures about twenty centimeters in height by fifteen in diameter. It is finely woven, but without any ornamentation and is closed by a cover. It contains remains of all former crowned chiefs, of all the ndona nkento, and of all the albinos of the clan. The remains consist of hair, nails, and a finger bone. The albinos are represented because these white nobles—mfumu zi ndundu—are thought to be reincarnated spirits of great ancestors. . . .

The Death of the Crowned Chief. When a chief sees death approaching—the Bakongo old men often have a sort of presentiment of their approaching end—he makes haste to name or to install his successor. As soon as the illness becomes serious, friendly and allied clans are notified; and groups of visitors come in succession to bestow upon the sick man tokens of their respect. Formerly the crowned chief was not cared for by means of fetishes, for, in his case, it was ordinarily lufwa lu Nzambi, natural death, which was sent to him by Nzambi. His successor and his close relatives watch him closely. When they notice unquestionable signs that the death agony is beginning, two men take the chief’s lance, put it across his throat, and, leaning upon it with both knees, stifle the dying man. When the death rattle has ceased and there is no longer any movement, the successor whispers in his ear: Luka nsi, leave the earth. He then cuts some strands of hair, a finger bone, and some nails from the corpse; he encloses these remains with lemba-lemba leaves in the sacred basket. Henceforth the dead chief bears the name of nkulu eto: our ancestor.1

1Wing, R.P.n/avann/an/a, (Bibliothèque-Congo, no. 3), 142–147, 152–153.

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Chicago: Études Bakongo 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, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YBQGZYR5Z3HNIK7.

MLA: . Études Bakongo, 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. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YBQGZYR5Z3HNIK7.

Harvard: , Études Bakongo. 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 http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YBQGZYR5Z3HNIK7.