Africa Guide

Bakongo People


The Bakongo people (aka. the Kongo) dwell along the Atlantic coast of Africa from Pointe-Noire, Congo (Brazzaville) to Luanda, Angola. In the east, their territory is limited by the Kwango River and in the northeast by Malebo (Stanley) Pool, in the Congo River. The Bakongo thus live in Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), and Angola.

The Kongo peoples migrated into their current location during the 13th century from the northeast under the leadership of Wene. In 1482 the Portuguese arrived on the coast, and the Bakongo began diplomatic relations which included sending Bakongo nobles to visit the royal assemblage in Portugal in 1485. Bakongo leaders were targeted for conversion by Christian missionaries, and often divisions between followers of Christianity and followers of the traditional religions resulted. In 1526 the Portuguese were expelled, but the Bakongo peoples were then invaded by the Jagas in 1568, and the Bakongo were forced to look to the Portuguese for help. The Kongo kingdom never regained its former power. In the ensuing years the Bakongo alternatively fought for and against the Portuguese, eventually being colonized in 1885. The Bakongo political party Abako played an important part in national independence in 1960.

In its heyday, the Kingdom exacted taxes, forced labor, and collected fines from its citizens in order to prosper. At times, enslaved peoples, ivory, and copper were traded to the Europeans on the coast. The important harbors were Sonyo and Pinda. When the Kongo Kingdom was at its political apex in the 15th and 16th centuries, the King, who had to be a male descendant of Wene, reigned supreme. He was elected by a group of governors, usually the heads of important families and occasionally including Portuguese officials. The activities of the court were supported by an extensive system of civil servants, and the court itself usually consisted of numerous male relatives of the King. The villages were often governed by lesser relatives of the King who were responsible to him. All members of government were invested with their power under the auspices of a ritual specialist.

The Bakongo religion centers on ancestor and spirit cults, which also play a part in social and political organization. A strong tradition of prophetism and messianism among the Bakongo has given rise in the 20th century to nativistic, political-religious movements, mostly xenophobic. The most prolific art form from this area is the nkisi objects, which come in all shapes, mediums, and sizes. The stratification of Bakongo society resulted in much of the art being geared toward those of high status, and the nkisi figures were one of the only forms available to everyone.

They numbered about 10,220,000 at the end of the 20th century. Their language is part of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo languages. The Bakongo cultivate cassava, bananas, corn (maize), sweet potatoes, peanuts (groundnuts), beans, and taro. Cash crops are coffee, cacao, urena, bananas, and palm oil. Fishing and hunting are still practiced by some groups, but many Bakongo live, work and trade in towns. Descent is reckoned through the female line, and tribes are grouped in lineages. The main characteristic of their social organization is fragmentation: nearly every village is independent of its neighbours, and almost nothing remains of the ancient Kongo kingdom.

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