More than 10 million people comprise the Bakongo ethnic group that lives along the coastal regions of the Congo, Peoples Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. They migrated to this region in the 13th century from the northeast, which would place their point of origin in the eastern Peoples Democratic Republic of Congo or the heart of Africa. The Bakongo enjoyed a highly developed kingdom and were one of the earliest groups to make contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century. Not long after, Catholicism and disgraceful Portuguese trade practices were introduced, which caused division among the Bakongo people, prompting King Affonso to write the King of Portugal proposing a resolution of the situation. This would signal the beginning of a long, tragic, and complex relationship among the Bakongo, Portuguese, and Catholicism that sent many Bakongo into the European Slave Trade in enslaved Africans, set up the Congo for colonial rule, and influenced the contemporary political activity of the region. Although Catholicism was introduced to the Bakongo relatively early compared with other parts of Africa and today retains a strong Catholic presence, indigenous religious and cultural practices thrive and have been identified in Haitian and New Orleans Vodou, Cuban Regla de Palo, Lucumi, and Regla de Ocha, Brazilian Umbanda and Candomble, and African American expressive culture.
Creation and Cosmology
The principle creator of the world is Nzambi Mpungu, the sovereign master. After creating the world and all creatures in it, Nzambi Mpungu withdrew and has little interest in the world and its inhabitants. Although Nzambi Mpungu withdrew, he still causes the rain to fall and seeds to grow into food to sustain people. Nzambi Mpungu is also responsible for their health and the birth of children. Nzambi Mpungu is strong, rich, and good, although also responsible for death. Nzambici is God the essence, the god on Earth, the great princess, the mother of all the animals. Nzambi is the mystery of the Earth. She was sent to the Earth by Nzambi Mpungu, who then marries her, making him the father of all creation. Nzambi gave humanity all laws, ordinances, arts, games, and musical instruments and settled quarrels between animals. She also stole a part of Nzambi Mpungu's fire. Other deities among the Bakongo are Ntangu who is the sun, Ngonde the moon, Nzassi who is thunder, Lusiemo who is lightning, and Chicamassi-chinuinji who dwells in the sea.
Like many African groups, the Bakongo have numerous accounts of creation and the origins of things. Often in these narratives, the activities of different deities or characters vary from, contradict, or clarify previous information. This is the nature of oral cultures, in which storytelling is fluid and contextual, but also in which knowledge is esoteric. In such cultures, stories mask deeper knowledge that is known only to initiates. What follows is an account of Bakongo cosmology, from an ngdânga, an initiate into an Africa way of thinking, using concrete and less symbolic or mythological language.
The world was empty of all life in the beginning. A fire force, kalÛnga, emerged within this empty circle, or mbÛngi, and heated up its contents, which, when cooled, formed the Earth. The Earth, the starting point of the fire, is now a green planet because it has gone through four stages. The first is the emergence of the fire, the second is the red stage, where the planet is still burning and has not formed. The next is the grey stage where the planet is cooling, but has not produced life. These planets are naked, dry, and covered with dust. Finally, the green stage is when the planet is fully mature because it breathes and carries life. As part of the universal order, all planets must go through this process.
Another important characteristic of Bakongo cosmology is the sun and its movements. The rising, peaking, setting, and absence of the sun provide the essential pattern for Bakongo religious culture. These “four moments of the sun” equate with the four stages of life: conception, birth, maturity, and death. For the Bakongo, everything transitions through these stages: planets, plants, animals, people, societies, and even ideas. This vital cycle is depicted by a circle with a cross inside. In this cosmogram or dikenga, the meeting point of the two lines of the cross is the most powerful point and where the person stands.
The Bakongo person, or muntu, is a living-energy being and a physical being. Therefore, the muntu is a complex “pattern of patterns” or “principle of principles” in being. Muntu is distinguished in creation because muntu have mwela-ngindu or a dual soul-mind. The mwéla-ngindu has experiences at each moment of the sun. The first moment is musoni, a time of beginnings. It is the time of human conception in the womb. Kala is the time of the sun rising and the physical birth of a person. Tukula is the period of maturation and the peak of creativity, a time when the person ideally demonstrates mastery of life, whether in familial, social, artistic, or spiritual realms. Luvemba time is marked by physical death. A person's dual soul-mind or mpève-ngîndu interacts with the local and/or world community after death and continues to have experiences in the ku mpèmba in preparation for a new cycle of creation. For the Bakongo, a person is a kala-zimi-kala, a living-dying-living being.
The person standing at the crossroads forms a “V” within the dikenga. The V is a sacred image appearing throughout Bakongo weaving and artistic designs. The three points of the V are also represented in the three firestones, foundation of Bakongo social order, and the three different colored ingredients used in the divinatory calabash and the three divisions of the precolonial Bakongo kingdoms.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
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