Lele

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The Lele people are located in Central Africa in the southwestern part of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Lele live on the edge of the massive equatorial forest, and the latter, as could be expected, plays a major role in Lele life and occupies a central place in Lele religion. The Lele believe that the forest, and all that it hosts, was given to them by Njambi, the Supreme Being. It is from the forest that the Lele receive water, maize, firewood, manioc, salt, fish, oil, and animal meat, which are all necessary for their sustenance. The forest also provides them with medicinal plants. The Lele, therefore, hold the forest in great esteem. They see it as a primarily male sphere, from which women are often banned. On special occasions, such as the birth of twins, the advent of a death, or the appearance of the new moon, women are allowed in the forest only after Lele men have performed certain rituals.
Although Njambi, the Supreme Being, is held responsible for the whole creation and is believed to remain ultimately in charge of that creation, spirits known as mingebe play a critical part in daily Lele affairs. Not surprinsingly, the mingehe's abode is the deepest part of the equatorial forest, where they like to dwell in streams. People believe that the mingehe are asleep during the daytime and fully awake and active at night, wandering around. It is therefore important not to make much noise at night to avoid attracting them. This is the case because the mingehe are feared by human beings because they have the power to bring misfortunes on the living if displeased.
They are believed to control two critical aspects of Lele life: fertility and hunting. Many animals and plants are closely associated with them and are, therefore, handled with great care. Such is the case of water pigs, for example, whose affinity with rivers marks them as spiritually charged animals. It is said that they are owned by the spirits. Other water-dwelling animals, such as fish, are also linked to the mingehe and are consequently approached with great caution. Pregnant women are not allowed to eat fish at all. Although fishing is usually done by Lele women, the latter must take certain precautionary steps before introducing recently caught fish: The latter must be touched by fire and then left outside and away from the village overnight. Only then is it considered safe to bring them into the village for consumption. Fish are often included in the preparation of medicine.
Plants such as bananas also provide a telling illustration of Lele regard for and fear of the spirits. Bananas, given their believed closeness to the world of the spirits, often occupy a central place in certain rituals. Water, either spring or rain, is also charged with spiritual energy. Finally and similarly, the moon is treated as a special spiritual entity associated with fertility. On a full moon day, sexual intercourse is taboo, and women should not, unless certain precautions have been taken, enter the forest. All these examples underscore the fact that the Lele people are careful about not upsetting the spirits because this, in turn, would upset the social harmony.
In fact, in addition to controlling fertility and hunting, the spirits are also concerned about social peace because they demand that peaceful relationships be maintained among the members of the village. Only when internal harmony and balance prevail, which in turn yields solidarity, can the whole community expect to prosper.

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Further Reading

  • Douglas, M. (1954). The Lele of Kasai. In D. Forde (Ed.), African Worlds. Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples (pp. 1–26). London & New York: The International African Institute and Oxford University Press.
  • Gourou, R (1973). The Tropical World: Its Social and Economic Conditions and Future Status. London: Longman.
  • Middleton, J. (Ed.). (1997). Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.