Nzambi

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The Supreme God of the Bakongo people is called Nzambi Mpungu. The Bakongo are a people who live in the lower Congo River region of Africa. They cover parts of the Republic of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this heavily forested region of the world, the idea of Nzambi Mpungu as the Creator God included the making of man who was evil and had to be buried and the remaking of man, the creation of a woman from wood, and the beginning of the human race from this created couple. Their concept of Nzambi Mpungu is of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and invisible deity who created all things. Indeed, Nzambi Mpungu did not just make men and women; Nzambi Mpungu made sacred objects that humans could use to make rituals and honor ancestors.
Nzambi Mpungu intervenes in every birth and all creative adventures of humans. Whether one is old or young, he or she must remember not to violate the prohibitions of Nzambi Mpungu. Unlike many supreme deities in Africa, Nzambi Mpungu is known to punish those who violate the rules laid down by the deity. In fact, the expression sumu ku Nzambi means to violate Nzambi Mpungu and is considered one of the gravest things that a person can do. Inasmuch as Nzambi Mpungu is the maker of the universe, the one who is over all, the master of humans and the Earth, the person who commits a violation against Nzambi Mpungu will have a bad death, lufwa lumbi.
It is believed that Nzambi Mpungu sent Nzambi to Earth to deal with humans on a daily basis. Nzambi was a female energy. Nzambi was considered a great princess who ruled the Earth and learned the power of rain and lightning. She kept these secrets buried in her own intestines, and humans had to make special rituals to obtain these powers. Nzambi was a severe teacher of values to humans. The following story is an example of stories about Nzambi's teaching.
According to the Bakongo people, one day, several women were planting their seeds when they discovered that the Earth was very dry. They had brought a little water for drinking in their pots, but they did not have enough water for planting. But while they were toiling in the hot sun, an old woman carrying a child on her back walked past the women. She hesitated and then, as if she was thinking about it, walked back to the farming women and asked them to give her child a cup of water. Of course, the women said to the old woman that they only had enough water for themselves as they had carried it from a long distance. The old woman told them that they would one day regret their lack of charity and then walked on down the road.
The old woman soon passed a man up in a palm tree and she asked him if he would give her baby a little palm wine because the little baby seemed near death from thirst. To her surprise, the man came down the tree and placed a calabash of palm wine at her feet. She said to him, “I do not have a cup.” He said to her, “do not worry, mother, let me break this spare calabash that I have here and I will give the child a drink.”
The woman gave thanks to the man and said to him, “My son, thanks again, be here tomorrow at the same time.” She then went on her way.
The man did not know what she meant, but he could not sleep at all during the night because of her words. The next day, he felt obliged to be at the same place at the same time to see what would happen.
When he got near the place where he had climbed down the palm tree, he saw a great lake. He said to himself, “How can this be? I know that there was no water there yesterday and now there is a great lake.” Just then the old woman came to him and said, “Do not wonder about this, my son.” She said to him that she had punished the women because of their lack of charity, but that the lake was full of fish, all the men could fish there daily, and the supply of fish would never be depleted. However, she added that no woman should eat these fish, for if she ate the fish, she would die. “Let the lake and its fish be prohibited for women; I, Nzambi, have ordered it so,” said the woman. She then named the lake “Bosi.” Thus, the lesson taught by Nzambi about the need for compassion and generosity remains central to ethical life in Congo society.

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Further Reading

  • Mbiti, J. (1997). African Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Parrinder, G. (1954). African Traditional Religion. London: Hutchinson House.
  • Van Wing, R. P. (1921). Etudes Bakongo. Brussels, Belgium: Goemare. [Translated by Smith, E. W. (1950). In E. W. Smith (Ed.), African Ideas of God: A Symposium (2nd ed.). London: Edinburgh House.].