Mongo and Luba
George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985
Professor of Anthropology, Yale University
Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History
New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.
Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Mongo and Luba mind-mapping diagram
Expansion of the Bantu
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Mongo and Luba
In the very heart of the equatorial rainforest, almost surrounded by the curve of the Congo River, live a number of populous Bantu tribes belonging to the great Mongo nation. Amongst them reside a considerable body of Pygmies, intermarriage with whom in the past has produced an even larger population of mixed bloods, who are today indistinguishable in culture from the dominant Negroes.
Southeast of the Mongo, in the adjacent savanna country, live a number of quite different peoples, mainly belonging to the Luba nation. In language, political institutions, and certain other aspects of culture they affiliate with the Central Bantu to the south. We have nevertheless chosen to treat them with the Mongo largely because, like the latter, they exhibit patrilineal forms of social organization. Moreover, the eastern and southeastern Mongo tribes manifest an unmistakable transition between them and the main body of the Mongo nation. Since the two sets of tribes basically constitute distinct culture provinces (see Map 14), they are separated in the following classification.
- Bosaka (Saka), with the Ekota and Elinga. They number about 11 0,000.
- Ekonda (Baseka), with the Batitu, Bokongo, Bolia, lpanga, fyembe, Mpama, Ntomba (Matumba, Ntumba, Tomba), and Sengele (Basengele, Mosengere). They number about 200,000.
- Kela (Akela, Bakela, Ekele, Ikele), with the Balanga, Bambuli, and Boyela (Vela) . They number about 150,000.
- Kurshu (Akurshu, Bakutsu, Bankutshu), embracing the Bokala, Bolcndu, Bolongo, Booli, Dcngese (Bonkesse, Ndengese), and Yaelima. They number abom 80,000.
- Mbole (Bole, Imoma, Mboe). They number about 100,000.
- Mongo (Balolo, Bamongo, Bomongo, Mbongo, Lolo). They number in excess of 200,000.
- Ngandu (Bangandu, Bolo, Bongandu, Mongandu), with the Bambole, Lalia (Dzalia, Lolia), and Yasayama. They number about 250,000.
- Ngombe (Bangombe, Bongombe, Gombe), with the Kuru (Bakoutou, Bakutu), Linga (Balinga, Baringa, Elinga, Waringa), and Ntomba.
- Nkundo (Bankundu, Elanga, Gundo, lnkundo, Kundu), with the Bolemba (Bokote, Flonga, Lifumba, Wangata) and numerous other subtribes. They number about 200,000.
- Songomeno (Basonge-Meno, Bassongo-Meno), with the Wankurshu (Ankutshu, Bankusu, Bankutsu, Bankutu, Nkutu).
- Tetela (Batetela), also called Hamba (Bahamba) and Kusu (Bacueu, Bakoussou, Vuakussu, Wakusu), embracing the Okale, Olemba, Sungu, and other sub tribes. Together with the Songomeno, they number about 300,000.
- Luba (Balouba, Balunga, Balm·a, Bulaba, Louba, Turruba, Waluba), with the Bena Kalundwe and Bena Kanioka.
- Lulua (Bena Lulua, Luluwa), with the Lange (Bachilangue, Bashilenge, Kaschilange, Tusilani, Tusselange).
- Lunda (Alunda, Arunda, Balonda, Baloundou, Bamlunda, Kalunda, Lounda, Malhundo, Valunda).
- Mbagani (Babagani, Babindi, Bindi, Tubindi), with the Kete (Baketa, Tukere).
- Songe (Basonge, Bassongo, Bassonje, Wasonga), with the Zimba (Bazimba, Wazimba).
- Yeke (Bayeke). This is not a tribe but a state established over Central Bantu indigenes by Nyamwezi conquerors from Tanganyika in the nineteenth century.
Except for a number of riverain fishing g roups, the peoples of the area subsist primarily by swidden agriculture. Their principal crops, in order of importance, are manioc, bananas, yams, maize, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and taro. Here, as elsewhere in the tropical forest, the Bantu clearly began with the Malaysian complex and subsequently adopted the American food plants. The tribes of the Luba province, however, inject a novel element, for they also cultivate a number of Sudanic crops, including a modest amount of sorghum and millet and small quantities of ambary, earth peas, and sesame. The story of how these spread to the savanna country south of the rainforest must, however, be deferred until the next chapter.
All groups keep goats, dogs and chickens, but sheep occur only in the Luba province and cattle not at all. Hunting and gathering have only negligible importance. Trade attains, in general, only a relatively modest development, although iron implements and bars or rings of copper are widely employed as currency. The men hunt, tend all livestock except fowls, and clear land for agriculture. The women participate in fishing and do most of the field labor. Cannibalism occurs only sporadically, being reported o nly for the Lulua, Songe, and some subtribes of the Nkundu, Songomeno, and Tetela.
Both the Mongo and Luba peoples live in villages or hamlets consisting of two rows of huts along a single street. In most tribes a cluster of several such settlements forms a community. Rectangular houses with thatched gable roofs predominate, but the Lunda, onge, southern Tetela, and Yeke prefer dwellings of the cone-cylinder type. Socially both the settlement and its component hamlets are clans, i.e., localized sibs and lineages, respectively. Political authority is vested in a headman and a council of lineage or family heads within the local community, but over them nearly always stand district or subtribal chiefs with important ritual functions. Genuine states occur only among the Luba, Lulua, Lunda, and Yeke peoples of the Luba province. Except for the royal and official classes in these societies and wealth distinction of considerable consequence among the Songe, Songomeno, and Tetela, class distinctions among freemen are minimal. All groups, however, keep slaves, whose status is hereditary except in the western tribes of the Mongo province, and the social position of the dependent Pygmies often approximates that of hereditary serfs.
Political integration attained such extraordinary magnitude in the Luba province and among the adjacent Central Bantu that it merits brief consideration. As an example of the states of this region we may select the great empire of Mwata Yamwo, founded among the Lunda by a Luba dynasty around 1625. It expanded through conquest after 1675 to within 300 miles of the Atlantic coast, dominating all the Central Bantu peoples of this vast territory until near the close of the nineteenth century. The ruler possessed the attributes of divinity, and no one might observe him eat or drink, on pain of death. He appointed provincial governors and lesser district chiefs, who supplied troops for his army and levied tribute in ivory, salt, copper, slaves, and produce. They resided at the capital town, where they exercised additional functions. The four highest among them formed an advisory council called the Kannapumba. Ranking even above them, however, was the Lukokesha, or Queen-Mother. Always the daughter of a former king, she remained unmarried, possessed independent tributary territories for her support, maintained her own court, and shared supreme authority with the monarch. When a king died, the Queen-Mother and the Kannapumba constituted an electoral college to choose his successor from among his own sons or those of former rulers.
Marriage regularly involves the payment of a substanrial bride-price, with certain exceptions among the western tribes of the Mongo province. All groups observe strict rules of sib and hamlet or even village exogamy, and—except for the eastern Songe, who permit unions with a father’s sister’s daughter—all forbid marriage with any first cousin. General polygyny prevails, occurring in both the sororal and the nonsororal forms. Both the levirate and the sororate are customary, as well as secondary unions with a father’s widow other than one’s. own mother. The household unit assumes the form of an independent polygynous family in the Luba province, of an extended family among the Mongo. Patrilineal descent, inheritance, and succession and patrilocal residence provide everywhere the underlying structural principles. From the point of view of static synchronic analysis, therefore, the social systems of the Mongo and Luba peoples appear nearly identical with those of the Equatorial Bantu.
A historical perspective, however, leads to a different conclusion. We note, first of all, that most peoples who speak languages of the Luba group live, not in the present area, but in the Central Bantu province, where they follow the avunculocal rule of residence and the matrilineal rule in regard to descent, inheritance, and succession. This arouses a suspicion that all the Luba peoples may once have had a similar social system, a suspicion confirmed by evidence that succession to the Luba kingship was formerly matrilineal. The southern kinsmen of the Lunda are also matrilineal, as are the subject peoples of the Yeke state. Moreover, in every tribe of the Mongo province, without exception, the sources report unmistakable survivals of the matrilineate. The social systems of the Ekonda, Mbole, Mongo, and Nkundu in the west, whi ch are especially well described, provide structural evidence of a still more conclusive character.
When we subject the social organization of these four seemingly patrilocal and patrilineal peoples to close scrutiny, we observe several surprising facts. All of them, for example, have kinship systems of the classic Crow pattern, which elsewhere in the world is associated almost universally with matrilineal descent. We also discover that the four tribes permit a young man whose paternal kinsmen cannot provide him with a bride-price to remove to the village whence his mother came and to reside there in avunculocal residence with a maternal uncle. The latter, moreover, becomes obligated thereby to obtain a wife for him—an obligation taking precedence over that of the uncle toward his own sons. The nephew becomes permanently affiliated with his uncle’s, i.e., his mother’s, patrisib and lineage, and acquires rights of inheritance and succession there prior to those of his uncle’s own sons. Some authorities even maintain that the natives interpret their own social systems as essentially matrilineal, rather than patrilineal as the structural anthropologist would characterize them.
The explanation of this ambiguity lies in a unique institution known as nkita. Whenever a female member of an extended family marries, her bride-price is employed to obtain a wife for one of its male members, usually one of her full brothers. She thereby becomes, nkolo to her brother’s wife, who is known as her nkita. The sons of the ukita acquire the right to inherit from and succeed their father only because the latter used his sister’s bride-price to marry their mother, so that they are, in a certain sense, really his sister’s sons. Patrilineal inheritance and succession are justified, so to speak, on a matrilineal principle.
The sons of the nkolo, on the other hand, acquire two definite rights against their maternal uncle, the husband of the nkita, by virtue of the fact that he has profited from the bride-price obtained for their mother. The first of these rights is that of receiving from their uncle the bride-price he obtains for his first daughter by the nkita. The second is the privilege of joining the uncle if their paternal kinsmen cannot provide them with a bride-price and, if this is exercised, of taking priority over that uncle’s own sons in regard to inheritance and succession.
The whole system, however bizarre it may appear, reveals thoroughgoing functional integration. Even the Crow kinship terminology becomes entirely understandable. Brothers regularly take precedence over sons in matters of inheritance and succession. Thus a nephew who has exercised his nkita privilege by going to live with his mother’s brother in avunculocal residence, though ranking ahead of that uncle’s sons in precedence, ranks behind the uncle’s younger brothers and cannot inherit or succeed until they have died. From the point of view of his crosscousins, the uncle’s sons, he becomes, as it were, the most junior among their paternal uncles, and it is quite natural that they should call him “father,” as they do the latter, in characteristic Crow fashion. He in turn, of course, calls them “sons,” the term applied to a brother’s as well as one’s own sons, regardless of their relative age. This system illustrates the incomplete understanding that comes from even the most meticulous synchronic structural analysis. It can be fully comprehended only from the point of view of a theory of cultural dynamics which visualizes social systems as undergoing modification over time in adaptation to changing life conditions, and as doing so in moving equilibrium without necessary loss of functional integration at any point in the process. In the present instance, full enlightenment appears once we make a single very reasonable historical assumption, namely, that the Mongo peoples formerly had a matrilineal and avunculocal social system precisely like that which still survives among all their immediate neighbors to the southwest and south, as will be described in Chapter 38
Let us imaginatively project ourselves backward to the time when the then matrilineal and avunculocal Mongo encountered the first influences favoring a transition to pauilocal residence, perhaps their original acquisition of iron or copper money. A prosperous father, wishing to keep his sons with him, would, after providing wives for his nephews, do the same for his sons, using for this purpose the bride-prices received for his nieces—ultimately those for his daughters, as fathers gradually acquired control over the latrer. When in time most fathers had come to do this, the preexisting matrilineages and avuncuclans would have become converted by easy gradations into patrilineages and patricians. Since, however, not all fathers could do so, as is still the case today, the old avunculocal rule and privileges were retained as a patterned alternative to cover such special cases. The original Crow kinship terminology, since it continued to be functional, underwent no change. The social structure prevailing today, since no other reasonable explanation is conceivable, can only have developed in this way. If the Mongo have undergone this transition from an original matrilineal and avunculocal system, other groups of now patrilineal and patrilocal Bantu may well have had a comparable history.