Friday, February 28, 2014


Nama (Namaqua) people are the nomadic, aboriginal Khoe-Kwadi and Afrikaans-speaking people that forms a sub-set of the larger Khoikhoi ethnolinguistic group of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. The Nama are the largest group of the Khoikhoi people, most of whom have largely disappeared as a group, except for the Namas.
Sweet and beautiful Nama Girls at Northern Cape, South Africa. by Uncornered Market

Nama people and Herero people were historically exterminated by the German`s in their first world genocidal experiment which became famously known as Herero and Namaqua Genocide.  A  letter  written  by  a German  missionary to  his colleagues  captures the  violent sentiment  among Germans  in Hereroland supporting  the  annihilation of the Hereros and Namas:
             "The  Germans  are  consumed  with  inexpiable  hatred  and  a terrible
              thirst  for  revenge,  one  might  even  say  they  are  thirsting  for  the
              blood  of the  Herero[s].  All  you  hear these  days  is  "make  a  clean
              sweep,  hang  them, shoot  them  to the  last man,  give  no  quarter."  I
              shudder  to  think  what  may  happen  in  the  months  ahead.  The
              Germans will  doubtless exact a grim vengeance."
Nama People, Namibia.
Nama people of Namibia

At least 80% of the total Nama and Herero populations perished. This was motivated by the German desire to establish a prosperous colony and this entailed the displacement of the indigenous people from their agricultural land. Large herds of cattle were confiscated and Nama and Herero people were driven into the desert and in some cases interred in concentration camps on the coast, for example at Shark Island. Additionally, the Nama and Herero people were forced into slave labour to build railway lines and to hunt for diamonds during the diamond rush.

A traditional dance of the Richtersveld, Northern Cape

The Nama people who were initially with the German`s changed their mind and fought alongside their Herero brethrens under the great Nama leaders Hendrik Witbooi.Under the command of von Trotha, the German army sought to engineer a crushing defeat of the Herero in the vicinity of the Waterberg (Pool, 1979: 210—11). In keeping with von Moltke's principles of separate deployment and encirclement, von Trotha sent his armies to annihilate the Herero at the Waterberg. Or, as he put it in his own words:
                   My initial plan for the Operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the
                   masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous
                  blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the
                  splinter groups who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize
                  money on their heads and formally to sentence them to death. (von Trotha's
                  diaries cited in Pool, 1991: 251).

Nama mother and child from Namibia

Many of the Nama clans live in Central Namibia and the other smaller groups live in Namaqualand, which today straddles the Namibian border with South Africa. As descendants of the Khoekhoe the Nama resemble the San and the Topnaar  in appearance and language. The Nama are a musically talented people and songs and poetry are handed down through the generations. Nama women are highly skilled artisans, their embroidery and appliqué work, regarded as an art form, consists of brightly colored scenes inspired by the environment and the lifestyles of the Nama people.
This nomadic tribes traditionally moved with their cattle and portable huts. The huts are constructed of rush-mats and wooden structures. The only place, where this traditional lifestyle still exists, is the South African section of the /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

Today, there are 13 Nama tribes, for the most part still practicing communal land ownership. There are 246 000 in Namibia, 776,000 in South Africa and to a lesser degree 1600 in Botswana.
In Namibia Nama people are at Sesfontein in Kaokoland, in the far south at places like Warmbad, or around Mariental, Tses, Gibeon, Maltahöhe, Helmeringhausen and east of Lüderitz in the southwestern corner of county.

                               Dancing Nama people
 They traditionally speak the Nama language of the Khoe-Kwadi language family, the characteristic clicks are common to the languages of all Khoisan tribes. Many others also Nama also speak Afrikaans

                           Lovely and smiling Nama girl

The Nama people indigenous who are descendants of the larger Khoikhoi ethnolinguistic group are aboriginal people of South Africa. They settled in South Africa thousands of years alongside the San people long before the Bantu migrants came to South Africa.
File:Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DSWA0093, Deutsch-Südwestafrika, Namafamilie.jpg
 Nama Chief Jan Jonker Afrikaner led his tribe further north into central Namibia. As pastoral nomads the Nama often clashed with the Herero who were also looking for better grazing.The early colonialists referred to them as Hottentots. Their alternative historical name, "Namaqua", simply stems from the addition of the Khoekhoe language suffix "-qua/khwa", meaning "people" (found in the names of other Southern African nations like the Griqua)
 The conflicts came to an end when the German colonialists arrived and waged war on both peoples. Hendrik Witbooi was a prominent figure in the Namas’ struggle against the colonialists and is now pictured on the N$ 10 note.
Herero and Nama Rising
The great Herero Rising under Samuel Maherero
In January 1904, the great Herero Rising under Samuel Maherero began in Okahandja. Apparently, it had been planned for a long time. The rebellion quickly spread through the whole Herero region and Damaraland. 123 white men died, rail tracks and telephone connections were interrupted, farms and public buildings rose in flames. Only when the German protection troops engaged, the tide turned. In spite of an enforcement to as many as 15 000 soldiers, it became clear that the insurgents were well armed and well versed in the art of war. General Lieutenant von Trotha, who had taken over command of the German troops from Mayor Leutwein, did not share his predecessors view that the Herero had been punished enough and the main task in the protectorate was to keep up the very important work strength of this people. Von Trotha wanted to eradicate the Herero people. In the battle of Waterberg, in August 1904, von Trotha closed in on thousands of Herero, leaving them only one route of escape: the path to the waterless dry savannah of Omaheke. He drove the Herero people into the desert. Three quarters of all Hereros died in this war of extermination.

The Nama Rising under Hendrik Witbooi
At the same time, the Nama rose against the Germans. They fought a bitter guerrilla war, lead by Hendrik Witbooi and Jacob Morenga. Witbooi died in October 1905 in an attack on a German supply transport. Witbooi’s resistance was dead, but his followers kept fighting. new leaders stepped in at the head of the movement. The last of them was Jacob Morenga. He was killed in 1907 by Cape police when he tried to organize operations against the Germans out of the cape region. Apparently, the British were concerned that Morenga might create turmoil in the cape region, as well.
After 1907, the Nama and Herero tribes were as good as exterminated. Between 20 000 and 30 000 Herero had died up to that date. About 2 500 Germans had lost their lives in the fights. All Black people were denied the right to own land or cattle, the tribal areas and occasional property were confiscated. Many members of the tribes died in concentration camps, survivors were “resettled” in reservations. Tribes in more remote areas like the Ovambo, Damara, Himba and the Rehoboter Baster were affected by this development.

Following the discovery of diamonds at the mouth of the Orange River in the 1920s, however, prospectors began moving into the region, establishing towns at Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth, a process that accelerated the appropriation of traditional lands that had begun early in the colonial period. Under apartheid, remaining pastoralists were encouraged to abandon their traditional lifestyle in favour of village life.

In 1991, a portion of Namaqualand (home of the Nama and one of the last true wilderness areas of South Africa) became the Richtersveld National Park. In December 2002, ancestral lands, including the park, were returned to community ownership and the governments of South Africa and Namibia embarked on the development of a transfrontier park from the west coast of southern Africa to the desert interior, absorbing the Richtersveld National Park. Today, the Richtersveld National Park is one of the few places where the original Nama traditions survive. Here, the Nama still move with the seasons and speak their language. The traditional Nama dwelling – the |haru oms, or portable rush-mat covered domed hut – is a reflection of a nomadic way of life, offering a cool haven against the blistering heat of the sun, yet easy to pack and move if grazing lands become scarce.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Oorlam people encroached Namaqualand and Damaraland. They likewise descended from indigenous Khoikhoi but are a group who mixed with slaves from Madagascar, India, and Indonesia.[ After two centuries of assimilation into the Nama culture, many Oorlams today regard Khoikhoigowab (Damara/Nama) as their mother tongue. The distinction between Namas and Oorlams has gradually disappeared over time to an extent where they are today regarded as one ethnic group, despite their different backgrounds

                                  Nama man from Namibia blowing horn
Nama tribes
Apart from Oorlam clans there are nine known sub-tribes, or clans, of Nama. Their names and tribal centres are:
Khaiǁkhaun (Red Nation) at Hoachanas, the main group and the oldest Nama clan in Namibia
ǃGamiǂnun (Bondelswarts) at Warmbad
ǂAonin (Southern Topnaars) at Rooibank
ǃGomen (Northern Topnaars) at Sesfontein
ǃKharakhoen (Fransman Nama) at Gochas. After being defeated by Imperial Germany's Schutztruppe in the Battle of Swartfontein on 15 January 1905, this Nama group split into two. Part of the ǃKharakhoen fled to Lokgwabe, Botswana, and stayed there permanently.
ǁHawoben (Veldschoendragers) at Koës
ǁOgain (Groot Doden) at Schlip
ǁKhauǀgoan (Swartbooi Nama) at Rehoboth, later at Salem, Ameib, and Franzfontein
The Kharoǃoan (Keetmanshoop Nama) under the leadership of Hendrik Tsieb split from the Red Nation in February 1850 and settled at Keetmanshoop
Nama tribe kids

Wedding ritual
Namas have a complicated wedding ritual. First the man has to discuss his intentions with his family. If they agree they will advise him of the customs to ask the bride's family and then accompany him to the place she lives. The yard at the bride's living place is prepared prior to the future husband's family's arrival, animal hides are laid out in the corners for the different groups to sit down and discuss.
The groom's family ask for the gate to be opened. If this is granted, the groom is interrogated about details of the bride, including the circumstances of their first meeting and how to identify her body marks to make sure both know each other well. If the bride is pregnant or already has children from her future husband or someone else, the bride is subjected to the "door cleansing" ceremony (slaughtering and consuming a snow-white goat). After several days the wedding ritual continues in reverse; the bride's family visits the clan of the groom. If all is to the satisfaction of the two clans, an engagement day is announced.
At the engagement, the groom's family brings live animals to the woman's family home. The animals are slaughtered, hung on three sticks, and each part is offered to the bride's family. Other items like bags of sugar or flour are only offered in quantities of two or four to indicate that there will always be abundance of food. This process is also celebrated in reverse at the man's family home. White flags are mounted on both family's houses which may not be taken off but wither or are blown off by the wind one day.
The wedding preparations can take up to one year. The family of the groom makes a gift to the bride's mother, traditionally a cow and a calf, for she has raised the bride at her breast. A bargaining process accompanies the gift that can take weeks in itself. On wedding day, both families provide animals and other food and bring it to the bride's home. The wedding itself takes place in a church. Festivities afterward go on for several days. The first night after the wedding the couple spends separately. On the next morning, they set off for their own home
                         Nama woman

 For more on Nama people search Khoikhoi people on my page.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


 The Saho (Soho) people an agro-pastoral and amalgamated ethnolinguistic and cultural group belonging to the larger Cushitic ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. They are principally concentrated in Eritrea, with some also living in adjacent parts of Ethiopia. Ancient Saho speaking people are descendants of ancient Kushites.
Beautiful woman from Saho tribe of Eritrea

The term Kushite derives from the ancient peoples of North East Africa, which started to live in this part of Africa since more than 5000 B.C., with their own culture and language.  The ancient Kushite peoples are those who spoke languages of the Kushite branch of the Afro-Asiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) family. They are the indigenous peoples of the present day Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The word "Saho" means "nomad," ("saa" means animals and "hoo" means caretaker), which is also an expression of their previous pastoral way of life.

                              Saho women

In Eritrea, Saho mainly dwell in the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho (aka Akele-guzai) and Semhar occupying 60% or more of the landmass. Sahos’ are also found intermingled amongst Tigrinia speaking populace in parts of Eritrea’s highland regions (Akeleguzai, Seraye and Hamasein). They also intermingle with Tigre speaking tribes in Lowland regions such as Barka.
Saho woman

 The Saho people speak the Saho language (saahot waani or saahot zirho), which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, as a mother tongue. Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become separate languages as known in modern times.  According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
Saho language is mainly spoken  in territories bounded by the bay of Idhafale in the east of Eritrea, the Laasi Ghedé valleys in the south, the Eritrea highlands to the west (Akele-Guzai, Shimezana) as well as in borders with Tigre on the west of Eritrea. It is also spoken in Ethiopia mainly in Tigray Region.
 The Kushitic languages are divided into 3 major subgroups. These include:  (a) East Kushitic languages (Saho, Afar, Somali and Sidama), (b) Central Kushitic or Agaw language (such as Bilen ), (c) South Kushitic languages in Kenya and Tanzanya. According to linguistics, the Kushites spoke historically closely related dialects of the same language and they all shared a common cultural heritage.
Saho language has four main dialects: Tarua, Assawurta, Minifre, and Irob. Irob is mainly spoken in Ethiopia
Although there is no reliable accurate statistics so far, it is believed that Saho is spoken by over 320,000 speakers.
Woman of the Saho ethnic group - Festival Eritrea 2006 - Asmara Eritrea.
Woman from Saho tribe

Relationship between Saho & Afar language:
“The Afar & Saho have over 70% of linguistic relationships and they can communicate easily with each other without any difficulty”. (Abdulkader S. Mohammed, 1977 p8)
“The Afar & Saho share a large number of words with the same meaning, cognates are usually closely related. This is because once people speaking a common language have become socially or geographically separated (…). But some words are more resistant to borrowing than others, that means they hare less subject to change over time. In East-Cushitic languages, such words include those for universal concepts [eat, drink, rain, sky, Sun, moon, Star, Earth, cattle, etc..] and basic parts of human body”. M Nuuh Ali (1985: 21-22).
According to Leo Reinisch, (1886:795) that the Afar & Saho are not two languages but the same language. The structure & grammatical forms are the same one language. And this lies in their geographical location and isolation especially by the Saho in the highlands who kept the language.
Herbert S. Lewis (1966:42) assumes that Afar & Saho have evidently been in their area long enough to have diverged into two closely related but distinctly different languages.
The descendants of ancient Saho speaking people, are descendants of ancient Kushites who ruled Egypt in 25th dynasty and played a central role in Africa’s greatest and oldest civilization at Meroe, the present day northern Sudan and lower Egypt.
Ancient Saho speaking people, as descendants of ancient Kushites, have left strong traceable evidence of their over 5000 years of rich history. The traceable evidence include ancient rock paintings, monuments steles, ruined building, ancient pottery … etc. Some of these are found in Saho land such as in (Qohaito, Kaskase, Adulis (Adola/Ado-Lai ), Balaw Kalaw, ruins of  Matara 
Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become as separate languages as know in modern times.  According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
According to the oral traditions, the Idda, Kabota and Asa-bora are the most ancient Saho ancestors in the current Saho region. The Saho call these three tribes the guardians of the Saho land (Badho Ambadish or Badho Sogos in Saho language).  As the oral history narrates "an Idda man married a woman from kabota tribe and later destroyed Kabota in a bitter war, so that Idda became the dominant tribe in the region, and extended its powers up to the highlands. The Asabora, according to legends, are ancestors of the Minifere tribeswho commonly descended from one Asabora woman. 
Oral traditions maintain that some Saho clans came from diverse geographical origins and all adopted Saho, as their common language and all shared a common cultural heritage.  Some Saho clans affiliate their origins to Islamic dignitaries during Khilafa period including to one of the four Khalifas themselves. This should not be surprising, as well known in this region; peoples of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have a long history of human migration across the red sea, intermarriage, intensive linguistic, social and cultural exchange.
The people of Saho were known for their fierce opposition to any foreign invaders and  colonial aggressors. Their oral history and poems tell many amazing stories of bravery and sacrifices they had offered over the last two centuries. They uncompromisingly and heroically defended their beloved land from repeated attempts of highland Abyssinian rulers to invade their land and had defeated Raas Araia and Raas Alula until the Italians invaded Eritrea in 1889.
The Saho, before the Italians’ occupation, were organised as clans, which have become federated into several major tribes. They had chiefs, their affairs being managed by councils of elders. This did not suit the Italians’ need for close control and accordingly they appointed chiefs in charge of each tribe: a measure, which made for administrative efficiency if not for popularity. These chiefs have been dismissed outright by the current government without introducing an alternative system.
Today, the risk of losing oral Saho history and heritage is greater than ever. It is like watching strong winds spreading great fire with little resistance hoping that we would be left with some of our possessions. Therefore there is an urgent call for spreading awareness and a massive responsibility upon every concerned individual and every organised Saho group of the current generation, wherever they are, to collate and document their ancestors’ history, however they can.

Saho tribes
The Saho people as it has already been narrated is composed of several tribes (kisho, meela or qabila). This includes:
1- ASA BORA and it consists of; Asa Asa Bora, Da’ Asa Bora
2- ASAWURTA and it clans comprise;
A) Asa Lesan and it consists of: Hassan Dik, Hussain Dik, Malasa Dik, Hummad Durwa, Ahmaddin Dik, Gaddali Dik.
B), Lelish Are and it consists of: Abdalla Dik, Omar Dik, Eishe Dik, Diot Abusa.
C)Fokroti Are*, Asa Kare*, Faqih Dik*, Sarma Are*, Uruske Dabbasit Abusa*.
D) Beit Tawakkal, Beit Khalifa, Adefer & Beit Danya, Beit Suleiman, Logo Chewa  & Inda Asmail of 4te Asmera, Zingar of Dorfo.
4-DABRI MELA and it consists of; Alades Are, Labhalet Are.
8-HADO(aka HAZO)  and it comprises the following clans:
A) Asa Alila and consist of: Asa Ali Gaisha, Hammadi Gaisha, Asa Alila, Musabaggo, Bokite, Mahammad Kayya, Higoga, Omarto, Konsubifire, Amo-buri Gaisha, Danderi Hazoita.
B) LAASA and it consists of :Ona Dawud Gaisha, Ona Abdalla Gaisha, Ona Ismaeel Gaisha, Ona Omar Gaisha, Ona Ahmaddin Gaisha, Ona Ali Gaisha, Sheikha Abusso, Ab Dawuud Gaisha, Shum Omarto, Asa Lak Hena, Toujoumona, Shum Ahmaddo, Shum Hasanto, Ona Mahammad Dik, Bokite shum Bukoh dik, Maar dik, Asa Ibrahim Dik, Asa Abdalla dik, Semaye and Surrugso.
C) Shum Hummad Dik and it consist of : Sheikh Adamto, Dawud gafo dik, Talak, Maadar dik, Asa Alila (Barah).
9-HASABAT ARE,  and it consists of;Hamad Are; Aleit Are; Mieenqut Are and Sandaqa Are.
11-IROB and it consists of; Algadi  Are, Buknaitee Are , Hasaballa
12-KABOTA  and it consists of; Gorbey, Tabita, Hataba, Shekhait, Zakarit, Alirga
13-MINIFRE and it consists of the following  tribes;
A) GAASO and it is made up of the following clans: Shum Abdallah Gaisha, Yofish Gaisha, Shum Ahmad Gaisha, Hassan Gaisha, Silyan Gaisha, Asa Ushmaal, Oni Maal.
B) DAASAMO is made up of the following clans: Abdallah Harak, Naefie Harak, Mosat Harak, Subakum Are, Daili Are, Kundes, Illas.
C) SILAITA  and it comprises: Hakatti Are, Qum Mee Are, Zeila Are, Hilato, Abbarior, Abdiaa
D)FAKAD HARAK (aka FAKIH HARAK) and it comprises: Faqih Abubakar, Faqih Omar, Faqih Ahmad 
15-SHEIKHA (These are families and tribes that crossed the Red Sea to spread Islam in Eritrea at different times. Hence, do not trace their linage to a common ancestor).
A)Intile Sheikh Are B) Sheikh Salim Are including Bet Sheikh Mahmoud and Ad Dirke in Sahel C) Danagulta  D) Hajji Abkur  E) Iror Naba F) Sheikh Dimbagog G) Sheikh Lahlaha H) Akhadar Abusa I)Muallim Dik J) Hajji Hedor
16-TARU3A and it consists of; Sara7 Are, Mosat Are.
18- SALMUNTA and it consists of; A’sa Salmunta and Dat Salmunta
19-SANAFE (SAN3FE) and it consists of; Sheikh Umori and Uwaal Dik, Hassan Silah Dik,Umar Gorx Dik,Sancaffe Mahmoud Dik.
20-Samhar is home to a number of Saho clans and families that branched out from the main tribes that are listed above. Some of those we can trace are;
Qadida, Chewai Dik, Barole Dik, Sabbe Dik, Harak Dik, Haggi Wad Hamid Are, Shenghebai Dik, Sangor Dik, Khalifa Are, Adulai Are, Minni Are, Shehabi Are, Habona Are, Amir Dik, Zakaria Dik, Shemo Are, Tsewai Are, Hasino Are, Talke Are, Shikan Are, Sadiko Are, Edim Bagi Are, Sheik Humad Arkale Are, Sheikh Yassin Are, Ansara Are, Debrom Are, Falul Are, Dini Are, Gubbala Are, Yusuf Are, Unda Ali Are, Haggi Abdu Are, Khalifa Ahmad Are, Nabara Dik, Ali Babu Dik, Gadam Dik. 
For detailed info on Saho tribes  kindly read Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad`s book "The Saho of Eritrea: Ethnic Identity and National Consciousness.
Saho traditional troupe singing
and and displaying the Saho tradition. Celebrations of 14th Independence Day - Bathi Meskerem Asmara Eritrea.
They are agro-pastoralists and their subsistence economy relies livestock breeding and rain-fed agriculture, based on communal land ownership system. Prior to the Italian colonization, they secured caravan trade routes between the coasts and the highlands, which provided the clans with additional income.

Land Ownership:
As most parts of the pre-colonial Africa, land is owned commonly by the clan. It was because of this common ownership of land it was easy for colonialists and indigenous state to take away the land from pastoral nomads. Italians declared land owned by pastoralists as belonging to the State. Surprisingly, The 1994 Land Reform proclamation by the Eritrean government, did not rise up to the expectations of pastoralist communities, since did not accord them any legal rights to their land.
The three types of land ownership, which are prevalent among Saho are:
1. Regional land, people of one geographical area owned the land commonly regardless of their tribal distribution.
2. Tribal land, land owned on tribal basis. Here family has no specific rights to the land.
3. Family or sub-clan land, this was a land protected by specific family for their grazing or shifting cultivation. (Abdulkader S. Mohammed 1997: 11)

Socio-political structure
Traditional Saho society was strongly patriarchal and the roles of the grandfather and father was highly respected. The extended family had the power to control the behavior and conduct of its members, and elders were cherished as the cultural transmitters of the society. Marriage followed patterns related to the degree of family relations, and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage was strongly preferred. In the absence of formal government-supported security system, the extended family system and kinship affiliations played and continue to play an important role to support the aged, widows, the handicapped and young people. Those who live in urban areas support their family members and kins in the countryside.
The organizing principle of Saho society was a decentralized egalitarian (acephalous) system, in which leaders of sub-tribes and clans were democratically elected for specific period of time in general meetings (rakhbe) of elders and wise men. The main responsibility of the elected leaders were securing the basic requirement of their sub-tribes and mediating and settling problems according to the customary laws. 

A family who wish to secure a spouse for their children will call a meeting and discuss the issue to ensure that the spouse whom they want to choose for their family member is not introduced, pledged or promised to another family.
 They try to find detailed information about the girl`s family life and gather information on her character through gossips and visits. this is done before the official negotiation takes place in order to choose a woman who will adjust to the family`s codes of behavior and to facilitate her integration into the household to avoid future tensions. The mediation is handled by the elders (shemagelle), one of whom should be the uncle of the spouse. If the two parties comes into an agreement, they introduce themselves into the family of the young women.
The mediators brings with them gifts such as coffee, sugar, money or wheat and give them to the family who in turn prepares food (porridge) for the guests. 
After eating the meal, honey and milk are served as a sign of hospitality, then they prepare coffee and start to discuss. The Saho call this process of starting discussion "afti-fakkot", which means "opening the mouth" to talk or discuss. All the gifts go to the moth
er of the fiancee (liisho), and the male family members of the couple fixed the date of the marriage and discuss what contribution shall be made as dowry by the groom or the gift to be given to the bride. 
Usually the marriage ceremony takes place one year after the engagement. In the rural areas, it is celebrated during the harvest seasons, whilst in the urban centres the preferred time is the summer vacation and the period before the celebration of the Ramadan. 
                                Saho bride

The Saho are predominantly Muslim. A few Christians, who are also known as the Irob, live in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the Debub Region of Eritrea
Saho cultural group - Festival Eritrea 2006 - Asmara Eritrea.
Saho cultural group - Festival Eritrea 2006 - Asmara Eritrea.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


The Bilen (Blin or Bilin) are hardworking, agriculturalist Cushitic ethnic group on the Horn of Africa. They are primarily concentrated in central Eritrea, in and around the city of Keren and further south toward Asmara, the nation's capital
Beautiful Bilen girl from Eritrea

 They were formerly known as the Bogo or North Agaw. The meaning of the word 'Bilin' also is not known. Some version of the tradition holds that it is Saho word (belen) for Christian. In fact, 'Belen' in Saho means a Christian. (Kiflemariam Hamdé, 'Absmará yunivarsiti, p.3)
            Bilen woman from Eritrea in an awesome smile

The Blin first entered Eritrea from Ethiopia during the sixteenth century primarily agriculturalists, they
number about 96,000 and represent around 2.1% of Eritrea's population. About fifty percent of their
population are Christian, primarily Catholic, while the other fifty percent are 20th century converts to
Sunni Islam.
Bilen Tribe Girl Having A Haircut, Keren, Eritrea. Eric Lafforgue

Blin is also the name of their language, an Agaw language which belongs to the larger Afro-Asiatic language group. Sixty percent of the Christians have some understanding of Tigrinya. Seventy percent of the Muslims also use Tigre. Among the youth, Arabic is also spoken.

 Bilen woman from Eritrea

Keren is the second largest city in Eritrea, lying northwest of Asmara. It is the capital of the Anseba
province and home of the Bilen tribe. As of 2005, the population of this city has been estimated to be
86,483.The city is integrated with different types of tribes; Blin and Tigre are the dominant. It has two
High schools, St. Joseph and Keren Secondary School. Its climate is semi-desert hot during summary
and cold during winter. It is one of the fast growing cities in the country.
Stock Photo #1792-71087, Eritrea, Bilen nomads
Bilen woman

Bilen traditional society is organised into kinship groups. The women are known for their brightly
coloured clothes and their gold, silver or copper nose-rings which indicate their social status.
Bilen woman. Eritrea
Bilen old lady from Eritrea

Customs and Traditions of the Bilen Ethinic Group
Whenever one thinks about Eritrea, the immediate thing that comes to one’s mind is the existing strong harmony and coexistence among the nine ethnic groups of the country. Mutual respect and tolerance are deeply rooted in the Eritrean society which in turn serves as pillar for the present firm unity and nationalism – an asset rarely found in other countries. All these noble values of mutual respect and harmony symbolize the cherished slogan of unity in diversity. Despite the prevailing unity among all ethnic groups, each nationality is endowed with its own rich culture and tradition that distinguish the country as a multicultural nation.

Ethnic Bilen women from Eritrea

The spectacular pattern of living, customs, dressing style and other ritual ceremonies of each ethnic group are also some of the decisive factors for tourism attraction.
In this first article of a continuing series about Eritrean cultures and customs, we will try to explore the rich culture of the Bilen ethnic group. Members of the Bilen ethnic group are commonly found in the Anseba region, particularly south-central part of the country, in and around Keren town and south toward Asmara. Primarily agriculturalists, this ethnic group represent about 2.1% of Eritrea's population. Bilen is also the name of their language.

Marriage and Family Engagement
Among this ethnic group, engagement is a family’s affair. The future spouses have no say whatsoever in their future married life. If for some reason two lovers get married without prior permission from their respective parents, the boy is obliged to pay a certain sum of money plus an ox to the girl’s father.
The marriage candidate has to fulfill the following requirements:
Same religion, close blood relationship (in Moslem society), no blood relationship whatsoever up to seven generations (in Christian society), beauty, riches and health.
In engagement, the father of the boy has nothing to offer to the father of the girl. In fact it is the latter who is expected to give a cow or an ox to the former. Among this ethnic group, the boy and the girl are promised for engagement by their respective families while still in their mother’s wombs. On the third day of the engagement, the mother of the betrothed girl prepares boiled legume and distributes it among the villagers in the hope that her grandchildren might multiply like the sands of the sea.
Bilen lady

Among the Bilen ethnic group, the honeymoon may go on for two to three months on end. During these months, the bride enjoys visits from friends and relatives. The process continues until the time that the bride returns to her family or Melesot.
12 days after the wedding ceremony, the groom goes down to a stream with his friends, to wash himself and his clothes. The bride remains in her room and has her hair plaited and her eyes shadowed with Kohli.
40 days after the wedding day, the groom ceremoniously puts down the sword which he had carried since the marriage ceremony for fear that the evil spirits may not whisk him away.
The “disarming” ceremony heralds the termination of the function held by the best man in the house of the couple. He goes off to his daily work and so does the groom. During the honeymoon period, the bride is not allowed to sit at the same table with her husband. She takes her meals with her sister in-law and she eats frugally. The groom, who sits with his friends at the table, has no inhibition regarding the way he eats.
Since the bride is confined to her room all through the honeymoon period, she is obliged to relieve herself in a special pot provided for the occasion. Furthermore, she is not permitted to call out for someone in a loud voice and is therefore provided with a bell. Among this ethnic group, a lot of money and energy is spent on honeymooning. Fortunately, there are always all sorts of relatives to foot the bill.
Africa |  Portrait of a woman in Eritrea | © Eric Lafforgue
portrait of bilen woman

Post-honeymoon life
The Bilen ethnic group also follow other types of marriage that are out of the norm, namely Mer’a Hayam, Mer’a Chiluk, etc. When the honeymoon is over and life returns to normal once more, the couple continues to stay with the groom’s family. However, the eagerness of the groom to attend to his own affairs by himself and the continuous disagreement between the bride and her mother in-law may shorten the couple’s stay with the family and so they pack up and go to live in a separate place on their own. On the other hand, if the groom feels that he has no enough agricultural tools to start a decent life all by himself and if the bride and the mother in-law get along fine together, the couple may prolong their stay with the family.
As the soon as the couple have their own house, the role they play in the society shows some changes. Now they are full members of the society and enjoy all the rights and privileges in the village. Nonetheless, the woman remains unequal to the man. In a patriarchal and male dominated society like that of the Bilen, the husband is the only breadwinner and can do whatever he likes with the property. He can buy and sell as he pleases and everything in the house is under his control. The woman on the other hand is confined to the kitchen and bearing children. If she is given some work like poultry to tend or taking care of some household goods, it is because such activities may seem degrading for a man to even pay attention to.

Pregnancy and after
As in all other Eritrean ethnic groups, the Bilen show special traditional attitude towards pregnant women. If the woman is in full term, she is not allowed to perform heavy duty works such as grinding corn, carrying heavy loads, etc. She uses a lot of ointment and takes smoke baths frequently. She eats fatty foods and wears warm clothes. The pregnant woman refrains from going funerals and from attending big gatherings. The idea is to protect her from the hustle and jostle of a crowd.
When the time for her to give birth arrives, the pregnant woman goes to her parent’s house provided she is giving birth for the first time. If the labor pangs take more time than normal, prayers are said on her behalf. If however the labor pain continues, the whole village supplicates God for mercy.
At present, consulting the doctor in such case is becoming common. When a child is born, the umbilical cord is immediately cut with a sharp razor. Next, the midwife breathes in the infant’s ears and nostrils and then washes it with warm water.
If the newly born child is male, the whole household rejoices with exceeding gladness, for a male is the unquestioned heir of the family. That’s why they ululate seven times for a male and only three times for a female.
The neighborhood who come to the feast after hearing the ululation are served coffee and porridge and visitors arrive carrying coffee beans, milk, flour, butter, etc. Eight days after giving birth, the woman is allowed to go out of her house for a walk, but only after the ceremony of stepping over burning firewood. The child’s head is then shaved by the father who leaves a small tuft of hair on the skull above the forehead.
This is followed by another ceremony which includes the washing of the women’s laundry by the neighborhood women. After the end of the wash day, the women are invited for coffee and porridge at the house of the woman who gave birth.

There are several reasons for couples to get divorced in the Bilin ethnic group. Some of them are listed below:

· If the husband doesn’t deliver

· If the husband beats his wife continually

· If the wife is loath to receive guests

· If the wife doesn’t prepare meals for her husband, etc.
Since the Bilen are mostly Catholics, divorce is very difficult to implement. It is therefore customary among this ethnic group that in the event that it is the man who is asking for divorce, he has only to leave the house. The wife remains in the house with all the couple’s properties under her care. On the other hand, if it is the wife who is asking for divorce, she has only to leave the house without much ado. But if divorce is wanted by both parties, the properties are divided equally between them.

In Sharkin and its environs the following items are subject to inheritance: house, title, debt, the fiancée or the wife of a dead person. But items such as woods, grazing lands and water holes belong to the community and are not inheritable.
Although most of the time inheritance is conducted without recourse to will and testament, there are instances where will and testaments is demanded. The reason why wills and testament is not needed is because the legal heirs are most of the time known before hand. However, the most common and acceptable way of transferring property is through written will.
When a husband dies, the first person in the line of inheritance is the wife. Next come the children, and in the absence of issue, his brothers become the heirs. In the event that he has no brothers, the estate goes to his cousins. If the husband has no issue, then the wife is entitled to all his property provided that she does not remarry. However, if she intends to remarry, she has to leave all the property to her children. If a person who losses his wife wants to remarry, he has firs to hand over the share of the deceased wife and her jewelry to the children.
Although girls are often deprived of their rights of inheritance, unmarried girls are entitled to an equal share along with their brothers. As in the rest of the Eritrean ethnic groups, the sharing of inheritance is made after the commemoration feast for the dead person is held. At times, the sharing of inheritance may get prolonged in the event that the heirs are too young to benefit from it.

Food and Diet
The most common cereal among this ethnic group is millet. This cereal is ground by women on millstones and the flour into kitcha, ga’at (thick porridge eaten with ghee), taita and hanza. Some cereals are eaten boiled. Most of the utensils used in the preparation of this food items are homemade.
The Bilen use diary products as their staple food, specializing in curd. This is because most of the members of this ethnic group are farmers raising livestock. Shiro is also one of the usually prepared dishes. Meat is eaten especially during holidays such as negdet (anniversary of patron saints), Easter, New Year, etc. and in some rare occasions when cattle are about to die for one reason or another they are slaughtered for meat. This is common practice among most of the nine Eritrean ethnic groups.
The members of the Bilen ethnic group consume a good amount of fruits and vegetables and use nug and sesame oils for cooking their food. Besides, the Bilen are great users of spices and condiments such as garlic, onion, mustard, pepper, etc. They also consume a large amount of wild fruits. The members of this ethnic group are also experts at preserving food, which are commonly used for long ravels. Some of these are roasted peanuts, tamarind, ground flaxseed, roasted wheat or barely, etc.
There is a specially prepared food known as beshelat which can be kept for a whole year. Its preparation is as follows: the dregs of surwa are made to boil and is then mixed with flour. The mixture is then poured on a mat and left to dry in the sun. Once dried, it is put in a container and sealed. It then can be eaten as porridge any time one feels like it. Roasted peanuts can be kept for long and do not need elaborate preparation.
Once grace is said, the children take their respective seats and wait for morsels of bread (which have been blessed by elder) to be handed out to them. Forbidden are drinking water while eating, eating from someone else’s side and taking a big morsel.
After every one is satiated, the eldest child goes around with bowl and a tin-can full of water helping the rest to wash their hands. The whole ceremony ends with a prayer.
The members of this ethnic group use various kinds of drinks such as debob, massa and berzi. Among these, debob is the most commonly used which is used in wedding feats, holidays, commemoration for the dead, celebration of patron saints, etc. It is said to be that debob can keep unspoiled up to four months. In addition to the above-mentioned beverages, other modern ones such as areki, local wine and sweet syrup are used.
The Bilen being generally followers of Islam and Catholicism, the diet they follow during lent or religious festival vary accordingly.

Clothing and Adornments
Footwear has been used irrespective of age or sex from early times among the members of this ethnic group. Before the coming of the Italians, a leather sandal known as medas was very common. This was crafted by the local people themselves.
At present, members of this ethnic group wear shoes of all types irrespective of age and sex, but most are fabricated by professionals. The use of rubber soles is also becoming popular, and modern shoes are making their entry in small towns.
In Sharkin and its environs, there are various types of ornament made by professionals for male and female customers. An unmarried girl puts an earring made of silver (and of gold if she is from rich family) called telal, and bracelets. If she is married, she puts four in each ear, and she puts a gold ornament (known as Sardat) on her forehead. Women who cannot afford silver or gold use beads instead.
Men sometimes use silver leg bands and silver earring, especially during the initiation ceremony. During mourning, a wife is expected to get rid of all her ornament and stays like that for a period of two years. If a wife during mourning gives birth to a child, she puts an imitation ornament made of palm leaves.
Children belonging to the Bilen ethnic group shave their heads and leave a small tuff of their hair on the crown of the head until they start to walk. For male children, this tuff of hair remains with them till the age of 10. Afterwards they have their heads shaved and during the initiation ceremony they wear their hair in Afro-style. When women grew old, they are expected to shave of their heads or have their hair plaited without ornament.
During mourning, some adult males are seen with their heads shaved off. As for widows, they are expected to shave their heads completely. Hairdressing is done by relatives and friends among the Bilen, and no professionals are set aside for such jobs.

Bilen women put ointment in their eyes before applying kohl. For fashioning long and loose strands of hair with wet-look, Bilen women apply butter mixed with powder made of roasted durrah or plain earth to the strands. In addition, they apply henna to their hands and legs. Among this ethnic group, males do sometimes apply butter to their hair.

Tish or smoke bath
Smoke bath is very common among the female members of this ethnic group, especially among married women. They do it for hygienic and aesthetic reasons. Smoke bath is not always without its inconveniences and requires patience and great endurance to physical pain (as the heated smoke that is produced from the not completely dried twigs and leaves does sometimes burn the sensitive skin of the orifices and cause pain). Nevertheless, whether they like it or not, married women are expected by tradition to undergo the treatment until the ‘old’ skin is peeled off and a new yellowish and ‘beautiful’ one is grown instead.

Construction of houses
The people of Sharkin and its surrounding live in fixed villages. These members of the Bilen ethnic group are expected to leave space for streets when they build their houses. The width of the street should be large enough to allow yoked oxen and four pallbearers and the final decision for construction is given by the village elders. Old houses without owners are transferred to other people through a decision reached by village elders.
Only those who are ready to get married and establish families are given land to construct houses. Women and strangers do not have rights to land.
Among this ethic group, the commonest type of dwelling house is the augudo. However, some rich people are seen to build merebas. And at times it is common to see young spouses and less often long married couples living in agnets as temporary shelters.
As for agdos built by the members of this ethnic group, there is a strong similarity between the ones built in the highlands and those built by the Bilen. The only difference is in the household goods, furniture and facilities used. For example, the inside walls of the Bilen augudo is draped with a mat known as higag. A curtain known as litamet and a long veil to hide the bed known as aleget are also used.
Among the members of this ethnic group, the houses are constructed through village cooperation. The person whose house is being built by the village volunteer task force is expected to provide the workers with food, drink and tobacco. However, not all the houses are built in this manner, because after all the rich have the means to build their houses through professional masons.
At present, the trend is to build merebas, and here and there, cement, lime, chiseled stones are making their gradual introduction. The walls are nowadays built a bit higher than the past. The old traditional houses had only doors and no windows. But now not only windows are in use but doors are being made of woods crafted by professional carpenters.


Kuba (also called Bakuba)  people are agriculturalist and a cluster of Bushong-speaking ethnic groups of the larger Bantu ethnicity living in the southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers east of their confluence.

                           Kuba people Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Kuba are surrounded by other tribes such as the Suku, Yaka, and Pende (Cole, 381).  Kuba who are well-known for their advance ritualistic sculptures and masks is composed of eighteen groups located in the southern most part of the Great Equatorial Forest; which is on the boarder of the tropical forest and the open Savannah.
Wives of Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a-Mbweeky III, Mushenge, Congo (Democratic Republic)

Apart from the Bushong speaking principalities, other Kuba people includes the Kete, Coofa, Mbeengi, and the Cwa Pygmies. The Kuba people always refer to themselves as the Bakuba which translates to “people of the throwing knife” (Washburn , 17).

                                  Artistic Kuba people of DRC exhibiting their indigenous arts

When the kingdom of tribes was first brought together, the people were ruled by the Bushong people from the hill country of the central Congo (Caraway);these people have contributed most of the rulers to the Kuba.  Whenever a king dies, the capital is moved to the location of the new King (Washburn , 19).  Intertribal trading occurred often because the Kuba were such a powerful empire (Meurant , 121).  Supernatural powers are the basis for the beliefs; spells, witchcraft, and channels between the living and the dead are some of these powers.  The king is the chief of the sorcerer’s and bridges the boundary between the natural and the supernatural (Meurant , 122).
Kuba  King (nyim) Kok Mabiintsh III in his artistic and ritual traditional regalia

In the West, very little is known about the Kuba Kingdom, however its whimsical sculptures and textiles featuring distinctive geometric patterns are famous throughout the world. Modern Cubism, which derived its name from the word, “Kuba,” was highly influenced by Kuba arts, eluded to in works by Cubist master artists including Picasso and Matisse. Due to their rarity in the West, Royal Kuba textiles and artifacts are highly sought by western collectors and occupy permanent exhibition halls in prominent art museums in New York, London, Brussels and Paris.
                                  Kuba artistic necklace of the king (nyim)
Kuba people speak Bushong (Bushoong, Bushongo, Busoong, Shongo, Ganga, Kuba, Mbale, Bamongo, Mongo) language which belongs to Bantu language group of the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Dialects are said to be Djembe, Ngende, Ngombe (Ngombia), Ngongo, Pianga (Panga, Tsobwa, Shobwa, Shoba). Pianga (Shuwa) is a distinct language, in the Tetela group.
The Bushong have a patron–client relationship with the Kasai Twa.
                                         Men of Kuba tribe in DR Congo
Kuba are part of the people that came to the Great Lake areas via the great Bantu migration from West Africa. The original Kuba migrated during the 16th century from the north to reach their current location at the Sankuru river. When they arrived, however, they found that the Twa already lived there. The Twa were eventually absorbed into the Kuba Kingdom, but retained some independent cultural characteristics. The height of the Kingdom was during the mid-19th century. 
Kuba girls showing their tribal beautification marks

Europeans first reached the area in 1884, but the Kuba, being relatively isolated, were not as affected by the slave trade as many of the other peoples in the area. The Nsapo invaded during the late 19th century, and the Kingdom was broken up to a large extent.
Nineteen different ethnic groups including the Bushoong, Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo formed the kingdom, which still exists and is presided over by the nyim, or king. The King of Kuba is always Bushoong. Each of the ethnic groups has a representative in residence at the Bushoong court.
Kuba girl showing her back beautification marks

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Central African interior witnessed the florescence of three large-scale, multi-ethnic states. Imported crops and technologies as well as new models of leadership promoted strong, centralized governments that subdued neighboring chiefdoms and regulated trade routes, increasing the wealth and relative stability of the region. Client states, incorporated into these empires via warfare and strategic alliances, acquired the political systems and courtly traditions of their overlords. Art forms and insignia associated with imperial rule spread throughout the region.
Nyim Kot aPe was the famous king who sold all the Kuba artwork to the Hungarians
Kuba Nyim Kot aPe [Kwete Peshanga Kena],(1902 - 1916)

Nestled in the fertile forest and savanna bordered by the Sankuru, Lulua, and Kasai rivers, the Kuba kingdom was a conglomerate of several smaller principalities of various ethnic origins. Sometime around 1625, an outsider unseated a rival ruler and unified the area's chiefdoms under his leadership. This man was Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam "the Great." Kuba oral histories reveal that he was the adopted son of a local queen who left his home to travel to the Pende and Kongo kingdoms in the west.
 Bakuba man and his wives

 Empowered by mystical knowledge of foreign customs and technologies, Shyaam became the architect of Kuba political, social, and economic life. Advanced techniques of iron production and crops from the Americas such as maize (corn), tobacco, cassava (manioc), and beans were introduced. The government was reorganized around a merit-based title system that dispersed power and promoted loyalty among the aristocracy.
Kuba Nyim Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969). Circa 1947

The first explorer to discover the existence of the Kuba people and enter their kingdom was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian, in 1892.  German explorers were the next to visit this kingdom between 1907-1909; they have gathered the most complete ethnographic history to date. 
“A short journey inland”. Sheppard with his young son, Congolese children and adults. Sheppard made many trips to proselytize the Christian faith and inform the Congolese why the Presbyterian Congo Mission was in the Kasai.

 “A short journey inland”. Sheppard with his young son, Congolese children and adults. Sheppard made many trips to proselytize the Christian faith and inform the Congolese why the Presbyterian Congo Mission was in the Kasai.(

Their studies included that of the social, political, economic, and religious aspects of the Kuba culture (Washburn , 21).  After the Kuba people were colonized, the art form began to change, it became less naturalistic and it began to disappear.  Wood engravings began to match the new art forms that were influenced by the European settlers.  More abstract art was being made to satisfy the European occupiers.  Basketwork was no longer created like all of the other surrounding tribes; instead, they began to create baskets and containers like those of their European counterparts (Meurant , 116).
The weakened Kingdom never recovered, and it was fragmented into chiefdoms once again by the time of the area became a Belgian colony.
The current reigning monarch, Kot-a-Mbweeky III, has been on the throne since 1969.
List of Kuba Kings
Nyimi Kot a-Mbweeky III is wearing the same attire depicted in Ndop statues. If you look closely you can see the board extension on top of his head. Most of Kuba art is made up raffia fibers ceramic glass beads and cowries. This photograph was taken by Elisofon in early 1970 

Shyaam aMbul aNgoong [Shamba Bolongongo], (1600)--centralized the kingdom
Kot aMbul [Kata Mbula],(1776 - 1810)
Miko miMbul [Mikope Mbula],(1810 - 1840)
Mbop aMabiinc maMbul [Bope Mobinji],(1840 - 1885)
Miko aMabiinc maMbul [Mikope Mobinji],(1885 - 1890)
Miko aMabiinc maMbul [Mikope Mobinji],(1885 - 1890)
Kot aMbweeky aMileng [Koto Mboke],(1890 - 1896)
Misha aPelyeeng [Mishanga Pelenge],(1896 - 1900)
Miko aPelyeeng [Mikope Pelenge], (1900- ? )
Mbop Pelyeeng II [Bope Pelenge], (1900- ? )
Kuba Nyim Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969). Circa 1947

[Mingashanga Bake], (1900 - ? )
Kot aKyeen [Kwete Kena], (1900 - ? )
Mbop aKyeen [Bope Kena], (1900 - 1901)
Miko miKyeen [Mikope Kena], (1901 - 1902)
Kot aPe [Kwete Peshanga Kena],(1902 - 1916)
Mbop aMabiinc maMbweeky [Bope Mobinji Boke],(1916 - 1919)
Nyim Kot Mabiinc (ruled 1919-1939), the
paralyzed king of the Kuba, Belgian Congo

Kot aMabiinc maKyeen[Kwete Mobinji Kena],(1919 - 1939)
Mbop aMabiinc maKyeen[Bope Mobinji Kena],(1939 - Sep 1969)
Kot aMbweeky aShyaang [Kwete Mboke] ,(Sep 1969 - ? )
Bope Mabinshe, King of Bakuba Tribe, Sitting with Two of His Sons by One or More of His 800 Wives

Kuba Settlement (Architecture/housing)
Palace Architecture: The Kuba made sure that all of their architecture was developed in proportions that were emphasized by horizontal lines.  Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom lies in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was designed with a very precise layout in mind that looked back upon the importance of the horizontal line (Vasina , 223).  Some of the most recognized architecture within the Kuba kingdom is found in the capital city of Nsheng; this city was laid out with a very precise layout in mind.  One main axis defines most of the important social interactions that occur within the city; this happens on the path between the yoot, king’s residence, and the dweengy, the wives’ residence.  This plan shows and describes special places within Nsheng such as the steps of a king’s enthronement as well as a place to recognize all of the children that have died (Cole, 385). 
                               Kuba dance. Cedric Kalonji

Typical Architecture: All of the buildings are rectangular and have pitched roofs; the size and patterns on the exterior of these buildings determines the occupant and their rank in society (Cole , 385). As the buildings were laid out within the city, they were shifted to block the views of plazas so there would be more privacy in the spaces, the heights of buildings would also change to alter the feel of the spaces (Vasina , 223).  The exterior ornamentations are composed of lines and pattern that create intricate geometric patterns similar to those often seen on Kuba textiles.  Walls are created with palm ribs that are then tied together with vines that create the patterns; more detailed patterns are usually separated by simple patterns.  The pattern that represents royalty is named mbul bwiin; it is “a pattern in which two angles enclose a small diamond shape, the module separated form repeats by V-shapes” (Cole , 385). 
Building Details: Many Kuba buildings began as one room with a simple rectangular shape; in 1892, buildings were beginning to have more rooms and some had up to three.  The partitions were floor to ceiling and were just as elaborate as the exterior walls.  This became very difficult to deal with because it was much harder to plait, stitch, and sew the walls together (Vasina , 223).  As the buildings began to grow, the people looked more into decorations and began to carve doorposts and bed frames as well as enlarge door frames and invent sliding doors which took the place of rolled up rugs that previously covered doorways.  Less complex building forms can be found in the rural areas and small tribal towns while more complex and larger buildings can be found in the capital of Nsheng (Vasina , 224).
Kuba woman and her kids

 Kuba people engage in farming, hunting and fishing. Both women and men are involved in farming.  The women work on the plains by both planting and gathering; when they finish their work in the fields, they help the men in the forests. Kuba cultivate corn (maize), cassava, millet, peanuts (groundnuts), and beans as staples. They grow raffia and oil palms, raise corn as a cash crop, and hunt and fish.
.  The society’s diet is mostly composed of vegetables.  Meat is only eaten in the dry season because the men are able to hunt without the responsibilities of farming.  Men trap animals in groups; trapping takes place in the brush.  Fishers use both fixed and flying nets; their fishing status is determined by the danger in the water.  Fish ponds are created and harvested by the women twice a year while streams are also used to gather small fish and mollusks (Meurant , 122).  Because the tribe is located between three vast river systems, the Sankuru, Kasai, and Lulua, fishing is one of the ways that the Kuba people to build their economy (Cole , 381).
 They have kept aloof from modern life, and few have emigrated or engage in European-style occupations. 
                              Kuba woman performing traditional dance

Political System 
Kuba society is matrilineal. The Queen Mother empowers the nyim (nyimi) or king. His power is absolute. The nyim heads the Kuba Kingdom. The nyim is considered divine. He is lawmaker, warrior, and spirit medium. The government was organized around a merit system that dispensed title and authority among the aristocracy. This solidified loyalty to the kingdom. Individual polities had autonomy within the empire but were required to pay tribute to the Bushoong royal court.
Nyimi Kot a-Mbweeky III is wearing the same attire depicted in Ndop statues. If you look closely you can see the board extension on top of his head. Most of Kuba art is made up raffia fibers ceramic glass beads and cowries. This photograph was taken by Elisofon in early 1970 

Kuba religion 
The Kuba believed in Bumba the Sky Father who spewed out the sun, moon, stars, and planets. He also created life with the Earth Mother. However these were somewhat distant deities, and the Kuba placed more immediate concern in a supernatural being named Woot, who named the animals and other things. Woot was the first human and bringer of civilization. The Kuba are sometimes known as the "Children of Woot.
   Kuba elders and warriors dressed for the state visit of the Nyim

Success during hunting is recognized as a gift from the gods. It is not incidental that diviners often employ carved wooden hunting dogs as rubbing oracles in order to arrive at their knowledge. Dogs are seen throughout the region as responsible for delivering the will of the god, whether it be through hunting or through the diviner.
Kuba secret cult devotee wearing a mask

Religious Ceremonies: Kuba religion was focused on the King and all of the ceremonies and royal symbols show religious importance.  Kings are very spiritual and they draw all of the Kuba tribes together (Leuchak, 19).  The king is called ngesh or the nature spirit, he is always surrounded by his wives and servants. 
Ceremonial Ikula Knife - Kuba People - D.R. Congo
The ceremonial knife was introduced by an early Kuba king as a peaceful replacement for a more warlike throwing knife. The hilt is exquisitely decorated by inlaying thousands of wire bits into the wood.
From the Stanley Yalkowsky, esq collection NYC.
Knives, daggers and swords from the Kuba people are used as prestige items. Historical documents indicate that quantities of them were brought to the Congo by Portuguese and Dutch traders beginning around the 16th century. Many daggers were then forged by Congolese blacksmiths to emulate foreign examples. They were reserved for nobles and used for important ceremonial occasions. 

 The mwaaddy or oldest son is enlightened of all the knowledge, stories, and rules by the highest ranked woman in court.  Seven creation stories are present within the Kuba culture; most believe in one or two gods possessing the nature spirit.  Each village has a ngesh and a woman diviner communicates to the people through dreams.  She then tells the community how they can make up for the mistakes that they have made (Leuchak, 19).  Burial ceremonies begin by dressing the body in many layers of different textiles, mostly composed of small squares of embroidered and raffia cloth. 

 While the funeral is occurring, the body is prepared for viewing by wrapping the textiles around the body; when this part of the ceremony is over, the body is placed in a large well decorated coffin made with a bamboo frame covered by decorated mats.  The shape of the coffin sometimes represents the form of the typical Kuba house with a pitched roof. 
                       Kuba titleholders

 Items are then placed into the grave after the body is lowered; these may include drinking cups, textiles, costume decorations, and items that would be needed in the world of the dead (Cole ,389).  If a person was good, they become a ghost in the spirit world before they are reincarnated or reborn.  The bad people must stay in limbo for eternity.  The only way that problems can arise between the spirits and living is through witchcraft and sorcery (Leuchak, 21).
Ceremonial hat Kuba people DR Congo 20th century, Colonial period Raffia, glass beads, copper, cowrie shells, barkcloth 5 1/2" high x 6 1/2" diameter ( 14 x 16.5 cm)

Kuba Culture
Arts for Rulers: The Kuba’s sacred kingship and art was encouraged by the rulers and members of the court; artists were honored.  Memorial pieces were completed which were not the work of everyday people and were seen as respected objects (Caraway).  Each king is presented with a pattern that is drawn onto their drum when they come into office.  Some kings create their own patterns while others allow the person sewing the pattern to design it (Washburn , 24).                                                      
Kuba king

Clothing: The king and other royal parliament members have a very prestigious style of dress that distinguishes the members ranking; the king holds objects that are very important within the Kuba society.  The different pieces of clothing show the role that the king is playing at that time and show how sacred the role of the king is to their society. 
 The state dress is called bwaantshy and is usually made of skins, cowries, and patterned mats which ensures that the king never touches the unsacred ground.  This is worn on state occasions and when the king dies, he is buried in it.  One of the most important parts of the outfit is the raffia cloth tunic covered in cowries and beads.  The belt that wraps around the king’s waist is over thirteen feet long by eight inches wide and is covered in beads and cowries.  Not only do beaded cloths cover the king’s body, but so do leopard skin bags and metal ornaments.  Kings hold the sword of office in their right hand and a lance in their left; because the king is covered in cowries, the Kuba are reminded that he is a descendant of Woot (Cole , 383).
Royal Kuba costume

Ndop: Ndop, or royal portrait sculptures are normally carved out of wood and are the most familiar form of Kuba art.  Each ndop figure is seated on a rectangular base which has intricate carvings; the patterns and intricacy of detail show that the ruler has a very high ranking within society.  A base is used because the King must sit higher than his counterparts and draw more attention to himself.  When a man becomes king, he is given a “sword of office,” which is held in the left hand of each ndop figure.  In this figure of Shyaam aMbul a-Ngoong, the ndop has a sash around his waist as well as crossed belts on his chest, and arm bands; scarification patterns can be seen on the figure’s face.  The protruding rectangular crown that caps the figure is called a shody and only kings and regents are allowed to wear these (Cole , 383).
Kuba sitting in state

A ndop is made whenever a new king is invested with office; it is supposed to be an exact replication of the king and is a soul double.  After the figure is carved, it is rubbed with camwood and palm oil to imply a reddish color.  This was believed to ensure the fertility of the king and was kept near the wives, especially during childbirth.  If the ndop became damaged at any point in time, it was to be replaced with an exact copy.  At the death of the king, the ndop is brought to the new king’s initiation ceremony; this passes all of the prior king’s power to the new king.  Once this ceremony ends, the figure is placed near the throne of the deceased king which is in a room near his grave (Cole, 384).
African Flute Hunter Whistle Wood Figure Musical Instrument Kuba Dr Congo 

Kuba Mask
Mask History
The mask was created as a helmet used in initiation ceremonies; the ceremonies include those relating to the founding and creation of the Kuba kingdom as well as the ruling family.  The mask to the left, found in the MFA in Boston, MA, looks into the story of Mboom who was the brother of the founder, Mwaash aMbooy, of the Kuba kingdom who lusted for his brother’s wife.  The other possibility of interpretation for this mask is that it holds nature spirits, commoners, or Mbuti (who are forest dwellers) (MFA gallery label).
A Kuba man dressed in an elaborate ceremonial costume and mask for a dance. The mask represents a deity, Ngady Amwaash.

Mwaash aMbooy: The Mboom mask is said to be the oldest mask with the Mwaash aMbooy mask shortly following.  The Mwaash aMbooy is made of wood, elephant hide, and raffia cloth; this mask represents the King.  Masks were first thought to have been worn in the time of Queen Labaam whose name and ideas suggested carving during her reign.  Following traditions allows the masks to be found in the Age of Chiefs; a ncok song is known that speaks of a bwoom mask during this age.  The song also mentioned how the masks needed decorations added so this was the time where cowries and beads were added to the surfaces of these masks (Vasina , 216).
Kuba Mask (Mukenga), Late 19th/mid-20th century
Wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, feathers, raffia, fur, fabric, thread, and bells
57.5 x 24.1 x 20.3 cm (22 5/8 x 9 1/2 x 8 in.)
Laura T. Magnuson Fund, 1982.1504
(Mukenga masks like this one are worn at funerals of influential, titled men in the northern part of the Kuba kingdom. The mask's form and materials combine symbols associated with status and leadership. Its surface is comprised of raffia cloth upon which glass beads, cowrie shells, raffia fibers, and animal fur are attached. The carefully arranged cowrie shells, once prized as currency, signal wealth and status. The beard-like ruff of the large and dangerous colobus monkey refers to powers of the forest. A prominent trunk projecting upward and over the front of the mask represents the elephant, the supreme symbol of leadership.
Formed in the seventeenth century, the Kuba Kingdom unites an ethnically diverse population across the Western Kasai region of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. This mask, called mukenga, is a regional variant of a Kuba royal mask that is made only in the northern part of the kingdom. The mask’s form and lavish embellishment are associated with wealth and status. Cowrie shells and glass beads, once highly valued imports, cover much of its surface. A stylized elephant trunk and tusks rise from the top, evoking the powerful animal and the wealth accrued by the Kuba in the nineteenth century through control of the ivory trade. The tuft of red parrot feathers that is suspended from the tip of the trunk and the spotted cat fur on the mask’s face are insignias of rank.
During the funerals of titled aristocrats, a member of the men’s initiation society may dance wearing the mukenga mask and an elaborate costume that includes many layers of woven raffia skirts and cowrie- and bead-laden belts, gloves, bracelets, and anklets. The deceased is laid out in identical attire, underscoring the association between the spirit, which is manifested through the performance of the mask, and the realm of the ancestors.
— Entry, Essential Guide, 2009, p. 13.)

Mask Designs: The surfaces of the masks are decorated with geometric designs made with different colors, patterns, and textures.  Most commonly fur, animal hide, metal, and feathers were used as the base material before being covered with beads and other decorative elements.  There are many types of masks that are commonly worn in the Kuba culture; in the capital of Nsheng, masks cannot be worn without the permission of the King.  Three important masquerades in Nsheng include mwashamboy, bwoom, and ngady a mwash.

Mwashamboy (kneeling) and Bwoom (standing) maskers in a royal ceremony among the Kuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, late 20th century.

During the mwashamboy, the actor wears a mask made of leopard skin with wooden eyes, nose, ears, and mouth attached.  Shells and cowries are added for detail along with an animal hair beard; a large headdress is also included to signify the one worn by the king and give more importance to the mask and its wearer.  Everyone refers to this “as the king’s mask” even though he never wears it, only a man of his choice is allowed to wear it.  Because there are not any eye holes in this mask, the dance is very slow and well choreographed (Cole , 389).
Kuba Ngaady A Mwaash Mask

Bwoom Mask: Ngesh is represented by the oldest known mask, the bwoom mask.  The style is like that of the middle Kasai and it could be much older than those created during the Age of Chiefs (Vasina , 216).  This mask is a carved wooded helmet that is given a very wide forehead and sunken cheeks that are annunciated by patterns or hatching and beads.  
File:Brooklyn Museum 73.178 Bwoom Mask.jpg
                Bwoom mask

Copper covers the mouth of the mask which is then outlined with red and white beads; the beads used are imported and the cowries are also bought from other tribes.  Black beads are used to separate the forehead into different sectors and multicolored beads are used to bring attention to other aspects of the face such as the nose and chin.  The person wearing the mask looks out through the nostril holes because there are not any eye holes present; the mask is supposed to give the feeling of being blind.  This mask represents the brother of Woot but tends to stand for the commoners in society as well as the lower ranked members of the court (Cole , 390).  Some masks similar to the bwoom mask include the buffalo mask, ram mask, and initiation masks such as nnup, kalyengl, ishyeen imaulul, and ngady mwaash ambooy (Vasina , 216).

                                         Kuba king
Ngady a Mwash Mask :A ngady a mwash mask is much more intricate with many different colored beads, fabric pieces, shells, and surface patterns.  This mask is given eye holes so the wearer is able to see what is going on while they perform before the Kuba tribal community.  In this example, beads descend from the nose and pass all the way down over the mouth.  The triangles represent domesticity and the different shades of barkcloth to remind people of their ancestors.  Lines passing across the cheeks of ngady a mwash, Woot’s sister and wife, represent tears of suffering and mourning.  The fact the mask represents a woman can be determined when watching the graceful choreographed movements of the man representing Woot’s sister and wife (Cole , 391). 
Ceremonies: The most common uses of masks include initiation ceremonies and funerals.  Initiation ceremonies usually entail the circumcision of boys and their acceptance into manhood; both female and male figures are represented by masks in the ceremony even though only men perform (Cole , 391).  The Nyeeng mask, a type of helmet mask, is associated with the boys’ initiation and is worn by Shyaam during these ceremonies (Vasina , 216).  Funerary masks are not only used for title holders in society, but for non recognized members of society as well (Cole , 391).  Regional differences can be spotted in the bwoom masks from the eastern and central tribes.  During the 18th century, most were carved out of a very light wood; the trunk of the tree was used because it was over one meter in diameter so it was the perfect size for a mask (Vasina , 216).
Kuba Ngady Amwaash masked dancer, Mushenge, Congo

Kuba Textiles
Patterning and Barkcloth
Geometric patterns found on textiles can be found in many different aspects of society and have a certain meaning and importance to the Kuba people.  When textiles are embroidered, the status of the wearer is that of royalty because of the extra effort that is put into the product (Meurant, 115). 
Kuba woman weaving shoowa cloth. Kuba cloth or Kuba Shoowa fabric is made by the Shoowa clan of the Kuba and related peoples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - formerly Zaire. The fabric was made from a very fine fibre found inside young palm trees leafs. Leafs were dried in the sun, then torn into pieces approximately 2 mm wide which we call raffia. The fine leaf fibers were then woven on a loom.
 In earlier times, cloths were used as currency or offered as gifts. Value was determined by the complexity of the work undertaken. Long cloths as this one on offer, are heavy and were highly prized.  Individual items such as these would take several months, or even a year to produce.

 The levels of detail and the pattern determine the status of the person within society.  Fabric is created from the inner bark of local trees that is beaten after being removed (Cole , 387).  Barkcloth is made by sewing small pieces together and only the more prestigious people wear clothes made of this fabric type.  The skirt seen here is made of barkcloth and has a border of raffia textile and some pieces of fabric imported from Europe.  Even though this design looks very simple from far away, one notices the amount of effort put into the design of this cloth that is actually made of small triangles sewed together to form diamonds, both natural and dark colors are used (Cole , 388).  
Textiles and Ranking in Society: The patterns not only represent economic and social status but ethnic unity and religion as well (Cole, 388).  The Kuba continue to produce all of the different patterns even though these no longer represent the power of the people.  The aesthetic does however, show a person’s ranking within the society (Washburn , 20). 

Raffia Cloth: The weaving of Raffia cloth originated in the Kingdom of the Kongo, near the entrance of the mouth of Zaire into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Kuba began to use this style in the 17th and 18th centuries (Washburn , 21).  Raffia cloth is common because the Kuba men cultivate palm trees and then prepare the fronds, which are the outer layers of leaves (Cole , 388).  
Raffia Cloth; Kuba people; plain weave and appliqué, early 20th century

Men then weave the white fibers on a diagonal loom to create two foot by two foot rectangular squares; when the raffia dries, it becomes light tan in color (Washburn , 23).  When the textiles are completed, both men and women add decoration before wearing their skirts; these skirts, which are worn wrapped many times around the torso, can reach a length of nine feet or even reach to twenty feet (Cole, 388).  The men provide a more natural effect to textiles while the women create the rectilinear and geometric expressions that define the cloth (Meurant , 115). 
Kuba people, Dem. Rep. Congo, mid-20th cent. Premium Quality Raffia cloth panel flat-weave and cut-pile embroidery, natural dyes (22" x 24")

 Women add the geometric designs by either embroidery or plush motifs; plush motifs are decorations separated or outlined by parallel lines (Washburn , 23).  Sudden changes in pattern are common to break up the surface; these could occur in line thicknesses or the elements represented.  Raffia cloth has always been an important item in the Kuba society, it was used as currency and in legal settlements and marriage contracts (Cole , 389).  When these squares were used as currency, people referred to them as mbal or bambala which translates as people of the cloth (Washburn , 20).  Ceremonies such as court and funeral always used raffia cloth; this cloth is still remembered for its importance throughout history (Cole , 389).
African Textile Kuba Raffia Cloth Currency Kasaai Butala Dr Congo Zaire

Pattern Naming: The Kuba people have over two hundred named patterns and it is very difficult to study all of the origins of the patterns and production techniques.  Each pattern is given a name; however, some patterns have different names depending on the tribe spoken to and the popularity of the design.  There are also different names when other mediums are used (Washburn , 24).  
Prestige Panel, Cut-pile Velvet (also known as Kaasai)
Kuba People, Democratic Republic of Congo, 20th or 21st century

When a pattern is common among a majority of the tribes, the same name is usually given by every tribe.  The Bushong patterns are different from the other Kuba designs because regular patterns are used.  This regularity gives more royal power and it shows individual characteristics that help to differentiate the Bushong from other tribes (Washburn , 25).  
The following list is composed of pattern names and visual examples of these types.
Sample Patterns
Twisted Patterns

Nynga-smoke                                                                                          Washburn, Dorothy.  58
Emphasis on Color
Mamanye-emphasized bent lines 
Mikobi Ngoma-twisted bordering lines 
Mabintshi Buina-bent lines facing each other
There are three different categories to place these textiles.  The first category is named when the pattern names honor the founders or creators of the patter (Washburn , 59).  An example of a common name is Woto, this was the name given to all of the children of the water, five variations of this name were found by Washburn (Washburn , 61).  The second occurs when the pattern name tells of the significant part of objects.  Some words that are commonly used are vine and king’s palace.  Thirdly is when the pattern name describes the activity of the object.  In this category, people focus more on the actions than the whole picture which tends to give more life to the idea behind the pattern (Washburn , 65).
Woto Bukala-“just Woto” 
Woto Nene-“great Woto”
Woto BuemBuem-“standing on one leg”  

Kuba Carvings
Storage Vessels
Kuba people did not begin carving intricate items until the time of the first capital, Nsheng, less detailed objects carved before that time were found in the smaller communities.  When looking at objects, it is sometimes difficult to determine if it was a piece of pottery or a wood carving.  Everyday objects were carved in detail such as hooks carved as little men or plates, cups, and storage boxes. 
Anthropomorphic vessel - Kuba People - Congo

 Aesthetic parameters were placed on certain types of objects but the artist was allowed to show their creativity within the set boundaries.  Older collections are much more diverse than current collections because of the tourist trade and the tendency to standardize the objects for the visitors (Vasina , 217).
Kuba vessel

Wooden Cup: The cup is carved out of wood and its form has intricate details wrapping the surface of the cup.  Only people with titles in the renowned court structure are allowed to receive these special cups.  The narrow face is pronounced by a copper strip.  
Anthropomorphic Cup - Kuba People - Congo

These special vessels were carved to order by special artists (figure MFA cup).  Many drinking horns are used for palm wine and have ritual connotations.  A person’s status was shown within the Kuba court by the amount of detail put into the vessels.  Buffalo horns are used which show power as well as geometric shapes that appear on textiles and in scarification.  When these drinking flasks had ram horns, it symbolized the fact that the owner held a senior position in the Kuba court (MFA gallery label).
Kuba cup

Cosmetic Boxes: Cosmetic boxes and other types of ornate containers are popular within the Kuba society and are carved out of wood.  The cosmetics held within the container include tukula powder, a substance made from the bark of a tree; this was used for the body, hair, and preparation for the burial of the deceased (Cole , 386).
Men and women have different roles to play in the creation of art that truly represents the Kuba people.  The men create curvilinear wood elements by carving wood while the women spend their time adding stylized rectangular representations to the carvings.  Men also create art in different forms of media besides wood, such as stone (Meurant , 116).

Kuba belt

Kuba Nyim (ruler) Kot a Mbweeky III, Bungamba village, Congo

Cup: Head with Headdress, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Wood; H. 9 5/32 in. (23.26 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1967 (1978.412.541)
Founded in the early seventeenth century in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kuba kingdom was a wealthy state with an elaborate, merit-based system of courtly titles. Because positions of power within the Kuba court were awarded rather than inherited, members of the aristocracy went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from their peers. Drawing upon the skill and talent of local artisans, they commissioned elegant personal accessories that displayed their prosperity, personal achievements, and upward mobility.
One way in which Kuba titleholders displayed their wealth and generosity was through the distribution of large quantities of palm wine to their friends and associates. At the court, drinking vessels were a vital accessory of great symbolic value. This ornately carved wooden cup combines human and animal forms to communicate ideals of refinement and power. Its elegant facial features are well formed and symmetrically arranged, while the mouth is small and closed, reflecting the belief that careful thought should always precede speech. The cup also depicts the Kuba aesthetic practice of shaving the hairline to frame and offset the forehead, considered the seat of wisdom and insight, and draw attention to the raised cicatrizes on the temples, another sign of cultural refinement. Large, curving horns are juxtaposed with these anthropomorphic elements. They evoke the ram, a dominant, aggressive animal that does not tolerate rivals. In the competitive atmosphere of Kuba political life, a man who embodied the dual qualities of cultivation and ambition could expect to attain impressive titles and awards.

Kuba King in ceremonial regalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.
The photograph was taken at the dance area of the royal village. For this ceremony, a particular costume was required that was not too somber. This was an opportunity to display a very beautiful belt made of leopard hide and richly decorated, called nkap, which in principle only the king can wear, but which in fact he can loan to a dignitary or a favorite. The second belt, the property of the notables, is called mwandaan, and has two large knots on the front; it is the “secret belt.” If, during a meeting, the king says something that displeases the titleholder, they shake the belt. To refuse certain secrets, the king says: “Do not make me untie my belt.” The headgear is also a royal headgear, made of leopard skin, called ipul.

Kuba woman

Titleholder Hat (Laket Mishiing), 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Raffia palm fibers, beads, metal
Gift of Lilly Dache, 1974 (1974.83.14)
The Kuba kingdom was founded in the early seventeenth century in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result of its prosperity and stability, it became a center renowned for its remarkable artistic invention. Except for that of the king, who was considered divine, titles at the Kuba court were awarded rather than inherited, resulting in intense competition over positions of power. To signal their upward mobility, ambitious Kuba titleholders commissioned local artisans to produce elegant personal accessories to wear and display.
Splendidly decorated caps were one type of item that indicated Kuba male social standing. Men received small raffia hats, called laket mishiing, upon completion of an initiation process that signaled their transformation into mature members of Kuba society. As they moved up the social ladder and occupied positions requiring greater experience and responsibility, their headgear continuously changed to reflect their accomplishments. Nearly all hats were based upon a type of simple domed cap worn on the crown of the head and held in place with a metal pin. Materials such as beads, shells, metal ornaments, feathers, and animal hair were affixed to this structure depending on the nature and extent of the wearer's achievements.
This cap is an especially striking and beautiful example of Kuba beadwork. Much of its surface is covered in a cruciform pattern of appliquéd cowry shells and blue beads, while beaded bands in blue and white have been sewn along the hat's crown and base. Cowry shells and beads were both used as forms of currency in this region prior to colonialism, while white and blue were colors specifically associated with positive attributes such as religious purity, prominence, and leadership. Together, these elements indicated that the wearer of this work of art was not only wealthy but also an eminent and respected member of Kuba society. Finally, a fringe of beads and metal bells running along the cap's lower edge adds an audible component. Any movement of the head would have been accompanied by a light tinkling noise and brilliant flash of color that animated the hat and drew attention to its owner's high rank and great accomplishments.

Prestige Panel, 19th–20th century 
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples 
Raffia palm fiber; L. 45 3/4 in. (116.2 cm) 
Gift of William Goldstein M.D., 1999 (1999.522.15) 
The various stages of textile preparation, production, and adornment engage the collaborative efforts and skills of all members of Kuba society. The cultivation of raffia palm and its subsequent weaving on a vertical heddle loom are the responsibility of men. Individual woven units (mbala) are relatively standardized panels that women embroider with dyed raffia to create a plush pile. These cloths are intended as independent prestige items.

The classic techniques have been applied by female embroiderers over the centuries with considerable innovation and have yielded a dazzling spectrum of formal solutions. Distinctive motifs introduced into the Kuba repertory are assigned names that often acknowledge the ingenuity of individual designers. In the complex composition of this symmetrical double panel, a central interlacing motif appears in the foreground of a dense arrangement of concentric lozenge forms. Through their combined tonal and textural articulation, these patterns project dramatically from the gold field.

Lidded Container, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba peoples
Wood, camwood powder, palm oil patina; H. 10 1/4 in. (26.03 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Eliot Elisofon, 1956 (1978.412.299a,b)
Ornately carved wooden containers such as this one were kept by Kuba men in what is today south-central Democratic Republic of Congo to store costume accessories and items used for personal care. These included razors, beads, and camwood powder used to coat and beautify the skin.
Three smooth, raised borders divide the container's surface into four horizontal bands of incised geometric designs. The crisscrossing lines and repeating diamonds that cover the box are collectively known as nnaam, a Kuba term referring to the tangled vines and creepers that grow in the fertile forests of this region. This design also evokes the interwoven cane splints of baskets, and indeed the vessel's shape—a cylindrical body with a square foot and lip—is a common basketry form among the Kuba peoples and their neighbors. The replication of a woven basketry artifact in carved wood is characteristic of the playful invention of Kuba personal arts.

Nyimi Kok Mmabiintosh III – King of Kuba – D. R. Congo. king9 igwe kenneth nnaji onyemaeke orizu iii The Kings of Africa photographed by Daniel Laine


If the king of the Kuba possesses absolute power, this power is effectively controlled, most especially by the senior officials and titleholders. The result is the importance and the frequency of conferences. In order to emphasize their independence, the titleholders never gather inside the palace, rather, they gather outside the enclosure. The large structure called nshool, which is visible behind the king, is the guardhouse or entry structure. At the time the photograph was taken the structures of the palace were not entirely completed. The king is the only one who has the right to a chair, everyone else is seated on mats. The king never speaks directly to the title holders, but has a spokesman, seated before him, who is one of a set of twins who hold this position. The titleholders are in a circle, each with his particular required costume, hairstyle, and accessories. Behind the king, a group of people from the court help with the meeting.
The Kuba king presides over a conference, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

In a corner of the palace in Mushenge, capital of the BaKuba, the king formally receives visitors. This is why he is dressed in his most important regalia and is seated on the sacred platform. Here, the regalia is complete, a rare occurrence, because it weighs about 80 kilograms (176 lbs.). The part that is most noticeable here is the belt. This is the nduun belt, which is said to be made of pounded bark and which reminds the Kuba of the time long ago before raffia fiber existed. For the king, the modest belt is transformed into a long, rectangular belt, covered with cowrie shells, and is especially heavy. This is the nduun Bushoong, the “belt of the Bushoong,” to whom the king is related. In front of the king, we can see some women from his family, who provided the chants for the ceremony.
Kuba King in working costume, Mushenge, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Joseph Cornet.

Near the courtyard of the royal palace, seated on a throne placed on the old royal platform, with one section stripped of its leopard skins, the king appears wearing labot lapuum, one of his most prestigious and noble costumes. Seated around him are some members of his family, his wives and children. His senior wife is at the right, identified by her necklace and elaborate wrapper. The king's neck is adorned with a famous necklace of leopard fangs, one of only two that still exist. The royal skirt is white, contrasting with the red skirts of those around him. It is enormously long and is made of seventeen pieces of raffia. The king holds two horns, dating from the 16th century, at the time the costume was first worn by the founder of the dynasty, king Shyaam a-Mbul a-Ngwoong.
The Kuba king presides over a dance in his palace, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Among the nobles who surround the king, called “the uncles of the king,” the second rank is made up of those who are given the title tslhik’l. In addition to the king's collar (made of long straight wool), his two major symbols or badges of office are the axe he carries on his leftshoulder and the headgear that is reserved only for him. This is generally in the shape of a Kuba hat, but is enriched with beads and cowries. It is surmounted by a tuft of red parrot leathers, and below by a tail that hangs in front of the face. The headgear is accompanied by a band of cowries across the chest. The white pigment on the forearm represents the tradition of rubbing oneself with kaolin for important ceremonies. In the corner of his mouth, the red parrot feather is a symbol of wisdom, and because it makes it difficult to speak, it is then a symbol of circumspection.
Kuba titleholder tshik'l, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Among the Kuba, nephews or cousins of the king usually have limited power. This one is a nyimbal’k, a judge who presides after an accident occurs. After seeing him in his everyday dress, typically a European suit, one is astonished by his transformation by the wearing of traditional regalia. His wrapper is a foreign textile, and is not embroidered, except for the border. The collar is unique and is worn bandoleer style. He wears a single bracelet on his wrist. Only the collar of fur identifies him as a member of the royal family. Everything is carefully controlled and reflects his rank. Good taste, reasonable proportion, and a noble attitude are the perfect and most eloquent expression of the status of the wearer of this costume.
Kuba nyimbal'k (judge), Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

At the death of a king, the affairs of state of the Kuba are entrusted to two or three important titleholders who become “regents.” Over a period of time, they assert some royal power. They retain this honor all the rest of their lives, along with some very important and valued privileges. Among the most important is the right to wear regalia that is very close in magnificence to the most beautiful royal regalia. This regent is called Kwete Mwana, since passed away. We can notice in this magnificent costume the headdress with a visor, which can also be seen on the royal sculptures, the collar of leopard's fangs, only the second of its type, the extraordinary richness of the wrapper (this one was ordered by the regent himself and took one year’s labor). The whole ensemble is made up of more than forty items, which take several hours to don. The regent is posed before a great woven 
A former regent, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Each Kuba king owns two costumes called bwaantsh, one of which will be buried with him. Only the king is permitted to wear them. These costumes are an assemblage of all the most magnificent parts of prestige regalia numbering about fifty items. The only piece missing here is the great belt (which has nineteen rows of cowries and is four meters long). The sword and the scepter are the marks of supreme authority. The head gear is curiously in the form of a small house, the “house of the king.” On either side of the king, the senior wife and another important woman from the king’s harem, a woman of mixed African-European ancestry, are kneeling and participate in the courtly homage given by the people. Among the Bushoong, even commoners demonstrate a particular appreciation for jewelry as visible signs of prestige.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, king in regalia. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

Of the two royal masks moshambwooy and bwoom, the former is the most important; its meaning is tied to the legend of the creation of the Bushoong people, because it is traced to the founder Woot. Each of the masks has its own personal name. Only the king may wear such masks in performance, unless he has specifically delegated the honor to someone else. These masks have their own retinues of chiefs and certain titleholders. The royal mask appears rarely: here it is seen at the performance area of the capital. The dance of the mask is accompanied by singing and the rhythm of drums. The movements are quiet and slow, with very complex dance steps, which interpret the texts of the songs. The spectators take pleasure in identifying the relationship between the steps of the dance and the text of the songs. The performer does not allow any part of his body to show, because he is supposed to have become a spirit. He even wears gloves and shoes that cover every inch of his skin.
A dance of the principal royal mask, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

The royal mask is dancing here in the royal harem, before the women of the palace. That is why he is accompanied by the wives of the royal family. They are wearing their beautiful skirts with wavy edges (these are called ntshak). When standing in profile, we can see the projections on the upper part of the headgear that give the mask its proud appearance. The mask's name is Lapukpuk. It dates from the 19th century, and was restored in the early years of the 20th century. The main costume is not a skirt but a tunic that covers the entire body, decorated with tiny black and white triangles. The ornament that bounces around his neck is a sort of stretched gourd, covered with cowries. The mask itself is considered to be blind, therefore a few objects made of plant material are always attached to the performer, and serve at times to guide him.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, dance of bwoom mask. Photo by Angelo Turconi.The bwoom mask is a helmet mask. (The mask is blind, usually carved mostly of wood, and the performer can bend back his head so that he can make out the limits of the dance area; in fact many performers see out through the nose. He also wears a tunic—the only surviving example that is old—but freshly cut leaves are attached to his belt. This mask, of superior beauty with regard to shapes and proportions, replaces the mask called Lwoop lambwoom, which was carved at the beginning of the 19th century and masterfully restored a hundred years later by an artist (it is in the museum in Kinshasa). This mask is made of leather, a material reserved for the use of the king. The masks beard is decorated with cowries, also only for the king. The neck is particularly rich in cowries and beads, which is customary for masks of this type.)

Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance. Photo by Angelo Turconi.
(This is a rare photograph of two royal masks, moshambwooy and bwoom, performing together before the king and a group of titleholders in the palace enclosure. The action of the mask kneeling before the king makes it possible to see the ornaments on the back: beneath the richly ornamented collar of the mask can be seen a large metal disk, a lantshaang, whose origin has apparently been forgotten; and the mikyeen, a large black ornament made up of nine bands decorated with beads, with a round shell at the top. The choreography of the dance must adhere to a series of customs. If the performer makes a misstep, the entire audience makes fun of him. A slave must gather up of the bits that fall from the mask costumes, because these are sacred entities; another carries a pole topped with a bundle of magical materials.)

Between two segments of the performance in the dance area at Mushenge, the moshambwooy and bwoom masks rest for a moment. On the former, we can admire the great white beard, symbol of the wisdom of this most senior of masks; the latter allows us to take a close look at his tunic covered with cowries and the long strands of raffia that are used to help direct the dance of this blind character. Everyone wears traditional dress with the typical Kuba hairstyle, the laket woven partially with raffia, the type of palm tree visible in the background. Between the two masks, a titleholder gives advice and directions to bwoom. This is the sculptor, Lyeen, one of the last great sculptors working under the king's patronage, himself the son of a king as is made clear by his particularly elaborate and beautiful skirt. This type of spectacle has become very rare in recent years.
Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, royal mask dance. Photo by Angelo Turconi.

The women's dances in the royal palace are elaborate and refined, very slow and carefully choreographed, both in gesture and in step. The women's choir accompanies them, with the rhythm accentuated by the sound of gourds struck on the sand. The participants carry richly decorated flywhisks, which they wave dramatically. The first three performers have particularly spectacular costumes. These performers include two of the king's aunts and his most senior wife. One can identify three different types of women's skirts, each of which identifies the social rank of the wearer. The metal anklets symbolize nobility. These details contrast markedly with the simplicity of the women who follow dressed in simple raffia skirts dyed red with tukula powder, and without anklets. The women gesture symbolically.
Women's dance in the royal court, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

The current king of the Kuba belongs to a second royal dynasty. There are, however, some relics of the first, especially in the person of a titleholder called muyum, who, in his tiny territory, hardly larger than a small village, exercises certain exceptional privileges. The king must honor him, because he possesses some of the objects that validate rule which are essential to the kingdom. The two meet at the royal enthronement, and then must never encounter each other, except in the greatest secrecy. The court of the muyum has all the features of the king's own court, especially in the costume and identity of the important titleholders. He can be seen here, during a ceremony, wearing the costume of the moshambwooy mask and receiving the respects of a commoner woman, with his slave seated at his feet.
Ceremonial presentation of the muyum (title holder) to the council, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph by Angelo Turconi.

Kuba belt

Kuba wastebox

Kuba hat

Kuba cup

Kuba hat 

Royal drum of Kuba people