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Zaire Table of Contents


Bantu-Speakers of the Congo River Basin and Its Environs

Living just north and south of the Congo River, from Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville) in the east to the juncture of the Ubangi River with the Congo in the west, are a large number of diverse Bantu-speaking groups; a handful of groups speaking languages of the Adamawa-Eastern family are interspersed among them. The movement of groups within this region and the riverine trade characteristic of the area have made for considerable sharing of cultural elements.

This area typifies the house-village-district social structure that anthropologist Jan Vansina argues was the original tradition among Bantu-speakers. Particularly among fishing and trading peoples such as the Bobangi, the basic social and political unit traditionally was the polygynous household. A cluster of such households formed the village. If the head of a household amassed sufficient wealth, through trade, the purchase of slaves, or acquisition of other clients, he could assume the title of chief. The wealthiest of the house chiefs headed the village. In some cases, a powerful chief unified several villages under his authority and thus created a district. Such trade and fishing villages were not based on actual or alleged kinship. Status and power depended on wealth rather than on personal seniority or on the seniority of the lineage to which one belonged.

Not all groups fit the above pattern. Most political units were small, but some specialized roles could be identified. Some groups had an official with special judicial powers in addition to a chief with largely ritual functions; still others had a war leader.

In the precolonial era, the potential for conflict between communities sharing the same language and culture was at least as great as that between those lacking such commonalities. Awareness of shared ethnic identity did not extend to villages far from one's own and certainly did not define the boundaries of war and peace. Only in the colonial era did such identity take shape when members of some of these groups migrated to the ethnically heterogeneous towns. And such identity was situational. For example, Ngombe living in Mbandaka (formerly Coquilhatville) saw themselves as Ngombe and were so seen by others. Ngombe who lived in Kinshasa, however, came to be defined as Ngala, or Lingala-speakers, together with other upriver peoples.

Most of the Congo River basin and part of the lands stretching south to the Kasai and Sankuru rivers are inhabited by a large number of groups categorized under the name of a man from whom they claim descent, Mongo. Among most Mongo groups, the autonomous unit is the village, the core of which is a dominant lineage whose chief is also the chief of client lineages. Only among the Ntomba and some groups (the Lia, the Sengele, the Mpama, and perhaps others) in the southwestern subset of Mongo are hierarchical systems headed by a sacred chief and divided into provinces. A claim to common descent did not lead to a sense of common identity, at least not until Roman Catholic missionaries encouraged such a development.

Data as of December 1993