Related Ethnic Groups: Lunda, Luvale, Luchazi, Mbunda, Ovimbundu, Luba, Mbangani
(various spellings may exist, e.g., Chokwe [Kucokwe], Luvale [Lwena], etc.)
The history of the Chokwe, Lunda, Luvale, and other related ethnic groups are intricately connected either by ancestry or through cultural influence. Today, the vast majority of these people are located in Southern Africa, primarily in northern Angola, western Zambia, and south central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
According to history, the Lunda kingdom was the dominant political entity in the region for centuries before they were eventually overtaken by the Chokwe during the latter half of the 19th century and prior to European colonization. Following a major famine, the Chokwe people primarily settled in Angola where they remain today. Many Chokwe families of Angola fled their country during its civil war (see “Brief History of Angola” below) and settled in Zambia along the border.
Today, the Chokwe are best known for their art which includes masks, sculptures, stools, staffs, scepters, and thrones that were historically produced to celebrate and validate the royal court. Most of the sculptures represent the royal lineage of the people.
The Chokwe and related peoples have been greatly affected by the recent conflicts in Angola and the DRC. Yet, despite the many adversities, they are able to maintain their cultural traditions. Today, in Angola, the Congo and Zambia, the practice of initiation rites, divination, and healing rites can still be found among the Chokwe and other related ethnic groups.
Chokwe Proverb: A child who asked for a crown; found it among the departed spirits; here there must be no crying and tears; nothing but music and song.
Chokwe boys that have reached a certain age are initiated into manhood through a rites of passage process known as the Mukanda. The Mukanda rites are usually held at the beginning of the dry season (May – October). The young boys are taken from their homes to live in a secluded camp in the wilderness, away from the village for about one to three months. The separation from the outside world marks their symbolic death as children. The purpose of the Mukanda is to transmit valuable lessons for survival as well as knowledge about cosmology, religious beliefs, sexuality, and social values. The initiates are circumcised, tested for courage and provided lessons on manhood. The Mukanda initiation includes the participation of masked characters representing the ancestors known as the Makishi. Ancestral spirits assume the form of masks to assist in transmitting knowledge to the initiates. Each initiate is assigned a specific ancestor (Akishi), which remains with him throughout the entire initiation process. The Makishi instruct the initiates within the Mukanda camps. As tutelary spirits they help facilitate the transmission of privileged knowledge to the initiates and help prepare them for adult life. At the completion of the Mukanda process, a celebration is held where the entire village attends and the graduates emerge from the initiation camp to be reintegrated into the community as adult men.
Chokwe, Lunda, Luvale, Luchazi, Mbunda and other related peoples are known to engage their ancestors in order to get spiritual or supernatural support for various undertakings. These ancestors usually take the form of masked characters called Makishi (singular: Akishi). The Makishi represent the spirits of deceased individuals that have returned to the world of the living in order to guide, assist, protect, and educate members of the community.
Brief History of Angola
The territory that makes up present-day Angola was initially inhabited by different ethnic groups. The indigenous peoples of this area fought many wars to resist the early incursions of Portuguese colonizers which began as early as the 16th century. One famous such example was Queen Nzingha of the Ndongo kingdom who fought many battles against the Portuguese and Dutch. Eventually the superior firepower of the Europeans defeated the Africans, and not only Angola but all of Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia) was successfully colonized by various European countries. The Portuguese successfully colonized the African territories known today as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe.
The Angolan people began fighting a war for liberation in 1961. Prior to independence, there were three major liberation movements in Angola (MPLA, UNITA and FNLA). Each of the liberation movements were structured heavily along ethnic lines (this was part of the legacy of the Portuguese divide and conquer tactic), and often fought against each other. Angola finally gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Once independence was achieved, the MPLA emerged as leader of the newly established Angolan government. UNITA, under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi, began receiving support from the Apartheid government in South Africa and the United States and continued to fight the MPLA government. The MPLA relied heavily on support from Cuba and the Soviet Union to maintain its hold on power. In 2002, after the death of Jonas Savimbi, a cease-fire was declared between the MPLA and UNITA.
The official language of Angola is Portuguese, however, most people also speak the indigenous language of their ethnic group in addition to Portuguese. The Portuguese language has helped to create a sense of Angolan identity and has helped facilitate a strong connection between Angola and other Portuguese speaking countries, including Portugal, Brazil and Mozambique, and others.