The Chokwe people, known by many other names (including Kioko, Bajokwe, Chibokwe, Kibokwe, Ciokwe, Cokwe or Badjok), are an ethnic group of Central and Southern Africa. They are found primarily in Angola, southwestern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa to Lualaba), and northwestern parts of Zambia.
Estimated to be about 1.3 million, their language is usually referred to as Chokwe (or Kichokwe, Tshokwe), a Bantu language in the Benue-Congo branch of Niger-Congo family of languages.
Many also speak the official languages of their countries: English in Zambia, French in Democratic Republic of Congo, and Portuguese (as first or second language) in Angola.
460.000 Chokwe live in woodland savanna, but are also found along rivers and marshland with strips of rainforest.
Chokwe origin can perhaps be traced to the Mbundu and Mbuti Pygmies. Between 1600 and 1850 they were under considerable influence from the Lunda states and were centrally located in Angola. In the second half of the 19th century though, considerable development of the trade routes between the Chokwe homelands and the Angolan coast led to increased trade of ivory and rubber. Wealth acquired from this allowed the Chokwe kingdom to expand, eventually overtaking the Lunda states that had held sway over them for so long. Their success was short-lived, however. The effects of overexpansion, disease, and colonialism resulted in the fragmentation of Chokwe power.
The Chokwe do not recognize a paramount leader, but instead offer allegiance to local chiefs who inherit their positions from the maternal uncle. Mwana nganga (chiefs) consult with a committee of elders and ritual specialists before making decisions. Villages are divided into manageable sections which are governed by family headmen. All members of Chokwe society are divided into two categories: those who are descended from the founding matrilineal lines and those who are descended from former enslaved populations.
The Chokwe grow manioc, cassava, yams, and peanuts. Tobacco and hemp are also grown for snuff, and maize is grown for beer. Domesticated livestock is also kep, and includes sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens. Protein is added through hunting.
There is an exclusive association of big game hunters known as Yanga, but everyone contributes to the capture of small game animals. The farming and processing of agricultural products is done almost exclusively by women among the Chokwe. Slash and burn techniques and crop rotation are practiced to conserve the land naturally.
Society and culture
They are regionally famous for their exceptional crafts work, particularly with baskets, pottery, mask carving, statues, stools and other handicrafts. The art work include utilitarian objects, but often integrates Chokwe mythologies, oral history and spiritual beliefs. For example, the culture hero Chibinda Ilunga who married a Lunda woman and took over power is an often sculpted figure. The Cikungu art personifies the collective power of Chokwe's ancestors, while Mwana po figurines depict the guardians of fertility and procreation. The Ngombo figurines have been traditionally a part of divining spirits who are shaken to tell causes of illness, misfortune, not having babies and other problems faced by a family or a village.
Both chiefs and village groups are found in the Chokwe culture. Villages consist of company compounds with square huts or circular grass-houses with a central space that serves as the meeting place for the villagers.
The Chokwe are traditionally a matrilineal society, but where the woman moves to live with her husband's family after wedding. Polygyny has been a historic practice usually limited to the chief or a wealthy family.
The traditional religious beliefs of the Chokwe center around ancestor spirits worship. In groups where chiefs exist, they are considered the representative of god Kalunga or Nzambi, therefore revered and called Mwanangana or "overseer of the land." There is sometimes perceived to be a spiritual connection between works of arts such as handicrafts and carved objects and ancestors, as well as god Kalunga or Nzambi. With the colonial era, Chowke converted to Christianity en masse yet the original beliefs were retained to produce a syncretism of beliefs and practices. They have, for example, continued their spirit-rituals from pre-Christian era, as well maintained their elaborate rites-of-passage ceremonies particularly to mark the entry into adulthood by men and women.
The Chokwe are one of a number of peoples that once formed part of the Lunda Empire, and, like many of their neighbors, they practice male youth initiation that incorporates masquerade performances. Male initiation requires that boys, whose orientation has been strictly towards their mothers and family members, be snatched from their familiar environs and taken to the bush, a fearful place they have always been warned against. This is not usually an annual event; the initiation process (mukanda) depends on the local demographics, economic circumstances, and the decisions of elders. When the catchment of boys of the appropriate age (about 8-15 years old) from neighboring villages is deemed adequate, male society members will prepare the initiation camp. The removal of the initiates is not immediate; their families will recognize the advance signals, although the children will not. Masquerades enter the villages and perform, then leave. Some time later, certain masqueraders will return and carry the boys away to their symbolic “death”.
These initiation masquerades (mukishi) include numerous stock characters that are described as ancestors. Some have human traits (the chief, the beautiful maiden), while others represent protective and sometimes aggressive spirits whose human qualities are less evident.
For example, Fig. 298 (known as chikuza) bears a tall, phallic-shaped projection and is compared to a particular kind of grasshopper of the same name with a similarly extended head. It functions as the camp leader, protecting the camp and the boys, and it has further associations with successful hunting and fertility. Miniatures of this mask often appear in divination baskets.
Before boys are initiated, they believe these figures are spirits; one of the secrets their initiation makes them privy to is the fact that men make and perform the masquerades, and they too will learn how to do so. Before this and other layers of knowledge are revealed, however, the newly-arrived boys go through a painful introduction to manhood: circumcision. Their first few weeks at the mukanda camp are quiet, for the boys are believed to be vulnerable to malevolent forces, as well as health risks. They sleep in pens bound tightly by upright sticks so they cannot turn in their sleep and injure their healing penises. Their ordeal bonds them to fellow initiates, some of whom had been complete strangers. As the weeks go on, older men begin to train them in occupational tasks, as well as verbal abilities, sex education, psychological management techniques, and other skills they will need to be adult males and useful citizens.
Fig. 298. Chikunza masquerader. Chokwe male artist, Angola, 20th century. Photo Dr. Rocha Afonso, DIAMANG. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 PT.
In addition, they learn complex dances, a secret pictograph system, and other esoteric knowledge. They are subject to absolute discipline. They do not leave the camp, which is regarded as a living being whose body is its wooden retaining wall, with “eyes” made of shaped vegetation that project upwards, and “ribs” made from additional projections. The circular enclosure’s one entrance is closed off at night, and the boys are circumscribed by multiple rules, including a single place for urination. The masqueraders go back and forth to the village to collect food for the boys from their mothers, an act that not only provides sustenance but reassures the women that their sons are alive and well.
A designated circle within the camp is the area where the masquerades are made and kept. The netted costumes are crocheted from bush fibers, and the masks themselves are made by stretching barkcloth (felted by beating the bark of a particular tree) over a reed framework, sealing it with resin, then painting it, typically in black, red, and white. Some of the masks are extremely large, but the materials keep them lightweight. Because these masks are not carved, however, their facial features are not crisp, nor can they always attain complete symmetry.
The chihongo mask (Fig. 299) represents a Chokwe chief. Although the performer’s arms and chest are encased in a tight crocheted shirt, a cloth wrapper (a sign of towns and civilization) covers their lower limbs. In contrast, many non-humanoid mukishi wear full raffia skirts at the waist.
Two chihongo masks stand in front of a Western-style house. Chokwe male artists, Angola, 20th century. Photo Dr. Rocha Afonso, DIAMANG. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 PT.
Two prominent features of the chihongo mask are the large semi-circular projection from the jaw and the large curving headdress (Fig. 300).
Chihongo initiation mask made from barkcloth and resin. Chokwe male artist, Angola, 20th century. Musée du Quai Branly, 73.1971.6.1.
These can also be seen in wooden masks that depict the chief (Fig. 301). In wooden versions, the semi-circular section is cantilevered from the chin, jutting out horizontally. Despite its rigidity, this form indicates the beard of an elder in both wooden and bark/resin examples. The curving headpiece, here made from feathers, imitates the curving form of the crowns Chokwe chiefs once wore. The masks’s eyes typically are conceived of as coffee bean forms set into deep eye sockets that connote age. Wooden masks were once worn by the chief himself or a designated male family member; along with a “female” masquerader (performed by a male), it went from village to village collecting taxes. After the respective colonial governments banned the practice, since they wanted the taxes themselves, wooden masks switched functions and were used for entertainment dances. Some mukanda camps employ a few wooden examples now, but resin/barkcloth versions are still more typical.
Fig. 301. Wooden chihongo mask. Male Chokwe artist, late 19th/early 20th century. Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art, African Collection Fund, 2008.38.1. Public domain.
When training is complete, the initiates are reintroduced to their communities. They enter in initial silence, escorted by the masqueraders, dressed in uniform style with hats and decorative patterns on their faces, arms, and torsos (Fig. 303). They sit in state, bowls in front of them to collect appreciation money from well-wishers. They later dance and interact with the townspeople, accepted as those who have put childhood behind and are now oriented to adulthood and the world of men. They will no longer sleep in their mothers’ houses.
After the initiation season has concluded, senior men set the camp alight, burning it and the barkcloth masks; wooden examples, if in use, are taken away and stored until the next initiation.
Fig. 303. A group of Chokwe initiates preparing to leave their camp and be welcomed back into society. Photo courtesy DIAMANG, Angola. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 PT.
When commenting on artefacts and its links to wider Chokwe society, Anthropologist Daniel J. Crowley commented “their sanguine approach to life is evidence by their attitudes towards the arts, which traditionally were incorporated into every major aspect of Chokwe culture”. From Sculptures to household items including hairs combs, chairs as well as pottery and baskets, all played a part in representing Chokwe cosmology. Most items depicted some part of ancestry, through this close association to spiritual ancestry this was thought to invoke success as well as continuity. These items show how God was visually present in many features of everyday life, all of which nurtured a sense of alignment and balance.
There were many moments in an individual’s life that provided space to engage with God. One example of this can be seen in Mukanda (the ceremonies initiating Chokwe boys into adulthood), this involved boys entering a secluded space away from the village to reflect on their childhood and life thus far and prepare for a rebirth into adulthood. Special walking sticks, depicting Chokwe ancestry, were given to boys as they ventured back to their community, now as men to symbolise the continuity of life. The Mukanda also features the strong presence of Pwo (masks depicting female ancestral spirits) to pay homage to womanhood and the female essence. In his essay Revisiting Pwo, Manuel Jordán describes the mask as sharing “the positive influences of the ancestral spirits with the community”. The Mukanda offers an example of the high regard placed on connecting to spirituality in the process of transition and growth.
The examples indicated point to the strong spiritual connections that shaped many features of Chokwe society. For the Chokwe, having God present in all aspects of life ensured continuous dialogue and engagement with spirituality. A lot can be learned from this approach in the process of knowing ourselves better. Exploring our spirituality provides an opportunity to connect with our core and be guided by it in all our endeavours. The clarity we get from understanding our purpose and nurturing our faith and efforts into realising this purpose is an empowering feeling, may we all create the space to achieve this.
The Chokwe recognize Kalunga, the god of creation and supreme power, and a series of nature and mahamba (ancestral spirits). These spirits may belong to the individual, family, or the community, and neglecting them is sure to result in personal or collective misfortune. Evil spirits may also be activated by wanga (sorcerers) to cause illness, and this must be counteracted to regain health. In order to accomplish this individuals normally consult with a nganga (diviner), who attempts to uncover the source of the patient's problem. The most common form of divination among the Chokwe is basket divination, which consists of the tossing of up to sixty individual objects in a basket. The configuration of the objects is then "read" by the diviner to determine the cause of illness.
With the colonial era, Chowke converted to Christianity massively yet the original beliefs were retained to produce a syncretism of beliefs and practices. They have, for example, continued their spirit-rituals from pre-Christian era, as well maintained their elaborate rites-of-passage ceremonies particularly to mark the entry into adulthood by men and women.
The Chokwe are well known for art objects produced to celebrate and validate the royal court. These objects include ornately carved stools and chairs used as thrones. Most of the sculptures are portraits, which represent the royal lineage. Staffs, scepters, and spears are among other implements sculpted to celebrate the court.