The Lele (or Leele), also known as Bashilele or Usilele, are a Bantu ethnic group closely related to the Kuba people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They traditionally live in the Kasai River region, but since the 1950s many have migrated to Kinshasa
There are currently about 30,000 Lele, of which 26,000 speak the Lele language.
Lele people occupy the western region of the Kuba kingdom. The men work in the forest, where they hunt in groups, locate medicinal plants, cut wood, sculpt, and communicate with the spirits.
The women are in charge of the food crops and of fishing in the marshes; feeding the village is their responsibility. The sculptor hunts, extracts palm wine, and participates in daily assemblies.
Heading the Lele is the nymi, a king with limited powers. The village is organized according to age groups, with the oldest man as chief. The elders have a monopoly over the traditional cults, created to ensure the fertility and prosperity of the village. Presently, the elders are still the depositories of healers, who used to be organized into the banging society and subject to initiation.
This society included mature men as well as the parents of twins, who were considered to be mediators between the spirits and humans.
The art of the Lele is not well known. It is similar to Kuba styles with the exception of its masks, which generally have a flattened shape. The most important forms of Lele art are carved drums, divination instruments, boxes, pipes, and palm wine cups. Also Lele carvers produce statuettes and face masks. The masks often have slit eyes. The functions of the masks are little known. Lele masks appeared in dances accompanying the burial rites of chiefs and in annual foundation/creation ceremonies. Although the art of the Lele borrows many elements from the Kuba and Dengese in particular, the hairdo and long braids of the statuettes distinguish them from any others. The Lele also use different prestige objects. The figures on these objects occasionally have a coiffure with two long plaits down the back.
Unity is essential amongst the Lele because of the type of polyandry practised in the village. The Lele call it hohombe, or ngalababola, which means “wife of the village”. It is worth mentioning that one out of ten or so Lele women becomes a village wife. The rest are mostly in polygynous marriages. An anthropologist, Mary Douglas gave an in-depth understanding to who a village wife is amongst the Lele people.
A village wife is either captured by force, seduced or taken as a refugee, or betrothed from infancy. She is initially married to several men in the village who may or may not have other wives already.
A village wife is treated with much honour and enjoys her honeymoon which lasts for a period of six months or more. She does not cook, draw water, cut firewood or do any of the usual work of women. If she wishes to go to the spring or to bring back some water, one of her husbands will declare that she must not carry the load and will accompany her, shouldering the calabash.
Moreover, a newly captured village wife can accompany the men on their hunting escapades, which is not allowed for an ordinary woman. This is mainly done to stop her from being recaptured to her original village. She does not eat vegetables as her devoted husbands bring her squirrels and birds every day and the people’s delicacy, which is antelope’s liver is reserved for her.
As she does not cook, she eats the food sent to her husbands by their mothers or their wives. Men and women do not eat together but during her honeymoon, the village wife is able to eat with her husbands.
During this period, she sleeps with a different man in her hut every two nights but any man in the village is entitled to have relations with her during the day.
At the end of the honeymoon, she is allotted a limited number of husbands, sometimes as many as five. She lives with these men, cooks for them and has relations with them in her house. Although her husbands can claim damages from any man who sleeps with her in her hut, she is available to the rest of the village when she is outside her home.
With time, the village wife has the power to eliminate husbands from her household and may do so until she has two or three. This initiative may not always come from her. For instance, a man quarrels, or is jealous, or marries a wife who is jealous, and for these or similar reasons takes his belongings out of her house.
A child of the village-wife is called mwanababola, meaning child of the village because he/she belongs to all the men. The child usually indicates one or two men who have been social fathers to him if asked who the father is. The village as a whole will be responsible to pay the dowry for future wives on behalf of the sons of the village wife.