Lunda people


Lunda / Balunda / Luunda / Ruund

The Lunda (Balunda, Luunda, Ruund) are a Bantu ethnic group that originated in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo along the Kalanyi River and formed the Kingdom of Lunda in the 17th century under their ruler, Mwata Yamvo or Mwaant Yav, with their capital at Musumba. From there they spread widely through Katanga and into:

ETHNONYMS: Akosa, Aluunda, Aruund, Eastern Lunda, Imbangala, Ishindi Lunda, Kanongesha Lunda, Kazembe Mutanda Lunda, Luapula Lunda, Lunda-Kazembe (Cazembe), Lunda-Ndembu, Luunda, Musokantanda Lunda, Ndembu, Northern Lunda, Ruund, Southern Lunda, Western Lunda

Lunda peoples map


Identification. "Lunda" is the most widely used English term to refer to literally hundreds of social groups whose oral histories link them in varying ways to a far-flung empire that controlled trade and tribute in much of Central Africa from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Local names for groups tend to reflect either geographical position, topographical features, or names of founding lineages of local ruling dynasties.

Demography. No reliable census figures exist for the number of individuals who consider themselves Lunda. A rough estimate is 500,000 in Angola, 750,000 in Zaire, and 200,000 in Zambia. Population densities range as low as 0.8 persons per square kilometer in some rural areas, but reach extremely high ratios in urban areas of all three countries.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Lunda language is Western Bantu at its root, with some overlay of Eastern Bantu and with local influences from the languages of people who existed in Central Africa before the Bantu expansion. A core vocabulary is mutually intelligible over vast areas, but understanding decreases as one moves away from the central point. Some groups, such as the Luapula Lunda, have almost completely adopted the language of the people among whom they settled.



The traditional village was a collection of small circular clay houses with straw-thatched roofs, arranged in a circle around a central meeting house. Members of alternate generations would build on opposing hemispheres of the circle. Banana, tobacco, and a few specialty crops would be planted around the periphery, with the main food gardens fanning out some distance from the village. Hectares of forest would separate individual villages. Villages would range in size from less than a dozen individuals to several hundred people in the villages of chiefs or senior headmen. More than 10,000 people were known to have occupied the court of the paramount chief at Musumba.

Today villages of square or rectangular houses tend to form straight lines along roadways and major paths, clustering at crossroads. Small towns, where life takes a more urban tempo, dot Lunda territory.



The Lunda were allied to the Luba, and their migrations and conquests spawned a number of tribes such as the Luvale of the upper Zambezi and the Kasanje on the upper Kwango River of Angola. Today the Lunda people comprise hundreds of subgroups such as the Akosa, Imbangala and Ndembu, and number approximately 500,000 in Angola, 750,000 in the Congo, and 200,000 in Zambia. Most speak the Lunda language, Chilunda, except for the Kazembe-Lunda who have adopted the Bemba language of their neighbours.

The Lunda Empire, historic Bantu-speaking African state founded by a Queen (Rueij)and in the 16th century in the region of the upper Kasai River (now in northeastern Angola and western Democratic Republic of the Congo). Although the Lunda people had lived in the area from early times, their empire was founded by invaders coming west from Luba. Between 1600 and 1750, bands of Lunda adventurers established numerous satellites (see Kasanje; Kazembe; Luba-Lunda states).

The Lunda empire consisted of a centralized core, a ring of provinces closely tied to the capital, an outer ring of provinces that paid tribute but were otherwise autonomous, and a fringe of independent kingdoms that shared a common Lunda culture. The imperial boundaries were thus only loosely defined.Lunda traded with both the Arabs on the Indian Ocean and, from about 1650, the Portuguese on the Atlantic.

The leading exports were ivory and slaves; imports included cloth and guns. The empire reached the height of its power by the 1850s. Thereafter its might was eroded by the incursions of the neighbouring Chokwe. Portuguese troops arrived from Angola in the west in 1884 and Belgians from the Congo Free State in the northeast in 1898. Lunda was partitioned between them. Guerrilla warfare against the Congo Free State continued until 1909, when the Lunda leaders were captured and executed.

Lunda people Lunda people

Lunda people Lunda people


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence production consists mainly of cassava—the basic staple—supplemented by maize, bananas, pumpkins, pineapples, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, groundnuts, tomatoes, cabbages, and a wide variety of other vegetable crops. Millet and sorghum, once the major food crops, are today grown primarily by women, for the production of alcoholic beverages. Goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and a few cattle are present in most areas. Game is fairly abundant and is secured either through hunting or trapping. Honey, mushrooms, fruits, berries, and other wild foods are regularly gathered in the forest. Fishing with hook and line, nets, and traps is a popular activity.

Cassava, maize, pineapples, and sunflowers are the major commercial crops. Since the mid-1980s, fish farming has become an increasingly widespread activity.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, the Lunda were well known for copper- and ironsmithing, pottery, basket making, mat weaving, and woodworking. Local craft production, however, declined precipitously under colonial rule and persists today at a very low level.

Trade. Precolonial trade was characterized by a vast array of goods from both Europe and the Indian Ocean nations flowing into the Lunda region in exchange for copper, iron, ivory, skins, slaves, honey and wax, rubber, and food. During the colonial era, 1884-1964, external trade was forcefully curtailed. Today there is extensive interregional trade between Lunda in Angola, Zaire, and Zambia, exploiting the differing price structures of each country. The trade consists mainly of foodstuffs, particularly dried fish and game meat, in exchange for manufactured commodities such as sugar, salt, cooking oil, clothing, and household utensils.

Division of Labor. Males, females and children all plant cassava extensively. Men are responsible for cutting trees and clearing the fields. Women do all the processing and cooking. Men are responsible for providing the household with protein foods, either by hunting, trapping, fishing, raising domestic stock, or through cash purchases. Men are also responsible for all village construction and for providing tools, as well as some clothing, for wives and children. Women provide most of the child care, with some assistance from husbands and older children. Women also secure and maintain the cooking and other household utensils.

Land Tenure. Land is rather abundant throughout most of the Lunda territory and is, therefore, rarely a subject of dispute. Traditional use rights are established by requests made to local chiefs and senior headmen. Requests for land are generally denied only if a prior claim exists. Owing to the practice of shifting cultivation, fields as well as entire villages move frequently, and land is not generally considered an inheritable commodity. Access to land in or near towns is granted through local government councils, often on a ninety-nine-year lease basis. The civil war in Angola has, since 1975, made all land tenure uncertain in that country. Zambia has held national discussions on the future of land tenure in rural areas.



Kin Groups and Descent. Most Lunda are matrilineal, but only the lineages of chiefs or certain headmen are remembered with great genealogical depth. Most matrilineages, however, are quite extensive geographically. Attendance at weddings, funerals, and initiation ceremonies serves to keep individuals in touch with matrikin over vast areas of Angola, Zaire, and Zambia. The matrilineage rarely acts as a corporate group, but it does provide a potential network for support and hospitality should the need arise. Personal relations cultivated over time, rather than cultural prescriptions, determine the degree of closeness and frequency of social interaction.

Kinship Terminology. The Lunda use an Iroquois kinship terminology system. The major features include a merging of same-sex siblings by the descending generation. Both mother and mother's sister are called by the same term, mama. Both father and father's brother are called tata. Distinctions are made for the father's sister ( tatankaji ) and mother's brother ( mandumi ). Likewise, cross cousins (children of mother's brother or father's sister) are distinguished from parallel cousins (children of mother's sister or father's brother). The latter are addressed using sibling terms.

Lunda people

Hierarchy based on age defines relationships among the Lunda. Most kin terms reflect, or are appended by terms that reflect birth order or relative age—for example, yaya (older brother or sister), mwanyika (younger brother or sister), -mukulumpi (-the elder), - kansi (-the younger).


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally among the Lunda there has been a slight preference for cross-cousin marriages. Little pressure is exerted, however, and individuals generally enjoy a great deal of latitude in the choice of marriage partners. Many marriages take place across ethnic boundaries. In the past, couples would live uxorilocally for the first few years of marriage, with the husband performing bride-service for his in-laws by assisting with agricultural tasks and village construction. Later the couple would reside patrilocally. Today a wife generally moves to her husband's village immediately upon the completion of an exchange of bride-wealth and the performance of a simple ceremony. Bride-wealth may consist of agricultural commodities, tools, household utensils, clothing, and a small amount of cash. Couples today may also choose to marry in civil ceremonies in town, or in Christian ceremonies in any of the numerous churches in Lunda territory, with or without bride-wealth. The Lunda possess one of the highest rates of divorce noted in the anthropological literature. In the 1950s it was recorded that nearly 66 percent of all marriages ended in divorce. By the 1980s, the divorce rate had dropped to around 33 percent. Polygyny is permitted, but probably less than 1 in 50 men actually has more than one wife at a time.

Domestic Unit. Ideally, each mature adult has his or her own house. Children tend to sleep with their mother when they are very young, with a grandparent in their preteen years, and in single-sex "dormitories" as young adults. Houses are grouped together into distinct villages, the core of which is usually a set of matrilineally related males, ideally uterine brothers and their wives and children. Extended and classificatory kin, as well as friends and visitors, are also present in most villages. In some respects the matricentric bond can be viewed as the basic unit of society. Because divorce and remarriage are frequent, women with their children oscillate between the villages of their matrilineal kin and those of their successive husbands. There is strict division of labor by gender; the labor of children is under the control of the mother. Productive individualism is the norm, but consumption tends to be communal. Households could be defined as those who habitually dine from the same pot.

Inheritance. Titles, positions of leadership, cash, and other precious articles are inherited matrilineally. Individuals are traditionally buried with their few utilitarian personal possessions, such as tools, clothing, and household utensils. Standing crops and domestic stock are consumed by the funeral party.

Socialization. Boys remain under the authority and guidance of their mothers until they have undergone the circumcision rite. Girls remain with their mothers until they marry. Older siblings play an active role in supervising and educating younger siblings. The grandparent-grandchild relationship is extremely close. They are permitted a degree of informality and intimacy denied in other relationships. In theory, at least, a grandparent cannot deny any request made by a grandchild. Traditionally, every adult in a village was said to be responsible for educating and socializing every child in the village. Today, however, public schools and churches play an increasingly important role in shaping the ideas and ideals of the youth.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Lunda individuals tend to be embedded in social networks made up of numerous distinct, yet often overlapping, social units. These include the household, the village, the matrilineage, local cohorts, ritual cults, religious communities, occupational associations, civic clubs, and perhaps political parties. These social units vary in their methods of recruitment, the claims they make on the individual, and the benefits they offer in return. Individual commitment to particular social units varies over the course of a lifetime as people's ambitions, capacities, and strategies change. Lunda enjoy a great deal of flexibility in residential affiliation and choice of personal association. The social landscape is fluid and ever-changing.

Hierarchy, expressed in an idiom of age, is the dominant feature of traditional social organization. Notions of hierarchy are embedded in the language; they are expressed in routine greetings, and they set the norms of daily social interaction. The hierarchy extends from the most recently born up to the paramount chief. It cuts across lineages, villages, and national boundaries.

Political Organization. Historically, the Lunda are remarkable for their drive to maintain local autonomy while simultaneously building up wide-ranging social, economic, and political networks. During the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, the Lunda king at Musumba (Mwantiyanvwa) was able to exact tribute from wide areas of Central Africa. Otherwise, he made few demands and exerted little influence on daily village life. Headmen oversee the affairs of each village. The longest-standing headman in a particular area is generally recognized as the senior headman. Subchiefs preside over clearly defined territories. The power of headmen, senior headmen, and chiefs resides in their ability to mobilize a consensus on local issues. They possess little coercive force and cannot dictate the course of events. Shifting agriculture and residential mobility enable individuals to simply leave the territory of an unpopular leader.

Today the central governments of Zaire and Zambia continue to recognize traditional leaders as the custodians of rural lands. There are, however, national structures (i.e., executive, legislative, and judicial bureaucracies of government) superimposed on the traditional framework, as well as representatives of the ruling political party. In reality, the relationship between government bureaucrats, party functionaries, and traditional leaders is fluid, highly variable, and often quite volatile. Functional power tends to gravitate toward the most powerful local personality rather than toward particular positions.

Conditions brought about by the civil war in Angola have not been conducive to the formation of any stable political organization among the Lunda of that country.

Social Control. Most petty crimes and misdeeds are handled by informal local gatherings presided over by headmen, senior headmen, and chiefs. The focus is primarily on restitution, through the imposition of fines paid to the aggrieved party. Individuals dissatisfied with the outcome of local negotiations may carry the case first to local constitutional courts, and then to higher courts of appeal. There is a clear preference, however, for dealing with these problems locally, as constitutional courts tend to punish offenders by imposing fines paid to the court or by incarcerating the offender, rather than requiring restitution to the aggrieved party. Serious crimes, as well as those committed in urban areas, are mandated directly to constitutional courts.

Conflict. Most of Lunda territory is lightly policed, and serious conflicts are rare. The local docket is dominated by cases of untethered domestic animals straying into neighbors' gardens, accusations of adultery, and the occasional drunken brawl, most of which are swiftly resolved. In Angola, however, conflict of a military nature was a constant concern during the civil war.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, it was believed that Nzambi, the supreme deity, created the universe and all its inhabitants. He endowed each type of living entity with a unique set of capacities that alone determine its fortune. Humans were uniquely blessed with the gift of intellect. Nzambi plays no role in the day-to-day interaction of his creation, nor does he favor any one of his creatures over the others. He requires no formal worship. Human appeals for supernatural intervention are directed mostly toward the ancestors. The spirits of the dead tend to remain in the area where they resided during life, and they continue to be concerned with the welfare of their living kin. Ancestral spirits particularly wish to be remembered for their contributions to the world of the living. Remembrance takes three forms: mentioning an ancestor's name in daily conversation, propitiating an ancestor during communal meals, and naming a newborn after a favored ancestor. Neglected ancestors are said to afflict their living kin with a range of diseases, primarily infertility for women and lack of hunting success for men. Ancestors may also afflict kin who are not living properly (e.g., quarreling and not sharing).

Lunda people

The Lunda metaphysical world is also inhabited by a variety of invisible beings with sinister intent toward humans. These beings, under the nominal control of human witches, can likewise cause debilitating illness and even death if not discovered and neutralized.

The twentieth-century influx of U.S. and European missionaries into Lunda territory has led to a proliferation of religious beliefs. Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and independent churches now dot the landscape. The earliest missionaries adopted the local term, Nzambi, to refer to the High God, implying in some respects that they were not attempting to introduce a new God but were simply bringing new information about the old Lunda High God. All local religions thus proclaim Nzambi as the supreme deity. They differ, however, in their beliefs about Nzambi's secular and spiritual requirements, preferred forms of worship, areas of intervention, and the benefits offered.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, it was the task of diviners to ascertain whether it was an ancestor or an invisible being who was responsible for a particular human affliction. A chimbuki (medicine man) would then be responsible for performing an elaborate ritual that would appease and neutralize the afflicting entity. The chimbuki would be assisted in the ritual by a coterie of individuals who have themselves been afflicted, yet survived the same sort of metaphysically induced illness being experienced by the patient. Herbal medicines (both ingested and applied to the patient's body), the manipulation of symbolic objects, and the adherence to strict taboos on foods and personal behavior are the dominant features of such rituals.

Today priest, pastors, deacons, and spiritual counselors of various sorts compete for prominence with traditional healers. The majority of Lunda regularly attend one of the Christian churches in their area, yet most still rely on herbal medicines and participate in traditional healing rituals.

Lunda people

Ceremonies. In addition to the vast repertoire of curing rituals, the Lunda perform ceremonies to mark most important transitions in life (i.e., birth, marriage, coming of age, and death). The boys' initiation rite ( mukanda ) and the girls' initiation rite ( nkanga ) are the most elaborate. Mukanda today is a month-long ritual during which time groups of boys, mostly between the ages of 10 and 15, are isolated in forest camps where they are first circumcised, then instructed and tested in productive skills, cultural history, and social etiquette. They are also subjected to hard labor and harsh discipline. Mukanda begins and ends with a public ceremony that entails round-the-clock singing, dancing, feasting, storytelling, and perhaps the appearance of masked figures believed to be the embodiment of nature spirits. Mukanda is heavily laden with symbolism meant to signify the cultural unity of all Lunda men, at one level, and the interrelatedness of all Lunda, male and female, at another. Upon completion of mukanda, a boy received the full complement of rights and duties bestowed on all adult Lunda males.

Nkanga differs markedly from mukanda. Girls are initiated individually in the village, rather than in groups in the forest. They are relieved of all physical labor, pampered, groomed, and sung to, for up to three months.

Lunda people

They are not subjected to any physical operation. Like the boys, however, they are instructed in productive skills, cultural history, and social etiquette. Much of the instructional focus and symbolic expression is on augmenting reproductive capacity and on child-rearing competency. For most of nkanga, a girl remains isolated from males in a small seclusion hut, where she is regularly visited by elder women from the surrounding area. A young attendant is assigned to each girl, to be her constant companion and to attend to her every need. A girl is to remain silent throughout nkanga, speaking only in whispers to her attendant should the need arise. Nkanga, likewise, begins and ends with a well-attended public ceremony characterized by great revelry, most notably the singing of ribald songs extolling female virtues while denigrating male vices. Symbolically, nkanga possesses many levels of meaning. It expresses the unity of females in opposition to males, while simultaneously asserting the unity of all Lunda under matrilineal principles of social organization. Like mukanda, nkanga also symbolizes the death of one's former self, and rebirth as a new social persona. Gifts, primarily clothing and cash, are heaped on the new adult member of society.

Arts. A few professional wood-carvers and basket makers continue to produce locally. Most decorative objects, music, and performances, however, are produced by dedicated amateurs, solely for local enjoyment. Although it is impossible to isolate specific examples of Lunda art, their political activity in the region and their patronage of artists living in neighboring ethnic groups influenced the artistic styles found throughout the region. It is believed that all objects historically linked to the Lunda were originally carved by neighbors, including Chokwe, Luba, Ding, and Lwena.

Medicine. The Lunda can be described as botanists par excellence. Nearly a hundred different medicinal plants have been recorded as being in use, from which herbal specialists can concoct a vast array of composite remedies. Even very young children tend to be competent in the preparation of herbal remedies for such simple ailments as headaches, stomach aches, colds, influenza, and muscle aches and pains.

Lunda people art

The local population also accepts and seeks out Western pharmaceutical drugs, viewing them as being akin to traditional herbal preparations, albeit more powerful because they are believed to be more concentrated, especially injections. Nevertheless, most individuals in rural areas still try one or more herbal preparations before resolving to visit a clinic. This is so in part because most traditional medicines can be gathered in the course of daily activities such as going to the fields and gardens, drawing water from the river, trekking to distant pastures to round up the goats and sheep, or going to the bush to hunt, trap, or fish. A visit to one of the few clinics in the area, however, tends to break up the daily routine, often forcing people to walk great distances, to wait in long lines, perhaps only to receive pills instead of the much more highly desired injections. Elaborate curing rituals are the prescribed medicine for spirit-induced ailments.

Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to either natural or supernatural causes. It is invariably accompanied by accusations of witchcraft, threats of retaliation, the questioning of long-standing relationships, and, occasionally, divination to ascertain the true cause of death. In the case of married individuals, the surviving spouse is generally required to pay a substantial sum ( mpepi ) to the lineage of the deceased, regardless of culpability. Individuals are buried in cemeteries shared by clusters of villages. A complex cleansing ritual is performed to remove the aura of death from the village and to appease the recently departed and ease his or her passage into the afterlife. Traditionally, it was believed that the spirit of a deceased individual remained in the area he or she inhabited during life, watching over living kin and reestablishing contacts with friends and relatives who had died earlier. Today the multiplicity of ideas about the afterlife spawned by various Christian denominations competes for prominence with traditional notions.