The Ovimbundu, also known as the Southern Mbundu,are a Bantu ethnic group who live on the Bié Plateau of central Angola and in the coastal strip west of these highlands. As the largest ethnic group in Angola, they make up almost 40 percent of the country's population.
ETHNONYMS: Umbundu, Umbundo, M'bundo, Quimbundo, Ovimbundu, South Mbundu, Nano, Mbali, Mbari, Mbundu Benguella.
Identification and Location. The Ovimbundu live in the Benguela Highlands (Bié Plateau) of Angola, a 6,562-foot (2,000-meter) high plateau of wooded Savannah 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the coast. Highlanders live in a perennial spring.
The Ovimbundu are the largest ethnic group in Angola. In the eighteenth century, estimates of Ovimbundu population ranged from 1 to 1.3 million. A 1940 Angola census estimated 1,331,087 Ovimbundu. In 1995 there were 4,000,000 Umbundu-speaking people in Angola, or 38 percent of that country's population.
Umbundu is the northernmost Southern Bantu language spoken in Africa and part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. The language has obtained a wide use and is spoken by other ethnic groups living near the Highlands, on the coast, and along the Benguela Railway.
Houses are circular or rectangular in shape with wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs. Each house has its own garden, granary, chicken coop, and a pen for goats, sheep, and pigs. Villages are built either on the plains or hillsides. Plains villages are spread out and encircle a central dance floor (ocila) and men's house (onjango). When the surrounding soil is exhausted villages will move to a new site. Originally built by rulers for defensive purposes, hillside villages are compact and linear in formation.
Subsistence. Although well supplied with water, the soil of the highlands is generally poor. Fields are left to fallow after three to six years of use. The main crops are maize and beans. Other cultivates are sorghum, wheat, manioc, peanuts, and potatoes. Fruit trees include papaya, banana, loquat, tangerine, lemon, peach, and apple. Non-food crops include tobacco, coffee, and sisal. Farmers, mostly women, stagger plantings in four kinds of plots: house gardens, low-lying fields along streams, river slopes, and forest clearings. Farmers also keep cattle, goats, pigs, and fowl. Cattle are largely a form of investment. Fishing, hunting, and trapping continue to be practiced in the dry season.
Commercial Activities. Towns' markets allow for exchange of domestic produce by barter or cash. In precolonial times, ruling lineages organized large periodic open-air markets called fieras.
Industrial Arts. Blacksmiths make hoe blades, ax heads, adzes, saw blades, brass bracelets, knives, and wood carving tools such as gougers and borers. Woodcarvers make human and animal figurines, musical instruments, domestic implements and utensils, pipes, and snuff boxes. Pottery is used for cooking vessels, water containers, and for brewing beer. Mats are made from bark, reeds, grass, and rushes. Different weaving patterns and dyes are used to create a variety of geometrical patterns. Basket makers use a coiling process to make baskets.
Trade. The Ovimbundu were major traders in central Africa. Large caravans operated throughout the region. Trade items included slaves, ivory, domesticated animals, axes, hoes, guns, salt, skins, and maize. The principal commodities changed from slaves to rubber and most recently maize. Coffee has become another major cash crop and kerosene, cloth, bicycles, sewing machines, and phonographs can be found in major markets.
Division of Labor. In the precolonial period, the division of labor was based on gender and civil status. Women and slaves were the mainstay of the subsistence economy. Although men cleared the fields, women and slaves planted and harvested the crops. Women also foraged, made pots, wove baskets, dyed textiles, brewed beer, and collected firewood and water. Major occupations for freeborn men were hunting, iron working, carpentry, locksmithing, tanning, matmaking, and weaving. Men were also involved in long-distance trade. In the colonial period, a large portion of men (fourfifths by the late 1950s), became migrant laborers in coffee, fishery, sugar, sisal, and palm oil industries.
Land Tenure. Because land was relatively abundant, it was not a contested domain. Land was owned by the patrilineal group, the oluse, and plots changed hands from father to son, or from brother to brother. The Portuguese forbade the private ownership of land by Africans.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Ovimbundu have a double descent kinship system. The patrilineal group (oluse) is the local residence group. There are no patrilineal ties across villages. The matrilineal group (oluina) is a dispersed group whose members recognize a common great-great grandmother. The closest ties are those between cross cousins. Families look to matrilineal kin for financial aid. In the precolonial period, matrilineal ties were used to raise money and recruit porters for trade caravans. The mother's elder brother had the power to pawn his sisters' sons, or sell them into slavery to meet debts.
Kinship Terminology. The Ovimbundu kinship terminology system is similar to the Iroquois system that distinguishes between parallel and cross cousins and merges the terms for parallel cousins together with those used within the uterine family. For example the same term tate is used for father and father's brother, and mai for mother and mother's sister. However, the Ovimbundu also make the distinction between siblings and parallel cousins older and younger than ego.
Marriage. Marriage is kin endogamous. The preferred match is between cross cousins. A man may marry into the male side of his mother's kin or into the female side of his father's kin. The groom's family pays a bride-price. The most common form of postmarital residence is patrilocal. Polygamy is practiced. The first wife remains the chief wife.
Domestic Unit. The household (onjo) consists of man, his wife (or wives), children, and other related or unrelated dependents. The household is the unit of production and consumption. In polygamous families, each wife has her own house, granary, chickens, and fields. The oldest child has authority over other siblings.
Inheritance. Office and moveable property were inherited through the maternal line from mother's brother to sister's son. Land was inherited through the paternal line.
Socialization. Traditionally boys were educated in the men's house (onjango), where they learned clan history, values, proverbs, and etiquette. A wall-less structure, the onjango was the gathering place for village males ages eight and up. Men would share evening meals and conversation, entertain visitors, and adjudicate minor disputes. Women would gather at one or more kitchens for conversation and to reciting folktales and riddles. Both girls and boys underwent initiation rites. In the colonial period, Catholic and Protestant missionaries set up their own schools. British, Canadian, and American Protestants managed 26 mission stations and 215 rural schools, the most famous being the 9,000-acre Dondi complex, which had a seminary, girl's boarding school, and boy's secondary school.
Social Organization. In precolonial times, Ovimbundu society was comprised of a ruling elite (olosomas), freeborn (mukwendye), clients (hafuka), and slaves (pika). The olosomos were the descendents of the original conquerors, or those who rose up and disposed of them establishing their own ruling lineages, as was the case for some kingdoms. The olosomos controlled the surrounding countryside from fortified villages, living with their retainers, titled officials, and dependents on whom they drew personnel to man caravans. They also "owned" slave villages. Slaves were usually non-Ovimbundu purchased or obtained through raids. Income came from litigation (mucano), war booty, reciprocal exchange system (ocibanda), corvée labor, and trade.
The freeborn lived in villages on the plains. In the past most villagers were agnates and the headman (sekula, or "grandfather") was the leader of the largest patrilineal group. Villages were also divided into wards, each with their own headmen usually the head of the largest family. The sekula shared authority with a religious personage, the ocimbundu.
The Portuguese divided its subjects into "civilized" (assimilado) and "native." Only the latter enjoyed the full rights of citizenship. One had to petition the government to obtain assimilado status, which required a rudimentary education in Portuguese and keeping a European lifestyle.
Political Organization. Candidates for kingship had to be related to the ruling lineage and were elected by a council comprised of chiefs. Although elected, the king was considered divine and the living incarnation of past kings. The king made trade agreements and declared war. Each reign was inaugurated with a war.
Underneath the king were the chiefs (olosomos) who ruled over polities of anywhere from three to three hundred villages. Chiefs included direct members of the royal family, heads of other dynastic families, or loyal court officials. Below the chiefs were the local village heads (sekula.) The Portuguese, replaced the chiefs with their own district officers (chefe).
Social Control. Mutual respect between kin groups was maintained by strict rules of avoidance. It was shameful (osoi) for a man to eat or chat with his eldest son or daughter, or for a woman to eat or chat with her sons. A man could not eat or joke with his sister, or sleep in the same room as his father. Brother-in-laws were forbidden to eat together. Spouses could not speak each other's name, or those of their parents-in-law. Sexual offenses against children, adultery between in-laws, murder, and deceit were considered bad, or ekandu.
Sorcery accusation was a common and powerful sanction against individual actions motivated entirely by self-interest. As opportunities increased in the 1870s and afterwards for individuals to accumulate wealth, sorcery accusations also increased. Funeral inquests involved sorcery accusations in which the corpse was used as a means of divination.
The sekula heard cases in his courtyard or in a public space, such as the dance floor or men's house. The sekula followed customary precedents, the kesila codes, which included procedures for litigation (mucano). Witnesses had to tell all they knew and if they lied they were fined or beaten. The judge could rule against both parties. Sentences involved a fine, beating, or enslavement. The king's court (olusenje) was the supreme court of the land and the king's word was final.
Conflict In precolonial times, standing armies from different kingdoms fought amongst themselves and against neighboring tribes for war booty and slaves. The Nano Wars were yearly occurrences in which armies carried out raids, including attacks on Portuguese garrisons. As commodity trade became more entrenched, the fighting subsided, and the region enjoyed a pax Umbunduca. In the colonial period, the Ovimbundu suffered under the harshness of the Portuguese "civilizing mission," in which they were forced to work for Europeans under a corvée labor system. Restrictions on work, property, and markets lead to general impoverishment. Ghana's independence in 1957 was a catalyst for anticolonial movements throughout Africa. The Congo's independence in 1960 and Zambia's in 1964 provided support and bases for anticolonial movements in Angola. The colonial government's preemptive crackdown on Ovimbundu Protestants and railway workers deemed in collusion with foreign agitators merely solidified resistance. Originally members of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, or FNLA), Ovimbundu leaders left to form their own movement (UNITA) when they failed to convince the FNLA leadership to open a southern front. The split had dire consequences in the postcolonial period, further fomenting distrust between ethnic and regional groups that has fueled the civil war.
Religious Beliefs. The body (etimba) has breath (omuenyo) and a soul (ocililenba), which wanders at night and communicates to the body through dreams. The soul becomes a ghost (ocilulu) after death and attaches itself to a house, causing sickness in the house. A diviner identifies the ghost and performs a ceremony to transform the ghost into an ancestor (ahamba). In precolonial times, the king's ancestors were national deities. The supreme deity was Suku. The king was high priest, the source of rain and fire, and guarantor of fertility. In the colonial period, five Protestant and six Roman Catholic missionary societies operated in the region. Protestant converts, totaling 365,000 by 1960, were from a cross section of Ovimbundu society, including former members of ruling elite and slaves. The colonial government sponsored Catholic missionaries, which claimed one million Ovimbundu converts by 1960. Converts continued to hold onto beliefs in witchcraft and divination.
Religious Practitioners. Ocimbandas were diviners and herbalists. Their responsibilities were to discover cause of illness, interpret omens and dreams, give personal advice, dispense medicine and charms, and bring or withhold rain. Diviners use a diving basket filled with various objects and figures that represent poison, garrulousness, barrenness, sickness, misfortune at the hand of Europeans, death, laughter, theft, etc. Sorcerers or witches were called olonganga. Heads of the patrilineal and matrilineal groups acted as priests on ceremonial occasions. In 1956, there were 32 ordained Ovimbundu priests and around 65 pastors.
Ceremonies. In precolonial times, the king made sacrifices to national deities at the royal shrine. Diviners and village leaders performed various ceremonies for rainmaking and epidemics.
Arts. Dancing lies at the heart of a village's social, legal, and recreational life. At the center of each village is a dancing floor. The Ovimbundu have a rich folktale and song tradition. Musical instruments include drums, in a variety of shapes and sizes, flutes, and iron key instruments, called ocisanji or sansas. Wooden figurines are used in diviners baskets and as blacksmith effigies, and carved onto chiefs' staffs and road posts.
Medicine. Common sicknesses are intestinal worms, malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, whooping cough, and measles. Medicine men employ various remedies including sweat baths, cupping, and herbs either ingested or topically applied. Medicine women helped in childbirth. The Dondi Mission included the Sara Hurd Scott Memorial Hospital and Leprosarium.
Death and Afterlife. The corpse is tied together in a supine position and placed in a wooden coffin. The coffin is slung on a pole held by two bearers and is used for divination. People ask questions, including the reason for death. A forward direction is an affirmative answer, a backward movement is a negative one. A diviner also uses his divination basket to answer questions. The corpse is buried at the father's sister's family's village graveyard. The soul lingers on as a ghost and is eventually transformed into an ancestor through rituals.