The Suku people or Basuku (plural) are an ethnic group of Bantu origin who traditionally inhabit the south-western Democratic Republic of the Congo and north-western Angola. As of 2017, there are believed to be about 200,000 people who identify as Suku, many living in the Congo's Kwango Province.
Suku society is matrilineal. Basuku traditionally speak a Bantu language of the Niger-Congo sub-branch.
Identification. "Suku" is the term now accepted by the Suku themselves and in Zaire and in the ethnographic literature. Just before and after 1900, they were often referred to as "Yaka" or, more specifically, "Yaka of MiniKongo" (the title of the Suku king)—in contrast with their neighbors, the Yaka proper, who are ruled by the king titled kasongo lunda.
Location. The Suku occupy an irregularly shaped, roughly rectangular area, approximately 60 to 80 kilometers east to west and 180 kilometers north to south, between 5° and 7° N and 17°30′ and 18°15′ E, in the Kwango subregion of the Bandundu region. Located at an elevation of about 750 meters, the area consists of rolling savannas and savanna-woodland, cut by swift rivers and streams. A May-to-September dry, cool season alternates with a rainy season.
Demography. At the mid-twentieth century, the Suku numbered about 80,000, with a population density of 5 to 6 persons per square kilometer. At present, the population may be approaching 150,000, about one-third of it residing more or less permanently in urban centers, particularly Kinshasa.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Suku language is part of the Kongo Cluster within Central Bantu, closely related to Yaka and the various Kongo dialects.
The Suku polity was founded by refugees from the middle Kwango River area, which was being conquered by Lunda invaders in the seventeenth century. Although the Suku are culturally akin to the Kongo peoples, their political organization and nomenclature carry a distinct Lunda imprint. After shallow and sporadic contacts with the Portuguese in the nineteenth century, in the 1890s the Suku came under the control of the Congo Free State (eventually the Belgian Congo). European traders appeared early in the twentieth century; serious missionary (Catholic and Protestant) and government presence commenced in the late 1920s. From the 1930s, the Suku economy, lacking local resources, became progressively dependent on labor migration to plantations and urban centers.
Traditionally, settlements were small (rarely with more than fifty inhabitants) and scattered. Colonial authorities regrouped them into larger clusters of several hundred inhabitants. Traditional houses are rectangular (2.4 to 3.0 meters by 4.5 to 6.0 meters), usually of two rooms, and consist of a wooden framework covered with grass. The colonial period introduced the typical pan-African modern house of wattle-and-daub or clay-brick walls and a tin roof.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swidden gardens supply manioc, the staple food, supplemented by sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, beans, peas, maize, and peanuts, with occasional bananas and "European" vegetables. Several varieties of palm are tapped for "wine." Grubs and caterpillars are collected, and there is fishing and hunting and trapping of antelopes, monkeys, rodents, and birds. Dogs, goats, pigs, and chickens are the main domestic animals. Owing to the distance from markets, there are no food exports of any commercial importance. Cash to pay for imports has come from local employment, mainly at the missions and with the government, and the savings and remittances of migrant labor.
Industrial Arts. Houses, furniture, bows, and simple utensils are usually made by the users. Artisans supply the more specialized objects, such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and weirs, mortars, drums, hoes, knives, arrows, axes, adzes, and ritual objects. Pottery is made by women. These items are (and were traditionally) sold for shell money by the artisans. Importation of many largely nonutilitarian items began with the colonial period.
Trade. In the nineteenth century the Suku profited from a trade that channeled oil and raffia from the forested areas to the north in exchange for cloth, beads, guns and gunpowder, and shell money from the Angolan coast. With the imposition of colonial boundaries, this trading network lapsed, and Sukuland became an economic backwater, with only migrant labor as its main resource.
Division of Labor. Traditionally, except for miniscule tobacco and medicinal gardens and the tapping of palm wine, cultivation was entirely in the hands of women, who also made pottery. All the other crafts were men's, as were such professions as diviner, judge, kingroup and political chief, and the majority of ritual specialists. Men also hunted the larger animals, did most of the fishing and trapping, and kept dogs, pigs, and goats. All specializations were part-time, and every Suku was engaged in a range of activities. The modern economy expanded men's choices primarily; it brought laboring jobs, mostly in distant towns and plantations, and some new occupations, such as domestic servant for expatriates, clerk, driver, policeman, medical assistant, and teacher, and, since independence, higher political, bureaucratic, and professional positions.
Land Tenure. Traditionally, ownership rights in land (as in everything) belonged to kin groups. The open bush was subdivided into large sections bounded by streams, usually of a score or more square kilometers. Control over such a section had primarily to do with hunting: a leg of any large game caught in it was owed to its owner's lineage, and only the owners were entitled to fire the bush for the large collective hunts of the dry season. Installing a new village also required the permission and ritual sanction of the owner's lineage. Land was free for cultivation, involving only a very minor ritual tribute. Separate usufruct rights were held over palm trees (tapped for wine), fishing sites, and small patches of rich soil used for peanut planting. This system had remained intact during the colonial period and has undergone no fundamental changes since Zairean independence.
Kin Groups and Descent. The basic unit of social life is the autonomous matrilineage, seldom of more than forty members, which functions as a very strongly corporate, property-holding, marriage-arranging, and bride-wealth-collecting unit. Traditionally, it was jurally responsible for all its members' actions, and it held life-and-death and selling rights over its members. It is also the unit of all mystical and ritual functions. The lineage is localized within an area of convenient communication (some twenty kilometers across), its membership dispersed among the villages of this neighborhood; the lineage owns one of the villages, which serves as its headquarters, and in which its head (its oldest male) resides. Lineage dispersal results from Suku residence rules. Upon marriage, a woman joins her husband. A man resides near his father at least until the father's death and usually with the father's brothers after that. As they grow older, the men trickle into the lineage headquarters. Several such autonomous but related matrilineages recognized their common identity through occasional actions such as a symbolic sharing of bride-wealth receipts. They regard themselves as chapters of a larger kin group: thus, a member of one lineage, moving into the neighborhood of another, will be incorporated into the latter. In addition to the matrilineage, the Suku also recognize what might be called a patrikindred or a truncated patrilineage that includes all patridescendants of one's father and his patribrothers.
Kinship Terminology. The pattern of the kinship terminological system is Iroquois. It is skewed in a Crow manner in that upon the demise of the father's generation in the father's lineage, the father's sisters' sons succeed to its social and terminological position and all the linked relatives are reclassified accordingly. Beyond the active core of the kin network (including mainly those in one's matrilineage, father's matrilineage, and patrikindred and their spouses, and one's wife's matrilineage), the kin terms are infinitely extendable through successive recognizable links.
Marriage. Traditionally, about a fifth of married men were polygynous. Postmarital residence is virilocal. Traditional marriage involves a transfer of rights from a woman's lineage to the groom's, in exchange for money and a sacrificial goat. Included are rights of sexual possession and exclusion; rights to her domestic and agricultural labor; and eventually, rights to a son's lifetime assistance and to a portion of a daughter's bride-wealth as compensation for rearing her. Lineage filiation rights remain with the wife's lineage. Divorce (which is not infrequent) and a wife's death reverse these transfers, but the amount of returned bride-wealth is discounted for each child and the length of the wife's services. No reimbursement is due if the widow remarries within the husband's lineage. A slight preference is expressed for a man to marry his father's sister's daughter.
Domestic Unit. Newlyweds set up in a separate compound near the man's father. In terms of lineage affiliation (and therefore economic, jural, and ritual interests), the domestic unit is divided between the husband and the wife-and-herchildren cluster. Polygyny simply adds more such independent clusters to the compound.
Inheritance. The property-owning unit being the matrilineage, all the wealth of a deceased person reverts to his or her lineage's control, being effectively allocated to its elders. The one exception is the inheritance by the sons of the father's hunting paraphernalia. Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a tendency to expand the portion of goods inherited by sons.
Socialization. Personhood is achieved a few weeks after birth at a coming-out and naming ceremony. Breast-feeding, eventually supplemented with food, lasts until the age of 2 or 3, during which there is a taboo on sexual intercourse. Children continually experience casual close body contact with adults and other children. Boys are left very free until late adolescence, learning routine skills by participation and imitation; by contrast, girls from an early age are an indispensable part of the household's labor force. Groups of adolescent boys are taken into adulthood through circumcision rites, lasting for weeks and involving the acquisition of new adult names. No comparable rites of passage exist for girls. All these patterns have had to accommodate to the ever-growing presence of schools from the 1930s on.
Social Organization. The primary groups of loyalty are one's own matrilineage and the village, which involves the patrikindred and the father's matrilineage. Given male patrilocality and household virilocality, one's everyday life tends to focus on the village, whereas one's economic, jural, and ritual obligations focus on the dispersed matrilineage. Although this sometimes leads to conflicts of loyalty, it also provides a certain relief from the near-totalistic demands of one's lineage. Status achievement was traditionally a matter of aging: for both males and females, eldership (from middle-age on) brings with it an ever-increasing involvement in the affairs of one's lineage, surrounding community, and region. Nowadays status is also bolstered by education, position in the larger Zairean society, and wealth. Traditionally, there was little wealth differentiation among lineages; the main variable in social power lay in the size of the lineage.
Political Organization. The political organization of the Suku kingdom was pyramidal. The royal lineage (whose current head was the king) stood at the apex and also ruled directly its own immediate region. The rest of Sukuland was divided into about a dozen regional chieftaincies (of unequal size and occasionally subject to fission), each controlled by a specific lineage holding the right to its chiefship. The larger of these were subdivided into several smaller subordinate chieftaincies; the smaller ones were not. Below this, the political organization was coterminous with relations among the local matrilineages. The main concerns of the formal political system were prestige and tribute. Tribute flowed upward through each successive level to the king. The political system was also formally concerned with ensuring public order, but it lacked effective institutionalized means (such as police or standing troops) for doing so, and the chiefs' order-keeping roles were played out capriciously, sporadically, and often reluctantly.
Social Control. Traditionally, social control depended primarily on mechanisms usually characteristic of acephalous societies. Lineages were totally autonomous in their internal affairs, and the elders' control rested on their formal power to curse and their suspected witchcraft, a control tempered by fear of witchcraft accusations. Between lineages, most conflicts were conditioned by the need of every corporate lineage to redress any imbalance in its relationship with every other lineage. Any lasting indebtedness upset this balance. Most conflicts arose from theft, property destruction, homicide, marriage-payment obligations, and infringement of sexual rights. The aggrieved party frequently resorted to violent self-help or to an attack on a third party, forcibly involving it in the settlement process. Conflicts between lineages could also be taken to independently practicing arbitrators who relied on argument or divination. Since the colonial period, customary courts, with powers of enforcing decisions, have been dealing with civil and minor criminal cases, and government courts have been dealing with serious crimes.
Conflict. The only armed conflict with a neighboring group in Suku history lay at the foundation of the Suku polity, with the defeat of the Lunda-Yaka attempt to subdue the fleeing Suku king. Since then, conflicts with neighboring groups occurred locally at the level of lineages, the methods of settlement being the same as those between Suku lineages.
Religious Beliefs. The key traditional elements were the Creator, medicines, the powers of eldership, witchcraft, and divination. The Creator was akin to a logical postulate of a first cause, with no direct impact on everyday activities. A variety of individually held medicines allowed for magical action, beneficent or nefarious, or both. A lineage-held medicine was one that had brought misfortunes to the lineage and had to be ritually taken in and nurtured to prevent further depredations. Lineage elders had the power to curse their juniors, withdrawing from them the mystical protection of the lineage against misfortunes. Witches (whose power was acquired at birth from other witches) were regarded ambivalently: they could promote lineage interests but had occasionally to "consume" lineage members. Thus, a misfortune, such as a sickness, could arise from one or several of these sources. It was the diviner's role to sort them out and indicate the necessary countermeasures. This conceptual system of dealing with misfortunes was not always satisfactory in practice, resulting in periodic revitalization-type movements that predate colonial control. These movements and Christianization have gradually undermined the integrity of the traditional system. At present, what is left are discrete bits and pieces of it, operating in conjunction with various Western Christian (Catholic and Protestant) and modern Afro-Christian beliefs.
Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, aside from diviners, there were no fully engaged religious specialists. All lineage heads performed the basic lineage rituals (such as marriages, burials, appeals to dead elders, curses), and all political chiefs performed the basic chiefly rituals (harvest, hunts, installation of chiefs and villages). Circumcision rituals were conducted by part-time ritual entrepreneurs. Lineage medicines were maintained by lineage members initiated for that purpose. At present, religious specialists are found in the Christian churches and in Afro-Christian movements.
Initiation. is the process Suku boys go through to reach manhood. They go to a camp site called mukhanda, or n-khanda among the Yaka. When there are enough boys that are uncircumcised, between the ages 10–15, for the initiation, the elders can then announce the initiation to begin. One month before the boys are sent away, relatives in the area are visited by the young candidates and give dances for traditional gifts. While this is happening, the sponsoring village is setting up the initiation site directed by a charm specialist. It involves special structures, masks, and sculpted posts that are covered in charms and medicines that barricade the initiation site. The formal opening of mukhanda takes place the day before the circumcision, they gather by a tree called mukaamba tree. If a candidate is judged appropriate the charm specialist shoots an arrow into the tree. If the arrow stays, they cut and carry the tree down to take it back to the village in male solidarity. The initiates will sing songs of mourning during this time, recalling the initiates' separation from their family and possible chance of death. The tree is placed in an open area of the village near the initiation camp and later in the day, the kakungu, m-bawa, and hemba masks appear for the festivities.
When the day of circumcising; comes, it starts around 5 am with drums and the kakungu and mbawa appear again. The family of the initiates carries out the initiates on their shoulders to the mukkanga camp. The boy entitled kapita starts as the first one to be circumcised. The last boy to be circumcised is called mbaala. After the circumcision, the boys are left naked for a couple of days where they need to sleep close together on mats on the ground. They are forced to insult their sisters and parents as their food is thrown on the ground by the camp leaders. At sunrise and sunset they are forces to stand on one leg with the other foot on their knee with their arms outstretched. There are many food restrictions imposed and they are punished if they complain, break silence, make a mistake, or don’t follow orders. The third day they sing as they go to the stream and clean their incisions. They will be presented with strengthening charms the next day. The charm specialist is positioning charms along the path and barricade leading to the mukhanda camp. The charms indicate that they will be no infections or mistreatment and keep away bad intent, and the masks help with that. When the incisions heal, after about three weeks, they can spend another one to three more years at the camp. This is where boys learn useful occupations like clearing fields, weaving mats, or cutting ground vines for rubber. There is a lot of storytelling, sex education, advice, and mannerism that are used in reaction to women. The hemba mask begins to appear near the end of the camp session for the Suku and it’s dance is taught to the initiates. When coming back from the camps, they seek the elder to get a kaolin which symbols peace and welcome. After this, the hemba masks dances as they burn the camp. After this, there is much dancing and celebration.
Ceremonies. In addition to circumcision, the outstanding public rite was Kita, a periodic rite of revitalization of the society as a whole involving all men and women not previously initiated. Other public rituals included the founding of a new village, the chiefly first-fruits ritual, and the initiation and installation of new lineage and regional chiefs and the king. The most frequent rituals were those having to do with medicines: acquiring them for a lineage, curing their victims, or renovating their force, but these were private lineage rituals.
Arts. The outstanding nonspecialist performing arts included singing, dancing, telling of parables and tales, and playing drums and thumb pianos. Decorative artistry finds expression in hairstyling and in mat, basket, and gourd making. More specialized artistic elaboration appears in the manufacture of pottery, tobacco mortars, drinking cups, bowls, axes, adzes, knives, bracelets, and stools and in the carving of ritual figures and dance masks.
Medicine. Herbalism, which is the basis for treatment of minor diseases, is a part-time specialty. Other methods of curing by ritual specialists are inextricably bound with "mystical" notions of "medicines" (see "Religious Beliefs," "Religious Practitioners," and "Ceremonies") that bring misfortunes and provide the ritual means of curing them. Misfortunes as a class incorporate both disease and unfortunate events (such as bad luck or poor hunting), and both could also be brought about by witchcraft and magic. Western medicine has been widely accepted as a way of dealing with physical systems, but not the deeper causes of disease.
Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place within a day of death. Traditionally, the corpse is placed in a small subterranean niche; nowadays caskets are also used. The grave site is marked with objects such as glasses, plates, and chairs. There is a firm recognition (coupled with a profound agnosticism about the details) of life after death and of the influence of the dead on the living. Occasionally, one has contact with the dead, in the form of ghosts, but the dead with whom one has a persistent relationship are the dead of one's own lineage. The power of one's dead elders (ancestors) is an enhanced version of their power while alive, and one communicates with them at the grave sites, cajoling them for help in everyday events. As with the living elders in formal matters, the dead elders are treated as a collectivity. These notions have continued among Christian Suku, who find some measure of support for them in Christian and, especially, Catholic beliefs.
The kakungu are large masks around 84 centimeters high. They are characterized by their inflated cheeks, a prominent chin, and massive features. The basic colors used red and white each having their own meanings. The red meaning blood, vengeance, and evil, and white meaning blessings and health. It is made of soft wood called mengela or m'tsenga, and covered with skins of larger animals and full length raffia fringe strips.
The kakungu is considered the oldest and most powerful mask-charm. It is owned and worn by the charm specialist of the initiation camps. It is also used to ward off any person harboring evil intentions away from the camp. They appear during the day of circumcision, day of departure from the camp, and occasionally during a time of crisis, like to cure an initiate of infection or drive away a threatening storm. The kakungu has great jumping abilities that can make them travel fast between villages.
The m-bawa mask is constructed from vines bound into a spherical structure then covered with raffia cloth. Its diameter is 100 centimeters around the head. There are two horns attached to the top either made of wood or actual animal horns. On the horns they paint white spots. Its appearance is associated with the mighty buffalo. They’re used on the day of circumcision for the initiation, the going-out of the camp, and the breaking of food restriction. It doesn’t often come out with the kakungu mask. It is also known for warding off rain, detecting pregnant women, terrorize, and control anti-social behavior, like the kakungu.
The hemba mask is exclusive to the Suku people. It is made from a cylindrical piece of wood carved into a helmet shape or bell shape, and is worked into a human face and coiffure and raffia fringe covers around the face. A superstructure is frequently present carved into a single animal and rarely a single human figure on top of the mask. The coiffure has triangular decoration bands on it and is painted black with some areas a dull red. The face is painted white and marked by blue lines that descend from the lowered eyelids, and sometimes define a brow or nose ridge. Ts danced at the initiation camps when charms are introduced and when mukhanda is closing and is worn by the just initiated during the end. The hemba mask also helps women with gynecoid illness and cures those suffering from a hernia. It also helps with bad luck when hunting, while they dance for a blessing from the elder-ancestor. It is said to hold the collective image of all elders.
Slit drum (N’koku ngoombu)
N’koku ngoombu is a wooden slit-drum that has a carved human head on its handle. It is a distinct symbol for diviners and is sat on by them. The diviners slit drum is also used in preparing medicines.
The mbeedya phoko is a sword that shows leadership and a symbol for both paramount and regional chiefs. It is a broad double-bladed sword with a pointed metal hilt and an unusually shaped sheath. It signifies the powers, visible and invisible, of life and death. During ceremonies, it is welded during Lunda war-dance that recalls legendary battles and is finished by pointed toward the land of origin.
These statuettes can be either a male or female figure in an upright posture. They each have variations in coiffure and headgear and relate to leadership and elders: Difference in the hair parting or how it is shaped, Bweni hats that have a rising crest and protruding knobs or a projecting brim distinctive of land-chiefs, Mpu skull caps of the regional chiefs in Suku. Another form is the kambaandzia miter-like form that looks like a pointed cone. All of these seem to be the symbols of leadership and authority but the headgear refers to older leaders. Stances and gestures can also be interpreted. Hands-to-chin gesture common signifies reflection, sadness, and grief with both the Yaka and Suku people. Both hands together at the upper chin gesture can pertain to a person confessing guilt or swearing secrecy.[