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Peoples of the Savannas: Southeastern Congo

DR Congo Ethnic MapIn eastern Shaba, stretching from the border with Tanzania and Zambia roughly to the Lualaba River, anthropologist Jan Vansina has distinguished three sets of communities: the Bemba cluster, the Hemba cluster, and the Haut-Katanga cluster encompassing peoples of Haut-Shaba Subregion (formerly Haut-Katanga). Settlement patterns are geographically fragmented so that representatives of one cluster live cheek by jowl with representatives of another or constitute an enclave in another group's territory.

The area has a long history of conquest and conflict. Most of the peoples of Haut-Shaba were subjects of the Kazembe Kingdom of Luapula, an offshoot of the Lunda Empire whose center was farther west. The Kaonde, the southwesternmost people in the Haut-Katanga cluster, living in present-day Lualaba Subregion (of Shaba Region), were ruled by still another Lunda king. After the middle of the nineteenth century, a group of long-distance traders, the Nyamwezi of central Tanzania, established the Yeke Kingdom, which lasted for thirty years. The introduction of new cultural elements by the Yeke and their trading activities both east and west had longer-range effects than the establishment of their political rule itself.

All of these kingdoms came to an end before the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving their people with polities of much smaller scale. The political pattern that preceded the institution of kingship and outlasted it was based on chiefs of the earth, basically ritual offices essential for maintaining fertility, and, occasionally, political chiefs.

Most of the inhabitants of western Shaba between the Lubilash and Kasai rivers and extending east to the town of Kolwezi are speakers of Lunda or closely related languages. Their distribution extends beyond this area to Angola, Zambia, southwestern Kasai-Occidental, and southeastern Bandundu. The vast scale of their distribution is the legacy of the Lunda Empire.

Anthropologist Jan Vansina has distinguished the northern Lunda from the southern Lunda and related peoples, in part on linguistic grounds, in part on the basis of differences in modes of inheritance and descent-group formation. The southern Lunda proper, the Chokwe (also seen as Cokwe), the Ndembu, and others are matrilineal; the northern Lunda (also called the Ruund) are marked by bilateral descent.

Some contemporary conflicts between these groups, notably between Lunda and Chokwe, have their roots in the period of the breakup of the Lunda Empire in the late nineteenth century. Chokwe raiders from the periphery of the empire grew powerful enough to intervene in Lunda kingship succession disputes and briefly to seize the Lunda capital. Although the Chokwe were eventually ousted and their expansion halted, they succeeded in establishing themselves as competitors to Lunda power. The contemporary echoes of that competition have expressed themselves in the reluctance of Chokwe to support Lunda-led political action.

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Page last modified: 23-06-2015 20:53:14 ZULU