The Politics and Intellect of the Chokwe Tribe

Part One

Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa
The Chokwe tribe inhabited Zambia/Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. They lived in "woodland savanna intersected with strips of rainforest along the rivers, swamps, and marshlands" (Britannica Online). The climate in this area is consistent all year because of the close proximity to the equator- it was typically humid and in the 70's F in the day and in the 60's F at night. The rainy season started October and lasted through May. Because of this environment, the Chokwe people were primarily agricultural- they gathered, fished, and hunted. To do these things they crafted many tools, such as fixed blade knives for daily use. This placed blacksmiths high up in their society.

The Chokwe tribe occupies Congo, Angola, and Zambia.
Chokwe Knife Design on Modern Knives


Environment and Politics
The Chokwe were a stateless society, which meant they "did not have a centralized system of power. Instead, authority in a stateless society was balanced among lineages of equal power so that no one family had too much control. Most often,
members of a stateless society worked through their differences to cooperate and share power "(Patterns of Intervention, 367-368). In the Chokwe society, the king distributed hunting and cultivation areas, and also governed the Chokwe people. The male "Mugonge" and female "Ukule" special groups controlled the social life of the village. Masks were a very important part of the Chokwe peoples' political organization. They used different types of masks to signify various positions in their society. For example, the king (called Mwana Ngana) was the only one who wore a chikunga mask. This would show by just a glance that he was to one to govern the Chokwe people. 


Environment and Intellect
Like many other African tribes, the Chokwe people passed down knowledge from generation to generation. The Chokwe people spoke Wuchokwe (Bantu), which belongs to the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo languages.The tribe famously produced art projects to celebrate and validate their royal court. They made many complex objects such as ornately carved stools or chairs used as thrones. Most of their sculptures are portraits that represent the royal lineage. "Staffs, scepters, and spears are among other implements sculpted to celebrate the court" (Roy 1).
The most powerful and important Chokwe mask was known as "chikunga."  The Chokwe people saw it as "highly charged with power" and considered very sacred. Because of this strong viewpoint, the chikunga was used during investiture ceremonies of a chief and sacrifices to the ancestors.
The Chokwe people used their resources they found in their surrounding environment to create these masks, as they did with all other aspects of their lives. "These masks are made of barkcloth stretched over an armature of wickerwork, covered over with black resin and painted with red and white designs" (Chokwe Mask History).
"An 8,000 year old bone found in Zaire, the Ishango bone, covered with series of notches is thought to be the world's earliest number system" (Chokwe Mask History). This discovery shows the Chokwe's early grasp on math, suggesting their intellect was advanced.

The Belgian Congo Flag

Part Two: The Invaders

In 1885, King Leopold II declared the Congo Free State and it was recognized that Belgium had a strong hold on the Congo. Africans were treated horribly- tortured or worked to death- while they collected ivory and rubber for Leopold II. While ruling, Leopold II successfully tricked the world into thinking he had no profit from his colony in Congo. This lasted until the 1890s when a clerk who was working for his shipping colony discovered what he was up to. The clerk was named E.D. Morel, and he "created a successful transnational movement to protest his horrific treatment of Africans" (Imperialism-Congo 1).
Woman performing in a ceremony honoring the cheif. Photo Manuel Jordan.

Part Three- The Chokwe Today

The many modern conflicts that the Chokwe people have faced have no doubt affected them largely, but they still continue to follow their own ways as best as possible. "In militarized areas in Angola and Congo, as well as in Zambian refugee camps, they practice initiation, divination, and healing rites" (Chokwe Masks). Some Chokwe chiefs authority has been challenged by modern governments’ political goals and challenged by wars. Even so, Chokwe chiefs "continue to represent traditional and sacred authority" (Chokwe Masks).

Cited Sources
World History text