The Chokwe People


The Chokwe are one of the main ethnic groups in Angola and live in the diverse ethnic region of eastern Angola and the southern Democratic Republic of Congo stretching into Zambia. They are associ-ated with the former kingdom of Lunda and the related Luba. They have a number of variants for their name, including Kioko, Cokwe, Tschokwe, and Quioco, which stem from different languages and the linguistic slip between “ch” and “c.” The Chokwe number over 1.16 million people and speak a Bantu language called Wuchokwe, which is only a little different from their two ancestral languages of Lunda and Luba.

Chokwe origin dates to sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries, when a Lunda woman of high lineage named Lweij married a Luba hunter named Chibinda Ilunga, also of high lineage. However, most of the Lunda nobility did not approve of the marriage, and the cou-ple began their migration south into what would become Angola.

The Chokwe grew from their descendants and subsequent attached peoples. In this period of origins, the Chokwe legendary hero figure Chibinda Ilunga (also spelled Kibinda Ilunga) emerged; by legend he is the son of the Lunda and Luba couple or the Lubaprince himself.Chibinda Ilunga intro-duced a number of specic hunting prac-tices that helped in developing a Chokwe identity. It has been noted that the Chokwe expanded by dispersing the population through setting up small hunting camps in the territory of a king.

As the Chokwe grew in size and began to cultivate land, they would then reject the laws of the king in whose lands they have settled and even-tually either defeat or simply absorb him into the growing Chokwe peoples, mak-ing everyone Chokwe. The Chokwe were unable to supply the needs for manpower,and marriage with non-Chokwe women, even slaves, was common, and the chil-dren belonged to their father’s lineage. It has been noted that the Chokwe men used ivory obtained through hunting to pur-chase women and then gained access to the rubber regions of the Congo basin, which was highly profitable.

The Chokwe were very successful in spreading their identity. By the 19th cen-tury, a number of Chokwe chiefdoms had emerged, and they began trading with the Ovimbundu. Fortified Chokwe villages dotted the landscape, and though they did not have a centralized head, they were able to raise enough highly trained men that by 1885 they were able to overwhelm the Lunda, taking their capital city. At the start of the 20th century, the Chokwe chiefdoms were split between the British (Northern Rhodesia in today’s Zambia), the Belgians (Democratic Republic of Congo), and the Portuguese (Angola) as the colonial authorities divided them into colonial-administered provinces and districts.

The Chokwe produced some of the most sought-after art in Africa. Despite the decline in art following the collapse of Chokwe political power at the end of the 19th century, Chokwe pieces are still produced, particularly the pwo masks. Pwo masks consist of not only the face mask, but entire body costumes of twisted plant fiber called makishi. There are other makishi masks; some are of men and are used in a number of different celebrations including the mukanga initiation/circum-cision ceremonies.

The masks associated with circumcision in the past were burnt as soon as the ceremony had finished. It has been noted that today, artists tend to keep the masks from year to year rather than destroy them, and the parts that were once made from plant fiber have been replaced with nylon from flour and grain sacks.The Chokwe believe in a creator called Kalunga and a number of spirits or maha-mba who can be consulted by a nganga or diviner. Belief in spirits or hamba links the current generation with their ancestors and are shared with the Lunda and other peoples in the region.

The Chokwe hero figure Chibinda Ilunga introduced specific orien-tation of hamba rituals to hunting in addition to the more shared idea of hamba in connection to divination and fertility. Some of the ancestor statues made for hamba rituals began to fade in the 1860s and new, simpler styles became more common. As trade developed in the 19th century, another type of hamba spirit became important, that related to trade called the spirit of the wind, or hamba e peho. These were “scourges of unknown origin that behaved in unpredictable ways” (Wastiau, 18).

The hamba vimbali (also spelled imbali or imbari, which is the Wuchokwe word for the Ovimbundu) represent the Ovimbundu and their Portu-guese partners on the Atlantic coast. These hamba pieces show figures in European dress, smoking cigarettes, with facial hair, and sunburnt faces.The Chokwe developed a dispersed form of government, and though they were able to defeat the Lunda, they did not have a recognized central authority. Each chief was called mwana nganga, who consults with a council of elders to make decisions. The leadership position is inherited, though usually it goes to the son of the chief’s sister following a matrilineal sys-tem of governance.

Generally sons go to live with their maternal uncles at around age six. Chokwe society is broken into two major groups: those who descend from the Lunda princess Lweij, and those who descend from people later absorbed into the Chokwe.The Chokwe live in areas of Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo that are rich with minerals, including dia-monds. During the Angolan civil war, which began in 1975, the Chokwe were again divided between pro-government and pro-UNITA (Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola—the rebel movement under the command of Jonas Savimbi and supported by South Africa and the United States) villages.

The rebels were attracted to the Chokwe area due to the mineral wealth of the region, and again in 1992, just before the brokered elections, UNITA forces occupied the diamond fields. UNITA rebels were financed by selling diamonds through Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) at between US$300 million and $500 million a year, and by 1997 Jonas Savimbi, head of UNITA, was making an estimated US$2 billion a year from the sales of diamonds. Savimbi’s last stand against government advances was in the Chokwe region of Moxico, where in 2002, Savimbi was surrounded and killed.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

“Chokwe Information.” (accessed May 1, 2010).

Meredith, Martin. TheFateofAfrica:A His-tory of Fifty Years of Independence.New York: Public Affairs, 2005.

Mukenge, Tshilemale. Culture and Customs of Congo. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.