The Lele People


The Lele belong to the different ethnicities that make up the Kuba and inhabit the lower Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). They are a Bantu-speaking people numbering between 20,000 and 30,000 people. The Lele are referred to by a number of terms and spellings, including Bashileele, Bashi-lele, Bashilyeel, Batsilele, Leele, Schilele, and Shilele.

As one of the non-Bushongo Kuba prov-inces, the Lele had their own nymi or king/paramount chief with limited authority. He ruled over a number of villages that were organized by product; villages that made palm wine and others of sculptures, while women did most of the agricultural work. Lele woodcarving, though similar to other Kuba work, made use of well-defined human heads in their pipe bowls, and the palm wine cups had distinctive zigzag deco-ration.

Villages are organized according to age sets, with the elders acting as a council and controlling most of the traditional religious practices including traditional healing. In the past, traditional healers belonged to a society called banging, which required an initiation. The Lele, like others in the Kuba kingdom, resisted the Belgians. Today most Lele are small farmers or work in the major cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo such as Kinshasa.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Mukenge, Tshilemalaema. Culture and Customs of the Congo. Westport, CT: Green-wood Press, 2002.

Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Tribal African Art: Lele (Bashileele, Bashilele, Bashilyeel, Batsilele, Leele, Schilele, Shilele).” (accessed June 1, 2010).