The Ovimbundu


The Ovimbundu are one of the largest eth-nic groups in Angola and number around 4 million, or approximately 37 percent of the total population. The Ovimbundu are a Bantu people whose language is called Umbundu. They are centered on the Bengula/Bie highlands, though today many live in Angola’s main cities and, as migrant workers, others live in Zambia and South Africa.

The ancestors of the Ovimbundu arrived in Angola and settled along the main river courses in the Benguela/Bie Plateau sometime around 1000 CE. The Benguela/Bie Highlands allowed the Ovimbundu a wider range of crops to be grown, and in addition, they kept cattle. They were able to raise yams and oil palms as well as several varieties of millet and sorghum, embracing two distinct Bantu traditions. The Ovimbundu, like other Bantu who moved into Angola, encountered Khoisan peoples who were displaced and pushed to the south.

In the 16th century, the entire region of Angola was hit by long-term drought, and the Jaga or warrior class of the Ovim-bundu was able to rise in importance. To the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast, Jaga came to mean outlaws and brigands as bands of highly disciplined warriors wrecked havoc on the coastal kingdoms such as the Kongo. A number of separate independent Ovimbundu kingdoms emerged in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the end of the 17th century, they numbered around 23 king-doms or subgroups.

As the Portuguese built up the Atlantic trading post of Benguela in the 17th cen-tury, the Ovimbundu became major trad-ing partners. The Portuguese did not venture far into the heartlands of Angola, but extended their influence through a trade network of local kingdoms.

The Ovimbundu were well placed to extend Portuguese trade far into the interior and became important partners with the Portu-guese traders in Benguela. The Ovim-bundu quickly became major suppliers of slaves bound for Brazil and other parts of the Americas. They became adept traders with the interior kingdoms of the Chokwe and Lunda, trading for ivory, wood, wild rubber, and slaves.

The height of this trade was between 1874 and 1900, by which time both slaves and Angolan rubber lost their economic importance. It is estimated that Angola supplied over 3 million slaves mainly to Brazil, most of whom were sold by the Ovimbundu.In the early decades of the 20th century, the Ovimbundu economy was hard hit by the flood of rubber from Asia and Latin America. In addition, Ovimbundu trade caravans were replaced by the Benguela Railroad, which was begun in 1904 and completed in 1929.

The Ovimbundu have greatly been affected by the Portuguese, and their area was among those where European setters established farms in the 20th century. Scholar Gerald Bender has noted that many Ovimbundu left their rural homes for jobs in the city, and many lost both their traditional language and religion for that of the Portuguese colonial authorities.

While Bender goes on to explain the large number of Ovimbundu who were thought to be adapting to Portuguese life, many colonial administrators looked to the Ovimbundu as models of assimilation. To-day, more than three-fourths of all Ovim-bundu are Catholics, and the rest adhere to their traditional religion, which centers on the chief who is responsible for fertility of the people under his control as well of plants and animals.

The traditional Ovimbundu lifestyle involved both patrilineal descent for access to lands and matrilineal descent in terms of rights to the mobile possessions of their mothers. The dual-lineage system allowed issues of land, associated with rights within village and kingdoms, to be separate from issues related to trade; patrilineal concerns kept to resident group concerns, and matri-lineal concerns were more dispersed.The year 1911 is called the “Year of Great Hunger” by the Ovimbundu and is the last year that trading caravans attempted to make commercial journeys to the interior—none of them returned.

The Portuguese forces moved inland and, over the next several decades, reduced the kingdoms in interior Angola, awarded to the Portuguese by the Berlin Conference of 1884. Ovimbundu and others were forced into labor for European farmers, heavy taxation, and discriminatory prac-tices by the Portuguese, and strong sup-pression of any political protest by Africans created strong feelings for independence.

Portuguese from Europe and Cape Verdeans were encouraged to migrate to Angola, and soon made they made up 5 percent of the total population of the colony, most settled in Ovimbundu areas. The arrival of the new settlers and the alienation of Africans, along with the discrimination suffered by those who tried to assimilate to European culture, resulted in the growth of Angolan nationalism.

In 1961, the Angolan war for liberation began, and three groups emerged; the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola, or MPLA), the National Libera-tion Front of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Uniao Nacional para a Inde-pendecia Total de Angola,orUNITA). From its inception, the Ovimbundu sup-ported UNITA. The MPLA and UNITA were the two strongest parties, and by 1975, when Portugal withdrew from Angola, the two rebel groups were involved in a civil war that would drag on into the 21st century.

UNITA was led by the charismatic Jonas Savimbi, an Ovim-bundu, who used his media finesse to gain the backing of the United States (then serv-ing President Ronald Reagan) and South Africa against the Marxist MPLA, which was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. In 1986, President Reagan invited Savimbi to the White House as a “Champion of Democracy.”The war devastated much of the Ovim-bundu homeland; both the rural region and its cities such as Huambo were left with nearly not one building left standing.

KuitoinBie Province was bombed for nine months, leaving, again, nothing standing. A cease-fire was agreed upon in 1991, but following elections in 1992 that gave more support to the MPLA, Savimbi and UNITA once again began the war. Savimbi was able to finance the war by sales of diamonds through Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) when he lost the backing of both the United States and South Africa. The war was finally brought to an end in 2002 when Savimbi was killed by government forces in the remote area of Luva near the border with Zambia.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bender, Gerald. Angola under the Portuguese: The Myth and the Reality. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004.

Mbajekwe, Patrick U. “East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century.” In Africa Volume 1: African History before 1885, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Caro-lina Academic Press, 2000.

Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa:A History of Fifty Years of Independence.New York: Public Affairs, 2005.

Oyebade, Adebayo. Culture and Customs of Angola. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.