Meaning of Kinship Bonds in a Matrilineal Primitive Society

“Just as love is an orientation which refers to all objects and is incompatible with the restriction to one object, so is reason a human faculty which must embrace the whole of the world with which man is confronted.”

–Erich Fromm

The Kongo Kingdom existed as an independent state for over 500 years, from 1390 to 1891. It covered the territory of what are now the African states of Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and portions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. As a result of invasion and colonization by various other countries, including France, Portugal and the Netherlands, and rebellious uprisings against it, the territory and names of states in the area have changed more than once.

Ancient Traditions & Family Life in Kongo

Little, if any, written history about family life in the Kongo Kingdom before invasion and occupation by competing ideological and economic interests exists. However, resistant remnants of their formerly matrilineal society still exist, as evidenced by the greatest respect and responsibility for child care being bestowed upon the oldest brother of the child’s mother. While under the political control of other nations, many of the original kinship systems were abolished.

The many languages and dialects of the area also reflect their formerly matrilineal customs. Despite the abolition of matrilineal practices, through the many languages and dialects of the area, people continue to define themselves in reference to their mother’s clan. “Home” is defined as the village in which that clan is located, and family life in ancient Kongo society took place in these villages. Under subsequent governments, sections of each matrilineal clan were divided into landowning houses, with inheritance continuing to be passed through the female line in many places.

There are many words that reflect the kinship bonds that made up the societal structure of family life in ancient Kongo society. Those words have been passed down throughout history from generation to generation. For example, mpangi, the word for “siblings” is used to describe any two people of the same social status as the speaker. The word for “child”, mwana , is also used to describe a mother’s brother’s daughter. According to the reasoning behind the language, all cousins are considered siblings, much like some Indigenous American tribes such as the Crow.

The male leader of a matrilineal group or clan is referred to as a nkazi. His power is limited and most disputes that arise in family life in modern society are managed by committees consisting of members of members of both the maternal and paternal clans of the parties in question. Those committees can include children and grandchildren, and also represent their clans at important social functions such as weddings and funerals. The spokesman of the clan, called the nzonzi , is chosen for his ability to influence others through the use of authoritative cultural references, much like legal precedents are used in the courts of the Western world. All such communications between clans conclude with the exchange of food and gifts.

Art and Culture

While very little written history of family life in ancient Kongo society exists, some art has survived. In an article about the artwork of the Kongo people, Alisa LaGamma, curator of the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, discussed the ways in which the artwork reflected the role of women in society. According to her, many of the pieces incorporate symbols of women in positions of leadership and social influence.

She says that much of the art depicting family life in their society was created in response to the threat to their way of life caused by the transatlantic slave trade. Many people also died as the result of epidemics of illnesses from foreign lands. Because of the large number of deaths, women, as sources of regeneration, had a great deal of responsibility for continuation of the culture. Some of the artwork was created with the dual practical purpose of providing assistance to women having children. Significantly, women are portrayed upon thrones and wearing traditionally male crowns.

The creation of art as a way to preserve one’s humanity in the face of oppression has a long historical tradition. However, the creation of art does require a certain amount of social and political stability, which much of the African continent had very little of during the demise of the Kingdom. Family life in war-torn countries is far too difficult to allow time for much more than survival. It is fortunate that at least these relatively few masterpieces survived so many generations of political turmoil.

Each culture provides a valuable piece of information necessary for the preservation of family life. When all of these pieces are assembled, they complete the grand puzzle of life to which all loving parents perpetually seek answers.

family life in Kongo
Kongo-Yombe Maternity Group, Democratic Republic of the Congo

January 20,2016  |