Types of Art
Both mbwoolo sculptures and a type of carved slit drum known as a mukoku are used by ritual specialists. Mukoku help in the divination process, and mbwoolo are used to embody protective medicine. The Yaka also carve numerous masks and headgear for use in initiation and to be worn by traditional leaders. Hair combs and fly whisks often are carved with decorations as well.
Oral history suggests that the Yaka, along with the Suku, were part of an invasion against the Kongo Kingdom that came from the Lunda Plateau in the 16th century. Previous to that time Yaka culture was enveloped in Kongo language and agriculture. Lunda expansion and creation of the Inbangala Kingdom in 1620 greatly affected the occupants of the Kwango River area, which included both the Yaka and the Suku. At one time the Yaka kingdom was comprised of several smaller ethnic groups, including the Suku. In an effort to expand to the northwest and east, Yaka chiefs weakened their kingdom's strength and were forced to become subservient to the Lunda. The Lunda-Chokwe empire collapsed in the 19th century and the Yaka regained some of their independence.
Among the Yaka, the males contribute to the local economy largely through hunting. They may hunt either individually or in groups and most often use bow and arrow or old rifles. Hunting dogs are a prize possession among the Yaka, and their ability to sniff out game is compared to the mgaanga's ability to sniff out witches. The women contribute most of the food, primarily through cultivation of cassava, sweet potatoes, beans, and peanuts. They further supplement the diet through the gathering of wild fruits and berries and occasional fishing.
The Yaka follow matrilineal descent patterns, which are overlayed with a reckoning of patrilineal ascent, family name, and land ownership. Each community has a local chief who is the direct descendant of the original land owner and usually is controlled to some extent by a paramount regional chief. The Cogngolese government officially governs each region in conjunction with the local chiefs, controlling the extent of the power of those individual chiefs. Ritual specialists and diviners who achieve their prominence through display of their individual healing powers also inform political decisions.
Ndzambyaphuungu (the creator who inhabits the sky) is responsible for life, death, and all unanswerable questions. There are no religious practices that actively pay homage to this god. Instead, religious celebrations focus on honoring the elders and bambuta (ancestors). The death of an elder is cause for a public ceremony performed by other elders. Bambuta may be honored by recognizing and practicing the traditional ways and through offerings and gifts. The offering place is usually a yipheesolu (clearing in the forest). This place is off-limits to outsiders and all women. Offerings may otherwise be made at the grave site of the ancestors. Divination is of prime importance to the Yaka, and the powers of a ngaanga (medicine person) are measured by the ability to discern the cause of illness.