Types of Art
Some of the most spectacular Yombe pieces are the nkisi nkonde figures described below. They also carve masks and drums to be used in initiation ceremonies. Everyday objects such as combs, staffs, and fly whisks were often carved with figures as a display of wealth and power.
Yombe history indicates a southward migration of the Mbenza clan from present day Gabon sometime before the 15th century. Oral and written accounts connect them with the historical Mayomba Kingdom, which flourished in the 16th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries migrations of Manyanga and then Bwende peoples arrived in the area. Both groups eventually assimilated into Yombe communities. The Kongo and Solongo expansions at the end of the 17th century forced the Yombe to withdraw from the banks of the Congo River. Although European contact was limited until the end of the 19th century, depictions of Portuguese people in Yombe art reflect 16th century Portuguese styles, indicating a moderate degree of European influence in this region at quite an early date.
Due to the thick forests surrounding Yombe territory the land must be cleared through slash and burn techniques before crops can be planted. The land is usually cleared by men, leaving the task of farming to the women. Plantains, manioc, maize, beans, peanuts, and yams are among the primary crops grown. These are primarily used for local consumption, but surplus is also sold in regional markets to obtain cash. Goats, pigs, chickens, and dogs are also raised. Fishing on the Congo River and its surrounding tributaries provides an important source of dietary protein. Men are also responsible for hunting, weaving, carving, smithing, and smelting. Women create clay pots for domestic use.
Primary Yombe social divisions are based on membership in one of nine clans. All clans trace their heritage to Mbaangala who had nine daughters whose names are the same as the clan that each founded. Yombe peoples more readily affiliate with fellow clan members, and each clan has its own set of social and moral rules. Historically the Yombe recognized a supreme chief, but today there are instead localized land chiefs who act as supreme judges and maintain a great deal of religious power. Descent is traced matrilinealy and each clan has a mfumu makanda (supreme leader), who is elected by his fellow clan members based on his wealth and oratory skills.
Ngoma Bunzi is the Yombe supreme deity. He resides in Yulu, a place which is off-limits to people. He is never contacted directly. Instead, appeals are made through Nzambi a Tsi (earth spirits) and Simbi (river spirits). Shrines were also erected to remember important ancestors, and chiefs were accorded sacred powers. The waganga (healers) could be solicited to perform cures, to provide protection from harm, to bring good fortune, or on occasion to avenge harm done by a witch. The medicine of the waganga was closely tied to nkisi bundles. Larger nkisi nkonde figures were used for oath taking on the village level. Nails and similar pointed objects were driven into the figure to seal a pact between two or more individuals. Diviners commonly used hallucinogenic drugs to facilitate their communication with the spirit world.