Pende Tribe, the people of the great initiations (DRC)

We travel to the southwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of the Pende tribe. This is one of the ethnic groups that attracts us the most because of their desire to preserve their traditions, and we want to continue getting to know them on future trips.

Who are the Pende

The history of the Pende tribe goes back some 500 years, when they lived in present-day Angola, between the Atlantic coast and the Kwanza or Cuanza River. Similar to their neighbours Yaka and Suki, around 1620 the Lunda empire pressured them with its desire for expansion. They decide to abandon their lands, migrating to the territory of today’s DRC.

The Pende have been living in Congo DRC since the 17th century in two groups: the group from the east of the Yaka territory (Western Pende) and the group from the west bank of the Kasai River (Eastern Pende). There are many cultural differences between these two groups, but both are considered to belong to the Pende people.

In 1885, a new people arrived, the Tchokwe, with their lust for expansionism, and managed to subjugate the Pende. Soon after, however, Belgian colonialists arrived and put a stop to the Tchokwe. The Pende were able to retain their independence, but only briefly. They could not have imagined what was coming to them.

The Belgians subjected the Pende tribe to forced labour and taxation, as they did with all the peoples who crossed their path.

The colonialist system of organised plunder, driven by greed, impacted negatively on the traditional way of life and produced social tensions. When the colony was dissolved in 1960, these tensions were the basis for the violent chaos that engulfed the Congo.

Even so, the identity and traditions of the Pende tribe have survived to this day. Today it is possible to visit them after a hard journey from Kinshasa.

three Pende tribesmen with makeup and hats
Pende Tribe at Gungu festival

The Pende tribe has its own language called Kipende, which is part of the great Bantu root.

Their society is organised on the basis of clans or matrilineal lineages, and each lineage has its chief. However, there is no central authority.

They are farmers and grow mainly millet, bananas, peanuts and maize. In the fields, women do most of the work and are responsible for selling in local markets. The men clean the fields and also hunt and fish to supplement their diet.

Perhaps one notable difference with other peoples is that the Pende tribe remains conscious of the value of their traditional culture, and makes real efforts to preserve it for later generations. Not for tourism, which is virtually non-existent.

Every member of the Pende community is familiar with the rituals, symbols and traditions of their people. In addition, Gungu is home to the Conservatory Museum, which brings together art and religious artefacts from Gungu and neighbouring ethnic groups. The same is true of the National Gungu Festival where the Pende and other peoples come together to showcase their ceremonial dances.

gungu festival Pende tribe
Gungu festival where various tribes gather, including the Pende tribe and those of the Kuba kingdom.

The traditional art of the Pende tribe

Traditional Pende art is still alive. We are referring to sculpture and the creation of masks that take part in festivals and rituals.

Similar to the Kuba textiles, which incidentally have their roots in the Pende, the ancient sculptures of this tribe are highly valued in international markets.

Objects that were once considered “diabolical” by the colonialists (although they took as much as they could) are now part of the seduction of African art.

An interesting example of this art is to be found in the National Museum of Kinshasa, which opened a few years ago.

gungu festival pende tribe mask
Masked dance of the Pende tribe

The ceremonies of the Pende tribe

Ceremonies and rituals of the Pende tribe are similar to those of other animist peoples in Africa, but of course they have their own aesthetics and rituals.

The most important ceremonies include initiations and funerary ceremonies, although they also have agricultural and healing ceremonies.

Attending one of these festivals is something spectacular. In addition to the masks and costumes they wear, we can also observe their body decoration, in which the red colour that covers their bodies is very striking. This colour is based on tukula powder.

Deep red in colour, tukula powder (called twool by the Kuba) is made from ground wood and is very important in the Pende idea of beauty. It is therefore used to cover skin and hair in ceremonies, as well as to anoint bodies before burial.

ceremony of Pende tribe
Pende tribal women wearing tukula red powder make-up

The Pende initiation ceremony

As in so many other tribes, the Pende celebrate the transition from childhood to adulthood with an initiation process. It is called Mukanda, and includes the circumcision of the boys who take part, who are usually between 8 and 12 years old. A rite which, by the way, is called the same among the surrounding ethnic groups. Thus, it is possible to find Mukanda ceremonies among the Mbunda, Chokwe, Salampasu and Suku among others.

mbunda tribal children at initiation or mukanda
Children of the Mbunda tribe in their initiation process or Mukanda

Initiation represents the symbolic death as children and their passage to adulthood. It is an educational period in which they are taught to be resilient, to respect community rules, myths and customs, hunting and how to deal properly with women. In short, they learn the social norms, responsibilities and skills for adult life in the Pende tribe.

In addition, everyone has to learn how to weave their Minganji or initiate mask, which is a head-to-toe costume made of raffia. They must also make their Gitenga mask. Gitenga masks have bulging eyes and are very eye-catching.

The period of confinement lasts one month, but in the past it could last two or three years. It takes place in a purpose-built camp in the middle of the savannah, and no one is allowed near the camp except the Misansa, a character dressed for the occasion who brings them food prepared by their families.

At each initiation, several hundred boys may gather around the masters or Nganga Mukanda, among whom the Kele, the great initiatory master, stands out.

The initiation masters wear spectacular attire. With many necklaces featuring leopard fangs, bells and feathers, they wear skins and, of course, paint themselves with tukula red powder. During the ceremony they go so far as to pierce their cheeks with a stick, claiming that nothing hurts and thus demonstrating their power in the face of pain.

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Master of initiation of the Pende tribe
initiation master of the pende tribe
Initiation master of the Pende tribe demonstrating his resistance to pain.

Nowadays the Mukanda is held during the school holidays in July and August. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why its duration has been shortened so much.

When the apprenticeship period is over, a grand ceremony welcomes the proud young people back home.

In this ceremony there are dances, songs and many different masks. There is even a dance performed by initiates in which they stand on very high stilts to dance.

It is clear that someone who is higher up is clearly visible to others and holds some kind of authority. In this case, it could be symbolising the guiding function of the initiates.

Pende tribe dances on stilts
Stilt dancing by Pende tribal initiates at Gungu festival

Are only boys initiated? Unlike other villages, Pende girls also go through an initiation process, although it is done separately. It is called Kiwila and is done by the Nganga Kiwila.

Pende Congo
Nganga Kiwila of the Pende tribe

Funeral rites

The accompaniment of the deceased to the “afterlife” is a very important stage in people’s lives, even if it sounds contradictory.

According to the beliefs of the Pende tribe, and animist cultures in general, the body becomes the spirit of an ancestor or mvumbi, and must be given a proper send-off.

However, the Pende believe that depending on how the person died, the spirit can be good or bad, and in the latter case it is necessary to appease it.

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Masks of the Pende tribe

Spirits that have been abandoned can cause ills in the family, such as illness or misfortune. Only healers and soothsayers can determine the source of the illness and decide how to calm the spirit that causes it. Of course, everything is done through rituals that include dances, songs, music and masks.

Black mask, red mask,

masks of all horizons

from where the Spirit blows,

greet you in silence.

… you exude that air of eternity

in which I breathe the breath of my parents.

Masks of faces without masks.

Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegalese poet and writer)

We invite you to see the masks and dances of the Pende Tribe “in action” in the following video:

If you wish to make a trip to Congo DRC, do not hesitate to consult our travel programmes and contact us.

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