Photo above: A small Bembe village in the Itombwe mountains (1950). It is  part of a cluster of patrilineally related village (visible in the distance) showing traditional round houses and some rectangular houses imposed by the colonial administration. The outlying villages are part of patrilineally-related villages all belonging to several lineages of the Basim’minje clan. Fizi

We will know that you know us when you listen to the things we say

Bembe saying

The Beginning of My Anthropological Career

My first exposure to ethnology, African cultures, and ethnic arts was through Professor Frans Olbrechts at the Art Institute of the State University, Ghent (Belgium). In 1947 and 1948, I took as electives his courses in Ethnology, Primitive art, and African art. My interest and endeavors in these courses led to close contacts with Prof. Olbrechts; these included intensive readings, and regular study of the collections and reserves at the Tervuren Museum. It was finally decided that after finishing my MA in Classical Philology, I would study Anthropology and forsake my Law studies for which I had already completed two years.

In 1948, there were virtually no opportunities in Belgium for the full-fledged study of Anthropology. Since there seemed to be little interest in the anthropological study of Congo cultures, Olbrechts proposed that I enroll at Columbia University (NY), where he had studied anthropology, in preparation for undertaking fieldwork among the Inca of Peru. But after a few months of intense work (I even translated from the Latin a booklet, De Peruviae regione, on the Inca, written by Levinus Apollonius Gandobrugensis, a Flemish monk who had accompanied the conquistadores), I was informed that the Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale (IRSAC) had been created in Belgium and that, if I was interested, I might be a candidate for further study of African-oriented anthropology. At that time, several distinguished Anthropologists and linguists were teaching in London at University College, LSE, School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). I became a postgraduate student in Anthropology, attending numerous courses taught by prominent anthropologists with experience and fieldwork in African, South-East Asia, and the Pacific. In these courses, I was exposed to a very rich and diverse mass of cultural information, and I learned about the methods of British Social Anthropology with its emphasis on fieldwork and the study of social, political, economic, and ritual structures. The study of art and material culture were virtually not taught in these courses. As I followed the exposés, I thought that neglect of the humanistic aspects created a wide gap in the general understanding and interpretation of non-Western cultures. To compensate, I frequently visited the British Museum where I came into contact with William Fagg, a pioneering student of African Art. After my London studies, I was sent by IRSAC to the Congo to engage in fieldwork as their first full-time socio-cultural anthropologist.

Initial Encounter with Field Research

In August 1949, my research mission outlined by IRSAC was completely vague. For reasons of convenience, I was sent to the developing IRSAC center in Uvira (Eastern Congo on Lake Tanganyika). The geographical setting was of unparalleled beauty – an immense blue lake   surrounded by lush, green mountains. My first field experiences began in December of that same year, among the Riverain populations globally known in administrative circles as the Bazyoba. The term Zyoba is a catchword that refers to fishing populations along lake Tanganyika. It covers a number of historical and non-historical relationships between various groups such as Bwari, Sanze, and Goma (Homa), etc. Many of these fishermen had converted to Islam since the nineteenth century Arab slave-raiding period in eastern Congo. Research among them was thus doubly difficult because of the combination of traditional and Islamic forms of thought. This early fieldwork was short-lived, difficult but rewarding. Foremost, it gave me insight into the ways in which I could adapt to local circumstances and interact with local populations. It is also among these Riverains that I learned Swahili (including the Kingwana form spoken throughout the area, the lingua franca of the eastern Congo). From them, I also gained in-depth knowledge on the structure of Bantu language, material culture, fishing traditions, canoe-making, village structure, local ethno-history, and some cults. Detailed information I have on the Zyoba is included in some of my publications on the Bembe and Lega, but much has not yet been published and is made available on this website.

Since I did not make serious progress in the study of the social structure of this highly diversified population, I decided to concentrate on the Bembe people living in what was then called “Territoire de Fizi et secteur Itombwe du territoire de Mwenga.” I was told it formed a culturally coherent group.

First Steps in Grasping the Socio-political Complexities of the Congo

Before I discuss my fieldwork among the Bembe, Lega, and Nyanga, it is important to understand the socio-political context within which I was working. When I began my fieldwork in 1949, the Bembe and Lega, like other Congo peoples, had been organized, and endlessly reorganized, into politico-administrative units called, at various times, secteurs militaires, groupements, chefferies, secteurs, régions. This remodeling by the colonial government created new boundaries, with the resulting mergers and scissions of social groups, and they put into place new types of authorities even where they did not exist previously: chef, sous-chefs, chef de groupement et chefs de village, notables, tribunaux indigènes. This repeated restructuring was mostly in direct conflict with existing ethno-historical traditions and socio-political structures of the people concerned. Many of these manipulations were the direct result of misunderstandings about involved systems such as acephalic societies, segmentary lineage organizations, and the legal status of occupied and unoccupied lands (called terres vacantes, crown lands). It created many internal and external controversies about the unity of and relationships between diverse groups of people, authority, leadership, and land rights. There was also much interference in people’s traditional work patterns because of governmental demands for labor: cotton growing, providing food supplies (plantains, peanuts, manioc) for mining companies and administrative centers, road-building and road mending, porters, soldiers, and police, and other newly created jobs. Internal tensions were also generated by requirements made by governmental authorities: re-settlement of people, displacements of villages, new types of village settlements near the main roads and pistes carossables, rectangular-shaped mud houses (rather than the traditional ones made with vines, poles, leaves, straw, bark), etc. The strict legislation about hunting select animals (e.g., elephants, decrees and ordinances of 1910 and 1919; hippopotami) created frustrations, and the rules about ownership of ivory tusks dealt a deadly blow to art production.

All in all, in different degrees, cultural fatigue was sweeping through the land. Mild opposition and dissatisfaction with the state of things was noticeable in some areas more than others. In 1950, a Bembe mwami told me: “Ever since you Whites came here, you made us ‘burn’ everything. The smoke of our sacred Bwami objects has entered our nostrils; we die out; we loose our vital force; we become meager and miserable. Our ancestors are angry with us.” The Lega had endless complaints: the excessive power given to junior kinsmen; the movement of young men to cities and mining centers; the lack of discipline among women; the scorn of certain Whites and educated Congolese. The Bwami association, central to traditional ways of living, became the object of numerous contradictory interventions caused by the central and local colonial authorities, the missionaries, the “new chiefs,” and the emerging educated elites. Unpublished documents indicate that there were times when the socially and ritually most important Bwami association was more or less accepted as a vital institution and others when the sanctions against initiates and initiations were very severe, including the exile, imprisonment and harassment of influential members. These anti-Bwami actions also included the confiscation, deliberate discarding, or desecration of artworks, and, consequently, the disappearance of sculptural activity.

Fieldwork among the Bembe

In April 1950, I began full-scale fieldwork in Bembe villages established along lake Tanganyika and from there, into the mountainous hinterland. I was still much influenced by the London experience, concentrating on social structure and, consequently, my PhD dissertation (1953) focused on the social structure and ethnohistory of Bembe clans. I collected a vast amount of information on the segmentary clan and village structure, oral literature, and ethnohistory. Among the nearly undocumented Bembe, I also came upon various art-using associations, such as the ‘Alunga, ’Atende, ‘Elanda, Butende, Bwami, and art-using cults to ancestors and nature spirits.

My initial introduction to these associations was rapidly cut short because most of them were considered by the colonial administration to be “subversive,” labeled as centers of resistance and political rebellion, contrary to law, order, and the civilizing mission of the Belgian government. Hence, most were forbidden and apparently dissolved by law or by local administrative decrees and decisions. My initial, rather casual, involvement with these Bembe associations and cults led to difficulties with the colonial administration and put an end to further in-depth investigation. I continued, however, to acquire oral information on the activities of these associations, mainly of the ‘Alunga and Bwami. I was even able to witness hastily arranged and staged dance performances in which some initiation objects, including masks and figurines, were used. My experience with the Bwami association among the Bembe was essentially limited to sitting down with groups of initiates and asking questions, with very limited observation of actual initiation rites. In itself this was quite an experience because I came to know the mentality of the bami initiates and the fundamentals of their values and ways of thinking. When I obtained the return from exile in Fizi of one of the most prominent bami in Bembeland, an incumbent of the supreme Bembe grade of biciba, initiates became more and more willing to provide pertinent information. I thus came to understand how important initiation objects (bi’o’o/masengo) were for them: “I left the old village site, carrying the sacra and my old mother.” While my interviews with small groups of informed members of these cults and associations led to interesting data, they did not reach the core of what turned out to be their most secret and hidden aspects: the use, functions, meanings, and contexts of natural items, manufactured objects, and artworks. I was eager to see and study these objects in the performance context of initiations and other activities.

As I moved westward in my research among the Bembe living along lake Tanganyika to those residing in the Itombwe mountains, close to the eastern Lega, I learned from members of Bwami that this particular association, although many of its influential members had been arrested or exiled, was still very active, often covertly, in most parts of Legaland. Since the IRSAC research institute had not rigidly prescribed a certain region or topic of research, I decided, after about fifteen months of fieldwork among the Bembe and the Riverains of Lake Tanganyika, to engage in research among the Lega with special focus on the Bwami association. I am sure that Bembe members of Bwami had already favorably informed some of their Lega colleagues about my ways of interacting with them.

Fieldwork Among the Lega

It is to be noted that a few years before I began my Bembe-Lega research, a decree of 1947 published in the Codes et Lois du Congo belge formally declared that Bwami was dissolved. A high-ranking colonial authority had written that “Bwami empêche tout regroupement et la propagation de nos idées” (Bwami prevents all forms of regrouping and the spread of our ideas). As a result, no publicly known initiations were held, but the practices certainly continued “secretly” and on a reduced scale, in some areas more vigorously than in others. The sanctions against Bwami demoralized many of its members, something reflected in numerous aphorisms such as the following: “Every shack is supported by a pole, ours is broken!”; “Without Bwami our bodies have become cold and weak”. The decrees notwithstanding, many local colonial officers confronted by daily realities were passively well intentioned toward Bwami. Some even asked to attend performances (mostly staged and deceptive) and thus they acquired objects, often in an inadmissible manner.

Given the above-described situation in Legaland and my Bembe experiences, I contacted the Governor and other authorities of the Kivu Province, and was given the assurance that on their side there would be no interference with my fieldwork activities. I must say that when I first began my research, the general attitude of many colonial officers operating in situ was positive, which greatly facilitated my work. In 1950, very little published information was available about Lega culture, except for the well known, but superficial, writings of Delhaise and a couple of published articles. However, back from London, I had visited the Tervuren museum almost daily between July and November 1949 and had found in the dossiers ethnographiques some manuscript reports dealing with the Lega. Later, as I progressed in my work among the Lega, I discovered in the administrative centers typed reports (twenty-four of them, some dating back to 1916) made by territorial personnel about specific features of Lega culture and society. These texts were of some guidance concerning groupings and social structure, but they mainly demonstrated the inadequacy of such reporting on matters of social structure or Bwami initiations and values. The occasional mention of figurines and masks in these early reports denotes a total lack of knowledge about the use of these art works.

Subsequently, I organized the geography of my Lega research systematically. In the territoire Mwenga, I moved from the Bainyindu of chief Mbeca and the Basimwenda of “chief” ???? further south and west, to the so-called Bamuzimu (Bakuti, etc.) of “chief” Longangi. Then in the Shabunda territoire, I worked among the Babongolo-Bakabango, of “chief” Moligi. I then went to the Banangoma-Bamuguba-Beigala of three different chiefs and shifted to the Baliga and Bakyunga in the territoire Pangi. I began my research with various social group incorporated into the secteur Baziri (Baziri-Beigala-Banameya, the Beianangi, the Beiankuku, the Banasalu, the Beiamunsange etc.). Then, I continued in the Babene chefferie (Banamunwa, Banisanga, Bagilanzelu, etc.), and ended with the secteur Kama (Banamombo etc).

In every community where I worked, I always devoted a short session of questions (dear to my interlocutors and very important to me for gaining information) on local clan and lineage structure, social identity of and relationships between the numerous local initiates present. We would then talk about local Bwami features (grade levels, number and status of high initiates, male and female, of kindi and yananio present at the performances, etc.). I frequently wrote down case studies on the manner in which an initiated male or female member present had achieved his/her highest grade, how they had secured the moral support and considerable material assistance needed from kin and initiates, how they had acquired the many valuables (bananas, salt, oil, goats, game meat, shell money, etc.) necessary to achieve the higher initiations, and who had assumed special functions (tutor, supervisor of procedures, preceptors, etc.). This method of inquiry generated, among the initiates present, curiosity and immense interest and enthusiasm before we even talked about actual initiatory performances. For me, these sessions revealed the extraordinary network of kinship linkages involved (agnates at different levels of the clan and lineage structure; affines; diverse categories of maternal uncles and sororal nephews, and other types of kinship relations). Gradually, as I did not precipitate events, the performances themselves became the rule. I made the first real breakthrough among the Baliga, witnessing full initiatory rites. I had seen some artworks in contextual use in the earlier mentioned communities, but here, for the first time, many artworks and other objects were used from the lowest to the highest grades.

From then on, the results were remarkable. Full-scale initiations were organized among groups such as the Beianangi, Beiankuku, Banasalu, Beiamunsange. As the result of my modus operandi (quietly, slowly, diligently, respectfully), a real competition emerged between distinct “ritual communities” to organize their own initiations. This was so overwhelming that, in later stages of my research, I asked that they restrict themselves to specific rites (this, for comparative purposes).

Invariably, in all these initiations, following long preparations, a constant pattern emerged: the involvement of a large number of initiates (in some places, as many as one hundred male and female members of yananio and kindi grades were present); ceremonial entrance of the participating initiates into the village; initiatory procedures inside and outside the initiation house; the presence of, at least, a man’s senior initiated wife (kalonda; kanyamwa kaidulu); solo and collective dance action; dramatic theatrical performances with music, song, aphoristic texts, manipulation of objects, payments of fees, gift-giving and exchanges. At all grade levels, many objects were used, including a host of natural, plain or slightly modified ones (beaks, skulls, scales, shells, carapaces, leaves, etc.) and manufactured items (assemblages of natural objects, resin torches, mats, baskets, bark cloth, feather ropes, trimmed snake skins, etc.). The massive use of individually and collectively owned artworks stored in individual shoulderbags or baskets (masks; anthropomorphic figurines; animal figurines; stools; pegs; hammers; etc.) occurred only in initiations to the two highest grades. At lower grades, however, a single mask, figurine, or other sculpture might be present.

Day after day, sometimes in the very early morning, sometimes late into the night, these initiatory performances took place in an atmosphere of vivid activity, conviviality, joy, and wonder. Some rites were fascinating, even for old initiates, because of the outstanding and original theatrical solo performances, never seen outside the initiation context, given by skilled preceptors (nsingia). Certain characters such as “Old Man Begging for food,” “Fanatic Gambler Dice player,” “Victim of Poison Ordeal,” “One Suffering from Scrotal Disease,” “One Suffering from Venereal Disease,” “Diviner,” “Fool,” “Seducer”, “Honey Collector,” “Trouble-Maker,” “Women Trapping Fish,” were vividly enacted (mostly without the use of masks or special costumes). For me, these performances produced very important insights in Bwami value codes; for the bami, it produced fun, wonder, and admiration.

All performances had a didactic character. The initiand (mutende) was introduced to the entire range of ideas and actions of the pertinent grade. During the performances, I did not interfere by asking questions but limited myself to “seeing”, observing and relentlessly writing down the texts, the actions, the settings, the type of persons present or absent, etc. In all situations, I acted with restraint as an initiand should. No clerks or translators were involved. I worked on my own but had the good fortune, at an early stage of my work, to benefit from the ongoing company of three initiated Lega who were enthusiastic, well versed in the culture, and well-known and accepted by their Bami colleagues. One of them was a high initiate (yananio). For the initiations, I also provided considerable amounts of research money to purchase a few food supplies, to pay young hunters for bringing game animals, to reward the participants, focusing on their role (as preceptor, senior initiate, leader in the dances, musician, tutor, or incumbent of special rights. I was a participant observer in all the rites and for the Lega “to have seen the rites,” meant you were part of the secret (the isengo). “Seeing” as the Lega put it, a concept similar to the Greek epopteio, to observe, to become an epoptès, an initiate in the Eleusis mysteries. Thus, automatically, spontaneously and without asking, I became deeply involved with specific uses, functions, meanings, acquisitions and ownership patterns of all these objects in a total context of human interactions. My position as an initiate was established early on when each one of a dozen initiates removed from his own leopard necklace (mubanga) one or more leopard fangs as proof of membership, and I received several highly prized drum names.


Following months and months of intensive field research, I went back with my wife and first child (now about 14 months old) to our research station in Lwiro for some rest. Before leaving for Europe in March 1953, I returned to the Lega in Pangi for a couple of weeks to cross check certain data. During this period, to my great surprise, I was able to record in writing the Mubila epic (the manuscript of the Lega text, its French translation, and ample commentaries has been submitted for publication to the Classiques Africains, Paris). Subsequently, I wrote my PhD dissertation on Bembe social structure.

In March 1954 I returned to Congo to conduct my previously prepared and scheduled Nyanga fieldwork in the territoire Walikale. This work was interrupted because I was drafted, at an advanced age, to serve for eighteen months as a milicien colonie in Kamina (Luba country).

Fieldwork Among the Nyanga

In April 1956, I returned to the Nyanga forests for a full year where from the outset, and during the entire period of field research, two young Nyanga, who were full-time residents of Nyangaland and trained by me in linguistic annotation, wrote down linguistic texts (tales and epic fragments, prayers, proverbs, riddles, invocations, praises of chiefs, etc) thus preparing the framework on which I could draw cultural information on the Nyanga.

Situated in very deep and dense mountain forest, Nyangaland was an extremely isolated area in the early fifties. There were no mining exploitations of any sort in the area; only one dirt road connected the outside world with one village (Mutongo), which was situated at very beginning of Nyangaland. There were no other roads in Nyangaland, just overgrown trails, hanging bridges made from strangler vines, some near collapse, and areas where leopards, chimpanzees, monkeys, and gorillas abounded. In the village of Mutongo (Muntonko), at the very outskirts, lived two Flemish missionaries of the Pères Blancs d’Afrique, and one Dutch brother of the same order who ran a local, ill-attended school for boys and girls. Occasionally, they travelled by foot to some of the other villages, not too far away. Somewhere on the limit between Nyangaland and Hundeland, there was a Swedish missionary station about whose activities, I saw very little. The colonial administrative seat was on the opposite side of Nyangaland among the Komo people in western Walikale (where some groups of Komo and Nande origin were incorporated). Only one junior administrator had, shortly before my arrival, been dispatched, en poste détaché, close to Mutongo. As one penetrated deep into Nyangaland, no one could see any major changes, except for a few houses made in mud, a few elementary western utensils, and people dressed in poor western clothing. In remote areas, like Kisimba, where I recorded the Mwindo Epic (see bibliography), they had not seen a white face for at least five years. To reach some of these villages demanded marches through very difficult terrain on small barely cleared trails. In these same areas, late during the second World War, the Nyanga prophet “Alleluia” had been active in the anti-establishment Kitawala movement, which was very active among the Komo. A couple of whites, who were working in the northern Nyanga periphery, among the southern Nande, had been taken hostage, and had allegedly been tortured by Alleluia’s followers. He and another accomplice where hanged by the colonial administration in 1944.

The exile of sacred chiefs like Nkuru Nkumbirwa (whom I first met in 1950 while he was in exile in Fizi during my research among the Bembe) also contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion and distance with whites. The case of Nkuru is a very interesting example of the general ignorance about Nyangaland. Nkuru, by rival factions, had been accused of engaging recurrently in what was called “cannibalism” in administrative and missionary circles; it was said that he had, as a divine chief, to eat a piece of the heart of a Nyanga sacrificial victim. His rivals had even designated an older person who had been the victim of this act. As a result of all these accusations, with minimal evidence, Nkuru was condemned in Bukavu, and sent into exile in Fizi. I met him at the instigation of the local the administrator who found him a very interesting chief. After some time, I met with Nkuru who was distant and wary and I learned that he had been the victim of a plot concocted by Nyanga rivals (men who wanted to usurp his power and exploited the ignorance of white authorities). I managed to get the colonial authorities to lift his exile and he returned to Nyangaland as chief.

My fieldwork among the Nyanga was wide-sweeping, so that I could obtain overview of all cultural components from oral literature to social structure, hunting, material culture, and ritual activities. As a result of this, I collected hundreds of simple material items used by the Nyanga, which, with the help of my spouse, I developed into a small museum at the IRSAC research center in Lwiro. With the help of two, young Nyanga men, raised in the Nyanga milieu and specially trained by me in the correct transcription of text, I collected texts pertaining to all genres of oral literature, including the Mwindo epic and Sherungu’s life history (see bibliography). We also wrote down on cards thousands of Nyanga words with tonal indications and Swahili translation.

Lovanium University and Land Tenure Commission

From 1957 to 1961, I engaged in numerous activities in the Congo. First, I worked as Professor at Lovanium University, which was newly created by Louvain University in Belgium. I taught numerous courses on Swahili language and Socio-cultural Anthropology. Together with my spouse, I created a fairly large museum with funds provided by Lovanium University. Objects for this museum were acquired in different ways: first, contributions I received from certain missionaries (the University of Lovanium being an institution created by Louvain University), and purchases I made for the museum during my trips around the Congo for the Land Tenure Commission, from the Agbarambo and Bwa, to the Medje and Myogo, the Lendu and Lugbara, and further south and westward. A large selection of Mongo-Ekota and Mongo-Kucu material culture collected in Mongo land during a short fieldwork, numerous objects from areas such as the Bwa, Lendu, Agbarandu, etc. Objects in this museum were displayed based on technology and function (hunting gear, fishing gear, iron work, pottery, etc).

I also taught a group of younger colonial officers delegated by the government (either Doctors of Law or Graduates of the École Coloniale in Antwerp with experience among different Congo ethnic groups) in order to train them in field methods for the study of land tenure. In 1957, I was also the anthropological advisor and organizer of certain activities among the Lega and Nyanga for the film, Les seigneurs de la forêt sponsored by the Fondation Internationale Scientique (FIS Brussels).

Shortly before I became professor at Lovanium and lasting until 1961, I was appointed, ex-officio, as a member of the three-men Commission foncière pour le Congo (Land-tenure commission). I was thus engaged in wide-sweeping short fieldwork missions on land tenure from the Zande to the Luba-Kasai, from the Mongo to the Kongo/Yumbe, and Teke-Mfinu. This research resulted in numerous unpublished reports submitted to the head of the Land Tenure Commission, and locally published articles.

Definitive Return to Belgium and Departure for the USA

Late 1960, back in Europe, I was guest professor of Anthropology at London University, teaching a course on peoples and cultures of the Congo. On January 2, 1961, I returned for my final teaching term at Lovanium. This period was very difficult. My family was in Europe. I was alone on the campus of Lovanium; the country was in great turmoil, but there was much reward in seeing new African students who were very enthusiastic, cooperative, and dedicated to their studies. Late July, I returned to Europe and on september 21, 1961, I left Antwerp with my family, destination USA where I had been appointed visiting full professer at the university of Delaware. From then on I continued my teaching and research in various universities in the USA.