Photo above: Performance by a member of the Batendamwa healers’ association. Since trance is induced in a collective dance performance, he is symbolically restrained from violence by two junior members of the same association (1950). See Bembe photos, taken by Biebuyck, on this website (Batendamwa),



In the early 1950’s, most of the Bembe were established in the Territoire de Fizi and in the Itombwe sector, which at various times was incorporated by the colonial administration either in the territories of Fizi or Mwenga.

The external boundaries of Fizi and other territories and populations were weak: some rivers, some mountains, the 5th parallel and a lot of imprecise markers separated Fizi in the north from he Bavira people in Uvira territory, in the Northwest from the Nyindu and Basimwenda and other Lega in the territories of Mwenga and Shabunda, from the Bangubangu, Binjja (Zimba) and Boyo in the west and southwest, from some Hemba and ther so-called Holoholo in the extreme southeast.

The region of Fizi inhabited by the Bembe has a complex history. The earliest visitors to the area, such as Burton (1860), Foa (), and Hore (), as well as early reports by colonial administrators working in situ (Anonymous,1918), mention the presence, particularly along the western shores of Lake Tanganyika from its northernmost part to the 5th parallel, of fishermen with large canoes, called variously Bazyoba, Babwari, Basanze, Bagoma, Bakalangwa, Bakeci, Basikamanya and others. These groups, some of them partly “Bembeized” and heavily reduced in numbers (because of 19th century Arab slavery, sleeping sickness, and conflicts, – internal or with the later immigrating Bembe, with Luba and other groups) were still settled in villages along the shores of the Lake and in the immediate hinterland.

These groups had historical and cultural links with the so-called Boyo, Holoholo, northeastern Luba and Lunda. Dispersed in small groups and in one compact group were the so-called Basikasingo and other related groups such as the Basilugezi who traced close relationships with some groups of the Boyo.

Larger and larger parts of the areas inhabited by these populations were gradually settled by immigrating groups, now considered to be Bembe, such as the Basi’alangwa (Bakalangwa ) related to some Boyo groups and the Basim’minje of Lwindi origin, both groups also had a strong Twa (Pygmy) component, known in Bembeland as Basi’asumba and Bahonga. These groups were followed (some sources say from the latter part of the 18th century) by the “true” Bembe (represented by such widespread clans as Babungwe, Balala, Basim’muma, Basimnyaka) who traced their origins to the Lega eponymous ancestor, Ikama.

Segments of these Bembe groups gradually descended the mountain slopes to settle along Tanganyika and in the immediate hinterland. Although the number of true Bembe prevailed, these immigrations caused, still at the time of my research (1949-1951) much conflict, the more so because the colonial administration had given sweeping powers to Bembe “chiefs,” headmen, and judges. As an Anonymous report of 1918 correctly indicates, these true Bembe arrived, among other things, with some essential institutions, not least the Lega-related Bwami association, its female complement Buhumbwa, the Butende boys circumcision initiations, the ‘elanda association, and the children’s ‘atende. At that time, the Bwami association had a dual division: the bami ba banu’e (junior initiates) had passed either through bukila or bukabo, the bami ba ngoma (initiates of the drum) had achieved one of three hierarchically organized grades, called itembu, (m)pinji and biciba (also referred to as mwami wangwe or mwami wengwe (initiate of the leopard).

From the thirties onward, and increasingly from 1942 onward, large numbers of so-called Banyarwanda and their cattle had settled in the Bembe areas of high grassy plateaus, adding to the socio-political complexity of and problems in the region.

As far as the artworks were concerned, a very early administrative report (Moeurs et coutumes Babembe) mentions the occurrence of: statues grossières, masks, walking canes with sculpted pommels, and stools.

The situation is much more complex: The “true” Bembe came with the Lega heritage of Bwami figurines and masks (reduced in scope), with the mask of ‘elanda, with masks of the Butende circumcision rites. The Basi’alangwa had brought the ‘Alunga tradition and its mask, the Basim’minje and Badsi’asumba brought cult traditions of Iyangya and the Biseko. Several, if not all of the pre-Bembe riverain groups, who (differently from the Bembe were organized into petty chiefdoms) had developed a sculptural tradition of ancestral figurines, some also practised the cult of Mwenetambala and others.