Photo above: Initiates of the highest lutumbo lwa kindi grade in the Bwami association exhibiting in dance three wooden figurines that form part of the contents of a collectively-controlled initiation basket. Each figurine represents a different character relating to the moral philosophy of the Bwami association (Photo, Biebuyck, 1953).

A few notes on Lega culture based on elaborate field notes (1951-1957)

In Eastern Congo, the Lega people form a territorially fairly compact group that exhibits a unique set of institutions and whose members speak various dialect. According  to some genealogical versions, the ancestors would have married Kakinga, a Pygmy woman. There are some smaller scattered groups living among them, such as the Bouse and the Basi’asumba, who are pre-Lega.

In relations among themselves, the term Balega is seldom used. Preference in internal relationships is given to other sets of names such as Basimwenda in Mwenga, Bakisi in Shabunda, Bakabango in Pangi and Shabunda, Beya or Babene or Babongolo in Pangi, names derived from children or grandchildren of the primordial ancestor Lega. At different levels of the genealogical recitations, the Lega perceive close connections with several other groups; some Komo of Lubutu, some Songola of Kindu, some sections of the Bakonjo, the Bakwame, the Binja (Zimba), the Vira, Fulero, the Nyindi, the Barhyinyi; but the closest connections are traced with most subgroups of their eastern neighbors, the Bembe. Groups geographically more  remote such as the Mitoko, Genya (Enya) and Lengola are considered to be distant relatives; in many places of the east and northeast, such as among the Nyanga, the Hunde, the Havu, the Shi, the Nande reference is made to residual Lega groups.

The Lega people live in the eastern regions of the Congo Republic, in the administrative divisions (called territoires) of Mwenga, Shabunda and Pangi. Also established in the “territoire” of Mwenga are the Bainyindu and subdivisions of the Bembe ethnic groups (the major components of both groups are Lega-related). Throughout this region, there are some groups who call themselves Bambote (Pygmies; in this case, culturally and biologically miscegenated groups that are mainly involved with hunting and nature spirit cults and do not have the circumcision rites nor the Bwami association). In some places, there remain remnants from other ancient populations (such as the Bouse or Basim’minje).  The Lega are sometimes divided into those of Ntata, the highlands of the East, and Malinga, the lowlands of the West, but this is essentially a dynamic division of only relative significance whose boundaries would be difficult to trace.

In general, those in the East, mainly known under the general terms of Basimwenda and Bamuzimu, are closer in speech and historical background to many of the Bembe and Nyindu clans, whereas those in the West, known under many names such as Babongolo, Bakabango, Babene, Baziri, Banamunwa, Beianangi, Banisanga, Balobola, etc. have some relationships with certain Songola and Binja clan groups. Some of the northwestern Lega, classified under such names as Baliga, Bakyunga, Bakisi (Banagabo, Beigala), are close to  subdivisions of the Kwame and to some ethnic groups located north of them.

Notwithstanding differences in language, history, and some aspects of customs and institutions, there is an overall institutional and ideological unity observable among all fractions of the population together with a strong awarenes of being “Lega” i.e. the People. Whatever their differences in outlook might be, all clan units trace their origins to the primordial ancestor Lega by means of elaborate, telescoped, sometimes contradictory and often fluctuating genealogical recitations.

Traditionally, the Lega are great hunters with nets and spears; they engage in various types of  trapping. Some collective hunting and trapping expeditions may last several weeks and involve the building of temporary camps. Game meat is of foremost importance in the diet and food exchanges linked with numerous ritual and social activities. Gathering of food and of supplies (for building, clothing, plaiting, carving and ornamenting) in the abundant forest is of  primary concern; cultivation of various crops (numerous varieties ofbananas and plantains have primacy) is significant as is fishing (with nets and poison).

The Lega are patrilineal, but they  attach enormous social and ritual importance to groups of “maternal uncles” (bamwico; bamwizio), to whom individuals and groups are related through one or more female linkages (mother, mother’s mother, father’s mother, etc.). These patrilineal and cognatic networks and the affinal relationships created among in-laws account for the wide distribution of artworks that have travelled, since these objects are transmitted to variously related persons who may live in a widespread area of the country.

The social structure of all Lega – even of the Basimwenda properly speaking who have an ancient tradition of centralized political structure centered around a mwami wa ishungwe as is also found among the Nyindu, Furiiru, Vira and other more remote groups – is based on a segmentary lineage system. In such a system the individual patriclans are subdivided into a structurally prescribed number of genealogically determined levels (called lineages of different genealogical depth and size); these segmentary lineages act as autonomous corporate groups in distinct socio-political and ritual situations. The implication of such systems is that there are no chiefs and that the society is subdivided into a large number of groups, that are autonomous in one sphere and linked and interdependent in other spheres of life. Various complementary economic, social and ritual functions, rights, privileges and duties are associated with these levels of subdivision. In such systems, councils of elders representing the various family and lineage components at the recognized social levels  have ultimate power and authority.