The article analyses the distinctiveness of magico-religious practices in the north-western sector of the vast Kongo cultural complex, namely among the peoples who refer to themselves as Vili and Yombe. On the basis of fieldwork and a critical examination of the sources, the article points out that such widely distributed terms of proto-Bantu origin as nkisi cannot be covered by a single or even a multi-stranded definition; the variants, ranging from spirit to object, express local and time-specific beliefs. An approach that seeks a single Kongo universe is an ethnographic, historical and linguistic misreading that obscures existing regional concepts while possibly overlooking the importance of other notions. The article focuses on sorting out the basic ethnographic data relating to the beliefs current in the region and reveals not only long-standing aspects, some of them common to the wider Kongo world, but also those that have developed more recently in this particular coastal zone where different peoples trade and interact.
An abridged version of this article was presented in 1998 at the eleventh Triennial on African art in New Orleans. The circumstances leading up to and involving my participation in this event merit a comment, as they are revealing of the state of scholarship on Kongo cultures. What I had proposed to do was to re-examine the concept of nkisi as it relates to the magico-religious beliefs of north-western Kongo peoples today, namely those of the Vili and Yombe of the Kwilu region of the Republic of the Congo, where I had been conducting periodic research since 1994. Not surprisingly, this proto-Bantu term nkisi, seemingly familiar to many Africanists, was immediately taken by the organisers of the conference to mean power object or charm (e.g. figure, bundle, bottle, pot, etc.) as used widely today in the art historical and anthropological literature and, in keeping with the panel designation, I was asked to consider `active processes of manufacture and use' of these nkisi objects. My goal, however, was to expose another dimension of this concept and to bring into view the current regional specificity of the term. My intention was to deal with cultural particularities that differentiate this northwestern sector from Lower Congo groups studied by specialists such as Wyatt MacGaffey, John M. Janzen, Robert Farris Thompson and many others. As it happened, scheduled at the very same time as our panel, R. F. Thompson, a leading figure in African art studies in the United States, was conducting a session next door on the Kongo roots of Afro-American cultures. I managed to slip out of our room briefly just to hear a little of the paper presented by Fu-Kiau, the often quoted Lower Congo scholar. What I witnessed upon entering was a steaming room packed with participants from both hemispheres and both sides of the Atlantic listening to a sermon about Kongo ancestors. In this cult-like ambience, energised by the personal style of R. F. Thompson and his disciples, I realised that the gathering was not merely about scholarly concerns but even more about identity and heritage, understandably important to African-Americans. The fact that most of what was being said about Kongo peoples was based mainly on Lower Congo traditions studied by those present was of little consequence in this context.
For the Vili and Yombe (1) of the Kwilu this may have come as something of a surprise. They generally do not refer to themselves as Kongo globally and they do not venerate the ancestors. Rather, they rely on powers such as those of Mbumba, an ancient nature spirit, a nkisi si, apparently unimportant now south of the Kongo river. This Mbumba is the `Bomba' referred to by Dapper in his seventeenth-century descriptions of the Vili kingdom of Loango on the Atlantic coast (1668: 262) and it is the very source of the `Bomba' we discover in the popular literature and invocations of vodun devotees right there in New Orleans where our conference took place (Tallant, 1998: 7, 8, 31). …