A Report on a Vanishing Culture in the Northeastern Corner of the Congo Basin as it existed in 1948

By: Frank L. Lambrecht

Originally Published in 1978

View PDF

In the northeastern corner of the Congo Basin rainforest lies a region known as Kibali-Ituri named after the two rivers that drain the waters of its valleys. Here the northern savannas make deep inroads into the forest, creating a mozaic of forest relicts. In turn, the forest penetrates into savanna country over long distances along the river banks. It is a region of wide-ranging ecologi­cal diversity that gave rise to great faunal and floral variety. Attractive to migrating Suda­nese and Bantu people, it led to recurrent struggles to secure choice territory and resulted in unmerciful displacement of the sparsely dispersed hunter-gatherer Pygmies, the original inhabitants of the forest.

It is a rolling land of rounded hills and shallow valleys, well watered by numerous slow-flowing streams fed by a yearly rainfall of close to two meters. The climate is hot and damp but the skies are often blue and clear. Rains fall mostly during heavy and sudden thunderstorms characteristic of the equatorial tropics. The land is fertile. It is well stocked with both forest and savanna game and there­fore the favorite hunting territory of Pygmies and Bantu tribes alike.

In the late 1940’s my wife, Dora, and I lived for three and a half years in a small MaBudu village at the edge of the forest. During that time the customs and dress of the inhabitants did not change much in our village but during the same period a definite change in the way of dressing was noticeable in Isoro, a busy end-of-the-railway town 50 kilometers to the north. There, the men abandoned their bark-cloth “breeches” for shirt and kapitula (local word for walking shorts), while some women began wearing European dresses, a fashion much favored by the church and the local merchants. In spite of the ominous signs of the erosion of tradi­tional customs and values, we never dreamed that the “wind of change” would become a hurricane and that we were witnessing the last phases of the “old Congo.”

We made no real effort to collect locally-made objects, assuming, unreasonably, that we would have ample time “later” to start a collection. Considering our very casual approach to the art of collecting, we were very fortunate that at the time we left, our baggage included a small but fairly repre­sentative accumulation of MaBudu imple­ments, mostly personal gifts received from chiefs or local headmen.

At the tune of our stay in the area I was working with the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa and was con­cerned primarily with present-day (1948) living conditions, but inevitably as we observed the people we became interested also in their past. To our inquiry about their origin, they said that they came from the great waters, which would seem to mean the lake regions, possibly Lake Albert. Somewhat earlier, perhaps a thousand years ago, Mangbetu clusters of Sudanese began to infiltrate Kibali-Ituri from the north, replacing both Pygmy and Bantu populations. Later, they in turn gave way to the Azande, known as the “Niam-Niam,” the notorious cannibals.

Continuous wars resulted in a pattern of ill-defined and often contested tribal boundaries. These were finally settled by the control com­mission of the Belgian Colonial Government when the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo in 1908.

At the time of their might, the Azande warrior tribes formed great and strong sultanates north of the Uele River, while the Mangbetu, to the south, established important cultural centers where art, especially that of ivory carving, flourished.

The Mangbetu kings claimed power over life and death but also raised art to an extraordinarily high standard. In the heart of Africa, remote from major trade routes and isolated from any direct foreign influence, their art remained one of the most purely African in the continent. According to last century’s travelers and explorers, the Mangbetu and the adjacent MaBudu tribe were the most skillful blacksmiths among Africans and apparently the only ones to use an anvil.

They were amazing architects. Schwein­furth who, in 1870, lived at King Munza’s court, and later Junker, Emin Pasha and Casati, were full of admiration for the artistic skills of these people and for their fantastic buildings made mainly from the leaf-stalks of the wine-palm, Raphia vinifera.

Leo Frobenius, who led a dozen expedi­tions to Africa between 1904 and 1930, visited the Uele-Ituri region during his first expedition of 1904-06. He expressed his admiration for the people and their art in his publication “Im schatten des Kongostaates” (Deutsche inner-afrikanische Forshungs­Expedition, Nr.1, 1907, Berlin).

The early explorations of the Kibali-Ituri region in the 19th century read, briefly, as follows:

1868 – 71 Georg Schweinfurth (Germany) ascends the Uele River to Niangara at the junction of the Kibali and the Gada—then follows the Kibali to its eastern source in Upper Ituri.

1872        Giovanni Miani (Italy) ascends the Bomokandi River and explores the Uele River, including some of its tributaries. He dies alone and abandoned near King Munza’s residence in 1872.

1879 – 83 Wilhelm J. Junker (Russia) and F. Bohndorff (Germany) explore the basins of the Uele, the Bomu, the Bomokandi and the Nepoko Rivers.

1879 – 83 Gaetano Casati (Italy) travels through the same region as Junker and during the same years.

Lang and Chapin of the American Museum Congo Expedition, who spent six years in this remote area (1909-1915), wit­nessed the building of a gigantic palace near Medje, measuring 200 feet long, 80 feet wide and 35 feet high. These scientists, sent out to collect ethnographical as well as zoological material for the American Museum of Natural History, saw what was probably the last of the Mangbetu grandeur at the court of King Okondo. They were spared the gruesome sight, however, of human skulls and bones lying about on refuse heaps of the king’s kitchen, as described by previous explorers. It is said that at the height of Mangbetu might, a dozen prisoners were slaughtered daily to furnish meat for the king’s household of hundreds of queens.

The veneration of the people for their king was as overwhelming as their fear. Any object of beauty or value was to be offered immediately to him as a gift, for its posses­sion might bring grave consequences to the holder.

It was by a stroke of luck that the Ameri­can Museum Expedition secured a rich collec­tion of objects before King Okondo’s death. Indeed, objects from past Mangbetu kings are extremely rare because custom demanded the immediate destruction of the residence at the death of a ruler, and the burning of all his possessions. Several of his many wives were butchered and served as the main course at the new king’s inaugural feast. Others of his harem were buried alive with the dead king.

In the course of past struggles, the Mangbetu tried many times to overrun adja­cent MaBudu territory. While they did not succeed in its complete occupation, they nevertheless gained large tracts of land, some rich in oil-palm plantations. The present MaBudu territory is astride the middle course of the Nepoko River, roughly between 27°30′ and 28°30′ eastern longitude, and 1°40′ and 2°40′ southern latitude.

Knowledge about the origin of the MaBudu is shrouded by the mass migrations of the Bantu people from the region of the Cameroon highlands around the start of Christianity. These migrations may have resulted from population increase and pres­sure after the introduction of iron implements, especially the hoe, from the north made it possible to grow more food.

Two main thrusts marked the Bantu migrations: one followed the Atlantic coast southwards; the other, skirting the Congo rainforest and highlands, arrived in the lake region of the western Rift Valley.

Some Bantu may have reached the lake region around A.D. 700. Other groups went further south, eventually reaching southern Africa. Still other fractions turned west and north to settle within the Congo Basin rain­forest. Everywhere they broke up into tribal groups. One of these emergent groups was the MaBudu who occupied the Kibali-Ituri region.

The MaBudu are polygamous. They are mainly agriculturists. Hunting with bow and arrow is only a secondary pastime. Food crops are primarily bananas, oil-palm nuts, manioc and beans. Women collect wild fruits and other natural products of the forest, such as mushrooms. Termites, collected during the few days of swarming at the start of the heavy rains, are an important seasonal addi­tive to the diet of proteins and fats.

Close contact with the Mangbetu has clearly influenced all art forms of the MaBudu. Like their neighbors, they are excellent blacksmiths and even better wood­carvers. They are famous for their wooden drums, the “tom-tom” or “bush-telegraph” which is widely used for sending sound-messages from village to village.

Some thirty years after the Lang-Chapin expedition, we found the Mangbetu and their MaBudu neighbors still to be skillful iron workers. Some of the objects described by previous explorers were still produced and in common use. We noted that typical village scenes still fitted earlier descriptions: the man clad in a large piece of colored bark-cloth worn between the legs and fastened around the waist by means of a grass rope; the women, bare-breasted, walk behind him with straight-backed gait, rhythmically swinging their frontal grass skirt, their buttocks cov­ered by their negbe, a sort of small, oval shield made from colored fibers and attached to the waistband.

Typically, the MaBudu woman carries an assortment of implements in perfect balance on top of her head, whatever the load. This may include the traditional small, low stool, a couple of pots, a mortar and pestle, a bottle of palmoil stoppered with a wad of brown paper. Mothers carry the baby on the hip.

Schweinfurth, in 1868, made the remark that whereas MaBudu men were well clad, most women went almost naked except for a small piece of barkcloth worn in front, “like a saddle-girth.” In 1948, the women were still scantily dressed, wearing only the negbe and an apron-like piece of barkcloth or some other material. Complete grass skirts, apparently, were worn in certain circumstances as, for instance, at funerals and for mourning. At that time, white paint is applied to face and body.

MaBudu women love to decorate their body with geometric patterns of lines, squares and triangles, using the black juice of the fruit of a kind of Gardenia, Randia melleif era. “At the great festivals every Monbutto lady endeavours to outshine her compeers, and accordingly applies all her powers of inven­tion to the adornment of her person,” so wrote Schweinfurth in 1868.

The tattooing of body and face was uni­versal in the previous century and was still popular in 1948, especially among women. Tattoo designs were made by small incisions to form a pattern of triangles, squares, stripes, Maltese crosses, and so on. An especially fine example of facial tattoo is seen in the photo­graph of a Mangbetu woman (Fig. 7).

The filing to a fine point of the lower incisor teeth was still common in 1948 among MaBudu and Mangbetu men and women.

Women of evolues, i.e. wives of hus­bands who received a formal Western educa­tion or job, now prefer to wear full-length cotton dresses, complete with head scarf.

MaBudu and Mangbetu women attach great importance to their hair-style. They spend considerable time in doing and re-doing their coiffure, even more when preparing for festivities. The traditional hair-style of the two groups differs markedly, however.

MaBudu women help each other in braid­ing their hair in bunches or rolls which will then be plaited to form various designs. Designs and patterns vary according to indi­vidual taste and to the popular fashion of the moment. These days, plaited hairdo’s are commonly seen in many parts of Africa.

The traditional Mangbetu hair-style is more elaborate, requiring many hours of patient work. First, the hair from all parts of the head is divided in single tresses. These are then carefully stretched tightly over a hoop so that they stand up on top of the head as a sort of basket. A similar hair-style was popu­lar among Mangbetu men in the previous century.

A remarkable MaBudu custom was the traditional elongation of the head achieved by tightly wrapping the cranium of a baby soon after birth and during the first years of its life. The deformation of the head is also responsible for the sloping, almond shape of the eyes, already noticeable in young babies with wrapped heads. The custom is slowly disappearing, less in girls, it seems, where it is still considered a sign of beauty.

The men walk proudly, a short bow and arrows clenched in their left hand, with no other load to worry about. A square-sided, woven straw hat, decorated with the bright red tail feathers of the grey parrot, adorns their head.

The MaBudu and Mangbetu love to dance. Seldom does a period of full moon pass without a dance session in some quarter of the village. The music during such infor­mal gatherings is provided by the singing of a monotonous strain accompanied by the clap­ping of hands, or by the beat of a small slit-drum or an empty oil-drum.

Men and women dance moving single-file in a circle with rhythmic shuffling steps. Fairly orderly at the start, the party often grows wild as the moon sinks lower on the horizon.

Many other occasions call for day-time celebrations centering around a band consist­ing of kettle-, hide- and slit-drums, the latter sometimes of unusually artistic shape, the rhythm further marked by a few “rattlers” made from small, round, tightly woven baskets containing pebbles. A monotonous refrain is repeated over and over by the musicians as well as by the by-standers, accompanied sometimes by the blare from a horn made from an elephant tusk.

During certain festivities, the “armory” of the Chief consisting of lances and shields is taken out. Although no longer used in tribal wars, these are still symbolic of the Chief’s power and authority.

The Collection

The Throwing Knife

Early visitors to Central Africa have described and commented on the extraordi­nary variety of shapes of a weapon called “trumbush” or “trombash” or various other spellings. It was apparently in common use as a throwing knife during inter-tribal wars. It is probable that the more unusual shapes depicted in some of the books of earlier travellers may have been knives intended for parade and as symbols of authority rather than as practical weapons.

The knife in our collection stands 34.5 cm. high measured from the end of the hilt to the top of the curved blade. The hilt, 17.3 cm. long, is of wood. It has a heavy terminal knob, probably serving as a counter-weight. The upper part of the hilt is decorated with braided wire which, no doubt, also strength­ens the hold with the blade. The hilt has a diameter of 3 cm., the terminal knob is double that size, width 6.2 cm. The blade, whose overall length measured along the middle is 32 cm., has a reinforcement rib running along the middle up to the sharp terminal point. The blade has three holes in the lower part which, at this point, measures 7.5 cm. wide.

Casati’s description, in Ten Years in Equatoria, of this type of knife is as follows: “The tromask (sic), or war-knife, which is a substitute for the sword, has a blade like a sickle, and is sharpened towards the point at both edges, and fixed into a wooden handle, which is partly covered with iron or brass wire. This is the weapon of command and distinction; the king, upon sitting down, places it on a stool close by, and waves it when he is gesticulating during a long speech. It is astonishing to see how ambitious the chiefs and warriors are to possess the elegant and glittering trombask; to be executed by such a weapon is considered an exceptional honour.”

Schweinfurth in The Heart of Africa writes: “The principal weapons of the Niam­Niam are their lances and their trumbashes. The word tram bash, which has been incorpo­rated into the Arabic of the Soudan, is the term employed in Sennaar to denote gen­erally all the varieties of missiles that are used by the negro races; it should, however, properly be applied solely to that sharp flat projectile of wood, a kind of boomerang, which is used for killing birds or hares, or any small game: when the weapon is made of iron, it is called kulbeda. The trumbash of the Niam-Niam consist ordinarily of several limbs of iron, with pointed prongs and sharp edges. Iron missiles very similar in their shape are found among the tribes of the Tsad (sic) basin; and a weapon constructed on the same principle, the changer manger, is in use among the Marghy and the Musgoo.

“The trumbashes are always attached to the inside of the shields, which are woven from Spanish reed, and are of a long oval form, covering two-thirds of the body; they are ornamented with black and white crosses or other devices, and are so light that they do not in the least impede the combatants in their wild leaps.”

Paul B. du Chaillu, in his Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, describes ­the use of those weapons as follows: “Then there is a very singular pointed axe, which is thrown from a distance, as American Indians are said to use the tomahawk,. _When thrown it strikes with the point down, and inflicts a terrible wound. They [the Fan Tribe of West Africa] use it with great dexterity. The object aimed at with this axe is the head. The point penetrates the brain, and kills the victim immediately; and then the round edge of the axe is used to cut the head off, which is borne off by the victor as a trophy.”

The multiple-purpose knife

We have not yet found a description of several large knives in our collection in other literature. Perhaps this type of knife evolved to better fit later developments in warfare, while it also seems to be better adapted to non-warlike activities.

The largest knife in our collection of that type has the following dimensions (see code figure): (A) 14.5 cm.; (B) 20.5 cm.; (C) 35.0 cm.; (D) 11.7 cm.; (E) 5.0 cm. The handle is made of light-colored wood rubbed smooth with the leaf of the Ficus asperifolia tree which has the consistency of sand paper. The wood has acquired a brown shine from use. The knife feels well balanced with a marked top heaviness, making it a frightful weapon in close combat. Men carry it as a sign of dig­nity when travelling or visiting other villages. When used for parades, or eventually in combat, the knife may be of better quality, especially the design of the handle, often carved from ivory. Its peace-time uses are multiple. Weeding, the cutting of grasses for roofing, and its use in several other household chores, make it a tool for women as well as for men.

The two other knives of this type are somewhat smaller and have ivory handles. One has the following measurements: (A) 10.8 cm.; (B) 15.5 cm.; (C) 27.5 cm.; (ID) 9.3 cm.; (E) 4.5 cm. The ivory handle is carved with wide, deep grooves that improve the grip. The ivory has a warm, slightly pinkish tint. The other knife has a blade of unusual shape resulting from an exaggerated outside curve. Its dimensions are: (A) 11.5 cm.; (B) 19.0 cm.; (C) 29.0 cm.; (D) 9.7 cm.; (E) 4.7 cm. The ivory handle is ornamented in its upper half with diagonal, irregular grooves and in its lower half by small, black circles with a central dot, a design appearing in other art forms in various parts of Africa.

The blades of the three knives differ only slightly. They all show a short extension near the handle believed to deflect the oppo­nent’s knife in close combat. The blade of the knives with the ivory handle shows three holes, one in the top part, two in the lower part. In the past, each hole received a copper knob, the number of knobs indicating the rank of the bearer.

The pocket knife

This small knife, in the shape of a dag-  ger, is carried traditionally on the body by men, usually attached by its leather scabbard to the waist belt. It is used for various pur­poses in the same manner as a western pocket knife, but it can eventually be used as a weapon, One of our knives of this type has a carved wooden handle but no scabbard; two other, sheathed, knives have carved ivory handles, The scabbards are made of untanned leather, beautifully sewn in a well-fitting shape, Their lower extreme is curved and strengthened with tightly wrapped sinew in-one scabbard, and by means of a strip of metal in the other. The open end of the scabbards is backed up by means of a metal strip. The ivory handle of one of the knives unmistakably represents the head of a MaBudu, judged from the prominently elongated head (see above).
The bow

Besides his pocket knife, the carrying of bow and arrows is, to the MaBudu, equally traditional. The MaBudu assistant surgeon of our district hospital came in every morning with his bow and arrows, which he carefully deposited in a corner of the consultation room before going to work, and which he equally carefully picked up again when he left at night to return home, only 500 yards away.

The MaBudu bow is made of a young, supple but resilient branch or sapling about one inch in diameter, and 36 to 38 inches long. It is customary to dress both its ends with the tail skin of the red monkey, Cercopithecus ascanius. The tail skin is stripped whole from a freshly killed monkey and pulled, when still soft, over one end of the bow. A two-inch long flap pulled over the pointed end of the bow through a slit in the skin is left dangling. The other end of the bow is dressed in the same manner, leaving about 15 inches of bare wood in the center. Before dressing the bow, the wood is polished by means of the abrasive leaf of the Ficus asperifolia.

The arrows are either with or without a metal point. The shaft is made from the cen­tral rib of the raphia-palm leaf. An “unpro­tected” arrow, used for birds or small mam­mals, is simply an 18 to 19 inch long raphia leaf rib whittled to a sharp point at one end. Small cuts are made near the pointed end to serve as barbs. In the metal-pointed arrows used for larger animals the raphia rib is inserted into the cone-shaped open end of the iron arrowhead and sometimes additionally secured with vegetable gum. The arrowheads, individually made by the local blacksmith, are of various types. To stabilize the arrow dur­ing flight, two blades of a special kind of leaf, cut in the form of an ellipse, are inserted in a slot near the end of the shaft. When the arrow is to be used, the leaves are put briefly in the mouth and wetted with saliva so that they can be bent into the shape of four wings. A most remarkable characteristic of these leaves is their extreme flexibility and durability, even when they were handled forty years later!

Our collection, small as it may seem to any collector, grows in historical value with the years since traditional life in Africa is changing rapidly. Some remote villages, per­haps, may retain the traditional way of life for many more years. It is not certain that traditional art will be retained as well. The availability at the stores of iron machine-made implements may force blacksmiths to abandon their trade. Certain traditional imple­ments may yield to better adapted tools or lose their usefulness altogether.

Yet, the search for “primitive” art by collectors may revive the interest of tradi­tional craftsmen and perhaps stimulate future generations to perpetuate woodcarving and blacksmithing.

Cite This Article

Lambrecht, Frank L.. "Mabudu." Expedition Magazine 20, no. 3 (April, 1978): -. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to