Bakongo or Kongo people are a Bantu ethnic group who speak the Kikongo language. There are many theories as to how the Kongo people got their name. Some believe the name is derived from the word N’kongo, which means “hunter”, but others believe it is meant to mean “mountains” in the Bantu language. There is evidence that the area in which the Kongo people reside has been populated for thousands of years, but there is no indication as to who was living there.
Bakongo people are a matriarchal society who values their independence. They are the largest tribe in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and have considerable populations in neighboring countries as well. The total population of the tribe was last estimated to be around 18 million worldwide.
When the Portuguese arrived in the 1400’s, the Bakongo people were among the first to welcome trading. They were also among the first to protest slavery with letters to the King of Portugal. Eventually, slave trading won and the Bakongo became part of the many cultures who participated in the capture and export of slaves to European countries.
With such a vast population of people, their belief system is almost as so. For the most part, the majority of Bakongo people believe in a creator god and deities. When the Portuguese inserted themselves in the area in the 15th century, they used that belief system to convince the Bakongo that Christianity was the same thing. Missionaries would twist Bakongo language to push Christianity among the people, they would take words such as “nkisi” to mean “holy” as they were teaching their religion. Today, a mixture of traditional religion and Christianity is practiced. Both churches and shrines have been maintained.
Most art created by the Bakongo is spiritually driven often using sacred medicines, referred to as nkisi (loosely translated to spirit), for divine protection. Bakongo legend tells a story about the great god, Ne Kongo, who came down from heaven in a vessel and brought the first nkisi. Nkisi are represented as a container filled with sacred material that is triggered by supernatural forces which can be summoned into the physical world. Nkisi can be as simple as pottery containing herbs or as complex as wooden figures imbued with sacred elements. Nkisi can be evil or enlightened.