[NB] Kalunga, or why we have fire in our eyes

Recently, I had the chance to attend an exciting panel of talks around the challenges of translation in the context of African diaspora religions. The panelists talked not just about the practical issues that plague every translator, the challenge of finding corresponding meanings across languages, but also the challenges of appreciating how Africans forcibly displaced from their homeland both preserved and remade the language of their religious practices in a generations long effort to translate themselves and their spiritual world into an entirely different social and ecological milieu. And of appreciating the folks who tried to speak on their behalf.

It was helpful to think with as I have this very small but dense translation enterprise that has been preoccupying me lately, that of understanding the term ‘kalunga.’ Since the term contains both a prefix and a root, that led to other related terms (lunga and -lunga derived terms, as well as others more distantly related, like -lambo/-lombo derived terms).

This is philological work, though I have tried to undertake with some sense of philology’s imperial agenda, tried to upend some of that false imperial neutrality. The best way I know how to do that is to treat this as a critical project, one that judges this term’s meanings according to the way it clarifies or obscures our engagement with some objective spiritual process. I realize ‘objective spiritual process’ might be somewhat contentious, but I take as good evidence of that objective process the body of practical spiritual knowledge bound up in Bantu-inflected practice.

(I am using the admittedly difficult to pin down term ‘Bantu’ rather than the more common term ‘Congo’ or ‘Kongo’ that gets used in many African diasporic contexts primarily because the term ‘Bantu’ better captures the scope and breadth of the African context.)

The root of my project is simply the sense that the conceptual framework in which ‘kalunga’ is embedded has been diminished by a too-ready conflation of kalunga with the ocean. While Bantu derived spiritual practices preserve a wealth of rituals and ceremonies for engaging with the spiritual reality designated by kalunga, the term has lost much of its semantic depth, making conversation about the practices that engage with it more difficult.

This contrast between practical depth and semantic shallowness is the crux of where I’m writing. I’m hoping that I can contribute to deepening and broadening the conceptual frame associated with kalunga which will, in turn, improve communication about it. Talking about talking is always a volatile enterprise, so I will flag from the outset what I see as some of the potential pitfalls.

These include that: the word doesn’t derive from a single language, but is shared by a family of languages that can be found in Angola and its neighbors; my sense for the practical field in which the term is lodged is also shallow—my practice has developed in dialogue with Bantu traditions, but not in a deeply integrated fashion; nor do I speak any Bantu language so my engagement with the term is heavily mediated.

Still, with all that in mind, let’s see where I can get the discussion. In the same spirit of exploration, I am also going to raise a few open questions along the way, questions about how this discussion might deepen our understanding of the historical record, but for which I do not have the means to resolve. Some of these open questions are useful precisely as irresolvable given the current material available; without providing answers, they multiply the ways through which we can approach the material.


Let’s start with the ready translation that describes kalunga as an ocean. It is a well-worn bit of coin. When employed, ‘kalunga’ is understood to delineate an ocean of the dead in which we swim and which we can manipulate through ritual means. It appears both in scholarly and religious contexts, sometimes with the scholar mediating both by undertaking an initiation and serving as a philosophical interlocutor for their implicityl subaltern informants. Here is Todd Ochoa talking about Afrocuban uses of the term:

Kalunga, as Isidra taught it through variegated reiteration, was the great, indifferent sea of the dead. At times she referred to Kalunga plainly as “el muerto,”“the dead” or, more precisely, “the dead one.” Kalunga is transposed from 19th-century BaKongo language and cosmology, in which, according to the missionaries W. Holman Bently (1887:288), Karl E. Laman (1964:207), and Wyatt MacGaffey (1986:43), the scholar of Kongo religion who has written on Laman’s work, it referred to the sea, in the depths of which reside the dead. As Isidra used it, Kalunga was not only haunted by the dead, but was also composed of the dead and simultaneously constitutive of them; the dead were immanent to it, in the same way a broth makes a soup. Kalunga, Isidra said, comprises all the dead that could possibly exist or have existed. It is ancient beyond memory, and within it the dead exceed plurality and become instead a dense and indistinguishable mass. (20) According to Isidra, the world and experience, all things available to perception and perception itself, are a series of condensations within this fluid mass of the dead. Kalunga, the sea of the dead, was in Isidra’s teachings much as it was in Kongo thought: immanent to the living. The dead were to the living, in Georges Bataille’s (1992:23–25) words, “like water is in water,” dependent on no object and belonging to no subject. (21) Immanent, as in saturating, as in suffusing, will be a strong term in the language I wish to craft for Palo. Isidra’s description of Kalunga held at its most basic that this sea, in saturating and suffusing, had neither height nor depth but was an indifferent and infinite event seething with as yet uncodified potentials. (22)

—”Versions of the Dead” (482; emphasis mine; parenthetical numbers 2022 indicate endnote callouts)

I left the callouts here because they, like the quoted text itself, reference European thinkers with no direct connection to Kongo thought (e.g., Elias Cannetti and Gilles Deleuze). Notice how much Ochoa has to rely on this European material that his informant, Isidra, is unfamiliar with in order to come to a working definition of kalunga. Ochoa is clearly aware of there being a tension here, flags it as the language he crafts for them, but that effort also comes with an erasure of Isidra’s personal understanding and its specific connections to Afrocuban religion.

This will be important, but before we get to that I also want to point out that this description of kalunga as an ocean or sea shows up in contemporary historians’ accounts of the colonial past, too. For example, in James Sweet’s account of much earlier phases of African life in Brazil:

Conscious of their isolation and the uncertain prospects for their futures, some enslaved shipmates called one another ‘malungo,’ a term that in Brazil came to be understood as ‘comrade,’ ‘relative,’ or perhaps ‘brother.’ Though this term of adoptive kinship might simply be representative of the shared horror and triumph of surviving the Middle Passage, we should not lose sight of the broader symbolic meaning that such a title might suggest. The Portuguese translation of the Kimbundu-derived word malunga apparently did not capture the full meaning of the term. According to Joseph Miller, the malunga was a Mbundu symbol of authority, brought from the sea by the original ancestors, which could establish a new hierarchy of lineages in a given territory. Because of the malunga’s close associations with the sea, one can easily see why those who shared the misery and death of the Middle Passage would embrace such a term…

—James Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770 (33)

Sweet, like Ochoa, is taking something of a leap here, positing a narrow interpretation of kalunga backward. When we turn to Sweet’s source for this translation of kalunga, some of the problems with this become evident. Joseph Miller’s reading does not, in fact, support Sweet’s assertion. Miller’s statements in Kings and Kinsmen are critical of the identification of kalunga with the ocean, not supportive of it.

contemporary Mbundu…because almost all European observers have interpreted the word as referring to the Atlantic Ocean, or to the African ‘great lakes’….but there is obviously no basis in fact for this assertion. (59; emphasis mine)

Miller’s research among Mbundu historians suggests that the connection between kalunga and the ocean is a back formation from lengthy European contact and so is poorly suited to explaining the appearance of the term in colonial Brazil. Similarly, because this kalunga-as-ocean interpretation permeates Anglo-European accounts, it also makes it into many Anglo-European efforts to interpret and describe kalunga (e.g., Ochoa’s reliance on Wyatt McGaffey). It is precisely this sort of intelligent but too simple interpretation that I hope to avoid here.

(An open question: I do wonder how many images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints were adopted as malunga by people in the region. Might some of the malunga from across the waters be a reference to the adoption of Christian malunga from the Portuguese? The scholarly discussion of Kimpa Vita touches on some of this, but consider, too, the tension within that movement I haven’t seen discussed. The cross, which is in disparate modern Bantu practices still associated with the resurrection of the king as lunga ancestor, was frequently targeted for destruction by Kimpa Vita.)

Miller’s discussion of the kalunga revolve around malunga. At length, in part because there is much here that is difficult to compress more than Miller already has:

The Mbundu lineages living on the middle and northern reaches of the Lui River revere a kind of lineage emblem called a lunga, a sacred relic which assumes various physical shapes but usually has taken the form of a human figure carved from wood. These malunga…came originally from ‘Kalunga’…the ‘great water,’ without any clear notion of where this aquatic source may lie…. Malunga today have a close association with rain and with water, ‘dwelling’ in rivers and lakes and helping their guardians call the rains. They are linked with the success of agriculture and hence with life…. An outsider might also observe that the malunga had something to do with an early organization of the Mbundu into the ethno-linguistic subgroups recognized today.


The lunga has in some cases become assimilated to the complex of symbols centred on the mulemba tree and the lemba dya ngundu, since  the human guardian of the lemba distributes the lineage pemba to the kinswomen and performs other duties usually associated with the these officials. The female identity of the ancestors who brought the malunga reinforces their connections with the lineages since the Mbundu perceive their descent groups as feminine in contradistinction to most extralineage institutions which they see as ‘masculine.’

The extensive modern distribution of ancestors and state-founders with names based on root -lunga also gives the impression of great antiquity…. The very vagueness of the data testifies to its great age since subsequent political developments have intervened to obscure its history in most areas. (5961)

On Miller’s account the close connection between the malunga, the lineage, and the land makes them conservative and slow to change. The malunga are preserved by matrilines, from which chiefs are drawn and initiated into the office of maintaining the lunga. When it comes to rapid adaptation to changing circumstances, Miller identifies two other forms of social organization more suited to the challenge. The first is a form of authority seated in an iron emblem called an ngola and the second is the militarized version of the kilombo organized around a reliquary and a technique for producing a magical salve.

(An aside: reading both de Heusch and Miller makes clear to me that the magical salve used in the Imbangala kilombo is basically an anti-pemba, a terrifying black-red salve to pemba’s whiteness which guarantees successful violence rather than successful reproduction.)

The malunga of the chiefs have to do with defining the place in which a people live and are intimately joined to watersheds. It doesn’t define a generic dead, but the specific dead through which people and place come together. The chiefs enter into a pact with the chiefs that preceded them, too, joining people and place backward in time. While I don’t want to wander off on a tangent along this point, let me underline that this parallels some of the discussion of Volavka in her account of the Kongo people she worked with to make sense of the crown of Ngoyo. They, too, placed a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between king and kin, as well as between the relationship of the king and kin to both river and tree.

The restlessness of kalunga described by Ochoa’s informant, Isidra, makes more sense in this context. There is a chain of the dead, an ambiguous collection, but it is not the set of total dead, but of the inherited dead that must be distinguished. Moreover, note Ochoa’s description of Isidra clarifying kalunga. It is most properly “the dead one,” i.e., it is the specific ancestor who anchors the work and becomes the dead more generally only through increasing metonymic expansion from what makes the work possible to the broader network upon which that power operates.

(Open question: how deeply does this Bantu understanding shape the development of spiritism in the circumcaribbean world? The notion of the spiritual court in spiritism doesn’t seem to be a key feature of Kardecian spiritualism, but it is a fundamental dimension to the Afrocaribbean adoption of it. Is the court a concept derived from the lineage malunga?

There is also an open question here about the relationship between the term kalunga as it developed in Cuba and the notion of the body lightning [cf., Barbara Tedlock] that we find among Mayans in Guatemala and Mexico, regions with circumcaribbean connections. How much has Isidra’s practice been shaped by an indigenous American one? How much of that entailed a sort of mutual recognition between African and American? )

The lunga constitutes memory, in some ways quite literally. Miller’s conversations with Mbundu historians revealed that most myths served a direct political function and described the origin of an office of authority and detailed that over which it held authority. It did so under a rubric of marriage and inheritance. Mythic fathers are titles that instituted other titles, their mythic sons. The women, in turn, represent the matrilines from whom titleholders are drawn. The various malunga then anchor not just specific lineages, but specific forms of life.

In line with Andrew Apter’s work among the Yoruba, though, I see no reason to think that this is all that the myths were. Their use in a political context gives them a visceral liveliness which would serve other narrative purposes, cloaking mystical and spiritual experiences in terms readily understood by listeners. As Miller notes, many such titles become defunct but accounts of them remain intact in narratives as justifying existent titles. Over time, such defunct titles could readily provide a cast of characters for stories about human being in the world while linking those forms of being with existent political modes of life.

Since the ka- of kalunga is a prefix that serves as an intensifier, Miller suggests the kalunga may just be a particularly potent lunga. This may not be quite right, in part as we look to Isidra, but also as what she says is amplified by what Luc de Heusch reports:

The Lunda sun-king is immortal. His corpse is entrusted to the Achudyaang association and submitted to a mysterious ritual of ‘resurrection.’ This important ritual society, more usually known under the name of mungonge, is represented throughout the area of Lunda expansion…. These rites create a mystical communion with the dead…. The initiatory process [to enter this society] is fairly uniform. The ‘ancestors’ and their helpers take hold of the novices and cut and bruise them during a night of ordeals, in the course of which one or more men mounted on stilts make mysterious appearances.–The Drunken King, or the Origin of the State (187)

Recall, now, that the Lunda king rules by way of a lunga, one which joins him to a lineage of previous chiefs. As the center of an empire with chiefly subordinates, there is definitely one sense in which the king’s lunga is kalunga intensively, but it is also kalunga by its relationship to that which makes lunga possible. As the cult diffuses beyond that narrow practice, it seems to concern itself with providing its members with a similar operation, joining them to a lineage of mungonge spirits as they join/joined the king to his lunga lineage. Now this:

Among the Lunda, the chief of the ritual, the Samazembi, perched on stilts, comes and goes around a fire in the initiatory enclosure. The Chokwe call by the very name of the supreme being (Kalunga) the two ritual fires burning in the enclosure, their flames supposedly reaching to the sky. (196)

The Kalunga is not just a particularly potent lunga, but the force through which the lunga lineage is established, preserved, and continued. That force joins heaven and earth and the lunga officeholder’s influence over the rain derives from his direct connection to the officeholders before him who now reside with Kalunga, joined to the sky from which waters fall. That the fires themselves are called Kalunga highlights this connection to the storm and sky. The fire that rises to the heavens evokes the flash of lightning that arcs between heaven and earth.

De Heusch emphasizes that these rites are conceptually and practically joined to the circumcision of youths (mukanda), in some ways forming a metaphysical extension of those rites:

…from the beginning of the ing’ung’u dance that precedes the operation, each male novice is perched on the shoulders of a[n elder] male relative…. The young circumcised men who have not been present at more than two mukanda are also obliged to assume an elevated position when the drumming begins: they climb trees. (203)

There is an initiatory fire inside the initiatory world. It is called lwowa, and round it the novices receive instruction from their elders…. the lwowa fire cannot be used to cook food and it is forbidden to take an ember from it or to burn anything whatever on it. (206)

Among the Chokwe and Mbunda…a sterile old woman…prepares food for the segregated young men [undergoing circumcision]…. The Chokwe insist that the masculine fire burn continually: if it happens to go out, it has to be reignited with an ember from the old woman’s fire. (207)

The rites that dry out young boys and begin to separate them from their mothers form the foundation for the rites that secure officeholders and their connection to the dead, a connection that occurs by their elevation toward Kalunga. De Heusch notes that in some cases the old woman only tends the fire upon which the mothers of the boys undergoing initiation cook, but the tension remains the same between two sorts of fire, the fire of the earth which women know and the fire of the sky that is the purview of men and makes possible titles and offices within the matriline that nourishes them.

That said, the mukonge rites are distinct for their absence of women. In part this likely has to do with their brevity. A night without food is one thing, but the lengthy initiation rites of youths take significantly longer to complete and so demand food be accommodated somehow. But it is not just that. The myths which de Heusch shares that justify the mukonge rites are themselves entangled with a special sort of female exclusion, despite the fact that both Miller and de Heusch make clear that the original source of the malunga are women. Here is de Heusch relaying relevant mytho-histories:

(Lunda) During the reign of Mwata Yamvo, the women belonging to the wet-earth moiety went to a pond to dry it up so that they could gather the fish. They exhausted themselves in vain…. Then two birds, nkumbi (the stork kumbi) and kaaz, came and perched on the bank. The beating of their wings soon dried up the pond. But during their efforts some feathers fell out of their wings. The women gathered them up and stuck them in their hair. They also used them to adorn their ankles…. they returned to the village and told of their experience. The men stripped the women of their feathers and hid them in a solitary hut. When the village chief died, the men dressed up in those feathers and danced…. The men of the other moiety [dry-earth] came running and were initiated…. So the funerary association was born. (190)

(Chokwe) Kalumbu killed many birds…. A time of famine followed. The hunter’s wife, Nankoy, got hold of the feathers…made herself a hat (gayanda) from the feathers and went dancing with it in the neighboring villages. In this way she obtained food…. being careful to hide the feathers in an anthill on her return. Astonished by this unexpected influx of comestibles, the husband spied on his wife…. He killed her to obtain the hat. He buried her in the anthill and tried out the dance for himself. (193)

Particularly in the first myth, from the home of the Achudyaang, the connection between the stork and the man on stilts during the initiation society is apparent, as is the connection between what descends from heaven and the drying fire power of resurrection which lies in opposition to the dryness of Nkongolo.

Tellingly, not only is Nkongolo the dangerous king associated with the termite mound in which the woman of the second myth is buried, he is also associated with androgyny, for while discussing the appearance of what appears to be a structural relative of the Nkongolo mythology de Heusch notes

The female mediums of Mpanga and Banze open up the possibility of transforming Nkongolo into a bleeding woman, sterile source of power in the Lunda dynasty. In this connection it is worth noting that Nkongolo in his rainbow form is sometimes thought of as an androgynous being or as a couple devoid of descendants. (160)

Nkongolo’s danger resides partly in his dangerous proximity to the matriline, a proximity that in Lunda thought prevents it from flourishing. Notice, again, how similar Nkongolo and Kalaala Ilunga actually are. Both are associated with a combination of moisture and dryness, but Nkongolo’s is simultaneously older and derivative, that which is in danger of dwindling to nothingness without refreshment from heaven. It should be emphasized that for both Nkongolo and Kalaala Ilunga, they are firstly associated with heat and fire and secondarily with water, often through some form of mediation (Mbundu, son of Kalaala Ilungu who makes the rain).

(An open question: Is the Banze mentioned here related in any way to the Bunsi that Volovka discusses? If so, a doubling down of the relationship between the land, women, and ancestors, such that Bunsi speaks from a hole in the earth while Banze speaks for the one who is buried in a hole in the earth.)

The brevity of the mungonge initiation might be motivated by the effort to exclude women’s involvement from them as much as possible. Where Kalunga appears as the fire itself within the enclosure, we find the greatest distance from women and the social life of the matriline. This distance itself is how these men become most acquainted with Kalunga. This Kalunga, then, is anchored not in the semantic terrain of the sea, but in the sky which brings both life-giving and life-taking water and fire (rain and lightning).

I appreciate, too, that this is uncomfortable terrain to enter into. The way in which women are treated mythically and excluded ritually is troubling. However, if we are committed to finding forms of life in which the exclusion is overcome, we are well-served by exploring the exclusion down to its roots. If there is another way to be, it may lie in the re-articulation of foundational moments, not just in the alteration of what rests on those foundations.

(This contrast between elevation and women again makes me wonder after the reception of Christ into the Kongo and then the greater Bantu sphere. As a figure wasting away and closely tied to women mourning him, he evokes strongly the rubric Nkongolo, but his elevation suggests something of an alternative to the resurrection of the mungonge cult.)


De Heusch spends a great deal of time contrasting Kalaala Ilunga–Nsazi with Nkongolo in the Luba material, pointing out that Kalaala Ilunga and his lightning are celestial while Nkongolo the rainbow is terrestrial. This makes a lot of sense, but there is some dangers to stating that division as absolutely as de Heusch can. While it is true that proximity with Kalunga reaches its most acute point at a distance from the matriline, it has to be remembered that the mungonge society serves the matriline by maintaining its link to the knowledge and memory preserved by malunga officeholders.

This is not an escape trajectory to the heavens, but a mode of capture in which the heavens are brought to earth. And, regardless of Nkongolo’s danger, he remains intimately bound up with the matriline. There is even more to keep in mind. While the rainbow is intimately tied to the terrestrial world, we can’t ignore that the rainbow is a phenomenon that links earth and sky. This links it to the action of lightning and helps us to note that in the Mbundu region both are associated with heat. The key difference is that Nkongolo’s heat is durable and withering while Kalaala Ilunga’s is sudden and produces fire which may be put to use.

(An open question here about the relationship between these practices and the entombment of pharaohs in Egyptian antiquity. While there is plenty of opportunity for the practices to develop in utter independence from each other, there is also the possibility of cross-fertilization at a later date or of a very deep common root in the millenia before the Niger-Congo people parted ways with those who would go on to found Egyptian dynasties. Folks like James G. Frazier and his Anglo-European magical descendants in Egyptian drag may be wrongheaded about how they develop the comparison, but the comparison is too strong not to explore.)

This framework starts to make clear the logic behind the seemingly disparate collection of associations with kalunga recorded by C. M. N. White in “The Supreme Being in the Beliefs of the Balovale Tribe.” While noting that the term does designate the supreme being, he also notes it can be used to refer to rain, a clap of thunder, lightning that reddens the earth, disaster or fated event, death, the river, the sea, burial, deep holes, the supreme chief in heaven, and is often invoked in blessing through an invocation of the ancestors.

The connections between rain, the river, and the sea define one axis of the term, not as embodying kalunga itself, but in being an expression of it. The rain that falls to earth brings kalunga’s force with it, empowering and enriching the earth and water. Having made a great effort to distinguish the sea from kalunga in order to liberate it from its overidentification with it, I now want to underline that their remains a vital sympathy between ocean and kalunga. As Frisvold notes in his account of Quimbanda’s queen of the ocean, the ocean is called the little kalunga.

The ocean is like the heavenly kalunga in more ways than one. Its fluid dynamics can be peaceful or restive, its waters can thunder, and it possesses mysterious occupants like fish that seem to mirror the relationship of birds to the sky. Unlike the river, the ocean also has a constancy which mirrors the constancy of the sky. None of this frees the ocean of its fundamentally terrestrial character, such that it may have pride of place as the water most like the heavenly waters without being identical with it.

Thunder and lightning, alongside disaster and death, forms another axis, the one in which the power of kalunga overwhelms the channels available for it, mot often as punishment. The famous Kongo carvings studded with nails form an exceptionally coherent expression of this axis. They seem to have as their foundation the lunga emblems of officeholders. The nails both invigorate the force of kalunga invested in the object, but also invite the force of lightning upon those who act against it, much as the thunder and lightning both invigorate and inflame the earth.

(An open question here as to whether the practice of nailing may occur in dialogue with the rivalry between authority vested in the wooden malunga and authority vested in the iron ngola emblems. The practice of nailing seems to affirm the power of iron while putting in service to the power of the lunga into which it is nailed. That, in turn, fits smoothly enough within the established rivalry between chief/king and smith in the region.)

Invigoration is a key element. The cosmology described by de Heusch is not a cosmology of creation; it begins amidst a world whose beginnings are shrouded by time. The world as man lives in it is a world in which kalunga has been in a long dialogue with the earth, through which the earth itself has been thoroughly invested with the potency of kalunga as evidenced by the diversity of animal and plant life in which people find themselves. The heavy rain, the crashing thunder, the nail driven into a carving, and the beating of a drum are all means through which the vitality of kalunga already in the earth is excited and intensified.

It is within this frame, too, that we are better able to conceptualize Ochoa’s reportage of Isidra describing the visible world as condensations of kalunga, without relying on vague references to the ocean. The visible world manifests in the interaction of the stimulating heaven upon the earth, the stimulation which differentiates and subsequently condenses into visible forms.

It is this that carries us into the final axis of meaning, one in which death also plays a part. Burial, deep holes, and the mediation of ancestral forces are associated with kalunga bear witness to this long history of heaven and earth. The ancestors buried in the earth or taken by the waters are themselves nails or flashing thunderstones that carry the force of heaven into the earth and subsequently serve to mediate it for their descendants. It also animates the tension within the officeholders’ connection to the lunga ancestors.

The story of Nkongolo’s murder and beheading isn’t just a past tense myth about the foundation of a lineage, it is a model of the challenge faced by a newly initiated lunga officeholder who must take hold of the lunga’s power from his predecessors (sacrifice and bury them) as a means to activate the kalunga forces within the lunga emblem, the land, and the matriline. The ritual terrain carved out by Kalaala Ilunga’s victory stretches between a river bed and a severed head, filling a world between it with meaning and potency.

(Here the question of the antiquity of the malunga, raised by Miller, comes into bolder relief. How long have they formed the backbone of the region’s political and affinal ties? How deeply do they root the people to the place? One of Miller’s arguments is that even the ‘invaders’ reported during the seventeenth and eighteenth century were not foreigners, but dispossessed and displaced peoples of the region reorganizing to adapt to the crisis but who eagerly returned to more stable patterns as the crisis became less acute.

Given Fromont’s and Martínez-Ruiz’s observations about the connection between cave art, historical, and contemporary Kongo religion, we have another open question to keep an eye on.)


Keeping in mind the idea that specific linguistic patterns can help or hinder our thoughts about certain matters, I would like to conclude with this quotation describing Bantu grammars:

Considered from what is often called its basic structure, Bantu syntax offers nothing very particular. Neither its word order—SVO being the commonest order in the world—nor its agreement system based on noun classification, are unusual. Even double representation of core constituents, incorporating pronomial elements in the verb, so favoring the reduction of sentential structures to just the verb, is not unique to Bantu or Niger-Congo.

It seems to be the combination of these features with certain dynamic properties of Bantu sentential structures which accounts for the originality of Bantu syntax. The universal dichotomy between the inner and outer layers of the sentence—the former prototypically expressing entities participating in the state-of-affairs expressed by the sentence, the latter locating the state-of-affairs in external circumstances—is never watertight. But the extent to which Bantu syntax…supports crisscrossing and especially the promotion of outer core elements to the inner core, is possibly unmatched in the world’s languages (excepting maybe Philippine and Kru languages…).

—T. Bearth, quoted in “Introduction” by Derek Nurse and Gérard Philippson, The Bantu Languages (9–10)

This movement of outside to inside, of making the outside inside, helps to break down the division between inside and outside, uniting them into a mesh. I am reminded here of the way in which John Biggers, inspired by the quilting he grew up with and the fiber panels he saw in West Africa, composed paintings in which the both his human subjects and their environment were joined by quilting patterns that permeated both the figure and ground.

This figures prominently in the relationship between Nkongolo and Kalaala Ilunga. Nkongolo (i.e., the rainbow) as the fire, the heat, but also he who owns the terrestrial waters, who is buried *beneath* the river and beneath the termite mound. He is a peculiar fusion of moisture and fire, a particular kind of solar force bound up in the earth. The kalunga comes from heaven, conquers the earth, but also refreshes it. So the river is the gathering and channeling of the kalunga on the earth, the river which is already an image for the flow in time of lineage.

There is some debate, too, about how closely to relate -lunga and -longa with its riverine associations. White thinks it best not to join the two roots, but it is difficult to avoid speculating that even if there isn’t a strict linguistic connection, the conceptual one remains, perhaps animated by puns. The lunga come from the great water, call to it, but that water is channeled through the river bed. Keep following out the line and you get to Volavka again talking to Kongo folks and seeing that one of the major concepts at play is the river crossing and tree planting (open question: what tree are malunga carved from?) that defines the birth of a new people, which suggests a basic and fundamental link between -lunga and -longa, malunga and molonga, kalunga and kalonga.

Constantly distinguished and continually rejoined.


After seeking after all this information around these -lunga terms, a -lunga term found me. Looking for something quite unrelated to all this, I opened Edward Curtis’s The Call of Bilal only to stumble upon the existence of a network of African communities in India that identified a sacred instrument as ‘malunga.’ Reading more closely, the mythohistory of this instrument’s arrival in the region bears recounting. While I have spent so much of my time looking at the transatlantic connections between Africa and the Americas, this one looks out across the Pacific to join Africa and India.

The slave trade drives this one, too, though this trade features the capture and transportation of African Muslims along the eastern coast of Africa. At the center of their popular practice are devotions to a female saint and her two brothers. The female saint, Mai Mishra, is esteemed for having driven a powerful female demon into the earth, like a nail, by pummeling it with her shoe. An excellent exorcist, she traps demons in the tree that is planted outside her shrine. More interesting yet, she and her brothers are frequently asked to resolve problems for husbands and wives having difficulty conceiving. The brothers return potency to men and the sister restores fertility to women.

And at the heart of their rites is music, the most basic being a one-stringed bow that is plucked along with their praise songs. This bow is called malunga, suggesting in its structure, its name, and its function some tie to the greater world from which this discussion of kalunga was drawn.

Selected Bibliography

Apter, Andrew. Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Curtis, Edward E. , III. The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

De Heusch, Luc. The Drunken King, or the Origin of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982 (French edition published 1974).

Fromont, Cécile. The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Frisvold, Nicholaj de Mattos. Pomba Gira and the Quimbanda of Mbùmbu Nzila. United Kingdom: Scarlet Imprint, 2011.

Martínez-Ruiz, Bárbaro. Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

Miller, Joseph. Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Nurse, Derek, and Gérard Philippson, eds. The Bantu Languages. Routledge: New York, 2003.

Ochoa, Todd Ramón. “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 22:4 (2007): 473500.

Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts. Luba. Milan: 5 Continents, 2007.

Sweet, James. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Tedlock, Barbara. Time and the Highland Maya, revised edition. Albaquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Thornton, John. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Volavka, Zdenka. Crown and Ritual: The Royal Insignia of Ngoyo. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1998.

White, C. M N. “The Supreme Being in the Beliefs of the Balovale Tribe.” African Studies 7:1 (1948): 2935.


3 thoughts on “[NB] Kalunga, or why we have fire in our eyes

  1. Pingback: [NB] Kinship, Maternity, Gender – Disrupt & Repair

  2. Io

    This post is getting some hits lately, so let me append this, which I have said elsewhere about this essay:

    This is a weird piece and I have mixed feelings, since it is sort of a radically out of context object. It is the preface, a throat clearing exercise, and from within it I could see the horizons of West Central Africa as they reconstitute themselves in the wake of the Portuguese, and how they will reconstitute themselves within the Americas.

    It is, first and foremost, a historiographical intervention, voicing my frustration with the way in which West Central African religious concepts are radically simplified, then passed around by historians to serve as space fillers in accounts of the archive, erasing the depth and breadth of the intelligence and devotion of thousands who weren’t and aren’t given equal footing in the constitution of their history, when the tools to do that aren’t unavailable.

    But I am doing that as someone who is *not a historian.* Push come to shove, I’m going to end up in the heap of people that historians speak for, not the ones they speak to (even when they like to tell themselves otherwise). I am struggling with the master’s tools here, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I am not quite as radical as Audre Lorde, I will pick up the tools, but it’s gray and black work doing that and I am mindful that it can eat out your heart, and the hearts of those around you. Which is part of what motivated the piece in the first place.

    I struggled with this piece, and in some ways I am still struggling.

    It is also the point at which my blog came to an end, though I didn’t quite know it yet. I found an important piece of home here and it has been rippling out through my way of thinking about my spiritual life ever since in ways I am still trying to work through. Kalunga is a fundamental piece of redemption (and makes clear that redemption is not the property of Christianity and we shouldn’t let it own that conversation), and historiography is not redemption. Kalunga sits at the base of why Christianity made the inroads it did in West Central Africa, and it is part of what remakes it there and in the Americas.

    But I can’t do away with history, either, so, yeah, still struggling, and I think I just wish that struggle were burned more clearly into its surface, that it were limned with it.

    I sincerely hope this makes sense, because I truly believe the erasure of history’s partisanship can poison these faiths.

  3. Pingback: Periodizing This Blog – Disrupt & Repair

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