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The Kongolese Fire of Vodou

Fr. Selwanga





The Kongo nation is divided in two points of origin, the Kongo Fran and the Kongo Savan. The latter is considered to be the wilder and more ‘satanic’ aspect of the Kongo nation, whilst the Kongo Fran is considered to be the pure or original form of Kongo ritualistics. Kongo Fran is today guarded by the Lakou Soukri Danach in Gonaives. Interestingly is that just a few kilometres away we also find the famous temple of Souvenance dedicated to the Ginen or Rada lwa. In the same district we also find the temple of Nanbadjo dedicated to the Nago lwa and the Ogous making Gonaives a most interesting place in terms of preserving authentic traditions side by side in mutual acceptance that aids in maintaining the original expression of the three divisions.


The kongo lwa likes multi-coloured cloths, which might be a reference to the various egungun cults in West Africa and it is also interesting to note that this focus on the use of multi-coloured cloth is found in the obscure rama of Palo Mayombe known as Changani. These lwa drinks klerin and assorossi, a drink prepared from the bitter melon (momordica sp.) and sea salt. These drinks represent the bitter and harsh nature of the kongo lwa as the salt represent the burning fire of the ocean. These attributes are often given to the lwa eritaj Kongo Bó Lanmè, the truthful Kongo from the Good Ocean. This name is given in memory of the transatlantic crossing, to remind that the Kongo Fran came from the delta of Congo and Zaire.


The Kongo nation counts Mayombe, Moussoundi, Capalou and Mondong and is subdivided into Wangol, Zandor and in many cases, but not all, Petwo. The Kongo nation is informed by the Congo landscape having the majestic Congo River running through the mythical savannah or fire realm and the woods of Mayombe, the watery and healing dimensions of the Kongo nation.


When we look at the lwa served in Kongo fran we find lwa like:


Chou Chouko Koululououtt, Choukoun, Ganga Bila, Ganga Ndoki, Gran Gènge, La Ren Kongo (Kimpa Vita), Laoka Ganga, Mambo Choun, Mambo Inan, Mambo Doudou, Marassa, Nanman Pemba, Zazi Mpoungwe, Yaya Mpoungwe and others. Most of these were mambos and houngans associated with the waters of Kongo, but with a particular emphasize on mambos being in a real or mythical descent of Kimpa Vita, the Queen of Kongo.


Kongo Savan gives us lwa like Bazòl that was part of the full name of Figaro, the runaway slave that founded the temple in Nansoukry in the 1770s. We also find Chaloten, which is the lwa of the ravine or abyss, Ezili Toro, Kafou Toro, Kantolo, Toro Dichen and others. All considered to be stern, volatile and very hard and violent. We also see here how the bossou lwa ultimately hearkens back to the Kongo nation.


Kimpa Vita, the Queen of Congo is of immense importance in order to understand the nature of the Kongo nation as at core we find her initiation into the Kimpasi society. Jason R. Young writes the following about this matter:


"Dona Beatriz’s initiation into a Kimpasi society sheds light on several of the central themes treated in this chapter. At her initiation, Beatriz was brought to the Kimpasi enclosure and, through a series of rituals, fell into symbolic death characterized by a deep catatonia. She was then brought to the initiation altar, which included a large earthen mound in the middle of which stood a large wooden cross, symbolizing, at one and the same time, Christianity and the junction of this world and the next world common throughout kiKongo-speaking regions. On either side of the cross lay other ecclesiastical goods, including censers and aspirators. In addition, several kitekes–human shaped sculptures ritually invested with the power to seek out malfeasance, jealousy, and greed–guarded the altar. Other items, such as the claws of a predator meant to ‘capture’ wrongdoers, served metonymically to heighten the sense of ritual potency. Once inside the enclosure, Beatriz was ceremonially revived, though, after her ritual foray into the land of the dead, she returned possessed of a new, otherworldly soul. In the subsequent weeks and months, she, like other new initiates, met secretly at the Kimpasi enclosure and learned a new language that symbolized her passage. Novitiates into the society also enjoyed exemption from several taboos and social restrictions that applied to other people."[1]


Let us now look at the central elements involved in the kimpasi society as we find them in the Kongo nation. We find here the Simbi, Nkita and Mbumba spirits that in the Kimpasi society took on the shape of protective spirits, often warding off wanga and sorcerous attacks. In Haiti however the protecting against magic and the doing was not always so clear cut. In the Kongo and lower Zaire, the Simbis and kisimbi are nature spirits, aquatic snakes, and healers and related to our ancestry as beings of earth. The nkita spirits are considered to be violent and forceful protector spirits that was commonly ancestors that suffered violent deaths. The nkita spirits can be dangerous and cause paralysis in those that crosses them and cannibalistic attributes are ascribed to them, most likely due to their demand for human sacrifice.


In Kongo Savan the chief is Ti Jean Pye Séche, Little John of the Dry Foot, husband to Marinette Pýe Ché, Marinette of the Dry Foot, the latter being Queen of Zandor and Ti Jean being described as a limping dwarfish spirit is identical to the chief of the Petwo nation, Ti Jean Petwo, both of them syncretised with St. Bartholomew. The small stature of Ti Jean is reminiscent of the baka spirits, or mbaka in kikongo, which denotes a small bearded man capable of shapeshifting, these mbakas have a preference for chains and fire which in turn brings the association of Anima Sola and the powers of purgatory into play. And this is important, Kimpa Vita was the Queen of Congo, yet it was through the nkisi St. Antony of Padua that she ascribed her powers! This is such a Kongo approach to power, to dress a powerful thing, object or person for its social and religious strappings and take it for yourself and give it a new context where its powers are highlighted in a more direct and sorcerous way.


This is also interesting when we see the lwa placated and served in the kongo nation as several of these names are well known in Kongolese sacred history. Here we learn that King Bazou, that was early on creolized into Roi Wangol, the King of Angola, had 101 children with Queen Mambo Inan, the Queen Fire. Mambo Inan has her feast day on the 15th of August, which happens to be a date important for Kimpa Vita, but also it is the day when the Feast of Assumption or the Dormition or falling asleep of the Mother of God is celebrated. Hence we might see a coded message here that when the saints are asleep the devil roams the world…


Bazou and Inan had first male triplets, which are the first marassa or divine twins[2]. These were called Jatikura, Laoka and Ganga Ndoki. Laoka however slept with his sister, Madam Lawé and the child born from this incestuous liaison was abandoned into the woods. Ganga Ndoki found the child and named him Zinga Bwa, Zinga of the Woods which became Ganga’s helper in the woods. Zinga Bwa however always remained a child. Of the triplets it was Ganga Ndoki that possessed magical knowledge, whilst Jatikura was appointed to be the guardian of mount Ganga, the place where the secrets of Bazou was guarded. A later son of Bazou, Lemba, that represent the warrior ethos and the lightning ended up stealing secrets from his brother Ganga hence generating friction between the two brothers.


Other lwa and mysté like Masa, meaning ‘water’, and Mbumba, meaning ‘snakelike’ also makes part of the Kongo nation and even if they are all associated with serpentine features and natural phenomena’s like thunder, lightning, wind, night, moon and so forth these qualities embedded into a creolized lwa turns Mbumba, a snakelike corpse spirit into the lwa Boumba Eskaly, in the sense of a snake that crosses a staircase and his form being that on a dwarfish man in a black suit and the feet of a large cross making him a Bawon or gede type of spirit hence emphasizing his corpse side instead of his snake side.


The Kongo nation represents this balance between water and fire so central in Vodou and it might even be that the most important element in the kanzo, the boulle zin is ultimately from the kimpasi initiation of Kimpa Vita as an important part of this ritual was the boiling of riverstones that was poured out hot on the ground. Here we find the Simbis, great magicians, aquatic snakes merging with the protective and violent Nkiti, Lemba spirits and we are receiving solutions and understanding from the Mbumba lwa.


Similar magical narratives we also find in Palo Mayombe and Palo Briyumba in Cuba, as we find the echo of the Yoruba Osanyin and Aroni in the relationship between Ganga and Zinga Bwa and also in this; the mystical relationship between Papa Bones and Sasabonsam with Anima Sola in Obeah from Trinidad. Not only this, in Brazilian Quimbanda which itself stretches back to Angola and Kongo we find Exu Ganga testifying to the vibrant presence of the Kongo spirituality also there.

The lwa and esko belonging to the Kongo nation are fire brought through oceans of memory that protects and perform gard and wanga. They are natural phenomena’s, often tied to fire and the night, always protective and fiery, with one foot in the fire and the other in the water.

[1] Jason R. Young, on Saint Anthony Dona Beatriz Vita’s initiation in Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Low country South in the Era of Slavery [2] Marassa is from the kikongo mahasa, meaning ‘more than one.’

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