The Kongo Groups

Between the mouth of the Zaire River and Stanley Pool are a number of peoples represented in the collection by the Vili, Yombe and Kongo. The people are Bantu, with matrilineal inheritance. Maternity and fertility figures are common.


The Kuba or "Bushongo", are a group of peoples in southern Zaire owing allegiance to a dynastic divine kingship. The present dynasty is thought to date back to the 16th century. The king's power was absolute. His people thought him to be a "Ngesh", one of the spirits of forest and water who watch over each village. He would use his supernatural powers for the public benefit to bring fertility, success in hunting and cure to illness. The king was backed by a feudal ruling class.


The Kusu live in the swampy country around the Lomami River with the Luba-Hemba to their east and the Songye to the south. Their culture and art style has affinity with both and the sculptures of each are sometimes confused.

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The Kwele live on either side of the borders of northern Gabon and the northern Congo Republic.


The Lega live in forested country in eastern Zaire. They practise a diversity of craft; carving in wood, bone and especially ivory, pottery, basketry, blacksmithing and the preparation of cosmetic oil and powders. They make a traditional coinage from shells, used particularly for initiation and marriage customs.


The republic of Liberia on the West African coast derived from settlements of freed American slaves in the first half of the 19th century. It has retained close connections with the USA, exporting coffee, rubber and minerals, including iron ore and diamonds. The country mostly lies within the forest belt and has a high rainfall.

Cultural groups within Liberia: The Bassa and the We, The Dan.


A small tribe living astride the west central border of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Their language is akin to that of the Bamama and the Dogon in Mali, and to the Senufo of the Ivory Coast. The Ligbi are noted for their masks made for use in rituals seeking protection against witchcraft. Sensitively carved faces are surmounted either by animal horns or creations of abstract design.


The Lobi live on the borders of Burkino Faso and north-west Ghana. Their creation story relates how they once lived in a paradise created by God, where illness, violence and famine were unknown. When they broke the divine law God left them, leaving behind, in each village, a protective spirit who, via the village priest, established the rules by which the community live.


The Luba of south eastern Zaire are one of its largest groups. They include a number of ethnically related people who were welded together under one paramount chief from the 16th century, or before. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the empire expanded rapidly, but began to disintegrate at the end of the 19th century into independent chiefdoms. The Luba-Hemba subdivision lies in the eastern part of the territory towards Lake Tanganyika (three items in the Sainsbury Collection relate to the Hemba).


The Luluwa obtained their name from the Luluwa River in southern Zaire. They have a patrilineal society and an ethnically diverse late 19th century origin arising out of migrations, invasions and fusions with groups of slaves. Their distinctive and extensive body scarification was a means of establishing ethnic identity. They are a fragmented society split into village groups with no central political authority.


The Lumbo known also as Balumbo

These are one of the Shira-Punu group of peoples in southern Gabon. They believed in the existence of one great creator god with whom their ancestors acted as intermediaries. They believed too in a spirit world of goblins and fairies inhabiting the forest - little people whose mischief could create confusion.


The Makonde group of peoples live on either side of the Tanzania/Mozambique frontier. They occupy a country with varied vegetation, some of it is forest and some arid and open country on high-plateaux. Their society is based on village units with no centralised political authority. They have a matrilineal system of inheritance.


Mali is a large West African territory lying astride the upper reaches of the Niger River. Dry savannah in the south turns to desert further north. The population is now mostly Islamic, particularly in the large towns. The area has a long association with trans-Saharan trade with powerful empires to which there are literary allusions from the 9th century CE. The capital is Bamako. Another city, Jenne, is an ancient centre for bronze casting. Fine Jenne terracottas have been dated to the 11-13th century CE.


The Mende entered Sierra Leone from Liberia by conquest in the 19th century and now constitute one of the largest cultural groups in the country. Mende political organisation is comparable with that of the Sherbro, particularly in regard to the traditional social functions and political influence of secret societies such as Poro and Sande. The Mende share the same art forms as the Sherbro.

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The Mossi conquered the country with the aid of light cavalry in about 1400CE. They introduced a strong feudal society, driving many of the less structured farming communities (such as Dogon) to the north. The ruling elite were Islamic, but indigenous cultures were tolerated, thus enhancing the elitist quality of the ruling class.


One of the largest and wealthiest territories in Africa with a population of 80 million. Though oil is now the principle export, the economy is mainly an agricultural one with groundnuts grown in the north and cocoa and oil palm products in the more southern and coastal areas.


The Pende live in southern and central Zaire, having settled there in an attempt to escape the Portuguese slave trade in Angola. They have a matrilineal system of inheritance, and fall into two culturally distinct groups, eastern and central. The Sainsbury Collection examples come from the central Pende.


The term 'Sherbro' is both a geographical term and the name given to the people living around Sherbro Island and the Sherbro river in Southwest Sierra Leone and extending some 25 miles inland. Politically the Sherbro are divided into a number of chiefdoms, each chief acting in conjunction with an executive council consisting mainly in subsidiary chiefs and elders.

Sierra Leone

A country of about 28,000 square miles on the West African Coast, much of it lying in the forest belt and with unusually mountainous littoral. Its name derives from the lion shape of the hills lying behind Freetown, the capital. The Portuguese, in the 15th century, found it provided a safe anchorage and watering place for their ships. A vigorous trade developed, particularly in slaves, but also in ivory and camwood, the latter being valued in Europe as a source of red dye.


The Songye are the north-western neighbours of the Luba. Their society is organised round the centralised authority of a chief and his officials, whose power is modified by the presence of religious sects or societies. Unlike most Bantu tribes of Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Songye people form an enclave of patriarchal customs.