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Total population
10 million
Regions with significant populations
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Republic of the Congo

Kongo language, Portuguese, French


Christianity, animism

Related ethnic groups

other Bantu peoples

The Bakongo or the Kongo people (meaning "hunter"), also sometimes referred to as Congolese, is a Bantu ethnic group which lives along the Atlantic coast of Africa from Pointe-Noire (Congo Brazzaville) to Luanda, Angola. In Kikongo their ethnonym is usually given as Besikongo, singular Mwisikongo, though Bakongo is linguistically possible and gaining popularity. In the late 20th century they numbered about 10,220,000.



Kongo bowl in the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC

The Kongo people probably arrived in the region of the mouth of the Congo River before 500 BCE, as part of the larger Bantu migration. They were already working iron in the region and practicing agriculture by that time. By the late fourteenth century they were living in a number of kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Kongo, Ngoyo, Vungu, Kakongo and others stretching on both sides of the Congo River. During the sixteenth century yet another powerful Bakongo kingdom, Loango, developed and controlled much of the coast north of the Congo River. In 1483 the Portuguese arrived on the coast, and the Bakongo of the Kingdom of Kongo began diplomatic relations which included sending Bakongo nobles to visit the royal court in Portugal in 1485. Bakongo leaders were quickly converted by Christian missionaries and assumed Portuguese court manners, and after an initial confrontation between those who supported the new religion and those who rejected it, the party following King Afonso I triumphed and Kongo became a Christian kingdom. In 1568 Bakongo peoples were invaded by the Jagas (Yaka), and the Bakongo were forced to look to the Portuguese for help, which ultimately allowed the Portuguese to establish a colony in Angola on Kongo's territory, in 1575. In the aftermath of the Battle of Mbwila, 1665, in which a Portuguese-led army from Angola defeated that of Kongo, and the civil war that followed, the Kingdom of Kongo never regained its former power. In the ensuing years the Bakongo alternately fought for and against the Portuguese, eventually being colonized in 1885. The Bakongo political party in Democratic Republic of the Congo Abako played an important part in national independence in 1960.

In its prime, the Kingdom exacted taxes, forced labor, and collected fines from its citizens in order to prosper. At times, enslaved peoples, ivory, and copper were traded to the Europeans on the coast. The important harbors were Soyo and Mpinda. When the Kongo Kingdom was at its political apex in the 16th and 17th centuries, the King, who was elected from among a noble class of descendants of former kings, bana Kongo (plural of mwana Kongo), reigned supreme. He was chosen by a group of electors, usually the holders of important offices or governors of provinces. The activities of the court were supported by an extensive system of civil servants, and the court itself usually consisted of numerous relatives of the King. The villages were often governed by lesser relatives of the King who were responsible to him. All members of government were invested with their power under the auspices of a ritual specialist, and frequently a Catholic priest.


Most of them speak Kikongo, which is divided into many dialects that are not sometimes mutually intelligible, but they also speak Portuguese as their first or second language in Angola and French in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Others still speak Lingala a common Lingua Franca in Western Congo, or Kikongo ya Leta (also called Kituba in Congo), a creole form of Kikongo spoken widely in the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.


The Bakongo cultivate cassava, bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts (groundnuts), beans, and taro. Cash crops are coffee, cacao, urena, bananas, and palm oil. Fishing and hunting are still practiced by some groups, but many Bakongo live, work and trade in towns.


Traditional Kongo religion believed heavily on the concept of the dead, as most of the inhabitants of the other world are held to have once lived in this world. Only Nzambi Mpungu, the name for the high god, is usually held to have existed outside the world and to have created it. Other categories of the dead include bakulu or ancestors, the souls of the recently departed, and in some cases, more powerful beings held to be the souls of the long departed. There are also supernatural beings who are guardians of particular places and territories, sometimes held to be the soul of the founder, and there are those who inhabit and are captured in minkisi (singular nkisi), or charms, whose operation is the closest to magic. The value of these supernatural operations is generally held to be in the intentions of the worker, rather than the other world having spirits or souls that are intrisically good or bad.

Following the conversion of Nzinga Nkuwu in 1491 most of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Kongo converted to Christianity, though they continued their older beliefs within its fold, through syncretic practices within the Roman Catholic Church in Kongo. Many thousands of Kongo were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas, and especially to Brazil. The Afro-Brazilian Quimbanda religion is a new world manifestation of Bantu religion and spirituality.

Other Kongo living outside the Kingdom of Kongo were not converted and continued their traditional form of religion. Since the 1880s Protestant missionaries, and then renewed Catholic missionaries have claimed a large number of Kongo as converts. Following 1921, a new form of Christianity preached by Simon Kimbangu became extremely popular in spite of the attempts of both Belgian and Portuguese governments to support it. Kimbanguism is a very powerful religious spiritual force today, as is one of its modern spin-offs, the Dibundu dia Kongo led by Mwanda Nsemi.


The Kongo week used to consist of four days: Konzo, Nkenge, Nsona and Nkandu. The third day, Nsona, was held sacred. The tradition has continued to the modern days so that among some Bakongo the third day of the week, Wednesday, is revered in the same way as Nsona.

See also

  • Kimpa Vita The 17th century female prophet, still worshipped as saint by some.
  • Nkisi "Sacred Medicine" that was once used primarily by the Bakongo and people of the surrounding areas.


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