The Bembe mainly make masks. There are two main types of Bembe mask.
- The most well known type of mask is called Echawokaba, used in rites by the Alunga society which is a masculine society with a strong hierarchical structure. It is a Janus helm mask with large concave eye sockets and eyes in the form of a diamond or a four pointed star. The pupil of the eye is prominent and nested at the back of the eye socket. This mask represents a bush spirit and is brought out uniquely for the worship of ancestors, the initiation of new members, most often young people, and the ceremonies preceding a hunt. This mask is kept in sacred caves. For its public appearances this sculpted helm mask is worn with, on its crown, a luxurious ensemble of feathers and porcupine quills. It is decorated with a ruffle made out of fibres, whilst the dancer wears a costume composed of a variety of fibres. The formal characteristics of this mask recall an owl’s face, an animal with which the dancers are supposed to enter into contact. Moreover, the two faces of the Janus signify the dominating nature of the mask’s spirit. He is capable of bringing harmony to nature’s opposing forces such as masculine and feminine, day and night.
- For circumcision ceremonies of the Bwani society, flat masks are used. They have the same eye sockets as the Echawokaba mask, but its eyes are in the shape of coffee beans.
Bembe ancestor statues are rare and they can only be found in the south western part of their territory. They have rough features, a cylindrical bust and a large head. These statues are small in size and are used for exorcisms and healing illnesses. It is likely that certain feminine statues may improve the fecundity of their owner. These feminine statues have short legs, a large head with almond shaped eyes and a triangular nose. Their hands are placed on their stomachs.
Social Life and Secret Societies among the Bembe people
Lineage is patrilineal and the chief is responsible for the cult of the ancestors.
Secret societies play a very important role in the lives of the Bembe. The men are circumcised and small statues and magical objects are handed down from generation to generation.
- The Bwani society takes its inspiration from its neighbours, the Lega. Their initiation process is simpler than that of the Lega as the Bwani of the Bembe people only have two levels of initiates. After the circumcision had been carried out, the Bwani were mainly in charge of dances, songs and handling objects.
- The Elenda society has control over the social aspect of the tribe. It is accessible only to men on the condition that the candidates make a donation to the member with the highest grade in the society.
- The Alunga society is in charge of the rites that precede a hunt, the organization of public dances, and of social control.
Religious Rites among the Bembe
The cult of worshiping the ancestors holds a very important place in the social and religious life of the Bembe. Ceremonies, which are held in both private and public sanctuaries, allow them to remember the history of the clan. These sanctuaries are enclosures, small huts or tables placed near a tomb or in the village. An animal is often sacrificed in the sanctuary and a magic stone, blade, or a horn may be left as a gift to the ancestors in the sanctuary. In exchange for these offerings and sacrifices, the ancestors are supposed to bring protection and wealth to the village as well as improving harvests.
Bembe Habitats and Occupations
The Bembe live in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the north east of Zambia.
The Bembe have the reputation of being a hard and proud people. They are semi nomadic and inhabit a territory that is made up of forest, wooded savannah crossed by rivers and plateaux. The Bembe abandon their villages, of around thirty or so huts, as soon as the lands they cultivate become sterile, around every three years. The men hunt and fish, the women cultivate the land.