The following materials come from Wyatt MacGaffey and John M. Janzen, ed., An Anthology of Kongo Religion, University of Kansas Publications in Anthropology No. 5, 1974, pp. 44-55. See Commentary for more details.


1. There was one astonishing and frightening thing in this country, brought to an end in the same way [by the colonial government], and that was the sasswood ordeal, "drinking nkasa," which was undertaken in an effort to put a stop to a danger that troubled all the local clans, namely, the witch and his kundu. The elders defined these terms as follows:

Kindoki "bewitches" (loka ) people.

Kundu "attacks" (kundubula ) the clan.

The people believed that kundu brought death to their country; so they set themselves to finding out who in the clan had the kundu. They thought also that whoever had kundu was a man-eater, that is, one who caused inward harm (kota n'soki ) to others. The kundu was believed to be hidden in a sort of sac called kizanga, carried in the belly of the witch. There was only one way to extract the kundu from the kizanga and that was to make the witch drink nkasa; when he did, the sac would burst, the kundu would come out, and the witch would die.

2. Our people also believed that one who had kundu would kill a man and, when be was dead, skin (yubula) the corpse and leave the skin on top of the remains.

3. A person suspected of witchcraft would be given a knife with which to strike both sides of his body while reciting these words three times:

Vo naganda

If I made magic

Bote fiole

Well enough;


[The day] I made it

I kiina nayenda

Is the day I went.

4. When be has sworn in this way he taps his belly three times with the knife and throws it to those who have been chosen to go and strip off the nkasa bark. Before proceeding with the stripping they too must recite an oath as follows (supposing that the suspect's name is Lubaki):

Vo Lubaki wabuuna

If Lubaki stripped [skin]'

Nkasa nung'e!

May the poison win!

Vo [illegible]

If [not]

Nkasa yel'e!

May the poison lose!

5. This they repeat three times. Each time a piece of bark falls down. If it falls three times with the inner side upwards they expect that Lubaki cannot possibly pass the test. If it falls with the inner side downwards on all three occasions they know he will have no trouble and will certainly win. If the results are mixed, they expect him to win, but with difficulty.

6. When those [taking the ordeal] have drunk [the infusion of bark] they are made to dance all day until the evening, when the cords and wads that have been put on them are removed. If no dirt is seen, the person is brought out naked like that into the dancing ground to dance again and be congratulated, because he has one. After the dance he would demand 'the pig of cleansing' from his accuser. But shame and suffering awaited those who failed the test. If a man died of the poison and there was no on strong enough to raise up his body and bury it, it would be burned right there in the street. Such people were not buried in the cemetary. One who excreted nkasa and had no good man to speak for him and protect him would be struck on the head and burned alive; in other areas they hanged such people from a tree.

7. The witch is someone who has hidden knowledge by virtue of which he obtains secret techniques, usually employed secretly. Witchcraft usually appears where there is jealousy, envy and the like. A person who has this hidden knowledge can do someone else harm without letting him know whence the hurt comes. He learns the techniques of sorcery (makani ma nsibila); with them the witch can send a curse (n'loko ) to someone else who is at a distance. Because of this cursing, the bewitched individual is bound by the techniques. A witch sends curses with two intents: (1) to distress the victim for a time, (2) to seize his life. These things are done by someone whose entire soul (kilunzi, kingongo) is gripped by jealousy.

8. Witchcraft also manifests itself very strongly in connection with malice and theft. In this regard there is a kind of witchcraft everybody knows about, called kinkondi or kimpungu. If a man has lost something, or had something unexpected happen to him, he may go to an nkondi-operator or to one who possesses mpungu to control the source of the difficulty- Then the magician (nganga ), acting on behalf of the enquirer, sends a curse; everything that is done 'is counted in the name of the client, not of the diviner (m'fyedisi ) himself. The client may have two intentions 1) to know the origin of the event that has befallen him 2) to counteract (lebikisa ) the origin of the event. In the latter case he may intend to cause the offender to suffer, or seek his life. One thing that may be done in this connection is to set out (tambula ) a charm, in the manner of a trap (n'tambu ). When the charms have been prepared they will deal with the one who has been cursed by them.

9. We are saying that the witch and possessor of kundu are the same sort of person, those who cause harm to the souls and bodies of others. In this sense, of causing harm, there is no doubt that witchcraft is real. In general, those we call witches are malicious, greedy and jealous people who are in effect murderers because they all have the same motive: killing others or preventing them from enjoying human happiness. Such people are witches and man-eaters. As for actual cannibalism, there was never any of that in this country; possibly among other tribes, but not among the Bakongo. Foreigners have the idea that there was cannibalism because they did not understand what was being discussed.

10. If the people had been cannibals, then we would not now see the graves of criminals who were killed by the clans and in the markets; they would first have been eaten. Since there were chiefs with the power to execute wrongdoers, what was to prevent such bodies from being eaten, if cannibalism had been practiced? So there is no ground for believing that there was any; the only "cannibals" in Kongo culture were sorcerers (n'tambi mia min'kisi ), jealous people, and covert killers.

From Yakobi Munzele, Bakulu beto ye Diela diau. 1965. Mimeographed.


1. Witchcraft is recognized when a person who is having an argument with another predicts misfortune for him as a curse (bu katesanga wayandi mambu mu nsingulu ); if the utterance takes effect in the sense of the words (mabwa nongo vo mayenda betila ), then the one who said it is not innocent (kena wanana ko ) but is suspected of being a witch. . . Acts of witchcraft are best recognized in human malevolence (kimfunia kiamuntu ).

2. "Ta ngombo " or divining (fiela ) with the aid the class of nkisi called Ntadi (tala, "look at") is a way to discover witches. When people want to protect themselves from witches they get a large nkisi of the Nkosi type (kosa, "smash") in order to koma nloko [hammer in nails, provoking the nkisi to avenge itself on the evildoer]. When the witches see that an nkisi as big as that has been mobilized against them they let go of the invalid. Any witch who obstinately hangs on will be sought out by Nkosi in the divination (fiela, "seek out"); when it knows that the witch it has seen is the one who has seized the invalid it will immediately administer a fatal curse.

3. The nganga may bury nkisi medicines at the entrances to the village. When a witch crosses them the nkisi goes after him, but if an innocent person (muntu wa nana ) without any witchcraft crosses them the nkisi will not follow him.

4. If it appears that someone is a witch, he cannot be corrected by word of mouth alone; the only possible correction is nkasa. If be does not take nkasa , then take a gun and straightway shoot him. If he does not want to be shot then when be is drinking they may take [a preparation of the bark of] mbundu, or a little nkasa, and slip it in his cup of palmwine.

5. The meaning of the expression ku mpemba is that that is where the dead go. It is the country or village of the dead. Where the grave-mounds (ndiamu ) are is called mpemba [lit. "chalk," "chalk white"]. The graves are the reason why the village of the dead was given the name "ku mpemba," which is derived from the grave-mounds above ground.

6. So the one says to the other, "Give me your mother." But he says, "Oh, my mother, no, I don't think so ... .. Well, your brother, then." "Oh, my brother, no, I couldn't." And so on, until the witch agrees to hand over someone. Then be closes off [the victim's voice, or removes his arm or leg. He doesn't cut if off visibly, in the ordinary way, but just draws off the soul (vola kini ) of the arm or leg. Later the arm or leg that has been handed over will develop a sore because the witch has taken its essence (ngudi ).

7. Not everybody is a witch, but anyone who wants to acquire the power (vanda kundu ) may do so. Once he has it, however, he cannot abandon it but must be what he is. Witchcraft can be acquired from charms (bakisi ), because sometimes when the bakisi are being activated (vanda ) the process cannot be concluded until the apprentice magician (mwan'a nganga ) has handed over a human being (vana muntu mu mpandulu ). Some kinds of nkisi require this because the statue (teki ) has to have a person (muntu ) put in it so that it may have the powers (ngolo ) proper to it...

8. Magicians (nganga ) who have their own witchcraft may be able to return a person before he has been eaten by his kinsmen, because after they have got him they may keep him to wait for some witch of outstanding viciousness to come and choke off his breath (zenga vumunu ). So the magician may be able to steal the man under cover of the witchcraft in his art (kuna nsi a bundoki mu kinganga kiandi ) . His healing, too, is superior healing because he heals by his kundu.

9. People think that the body is in two parts. The witches first remove the inner body (ngudi a nitu); what remains is just a shell (huhudi ). The inner body which is removed has blood in it, whereas the residual shell is just water. The witches have eaten the blood there was in the dead man. They mostly eat during the night rather than by day. When they cook it is on the same fire we cook at by day. The place used by non-witches to cook and eat, and the same dishes they eat from, are used by the witches to prepare meat, just as any other meat is prepared. If the witches are man and wife then the man cuts up the food. His wife cooks it. If only one spouse is a witch the other knows nothing about it when someone is eaten in their house, because the witch does his cooking under cover of his witchcraft.

10. When they draw off (hola ) someone's body, what remains is just an envelope (kiukula ) such as a snake or a cockroach sheds.

11. Witches recognize one another when they meet on their nocturnal travels. They are divided into groups (makabu ) and houses for eating purposes. They divide up meat at night just as we do by day. If people do not belong to the same clan (kanda dimosi ) then they do not share meat, whether by day or by night, under witchcraft. Some [witches] operate (handa ) in their own clans, others come from different clans, but when they meet each clan has its own kundu.4

12. Although witches recognize one another, no witch can ever admit to himself (kukizaikisa ) that he is one. Non-witches just use their eyes. If they see a woman who always seems to have money, they know she operates a money kundu (kundu diambongo kahanda ). If they see a hunter who always hits his quarry they know he operates a gluttony kundu (kundu diankunia ): who eats people eats game in the forest. That's how people figure out witchcraft.

Extracts from Konda Jean, Mavanga ma Kindoki, Cahier No. 120, Laman Collection, Lindingo, Sweden. ca. 1910.


Maledimba and his wife Bakesuka were suspected of responsibility for the death of their daughter Miankodila, who had gone to live with her husband in Boma, at a distance of several days' journey. Bakesuka said her husband bad "eaten" their daughter by witchcraft. At a public meeting to investigate the matter, Maledimba told this story, as reported by another intermediary, who was there. The incident occurred in North Manianga in 1947.

I, Maledimba, have come to this village, Masangi, with my neighbors, to meet You, my in-laws, and people of Masangi, and to straighten out the matter of the death of our daughter Miankodila, who went to Boma to live with son-in-law Madiama. Now you, my in-laws, people of the village, and all who are gathered here with us, pay close attention to what happened. All right. Bakesuka says she knows nothing, but we were one another's witnesses and we know beiween us that she is a liar and cannot be excused from this. Again I say, pay close attention to what happened, how we went to Boma as it were in the spirit (bonso ku nsi a mpila mayembo ), and how the matter ended.

2. When Mr. Madiama asked to marry our daughter we were not very happy about it because he lived far away in Boma. We wanted her to marry nearby to be able to help us. But our daughter did not want to, so we allowed them to marry. And now I say to you parents, if love erupts, don't try to stop it; let it boil over and spill on the floor, like a little stream that finds its own way.

3. When we had agreed with my clan and my wife's clan that they should marry, we asked for what we wanted and we received palmwine, marriage money, and the rest. But just imagine! You know what it's like when something that was yours is taken away, how deprived you feel. When we began to feel that our loss was more than we could stand, we cast about for a way to overcome it. After the wedding we sent Miankodila off to Boma with her husband, and misery descended on us, because we loved her very much and she was so useful in the house.

4. In our depression we decided to go to Boma to kill our child. When we had agreed on this we left home, the four of us: myself, Bakesuka my wife, our son Mahungu, and Kuzimbuku. We went to Boma in the guise of owls, with witch lights, resting on the way at Kingila village over by Mbanza Mona; we asked permission from the local witch to rest ourselves in the village and he said we could. The request was made so that other witches would not be surprised at our arrival and there would be no trouble between us; and after all, it is the custom of the BaKongo if they want to spend the night in a strange village to ask permission first from the elders.

5. After staying at Kingila we set off again, resting once more at the Kinkenge mission, in the silk-cotton tree there. After Kinkenge, Tshela, then over the Mayombe forests all the way to Boma, but in Boma we couldn't at first find the house of a child of ours of the clan, or "witchcraft" apprentice there, a witch who was to show us our son-in-law's house where our daughter lived.

6. After resting a little, and getting ready to see whether the house was protected by any sort of charm, we sent our son Mahungu ahead to find out whether Miankodila was at home. He reported that she was. Immediately Bakesuka and I went into the house, while the other two stayed outside to watch for anyone who might come to defend her. I did not want to stay outside to guard the house, because there is a rule that unless the father makes the decision [nzengolo, which could also mean cut] the child will not die, because be is under father's protection (ku nsi a lupangu lwa se ). When it was time to remove the soul my wife signalled outside and I immediately seized her throat ( bula kingoodingoodi ) and strangled her in a witchcraft fury, [toma fieta (squeeze, strangle) mu mfumfu (gluttonous eagerness) ya kindoki ] so that she died. Then there were just the two of us. We went outside and told our assistants that she was dead. "Let's be on our way, lest the dawn surprise us." When we got home we did not want to go to work, our bodies were so tired.

From N. Diantezila, Munkukusa, evo KiMaledimba. 1970. Mimeographed.


Lutete: I have come to accuse Hanna, not idly, but because she is a witch. Elder sister Mayi fell ill, and Hanna agreed that she had caused her harm on account of a quarrel in the fields. When she blessed her she got better.

The Court, to Hanna: Who taught you witchcraft?

Hanna: The person who taught me was Mary Ntongo, but she only gave me a recipe that caused diarrhea.

[She went to the headman and said, "I want to be purified, because I am a witch."]

The Court: When you obtained the earth [to be used for sorcery], from whom did you get it?

Hanna: From a man.

Q: Where is he?

A: He's dead.

Q: Who killed him? A: I killed him.

Q: What are you?

A: A witch. I was angry with my husband and killed him because he threw me out of the house, that's why I did it, and someone had my peanuts eaten up by sheep.

Q: Is it good or bad to put an end to a government employee?

A: What I did was bad.

WHEREAS you, Lutete, have accused Hanna of being a witch and killing people by witchcraft, and

WHEREAS you, Lutete, do not make the accusation idly but because your sister's child has died and Hanna has admitted being a witch, and

WHEREAS you, Hanna, have admitted killing your husband, and

WHEREAS you admit the charge,

THE COURT fines you 300 francs and a sheep to be paid to Lutete.

From the official transcript of a case heard in the local court, Mbanza Manteke, 1964, with additional material from the clerk's manuscript notes.