Ovimbundu Social Structure

Angola Table of Contents

Before the twentieth century, neither matrilineage nor patrilineage dominated Ovimbundu society. Economic matters, such as property rights, seem to have been linked to the matrilineage, while political authority was passed through the patrilineage. The lineage system declined in the twentieth century, as more and more Europeans settled on the highly arable plateau. The results were land shortage and commercialization that loosened the control either lineage system might have over what had become the primary resource in the Ovimbundu economy. By the mid-1950s, terms formerly used for the patrilineal and matrilineal descent groups were still heard, but they no longer referred to a cohesive group. They were applied instead to individual patrilineal and matrilineal relatives. Significantly, the Portuguese term familia had also come into use by this time.

The development of cash-crop agriculture and changes in land tenure, in combination with inadequate soils and Ovimbundu agricultural techniques, led to soil depletion and the need by nuclear families for increasingly extensive holdings. Nucleated villages, consequently, became less and less feasible.

Increasingly, particularly in the coffee-growing area, the homestead was no longer part of the nucleated village, although dispersed homesteads in a given area were defined as constituting a village. The degree of dispersal varied, but the individual family, detached from the traditional community, tended to become the crucial unit. Where either Protestants or Roman Catholics were sufficiently numerous, the church and school rather than the descent group became the focus of social and sometimes of political life. In at least one study of a section of the Ovimbundu, it was found that each entity defined as a village consisted almost exclusively of either Protestants or Roman Catholics.

But given the problems of soil depletion and, in some areas, of land shortage, not all Ovimbundu could succeed as cash-crop farmers. A substantial number of them thus found it necessary to go to other regions (and even other countries) as wage workers. Consequently, some households came to consist of women and children for long periods.

In 1967 the colonial authorities, concerned by the political situation east of the Ovimbundu and fearing the spread of rebellion to the plateau regions, gathered the people into large villages to control them better and, in theory at least, to provide better social and economic services. The Ovimbundu, accustomed to dispersed settlement, strongly resented the practice. Among other things, they feared that the land they were forced to abandon would be taken over by Europeans (which in some cases did happen).

By 1970 compulsory resettlement had been abolished in part of Ovimbundu territory and reduced elsewhere. Then the Portuguese instituted a rural advisory service and encouraged the formation of what they called agricultural clubs. The old term for matrilineal descent group was sometimes applied to these organizations, which were intended to manage credits for Ovimbundu peasants. These units, however, were based on common interest, although traces of kin connections sometimes affected their operation, as did the relations between ordinary Ovimbundu and local rulers. Moreover, conflict within the group often took the form of accusations of sorcery. The effects on these units of independence, the stripping away of the advisory service, and the early years of the UNITA insurgency were unknown. It is unlikely, however, that the Ovimbundu took to enforced cooperation or collectivization easily.

The effects of the UNITA insurgency on Ovimbundu life were extensive and frequently devastating. Much of the fighting between government troops and UNITA forces, especially in the 1980s, took place on Ovimbundu-occupied territory. Largely dependent on agriculture, Ovimbundu village life was seriously disrupted, and large numbers of Ovimbundu were forced to flee, abandoning their traditions along with their homes.

As UNITA gained control over a growing area in southeast Angola, however, the organization tried to preserve the integrity of Ovimbundu life-style and customs. UNITA established a series of military bases throughout the southeast that served as administrative centers for the surrounding regions. Under Ovimbundu leadership, the bases provided educational, social, economic, and health services to the population, operating much like the village system on the central plateau. To what extent this system preserved at least some aspects of Ovimbundu traditional life in the late 1980s was unknown.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress