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#TBTAfrica Dynamic Africa History Post - The Mangbetu & the process of Lipombo.

The Mangbetu are not a single group of people, but an amalgamation of different culturally and lingusitically-related peoples in Northeastern Congo. The major subgroups are the Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi and Abelu. Most of the ethnic groups that became part of the Mangbetu people were conquered by the most famous of Mangbetu leaders Nabiembali. During the early 19th century, Nabiembali launched several war campaigns that resulted in the conquering of several neighbouring peoples such as the Mangbele and Mabisanga. Nabiembali was later overthrown and deposed by one of his sons who lacked the leadership qualities necessary to keep much of the kingdom and chiefs’ support. 

European explorers of the area often describe the Mangbetu as being highly skilled and advanced in both societal and technological affairs, from the point of view of a European colonist. Georg Schweinfurth, the first European to reach the area, visited Mbunza, the Mangbetu ruler, in 1870, and described thousands of subjects at Mbunza’s court as well as hundreds of nobles and courtiers. Within the capital, there were many large buildings; smaller huts filled with animal skins, feathered hats, and necklaces; and an armory of iron spears, piles of knives, and hundreds of polished copper lances. Mbunza’s household included musicians, eunuchs, jesters, ballad singers, dancers, and bodyguards. Surrounding the capital were large, cultivated fields and orchards of oil palms and other trees (Schweinfurth 1874).

Art played a central role in Mangbetu society and crafts of all kinds were widely practiced and highly encouraged. Examples of their crafts include intricately forged chains and knives with carved ivory handles; geometric decoration of bodies, pots, mats, and houses; a distinctive coiffure that emphasized their artificially elongated heads; carefully carved stools, dishes, gongs, trumpets, and canoes; and finely formed human heads made out of clay and wood (Afritorial).

One of the most distinct features about the Mangbetu are their elongated skulls. At birth, the skull of a newborn is tightly bound with a chord (usually made from animal hide) in a process known as Lipombo. Lipombo is carried out to elongate the head of the individual as it grows and was usually reserved for the elite members of Mangbetu society. It was also seen as a feature of beauty. The practice of cranial elongation is also believed by some historians to have been done by the Ancient Egyptian, Mayan and Vanuatu societies. Famous Ancient Egyptian royalty such as Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and son Tutankhamun are often depicted as having what appear to be elongated skulls.

The process was thought to enlargen which therefore increases the intelligence of the child. With the arrival of Westerners who condemned the act, the tradition began to die out around the mid-1950s when it was outlawed by the colonist Belgian government.

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