I don’t want to neglect this blog in 2011. Thus, I’ll be crossposting more stuff here to save anyone the trouble of going to subscribe to my DW.
Happy New Year!
I encountered Kimpa Vita last year in a few paragraphs while reading When We Ruled and those few paragraphs were enough for me to include a few paragraphs on her in one of my earlier blogs. For some reason, her name popped into my head last week and it remained there so I took it as I sign that I had to write this post.
I obviously only knew half of Kimpa Vita’s story previously because I did some online research while writing this and…wow, her story is truly amazing. You see it is not only Kimpa Vita’s life that fascinates me, no it’s the history of the Kingdom of Kongo itself. When placing them side by side, Kimpa Vita pales in comparison. She was just one woman and that region (mostly parts of modern day Angola and Congo) had a serious tradition of dangerously badass and powerful women.
Don Beatriz Kimpa Vita was born in 1682 or 1684, the year varies to a noble family in the Kingdom of Kongo. She was born during a time of internal strife, political unrest and civil war. As was the centuries old tradition with Kongolese nobles, she was baptised into the Roman Catholic church at birth. Now, fastforward to 1706, Kimpa Vita, her lover and their child were burned to death for witchcraft and heresy. During her life time, Kimpa Vita had managed to start an anti-colonial movement (according to this site, Kimpa Vita was the first African woman to fight against European dominance in Africa) and had done her part in exposing the racism and misogyny in the Catholic church.
As a child Kimpa Vita had ‘gifts’, she constantly saw visions and dreamt of playing with angels. Due to her inate spirituality, Kimpa Vita was trained as a nganga marinda, a person who could communicate with the spirit world. As could be expected, the European missionaries did not like the existence of the nganga marinda nor did they like that the Kongolese widely accepted them as legitimate (this despite two centuries of Catholicism).
With her training as a shaman and her indentification as a Christian, Kimpa Vita began to be recognised as a prophetess by 1704. Her interpretation of Christianity is called the Antonian Heresy because she claimed to have met Saint Anthony of Padua in a vision and to have been possessed by his spirit. She believed she was a reincarnation of him and was a medium for his spirit. In addition, by the time of her prophecy Kimpa Vita had already been through two failed marriages possibly due to her spirituality and independence.
Kimpa Vita is known for mixing local traditions with Christianity, she challenged practices and rituals such as marriage, confession and baptism branding them meaningless by arguing that God knew one’s intentions. Kimpa Vita called on her fellow people not to listen to European missionaries and preached that;
1. Kongo was the Holy Land described in the Bible
2. The Kongolese capital, Mbanza Kongo (also known as Sao Salvador) was the real site of Bethlehem
3. Jesus Christ and all the other saints were black Africans
4. Heaven was for Africans only
5. The white church was the anti-Christ
Kimpa Vita claimed all this had been divulged to her by God. She died every Friday and went to spend the weekend in heaven where she met God personally and discussed such topics as Kongo politics. It was through these meetings that she learnt all the of above including that Mary, mother of Jesus was a slave of a Kongo marquis. Indeed, Kimpa Vita’s ideology may seem radical but not if you look at the history of Catholicism and Christianity in the Kingdom of Kongo and examine how the people learnt to adapt a foreign religion with their local traditions.
Bear in mind that the Kingdom of Kongo had been Catholic for two centuries by the time Kimpa Vita was born. In 1491 Nzinga a Nukwu, the king of Kongo at that time, was the first royal to be baptised. However, Nzinga a Nukwu ended up changing his mind and leaving his newly adopted religion after some years, it was his son Afonso I who surely established the church in Kongo and attempted to make the country a Catholic one. Afonso I went further by creating schools that taught European education and Christianity to the nobility. He also had members of the noble class sent to Portugal to further their education and worked with both educated Kongolese and Portguese priests in his government.
This tradition continued with Afonso’s son, Henrique becoming the first bishop from sub-saharan Africa in 1518. Christianity grew further in the 16th century particularly under the reigns of Kings Alvaro I and Alvaro II who gave nobles titles such as Count, Duke and Marquis in the European manner. They also brought in relics such as bones of martyrs from Europe and established an embassy in Rome.
In my opinion, the Kongolese had formed their own brand of Christianity even before Kimpa Vita arrived. At a point in the kingdom’s history, the royalty wanted to create their own bishops and clergy which didn’t go well with the Pope and the Portuguese clergy. All attempts by foreign missionaries to purge local elements from the Kongolese Catholicism were met with resistance and ultimately failed (the same thing happened when the Dutch Calvinists tried to preach their faith).
The issue may have been that though the Kongolese believed they were worshipping an African god, they were not vocal about it. Missionaries taught the opposite of what Kimpa Vita (and most of the Kongolese population) believed, arguing that heaven was for whites only and that Jesus and all saints were white. Kimpa Vita vocally opposed such ideas and turned them upside down. She fought against the ‘Europeanization’ of Christianity and Kongo. .
However Kimpa Vita was not only trying to spread a purely African version of Christianity, at the same time she was also trying to bring an end to the civil wars that were weakening the Kingdom of Kongo. Kimpa Vita fought against slavery which was a thriving industry thanks to those numerous wars. It was her involvement in politics that eventually led to her fall, you see the wrong person had decided to follow her teachings leading rival contenders to the throne to view her as part of the enemy.
This person was Pedro Constantinho da Silva, a general to the King Pedro IV, who saw an ally with Kimpa Vita as a means to the throne. It was Pedro IV who captured Kimpa Vita and had her burned under the watchful eyes of the European missionaries. Before Pedro Constantinho da Silva became her follower, Pedro IV had shown interest in Kimpa Vita’s teachings and had protected her.
Kongo’s history is even more fascinating because while the people were staunch Catholics, they hated the invading Portuguese who had brought the religion to them. The Kongolese were known to be extremely proud people apparently the term ‘Congo arrogance’ was commonly used to describe them by colonial Portuguese in Angola.
The Kongolese fought against incoming colonisers despite religion so I guess this says something to people who believe that the introduction of a foreign religion somehow made indigenous people susceptible to European domination. Then again, I’ve not come across another case like that of Kongo though I’m sure they exist and are just hiding away somewhere waiting for me to stumble upon them.