Dancing a new face contemporary Sala Mpasu masquerades

The Sala Mpasu are a people who have repeatedly reinvented themselves during the twentieth century. The last of the peoples in the Congo (1) to be conquered by the Belgians, the Sala Mpasu had succeeded in keeping outsiders away by combining outstanding fighting skill with a reputation of being savage "cannibals. "(2) This carefully developed reputation backfired in the second half of the twentieth century, acting as a barrier to the aspirations of ambitious Sala Mpasu who attempted to break into social, political, and economic positions in a wider arena than the small Sala Mpasu area itself.

The Sala Mpasu reputation, made concrete by their men's society and their masquerades, served to protect their independence for perhaps as long as 200 years. For centuries, art played a part in protecting the Sala Mpasu from outside incursions and helped to preserve cultural, political, and economic institutions. Toward the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the Sala Mpasu and their neighbors met outside forces that they could not overcome.

Dancing a new face contemporary Sala Mpasu masqueradesBefore Belgian conquest, individual and group independence had been a hallmark of the Sala Mpasu society. Each man strove to achieve prominence by generating personal wealth and reputation through membership in a men's society, community leadership, and clan affiliation. Group independence proved more of a challenge since the Sala Mpasu area was rich in both natural resources, such as large iron deposits and fertile agricultural areas, and human resources, including a sophisticated blacksmithing tradition. The combination of these natural and human resources attracted the attention of neighboring peoples such as the Lunda, to the south, who strove to absorb this area into their own domain. The men's society, therefore, also served as a militia to fight off forceful attacks from the outside. The Sala Mpasu's cultivation of a reputation as fierce, cannibalistic warriors aided their bid to retain independence by keeping their enemies off balance. Any potential interloper would think twice before putting himself at risk of being eaten and thus not receiving proper funeral rites.

Early accounts report that masqueraders participated in generating this reputation by joining battles and terrorizing encroaching communities by night. Not only did militia groups use masquerades in fighting, organized masquerades also played an integral role in marking individual Sala Mpasu men's positions in society and in generating personal wealth. Each man had to both perform certain feats and pay expensive fees to the men who already had the right to perform a specific masquerade. Once a man had bought the right to a mask, other men would have to pay him for that privilege.

The Sala Mpasu applied the same techniques of image management to their encounters with Europeans that they had already used successfully with their neighbors. Taking advantage of the Belgians' own stereotypes about Africans, Sala Mpasu men regaled many early missionaries and colonial officials with tales of human feasts, complete with large iron pots, and claimed that Belgians listed as missing had been served up as appetizers. The Belgians, in one of their few colonial retreats, withdrew. They assigned one officer to the area who, for over twenty years, concentrated all his efforts on subduing the Sala Mpasu. They finally surrendered in the mid-1930s, making this area the last in the Congo to be occupied by the Belgians.

The Sala Mpasu, in spite of this subjugation to colonial forces, retained their ideals of individual initiative and wealth, although concepts of what constituted wealth changed. Rather than control of iron, blacksmiths, and oil palm groves, men now computed their wealth in bicycles, fired-brick houses, and wax-dyed cloth. As the focus of economic possibilities moved from the men's society to the new regional marketplaces, the Sala Mpasu turned to agriculture and regional trade. Their savage reputation, however, became an impediment to personal economic advancement and to the economic stability and growth of the entire area. For example, although in the late 1980s the Sala Mpasu spent their own money to repair their ferries and worked independently to fix the roads, most people were still afraid to go into the area to trade or attend weekly markets. It was said that people who went into the area never returned. The Sala Mpasu who went to the city to seek his fortune was shunned as a backward, dangerous cannibal. To avoid this fate, he would claim a different ethnicity.

Faced with such dilemmas, the Sala Mpasu took active steps to rehabilitate their image. For instance, through iconoclastic purges in 1962 and 1988, Sala Mpasu men publicly broadcast an end to the men's society and its associated masquerading. Instead, Sala Mpasu masquerade in the late 1980s and early 1990s cultivated a connection with le Scouts, a nationally recognized and government-sponsored organization similar to the Boy Scouts. In September, 1989, I was present when the village of Sambuyi publicly celebrated the return of newly circumcised and initiated "Scouts" with masquerade performance. Privately, the men involved with the camp stressed to me that this represented a re-formation of the men's society.

I was unaware of the upcoming events at Sambuyi until the day before, when a man approached me at a Saturday market and told me that if I was interested in masquerades, I should be at Sambuyi at noon the next day. I arrived just as the church service was letting out and all the people moved from the church to the performance area just outside. I was welcomed and told I could photograph the events. The musicians began to play (Fig. 2) and the masquerades to arrive.


This performance was vastly different from those reported in the limited literature in both the location of the performance space and the make-up of the audience. In the past, the masquerades were only performed in a specially prepared and protected space in a nearby forest and only before initiated eyes. The Sambuyi performance, on the other hand, was in the center of the village and before the eyes of the entire community. As I observed and photographed the event, I noticed that I did not see many women along the edge of the dance arena. I turned around and found all the women directly behind me. They were very nervous about seeing the masqueraders and perhaps felt that the presence of the foreign female photographer would somehow protect them from what, in the past, had been dangerous and forbidden. My presence also made other differences, as the masqueraders occasionally stopped in their performance to pose for my camera (Fig. 1). As the boys approached and the masqueraders disappeared, the women behind me informed me that these were Scouts returning from training camps. During the next week I was able to interview the men involved in the camp and tried to unravel the layers of meaning behind this event.


In the 1989 initiation, the boys were first circumcised at a public health clinic, and then the initiated men removed them to a secluded camp away from town where they learned the esoteric and practical knowledge necessary for manhood and for membership in the society. Before the newly initiated boys returned to the village, five masks danced in the center of the village next to a Protestant church (Figs. 3-5). As in the past, Sala Mpasu men still paid those who already had the rights for permission to wear the masks.


In preparation for the performance, a dance area was marked off with white flour. Both men and women strictly observed this restricted area, crowding to the edge but not going over the line. Each masquerade performed in turn with little interaction with the audience. Most simply ran around the edge of the dance arena (Figs. 3 and 5), occasionally stopping to have their picture taken (Fig. 1). Mukungua-nkilili twirled blindly, occasionally stepping over the white line with a resulting scattering of the audience (Fig. 4). Mukungu-a-nkilili was one of the more prestigious masks (3) and was therefore one of the final masks to perform. After the final masquerader was in the dance arena, the gathered community spotted the boys approaching and attention shifted from the arena to the road.

The boys returned to the village in military formation. Once they arrived in the village, they performed maneuvers and danced with staffs. These staffs were appropriate for Scouts but also could be interpreted as covert references to the swords and guns previously carried by the men's society militia. Each newly initiated boy continued to dance until his mother turned over the required amount of money and he was released to return to his family.