Embassy of Angola in the United States



The culture of Angola is influenced by the Portuguese. Portugal occupied the coastal enclave Luanda, and later also Benguela, since the 16th/17th centuries, and expanded into the territory of what is now Angola in the 19th/20th centuries, ruling it until 1975. Both countries share cultural aspects: language (Portuguese) and main religion (Roman Catholic Christianity). However, the Angolan culture is mostly native Bantu, which was mixed with Portuguese culture. The diverse ethnic communities with their own cultural traits, traditions and native languages or dialects include the Ovimbundu, Ambundu, Bakongo, Chokwe, Avambo and other peoples.

Ethnic groups and languages


The largest ethnolinguistic category, the Ovimbundu, were located in west-central Angola, south of Mbundu-inhabited regions.The language of the Ovimbundu is Umbundu.The core area of the Ovimbundu kingdoms was that part of the Benguela Plateau north of the town of Huambo. Expansion continuing into the twentieth century enlarged their territory considerably, although most Ovimbundu remained in that part of the plateau above 1,200 meters in elevation.

Like most African groups of any size, the Ovimbundu were formed by the mixture of groups of diverse origin (and varying size). Little is known of developments before the seventeenth century, but there is some evidence of additions to the people who occupied the Benguela Plateau at that time. Over time, a number of political entities, usually referred to as kingdoms, were formed. By the eighteenth century, there were twenty-two kingdoms. Thirteen were fully independent; the other nine were largely autonomous but owed tribute to one of the more powerful entities, usually the kingdom of Bailundu, but in some cases Wambu or Ciyaka. By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, effective occupation by the Portuguese had caused a fairly rapid decline in the power of the heads of these kingdoms, but Ovimbundu continued to think of themselves as members of one or another of the groups based on these political units after World War II.

Kimbundu, or North Mbundu

Is one of two Bantu languages called Mbundu is the second-most-widely spoken Bantu language in Angola. It is concentrated in the north-west of the country, notably in the provinces of Luanda, Bengo, Malanje and the Cuanza Norte. It is spoken by the Ambundu.


Just north of Ovimbundu territory lived the Mbundu, the second largest ethnolinguistic category, whose language was Kimbundu. In 1988 they made up an estimated 25 percent of the Angolan population. In the sixteenth century, most of the groups that came to be known as Mbundu (a name apparently first applied by the neighboring Bakongo) lived well to the east of the coast in the plateau region (at a somewhat lower altitude than the Ovimbundu); a few groups in the far northeast lived at altitudes below 700 meters. In general, the outlines of the area occupied by the Mbundu had remained the same. The major exception was their expansion of this area to parts of the coast formerly occupied by Bakongo and others.

Although most of the boundaries of Mbundu territory remained fairly firm, the social and linguistic boundaries of the category had shifted, some of the peripheral groups having been variably influenced by neighboring groups and the groups close to the coast having been more strongly influenced by the Portuguese than were the more remote ones. Moreover, the subdivisions discernible for the sixteenth century (and perhaps earlier) also changed in response to a variety of social and linguistic influences in the colonial period. The Mbundu in general and the western Mbundu in particular, located as they were not far from Luanda, were susceptible to those influences for a longer time and in a more intense way than were other Angolan groups.


The Kikongo-speaking Bakongo made up an estimated 15 percent of the Angolan population. In 1988 the Bakongo were the third largest ethnolinguistic group in Angola. Concentrated in Uíge, Zaire, and Cabinda provinces, where they constituted a majority of the population, the Bakongo spilled over into the nation of Zaire (where they were the largest single ethnic group) and Congo. Although the Angolan city of São Salvador (renamed Mbanza Congo) was the capital of their ancient kingdom, most of the Bakongo were situated in Zaire.

Their former political unity long broken, the various segments of the ethnolinguistic category in Angola experienced quite different influences in the colonial period. The Bashikongo, living near the coast, had the most sustained interaction with the Portuguese but were less affected by participation in the coffee economy than the Sosso and Pombo, who were situated farther east and south. All three groups, however, were involved in the uprising of 1961.


The hyphenated category Lunda-Chokwe constituted an estimated 8 percent of the Angolan population in 1988. As the hyphenation implies, the category comprises at least two subsets, the origins of which are known to be different and the events leading to their inclusion in a single set are recent. The Lunda alone were a congeries of peoples brought together in the far-flung Lunda Empire (seventeenth century to nineteenth century) under the hegemony of a people calling themselves Ruund, its capital in the eastern section of Zaire's Katanga Province(present-day Shaba Province). Lunda is the form of the name used for the Ruund and for themselves by adjacent peoples to the south who came under Ruund domination. In some sources, the Ruund are called Northern Lunda, and their neighbors are called Southern Lunda. The most significant element of the latter, called Ndembu (or Ndembo), lived in Zaire and Zambia. In Angola the people with whom the northward-expanding Chokwe came into contact were chiefly Ruund speakers. The economic and political decline of the empire by the second half of the nineteenth century and the demarcation of colonial boundaries ended Ruund political domination over those elements beyond the Zairian borders.

The Chokwe, until the latter half of the nineteenth century a small group of hunters and traders living near the headwaters of the Cuango and Cassai rivers, were at the southern periphery of the Lunda Empire and paid tribute to its head. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Chokwe became increasingly involved in trading and raiding, and they expanded in all directions, but chiefly to the north, in part absorbing the Ruund and other peoples. In the late nineteenth century, the Chokwe went so far as to invade the capital of the much-weakened empire in Katanga. As a consequence of this Chokwe activity, a mixed population emerged in parts of Zaire as well as in Angola, although there were virtually homogenous communities in both countries consisting of Chokwe, Ruund, or Southern Lunda.


Ngangela is generic term for a number of closely related Bantu languages in south-eastern Angola spoken by the Ngonzelo, Luchazi, Nyemba, Luvale, Luimbi, Mbunda, Mbuela, Yauma and Nkangala ethnic groups. Yauma language and Nkangala language are in turn Mbunda dialects. Nkangala, Mbalango, Sango, Ciyengele ("Shamuka") and Ndundu are closely related.

Ovambo, Nyaneka-Nkhumbi, Herero, and others

In far southwestern Angola, three categories of Bantu-speaking peoples have been distinguished. Two of them, the Ovambo and the Herero, were more heavily represented elsewhere: the Ovambo in Namibia and the Herero in Namibia and Botswana. The Herero dispersion, especially that section of it in Botswana, was the consequence of the migration of the Herero from German South West Africa (present-day Namibia) after their rebellion against German rule in 1906. The third group was the Nyaneka-Humbe. Unlike the other groups, the Nyaneka-Humbe did not disperse outside Angola. In 1988 the Nyaneka-Humbe (the first group is also spelled Haneca; the latter group is also spelled Nkumbi) constituted 3 percent of the population. The Ovambo, of which the largest subgroup were the Kwanhama (also spelled Kwanyama), made up an estimated 2 percent of the Angolan population. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Kwanhama Kingdom of southern Angola was a powerful state involved in a lucrative trade relationship with the Portuguese, who, together with the Germans, occupied Kwanhama territory in the early twentieth century. In the 1980s, the Ovambo were seminomadic cattle herders and farmers. The Herero constituted no more than 0.5 percent of the population in 1988. Traditionally, the Herero were nomadic or seminomadic herders living in the arid coastal lowlands and in the mountainous escarpment to the east in Namibe, Benguela, and Huíla provinces. Many Herero migrated south to Namibia when the Portuguese launched a military expedition against them in 1940 following their refusal to pay taxes.

All of these southern Angolan groups relied in part or in whole on cattle raising for subsistence. Formerly, the Herero were exclusively herders, but they gradually came to engage in some cultivation. Although the Ovambo had depended in part on cultivation for a much longer time, dairy products had been an important source of subsistence, and cattle were the chief measure of wealth and prestige.

The southwestern groups, despite their remoteness from the major centers of white influence during most of the colonial period, were to varying degrees affected by the colonial presence and, after World War II, by the arrival of numbers of Portuguese in such places as Moçâmedes (present-day Namibe) and Sá da Bandeira (present-day Lubango).

Hunters, gatherers, herders, and others

Throughout the lower third of Angola, chiefly in the drier areas, were small bands of people. Until the twentieth century, most of them were nomadic hunters and gatherers, although some engaged in herding, either in addition to their other subsistence activities or as their chief means of livelihood. Those who survived turned, at least in part, to cultivation.

The bands living a nomadic or seminomadic life in Cuando Cubango Province (and occasionally reaching as far east as the upper Cunene River) differed physically and linguistically from their sedentary Bantu-speaking neighbors. Short, saffron-colored, and in other respects physically unlike the Nganguela, Ovambo, and Nyaneka-Humbe, they spoke a language of the !Xu-Angola or Maligo set of tongues referred to as Khoisan (the exclamation point denotes a specific kind of click), whose precise relations to each other are not yet fully understood by observers.

Several other hunting and gathering or herding groups, the members of which were taller and otherwise physically more like the local Bantu speakers, lived farther west, adjacent to the Ovambo and Herero. These people spoke Bantu languages and were less nomadic than the Khoisan speakers, but they were clearly different from the Ovambo and Herero and probably preceded them in the area. As with most African art, the wooden masks and sculptures of Angola are not merely aesthetic creations. They play an important role in cultural rituals, representing life and death, the passage from childhood to adulthood, the celebration of a new harvest and the marking of the hunting season. Angolan artisans work in wood, bronze, ivory, malachite or ceramic mediums. Each ethno-linguistic group in Angola has its own unique artistic traits. Perhaps the single most famous piece of Angolan art is the Cokwe thinker, a masterpiece of harmony and symmetry of line. The Lunda-Cokwe in the north eastern part of Angola is also known for its superior plastic arts.

Other signature pieces of Angolan art include the female mask Mwnaa-Pwo worn by male dancers in their puberty rituals, the polychromatic Kalelwa masks used during circumcision ceremonies, Cikungu and Cihongo masks which conjure up the images of the Lunda-Cokwe mythology (two key figures in this pantheon are princess Lweji and the civilizing prince Tschibinda-Ilunga), and the black ceramic art of Moxico of central/eastern Angola.

Angola Cultural Symbols

The sculpture known as TheThinker is one of the most beautiful pieces of the Chokwe origin and represents all Angolans by symbolizing its national culture. The statue is seen bending down with both legs crossed and its hands placed on its head, which symbolizes the human thought. The Thinker is a charming piece that really leaves the audience thinking. The piece is also represented as the protector of the village of Chokwe and puts everybody in good-spirit. The statue can be seen as a man or a woman but however seen, it represent a strong sense of wisdom and knowledge and is seen with great respect. The Thinker is one of the oldest and well-known artifacts in Angola.

The cultural origins of Angola are tied to the traditions of the central Bantu peoples and the ancient kingdom of Kongo . Located on the southwestern coast of Africa, Angola became a key colony in the growing Portuguese empire after 1500, but for most of the years of its domination Portugal exerted little cultural influence, content to control the slave trade from forts along the coast. Only after the mid-19th century did Portugal seek control of the entire territory, thus spawning a resistance that inspired much art and literature. Angola's struggle for independence was long and violent, and life in the independent nation has also been marred by intense civil war. Such disorder has obstructed the development of Bantu customs and also destroyed the more Portuguese traditions of the coastal cities.

The largest ethnolinguistic groups in Angola have distinct cultural profiles as well as different political loyalties. Most numerous are the Ovimbundu, who are located in the central and southern areas and speak Umbundu. The Mbundu are concentrated in the capital, Luanda, and in the central and northern areas and speak Kimbundu.

The Bakongo speak variants of the Kikongo language and also live in the north, spanning the borders with Congo and the Congo Republic. Other important groups include the Lunda, Chokwe, and Nganguela peoples, whose settlements are in the east. A small but important minority of mesticos (Portuguese-Africans) live in larger cities, especially Luanda. Before 1975, Angola had one of the largest white minorities in Africa, many of whom had never seen Portugal, but most left at the threat of independence. Portuguese is the country's official language, and the majority of Angolans are Roman Catholics. There are also smaller numbers of Protestants and people who practice traditional religions exclusively, though many Angolans combine some traditional beliefs with their Christianity.

The traditional arts of Angola have played an important part in cultural rituals marking such passages as birth or death, childhood to adulthood, and the harvest and hunting seasons. In producing masks and other items from bronze, ivory, wood, malachite, or ceramics, each ethnolinguistic group has distinct styles. For example, the ritual masks created by the Kunda Chokwe represent such figures from their mythology as Princess Lweji and Prince Tschibinda-Ilunga.

The use of these ceremonial masks is always accompanied with music and storytelling, both of which have developed in important ways. Angolans' literary roots in the oral tradition were overlaid during the 19th century with the writings of Portuguese-educated Portuguese-Africans in the cities.

Literature helped to focus anticolonial resistance and played an important role in the independence struggle. Angola's most famous poet, Antonio Agostinho Neto, was the leader of an important political movement. His works centered around themes of freedom and have been translated into many languages. Post-independence literature, however, has been limited by censorship and ongoing political strife.

Many buildings in Angola record the cultural contributions of the Portuguese. Some of the earliest landmarks are churches in the far north that served as bases for missionaries to the Kongo kingdom. One fine example of many is the Church of Se in the city of Mbanza Kongo.

The later construction of many coastal forts corresponds to the area's growing slave trade. Fort Sao Miguel in Luanda, built at the turn of the 17th century, is the most famous of these. This massive fort was for many years a self-contained town protected by thick walls encrusted with cannons. The fort served as slave depot, administrative center, and residence for the Portuguese community. The Cathedral of Luanda, completed in 1628, is another impressive monument in the capital. Virtually every coastal city has a set of historic buildings that are broadly similar. The Church of Sao Tiago in the town of Namibe, for example, was built during the 19th century in a style very reminiscent of the 16th-century churches in more northern towns.

City of Mbanza Kongo on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Honors African continent

In September 2017, Mbanza Kongo provided an entry for Angola on the scene of world cultural policy, which will require a great responsibility of all actors in the Angolan society, and should therefore conserve, value and promote it.It is a heritage that honors not only Angola but also all African continent, whose conquest forced an intense cultural diplomacy work with the African partners and the members of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) that have been reviewed as beneficiaries.

Other Cultural Symbols:

A part of The Thinker sculpture (O Pensador), the other main cultural symbols of Angola are: the Black Sable Antelope, and the Baobab tree (O Imbondeiro).