Meet the Mwila people of Angola whose women cover their hair with cow dung
Angola has some of the most fascinating ethnic groups and cultures in the world. In southern Angola, there are the Mwila or Mumuhuila people. They are said to be a semi-nomadic ethnic group who are of Bantu origins.
Their main occupation is subsistence agriculture growing mostly maize and other staples. Others engage in livestock keeping – rearing goats, cattle and fowls.
History has it that, the Mwila are a part of the earliest Bantus to undertake the Great Bantu Migration to settle in their present home in Angola.
The Mwilas are a formidable group. Despite other Bantu settlers fleeing Angola to Namibia due to wars, invasion by larger ethnic groups or drought, the Mwila people and Nyaneka-Humbe their mother ethnic group remained in Angola.
The most fascinating and striking culture about the Mwilas is the way the women keep their hair. The women wear elaborate and unique hairstyles which have much value for the people of Mwila.
The dreadlocks-looking hairstyles are not just for the aesthetics. The plaits are called nontombi and the number of nontombis on a woman’s head has a specific meaning.
Women or girls usually have four or six nontombis. When you spot a woman or a girl in three nontombis, then it means someone has died in their family.
To achieve the nontombi, the women mix ochre or a red paste called oncula derived from crushed red stone.
They then add dried cow dung, herbs, crushed tree bark and a mixture of oils to the red paste which is then applied to their hair to form the nontombi. Their hair is then adorned with dried food, beads and cowries (real or plastics ones.)
Another way the women portray the Mwila culture is to accessorise themselves with elaborate jewelry and the way they dress. The women are particularly known for wearing thick collars made from mud and beads.
Every period of a woman or girl’s life determines the type of necklace they wear and the reason why they wear that type at the time.
Young girls wear red heavy necklaces, made with beads and coated with mix soil and latex. At a later stage in the girl’s life, they wear a yellow set of necklaces called Vikeka made with wicker-covered earth.
The girls wear the Vikeka until their wedding which can last up to four years. Once they are married, they wear a set of stacked up necklaces called Vilanda.
The Mwila women after marriage never take off their necklaces and must sleep with it. Headrests are used to protect their hairstyles.
In recent times, many Mwila people try to westernise their dressing because when they go to the main markets outside their locality, they are made fun of by others.
Another interesting thing about their culture is, they are not to mention the other’s name in public. They have a tribal chief who serves as the head of the tribe and his next in command is a headman.
After the headman is a group of elders serving directly under him. When there is a conflict among the people, the elders and headman intervene.
The Mwila are traditionalists and they believe in Supreme beings and they call upon the diviner often. They believe in spirits too because to them the spirits of their ancestors can either work for their good or against them.