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Angola Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Angola is a great case study to examine what ethnic identities mean to many people in the world today. In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnicity and ethnic conflict in Angola, and see what this has meant to the nation.

Angola

Many nations across the world have formed nations by having ethnic populations band together. In some cases, this population had to fight against a colonial empire to gain independence first. But, what if you have multiple ethnic groups fighting for independence at the same time? The results can be interesting. That's what happened in the West African nation of Angola, situated on the continent's Atlantic coast.

Angola was a colony of the Portuguese Empire for centuries, not achieving its independence until 1975. Gaining this independence forced the main ethnic groups of Angola to work together, but maintaining that unity was difficult. The result was a massive civil war that only ended in 2002. National unity is not always easy, but is harder still when unity was based on fighting an empire that's no longer there.

Angola
Angola

Ovimbundu in Angola

So, who are these ethnic groups that fought for independence together? Angola is home to a large diversity of ethnolinguistic groups. Most are African, but it should be noted that a small minority are Portuguese, or mestico - a Portuguese term for a person of mixed African and Portuguese heritage.

However, there are three groups that really dominate Angolan life. The most numerous are the Ovimbundu, who make up about 37% of the total population. For centuries, the Ovimbundu were traders, managing trade routes between other African groups, and eventually the Portuguese.

Under colonial rule, Ovimbundu people gained many positions of authority from the Portuguese; however, they were also one of the major groups to push for independence. The guerrilla movement called the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, largely represented the Ovimbundu. After independence, the Ovimbundu found themselves the subjects of ethnic discrimination, and UNITA fought back, setting events in motion that would spark the nation's costly civil war.

Ethnic tensions were a major factor in the civil war that devastated Angola
Angola

The Kimbundu

The next largest ethnic group in Angola is the Kimbundu, who make up about 25% of the nation. Sometimes you will see this group referred to as the Mbundu or Northern Mbundu. The Kimbundu people trace their ancestry back to a West African kingdom called Ndongo, ruled by a chief named Ngola. This is from where the name of Angola derived. Many Kimbundu today are farmers, but they too had a major role in the independence movement and civil war.

The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, politically represented the Kimbundu. After independence, the MPLA seized power and embraced harsh policies targeted against the other ethnic groups of the nation, particularly the Ovimbundu. A number of the MPLA leadership were not actually Kimbundu, but Portuguese, but they still garnered most of their political support from the Kimbundu people.

Kimbundu women today, holding traditional fishing baskets
Kimbundu women

The Bakongo

The third of the major ethnic groups of Angola are the Bakongo, who make up about 13% of the total population. During the independence struggles, the Bakongo found political representation in the guerilla armies of the National Liberation Front of Angola, or FNLA.

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