The largest ethnolinguistic category, the Ovimbundu, were located in west-central Angola, south of Mbundu-inhabited regions. In 1988 the United States Department of State estimated that they constituted 37 percent of the population. The language of the Ovimbundu was 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.
In addition to the groups that clearly spoke dialects of Umbundu, there were two on the periphery of Ovimbundu distribution: the Mbui, who seemed to straddle the linguistic boundary between the Ovimbundu and the Mbundu; and the Dombe living to the west near the coast, whose language was closely related to Umbundu, although not a dialect of it. The Dombe and several other groups, including the Nganda and the Hanya (who, according to one account, spoke Umbundu dialects) relied on cattle raising, as did their southern neighbors, the Herero and the Ovambo. Still others, typically the old tributary kingdoms, came to speak Umbundu relatively recently.
Until the Portuguese established firm control over their territory, the Ovimbundu--particularly those of the major kingdoms of Bailundu (to the northwest), Bihe (to the northeast), and Wambu (in the center)--played important roles as intermediaries in the slave, ivory, and beeswax trades, acting as carriers, entrepreneurs, and raiders. With the decline of the slave trade in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the entrepreneurs among the Ovimbundu turned to the rubber trade, abandoning the warfare and raiding that had hitherto been integrally related to their economic activities. The rubber slump at the beginning of the twentieth century, the end of the de facto autonomy of their kingdoms not long after, and the displacement of Ovimbundu traders by the Portuguese forced these people to turn to cash-crop agriculture. (The men had hitherto had little involvement with cultivation; in fact, the women continued to be responsible for the cultivation of subsistence crops.)
The introduction of cash crops, particularly coffee, led to a series of changes in settlement patterns and social arrangements. But after a time, soil exhaustion, lack of support of African agriculture by the colonial authorities, incursions of Portuguese settlers who took over valuable property in the highlands, and a number of other factors contributed to a decline in the success of Ovimbundu cash-crop agriculture. By the early 1960s, up to 100,000 Ovimbundu, estimated at one-quarter of the group's able-bodied adult males, were migrating on one-year and two-year labor contracts to the coffee plantations of Uíge and Cuanza Norte provinces; another 15,000 to 20,000 sought work in Luanda and Lobito; and roughly the same number worked in the industrial plants of Huambo or for European farmers in the Benguela Plateau. In most cases, remuneration was low, but these migrant workers had little alternative. This pattern continued through the remainder of the colonial period, except for those males who were involved in nationalist activity (usually with UNITA).
In the 1940s, the Ovimbundu organized what was probably the most closely knit Angolan community of the colonial era. With the financial and ideological aid of North American Christian missionaries, they established a network of Christian villages, each with its own leadership, schools, churches, and clinics. They were thus able to maintain the Ovimbundu culture while providing educational and social amenities for their children. The generation that emerged out of this structure became the disciples of Jonas Savimbi and the basis for UNITA, which in the 1980s used the same concepts to maintain Ovimbundu cohesiveness within UNITA-controlled areas.
Given the degree of change in Ovimbundu society and the involvement of the Ovimbundu with UNITA, it was difficult to determine their long-range role in Angolan politics. Just how long Ovimbundu solidarity would persist under changing circumstances could not be predicted.
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