The Chokwe are a breakaway group of the Lunda people. 

From Lewis Gann: The Chokwe, Lwena, Luchazi, Lwimbi, Songo and Ovimbundu peoples of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia have related histories, cultural traits and cosmologies, which they embed in distinct ways in a shared visual vocabulary.

According to some accounts, the groups derive from a shared ancestry, when, in the late 1500s or early 1600s, a Lunda senior chief, named either Yala Muaku or Konde, opted to appoint his daughter Lweji, as his successor. His two sons, Chinguli and Chinyama, left the court upset and, with their followers, migrated to other territories, conquering and intermarrying with other peoples. Their settlements and those established by their descendants eventually engendered distinct ethnicities, including the Chokwe, Lwena (Lovale) , Luchazi, Lwimbi and others.

The Chokwe became very good traders and were involved in every type of trade in Angola – elephant tusks, slaves, beeswax (used then to make candles) and rubber.  At first they used intermediaries to transport their wares to the Portuguese along the coast but eventually cut out all middlemen and took the goods themselves.   

During the mid-1800s the Chokwe attacked the main Lunda Empire taking control but, after some years the Lunda fought back to regain their dominance. 

The Chokwe, though, had other ways to influence chiefs in the region.  They had amongst their tribe excellent carvers who made sculptured chairs and masks.  These artefacts were used by the chiefs to show off their power and authority, thereby giving the Chokwe great influence.  Many of the items are now housed in museums around the world. 

As a note here, the Luba were also well-skilled in sculpting masks and furniture so, it seems likely that some of the carvers from the original Luba Empire followed the Chokwe on their travels. It would mean, of course, that these carvers left the Luba Empire, moved into the Lunda Empire and then left with the Chokwe. As these early movements took place a long time ago, I doubt we will never know the true story, but it is a conundrum …

Chokwe artefacts now housed in American museums

The Chokwe were also one of the tribes who had makishi, a group of masked men who would join in the rituals of other tribes. 

The Chokwe were late arrivals into now-Zambia.  Although they did trek into the area previously, they never settled here.  It was only during colonial rule in the early 1900s that some of them left Angola and moved, for economic purposes, into now-Zambia.  They were allocated land, together with their cousins, also from Angola in an area to the northwest. 

Still today the Chokwe and their makishi dancers are often found at traditional ceremonies around the west of Zambia where they entertain the adults and scare children.