I’ve been promising a Congolese history post for a while now. I must to some extent claim both success and defeat. As I brought up in the previous Congolese folklore post, African history doesn’t look like European history. In fact looking at it from the ‘great dates, great deeds’ persepctive, there’s practically no ”history” prior to about the 15th century. On the other hand, the Congolese cultures remain largely unchanged from their beginnings tens of thousands of years ago. People can be found who live generally the way their ancestors did since time immemorial. The lifestyle is the history. For my final contribution to Black History Month (though I hope only a beginning towards promoting Afrocentric game material), I’d like to cover two of the cultural groups found in the Congo and in the surrounding areas and how some very surprising game material might come out of it.
The San are a hunter-gatherer group of the Bantu family who span over a majority of southern Africa. They are sometimes called Bushmen, but that is not their word for themselves. They in fact have many words for themselves depending on sub-tribe and location but San is the one designated for foreigners to use in describing the large collective. Now if I told you I was thinking about a ‘primitive’ people in a region of Africa specifically known for not being good agricultural ground and asked you to guess what RPG I thought might best fit the setting, I’m willing to bet FreeMarket would not be anywhere near the top of your list. Truth is, I happen to think it’s a pretty good fit.
One of the dirty little secrets of history is that agricultural development may have been humanity’s biggest mistake ever. Sure, the life of a hunter-gatherer isn’t idyllic and there’s something to be said for being able to store up food and water during the times Mother Nature isn’t so nice. We started farming for a reason. Yet what we find is that wars, disease, and the need for codified law and power structures don’t exist in any substantial form in early hunter-gatherer groups. It’s not until we decide that I own this land here and you own that land there and we have a bunch of kids to work said land and all get crammed together into towns and cities that violence and pestilence arise in force. In contrast, the San people, using Quinn’s ‘gameable culture’ notation….
* We require no more of our children than to play and socialize.
* When not foraging, we spend our time in conversation, joking, music, and sacred dances.
* We have an economy of gifts.
* We utilize our whole environment for food and tools leaving nothing to waste.
* We make decisions by concensus, men and women of all ages alike.
Archer-Spearman, Cosmic Child-Creator, Mother-Shaman. (Find a bunch of San folklore by clicking here.)
Eating bugs and hunting large game with poison-tipped weaponry may not be a lot of fun and there are no permanent homes to speak of, but really you could do a lot worse than live this sort of lifestyle in moderate to good conditions. It’s practically a low-tech post-scarcity (pre-scarcity?) culture. Certainly some amount game hacking would be required to make FreeMarket fit in here, but if you’re not a fan of the high-tech outer space science scene, consider being a hunter-gatherer in the south African desert.
Lest we slip into the trap that “all of unknown Africa was forever pastoral primitives”, right in the heart of the Congo as the Portuguese were making their first arrival was the Bushongo or Bakuba kingdom. “Kingdom” is one of these words that we today tend to think means one very particular thing where, in actuality, it isn’t at all a single concept. I’m going to paraphrase AfricaFederation.net here since it does a good job of explaining how the Bakuba kingdom was arranged:
In the Bakuba system of government the king was above all a symbol. His ministers, the Kolomos, paid him great respect in public, even if they were his known enemies. In private they made no pretense of subservience. If the king wanted to see his ministers he had to go to their houses or meet them on neutral ground. The ordinary members of the tribe had representatives at the court on a political and professional basis. Some of these officials represented geographical areas, trades and professions. The weavers, the blacksmiths, the boat-builders, the net-makers, the musicians and the dancers all had their representatives at court. There was even a special representative of the fathers of twins.
In addition, artistic expression was perhaps the most valued skill in the kingdom. It was said by some visitors that the Bushongo ‘left not one surface unornamented.’ Masks, cups, storage books and sculptures were all highly prized exports from the Bakuba homeland. (“The representative of the sculptors was held in highest esteem [at court]. The Bakuba sculptors are considered to be the finest in Africa.”)
Semi-feudal government? Check. Aristocrats with a lot of time on their hands? Check. Heavy cultural emphasis on decor and presentation? Double check! Bakuba is immediately recognizable as an excellent setting for a Houses of the Blooded game for those who want to get away from the Ven culture. You may have to go through European sources to get the most accessible descriptions of trade goods, but the dedicated researcher should be able to find some reference to the actual Bushongo royal documentation - one of the few cultures to rely on both written and oral traditions about equally. On the Trail of the Bushongo is a strong start.