Contra

Series Cultural Heritage

This portable amulet, whose origin is Congolese, can be found on all the islands of the Antilles. Investigations conducted by anthropologists like the American Robert Farris Thompson and the Congolese Fu-Kiau Bunseki have demonstrated that amulets like the Antillean contra can be traced in all cultures and folkloric expressions of Caribbean, Central and South American countries where our ancestors of Congolese descent established themselves. In Brazil, for example, this type of amulet is known as ponto de segurar. In Cuba, the type of amulet like the Antillean contra bears the names of makuto or nkisi, of Kikongo origin, while in Haiti they bear the French name of pacquet kongo.

In the regions of Africa where the Bantu culture is established, the type of amulet like the contra is made with the function of driving away what is called in the Kikongo language lu-fukú. Nothing strange, if we consider that in Papiamento there are many words of Congolese origin (mainly of the Loango and Kikongo dialects), such as maribomba, sangura, yambo, sambo and kirindongo. The latter is derived from the word kikongo, which also means people.

Minkisi

According to Congolese mythology, the Almighty God (Nzambi Mpungu) gave people a natural power as a gift, which got the name of minkisi. The principal function of minkisi is to protect people against sickness, death and other types of danger. The power or bacheche of a minkisi can be retrieved in all kinds of plants, herbs and trees. The only thing is that the person must be able to recognize this power and must know how to use it. In many cases, ingredients are used which are given a function of ‘magic of association’. For example, the soil of a cemetery, a road crossing, two-colored beans, roots of a plant or tree, buttons, thread, needle, blue, cockspur, shark teeth, mercury (quicksilver), oxidation of mercury, etc. All these ingredients have a specific function. For example, the two-color bean to confuses any spirit or bad air that attacks the person. Thread or button to ‘tie’ a person together, cockspur or shark teeth to give the amulet an aggressive character. Grass, branches or roots are used as a medicine for protection or attraction. In many cases, these ingredients are tied in a piece of goatskin (hardly ever in sheepskin!) or clothe. The function of tying the amulet is very important, not only because the ingredients have to remain together. The function of the amulet has to be ‘tied’ symbolically. Sometimes an amulet is made, leaving a thread hanging with which the wearer has to tie one or more knots for each wish that he has or for each wish that has been complied with. So, the act of tying is an intrinsic ritual of the making of such an amulet.

In the northwest of Africa, where the Mandingo culture is prevalent, a peculiar way of making contras can be observed. As the Islamic religion had great influence on the ethnic groups of this area, contras were made containing scriptures of the Koran, which they wore in the contra style, as we know it, or were swallowed (!), either voluntarily or by force to produce the desired effect. Those with an evil intention would force their enemies to swallow these scriptures, either to make them go mad or to kill them slowly. This act is known in this region as ying, which is the root of the slang Afro-American word Jinx (witchcraft or bad luck).

Spiritual expression

There is practically no difference between the manner of making amulets in Africa and the manner in which they are made in the Caribbean, South and Central America. Making contras was one of the few spiritual expressions that the African slave could permit himself. The personal character of the contra and the fact that you could wear it in a hidden manner contributed to the popularity of the contra in the folklore and popular belief of the Antillean islands. Father Brenneker and Elis Juliana investigated and documented several types of contras that they found during their investigations in the Antilles. Almost without exception, these contras are equal to those in other countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America. Even as it is the case in Cuba and Haiti, in the Antilles, too, cloth or goatskin is used to tie the contra. It is not very clear, however, why these amulets got the name of contra in the Antilles, taking into account that in the Antilles, too, contras are made to attract good luck or love. Nevertheless, the function of a contra in the popular belief of the Antillean people has firmly secured its place.

Picture:
Diferent kinds of ‘contra’
(collection Brenneker/Juliana, NAAM)

Sources:

– Robert Ferris Thompson Flash of the spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1984.
– A. Fu-Kiau Kia Bunseki-Lumanisa. N’Kongo Ye Nza Yakun’zungidila: Nza Kongo (Kinshasa: Office National de la Recherche et de Developpement, 1969)
– Lydia Cabrera. El Monte. Miami: Ediciones Universal; Reprint edition, 1995
– John M. Janzen i Wyatt MacGaffey. An Anthology of  Kongo Religion: Primary Texts from Lower Zaire. University of Kansas Publications in Anthropology 5. Lawrence, Kansas, 1974
– P. Brenneker. Sambumbu : Volkskunde van Curaçao, Aruba en Bonaire, vol. 1-10.  Curaçao: Paul Brenneker, 1969-1975.

Text: Bob Harms. Picture: Prince Victor.