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Isabelle de Rezende

prominent trader and warlord in present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa, former Zaire), was born between 1855 and 1860 in what today is Congo’s Maniema Province, between the rivers Lomami to the west and Lualaba to the east. Ngongo’s origins are unclear. Most commentators situate him as a Tetela-Kusu, Songye, or Hina (Lomami River people, connected linguistically and culturally to their various neighbors); the preferred spelling of his name by these communities is Ngongo Leteta.

What we know of Ngongo’s life was lived in the context of eastern and central Congo in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Swahili traders, the most famous of whom was Tippu Tip, culturally mixed Muslims from the East African island of Zanzibar, began incursions into the Congo west of the Lualaba. They established the slave and ivory market towns of Kasongo and Nyangwe.

There are different stories about how Ngongo came to Tippu Tip ...