Handa people are artisans and farmers, settled at the heart of the Huila Plateau (Angola).
In the past, they used to decorate the facades of their homes with geometrical patterns that inspired the Portuguese settlers in the design of the ‘Nyaneka’ sheets, today one of Angola’s cultural icons. Handa live near important urban centers, and this has had an important impact in the new generations, which are fast abandoning the old ways. Nowadays, only older women can be seen wearing the impressive white beads collars around their necks.
Handa speak Nyaneka language.
30,000 Handa live in the fertile plains of Huila Plateau, between Hoque and Matala towns. (Angola)
Handa people mainly practice subsistence agriculture but also grow vegetables (cabbage and onions) to sell in big markets like in Hoque. Hand farmers also keep cattle, goats and fowl. Handa blacksmiths, once very active, are nowadays in regression but some still work to furnish Handa women with jewellery and hoes for the farm work. Potters are also in decay but some Handa women still fabricate clay pots to sell in markets.
Handa women continue to build and use baskets which involve many interesting geometry concepts. We refer, for example, to the notion of volume, conic (truncated) and cylindrical forms, spirals, proportions, geometric figures, patterns, plane transformations and friezes. The remarkable mathematical practices in the baskets are characterized by much unknown ethnomathematical knowledge that constitutes a challenge for future studies.
Handa have a tribal chief who serves as the head of the tribe followed by a headman. Serving under the headman are the elders. Conflicts are resolved by the elders and the headman. A diviner is also often called upon.
The Handa are renowned blacksmiths and make most of the metal jewelry used by the tribes of southwest Angola. They also make hoes, arrow and spear points, which are sold in local markets. Some older women still produce fine pots made of black clay found around swampy areas.
Beaded objects are also characteristic of Handa women, who used to decorate the façades of their homes with geometrical symbols, which can now be seen in the local ‘Nyaneka’ fabrics. Handa women still build and use baskets
Regarding housing, Handa vernacular architecture has almost disappeared due to proximity to big cities, such as Lubango. In the old times, they built like their Muila neighbors: rectangular wooden structures with thatched roofs within a log palisade.
Handa women can be distinguished from their Muila and Gambue neighbors because of their rich white beaded collars, known as ‘missanga’. Older women wear long dreadlocks, decorated with beads and metal objects. Younger Handa women only put on the big white collars during special occasions and those who are still attached to the traditional ways wear a beaded headband and fewer necklaces around their necks.
Body scarification used to be popular among Handa women but now it has almost disappeared. Due to missionary action and to the proximity to the city of Lubango, most Handa have converted to Christianity. Only the elders continue to worship the ancestors, making sacrifices to appease them and to respect the bull, sacred totemic animal for all the Plateau tribes. Abdominal scarification based on a set of points forming geometric patterns, is a practice that started decaying in the 1960s.
in the process of initiation, a white glass beaded veil with cowrie headdress worn until the 1960s by young Handa girls .
Most Handa have converted to Christianity and only the elder generations worship the African Gods and wear the traditional attires. Nowadays it is hard to see women younger the forty years old wearing the white (sometimes green) characteristic necklaces and complex hairdos. Body scarification used to be popular among Handa women but now has almost disappeared. Body marks can only be seen in women over fifty years old.
The Handa are a unique people because they have known how to preserve their culture until a few years ago, despite the proximity to the city of Lubango and the pressures of the modern world. The great current challenge for the Handa is to be able to preserve their tribal identity and pass on ancestral knowledge to new generations.