Among the Kongo people, the dikenga has long been considered a map of the cosmos. It is a symbol that has been in use for centuries. Four points are linked together to form a cross. Each point is associated with a compass direction and a colour. The symbol describes the course of the sun, humans lives and deaths, the leader's responsibility to the people, and the relationship of the individual to nature, society, ancestors and children. Often a circle was drawn around it to show that the world is a unit and a closed cycle. The upper half symbolized the human world and the lower half the world of the spirits.
Where the Congo River meets the Atlantic is a crossroads. This was part of the Kingdom of Kongo, but also the point of entry for the European slave trade and colonization. It was a crossroads where European and African cultures and religions met.
The cross became a shared symbol when the King of Kongo was baptised in 1491. This enabled Europeans and Africans to understand and familiarize themselves with one another's religions. Indigenous religion and Catholic Christianity intersected and were woven together.
During a wave of Protestant missionary activity around 1900, many converted to Christianity. Yet many Congolese traditions survived, inspiring new religious forms that still live on today.
The Kongo language are spoken by some 7 million people today. Through the transatlantic slave trade, Kongo speakers influenced creole languages in America. Words such as zombie and funk derive from them. Between the 14th and the 19th centuries, the Kingdom of Kongo dominated the area along the coast where the Congo River empties into the Atlantic. The Kingdom was just a small part of the modern states of Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville and Angola, which correspond to former colonies. Around 1900, many Swedes came to the area, working as soldiers, sea captains and missionaries. They brought back objects and stories about a society which, as a result of European colonization, was changing rapidly.
The dikenga symbolises a crossroads where spirits and people meet. In traditional Kongo religion, rituals often began with a priest – a nganga – drawing a cross on the ground. With the motion and the symbol, the nganga created a meeting place separate from time and everyday life where spirits and people could communicate. The dikenga cross often marked the entrance to ritual sites, such as caves and enclosures. It is common throughout western Africa and in places in South and North America where the descendants of African slaves practise their religion. Collected in Congo around 1900, these objects bear witness to the crossroads where the spirit and human worlds intersected.