African ethnic group of the week the Luba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Luba, also called Baluba a Bantu-speaking peoples who inhabit a wide area extending throughout much of south-central Congo (Kinshasa). They numbered about 5,594,000 in the late 20th century. The name Luba applies to a variety of peoples who, though of different origins, speak closely related languages, exhibit many common cultural traits, and share a common political history with past members of the Luba empires, which flourished from approximately the late 15th through the late 19th century. Three main subdivisions may be recognized: the Luba-Shankaji of Katanga, the Luba-Bambo of Kasai, and the Luba-Hemba of northern Katanga and southern Kivu. All are historically, linguistically, and culturally linked with other Congo peoples. The Shankaji branch is also connected with the early founders of the Lunda Empire.
The Luba first appeared as a people around the 5th century AD, in the marshes of the Upemba Depression, in what is now the southeastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo known as the Katanga region. In the marshes of the Upemba Depression, large scale cooperation was necessary to build and maintain dikes and drainage ditches. This kind of communal cooperation also made possible the construction of dams to stock fish during the long dry season. By the 6th century the Luba were working in iron and trading in salt, palm oil, and dried fish. They used these products to trade for copper, charcoal (for iron smelting), glass beads, iron and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean.
Around 1500, possibly earlier, the Luba began to coalesce into a single, unified state, under the leadership of kings ruling by divine sanction. The mulopwe, or king, was drawn from the balopwe, a group who acted as intermediaries between the world of mankind and the world of spirits and ancestors. The mulopwe had three sources of power:
- He headed a secular hierarchy of governors and under-governors, running down to local village headmen.
- He collected tribute from local chiefs, which was then redistributed in the form of gifts to loyal followers. In practice this tribute system amounted to a network of state controlled trade.
- The mulopwe commanded significant spiritual prestige. He was the head of the Bambudye (or Mbudye) secret society, to which all kings, chiefs and officials belonged. The Bambudye society, which included both men and women, transcended kinship lines and helped knit the realm together. Bambudye “Men of Memory” preserved the tribes oral tradition.
From around 1585 the Luba expanded rapidly, securing control of copper mines, fishing, and palm oil cultivation. After c.1700, the Luba acquired maize and cassava (manioc). These new crops allowed a substantial increase in population and stimulated economic growth. This in turn added to the power and prestige of the royal authority.
Between c. 1780 and 1870 the Luba kingdom reached its height under three strong rulers: Ilunga Sungu (c. 1780-1810), his son Kumwimbe Ngombe (c. 1810-1840), and Ilunga Kabale (c. 1840-1874). Via intermediaries, the Luba traded from the Portuguese outposts in Angola to the Indian Ocean. Cross-shaped copper ingots and raffia cloth served as currency in a trading network where arrow poisons, drums, animal hides, ivory and dried fish were bartered for cattle, cotton, beads, iron, tools and implements.
The kingdom of Luba’s success was due in large part to its development of a form of a government durable enough to withstand the disruptions of succession disputes and flexible enough to incorporate foreign leaders and governments. It was based on the twin principles of sacred kingship and rule by council. The Luba model of governing was so successful that it was adopted by the Lunda Kingdom and spread throughout the region that is today northern Angola, northwestern Zambia, and southern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Mbudye tradition states that all of the rulers of the Luba Empire traced their ancestry to Kalala Ilunga, a mystical hunter credited with toppling the cruel ruler known as Nkongolo. This figure is also credited with the introduction of advanced iron forging techniques to the Luba peoples. Luba kings became deities upon their deaths, and the villages from which they ruled were transformed into living shrines devoted to their legacies.
The Luba heartland was dotted with these landmarks. Central to Luba regalia for kings and other nobles were mwadi, female incarnations of the ancestral kings. Staffs, headrests, bow stands and royal seats featuring this subject represented the divine status of the ruler and the elegant refinement of his court.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the Luba were ruled by a paramount chief (bulopwe, or balopwe), although smaller independent chiefdoms already existed. The breakdown of the empire resulted in the development either of smaller chiefdoms or of small autonomous local lineage groups.
The Luba Kingdom kept official “men of memory” who were part of a group called the mbudye. They were responsible for maintaining the oral histories associated with kings, their villages and the customs of the land. Parallels to these kinds of officials can be found in neighboring kingdoms such as Kuba and Lunda
Almost all Luba art includes the female form either surmounting or supporting objects such as headrests, staffs, spears, axes or bowls. The female figure holding her breasts is the most common motif in Luba art. The gesture has multiple levels of meaning, symbolizing respect, nurturing, and the role of women as mothers. The representation is also significant since the Luba trace descent through the female line. This gesture also references the fact that in Luba culture, only women are deemed strong enough to guard the profound secrets of royalty, and it is within their breasts that they protect the royal prohibitions upon which sacred kingship depends.These women also often bear signs of Luba identity such as pervasive marks of beauty in the form of scarification.
Luba explain that only women, who have the potential to become pregnant and produce new life, are strong enough to hold powerful spirits and the secret knowledge associated with them.
The Lukasa memory board
Central to Luba artistry is the lukasa, a seemingly simple but extraordinarily sophisticated device that aids memory and the making of histories. Stools, staffs, figures, and complex choreographies complement the lukasa as Luba culture is remembered, produced, and transformed.
Lukasa memory boards are hourglass-shaped wooden tablets that are covered with multicolored beads, shells and bits of metal, or are incised or embossed with carved symbols. The colors and configurations of beads or ideograms serve to stimulate the recollection of important people, places, things, relationships and events as court historians narrate the origins of Luba authority. A lukasa serves as an archive for the topographical and chronological mapping of political histories and other data sets.
The Baluba creation story makes a connection between God’s invisibility or unavailability, and the endowment of humans with a soul or divine component longing for God.
In the creation story, Kabezya-Mpungu decides to become invisible after creating the world and the first humans who did not yet have a heart. After balancing the rain, sun, moon, and darkness, he leaves. To replace the visible god, he sends the people Mutshima (“heart”), the life-giving or divine part of humans.
"I don’t want that humans will see me any more. I return into myself and send Mutshima…Then Kabeza-Mpungu disappeared. Thereafter, the heart appeared, in a small, hand-sized vessel. The heart cried and turned towards Sun, Moon, Darkness and Rain: "Kabezya-Mpungu, our father, where is he!" "Father is gone, we don’t know the way he went". "Oh how much I am longing to see him" the heart replied, "to talk to him. Since I cannot find him, I will enter into this man. So I will wander from generation to generation".
Ultimately, long-distance trade destroyed the kingdom of Luba. In the 1870s and 1880s, traders from East Africa began searching for slaves and ivory in the savannahs of central Africa. Tempted by the lure of quick profits, warriors began raiding the empire for slaves, beginning the rapid destruction of the Luba Kingdom. In 1899, the empire was split in two by a succession dispute, ending the empire as a unified state. The empire was later absorbed into the
Belgian Congo Free State