The Luba People of Congo

One of our missions at Expedition Subsahara is to learn and teach others about the many vibrant, beautiful people that make up the fabric of the African continent. Today, we travel to the south-central region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the population of the Luba people is estimated to be over 1,000,000 (source).

The Luba people, known also as Baluba, are a Bantu-speaking cluster indigenous to the south-central region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with a history dating back to at least the 5th century, as archaeological evidence suggests​​. The origins of the Luba can be traced to around 1300 CE in the Shaba's southern rainforests, with their influence expanding to the wet grasslands of the Lake Upemba Depression​​.

The name Luba applies to a variety of people of multiple origins who speak similar languages and share many of the same cultural traits. The Luba is recognized into three main subdivisions, the Luba-Shankji of Katanga, the Luba-Bambo of Kasai, and the Luba-Hemba of northern Katanga and southern Kivu. All three of these groups can be linked to other Congo people cultures (source). The Shankaji and Hemba subgroups of the Luba are renowned for their exemplary wood-carving craftsmanship. They create anthropomorphic figurines, ceremonial axes, and intricate headrests. (source)

The Luba people inhabit both savanna and forest regions where they engage in hunting, food gathering, and agriculture – primarily cultivating crops like cassava and maize. Luba communities depend on intensive fishing, primarily within the Congo River and its tributaries (source). Settlements consist of single-street villages with rectangular thatched-roof huts on either side. 

The Luba lifestyle thrives with a balance of duties. Men engage in many important tasks, from political affairs and hunting to fishing, clearing land, animal husbandry, crafting tools, and constructing sturdy homes. The Luba women share just as important roles, handling the bulk of agricultural work, expertly brewing beer, crafting exquisite pottery, nurturing children, maintaining the household, and caring for poultry. The community ensures that children and adolescents are free to explore their potential, with girls soon helping their mothers (source).

Luba have many artistic traditions, from stools, to divination bowls known as "mboko," bow stands, and memory boards with the evocative name "lukasa," along with sculptures and wood carvings. Luba sculptures show vivid portrayals of women, highlighting the profound role they hold in society. Each piece tells a story of history, culture, and the enduring significance of women (source).

The Tale of Two Emperors

Luba literature features a tale that distinguishes between two types of Luba emperors based on their moral character and personal behavior. These emperors shape the Luba peoples’ own moral character: “Nkongolo Mwamba, the red king, and Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe, a prince of legendary black complexion (source).”

Nkongolo Mwamba embodies tyranny, characterized by his drunkenness, cruelty, and lack of self-control. He's considered a man without manners who indulges in public eating and excessive drinking. In contrast, Mbidi Kiluwe is portrayed as a refined and gentle prince with good manners. He avoids public eating, displays controlled behavior, and distances himself from common vices.

Nkongolo is said to be the son of a hyena, so ugly that no one would ever resemble him. His red skin symbolizes blood, portraying him as "Muntu wa Malwa," a moral and physical monstrosity who brings suffering and terror, an uncivilized man engaged in incestuous relationships with his sisters.

Mbidi, the black prince, introduces "civilized" practices like exogamy and enlightened governance, emphasizing moral character, compassion, and justice. He is beautiful, and the people identify with him. Mbidi's son, Kalala Ilunga, ultimately defeats Nkongolo and is revered as wise king (source).

The Luba Empire had a significant impact on the region, both in terms of its extensive trade networks and the spread of its cultural and political institutions. Its influence can be seen in the various kingdoms and chiefdoms that arose in the region following the decline of the Luba state.

In contemporary times, the Luba people continue to maintain many of their traditional practices while also adapting to the modern world. The historical narrative of the Luba, rich with royal intrigue, artistic brilliance, and spiritual depth, remains an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

May they thrive!

Photo by Nora Leonard Roy