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The Luba are one of the Bantu peoples of Central Africa. They are indigenous to the Katanga, Kasai, and Maniema regions which were historic provinces of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. They speak the Luba-Kasai, Luba-Katanga, and Swahili languages.

The Kingdom of Luba was a pre-colonial Central African state, which arose in the marshy grasslands of the Upemba Depression in what is now southern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Luba had a wealth of natural resources such as gold, ivory, copper, frankincense and ebony but they also produced and traded a variety of goods such as pottery and masks.


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:

  1. He headed a secular hierarchy of governors and under-governors, running down to local village headmen.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The Luba system of ceremonial kingship proved durable enough to spread across much of Central Africa, being adopted, with modifications, by the Lunda, Lozi and other peoples.

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.


Main article: Rulers of Luba


From around 1870 on the Luba kingdom went into decline. The kingship ultimately had no clearly worked out means of succession, so the kingdom was vulnerable to factional infighting. The Luba were also threatened by pressure from the Nyamwezi, a tribe from what is now Tanzania, moving around Lake Tanganyika, and by Swahili-Arabs, moving inland from the East African coast. The Nyamwezi and the Swahili-Arabs had access to guns and were allies, and this proved decisive. The Luba were not conquered, but the Swahili-Arabs were able to cut their access to trade with the jungle tribes to the north, while the Nyamwezi, under the leadership of the energetic Msiri, encroached on Luba trade to the south, where he set up his Yeke/Garanganze kingdom.

Hemmed in, the Luba now desperately needed guns, just as their economic position was eroding. To try to stem the decline, the Luba went into slave trading on a major scale, selling to the Portuguese in Angola. But the slave trade was slowly dying down, and slaves fetched less and less of a price. Also the Luba were less capable of raiding other peoples, so they began slave raiding among themselves, which sped the disruption of Luba society and the disintegration of political unity. In 1874 Ilunga Kabale was assassinated, and thereafter the Luba royal line was divided into quarreling factions. In the 1880s, much of the eastern Congo fell under the control of the Swahili-Arab adventurer Tippu Tib (Hamed bin Mohammed al-Marjebi), whose men incidentally brought smallpox with them.

Belgian conquest

In 1885, Leopold II, king of Belgium, secured European recognition of his control over the territories that became what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leopold named this the Congo Free State, exploiting it as his own personal domain. The Luba resisted, most notably in a major rebellion in 1895, after which many Luba were sent to work as forced labor in the copper mines of Katanga. Kasongo Nyembo led another rebellion among the Luba that was not suppressed by the Belgians until 1917.

After the independence of the Congo

In 1960, the Belgians, faced with the rise of nationalism, granted independence to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That same year Katanga Province attempted to secede under Moise Tshombe. The Luba were divided, with one faction under Ndaye Emanuel supporting secession and another under Kisula Ngoye supporting the central government. In 1965, when Tshombe's breakaway regime collapsed, Kisula Ngoye became the dominant leader among the Luba.

Traditional culture

The Luba tended to cluster in small villages, with rectangular houses facing a single street. Agriculture was based upon slash-and-burn cultivation in areas with good soil (usually by rivers), supplemented by hunting and fishing in the surrounding bush country. Kilolo, patrilineal chieftains, headed local village government, under the protection of the king. Cultural life centered around the kitenta, the royal compound, which later came to be a permanent capital. The kitenta drew artists, poets, musicians and craftsmen, spurred by royal and court patronage.

The Bambudye secret society had an important mnemonic device to help them keep straight the complex history and ritual life of the Luba nation. It was the lukasa, or memory board. Colored beads and shells set into a carved wooden board gave those who knew how to interpret it a spatial representation that would be used to help them remember important facets of Luba culture and history.

The Luba were famous as wood carvers. Particularly noteworthy were ceremonial masks, and such symbols of kingship as ceremonial canes, bracelets, and axes.

Another significant feature of Luba culture was kibuta – divination. The Bilumbu were spirit mediums who would enter a trance state, gazing into mboko, sacred baskets or gourds, within which ritual objects were placed. The diviner would use the objects within the mboko as an oracle, reading the will of the spirits through the position the objects took within the bowl.

For Baluba religion see the article on Baluba mythology.

Notable Luba people

Paul H.B.Kabaidi wa Kabaidi

  • Kalala Ilunga
  • Étienne Tshisekedi
  • Tshala Muana, musician
  • Albert Kalonji
  • Kisula Ngoy
  • Kabongo Jacques
  • Grand Kalle, musician
  • Ndaye Emanuel
  • Dikembe Mutombo, NBA basketball player
  • Kyungu wa Kumwanza
  • Kalala Ntumba, football player
  • Nico Kasanda musician
  • Jason Sendwe
  • Ndaye Mulamba, football player (soccer)
  • Mulumba Lukoji
  • Ngoy Mulunda
  • Mulongo Masangu
  • John Numbi
  • Dieudonne Kayembe
  • Damas Kabulo
  • Tshombo Tshibikubula wa Ntumba
  • Mukamba Kadiata Nzemba
  • Zakarie Bababaswe, Chroniquereur de Musique, Deputé National
  • Deese Mukangi, Chanteuse
  • Kabulo Mwana Kabulo, Journaliste sportif
  • Pepe Kalle/ Kabasele Ya Mpania, Musicen
  • Bill Cliton Kalonji, Musicien
  • Tshimanda wa Mwela Bujitu, ecrivain et professeur
  • Paul Lomami Tshibanda, ecrivain et professeur
  • Oscar Kashala, politicien
  • JB Mpiana, Musician
  • Emmanuel Kabasubabu Balenga, homme politique (politician)
  • Francois Matete Massanka, L'entrepreneur (Massanka Industries, TransM LLC)


  • Bakwa Mulumba
  • Bakwa Dishi
  • Bena Kaniki
  • Bakwa Kalonji
  • Bena Kanyoka
  • Bakwa Ndemba
  • Bena Lala
  • Bena Mutombo (Mutombo wa Nkole)
  • Bakwa Nsumpi
  • Bena Kaninda


Further reading

  • Davidson, Basil: Africa in History: Themes and Outlines, Revised & Expanded Edition. Simon & Schuster, NY (1991).
  • Fage, J.D. and Oliver, Roland, general editors: The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol V and VI., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (1976).
  • Kabongo, Kanundowi and Bilolo, Mubabinge, Conception Bantu de l'Autorité. Suivie de Baluba: Bumfumu ne Bulongolodi", African University Studies, Munich - Kinshasa (1994).

External links

  • Professor James Giblin, Department of History, The University of Iowa. Introduction: Diffusion and other Problems in the History of African States in Arts & Life at Africa Online.
  • Christopher D. Roy. Luba Information at
  • Lucian Young. The Luba at Minnesota State University, Mankato
  • The Maurer Collection, Amherst University. Slit gongs & Musical Oracles
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