Luba of Shaba
Luba of Shaba
ETHNONYMS: Baluba, Central Luba, Luba Katanga, Luba Lomami, Luba Samba, Luba Shankadi
Identification. The patrilineal Luba of Shaba differ in their descent system from the Eastern Luba (the matrilineal Luba-Hemba, living east of the River Zaire); by their culture and language, they are distinct from the Western Luba (Luba of Kasai).
Location. Luba country stretches from the River Lwembe to about 50 kilometers east of the Zaire River, between 6°30′and 10°00′ S in north-central Shaba, in southern Zaire. Except for the Upemba Depression, where the Zaïre River flows through a system of marshes and lakes, the area is a wooded savanna. Annual rainfall exceeds one meter; the rainy season begins in October and ends in May, with a short break in January. The temperature keeps close to its annual average of 24°C.
Demography. The Luba form the largest ethnic group of Shaba. Their population is estimated at 1,100,000, which would represent an average density of 12 people per square kilometer. Outside urban centers, high densities are found in the northern end of the Upemba Depression.
Linguistic Affiliation. Kiluba is a tonal language. It is classified in the Western Bantu Language Group.
History and Cultural Relations
Excavations of graves in the Upemba Depression show that as early as the eighth century a.d., a social stratification had developed in the region: some of the tombs show more wealth than others and contain artifacts that are nowadays connected with power (ceremonial axes, hammers/anvils). Power was probably transmitted hereditarily, as some children were buried with a great number of valuable objects. Archaeological research has revealed an outstanding cultural continuity from that era until now.
According to the genesis tradition of the kingdom, an aristocratic hunter hero coming from the East (Mbidi Kiluwe) met an aboriginal ruler (Nkongolo); unaware of the demanding customs of sacred kingship, notably of the meal rituals, he married the two sisters of this ruler and went back alone to his country. One of the sisters gave birth to a son (Kalala Ilunga) who eventually became a mighty warrior whom the ruler planned to kill. The young man had to flee to his father's country. Later, he came back, beheaded his maternal uncle, and became the first king of the Luba. These traditions gave rise to a controversy between, on the one hand, structuralists, who argue that the epic is representative of mythic ground shared by many Bantu-speaking peoples, and on the other hand, Africanist historians, who consider either that the epic contains traces of ancient historical facts or that it is a political charter legitimizing the prerogatives of the dynasty. However that may be, the Luba Kingdom was founded in the eighteenth century or before, in the vicinity of the present town of Kabongo. It exerted a strong political influence on its neighbors and was the main reference point for many rulers' genealogies and many religious institutions of the Eastern Savanna peoples. Until 1870, the Luba king—the mulopwe (pl. balopwe )—had at his disposal a powerful army able to wage war hundreds of kilometers from the capital. But the kingdom did not rest on a firm centralized administrative apparatus: royal authority was mostly effective in the capital's region; beyond that center lay "chiefdoms," which had more autonomy the farther they were from the capital. Each was governed by a local rulers—also called a mulopwe—whose ritual life was similar to the king's. These chiefs had to bring tribute to the king as acknowledgment of his hierarchical seniority. The kingdom began to collapse by 1870 on account of an unending succession struggle and of repeated attacks by Angolan slave traders and Tanzanian conquerors who took advantage of their firearms. Belgian colonizers settled around 1900 and hastened the fall of the kingdom by dividing its center into two large territories, the government of which was assigned to two rival heirs from the ancient dynasty: Kabongo and Kasongo Nyembo. Moreover, about twenty Luba chiefdoms were acknowledged as fully independent from those two rulers.
After the independance of the Congo, the Luba led a harsh war against their southern neighbors who supported the Katanga secession (1960-1963).
The expansion of the kingdom (up to an area of about 200,000 square kilometers) and of long-distance trade stimulated contacts between the Luba and their neighbors. Nowadays political ties have come to an end, but Luba influence is still noticeable, notably in the regalia and religious practices.
An adobe building with a metal roof and a few partition walls more and more often takes the place of the ancient four-cornered house with a thatched roof and walls of branches plastered with clay. Small villages are sometimes exclusively inhabited by members of the same lineage, but the larger ones are divided into lineage quarters. The total population of a village varies considerably: a few thousands along the main streams, as a result of conurbation processes, sometimes well under a hundred in the countryside. Formerly, the capital used to be densely populated. The layout of the houses of the chief, his wives, and his dignitaries followed a definite checkered plan.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Luba practice slash-and-burn agriculture; fields are abandoned after a few seasons. The most cultivated plants are cassava and maize; to a lesser extent, one also finds sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, onions, beans, cucumbers, tobacco, and sesame. Millet and sorghum are now mainly used for brewing beer. Two species are often cultivated on the same field. The main crops are produced by June. One can find banana, mango and Elaeis -palm plantations, as well as wild olive trees surrounding some villages. (Oil is derived from the fruits of the latter two.) Cotton cultivation has vanished since independance. In the Upemba Depression and, to a lesser extent, along the Zaire River, fishing is the principal economic activity. Everywhere hunting is a secondary activity. Great collective hunts take place when the savanna is set on fire, at the end of the dry season. The Luba breed sheep, goats, pigs, and some poultry, all of which are eaten on special occasions; they also breed dogs for hunting.
Industrial Arts. Among the Luba of Shaba there are blacksmiths, potters, woodworkers, sculptors, and weavers of mats, baskets, and nets. Salt making is still a viable activity in the marshes south of Kabongo. Once flourishing, the industries of iron smelting and of raffia-fiber cloth weaving have now disappeared.
Trade. The discovery of copper crosses in eleventh-century graves proves that as early as this era, a long-distance trade connected the Upemba Depression with the Copperbelt. This trade intensified from that time onward, and it is also via the Copperbelt that the Luba acquired the glass beads and shells that were to become the means of exchange during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The currencies used for commercial and ritual purposes, although distinct, could be exchanged for each other. The Luba also traded with populations to the north and to the east: the Songye of Kasai bartered raffia cloths and other finished products for iron, copper, salt, and fish from the Luba. Commercial trips were undertaken by groups of usually less than twenty people. In the past, there were no marketplaces, as there are nowadays in the centers.
Division of Labor. Men deal with political affairs, hunt, fish, fight, clear the bush, rear animals, make nets and fashion wooden tools, and build the framework of the house. Women do the rest of the agricultural work, brew beer, make pottery, deal with the children and the home, and tend the poultry. Children and adolescents are compelled to perform few tasks, although girls soon help their mothers at home. Political leaders, religious specialists, and specialized workers are the only people not to follow the common pattern of labor.
Land Tenure. The first man to settle on a land is its "owner," and this title is transmitted to his successor. This dignitary has a right to a share of all that is taken from his land, whatever it may be: game, gathered or cultivated plants, salt, or iron ore. This right applies also to the lakes. As land suitable for cultivation is not scarce, its use is not the privilege of the lineage to which the landowner belongs.
Kin Groups and Descent. The patrilineages (bisaka ; sing. kisaka ) may have alimentary taboos and may "own" some land or lakes. The patrilineal ideology is not very developed: for example, a person's protective spirit, after which that person is named at birth, may come from either his paternal or his maternal family.
Kinship Terminology. The Luba of Shaba use Hawaian cousin terminology and bifurcate-merging avuncular terms. Joking relationships are maintained with maternal uncles and with all grandparents.
Marriage. Large-scale polygyny was the appanage of the ancient sacred chiefs, small-scale polygyny is the ideal of every man; monogamy is the norm and is gaining ground with Christianization. The matrimonial alliance follows a semi-complex pattern: the prospective wife may not come from any of Ego's grandparents' lineages, nor have a common great-grandparent with him, nor be a close relative by marriage (wife's sister, sister's husband's sister, brother's wife's sister, and so forth). After having paid most of the bride-wealth (a gun; formerly, precious beads), the husband brings his bride to live near his parents. Divorce calls for the repayment of all or part of the bride-wealth. The responsibility for the death of a wife is ascribed to her husband, who has to pay heavy death-dues to his in-laws.
Domestic Unit. The household includes a dwelling for the husband and one for each of his wives. Young children live at their mother's house. 1f the owner is an important man, these houses are surrounded by an enclosure, and there is a special kitchen for his meals; among the most traditional people, next to the kitchen there are little huts for the ancestors' worship.
Inheritance. The possessions of a man are inherited by his brothers and his sons, the eldest taking precedence over the youngest. Levirate is frequent, and a sister's son may sometimes inherit one of his uncle's widows.
Socialization. Children stand close by their mother and are very protected until the age of weaning, at around 2 years old. Then, until the age of 7 or 8, they play with other youngsters, near their mothers. Girls begin to learn to do housework. By the age of 8 or 10, punishments are harsher; sexual dichotomy increases, especially in the games. Formerly, during the dry season, children built mock villages where they would imitate the adults' lives. Education tends to minimize the competitive spirit, for which there is no place in the games, and to emphasize conformity. Until the 1950s, children had to undergo a complex ritual initiation of several months, which was not the occasion for any utilitarian teaching. Circumcision (mukanda in the west, disao in the east) was collective and followed by a long seclusion in a camp out of the village; nowadays the operation is carried out individually and casually on youngsters. The girls' initiation (butanda ) was individual and took place long before puberty in the village; in the next years, the girl was tattooed and underwent manipulations aimed at developing her sexual organs. These manipulations are still usual practice.
Social Organization. The main cooperative work group is that of brothers, in particular for the building of a house. There is not much cooperation in the agricultural work. The secret societies are less powerful than in the past: the most important of them is the Mbudye society, which formerly was closely associated with political power. Synchretic churches have multiplied; among them, the Jamaa is a Catholic movement inspired by Father Tempel's famous book, Bantu Philosophy; it is focused on the union of the community and of the married couple.
Political Organization. Before taking up his function, a potential chief (mulopwe) undergoes a test to show that the tutelar spirits of the chiefdom accept him. The critical point of the enthronment process is a four-day seclusion, during which the recipient has incestuous intercourse with a female relative and gains a new spiritual identity through close contact with some relics of his predecessors. He formerly had to be smeared with human blood to gain his full status. A chief has to submit to many prohibitions: he may not touch a lake, nor see a corpse, nor share his meal with anyone. In a mystical way, he is responsible for the well-being of his subjects, who are his "children"; in the past, he was killed as soon as he became mutilated or in poor health. Chiefs are surrounded by a court of dignitaries, whose functions are more or less specialized. The subdivisions of the chiefdom are controlled by local lineage headmen or secondary chiefs appointed by the court; they are responsible for the sending of tribute, the composition of which depends on the region's specialities. This tribute is the main sign of one's submission to the chief.
Social Control. Having created life, the parents have a right to be respected: children who fail to perform their duties to their fathers may be struck by illness or great misfortunes, sent by their ancestors. Outside of this domestic setting, minor offenders are tried by judges from the village or by lineage elders; the more important cases are settled by the sacred chief, helped by his counselors. In the past, ordeals (by poison, etc.) were often imposed by ritual specialists on offenders.
Conflict. The expansion of the kingdom was the result of a warlike and matrimonial policy. In the past, after the death of a king, his potential heirs had to fight. The war dignitaries, once numerous, have become scarce since the pacification.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Three categories of spirits are at the heart of the Luba religious system. The first are the ancestors; they are most commonly encountered in a relative's dream, coming as a favor to announce to a man or his wife that the wife is pregnant. The ancestor is then expected to protect the fetus, being "godfather" to the unborn. Territorial spirits (often called mikishi [sing. mukishi ]) are responsible for the plentifulness of game and fish. The third type (bavidye ; sing. vidye ) are mighty spirits able to possess human beings. Some traditions include a "great vidye," the creator of everything, although he does not receive any worship. Sorcery is particularly feared and harshly condemned.
Catholic and Protestant missions have settled in many regions of Lubaland; their influence is felt everywhere, but it has not put an end to the belief in the power of the spirits and of the sorcerers.
Religious Practitioners. Many specialists communicate with the spirits. The head of the household leads the familial ancestors' cult; he prays to them in front of their little huts in his courtyard when there is a problem or at the new moon, which is the day of the spirits. Among the lineages possessing some lake or some land, a kitobo priest is in charge of offering beer to the territorial spirits when the game or fish disappear. Professional mediums (male and female) are possessed by the mighty spirits. When they go into trance, the spirits speak through their mouth; they carry out divination and are in charge of locating sorcerers and their charms.
Ceremonies. The enthronement and the funeral of the mulopwe, of his dignitaries, and of the kilumbu are occasions for great ceremonies. The public announcement of a woman's first pregnancy, birth, marriage, funeral, and the end of mourning are regarded as being important steps in one's ritual life cycle. In the past, the coming of the first teeth, the boys' circumcision, the girls' initiation, the harvest of the first crops, and the great hunts at the end of the dry season were occasions for collective rites.
Arts. Luba wood sculptures (caryatid stools, bowl bearers, bowstands, cups, staffs, spears, paddles, axes, etc.) have earned their excellent reputation, but they are mostly ancient works. They are intended for the mulopwe, his court, and the ritual specialists. To gain any efficaciousness, a statue has to be activated by a ritual specialist, who introduces some charms into it so that it can serve as a receptacle for spirits. The Mbudye society uses a wood board ornamented with patterns of beads or other elements as a mnemonic device to relate the kingdom's history. The exact use of the numerous masks has not been cleared up; they seem to be connected with secret societies and with the circumcision ceremonies. Chiefs had their musicians.
Medicine. Every sickness is supposed to have originated from a spiritual cause, and a divination process is employed to discover it. The sick person either has to apply to the spirits responsible for his misfortune and to submit to some ritual obligations in connection with them, or must have a charm made up to protect him from the harm of the sorcerers.
Death and Afterlife. Some people, even if sociable during their lifetime, become malevolent after their death. Expulsion rites are then required. In the past, the Tusanji secret society was responsible for neutralizing malignant spirits, by unearthing their corpses and ritually eating them. Usually, however, the spirits of the dead are benevolent and protect the members of their family who are still alive. Dead people who have no link with the living and who do not give their names to newborns sink into a deeper afterworld, more gloomy than the first (which is described as a continuation of earthly life).
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Nooter, Mary (1991). "Luba Art and Polity: Creating Power in a Central African Kingdom." Doctoral thesis, Columbia University.
Petit, Pierre (1993). "Rites familiaux, rites royaux: Étude du système cérémoniel des Luba du Shaba (Zaïre)." Doctoral thesis, Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Petit, Pierre (1995). "The Sacred Kaolin and the Bowl-Bearers (Luba of Shaba)." In Objects-Signs of Africa, edited by Lucde Heusch, 111-131. Tervueren: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale (MRAC).
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