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Tools of African History: the Lukasa Memory Board of the Luba Kingdom

The Kingdom of Luba is an ancient African Kingdom which was based in current day Democratic Republic of Congo. It was founded in the Upemba depression, which is a large area of marshes, and comprises of over 50 lakes. The Kingdom was founded by King Kongolo (also called Nkongolo) in 1585 and would last over 300 years, till 1889. At its greatest, the King of Luba had over a million subjects.

Formation and Expansion

King Kongolo was already a leader of the Luba people when he formed what today we call the Luba Kingdom. He was not very popular among the Luba however, especially compared to his military strategist Mbidi, who played a key role in the early expansion of the kingdom. Kongolo tried to get rid of Mbidi and replaced him with his nephew Kalala Ilunga. Kalala eventually became King after foiling a conspiracy by King Kongolo to get rid of him too. The paranoia of King Kongolo grew out of the military successes and popularity of his nephew as the head of the military.

As King, Kalala expanded into the province of Katanga and then into Zambia and Zimbabwe. He is also credited as being responsible for a lot of the culture of the Luba, and is regarded as a legendary King of the Luba, and the first sacred King.

The Lukasa Memory Board

The Luba considered their Kings as sacred men. The Mbudye was a secret society with great power in the Luba, and most Kings of the Luba were members within this society. One of the great inventions of the Mbudye (Men of memory) was the Lukasa, a memory board, which was used to recount history in their rituals by diviners.

Every Lukasa is different from the other one, but they can all be held easily in one’s hand. The board is read by touching it with the right forefinger. A Lukasa consists of beads, each of which have different colours, size and shape. These beads have different meanings depending on their different features.

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A Lukasa at the Brooklyn Museum

The Lukasa can consist of beads in a geometrical pattern, as seen in the picture of the Lukasa above. Each Lukasa is about 20-25 cm long, with its width being about half of that.

This device was used to recount Luba history, and to remember what had happened and use it to decide the future. It was used to record history and along with it, stools, staffs and figures were also used to remember past history of the Luba.

Working of the Lukasa

One of the first questions that arises is how a Lukasa can contain information. While the Western world relies on books as a means of remembering history, the Luba used the Lukasa. The Lukasa had one main advantage over writing, it was dynamic, and could be used to reconstruct and reinterpret history properly.

A Lukasa is read by a man of memory from the Mbudye. This man will have been trained in Luba history, and will have immense knowledge in how to read the memory board properly. Each aspect of the Lukasa board can be used to interpret a piece of history. Even the colours of the Lukasa’s beads have meaning. One Lukasa had blue beads standing for Mbidi, who was the uncle of the first sacred King and led a revolt against the tyrannical Kongolo, who was represented by a red bead. Those with knowledge among the Luba could look at a Lukasa and understand the history it was conveying, just as easily as those in the Western World would by reading a book.

Though, unlike a book, the Lukasa isn’t linear so it isn’t read left to right, up to down and page to page. Everything can be seen in one glance.

A Lukasa also has a tortoise symbol which represented the power of woman in the Luba, as the one who named the child of the ancestors she dreamed of.

Thus, it becomes clear that the beads of a Lukasa are like an alphabet. The size, the colour and the shapes of the beads represent different words and different aspects of history, while also hiding the name of the person who constructed the Lukasa.

The Lukasa also help to conceal knowledge, except for those who are worthy of it. This ensured that those who had knowledge of history among the Luba were those who were strong enough and noble enough to have that knowledge. Thus, this piece of art is inextricably linked with Luba history, while also concealing part of it from those who do not know how to read it.

Different Lukasas talk about different things, some telling stories of the great Kings of the Luba, some alluding to the different deities that were worshipped among the Luba, while also making sure that this knowledge would only be read by people who were trained to read it. Thus the different patterns and colours were used to both keep Luba culture alive, and to keep knowledge of this culture among those who deserved to know it. The non-linear nature of this device compared to a book, means it gives the one interpreting it artistic license.

Types of Lukasa

There are three types of Lukasa memory boards. First, there are those which bear information on the heroes and myths of the Luba. This was known as the lukasa Iwa nkunda, or the Long hand of the pigeon. These the types of Lukasa may contain knowledge about the sacred Kings and especially Mbidi. A second type of Lukasa which talks about the way Luba society is organized was called lukasa Iwa kabemba, or the Long Hand of the Hawk. The third type which supposedly contained information about the divine kings, those known as the sacred Kings of the Luba, was known as the lukasa Iwa kitenta, or the Long hand of the sacred pool. No new devices like these are currently known to exist, and those with knowledge to interpret them are long gone.

Government of the Luba

While the Luba had a monarchy and a line of sacred kings of immense power, government was not completely in the hands of the kings. Different responsibilities were in the hands of a range of people. The King was responsible for the handling of the law and order of the nation, but even in this he was guided by a committee known as the Bamfunus, who advised the King.

The King himself would employ under him clan Kings known as the Balopwe, who would be responsible for handling local tribes and ensuring that their loyalty would stay to the King of Luba.

The secret society of the Mbudye was tasked with keeping alive Luba history and teaching the diverse subjects of the Luba Kingdom about their history, and thus spreading and keeping alive the culture of the Luba. They taught about oral history associated to the various Kings, and would also spread many of the rituals of the Luba that would have been forgotten otherwise.

This form of governance was very successful, and many Kingdoms would try to copy the style of the Luba, most prominent among whom were the Kingdom of Lunda. This was because it allowed the Kingdom to grow, it kept the Kingdom stable, and most importantly, it also kept alive the culture of the people through the Mbudye.

Trade and Economy

The Luba Kingdom operated a thriving economy based on trade, agriculture and on mining. Luba traders played a great part in the economy linking the Congolese forest, where the Kingdom was based, to the mineral rich Copperbelt in Zambia. Along with this, they traded with far off Empires, with wide networks of trade that extended into the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts.

The Luba had a virtual monopoly on salt, copper and iron, from their expansion into Zambia. This gave them a huge advantage over the other Empires vying for power in the same region.

Culture

The Luba had a rich culture, with arts held in high esteem in the Empire. Sculptors and carvers held high status in the Empire and were respected for their talent. Females were given high prestige in the Luba Kingdom as the role of women in creation was prominent for the Luba. Because of this, art from the Luba Empire tends to have female figures front and center. While the diverse nature of the Kingdom meant that the art work was not uniform, it was usually of high quality and it showed that all parts of the Kingdom had great respect for their culture, thanks in part to the Mbudye’s teachings.

Other than this, headrests and staffs were of great importance in Luba’s culture. This was due to the presence of diviners who supposedly had dreams of the future and carried these as a symbol of their importance to the Kingdom. The King of Luba always carried a staff as well, and it was a symbol of power among the Luba.

Other than art, the Luba also had a rich history of free form poetry, known as the Kasala. It is chanted by both men and women and can convey a rich range of emotions, and can be used both in war, and in times of peace, along with at funerals to remember those who passed away.

Conclusion

The Kingdom of Luba was a powerful Kingdom that held immense power over Central Africa, and is a major part of African history. Their greatest contribution has to be the Lukasa, a memory device capable of recounting history, while also being dynamic. In contrast to books, this artistic mnemonic device can be read in a variety of ways, and is one of the most novel ways of transmitting history that the world has seen. The Lukasa provides a way of remembering history that ensures that history will be remembered by those who are strong enough to remember it.