The Kuba (Bakuba plural) People


The Kuba (Bakuba plural) number between 200,000 and 250,000 people and are composed of between 16 and 18 differ-ent peoples who all speak the same Bantu language called Bakuba. The Bushoong or Bushongo formed the political heart of the Kuba, while other groups such as the BaTwa (a Khoisan people), Lele,and Njembe or Ngeende were included as Kuba, but did not participate in gover-nance above the regional level. They live in the Kasai region in the southern Demo-cratic Republic of Congo.

The Kuba originated in the 16th century when various proto-Kuba people moved into the region between the Kasai and the Sankuru rivers. They encountered the Kete and Twa, whom they began to absorb. In the 17th century, the dominant Bushongo, or “people of the throwing knives,” began to arrive and defeated other rivals. The Bushongo established a divine kingship, or nyim, and an imperial order/rule or matoon around the semi-mythical founder of the dynasty Shyaam aMbul aNgong.

Those who were dominated by the Bush-ongo were bubil or affiliated chiefdoms. The arrival of new food crops such as cassava and maize from the Americas allowed their economy to thrive, and its aristocrats supported artisans producing a high tradition of arts in raffia cloth, wood carving, and metal. Their location, on the edge of the rain forest, woodlands, and savanna, gave them a wide range of prod-ucts for trade. Twa skills as hunter-gatherers originally were used as a source of items such as honey and animal hides, since the Kuba were themselves fishermen and farmers. The Twa lost their indepen-dence to Kuba chiefs as they became a more vital part of the local economy.

The Kuba were in the position to con-trol a good deal of the trade networks and lacked little themselves. Ivory was one of the main trade items controlled by the Kuba, but the Portuguese and Luso-Africans were used to exchanging European cloth for it. The Kuba produced their own cloth and generally refused to exchange ivory for items other than slaves and cowrie shells. As the 19th century pro-gressed, ivory became less and less avail-able from other sources in eastern Angola such as from the Chokwe.The Kuba developed a “stranglehold” over ivory and they banned hunting by those other than themselves.

Initially, most of the trade was with the Portuguese in Angola, and the Kuba would most likely have become part of the Angola colony if, in 1884, the Belgian king Leopold II had not claimed the region as part of the Congo. The 1885 Berlin Conference awarded Leopold the Kasai region, and it became part of the Belgian Free Congo.Initially, the Kuba were able to enforce a policy of isolation against the encroach-ments of Europeans. In the past, they had allowed a small number of Portuguese and Luso-African traders to set up posts in some of their markets, but did not allow them to become a permanent presence in the kingdom.

The Portuguese, like the Arabs and Swahili traders, came as cara-van traders and did not stay. The Belgians were unable to control the Kuba until after 1910, when a state post was finally built in the royal capital. The Belgians were assisted by the local chief they called “Zappo Zap” (Nsapu Nsapu) and his son, whom they also called Zappo Zap.Kuba art was recognized as superior to many others and was immediately noted for being one of the most “developed” in Africa. As part of a “national” identity, Kuba art, architecture, dance, religion, and language was promoted by the king-dom. The different ethnic groups who formed the Kuba then had a single cultural development and identity.

Much of the art was produced for the aristocracy, who used it to denote social rank, as well as for export. In fact, almost from the first contact with Europeans, Kuba art has been collected for its beauty, and has been com-pared to that of “pharaonic Egypt, to Augustan Rome and to imperial Japan” (Binkley and Darish, 7).The Kuba produced various masks used in ceremonies, such as for ngesh or nature spirits and makanda initiation rites. Among the most spectacular is the Maw-aash a Mbony, worn by Kuba kings during trials, which represents Woot, the founder of the Bushongo. The Mukenga mask closely resembles the Mawaash, and both masks have a long trunk to recall the elephant, which to the Kuba represents the power of the king.

The ndop or king figures are another developed art. These are carved wooden figures, and each represents a past king identified by his animal totem. Other carved items include drinking cups, lidded boxes, smoking pipes, drums, and nearly all daily items that are carefully engraved and many are covered in cowrie shells.Personal dress is another form of Kuba art. Raffia cloth made from palm fiber is spun and then woven into cloth by men on single-headed looms.

The cloth is then given to women who appliqued, tie-dyed, beaded, and/or embroidered the piece depending on its intended use. The cloth is still made and exported to Europe and North America, where it is bought mainly by collectors of African art. Other aspects of personal dress such as elaborate raffia belts are decorated with beads and cowrie shells. Rank can be determined by other aspects of dress, such as carrying a large blade of copper, iron, or brass that signi-fies status. Western demand for Kuba art is such that it has now put constraints on what can be produced and sold, since Western consumers want what is identifi-able as “traditional” pieces.

Kuba political structure reflected the different ethnic groups that formed the kingdom, and the provinces represented the ethnicities. At the village level, a coun-cil of elders from the different clans, and thus every clan, had the right to participate in politics. In larger communities, each of the different residential areas also had its own council. Each of these communities selected a representative to the higher council up to the level of the province. At the province level, the chief was principal chief of the ethnic group and the para-mount chiefs of the Bushongo clans elected the king, who served with divine authority. Divine right of the Kuba kings helped unify the people, as did his army and common administration.

In 1901, the Compagnie du Kasai was formed and given the monopoly over ivory, rubber, and other raw materials of the region. Fairly soon after its formation, company greed and the start of a Presby-terian mission fomented rebellion through the use of a charm called Tongatonga. The charm was for collective protection for the community from the exploitation by the company and others. The rebellion was ended by 1909, but by then the Belgian Free State was turned over to the Belgian state to manage.

The Kuba experienced a significant loss of life during the colonial period. Popula-tion figures for the precolonial and colonial periods are difficult to reconcile; nonethe-less, people either fled the area or suc-cumbed to epidemics due to the colonial opening of the region—the colonial regime recorded a total of only 150,000 people in 1920. Both the conquest from 1899 to 1900 and the revolt of 1904–1905 caused a good deal of damage and loss of population.

The Kuba polity was able to survive the colonial period and even regained some of the lands it had lost when, in 1910, the Belgian law on chiefdoms was estab-lished. The Kuba were able to take advan-tage of indirect rule, given the political structure was better intact than elsewhere in the colony.

Nonetheless, Kuba society needed a means to try to reestablish a sense of peace or poloo with the spirit world, and in 1924 the Lakosh cult began. Named for one of the ngesh spirits who it is believed revealed it, the Lagosh belief spread rapidly beyond the Kuba area. Lagosh was replaced in 1950 with a new, similar cult, Miko miYool. These tradition-based religions have a greater appeal than Christianity to the Kuba, and few today have converted.

Following independence in 1960, the Kuba formed the state of Kasai and tried to break from the control of Kinshasa in 1961, but they were forced to return. The Kuba Kingdom has endured civil war and, although greatly replaced by civil servants from the central government, there is still a king, Kwet aMbweky III, who has ruled since 1969.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Binkley, David, and Patricia Darish. Visions of Africa: Kuba. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2009.

“Kuba Information.” (accessed June 1, 2010).

Mbajekwe, Patrick U. “East and Central Afri-can in the Nineteenth Century.” In Africa Volume 1: African History before 1885, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Caro-lina Academic Press, 2000.

Mukenge, Tshilemalaema. Culture and Customs of the Congo.Westport,CT:Green-wood Press, 2002.

Vansina, Jan. Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.