The Luba or Baluba People


The Luba or Baluba are one of the largest single ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), numbering over 5.5 million and inhabiting the southern Katanga, Kasai, and Man-iema regions. They speak a Bantu language called Ciluba or Tshiluba and are closely related to the Lunda. Around 12 percent of Luba are Muslims, due to contacts with Swahili-speaking peoples in the past century, while the remainder are nominally Christians observing many of their traditional religious practices.

Origins of the Luba can be traced back to the eighth century with the emergence of small, agricultural states in the Katanga region. The Upemba Depression produced important items, but most important was copper that was used as both a currency and a marker of social status. In addition, the abundance of fish allowed the popula-tion to grow. The growth of the small states provoked conflict with each other over vital resources, which caused a quick militarization of them.

The most powerful of the state, called Luba, was based around Lake Kisale, whose leadership was taken over by a people from the north called the Songye. Among the important changes brought by the Songye was the change to a matrilineal system of descent. The Luba kingdom is called the First Luba Empire or the Kingdom of Upemba that lasted from around 1100 to 1450. It has been noted that there were in fact four states that did not combine into one but, from time to time, verged on empire status. Luba influence was such that other king-doms claimed real or fictive claim to Luba origins.

By the 16th century, the Luba had formed a powerful, centralized state with the leader or mulopwe not only the secular ruler, but also the religious head as well.This is the Second Luba Empire that would last until the 19th century. The mulopwe was assisted by a number of min-isters with specific duties who also ruled the various provinces of the kingdom, thus keeping the government confined to a very small number of aristocrats. Starting around the beginning of the 17th century, various disgruntled Luba aristocrats struck out and formed their own political entities beyond the Luba Kingdom, including the Lunda, which was founded by such a Luba aristocrat called Chibinda Ilunga.

The Luba Kingdom expanded and took over other peoples as tributaries or mukonso rather than as equals. The central state did not see the necessity of providing for the provinces, which was one of its main weaknesses. The Luba Kingdom lasted until it was confronted by the Belgian colonial authorities in the 1880s as well as by the growth powered by the Chokwe state. The Luba actively resisted the Belgians between 1907 and 1917, but were eventually defeated.

The Luba are generally matrilineal, though some groups are patrilineal, and the role of women in society is important. The importance of women is reflected in a num-ber of cultural ways including Luba art, which often depicts women. The Luba are farmers, but the shallow soils in tropical areas need time to recover from cultivation. Nonetheless, they produce crops of cassava, maize, millet, sorghum, bananas, and tobacco and keep small stock such as pigs, poultry, goats, and sheep.

Following its defeat in 1917 by the Belgians, the kingdom fell apart, and the current situation of numerous chiefdoms emerged. The chief is selected based partially on seniority of descent and parti-ally on a rotation system that allows all families the chance to exercise rule. Line-ages that are not local, that is founded by a foreigner—refugees or prisoners of war—are excluded from the chieftainship, but are represented in the council. In addi-tion, another factor became more impor-tant starting in the colonial period: wealth. Only those families with enough financial means could qualify for the role of chief.

It has been noted that the colonial authorities frequently agreed to candidates who were willing agents of colonialism as well. Today, wealth still is an important factor in selecting a chief.Following independence in 1960, the Katanga province rose in rebellion and, between 1960 and 1963, set up an indepen-dent state. The province was brought back into Congo (then Zaire) in 1965 when the national army defeated the rebels. Most of the Luba did not support the rebels and even provided troops to fight them. The seces-sionists were led by a member of the Lunda aristocracy, and the Luba have generally not supported subsequent rebellions in 1977 and again in 1984.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Lamphear, John, and Toyin Falola. “Aspects of Early African History.” In Africa,3rded., edited by Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

“Luba Information.” (accessed June 10, 2010).