The Kuba Kingdom of Congo and its fantastic past

We like to include a strong cultural component in our trips. For example, the Kuba kingdom of the Congo, an ancient and powerful civilisation whose descendants still preserve some of the traditions of yesteryear. It is these traditions that continue to define their identity as a people.

The Kuba kingdom of Congo, also called Bakuba or Bushongo

The Kuba kingdom of Congo (DRC), also called Bakuba or Bushongo, is in the Kasai region, in the centre-south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two or three days’ hard journey from Kinshasa, in a setting of fertile land and forests that have always provided them with a privileged prosperity.

This kingdom was formed in the 17th century and is a “typical” case of different ethnic groups coming together to form a state.

Kuba of Congo

How kingdoms were formed in ancient times

As we have read in the General History of Africa IV edited by UNESCO, societies in this part of Africa lived in hamlets organised by lineages, with a chief or chieftain at the head.

The state was a territory comprising a number of villages that recognised the political authority of a chief.

The chiefs had a privileged relationship with the land through the mediation of the spirits, and this was their main source of authority.

As seems to have been the case since the dawn of time, the strongest chiefs prevailed over the weaker lineages, either by ownership of land or by the authority of arms. The strongest is the one who created a dynasty and kingdom when he succeeded in uniting several peoples and, of course, held on to power.

Why the Kuba Kingdom of Congo is so interesting

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Kuba kingdom of Congo developed into a state with structure, traditions, architecture and art. Well differentiated, recognised by neighbouring states.

Their social organisation was pyramidal, and this was the “secret” to developing a full-fledged state. From the king or nyim to the nobility, spiritual leaders, artisans and farmers.

Moreover, it is claimed that they had an unwritten constitution, separation of powers, elected political offices, taxes, laws, judges, juries, police and army. They even created an agricultural calendar that allowed them to grow several harvests of corn a year! And an artistic production that today is famous all over the world.

What historians and anthropologists do not talk about is the existence of a caste of servants or slaves, but there would be something like that too.

The Kuba kingdom drew on the techniques of its neighbours, for example the weavings of the Pende, and benefited from the new crops brought from America: tobacco, beans, maize, manioc. In other words, they were nourished by other peoples and embraced the novelties, but they always went further. Seeking perfection.

In relation to this, it should also be noted that intelligence was one of the most highly prized values, which is why the head on the statues of the kings has a greater proportion than the rest of the body.

kuba mask
Congo Kuba Mask

Moreover, thanks to their geographical situation, they were spared the slave trade in two ways: they did not suffer many captures by slavers, nor did they take part in the human trade, since this traffic operated more along the coast. In other words, they remained happily isolated for a long time.

Europeans did not get to know the Kuba kingdom of the Congo until 1884. When they arrived, Kot-a-Mbweeky II reigned.

King Kuba and the organisation of lineages

The current King Kuba is the 125th and has been on the throne since 1968. His name is Kot-a-Mbweeky III. The rules for this king were clear. I say that in the past tense because it is not clear to me that they are still in place:

  • He could not sit on the floor.
  • He could not cross a crop field.
  • And he could not eat any food that had not been made by his cook, who always accompanied him with his own cooking utensils.
kuba kingdom clan
Family photo in the Kuba Kingdom of Congo

In addition to the king, Kuba society is divided into lineages and clans, each with its own specific role. A system that already speaks of a much higher degree of organisation than that of other peoples. We can highlight:

1️⃣ Bushongo: the lineage of kings, also called nyim or nyimi. That is why the Kuba kingdom is also known as the Bushongo kingdom.

2️⃣ Bwoom: the lineage of ministers and relevant state officials.

3️⃣ Ngeende: comprises the spiritual leaders, those in charge of carrying out ceremonies and maintaining the connection with the spirits.

4️⃣ Lele: the group dedicated to agriculture and livestock farming. The livelihood of the community depends on them.

5️⃣ Shoowa: the lineage of the producers of Kuba textiles. The most reputable ones are made exclusively for the nobility.

men sitting at the door of their hut
Two noble men, according to their clothes, at the door of the house – Kuba of Congo

The art of the Kuba of Congo

The management of the land they inhabited and the skills of their various peoples (remember that “the Kuba” are an amalgamation of different peoples forming a kingdom), allowed the noble class of the kingdom to amass great wealth.

And as in many other civilisations, aristocrats competed with each other in hoarding and showing off the artistic productions of the best craftsmen. A behaviour that could be likened to that of the art patrons and collectors of the Renaissance and of our own time. How similar we humans are.

The artists of the Kuba kingdom had names and surnames, although they have not survived to the present day.

wood carving depicting a Kuba king

Congo’s Kuba art production lives on

In the 21st century. Far removed from industrial goods. And it is impressive for the number of different objects and designs that can be found.

Like the wooden statues or Ndop that commemorate the Kuba kings: they are true portraits and were first made in the 17th century, when King Mmishe Mishyaang Mambul commissioned a sculpture to commemorate his figure and legacy. From then on, as a historical record in an unwritten culture, each king had his own Ndop. Coronations are presided over by the statue of the dead king to whom he succeeds.

In addition to the Ndop, we can also find:

“Helmet masks” adorned with shells and coloured beads or with drawings engraved in wood, representing the faces of spirits. Spectacular.

kuba of congo mask
Mask from the Kuba kingdom of Congo

Palm wine cups and carved wooden cosmetic boxes. Among the cosmetics we can highlight the white kaolin clay or kalaba used in ceremonies.

Basketry, hoes, containers for storing the remains of sacred animals, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, fibre and beaded hats, staffs, arrows, spears, highly decorated stools, smoking pipes…

Huge belts made from cowries, the shells that were once circulating currency in much of Africa.

On the British Museum website you can see part of their collection of Kuba art objects, but now let’s move on to the art that has made them most famous.

kuba textiles

We make a separate chapter for the Kuba textiles from Congo because they are unique and highly appreciated.

Made from palm leaf fibre, also known as raffia, the most striking are those with geometric embroidery and are worn by women at ceremonies.

In Central Africa, raffia seeds have been found in archaeological sites dating back to the 4th century AD.

The production of Kuba textiles is divided between men and women. Of course, each has a well-defined role.

  • The men are responsible for cultivating the palm and weaving the raffia fibre into different shapes: thin textiles for embroidering ceremonial clothing, thicker textiles for everyday clothing.
  • Women are in charge of decorating the fine textiles with magnificent geometric embroidery, which are used as skirts. Depending on the stitch technique used for the embroidery, they can form a kind of soft velvet.
kuba of congo man weaving on a loom
Kuba man from the Congo weaving with raffia on his loom.
kuba of congo woman embroidering a piece of cloth
Woman embroidering a cloth – Kuba of Congo

They are really beautiful, but the most interesting thing is that each drawing has its meaning and a great symbolic load.

The patterns on Kuba textiles represent elements of nature, spiritual, social hierarchy, and/or refer to the history of the kingdom. That is why they can only be worn by royalty. They “speak” of the cultivated land and its importance, the connection with spirits and ancestors, wisdom, fertility, vital energy, the cycle of life, renewal and constant movement.

kuba of congo woman embroidering geometric designs
Embroidering symbolic patterns on a Congo Kuba cloth

We said that they are recognised all over the world, and some western designers borrow the word Kuba to name their collections or pieces with geometric designs. Moreover, the fabrics produced by this people are highly valued in all markets.

The myths and ceremonies of the Kuba kingdom of Congo

The myth of creation

According to oral tradition, the creator god Mbombo was alone, submerged in the water and in complete darkness.

One day he got sick. He vomited and out of it came the sun. With it came the light and the water evaporated, giving rise to the earth.

Mbombo vomited again and thereby created the moon, the stars and the planets. He divided the day into 12 hours of light and 12 hours of night.

With each vomit, he created something new on earth, until he created Woot, a supernatural being who turned out to be the first human. He brought civilisation to Earth.

The inhabitants of the Kuba kingdom are also known as “the sons of Woot”, and their kings are the reincarnation of this hero.

Rituals

The Kuba beliefs and worldview include rituals where masks, sculptures and music made with their own instruments play an important role.

One of the most interesting celebrations is the initiation or rite of passage from child to adult, the highlight of which is the return of children as adults, but there are also ceremonies for marriages, funerals and agricultural celebrations.

congo kuba masks ceremony
Mask ceremony in the Kuba kingdom during Kumakonda’s first expedition to this region.

The inhabitants of the Kuba kingdom believe in the reincarnation of good people. Bad people stay in “limbo” or the spirit world for eternity.

Wizards are truly powerful men who move between the earthly and supernatural worlds. They lead all ceremonies and are distinguished from the others because they carry gourds containing a magical liquid.

With their ointments they are able to treat illnesses and have the power of divination to find out the causes of evil. For divination, they use wooden carvings of dogs, which can also be good luck fetishes for hunting.

sorcerers with their pumpkins
Two sorcerers or witches with their gourds hanging around their necks – Kuba of Congo

On some of our upcoming trips to the D.R. Congo we include a visit to the Kuba kingdom of Congo. Getting to their territory is not easy, but getting to know them is worth the effort.

We invite you to watch this video of our first expedition to the Kuba Kingdom of Congo, and to check out our next trips to this fantastic country

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