Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Luba and Lunda Kingdoms

Fig.1: Did you know that the Luba and Lunda Kingdoms would hold hands while sleeping so they wouldn't float away from each other?
There have been a countless number of memorable kingdoms throughout African history. Most prominently are the Zulu Kingdom, the Mali Empire, the... um... the uh... well.... Did I mention the Zulu Kingdom? Hmmm, well I guess that's about all most of us know.  Well, there have been a countless number of kingdoms throughout African history that deserve to be memorable! As a public service, I will enlighten you about many of these entities that were doing just fine until those Europeans decided to scramble everything up. Here, I'll give you two histories for the price of one with the Central African sibling states of the Luba and Lunda. Unlike many kingdoms that existed contemporary of one another between the 17th and 19th centuries, they did not engage in continuous warfare (I'm looking at you, England and France), but actually strengthened political ties and returned each other's power tools when borrowed. Also, their respective government systems based on power sharing preserved order and prevented civil disputes during their rule. It's a lesson many states can learn from, especially ones in the lands that the Luba and Lunda once ruled (I'm looking at you, Shiny Happy People's Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Fig.2: The Bantu migrations led to many 
cries of "Olly olly oxen free!" throughout 
Central and Southern Africa.
These kingdoms were just two of the many benefactors of the Bantu expansion that occurred in the millennium Before Crullers. The Bantu, originating in the dead center of Africa, one day decided to play a massive game of Hide and Seek throughout the continent, bringing their language, crops, livestock, and diseases with them (fig.2). It wasn't long before they displaced the original inhabitants of the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa, creating many of the ethnic groups most don't know of today. Within a thousand years or two, many of these peoples created states that ruled over a large amount of land, population, and Baobab trees. The Luba culture, not to be left behind, decided it was time to get off their lazy butts and do the same.

Things didn't get off to a peaceful start though. The Luba leader, Nkongolo Mwamba, established the Luba Kingdom around 1585 simply by saying, "Okay, I'm the king now!" However one of his military men, Ilunga Mbidi, was much more popular with the Luba ladies, and Nkongolo sought to eliminate him as a potential threat. Ilunga was tipped off by the notoriously Luba looselips and fled, leaving behind his sons Kalala and Tshibinda. Nkongolo thought this was the end of the problem, but Kalala grew up to be just as suave and savvy as his father, hurting his Luba libido even more. The story goes that Nkongolo made Kalala do a ritual dance, but with the old trap of a concealed hole in the floor with spears underneath right where he was to do the big finish; Kalala avoided the trap with the Luba limbo move, making Nkongolo officially "served" (whatever that means). Nkongolo then tried the simple method of sending an army to kill him, but Kalala and his supporters fought back, and it was Nkongolo that ended up with a Luba lethal wound.

Fig.3: Tshibinda Ilunga 
never left home to found a 
new kingdom without his 
lucky powderhorn-shaped 
beer glass.
Kalala Ilunga was proclaimed the next king of the Luba, and by all accounts turned out to be as skilled of a ruler as he was a mover and shaker. Over the next few centuries, all Luba kings would claim descent from Kalala, who would forever be revered as a watchful god and a lord of the dance (but not the dumb kind). But what about his brother, Tshibinda (fig.3)? I'm glad you asked! He set out with his Gandalf walking stick in search of his own destiny, and found it in the pretty eyes of Lueji Naweej, queen of the Lunda peoples to the southwest. They soon married, and Tshibinda put on his gift registry to become ruler of a brand new Lunda Kingdom. He brought many of the ideals and rituals from the Luba to the Lunda, creating a stronger bond between the two states than that time I super-glued my knee to my face (it's a long story).

The longterm success of both kingdoms was not solely due to their ability to play nice with each other, as much as their kindergarten teacher appreciated it. The Luba and Lunda established a political system unique in 17th century Africa that shared power between the king and a council of wise sagacious men (aka: old farts). The king, or balopwe, possessed a sacred right to rule from the gods above, and he in turn would become a god after he died. While that fact would make any man get a big head (just ask any North Korean Supreme Leader), the council, or bamfumus, kept the king in check and reminded them he needed to fulfill his earthly duties before he received the pleasure of having people compose chants and dance around fires in his honor. When this finally happened, the bamfumus facilitated the succession of the next king, ensuring a smoother transition than the interior-decoration-war that occurs when a new President and First Lady move into the White House. This dual-power system worked extremely well, and was soon adopted by other neighboring territories. Consider the fact that the Luba king and council worked together successfully at the same time that the English king and parliament were fighting in a civil war, and you tell me which culture was more "civilized."

Of course, good governance couldn't have been the only reason that the Luba and Lunda were the bee's knees. Natural resources were abundant in the Congo River Valley, and the two kingdoms used their human resources to take advantage of them. Legend tells that jack-of-all-trades Kalala Ilunga created an advanced iron forging technique that allowed them to make better tools and weapons (Kalala was obviously deemed "Most Likely to Succeed at Everything" in his yearbook). So the combination of a working political system and those persuasive pointy objects of theirs convinced many neighboring tribes that they were better off for than against the Luba and Lunda. These villages were incorporated into the ruling bureaucracy, where the chief remained in charge but answerable to the king. Oh the joys of middle management! By the 19th century, both kingdoms possessed extensive trade connections, human capital, and more recipes for sweet potato casserole to shake a well-forged spear at!

Fig.4: Examples of art from Luba and Lunda cultures, all of which are deadly when hit over 
the head (some more than others).
Another innovation that the Luba and Lunda brought to Central Africa were unique works of art that actually served a purpose other than to look pretty next to the toilet seat. Fig.4 left is actually a royal stool used by the Luba king whenever he stopped at the local diner to order his Friday night slice of lemon meringue pie. The axe in the middle is actually believed to have been made by the neighboring Songye people, but displays many obvious Luba influences. That demonstrates the reach of Luba artistic and metal forging techniques throughout the region, as a Songye man's final thought while being hacked to death by a Luba blade may have been, "Man, that's a nice decorative cooper sheeting!" The purpose of the sculpture on the right isn't clear at first sight, but it's actually a type of pillow! The Luba king would rest his head on the plank at the top not only for lumbar support, but mostly to protect his elaborate hairdo (residents of Panem should invest in these). The Lunda, not to be outdone, excelled in making representations of their kings and ancestors, especially of their founder Tshibinda Ilunga (fig.3). Many of these works of art are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or you can apparently buy them on eBay for as low as $52 or Best Offer. Seems legit.

Fig.5: Belgium, a country of under 12,000 square 
miles, took control of a piece of African territory 
nearly 80 times its own size. Sounds like some-
body was compensating for something...
While the Luba and Lunda peoples still inhabit the savannahs of Central Africa, their kingdoms are unfortunately long gone. The slave trade ebbed away at the population, with the nadir actually occurring in the 1870s when Muslim kingdoms in North Africa continued to pay mercenaries high prices for free labor, proving that not everything is the fault of Europeans (just most things). However, the colonization of Africa by those fiends from Europe certainly didn't help matters, especially when they gave guns to less friendly African groups, such as the Chokwe, who didn't much care for the artistry of Luba's axes. Finally, the majority of Luba and Lunda territory came under the personal rule of Leopold II, King of the Belgians (who wanted to be king over more things than waffles and chocolate). This territory eventually became the Bright and Cheery Democratic Republic of the Congo that everyone holds close to their hearts (if a gun isn't being held there already). But the accomplishments of the Luba and Lunda should long be remembered! I'd list a few of those achievements, but I already forgot most of them, and I don't feel like scrolling back up to refresh my memory. Just take my word for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment