The Baluba are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their number is estimated at around 10 million people. They are widely known for four major achievements: their art, whose numerous objects populate, among others, the Tervuren Museum; their religion; their philosophy; and their political thought, which is manifested in Pax Luba.
Luba philosophy and religious thought played a crucial role in the development of African philosophy and the Négritude Movement in the 20th century. Luba religion was revealed to the outside world by the publication of Placide Tempels' Bantu Philosophy in 1945. The controversy generated by this book in the international community placed Luba religion and thought at the center of the vast intellectual debate that led to the birth of contemporary African philosophy and African enculturation theology. It should be noted in that regard that Bantu Philosophy was the first book published by the nascent Presence Africaine. This means that Luba religion and worldview remain deeply intertwined with the development of the Négritude Movement, as well as the Panafrican Movement. This entry describes the history, culture, and religious beliefs and practices of the Baluba, along with the impact of religious beliefs on government.

Historical Background

The Luba empire is one of the most renowned African states, along with the Mali empire, Songhai empire, the kingdom of Asante, Zulu empire, Kongo kingdom, Mongo kingdom, Lunda empire, the kingdom of Buganda, the kingdom of the Mwami of Kivu or Rwanda, or the empire of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Archaeologists have shown that the origins of the Luba state goes back to the 5th century AD and spanned almost 1,500 years.
After flourishing from 500 AD to 1900 AD, it was fragmented by Belgian colonization between 1880 and 1960. However, it survives today in a variety of polities. Today, Lubaland is divided into the kingdoms of Kabongo, Kasong'wa Nyembo, Kinkondja, Kabondo-Dianda, Malemba-Nkulu, and Mwanza, among the most prominent. Although these administrative entities are integrated in the modern Republic, traditional “Chiefs” are recognized by the government. They administer their territories with a standing police force and levy taxes.
The Baluba, 1 of the 200 ethnic groups of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), are a branch of the Bantu people and thus share a common worldview with many other people from the Equator to South Africa. They live principally in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Katanga province. But the Luba empire included a large number of people living in various countries, including Zambia and Angola.
The original location of the Baluba is the region between Lualaba (or the Congo River) and Lake Tanganika. This location in the Great Lakes region provided the Baluba with sufficient means of subsistence necessary for the development of a powerful civilization: water, abundant food, fish, and raw material necessary for a technology needed for protection and agriculture. Some scholars think that the Baluba are one of the pro-tobantu groups and that their territory constitutes one of the main centers from which the Bantu spread across Central and Southern Africa.

Language and Culture

It is not surprising that languages such as Shona and Zulu share striking similarities with the Kiluba language, as do the names of people and names of God. Typically, Luba names such as Nkulu and Tambo can be found in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where the name of God (Unkulunkulu in Zulu) is well related to the Vidye Mukulu of the Baluba. Leza, another Luba name of God, is found in Resa and Lesa variants among various ethnic groups from the northern Kalahari into Congo and across into Zambia and Tanzania. The Baluba are patrilinear; however, in most cases, men and women carry the same names, such as Ilunga, Mutombo, Nsengha, Sungu, Seya, Nkulu, Ngoy, Nday, Mande, Monga, Numbi, Mbuyu, Mbuya, Banza, Banze, Mwenze, Mwanza, Twite, Kabamba, Kabimbi, Kabange, Kabongo, Kabila, Kalala, Kasala, Kalenga, Kalenge, Kasongo, Kayembe, Kayamba, Kazadi, Kyungu, Kyoni, Nkongolo, Mukaya, Mukanya, Mulongo, Mutonkole, Mwamba, Mwila, Mwilambwe, Nshimba, Nshimbi, Nyembo, Mpanda, Mpande, Masengo, Museka, Musenge, or Ngandu. Some of these names can be found in many countries from Uganda to South Africa and from Congo to Zambia and Zimbabwe.
As one of the Protobantu group, the Baluba shared a profound cultural unity with many other people across the continent. Kiluba, the language of the Luba empire, is part of the group of Bantu languages that is dominant in the whole central Africa and extends down to South Africa. The Baluba have a “basic language correspondence” of more than 60% with neighboring peoples. Not only are these languages more or less mutually intelligible, but they are based on similar grammar and produce a unified logic.

Religious Beliefs

The Luba religion shares a common cosmology and basic religious tenets with many other types of African religions. Although the Kiluba language does not have a specific word for religion, it has an extensive lexicon that describes the nature of the Supreme Being, the supernatural world, and various religious activities. The Luba belief system includes the belief in the existence of a Universal Creator (Shakapanga), the afterlife, the communion between the living and the Dead, and the observance of ethical conduct (Mwikadilo Muyampe) as a sine qua non condition for being welcomed in the village of the ancestors after death.
Among the most important components of the Luba religion, three important figures, Leza (Supreme God), Mikishi or Bavidye (various Spirits), and Bankambo (ancestors), constitute the supernatural world. In the world of the living, the main figures are Kitobo or Nsengha (priest), the Nganga (healer), and the mfwintshi (the witch, the embodiment of evil and the antithesis of the will of the ancestors).
Religious activities include prayers (kulomba, kutota), praise songs and formulas (kutoba), dances, sacrifices, offerings, libations, and various rituals, including cleansing or purification and rites of passage. Among the Baluba, Disao, the circumcision of men, is mandatory. However, women do not undergo excision.
Besides prayers and invocations, means of communication with the divine include the interpretation of dreams and especially the practice of Lubuko (divination) to consult the will of the ancestors before any important decision or to know the causes of misfortune. To find out the truth about a liar, the Baluba use Mwavi (a poisonous beverage) as a test. The assumption is that it hurts only the guilty.
Besides various shrines, holy places include sacred mountains, lakes, rivers, trees, animals, and snakes (especially Moma, Python). One of the most sacred places of the Luba empire is Lake Boya near Kabongo City.
It should be noted, however, that the core of the Luba religion is the notion of Bumuntu (authentic or genuine personhood) embodied in the concept of mucima muyampe (good heart) and Buleme (dignity, self-respect). Bumuntu stands as the goal of human existence and the sine qua non condition for genuine governance and genuine religiosity. Thus, religion played a crucial role in defining the Luba vision of good government and “civilized life.” This notion of nobility of heart is enshrined in the creation myth of the glorious phase of Luba empire when Buluba (Lubahood) became a label of quality.

Genesis Stories

For the Baluba, the Buluba refers to a tradition of wisdom transmitted from generation to generation for more than a millennium. Buluba, then, means the core values of Luba civilization, a unified worldview, a common set of religious ideas and ideals defining the essence of ethics, human dignity, good government, and “sage king.” In its origin, Buluba meant that kind of “refined behavior” generated by Luba courts and extended to other kingdoms of the vast empire. It is that distinctive label of quality, that nobility bestowed by personal dignified ethical behavior (Buleme), and the belonging to a community ruled by the “Bulopwe” that is “civilized government” institutionalized by the ancestors according to the will of the creator and created for the protection and promotion of the Bumuntu (human dignity).
The Luba genesis saga articulated a distinction between two types of Luba emperors whose forms of government were shaped by their own moral character and private behavior: Nkongolo Mwamba, the red king, on the one hand, and Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe, a prince of legendary black complexion, on the other hand. It is worth noting that the Baluba of Heartland prefer to call themselves “Bana Ba Mbidi,” rather than children of Nkongolo. Mbidi the “civilized prince” is recorded as the founder of “the golden era” of the second Luba empire.
The Luba genesis Saga emphasizes the difference between Nkongolo Mwamba the drunken and cruel despot and Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe the refined and gentle prince. Nkongolo the red is a man without manners, a man who eats in public, gets drunk, and cannot control himself. In contrast, Mbidi Kiluwe is a man of reservation, obsessed with good manners; he does not eat in public, he controls his language and his behavior, and he keeps a distance from the vices and modus vivendi of ordinary people. In Luba historical memory, Nkongolo Mwamba symbolizes the Kilopwe, the embodiment of tyranny, whereas Mbidi Kiluwe remains the Mulopwe par excellence, the admired caring and compassionate king.
Luba cosmology casts Nkongolo's evil government in esthetic terms. Nkongolo is said to be the son of a hyena; he was so ugly that no one resembled him before or since. His red skin symbolizes the color of blood, and he is thus said to be “Muntu wa Malwa,” a physical and moral monstrosity who brings suffering and terror into the world—an uncivilized man who lives in an incestuous relation with his own sisters.
Mbidi the black prince will introduce the “civilized” practices of exogamy and “enlightened government” based on moral character, compassion, and justice. He is said to be beautiful, and the people identify with him. Mbidi functions in Luba consciousness as the norm of the legitimate power of good government, Bulopwe, which is antithetical to Bufumu, the brutal and illegitimate power of Nkongolo. Kalala Ilunga, Mbidi's son, and, after him, Ngoy'a Sanza are recorded as the paradigmatic sage kings, whereas others are denounced as monstrous tyrants. In the investiture speech, the young emperor had to learn from the noble Twite that “Bulohwe I Bantu” (power is for the people and the raison d'etre of a king is service to the people).


Recorded as the enlightened ruler feared by thieves and troublemakers, Ngoy'a Sanza (1665–1685) is celebrated for his openness to cultural and ethnic diversity and his focus on justice and respect for human rights. His passion for moral ethical standards, justice, and law and order led him to a severe penal code inflicting harsh punishment to criminals. This punishment included the cutting off of a hand to a thief, the upper lip to a liar, an eye or the nose to one guilty of adultery, and an ear to one who does not listen and disobeys constantly.
Although the Luba notion of Bulopwe is rooted in the concept of divine kingship, no one in practice identified the Mulopwe (King) with the Supreme God, Shakapanga. Power was never personal; it was exercised by a body of several people. The Baluba understood that the power of the King should be limited and controlled to guarantee the welfare of the people. Thus, the Luba empire was governed by an oral constitution based on the will of the ancestors (Kishila-kya-bankambo). A powerful religious lodge, the Bambudye, acted as an effective check on the behavior of the King and even had the power to execute him in case of excessive abuse of power. It was assumed that the king must obey the mandate of heaven by governing according to the will of the ancestors. These ideals of genuine personhood and good government had their foundation in the spiritual values inculcated by Luba religion.



  • Congo
  • African philosophy
  • empires
  • Zulu
  • ancestors
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • négritude


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Davidson, B. (1991). Africa in History: Themes and Outlines (Rev. & exp. ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Fage, J. D., and Oliver, R. (Eds.). The Cambridge History of Africa (Vols. V & VI (1976). ). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.