African ethnic group of the week: The Kuba people (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Kuba (Likuba, Kyba) is a Bantu language of Kasai, it belongs with the Bangi–Ntomba group

Kuba Kingdom or Bakuba/ Bushoong Kingdom was a federation of smaller polities and ethnicities. It bordered the Kasai, Lulua, and Sankuru rivers in the region of West Kasai, Democratic Republic of Congo. The kingdom is estimated to have had a population of 250,000. Kuba is the name given to the Bushoong people by the Luba, meaning “lightning”, for their throwing knife. The original Kuba migrated during the 16th century from the north. Nineteen different ethnic groups are included in the kingdom, which still exists and is presided over by the nyim( king)

Because of its relative remoteness in the southern Congo, Kuba was largely spared the turmoil of both European and Arab slave trades. As a result, the civilization was able to maintain itself until the 19th century. Also due mainly to its location, even after Belgium officially established the Congo Free State in 1885, the Kuba were able to sustain their federation, which comprised some 100,000 square kilometers and had a population of approximately 150,000 inhabitants.

The Belgians began attempting to gain the acceptance of the Kuba in the early 1880s; however, the gifts Belgium attempted to give were always rejected and king aMbweeky aMileng threatened to behead any foreign intruders. As a result of their justifiable fear of white foreigners, it was not until the African-American missionary William Sheppard made contact with the Kuba that a foreigner would gain their acceptance. This was mainly due to his African blood and Sheppard was able to live amongst the Kuba for four months.

Eventually, after colonial officials were able to enforce their authority upon the Kuba near the end of the 19th century, the entire region became increasingly unstable. However, the well-organized Kuba fought relentlessly against the regime and the area was one of the main sectors of resistance to Belgium throughout its rule.

The Kuba government was reorganized toward a merit-based title system, but power still remained firmly in the hands of the aristocracy. The Kuba government was controlled by a king called the nyim who belonged to the Bushoong clan. The king was responsible to a court council of all the Kuba subgroups, who were represented equally before the king by their elites.

The Kuba are known for their raffia embroidered textiles, fiber and beaded hats, carved palm wine cups and cosmetic boxes, but they are most famous for their monumental helmet masks, featuring exquisite geometric patterns, stunning fabrics, seeds, beads and shells. They have been described as a people who cannot bear to leave a surface without ornament.

At the Kuba court, appreciation of artistic innovation was balanced by reverence for tradition and continuity, and the king’s treasury included heirlooms passed from one royal generation to the next. One of the most significant of these was a red basket decorated with cowries and beads, identified as the basket of knowledge from the Kuba origin myth. In that story, the first man, Woot, stole this basket from the creator god Mbwoom but then lost it. The basket was later found by a Pygmy, who gave it to the first Kuba ruler.

The Kuba believed in Bumba the Sky Father who spewed out the sun, moon, stars, and planets. He also created life with the Earth Mother. However these were somewhat distant deities, and the Kuba placed more immediate concern in a supernatural being named Woot, who named the animals and other things. Woot was the first human and bringer of civilization. The Kuba are sometimes known as the “Children of Woot.”

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