The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly, Zaire and the Belgian Congo, live in the fertile lands of equatorial Africa between the Kasai and Sankuru Rivers. They compose a politically and socially complex multi-ethnic Kingdom consisting of 18 distinct sub-groups, each having a history and identity of its own. These groups have been an organized Kingdom since the 17th century but have lived in south central Congo much longer. Their unity is explained by participation in a common culture and by the Bushong's domination of the whole group. The Bushong group has the largest population of the 18. Artistically, the Kuba surround themselves with a sophisticated vocabulary of elaborate decorative patterns which are found in architecture, basketry, carved objects, female body scarification and textiles. Finally, in its political system, pomp of public receptions, and sophistication of its legal procedure, the Kuba Kingdom has remained the lone witness to the stately courts that had once flourished in equatorial Africa.
The Kuba Kingdom has been known to the western world only since the 1880s with the expeditions of Antonio da Silva Porto who led a Luso-African caravan. Subsequent expeditions were led by Paul Pogge and Hermann von Wissmann and finally Ludwig Wolf, who initiated the treaty whereby sovereignty was relinquished to the Congo Independent State in 1899. William Sheppard penetrated the kingdom to its capital, collected and reported on the extensive artistic production in 1892 and was followed by the ethnographic studies of Leo Frobenius in 1905 and Emil Torday in 1908. Under Belgian administration starting in 1910, much more data became available.
Kuba oral narratives are replete with reference to cosmology, creation of the world and man, and genealogies of kings, chiefs, and titled officials. The ncyeem ingesh or “songs of the nature spirits,” praise the monarchy with one song composed to glorify each king. From sources such as this, historians such as E. Torday and Jan Vansina have developed dynastic lists as an outline to a Kuba history. The following is a sample of Kuba time-depth and worldview.
List of Kuba Rulers
Shyaam aMbul aNgoong (c. 1630)
Mboon aLeeng (c. 1640)
MboMboosh (c. 1650)
Mbakam Mbomancyeel (ruling in 1680) --solar eclipse of 1680Kot aMbweeky ikoongl (c. 1695)
Mishe miSyaang maMbul (c. 1710)
Kot aNce (c. 1740)
MishaaPelyeeng aNce (c. 1760)
Mbo Peleeng aNce with Mbulape (a woman) regent (c. 1765)
Kot aMbul (c. 1785)
Miko miMbul (c. 1800)
Mbop Mabiinc maMbul (ruled c. 1835 to 1885-6)
Colonial Period to Present
Miko Mabiinc maMbul (ruled 1885-86 to before 1892)
Kot aMbweeky II (ruled from before 1892 to 1896)
Mishaape (ruled 1896-1900)Mbop Kyeen (ruled c. three months, 1900)
Miko miKyeen (ruled 1901-1902)
Kot aPe (ruled 1902-1916)Mbop aMbweeky (ruled 1919-1939)
Mbop Mabiinc maMbeky (ruled 1939-1969)
Kot aMbweeky III (ruled 1969 - )
Dynastic Legend of Kuba Origins:
A king’s daughter had two sons, Woot and Nyimi Longa, and two daughters. One day Woot became drunk on palm wine and lay naked; his sons laughed at him, but his daughter covered him up, and after that he decreed that only his daughter would inherit from him.
Woot contracted leprosy and retired from the village to the forest. His sister Mweel accompanied him and cared for him in his illness; they later became intimate and had a number of children. While living in the forest with Mweel, Woot discovered the items which were to become the emblems of kingship among the Kuba—eagle feathers worn by the king and regional chiefs, kolin powder for his enthronement, and the yiing basket covered with cowrie shells upon which he must sit that proves his right of succession. Other items reserved for the king alone are the mboom adady scepter, the mbombaam sword, the bwaanc costume, the mboong pwoonc bow, the cyeem, the mbeynyim mask and anklets of brass worn on his legs. When he recovered from his illness, he returned to the village with Mweel, their children, and the emblems. After his return, the incest was revealed by a Pygmy who had observed the couple in the forest, and the people of the village were outraged. The son of Mweel and Woot was forced to emigrate; he founded the neighboring Lele people. Woot and Mweel also departed the village; she went downstream, and he went upstream.
Before he left, however, Woot decided to hand over the emblems of power which he had discovered. He told his son to come to him at dawn, as Woot was leaving the village, and to ask for the ‘chicken-basket’. But a Pygmy overheard the conversation and told Woot’s brother Nyimi Longa what he should do. In the dim light of the early morning, Nyimi Longa accosted Woot and asked him for the ‘chicken-basket’, and so he, instead of Woot’s son, received the emblems of kingship. Discovering the deception, Woot was furious and caused a fire which destroyed the village; his wife, Ipopa, cursed the crops and the animals so that the millet rotted on the stalk and the animals died. Then Woot and Ipopa vanished up the river.
Nyimi Longa rebuilt the village and sent messengers to Woot, and eventually they acquired new domestic animals and the fertility of the crops was restored. It is also said that on his departure Woot caused night to fall over the village, and day returned only after his brother had sent messengers to plead for the people.
Still later, there was a dispute among the clans over the kingship. The Byeeng and the Bushong clans were rivals and they agreed to a public test of their claims: each pretender would throw a peg-like anvil into the water, and whichever anvil floated would indicate the legitimate claimant. The leader of the Byeeng clan then had his smiths make an anvil of light wood, over which they laid a thin layer of metal. But his sister was married to the leader of the Bushong, and she learned of this artifice; she switched anvils and gave her husband the wooden anvil, which naturally floated on the water when he threw it in. It was a trick but after that, marvelous signs showed that God had approved Bushong leadership. The trees along the river shook at his command, and on his order the lake took on different colors, and finally, he crossed the lake on the back of an immense crocodile and received there the sacred powders, red, white and yellow. Therefore, the Bushong clan took the kingship. Their leader is known as Shyaam aMbul aNgoong, the first great king of the Kuba and the originator of many of their distinctive practices. He gave his people crops and foodstuffs, modes of dress, behavior and customs.
The bell-shaped Kuba masks are profusely adorned with skins, beads and cowries and are closer to the techniques of weaving and embroider than carved sculpture. Among the Bushong, three basic types of masks are used for general festivities, initiation rites and burial ceremonies. One type of mask, known as mwaash a mbooy, is directly linked with royal power representing the culture-hero, Woot, and is reserved exclusively for certain male members of the royal family. Its female counterpart is the ngaady mwaash, representing Woot's wife-sister. The third Bushong type, but carved of wood, is known as Mboom. Mboom characterizes opposition to the king’s authority in the dance—a contrast between chiefs of the left and chiefs of the right--and represents someone not of royal birth and some think even the Pygmy. Their performance at the capital is viewed on one level as a portrayal of the mythic origin of the Kuba peoples. Not only is there dominance/powerlessness and male/female polarities in the triad of masks but the two male masks struggle over the affections of the female ngaady that together signify the break between adolescence and adulthood, the inevitable awakening of manhood, and social interplay. Less well known are other wooden masking forms such as Nuph with its clusters of cowries at the temples and coiffure of red and white feathers, Mulwalwa with its chameleon eyes and palm wine pot above the head, Mukenga with its elephant trunk and funerary dress of a titleholder and many others that identify more with Kuba subgroups rather than the Bushong.