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by Nduta Waweru, at 08:52 am, July 10, 2018, History

King Nkongolo, the ugly ‘hyena king’ who terrorised central Africa in the 1500s

Luba Chiefs. Photo: Wiki CC

The Luba Empire was largely non-existent until the 16th century with the emergence of  Nkongolo Mwamba, the red King.

The empire, located in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, covered the Upemba depression. The area was occupied by fishing people who worked on iron and traded palm oil. The intermarriage between the different communities eventually led to the creation of the empire.

Legend has it that a man called Kiubaka-Ubaka (he who builds many houses) and a woman, Kibumba-Bumba, (she who makes much pottery) married and had twins, one of whom was Nkongolo (also written as Kongolo).

Not much has been said about Nkongolo’s childhood. But as an adult, he moved with his twin sister to a land near the Lualaba River. He then brought the land west to the area, crossed the river and set up his headquarters at Mwibele near Lake Boya.

It is reported that a prophet called Mijibu predicted that Nkongolo would not be a king because he was a commoner and that the kingdom would be ruled by a Bulopwe, a paramount chief with “sacral royal blood”.

Luba diviners in regalia. Photo: Harvard University

Mijibu told Nkongolo that he should welcome the Bulopwe for peace and prosperity to reign. If he did not, he would never be king and would die a tragic death.

The Bulopwe, Mbidi Kiluwe or Ilunga Mbili, arrived in Luba and Nkongolo welcomed him and made him the head of the army because of his skills as a warrior and a strategist.

The literature from the time depicted Nkongolo as the red king, because of his skin, which they often described the colour of blood, earning him the name, Muntu wa Malwa, he who brings terror and suffering to the world.

It is said that he was an ugly ‘son of a hyena’ because of his terrible behaviour.  For starters, he slept with his twin sister and bore twins and then over time went against the tradition of royals by mixing with the common people and eating right in front of them.

He has also been shown as a despot who terrorised his people and had even tried to kill his nephews, the sons of Mbili who had married two of Nkongolo’s sisters.

Nkongolo’s description has been compared to that of Mbili, who was described as a dark-skinned and beautiful prince who brought civilisation to the Luba Empire.

Cover of The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891 by Reefe, Thomas Q.

Nkongolo’s downfall was brought about by Kalala Ilunga, one of the nephews he had tried to kill. Due to the many conflicts between Nkongolo and Mbili because of the latter’s fame, Nkongolo plotted to have his brother-in-law killed against the wishes of prophet Mijibu.
When Mbili’s wives told him of their brother’s plot, he handed them two red feathers to give to his sons Kalala and Tshibinda when they grow up.  Mbili then left Luba to keep himself safe.
Under the protection of the feathers and the magic of prophet Mijibu, the two boys are able to beat their uncle in whatever challenge he set up for them. According to legend:
Angered by the growing renown of his nephew, Nkongolo caused a pit to be dug, lined with iron spikes, and hidden under a mat. He invited Kalala to dance in his honor. Mijibu gave Kalala two spears, and told him to brandish one while using the other to test the ground during his dance. Kalala Ilunga, dancing, hurled his spear at the mat. The weapon passed through it, revealing the trap. Kalala Ilunga fled, determined to join his father. Nkongolo pursued him, but the nephew had already crossed the Lualaba River when his uncle reached its bank.
Kalala was able to reach his father, who then entrusted him with a huge army. Under the command of Kalala, the army took over Luba’s capital, leading to the escape of Nkongolo.
His escape was shortlived as he was captured, beheaded and castrated. His body parts were sent to Mbili in a basket. However,  when the basket was placed on the ground, a termite hill quickly formed over it and buried it under a mound of red earth.

After Nkongolo’s death, Mbili became the Emperor of the Luba, which then became two empires: Luba, ruled by Kalala Ilunga and Lunda, ruled by Tshibinda Ilunga.

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