Men of Memory: The Congolese ‘Mbudye’ elites who used wooden boards to recount historical knowledge

July 15, 2019 at 03:00 pm | Culture

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley | Contributor

July 15, 2019 at 03:00 pm | Culture

Bilumbu diviners in consultation, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1989. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.

The Luba tribe of The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest ethnic divisions in the nation. Their widespread presence in Congo took on traction around the 1500s in the geographical area constituting the Upemba Depression which still serves as their original home.

They are organized around a central Kingship authority referred to as the Mulopwe (Sacred King) whose power and authority is checked by equally powerful traditional institutions comprising their original Kingship institution. An instance of such an institution is the Mbudye elite whose duty it was to undergo rigorous training in retaining the lore, traditions, customs, conventions, rules of usage and ancestral knowledge of the Luba people in memory. They held the power through their native knowledge and in consultation with the Lukasa; a sacred bead-studded, hand-held, decorated wooden board to dictate the current affairs of the Luba kingdom.

A special place was reserved for women in the Luba tradition; according to their tradition, the Luba people believe that only a woman’s body can hold the reincarnated spirit of a deceased King, and these ‘special’ women were entitled ‘Mwadi’, given their own share of privileges and allowed a generous degree of autonomy in going about their traditional duties.

The Luba tribesmen subsist on an agro-based culture with an elite hunting group to supplement their wildlife needs. After a bountiful harvest or at the birth of a newly born child, the Luba tribesmen offer thanksgiving to the spirit of their ancestors for providing the circumstances within which their celebrated achievement was attained.

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Luba hunting tribesmen with their hunting dogs.
Image source: keywordbasket.com

For a dynamic group of people with an equally dynamic culture, it was a necessity for the invention of an institution that will serve as the storehouse for all their history, as well as present and future experiences whatever they may be. This tribal need gave rise to the Mbudye elite amongst the Luba religio-political organization.

The Mbudye were persons selected from birth to undergo traditional training in preparation for their future role as keepers of the tribe’s lore, history, conventions, customs, practices and cultural rhetoric. And it is noteworthy to mention that these selected persons succeeded at their role of committing the tribe’s entirety to memory.

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Two ‘Mbudye‘ seated in their ceremonial stance with their Lukasa displayed before them.
Image source; pinterest.com

In a modern culture that is persistently making limited use of the storage abilities and capacities of the human storage unit, the tremendous memory capacity of the Luba Mbudye is indeed a feat worth paying respect to. In their celebrated Luba-narrative-recounting events, the Mbudye tend to carry with them a device named; ‘Lukasa’.

The Lukasa comprised of a wooden board sizeable enough to contain ancient ideograms and pictograms as well as carefully arranged beads of varying sizes and colours; the wooden board was sometimes tapered at the center to allow for easy handling and together with its constituent elements were all portable enough to fit into the palm of the left hand.

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A Lukasa showcasing carefully arranged beads with intricate designs carved into it.
Image source: sites.google.com

When called upon to recount a Luba narrative, the Mbudye along with the gathered elite say a prayer amidst court rituals and using the tip of his right finger, traces the physical properties of the beads on the wooden board (Lukasa). The size, shape, colour, arrangement and position of the beads all contribute to the historical narrative that will be pointed at on the mental shelves of the Mbudye. So we hereby recognize the role of the Lukasa as a memory device; a mnemonic of complex make used by the Mbudye to draw on sacred Luba narratives.

A brief documentary of the Luba and Lunda Empires.
Video credit; YouTube.

When recounting Luba narrative, part of the Mbudye training requires that he does not only regurgitate what narrative a specific bead-arrangement on the Lukasa may point to, but more expertly employ the use of the specified Luba narrative in interpreting current social affairs within the kingdom to give direction and guidance as to what is to be done next. For the Mbudye is usually called upon when there is an important decision to be made. It is this creatively beautiful mix of a boundless memory coupled with their ability to merge historical knowledge with current happenings to give future directions that makes the sacred institution of the Mbudye elite one in whose experiences present generations can share, to grow a gifted youthful populace who will wield both the memory and analytical abilities required of our future growth and comfort. The school system will be a good place to begin!

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