Did you know that the word Sankayi originates from a Congolese tribe called Luba? Have you always been curious about the history behind the Kingdom of Luba, about its rise and fall, and how it became the powerhouse of central Africa?

In this article, we will be going through the full story, tapping into the art and cultural aspects, the economic and governmental side, and also the religious and spiritual angle.

The Origin of the Luba Kingdom

The Luba Kingdom was a pre-colonial Central African state that grew across the Upemba Depression, now known as the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The rise of the kingdom of Luba started in the 16th century, between 1585 and 1889, under the hand of king Kongolo Mwamba. The capital of his empire was Mwibele, close to Boya Lake. During that period, Kongolo Mwamba met a hunter coming from the east named Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe, who settled not too far from Mwibele, the capital of the Luba empire. In the imperial court, Ilunga is well received by Kongolo and ends up marrying his two sisters, Bulanda and Mabele. Although the two men had collaborated in the past, hostility grew between Kongolo and Ilunga, to the point where Ilunga returned to his lands to the east of the Lualaba River, abandoning his two wives.

One of Ilunga’s wives, Bulanda, will give birth to a son who will be named Kalala Ilunga. In his adulthood, the young Kalala will become a skilled warrior and hunter just like his father, Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe. As a trained warrior, Kalala will help his uncle, Kongolo, expand his territories to the south. However, due to the jealousy of Kongolo over the success of his nephew, Kalala decides to join forces with his father, Ilunga, to overthrow Kongolo’s reign. Their strategy will be a success, and Kongolo will be killed by his nephew.

After that, his nephew and immediate successor, Kalala Ilunga, expanded the kingdom and its power grew to new heights. It’s the birth of the second Luba empire. Kalala will have two sons, Walefu and Tshibinda. By the end of the 18th century, the empire reached its peak during the reign of Kumwimba Ngombe, who expanded it towards Lualaba and the Tanganyika Lake.

However, before we talk about the eruption of the Luba kingdom, we must also mention that the region of the Upemba depression has been inhabited for longer than a millennium and has mediated the way for the central African region to be led by Kongolo Mwamba. The trade before was mainly fishing villages, dry-aging their fish and trading it to the deeper zones of central Africa. From there, those same small towns started cultivating a lot of iron craftsmen. Because of this new trading prowess and how much it has exponentially raised the bar for the entire region’s economy, the various villages began to expand together. Soon enough, these small villages became small towns, and from small towns to big cities.

After the center of Africa was united by the King. At its zenith, it had more than a million people residing in it. Having its capital city, Mwibele, be the main seat of power.


As one can imagine, it was priests that spread their religious practices. They had their own angle and went for what people needed and wished for the most. They promised them that their agricultural gains would be enriched and that their tribes would be more fertile and expand with time. It is said that magic was used to mesmerize the followers and keep them intrigued and under the spell of the priests. As is also known in many other cultures, the importance of ancestors and dead figures in providing guidance and consulting in times of need was also a practice known in this era of the Kingdom of Luba.

Women also had a monumental importance in the spiritual aspect, as many headrests were made using divine woman figures. There were also staffs that were of great value in regards to prophetic dreams and worship of ancestors.

These hand-made tools were usually in the possession of kings, chiefs, and anyone in high power.

Art and Culture

The Luba Kingdom thrived in its cultural production and the skill of its craftsmen with wood, copper, iron, and stone sculpting. A lot of the artists were also rewarded with very high positions and status in the kingdom, and with that came property and money to keep them focused on what they do best.

These same artists are the ones that make the hairdressers and staff mentioned in our talk about the importance of religion in the kingdom. This also explains why the artwork wasn’t as spread throughout the region but was mostly within royal households due to the divine aspect that it brought.

The Luba Empire and Its Decline

The Luba empire was known for its avant-garde governmental system, given the fact that its peak was in medieval times. Having the king as the main leader, followed by his royal council and all the clan chiefs, which were all equally respected. This was one of the pillars leading to the success of the Kingdom of Luba, and why this same system was implemented in many other kingdoms in Central Africa.

As the kingdom was basing all of its success on its trading prowess, a lot of the nearby eastern African traders wanted to cut down on the middleman and run their own trade routes without going through the Luba empire. Soon enough, their intentions were clearly shown when they started to invade the Luba kingdom territories, and from there, the Belgian European powerhouse came knocking and found the right aid to take over. A chain reaction led to the people of the Luba kingdom being unhappy with the king and all the ruling class, and a civil war erupted in 1889. After 6 years, the war ended, and a peace treaty was introduced, but the country was already split into two halves by then, and without a unified kingdom, that was the last breath the Luba Kingdom drew as being one of the most powerful kingdoms in Central Africa.

All in all, the Luba kingdom maintained itself until the end of the 19th century but was soon submerged by the arrival of the European settlers, more specifically, the Belgians.