Audacities of Memory

From the archives, 2012
Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts
Allen F. Roberts

In order to force the past, when forgetfullness is hemming us in, poets engage us in reimagining…. They teach us “the audacities of memory.” One poet tells us the past must be invented:

“Invent. There is no feast At the bottom of memory.”

—Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Reverie

Memory is a subject of timely and far-reaching import.[1] As postmodernists query the nature of truth, memory, and history; as history books are rewritten to reflect multiculturalism, polyvocality, and the decentering of knowledge; as the humanities become increasingly reflexive; and as issues of memory loss and retrieval are researched, debated, and litigated, it is appropriate to consider how other cultures conceive of and use memory.

“Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History” (an exhibition and accompanying book) explored relationships among memory, history, and art made and used by Luba people of southeastern Congo. Memory boards, royal staffs, divination instruments, and other Luba mnemonic devices dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries demonstrate the importance of visual arts to the formation, development, and remembrance of Luba kingship and political relations. “Memory” demonstrates that since precolonial times, the recounting of history has been a specific and highly valued form of intellectual activity among Luba; and that visual representation has been and is a primary vehicle for the making of Luba histories of kingship and center/periphery political relations.[2]

Memory is not passive, and the mind is not simply a repository from which memories can be retrieved. Rather, memory is a dynamic social process of recuperation, reconfiguration, and outright invention that is often engendered, provoked, and promoted by visual images (Kuchler & Melion 1991; Casey 1987). Such an approach to memory is useful for understanding many African contexts in which history is both evoked and produced through oral narratives and performances. Despite ideologies that suggest that history—like truth—is immutable, expressive forms change over time. Paradoxically, their flexible semantic structures allow for the creative re/construction of memory, while at the same time providing “proof” of past truths because they render concepts, emotions, and interactions concrete (Vansina 1985). A sense of security results, as expectations of how things always have been and should be are confirmed, even as new solutions are sought to meet evolving needs.

For Luba peoples, objects and performances generate memory for historical documentation, political negotiation, and everyday problem-solving. This exhibition program presents the nuanced relationships of memory and visual representation in the production of Luba historical thought to suggest how the work of memory is a work of art, and vice versa.

Myth and the Written Word

Luba peoples inhabit the vast savanna, rolling hills, and scrubby forests of Shaba, a province of present-day southeastern Congo.[3] Their location along the tributaries and lakes of the great Zaire/Congo River, their participation in long-distance trade, and their exploitation of rich natural resources, including salt, iron, palm oil, and fish, all contributed to the establishment of an influential central African kingdom in the latter half of the present millennium (Vansina 1966, Reefe 1981). Evidence of such political consolidation is revealed in an astounding archaeological record from what is now deemed the Luba “Heartland.” Advanced metalworking and ceramic technologies over a 1,500-year continuum, as well as linguistic factors, identify Luba as a preeminent proto-Bantu population of central Africa—that is, as the nucleus for expansion by peoples now inhabiting much of central Africa.[4] In addition, Luba are recognized for an extensive and brilliant body of oral history, court poetry, and visual arts.[5]These include a wide range of royal sculptures and emblems from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, when the Luba kingdom was at its height. The wealth of these materials make the Luba past a rich field for investigating African notions of memory and history, and how they may be related to state formation and other processes of political economy.

A caveat is in order. The written discourses and on-the-ground policies of colonialism and the early postcolonial periods have contributed to the creation of a Luba ethnicity or “super-tribalism,” based on growing urbanism and other factors (C. Young 1965:240–41, 264), and reflecting the supposed precolonial existence of a Luba “empire.”[6] Such a rigid model of centralized rule is the result of a literal reading of the founding myth of sacred kingship and a fundamental misunderstanding of African political economy by Belgian colonial authorities, based upon a prevailing sense that kingdoms must have existed, even when evidence suggested the contrary. This is by no means to say that a Luba state did not exist, nor would we diminish its accomplishments in political economy, erudition, art and expressive culture, and other domains. Indeed, these are the principal subjects celebrated in “Memory.” Instead, we suggest that the Luba state was a far more flexible set of relationships than “empire” connotes, extending in a wide circle of influence rather than authority. “Luba” is a social identity available to a much vaster complex of cultures than that of the Heartland itself. As Pierre Petit notes, it is a most ambiguous category that may refer to five thousand or five million people, depending upon its particular, situationally defined application (1993:30).

To understand how notions of Luba ethnicity and empire were constructed, one must first consider how Luba enshrine the origins of sacred kingship in an epic. Referred to in the literature as a “genesis myth” or a “royal charter,” numerous versions of this long oral narrative have been transcribed. In its basic structure (Heusch 1982), Mbidi Kiluwe, a handsome hunter from the east, introduces royal bearing and a new political order to the indigenous population, then governed by a cruel, drunken despot named Nkongolo Mwamba. The union of Mbidi Kiluwe with one of Nkongolo’s sisters produces a son named Kalala Ilunga, who grows to become a heroic warrior. After great antagonism and a protracted battle with Nkongolo, Kalala defeats his maternal uncle with the help of a visionary named Mijibu wa Kalenga and accedes to the throne to institute sacred kingship as embodied and introduced by Mbidi. All subsequent Luba kings are said to descend from Kalala Ilunga.

This political charter gained particular importance through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Luba histories written by early European observers have been based on a literal interpretation of the myth as narrated at the royal court, thereby promoting the notion of a single dynastic line ruling a Luba ”empire.“ The term “empire” first appeared in several histories formulated by Belgian territorial administrators. In his influential Baluba et Balubaises du Katanga (1936), Edmond Verhulpen asserted that there were two Luba “empires,” the first that of Nkongolo through the seventeenth century, and the second that of Kalala Ilunga, established thereafter. This second empire allegedly extended to Lake Tanganyika, drawing numerous ethnic groups into the sphere of Luba sovereignty and giving rise to the term Balubaises, or “Luba-ized” peoples. This useful term suggests a dynamic process through which attributes of one culture are emulated, adopted, and adapted by people of another; but there is no credible evidence that Luba-ized peoples ever constituted an “empire” ruled by a supreme authority. Instead, a Luba polity based around the Upemba Depression constituted a Heartland of active commerce and political influence. Armed raiding outward from this center served both defensive and offensive purposes, but there is no substantive proof that “imperial authority” was imposed or even sought by Heartland Luba kings, at least in most cases.

Approaching Luba political organization through contemporary oral accounts stimulated by visual mnemonics, as well as through the available archaeological record, provides a more useful perspective on Luba polity than that of “empire.” Although court chronicles accentuate the preeminence of a single royal patriline originated by Mbidi, the mysterious hunter-hero from the east, archaeological records show that Luba have had a continuous and progressive history of socio-political and technological development for more than fifteen hundred years, with no radical changes in kind or degree, and with no clear evidence of the introduction of a new and foreign political order.[8] Likewise, visual arts and contemporary oral testimonies generated about them indicate that Luba power rested not with a single dynastic line of kings or with a single “center,” but with a multicentered constellation of chieftaincies, officeholders, societies, and sodalities that validated claims to power in relation to what we suggest to be a largely mythical center. The paradox is explicit: there is no real center, yet belief in one allows cultural integration of an entire region. Identification with a “center”—more an ideological construct than an empirical reality—was a means of legitimizing the “periphery.”[9]

Contemporary Luba accounts of the past contradict monolithic descriptions of a Luba empire that are presented in colonial histories, suggesting more fractured and flexible Luba authority than presumed. The recent transformation of the Luba genesis myth into a written history has diminished the Epic’s multidimensionality, and its ability to be retold and remade with every narrative performance. As James Clifford states, in our endeavor to “write” culture, we transform the disjunction of lived experience into the integrated portraits of our cultural representations (1988:39). The impact of the Epic, continually reconfigured according to contemporary socio-political realities, is weakened in the process. Yet as we shall see, just such refabulation of the past is the work, as well as the art, of memory.

Memory in the Present

It is no longer possible to fully retrieve or reconstruct a positivist’s “true” picture of the Luba past. What can be pieced together are the resonances and reprises of later generations. Academic historians possess other tools, of course (Vansina 1985); yet “history is always a problematic and incomplete reconstruction of what is no longer…a representation of the past” (Nora 1984:xix). It is truer to lived experience to consider the past as represented and assigned value according to its purposes for group identity and political legitimacy in the present (cf. Mudimbe 1988:195), and memory is always now.

Luba are concerned with their past, and like people everywhere, they continually reconfigure nationalist and local histories to meet emerging needs of political economy. Often, the primary means for doing so is through text/object relations—that is, how texts are attached to, or secreted in, visual representation. Although text/object relationships have received less attention than oral traditions, they constitute one of the important ways that many African peoples construct and perpetuate their pasts, and at the same time serve as registers of present significance.

Bogumil Jewsiewicki and V.Y. Mudimbe (1993) propose that memory represents a rich, as yet untapped resource for African history. And even though memory remains an abstract, ambiguous concept, its study permits an incisive approach to understanding indigenous notions of history. “Memory in all its various forms can thus be used much more effectively than ‘oral tradition’ to conceptualize the post-scripted word” (Jewsiewicki & Mudimbe 1993:4), for “memory is the raw material of history” (Le Goff 1992: flap). Despite how obvious the answer may seem, we still must ask: What is memory?

The Cultural Construction of Memory

Memory has had its own histories in Western and non-Western societies (Casey 1987, Yates 1966, Terdiman 1993). While definitions are perpetually modified, recent research suggests an important premise: memory is not a discrete, biologically grounded, universally shared mental property or activity. Rather, memory is a cultural construction varying from one society to the next.[10] Memory exists in what Kirsten Hastrup calls “Uchronia” (1991:113). Just as a Utopia is ideal because, as reflected in the word’s ancient Greek roots, it is a “non-place,” so a Uchronia is “a structured world, nowhere in time.” Such positions contradict previous theories that memory is a universal function of the mind, a storage bank, so to speak, wherein data and knowledge may be deposited and retrieved at will (Kuchler & Melion 1991:3).

Cross-cultural examination demonstrates the extent to which memory is a particular invention of every society and every era, reflecting local cosmologies and inexorably changing cultural values. Memory is active, always in the present; it is a construction, transaction, and negotiation, as opposed to a reproduction. History, too, is particular to and located in a social and moral universe, from a Luba or any point of view that does not subscribe to positivist absolutism (Cunnison 1959:35; Gellner 1973:180). If memory is uchronic, history is linked to time. As it is understood here, history is a formalization of memory that implies performance of “involved remembrance” (Connerton 1991:4)—that is, contingent purpose and the seizing upon “the explosive pertinence of a remembered detail” (Davis & Starn 1989:5).

Pierre Nora further differentiates memory from history in ways important to our project:

Memory is life….It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longe….Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again….Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.

And finally,

history is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it.

(Nora 1989:7–8)

Through the centuries, Luba have made history, as they have consolidated their political economy. In reaction, peoples peripheral to the Luba Heartland have made theirs, as well. Memory remains, however, as lieux de memoire—places or concrete things bounded by secular history, to which one can repair and still find release into the affect and ecstasy of memory’s Uchronia.

We must, then, consider the dynamic processes of making history; yet, as Anton Blok notes, such a phrase “is not without its problems. First, it carries voluntarist overtones. As Marx wrote in his Eighteenth Brumaire, ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please’” (1991:121). History takes form in the structures of mythical thought, as Luc de Heusch (1982) has so ably demonstrated, and we must recognize the ironies and accidents through which history is composed; but we must not overlook the intentionalities because of which history calls upon memory. Furthermore, a dominant faction’s history may require subservient people’s “forced forgetting,” yet “counter-memory” persists as a subversive source of ontological alternatives.[11] Memory and history are closely interdependent, then. Indeed, “memory seems to be the main place where culture exists” (Teski & Climo 1995:2–3).

In order to reconstruct any culture’s history, one must begin with an understanding of what that culture means by history and memory in the first place, for “without understanding their conception of history and their attitudes toward it, we cannot hope…to interpret these critical sources. For this reason we must first examine what that attitude entails, what the relevant modes are that help shape their collective thought, and what the different genres of oral traditions are” (Vansina 1978:15).

Luba Memory and Mind

Like all humans, Luba obviously possess memories, remember, and forget, yet there is no reason to believe that they necessarily do so (or at least understand their doing so) in the same ways that one does in the West. To begin to grasp what Luba mean by “memory,” one can consult dictionaries that have been compiled for Luba and neighboring peoples. Looking up memoire, one finds the words kalandu, mulandu, nangunangu, lutesima, and lute (Gillis 1981:324). Checking these terms in E. Van Avermaet and Benoit Mbuya’s wonderfully encyclopedic Dictionnaire Kiluba-Francais (1954), one finds a fan of meaning and usage suggesting the transactional notion that Luba and their neighbors ascribe to what we in the West call “memory.”

There, kalandu and mulandu are both simply defined as memoire (memory), while the related milandu is “a dispute to which one returns”—that is, one which is unresolved and still a source of contention (Van Avermaet & Mbuya 1954:338).[ 12] Kilanda is an outstanding debt, while bulanda is “poverty, indigence, misery, sadness, affliction, chagrin, regret, abandonment, isolation, or solitude” (p. 337). The unfulfilled nature of exchange (debt) and of expectation or desire (poverty) nonetheless expresses relationships and transaction. The Luba verb from which these nouns are derived, kulanda, is “to lie” the truth is “missing”); but then, in what may seem a curious extension, a derivative verb (kulandala) is “to cross over a watercourse on a bridge, a tree trunk, or a branch,” or “to crawl [ram-per in French] like a lizard, snake, insect, or snail.” At issue are connections, sometimes salubrious, sometimes not, and the resulting relationships that are presumed or posited.

The same terms find roughly similar development in neighboring dialects. For Tabwa, the verb kulanda is “to speak”; kulandula, “to contradict or protest”; and mulandu, “words, speech, an affair, litigation.” Such communication implies negotiation among narrators and audiences, often in contexts of local politics; but again, mulando is “a tree thrown across a stream as a bridge,” in a more literal connection between one bank and the other (Van Acker 1907:42). Mulandu does not appear to mean “memory,” as it may for Luba; instead, such a sense is found in the verb kulanga, “to show,” with derivatives meaning “to demonstrate, prove, teach, remind, remember, think, or reflect” (Van Acker 1907:43). Among “eastern Luba” and neighboring Lamba, malango (or malangu) is also “memory” (Vandermeiren 1913:776; Doke 1933:76). As a Tabwa noun, mulanga is “a string of beads,” suggesting that the contingencies of beads in a necklace can be lent symbolic significance, and foreshadowing discussion in Memory of bead necklaces as important mnemonic devices.[ 13] The attribution of meaning to such contingencies (or the idea that contingency is meaning) is reflected in translations of malango as “spirit, intelligence, or thought.” A common praise name for God is Leza Malango, “Almighty Intelligence” (Van Acker 1907:43; Theuws 1954:80). God may possess such omnipotent thought and knowledge, but It (for no gender is asserted) does so through Its demonstration (kulanga) of what we in the West would call memory.

A final Luba term allows one to speculate about the location of memory in human anatomy, and the nature of the mind itself. Lute is defined as “memoire,” and someone possessing lute “has a good memory—he retains or remembers well.” Lute may be derived from the verb kuta, “to set, spread out, or extend” (tendre in French), as one does a hunting net, or when building pit traps for larger game. Kuta can also be “to hunt” more generally, and can refer to competitive games (Van Avermaet & Mbuya 1954:656–57, 681–82). In both hunting and game-playing, a sense of unexpected motion and outcome is introduced that is essential to a Luba sense of memory Van Avermaet and Mbuya extend their discussion of lute by noting that luteshima is also “memoire,” and that kuta ku mushima is “to fix in the spirit,” or “remember” (1954:682). Mushima, &lquo;the seat of sentiments” for Luba and surrounding peoples, may be the liver, where thought (malango), knowledge, ideas, intelligence, will, taste, inclination, desire, love, envy, hate, suffering, and spirit are believed to originate and reside. For Luba, then, “heart,” in the figurative sense given in the West, may be the anatomical liver, while the anatomical heart, mukunka or mangu, is not attributed with any particularly spiritual qualities. But if this is so, then as the seat of thought, ideas, and intelligence, the mushima is also the mind.[14]

Memory and Visual Representation

In addition to the culturally specific nature of memory, a second key premise of this exhibition and book is that memory operates through re/presentation (with an emphasis upon the prefix re-). Memory is not a discrete mental operation preceding image-production; rather, it is “a process precipitated and shaped by the relaying of visual information” (Kuchler &Melion 1991:3). In other words, images engender modes of recollection as much as they are determined by them. The exhibition demonstrates how Luba constructions of memory, conceptually based upon association, contingency, transaction, negotiability, and random chance are engendered visually; and how visual and related forms of expressive culture are used to re-create memory in the present through a politics of representation and imagination.

If Luba have a rich vocabulary for expressing concepts of memory, they also possess a proliferation of visual forms for encoding and stimulating mnemonic processes. These include beaded necklaces and headdresses; wooden memory boards, thrones, figures, and staffs; and scepters, axes, adzes, spears, and other objects incorporating iron and/or copper. These things comprise the treasuries of Luba kings and certain chiefs. Instruments of divination and healing and the initiatory emblems of secret associations are also mnemonic. Yet, despite the stunning breadth and conceptual achievement of these materials, it is only recently that their mnemonic dimensions have been recognized and explored.

Previously Luba art had been viewed only in terms of its aesthetic appeal and for its sculptural strength (Neyt 1994), as well as for its reflection of a complex indigenous African state. The collecting conventions of the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries emphasized and therefore valorized certain kinds of objects to the neglect of others, in response to prevailing Western definitions of “art.” Many early colonial collectors only valued works that were representational and figurative, ignoring those that lacked anthropomorphic elements (cf. Schildkrout & Keim 1990; Mack 1991:17, 81). The result is that nonfigurative works and most of those produced from beadwork, textiles, basketry, fiber, feathers, animal pelts, pottery and unfired clay, metal, gourds, and perishable materials were left behind.[15] Yet, those very objects, as well as in situ graphic arts such as painted wall murals, pictorial earthen thrones, ideo-graphic magical mounds, or unfired clay shrine sculptures (Burton 1961) not only frequently constitute important Luba mnemonic forms, but also shed light upon the symbolism and purpose of the works that have been collected as the West’s arbitrarily selected signifiers of Luba culture and history.

Among Luba, oral traditions most closely associated with royal history were dependent upon visual memory devices. These oral charters were sacred, to be guarded and disseminated by a politico-religious association called Mbudye, which has created rituals for memory transmission. Mbudye historians are rigorously trained “men of memory” (bana balute) who recite genealogies, king lists, and all of the episodes in the Luba Epic (Reefe 1977, 1981).[ 16] They travel with kings, dance in celebration of their deeds, and spread propaganda to outlying areas about the prestige and sanctity of Luba kingship. The power of Mbudye is so great that all kings and royal officeholders undergo its initiation, and the association can dethrone a king or chief.

Even though literacy was introduced during the colonial period, history produced through oral and visual representation remains an integral activity of rural Luba chieftaincies. Officials still stage oral recitations of local history, and Mbudye continues as a judicial branch of authority in contemporary politics, inducting new members into its ranks. Mbudye performs public dances reenacting history and still uses visual memory aids that date from the distant beginnings of the association.

Luba Memory Devices

Principal among Luba memory devices is the lukasa, a roughly hand-sized wooden object studded with beads and pins or covered with incised or raised ideograms. During M-budye rituals, a lukasa is used to teach neophytes sacred lore about culture heroes, clan migrations, and the introduction of sacred rule; to suggest the spatial positioning of activities and offices within the kingdom or inside a royal compound; and to order the sacred prerogatives of officeholders concerning contact with earth spirits and the exploitation of natural resources.

A lukasa is the most important record of Luba royal history. The codes of kingship are indicated by its colors and configurations of beads and carved ideograms. Culture heroes are identifiable by beads whose colors have a fan of connotations triggering remembrance of their deeds and exploits, as well as their qualities and physical appearance. For example, Nkongolo Mwamba, the tyrannical anti-hero of the Luba charter, is always represented by a red bead, for he is the red-skinned rainbow-serpent associated with bloody violence. Blue beads (considered “black”) stand for Mbidi Kiluwe, the protagonist and culture-bearer of kingship whose skin is shiningly black like that of a bull buffalo, symbol of ambivalent power and secret potential (Roberts 1995). The paths of Luba migration and significant events and relationships are indicated by lines and clusters of beads. Chiefs and their counselors, sacred enclosures, and defined places are shown by circles of beads.

The building blocks of this mnemonic system are to be found in the myriad—and until now, neglected—beaded and shell emblems of Luba royalty, ranging from necklaces and badges to hats and headdresses. Beads constitute a kind of alphabet that articulates a vocabulary for Luba royalty. Their plurality of forms, colors, and sizes provides a perfect vehicle for the “cognitive cuing structures” that constitute mnemonics (Bellezza 1981). The same associations underlie the geometric designs and pictorial ideographs on both mnemonic devices like the lukasa and royal emblems in non-beaded media such as wood, metal, painting, pottery, and weaving.

While the lukasa of each Mbudye chapter conveys the history of the Luba state, other memory devices such as sculpted thrones, staffs, bowstands, and spears are used by individual officeholders to elicit local, family, and personal political histories, as well as histories of physical, psychological, or spiritual catharsis. A staff may be used to remember clan history and migrations, for instance. Its owner will exhibit and “read” its iconography when the legitimacy of his authority is at issue. Luba thrones and bowstands often depict female figures in memory of historically or spiritually significant women. As often, though, these female figures stand for the men who once ruled and whose wisdom women still convey as spirit mediums. Yet other mnemonic devices are kinetic. Divination baskets contain symbolic items, similar to the beads or figures of a lukasa, that are cast so that their changing juxtapositions can be interpreted. Through such divination, meaning is cut loose from matrix, so that the past may be reconstructed to identify and remedy present misfortune.

Questions remain. How do these mnemonics embody and enact the active principles of Luba memory while providing a cultural framework for truth? And what is the nature of a system of representation that can produce convention and invention, remembrance and oblivescence, at one and the same time?

Lieux de memoire

Place memory provides a model for understanding how mnemonics generate the semantic dynamism and social construction of Luba historical thought. Recollection, as practiced by Luba, is neither an account nor a pedigree, such as a genealogy or a king list, but a meaningful configuration of selected, negotiated events around “loci of memory” (Jewsiewicki & Mudimbe 1993:10). A locus of memory, or lieu de memoire, is a landmark around which past events structure present memory. Lieux de memoire as both actual and imagined places can be topoi—that is, “both places and topics, where memories converge” (Blok 1991:125). The term originated in classical texts expounding two fundamental principles of memory: places and images (loci and imagines in Latin). Memory arts (ars memoria) were based upon memory places (loci memoriae) that could be “seen” and “visited” in the mind (Pierre Nora, cited in Blok 1992:125). To remember their speeches, ancient orators imagined buildings and assigned topics and subtopics to the “rooms” through which they would mentally “walk” as they delivered their talks (Yates 1966).

In a discussion of the powerful effects that architectural spaces can have for vivid recall, Gaston Bachelard (1969) describes how people “house” their memories and how rooms become abodes for an unforgettable past. The more nooks, garrets, attics, cellars, closets, and secret alcoves there are, the more places there are for the storage of sentiment, knowledge, and memory. Significantly, Bachelard discusses the way memory is localized and enacted through space, not time. The actual duration of the past can never be relived, only the thought of it. “Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are” (1966:9). Memory exists in Uchronia, then, independent of linear time and driving purpose, and “implying permanence and antiquity” (Hastrup 1991:115).

The association of memories with spaces of intimacy is what Bachelard refers to as “topoanalysis.” Camillo’s famous “Memory Theatre” of the Renaissance (Yates 1966:129–59) was based upon the proposition that spatial programming can shape collective memory and consciousness. This was an imaginary space designed to store and preserve the collective knowledge of humanity, yet there was nothing performative about Camillo’s theater. It was an architectonic model—a labyrinthine container for human history, to exist in and occupy the mind. Such a spatial paradigm maps the mind as an architecture of memory and a metonymic model for consciousness within which particular historical facts are selectively preserved and positioned to enable remembrance.

These Western examples are directly applicable to Luba memory and the making of history, for powerful connections exist between spatial consciousness and memory, as expressed visually. Luba mnemonic devices, whether memory boards, staffs, necklaces, or divination gourds, are devised as lieux de memoire to organize personages, places, objects, and relationships. They encode ideology, enlist politics, and refer simultaneously to anatomy, architecture, landscape, and cosmos. These objects-as-landmarks are multilayered and multireferential, lending themselves to endless possibilities for combination.

The lukasa memory board, for example, is based on the spatial paradigm of the Luba royal court, analogous to the Renaissance memory theater The court exists as a mental geography that maps and orders the universe, the kingdom, human relations, and the mind. The physical and conceptual layout of the court encompasses the structure and order of Luba cosmology, while—a bit like a cognitive pinball machine—the beaded studs and ideograms on it allow passages, detours, random excursions, exits, entrances, rebounds, ricochets, and thresholds that characterize the active social processes of memory. Since beads have no actual connection with the content to be remembered, meaning is assigned to them by contingent positioning. But although a lukasa is learned, particular meanings are assigned on a significant occasion in a specified locale for a given audience. Reading the lukasa, therefore, is dependent upon the relationships of the signifiers to one another, as well as the relationships of the reader to the audience, and the reader to the constituency that she or he represents. Memory, then, is an art of negotiation and rhetoric, not an “abstract presentation of truth” (Fabian 1983:112).

It is through the activities of negotiation and association that spaces and sites are transformed into places of meaning and memory. For both Edward Casey (1987) and Yi-Fu Tuan (1977,1990), space and site are undifferentiated and anonymous, possessing “no points of attachment onto which to hang our memories, much less to retrieve them…. Place, in contrast, characteristically presents us with a plethora of such cues. Thanks to its ‘distinct potencies,’ a place is at once internally diversified…and distinct externally from other places.&”; Place aids in remembering by being “well suited to contain memories—to hold and preserve them” (Casey 1987:186). The ultimate container for holding memories is the body itself, the vehicle through which the intimate relationship between memory and place is realized.

Memory Embodied

Through the lived body, place and memory are actively joined. Casey (1987) discusses the conventional yet misplaced emphasis on memory as a procedure contained within the mind. Yet, as he points out, memory always lies on the border between self and other. The body constitutes the frontier of difference and sameness, and a sieve through which historical facts are negotiated through remembrance, oblivescence, and the signifying games of representation.

Luba works of art, which simultaneously emphasize place and body, offer a signal opportunity to explore a Luba concept of “body memory.” Luba mnemonics are almost always anthropomorphized and gendered to serve as spirit containers. Scarification and coiffure, in particular, are marks of civilization that encode memory about a person’s place in society and history (Rubin 1988). These and other body arts are developed through an individual’s life, with information added as memory grows. Luba explain that only women, as child-bearers, are strong enough to hold, contain, and protect powerful spirits and the secret knowledge associated with them. Most important, every Luba king is incarnated by a female spirit medium after death. Called Mwadi, such a medium inherits the deceased king’s emblems, titles, and residence, which become a “spirit capital.” Memory lives at and through these sacred sites, in the women who embody the kings of yore, and in visual representations of such women. Through spirit possession and the way it is represented in contingent arts, Luba transform the body into a lieu de memoire and a microcosm of the Luba world. The body’s surface becomes a textured text, both “written” and “read.” In this way, the past is perpetually reified through the embodiment of memory, lived and enacted in the present.

Memory as Performance

As in any political context, “official” wisdom, even as conveyed through use of a lukasa, was and is contested by others’ interpretations of the same instruments. Recent research questions nineteenth-century notions of memory as a fixed and accurate record of past experience (e.g., Gyatso 1992), suggesting that memory “is not a fossil of the past but rather a system of categorization in which the past is recreated in ways appropriate for the present” (Lopez 1992:36). Current emphasis is less on mental storage of past events than on the performative function of memory in the present. Mnemonic devices elicit visual, verbal, and performative arts, and Luba objects were and are read, spoken, sung, danced, and manipulated.

That the mnemonic process is performative also means that historical recitation never occurs in precisely the same way twice. Political interests inexorably change, and memory is defective. The need to fill in forgotten details, to adapt history to new circumstances, and to follow fads by borrowing glitzy ideas from prestigious neighbors means that memory is generative. Indeed, forgetting must be understood if we are to grasp how and why history is made. The negotiation of historical facts necessarily involves a process of discarding and re-creating. “Forgetting and recollecting are allied mnemonic functions. Forgetting can be the selective process through which memory achieves social and cultural definition” (Kuchler &Melion 1991:7). The erasure and selective elimination of certain historical facts are as critical to the collage that is memory as the retention and careful preservation of others. Early Greeks recognized that forgetting and remembering were an indissociable pair intrinsic˜ to the memory process. Only later in the history of Western thought was forgetting forgotten.[18]

Luba memory devices do not symbolize thought so much as stimulate and provoke it. They afford a multiplicity of meanings through their multireferential iconography. The reading of these visual “texts” varies from one occasion to the next, depending on the contingencies of local politics, and makes manifest the objects’ abilities to instigate processes of politics, economy, and religion.

Whether through the reading of a beaded memory board, the narration of a sculpted wooden staff, or the deciphering of a diviner’s object-filled gourd, Luba mnemonics operate according to principles of contingency and association, relationship and refabulation. Some historical facts can be selectively preserved and recombined, others omitted in an editing of the past. As a result, identity and history are always in the making, as new circumstances urge reconsideration of one’s relationship to a “center” and to the past, producing the shifting and arbitrary nature of ethnic and political identity that is the Luba past and present.


1. The following paper is adapted from the introduction to Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996), co-authored and edited by the present authors. Full acknowledgments and bibliography are presented there.

2. Among the goals of “Memory” is to correct any lingering misperception that while African cultures without writing may have collective memory, they possess no history; see Jewsiewicki & Mudimbe 1993. Study of how and why nonliterate non-Western peoples have been portrayed as “lacking history” has been an important anthropological pursuit, led by Eric Wolf’s seminal Europe and the People Without History (1982) and his students’ “articulation of hidden histories” (Schneider & Rapp 1995); see also John Davis’s “History and the People Without Europe” (1992).

3. Zaire has been known as the Congo Free State (1885–1908), the Belgian Congo (1908–1960), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1960–1967). The Republic of Zaire has now adopted The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also referred to as DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa or the DRC. The Republic of Zaire was contested by those who wanted to replace or overthrow the oppressive dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. They would also see the provincial name Shaba revert to Katanga.

4. Bantu is the name given to a vast complex of languages extending from southwestern Nigeria all the way across Africa to central Kenya, and southward to the tip of the continent. Bantu-speaking peoples share a common grammar and logic (Heusch 1982), like people of European ancestry do who speak Romance languages. Proto-Bantu is the early language and culture shared by Africans living in this enormous area, as Latin is for many European peoples.

5. To name a few more readily available sources, Luba oral and related performative arts are collected and discussed in Faik-Nzuji 1974, Mufuta 1969, and Stappers 1964; music in Gansemans 1978, 1980,1981; and visual arts in Neyt 1994.

6. Luba ethnicity is discussed in great detail in “Peripheral Visions,” the last chapter of Memory. In The Invention of Africa (1988) and The Idea of Africa (1994), V.Y. Mudimbe discusses the process whereby African “identity,” as perceived, experienced, and interpreted both by Westerners and Africans, has been constructed in disciplines and discourses about Africa through categories and conceptual systems that depend on a Western epistemological order. Cross-cultural examples of colonial invention of “tribes” and “ethnicities” like “Luba” are presented in Vail 1989.

7. Published and unpublished accounts of the Luba genesis myth include Colle 1913; D’Orjo de Marchovelette 1950; Sendwe 1954; Theuws 1954, 1962, 1964, and Womersley 1975, 1984. More recent accounts and analyses include Heusch 1982, 1991; Mudimbe 1991; Nooter 1990,1991, 1992, 1994; Petit 1993, 1995; Reefe 1981; and Roberts 1980, 1985, 1991, 1993.

8. S. Terry Childs and Pierre de Maret review their field archaeology and related literature in “Re/Constructing Luba Pasts,” the first chapter of Memory.

9. “Peripheral Visions,” the last chapter of Memory, discusses these relationships and the visual arts of people living east of the Luba Heartland.

10. Although we are asserting the relativism of cultural accounts of what memory is and does, we are aware of neurological research investigating brain structure and the physiological nature of memory.

11. “Counter-memory” is from Foucault 1977; cf. Davis & Starn 1989:2 and Connerton 1991:12. A burgeoning literature concerning “resistance through memory,…state-managed forgetting,” “the memory of this forgetting,” and history as “the forcible illumination of darkened memories” in the radical socio-political change of eastern Europe is exemplified by Richard Esbenshade’s “Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe” (1995). Memories of the Holocaust are also the subject of many texts, such as James Young’s The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (1993) and Carolyn Forche’s collection of poetry, Against Forgetting (1993).

12. Van Avermaet and Mbuya (1954) give diacritical marks indicating the tonality of the Luba language that are omitted in the Gillis dictionary (1981) and key ethnographies (e.g., Burton 1961). Because of this discrepancy, it is not possible to judge whether -landa and -landa (Van Avermaet & Mbuya 1954:337–38) are truly distinct, especially when, as in kilanda and bulanda, the meanings and usages seem so closely related. Our thanks to Jan Vansina for his cogent suggestions regarding this section of our introduction. Professor Vansina’s linguistic analysis is acute and his caution well taken when he asserts that tonal differences lead one back to different proto-Bantu roots. When he states that “there dearly is something wrong with the tones in Van Avermaet/Mbuya [1954],” however, he reveals the degree to which close study of Bantu languages is in its infancy. Speculation must result, and we readily admit that our discussion may be broader than Professor Vansina might find comfortable.

13. In Memory, anthropologists Jeannette Kawende Fina Nkindi and Guy De Plaen provide a mini-essay called “Pearls of Wisdom” within a broader chapter on “body memory,” in which they offer a deeply detailed analysis of a Luba chief’s bead necklace. Such a “chain-style” mnemonic device is contrasted to the “peg-style” associations of scarification that map the body, drawing upon Bellezza 1981 for discussion of “cognitive cuing structures.”

14. The brain, bubongo (Van Avermaet & Mbuya 1954:81), is an organ that is perceived as having little ostensible function, and it is not the location for the “mind,” as in the West. Yet cleverness is located in the head (although perhaps not in the brain per se), as are perception, dreams, and prophesy.

15. Sometimes colonial collections unknowingly distorted the artistic repertoires they were meant to represent, since they entailed subjective choices on the collectors’ parts as to which objects were worth “saving,” “salvaging,” and carrying away for “preservation” in the West (Clifford 1988:231; Clifford, Dominguez, & Minh-ha 1987; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1991:386). Such decisions rarely if ever reflected the judgments of those originally making and using the objects.

16. Bana (sing.mwana) means “children” or “child,” and so the expression bana balute suggests descent from, identification with, or dependence upon memory, rather than simple mastery of it, as one might infer from Reefe’s translation. Important chiefs among Luba and surrounding peoples still have bana balute, who assist in litigation and other local political contexts.

17. The ethnographic present of this article refers to the late 1980s, when Mary Nooter Roberts conducted field research among Luba, and the mid-1970s, when Allen Roberts worked among neighboring Tabwa. Luba sacred royalty, the Mbudye society, and other social institutions mentioned here have greatly changed over the colonial and postcolonial periods. As discussed in Memory, they have lost much of their pertinence and intensity, but are still vital to Luba memory and the making of contemporary histories.

18. Remembering and forgetting as the interdependent, coexistent sides of memory have been acknowledged since the Archaic Period of Greek history with two gods deified as Remembrance and Forgetting, Mnemosyne and Lemosyne.

“Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History” was an exhibition program of the Museum for African Art in New York City, supported with major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Council for the Humanities. Guest curator Mary Nooter Roberts is also co-author and editor, with Allen F. Roberts, of the exhibition book, whose contributors are S. Terry Childs, Guy De Plaen, William Dewey, Pierre de Maret, V. Y. Mudimbe, Jeannete Kawende Fina Nkindi, Pierre Petit, and Jan Vansina. The book (256 pp., 165 color & 184 b/w illustrations; $40 softcover, $75 hardcover) is available from the Museum for African Art, 593 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

The exhibition included 111 objects from 54 lenders. After showing at the Museum for African Art (February 2–September 8, 1996), it traveled to the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (October 30, 1995–January 26, 1997) and several other locations.

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