The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts (1960-2018)
University of California, Los Angeles

A Mwadi spirit was the incarnation of the King Kasongo Niembo, who died in 1933, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1970s. Photo by Thomas Q. Reefe. Submitted by Mary Nooter Roberts.


When a Luba king died, his spirit was incarnated by a female spirit medium, whose title was Mwadi. Luba people say that only a woman's body is strong enough to hold a spirit as powerful as that of a king, which is why sculpture dedicated to kingship is almost always female in gender. This Mwadi was the incarnation of King Kasongo Niembo, who died in 1931. She resided in the former royal village, acquired his titleholders and insignia and received gifts on a regular basis from the new king who established his residence in a different locale. The residences of the thirteen Luba kings thus became sites of memory and were called spirit capitals where the Mwadis ruled their "kingdoms of the dead." Each Mwadi was succeeded at her own death by another woman in her lineage, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the king's memory.