Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Luba diviner wearing beaded headdress, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1988. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.


Once Bilumbu diviners have been "seized" by the spirit, they chalk their laces with pemba chalk, called "the diviner’s oil," and don accoutrements that reflect the spirit's special attributes. Bilumbu attire includes bead and shell necklaces, turtle-shaped arm bands, animal pelts, leathers, and the beaded headdress called nkaka, which refers to a pangolin. Pangolin scales are considered strong, durable, and resistant, and for this reason, they are often included in the medicinal compositions of Luba diviners and healers. An nkaka headdress is worn by all royal specialists who undergo possession, and the purpose of this colorful rectangular headband, with its juxtaposed isosceles triangles and lozenges, is to take hold of the spirit as it mounts the diviner’s head and to contain, control, and protect it—in the same way a pangolin wraps itself up in a ball, its horny scales defending it from danger.