The Hemba people (Luba Hemba) (or Eastern Luba) are a Bantu ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The 90,000 Hemba people inhabit the right bank of the Lualaba River. This region presents vast plains surrounded by high hills and bordered by streams, rocks, and marshes.
Their social organization is founded on a system of clans that brings together several families sharing a common ancestor. They recognize a creator god Vidiye Mukulu and a supreme being ShimuGabo. The Hemba practice ancestor worship, not only to keep the memory of their great chiefs alive, but also to justify the present authority and power of the chief of the clan; the latter has absolute authority over clan members and is in charge of several ancestor figures he keeps in his own hut or in a smaller, funerary hut. The chief of the clan renders justice and his status as clan head means that he has the privilege of receiving numerous gifts. As celebrant of the ancestral cult, the chief of the clan, surrounded by the people, communicates with the ancestor, recalling his great deeds and summoning his good will. He renders justice in his own home, and collects tributes for it. Along with medicine, law, and sacrifices, the ancestral cult penetrates all social, political, and religious domains. To possess numerous effigies is a sign of nobility. Secret societies such as Bukazanzi for the men and Bukibilo for the women counterbalance the chief of the clan’s power. Diviners play an important role in society, often requiring that certain ancestors be appeased in order to establish balance in the community.
The Hemba are a matrilineal people with a sculptural tradition devoted mainly to representation of male ancestors.
The Hemba language belongs to a group of related languages spoken by people in a belt that runs from southern Kasai to northeastern Zambia. Other peoples speaking related languages include the Luba of Kasai and Shaba, the Kanyok, Songye, Kaonde, Sanga, Bemba and the people of Kazembe. Today the Hemba people live in the north of Zambia, and their language is understood throughout Zambia. Some also live in Tanzania. They live west of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru in the DRC, and their villages are found several hundred miles up the Lualaba River.
The Hemba people live in villages, recognizing chiefs as their political leaders. A chief will be the head of an extended family of landowners, inheriting his title through the maternal line. Hemba people may also belong to secret societies such as the Bukazanzi for men and Bukibilo for women. The So'o secret society is guarded by the beautifully carved mask of a chimpanzee, which is used in rituals that relate to the ancestral spirits. These societies serve to offset the power of the chief.
Although the Luba people failed to keep the southern Hemba in their kingdom they did have considerable cultural influence. Art forms, including wooden sculptures representing ancestors, are similar in style to Luba sculptures. The Hemba religion recognizes a creator god and a separate supreme being. The Hemba make sacrifices and present offerings at the shrines of ancestors. When social harmony has been upset, religious leaders may demand offerings to the specific ancestors that have become displeased and are causing the trouble.b Each clan owns a kabeja, a statuette with one body and two faces, male and female, on one neck. Sacrifices are made to the kabeja, which will convey them to the spirits. A receptacle on the top of the kabeja is used to receive magic ingredients. A kabeja is dangerous to handle.
Near the end of the 16th century, the Hemba began their migration from an area to the northeast, probably modern day Tanzania. In the 1800s under the direction of Niembo and his son, Myhiya, the Hemba moved into their current location along the Congo River. The Luba unsuccessfully tried to incorporate the Southern Hemba into their growing kingdom. The Luba did succeed, however, in greatly influencing the Hemba in numerous ways, including artistic styles. In the late 19th century, the Hemba were subjugated to raids by Arab slave traders and again by Belgian forces during colonization.
The Hemba are primarily subsistence agriculturalists whose main staples include manioc, maize, peanuts, and yams. These crops are supplemented by small scale hunting and fishing done mostly by the men. Some alluvial copper is panned from the river and sold to outside markets.
Generally, the Hemba acknowledge chiefs who are heads of extended landholding families as their political leaders. Genealogy is recognized both matrilinearly and patrilinearly, but land chiefs inherit their positions through their maternal line.
The Hemba recognize Vidiye Mukulu (a creator god) and Shimugabo (a supreme being). Worship is primarily carried out through sacrifices and offerings to ancestor shrines. Diviners play an important role in society, often requiring that certain ancestors be appeased in order to establish balance in the community.
The Hemba artistic tradition is well known. Subjects include ancestral figures, spirits, human faces and ceremonial masks. The Hemba had very talented sculptors and the art of the tribe is mainly known for the ancestors figures, the Singiti, symbols of power who exude astonishing serenity and natural authority The Kabeja is a rare Janiform sculpture which represents the couple of founding ancestors of each clan. The statue was unique and owned by the chief, while each group had several Singiti figures. It was used in all Hemba ceremonies, as well as in court decisions.
The sculptures of the Hemba include singiti male ancestor figures and two types of masks. Although every figure is the portrait of a specific person, the artist portrays generalized , not particular, individual traits. The figures express equilibrium, symmetry and refinement. The sculptural beauty reveals the highest moral qualities. The Hemba see the serenely closed eyes and the rounded face as reflecting the ancestor’s interior calm. A four-lobed hairdo typical for many Hemba figures, evokes the four directions of the universe and the crossroad where spirits assemble. Hands on each side of the swelling belly indicate the ancestor embracing and watching over descendants. They are called upon by the chief of the clan who is in charge of them, in a dialogue recalling the valiant deeds of the ancestor in return for his benevolence. The Hemba honor the kabeja, a Janus-shaped statuette, with a single body and two faces, male and female, on one neck. The kabeja is topped with a receptacle for magic ingredients. Each clan possesses a single kabeja, which is dangerous to handle, and which receives sacrifices intended for the spirits, a magico-religious practice that is of the essence to the family.
The first type of masks that are rare presents a symmetrical human face with a small mouth and a linear nose set between two slanted eyes. The second type is used in So’o, a semi-secret society. It represents a strange were-chimpanzee with a large, pierced, crescent-shaped mouth and a pointed nose. The function and meaning of these masks remains obscure.
The Hemba also sculpt anthropomorphic neck-rests, rattles used in dancing, and ivory objects.