Reefe, Thomas Q. Lukasa: A Luba Memory Device. Vol.10, No. 4. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, 1977. 48-50,88.
A lukasa is a “memory board” used by a society called the “Bambudye” or “mbudye“, of the Luba people. The Bambudye was a secret society to which all Luba kings, chiefs, and officials belonged. These men and women held the vast Luba tribe together by acting as “Men of Memory” whose job was to preserve Luba oral tradition (Ukwendu). Though the Bambudya disbanded at the end of WWII, their legacy remains in the form of the lukasa.
Lukasa are pieces of wood (generally around 30 cm wide and 20 to 25 cm long) that communicate some sort of message to other Bambudya members. The messages are communicated in a symbolic code represented by an arrangement of attached pieces of shells or beads, or by carved images ("Metropolitan Museum of Art"). The kinds of information stored on lukasa were political or historical in nature. Three different kinds of lukasa exist: boards that contain information on early myths and heroes, boards that document the structure of the Bambudye society, and finally boards that contained private information for individual Luba rulers.
The boards about ancient myths are called Lukasa Lwa Nkunda, meaning “The long hand of the pigeon.” The most important function this kind of board served was to record the Luba’s myth of origin. Though the story has varied when told from one Luba historian to the next, the sequence of events and main characters have stayed remarkably the same. The Luba have the lukasa to thank for this. The Luba origin story tells of a man named Mbidi Kiluwe (represented by a blue bead) who crosses the Zaire River into Luba territory. There he meets a local chief named Kongolo (represented by a red bead) and teaches him how to act as a “divine chief.” One of Kolongo’s sisters becomes pregnant by Mbidi Kiluwe and their son, Kalala Ilunga, challenges and ultimately kills Kolongo. With lukasa, the Babmudye were able to relate this whole story in much more detail than I just have. For example, a lukasa will also convey how Kalala Ilunga recieves the idea of challenging Kolongo when he sees a mound of ants fighting some termites. It is incredible to me that so much detail can be conveyed with beads on a wooden board!
Another function the lukasa served was to govern the behavior of the Bambudye. They had certain beads to remind them of how to treat each other and other beads to instruct them how to treat those outside of the Bambudye. Some examples I found were that one bead could communicate “If someone helps you, then help them.” while another would say “Lie concerning the Bambudye.” From this last instruction it is clear that the Bambudye required that their activities be kept secret from outsiders.
These boards are great examples of esoteric folklore. A lukasa communicates only to the Bambudye and there are even certain boards that communicate to even smaller factions of the Bambudye. For example, a lukasa with a “phallic” appendage protruding the board is meant for a male group of the Bambudye while a lukasa with a matching indentation is intended for a female audience. Also there were boards that were intended for certain chiefs or rulers only.
Because of their esoteric quality, few lukasa were found in the early colonial period, or at least few were recognized. Without the knowledge of what the boards were or what they were for, there was no reason to even they communicated anything at all. Afterall to an outsider a lukasa just looks like wood board with a lot of nonsense designs on it. When the Bambudye society ceased to exist as a group of power, this allowed outsiders the freedom to gain more knowledge about the artifacts. As the lukasa became an obsolete object, the Luba people became more and more willing to disclose the function and meaning of the devices to researchers. Today, if you are really interested in interpreting a lukasa, it would not be difficult to contact a historian who understands the symbols and may be up for the challenge. In this way, a large part of its esoteric quality has been lost. However, any person who is unaware of what a lukasa is will still have a hard time recognizing any meaning in these boards.