The Bemba (‘BaBemba or ‘Awemba’ or ‘BaWemba’) are a cluster of matrilineal and agriculturalist ChiBemba-speaking ethnolinguistic group of Bantu extraction living in the northeastern high plateau of Zambia. They reside mainly in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt Provinces of Zambia who trace their origins to the Luba and Lunda states of the upper Congo basin, in what became Katanga Province in southern Congo-Kinshasa (DRC). They are the largest ethnic group in Zambia. Bemba history is a major historical phenomenon in the development of chieftainship in a large and culturally homogeneous region of central Africa.
The Bemba are those who consider themselves subjects of the Chitimukulu, the Bemba’s single paramount chief. They lived in villages of 100 to 200 people and numbered 250,000 strong in 1963. There are over 30 Bemba clans, named after animals or natural organisms, such as the royal clan, “the people of the crocodile” (Bena Ng’andu) or the Bena Bowa (Mushroom Clan). They were the people who finally put a halt to the northward march of the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana descended Ngoni people, through Chief Chitapankwa Kaluba.
In contemporary Zambia, the word “Bemba” actually has several meanings. It may designate people of Bemba origin, regardless of where they live, e.g. whether they live in urban areas or in the original rural Bemba area. Alternatively, it may encompass a much larger population which includes some ‘eighteen different ethnic groups’, who together with the Bemba form a closely related ethnolinguistic cluster of matrilineal-matrifocal agriculturalists known as the Bemba-speaking peoples of Zambia.They may call themselves by the particular group name—Aushi, Bisa, Chishinga, Kunda, Lala, Lamba Lunda, Ng’umbo, Swaka, Tabwa, or Unga—but the tendency in urban areas is to use the generic term “Bemba”. In this broad sense the Bemba form the most important ethnic group in the urban areas of the Copperbelt, including Kitwe, Ndola, Mufulira, Luanshya, Chingola, and Chililabombwe in Zambia and a significant minority in Lubumbashi in the DRC.
In a country called Kola, there once was a powerful, but apparently crazy chief called Mukulumpe. He had a number of sons by different wives, but one day he heard of a woman with ears as large as an elephant’s, who said she came from the sky and belonged to the crocodile clan. Her name was Mumbi Mukasa, and the chief married her. They had three sons, Katongo, Chiti and Nkole, and a daughter, Chilufya Mulenga. The impetuous young men built a tower that fell down and killed many people. King Mukulumpe was furious. He put out Katongo’s eyes, and banished Chiti and Nkole. Mukulumpe pretended to relent and called back the exiles. However, he had dug a game pit to kill the three of them. Katongo, though blind, warned his brothers by using his talking drum. When they arrived alive and at the palace, the king humiliated them by making them do menial work. Chiti and Nkole left the kingdom for good, and took with them their three maternal half brothers Kapasa, Chimba and Kazembe and their entourage.
The Bemba people recently celebrated Ukusefya Pangwena, which re-enacts the journey from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom into Bembaland. The photo above depicts Chitimukulu being carried on a hammock by a group of men at the ceremony.
They fled east, until they came to the middle reaches of the Luapula river. Chief Mapalo Matanda of the Bena Mukulo ferried them across. In their haste, they left behind their blind brother Katongo and their sister Chilufya Mulenga, who Mukulumpu had locked up in a house without doors. They despatched their half brother Kapasa to break out Chilufya Mulenga, which he did ingeniously. But on the way to Luapula, Kapasa fell in love with Chilufya. When it turned out she was pregnant, Kapasa was disowned by Chiti. The group meanwhile, had fallen in with a ‘white magician’, Luchele Ng’anga. When they arrived at the Luapula, Kazembe decided to settle there, but Nkole and Chiti were uncertain. When Luchele Ng’anga conjured up a fish from a mortar, they took this to be an omen to head eastwards, and moved toward the plateau of the Chambeshi river, near Lake Bangweulu.
They crossed the Safwa rapids, and the Luchindashi river, where there was a quarrel between two women, and part of the group stayed behind, forming the Bena Nona (Mushroom Clan), the royal clan of the Bisa people.
The others continued southwards where they encountered the Lala people, who asked them for a chief, and were given a man called Kankomba. The migrants then turned eastwards to the Luangwa Valley and among the Senga (or Nsenga) people, they encountered a chief called Mwase. Mwase’s wife, Chilimbulu, was very beautiful, and her stomach was adorned with elegant cicatrisations. Chilimbulu at once fell in love with Chiti, and so did he. She seduced him breathless when Mwase was out hunting. When he returned and saw Chilimbulu naked, doing it with Chiti, he was enraged. He pulled Chilimbulu off of Chiti, the two chiefs fought, and with Mwase trying to kill Chiti, he was grazed by a poisoned arrow, and Chilimbulu cried out, ran to her Chiti, and stabbed herself with the arrow too, after which they both died.
Nkole and his followers took Chiti’s body with them and stole Chilimbulu’s body, looking for a grove suitable for their burial. They encountered the magician Luchele Ng’anga again, and he directed them toward a majestic grove, called Mwalule or Milemba. At Mwalule, they found a woman called Chimbala. They also found another visitor, the Bisa headman Kabotwe, who was there to trade and pay respect to Chimbala.
After Chimbala gave them permission to bury Chiti and Chilimbulu, and placed Chilumbulu next to Chiti. But they managed to get Chimbala to marry Kabotwe, ensuring Chimbala’s ritual ability to purify those who buried Chiti. Kabotwe became the keeper of the grove, and received the title Shimwalule, which his matrilineal descendants inherited. However, Nkole had sent out a party to raid cattle from Fipa chief ‘Pilula’ to provide an oxhide shroud for Chiti. Then, he dispatched a party to avenge Chiti’s death, killing Mwase and Chilimbulu. Their bodies were burned at Mwalule, but the smoke overcame Nkole, who also died, and now also had to be buried at Mwalule.
The Kola migrants adopted matrilineal succession, and Chiti and Nkole were succeeded by their sister Chilufya Mulenga’s son. He was also called Chilufya, and was too young to rule as chief, so Chiti’s half brother Chimba ruled in his place. The Kola migrants left Mulambalala, their site near Mwalule and crossed the Chambesi River north. The disgraced Kapasa however, settled on his own in Bulombwa, driving out Iwa chief Kafwimbi and his cattle.
The others traveled westward up the Kalongwa River, where two men, Kawba and Chikunga found a dead crocodile. As the chiefs were of the crocodile clan, this was taken as a good sign. Here, the Kola migrants made their capital, Ng’wena (Crocodile) on the Kalungu River and settled the surrounding country. The groups then living in the area were called Sukuma, Musukwa, Kalelelya and Ngalagansa. They were driven off or killed by the Kola migrants, who were by now called the Bemba.
When Chilufya the king grew up, Chimba handed him the royal bows belonging to his uncles Nkole and Chiti. Chilufya thereby gained the praise name ‘ca mata yabili’ (of the two bows). Chilufya however, insisted that Chimba kept Nkole’s bow, allowing him to found his own village at Chatindubwi, a few miles north of the Kalungu River.
Thereafter, the Bemba became many. New villages and chiefs were founded, and many chiefs succeeded Chilufya Kaluba. All of these paramount chiefs took the name of the original founder, Chiti Mukulu (Chiti The Great). They are now in today’s Zambia.
The plateau heartland of the Bemba reaches a height of approximately 4,300 feet (1,300 meters) and is located from 10° to 12° S and 30° to 32° E. It rises from the lowlands of Lake Bangweulu and the Luapula Valley to the south and west and Lake Tanganyika and the Luangwa Valley to the north and east. The Chambeshi River, which feeds Lake Bangweulu and forms part of the southern Congo drainage basin, meanders through its center. The plateau is made of old crystalline rocks that are rich in minerals but produce poor soil fertility. The natural vegetation consists of thin forests of tall trees termed savanna woodland.
It is estimated that of the eight and one half million people in Zambia, 36 percent (or 3.1 million) are Bemba or speak the Bemba language.
The Bemba people speak a Bemba language known as ChiBemba (Cibemba, Ichibemba, Icibemba and Chiwemba). It is a major Bantu language which belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language phylum. ChiBemba is spoken primarily in north-eastern Zambia by the Bemba people and as a lingua franca by about 18 related ethnic groups, including the Bisa people of Mpika and Lake Bangweulu, and to a lesser extent in Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Botswana. Including all its dialects, Bemba is the most spoken indigenous language in Zambia. The Lamba language is closely related, some people consider it a dialect of Bemba.
An urban dialect called Town Bemba (ichiTauni or ichiKopebeelti) is a widely used lingua franca in the Copperbelt towns and consists of a number of loan words from English in Zambia and from French and Swahili in the southern DRC. Portuguese and Swahili loan words indicate nineteenth-century trading contacts.
Basic Vocabulary and Phrases
ee – yes
awe – no
ulishani – hello (informal)
Mulishani – hello (formal)
shalenipo – goodbye
Ishina lyandi ni.. – My name is…
umuntu – person
umunandi – friend
umwana – child
chiBemba – the Bemba language
na – and, with
nga – like, as
suma (adj.) – good
onse (adj.) – all
uluchelo (adj) – morning
Natotela – Thank you
Sana – A lot
Natotela sana – Thanks a lot
The oral tradition of the Bemba court recalls a migration of chiefs from the country of the Luba (Kola). The king of Kola, Mukulumpe, married a woman who belonged to the Crocodile Clan (Abena Ngandu) and had ears like an elephant. She had three sons—Katongo, Chiti, and Nkole—and a daughter, Chilufya. After a fight with their father, Chiti and Nkole fled eastward and were joined by their half brothers Chimba, Kapasa, and Kazembe and their sister Chilurya. After the death in battle of Chiti and Nkole, the son of Chilufya became chief. When they came across a dead crocodile, they decided to settle, for they were of the Crocodile Clan. Chilurya became known as Chitimukulu, or Chiti the Great.
Historians have argued that this oral tradition is more a “mythical charter” that legitimizes the rule of the Crocodile Clan than a record of historical fact. The legend probably refers to a migration of Luba or Lunda chiefs that occurred before 1700. Before the migration there were autochthonous inhabitants who spoke a Bantu language that resembled modern IchiBemba and had certain cultural and economic practices similar to those found after the Luba/Lunda conquest. They had settled in the area more than a thousand years earlier. The Luba/Lunda chiefs did not alter the cultural and economic practices of the original inhabitants, adapting them while proclaiming descent from royalty to legitimize their rule.
Before the 1840s the greatest challenge to the Bemba came from Mwata Kazembe’s Eastern Lunda Kingdom based in the Luapula Valley; after 1840 the Ngoni from southern Africa challenged the Bemba from the east in a series of inconclusive wars until a decisive battle in about 1870 led to a Ngoni retreat. Local exchanges of iron and salt were important for the consolidation of political power by chiefs, but the long-distance trade in slaves, ivory, and copper with the Portuguese and Swahili on the east coast fortified and centralized the Bemba polity, which reached its zenith in the 1870s.
The first written reference to the Bemba is from 1798, when the Portuguese expedition to Mwata Kazembe led by F. J.de Lacerda heard about the Bemba. The first recorded contact between Portuguese traders and Bemba chiefs took place in 1831, when another expedition to Mwata Kazembe under A. C. P. Garnitto encountered Bemba chiefs expanding to the south. Tippu Tip, a Swahili slave trader, had contact with the Bemba in the 1860s, and David Livingstone passed through the area in 1867-1868 and in 1872 shortly before his death near Bemba country.
In the 1880s and 1890s European conquest and colonization began. The London Missionary Society and the Catholic White Fathers established mission stations on the border of the Bemba polity. By the 1890s agents of the British South African Company had begun signing treaties with chiefs. Europeans widened internal fissures between the competing chiefships of Chitimukulu and Mwamba, and this contributed to the lack of organized resistance to European colonialism. During the colonial period the Bemba territory became an important labor-supply hinterland for the copper mines. The powers of the Bemba chiefs were reduced by the colonial administration, yet certain Bemba chiefs, including Chitimukulu, retained authority under the colonial practice of indirect rule.
The Bemba supported the Cha Cha Cha struggle for independence led by the United National Independence Party (UNIP). The first Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, was not of Bemba descent yet grew up and taught in Bemba country. Bemba support for UNIP declined after the brutal repression of the popular Lumpa Church and the perception that the one-party regime discriminated against the Bemba and favored easterners. In the 1970s support grew for the breakaway United Progressive Party (UPP) led by Simon Kapwewe. Bemba support for the government of Frederick Chiluba that took over from Kaunda after democratic elections in 1991 was high. In urban areas President Chiluba is considered a Bemba even though he comes from Luapula Province and is not a member of the core Bemba group.
A tarmac road called the Great North Road runs from the Copperbelt through the plateau region and splits into two roads leading to the Lake Tanganyika port of Mpulungu and the border of Tanzania, respectively. A railway line from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam runs through Bemba country. Settlement is concentrated along the roads and railway line, with farms extending for several miles into the interior. Northern Province is divided into nine districts, each of which has an administrative capital that also serves as a trading center. The most important towns near the Bemba heartland are Chinsali and Kasama. Houses constructed of bricks and corrugated iron are replacing those made of the traditional clay and thatch. Except in the towns, piped water and electricity are rare. Small toilets and granaries are situated outside the main houses. The population density is low.
Subsistence. Subsistence agriculture makes an important contribution to livelihood since employment levels are low and wages and pensions are below the subsistence level. In many areas cassava and maize have replaced the traditional staple, millet. The Bemba are known for a shifting form of agriculture termed chitemene, in which the branches of trees are cut and burned to supply the nutrients needed to cultivate millet and maize.
Forms of chitemene have changed over time. For example, traditionally only tree branches were burned, but now entire trees are burned for use as both fertilizer and charcoal. Without burning, fertilizer is required. Cassava grown on mounds (mputa) has become more widespread since little fertilizer is required and it can be grown without chitemene. However, chitemene has not disappeared and still is an important part of Bemba survival strategies. Cassava, millet, and maize are dried, ground into flour, and cooked with water to make a thick porridge called ubwali. Vegetables include pumpkin, squash, cabbage, spinach, rape, and cassava leaves. Cattle traditionally were not domesticated because of the tsetse fly and are still rare. Sources of protein include beans, groundnuts, caterpillars, fish, game meat, poultry, and goat.
Commercial Activities. Maize and cassava are exported to urban areas. Coffee estates in the highlands export high-quality beans. Small-scale gemstone and mineral mining occurs. Before the decline of the copper mines in the 1980s, most income was derived from urban remittances.
Industrial Arts. Handicraft products include clay pots, reed mats and baskets, hunting and fishing nets, wood and iron agricultural implements, canoes, stools, and drums. Wood is the most important and versatile raw material. There is little tourism, and these products usually are made for local use.
Trade. Trucks on the main road carry trade goods to and from the Mpulungu harbor on Lake Tanganyika and the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. Locals sell food and refreshments and provide services to passing truck drivers and train passengers.
Division of Labor
In general, men prepare the chitemene fields by cutting and burning the branches. Women are responsible for planting, harvesting, drying, pounding the dried grain or root into flour, and cooking. Increased male migration to the copper mines after the 1920s was a factor in the replacement of millet cultivation in chitemene fields by cassava. Men dominate hunting and fishing activities, while women and children gather wild produce such as mushrooms and caterpillars. The Bemba speak about a division of labor in a rigid fashion, but in practice it can be fluid.
As a result of the traditionally low population density and shifting agricultural practices, uncultivated land or bush (mpanga) had little intrinsic value and was not strongly associated with individual ownership. However, rights to the land did exist and were regulated by village rulers. The colonial government declared land “Native Trust,” to be allocated by chiefs. Despite the vesting of the land in the president under the postcolonial government, chiefs still allocated land. The introduction of individual land registration under the post-1991 government has not had an impact. In contrast to uncultivated land, there is a strong sense of individual ownership of cultivated fields and produce.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Bemba usually are classified as matrilineal and matrilocal. This is an idealized version of Bemba kinship relations that might have existed in the past, yet even this seems unclear. Currently, there seems to be a weakening of the matrilineal/matrilocal system; residence departs substantially from matrilocality now and might best be described as bilocal. Membership in a clan (umukowa; plural imikowa) and positional succession are still matrilineal. However, it is common for a child to adopt the father’s name and ancestral spirit (umupashi), and this is suggestive of a strengthening of patrilineal elements. In the past a man worked for a period in the homestead of his new wife and chose to remain with his wife’s family or return with her to his mother or father’s homestead. However, today newlywed couples may stay with the husband’s family. A money economy and Christianity have strengthened the control of men over their children and weakened attachment to uterine kin.
Kin terms are of the Iroquois type. Close kinship terms are subject to declension, for example, mayo (my mother), noko (thy mother), nyina (her mother). In ego’s generation separate terms are used for siblings according to their sex and age. Because of positional succession (ukupyanika) kin terminology for an individual can change. For example, through succession ego can become his mother’s brother and all women who were his mother (mayo) become his sister (nkashi).
Bemba old man, Zambia
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Traditionally, marriage payments in the form of goods from the groom’s family to the bride’s family were small and insignificant. The more important aspect of the marriage contract was the labor service performed by the son-in-law. With the increasing importance of money and goods, payments are becoming of more importance and labor service by the son-in-law is increasingly rare. Polygamy is allowed but uncommon. Marriages are unstable, and divorce or separation is common, especially if a man fails to provide labor, money, or goods to his wife’s family. To a certain extent Christianity has stabilized marital relations. While marriage within a clan is not allowed, cross-cousin marriages are permitted and strengthen the bonds between brother and sister.
The Bemba tradition recognizes four symbolic banquets in relation to courtship and marriage. These are
• Icisumina Nsalamu (Acceptance of marriage proposal),
• Icilanga Mulilo [Literal meaning: “The Showing of the Fire” or “Introduction to Cuisine” – Editor]
• Ukukonkola (Granting authority) and
• Amatebeto (Thanks offering),
It is not uncommon to find a bride’s family preparing Icilanga Mulilo for the groom, in the mistaken belief that it is Amatebeto. Others may prepare Icisumina Nsalamu believing it to be Icilanga Mulilo. Some have knowingly practiced a pick and mix version out of convenience. This fuzziness has been tolerated in many cases, but only adds to the confusion around these issues.
Bemba Wedding ceremony
According to Mr. Dyson Chalwe, a traditional marriage counselor and long standing Shibukombe (a trustworthy person who is appointed to be the emissary and confidant for the groom in meeting the bride’s parents), there are four very distinct ceremonial banquets involving the taking of symbolic meals from the bride to the groom in the period leading to marriage and after commencement of marriage:
1. ICISUMINA NSALAMU (Acceptance of marriage proposal).
Icisumina Nsalamu is a meal prepared by the bride’s family, which they deliver to the groom, to symbolize the acceptance of his marriage proposal.
According to Mr.Chalwe, the meal only consists of one plate of Nshima (the traditional thick porridge made from maize meal) and a plate of whole chicken. The groom does not have to give back anything in return. The object of this gesture is for the bride’s family to show that they have accepted the marriage proposal on behalf of their daughter. It’s less elaborate than the other three banquets.
2. ICILANGA MULILO (Permission granting the groom freedom to have meals from the bride’s family during courtship visits).
[Literal meaning: “The Showing of the Fire” or “Introduction to Cuisine” – Editor]
Mr. Chalwe says that Icilanga Mulilo is food that is prepared by the bride’s family and delivered to the groom to symbolize an open invitation to the groom to dine with the bride’s family on future visits during their courtship. Traditionally, the groom is forbidden from eating any food at the bride’s parents or guardian’s home before this symbolic gesture. Different types of dishes are prepared by the bride’s to showcase their traditional cuisine.
The groom is expected to eat or taste every food, including the food that he is not familiar with.
The bride’s party prepare the meals at the house of one of their relatives. A big group of women then load the food parcels on their heads amid singing and drumming. They head to the house where the groom and his party are waiting. The bride is not involved in this.
When the party arrives at the gate at the grooms location, they pause and wait for an invitation to enter. This is in the form of money that the groom’s family drop on the ground in front of them. In a light hearted display, the party may refuse to enter until more money is offered. The amounts of money involved are not large, only symbolic.
Once the invitation to enter is accepted, the singing party then proceed to the house. At the door, they will turn around and enter the house walking backwards, with their parcels still balanced on their heads.
Once in the house, the singing and ululation continues. The women dance in the middle of the room. The party waits for an invitation to set down their food parcels. Once more, this takes the form of money offerings from the groom’s family.
Finally there is more dancing and singing. Those who are gathered then tuck into the feast.
This occasion, other than being a” showcase” of the bride’s menu, also symbolizes that the groom is responsible for the welfare of his bride from then on. He can now assume the responsibilities of taking care of his bride’s financial needs. The bride at this stage is also allowed to start cooking and doing laundry for the groom.
Mr. Chalwe further revealed that after the Icilanga Mulilo ceremony, the groom is allowed to give back something, usually money, as a token of appreciation for the meal when delivering back the empty plates to the bride.
Icilanga Mulilo ceremony – Food dishes 1 – kitweonlineIcilanga Mulilo ceremony – Food dishes 2 – kitweonline Icilanga Mulilo ceremony – Meat dish – kitweonlineIcilanga Mulilo ceremony – The Groom with friends- kitweonline Icilanga Mulilo ceremony – The Shibukombe – Mr Dyson Chalwe
3. AMATEBETO (Thanks offering)
Amatebeto are prepared by the bride’s family and delivered to the groom after marriage has taken place. Amatebeto can be prepared two or more years into the marriage.
Amatebeto symbolizes the appreciation of the groom by the bride’s parents for keeping a trouble free marriage. It is an acknowledgement by the bridge’s family that the groom is capable of looking after his wife well and that they have re-affirmed their blessing of the marriage
In today’s practice, Amatebeto and Icilanga Mulilo have been used interchangeably. They are also the two ceremonies most easily confused for each other.
4. UKUKONKOLA (Granting authority)
Ukukonkola is a meal that is prepared for the groom by the bride’s parents. It is a meal that the groom eats at his in-law’s house.
On this day, the meal symbolizes the authority that is given to the groom to make family decisions affecting his wife’s side of the family on behalf of elders in the bride’s family. The groom is allowed to make some decisions “without consulting” his in-laws. The bride’s family also declare their commitment to respect such decisions and to consider them binding.
The groom is initiated by first going to his father and mother in-law’s bedroom. Traditionally, teenagers and adult children are not allowed to enter their parents’ bedroom, much less an in law’s! The parents’ bedroom is traditionally regarded as a sacred place for a son in law to enter.
On this very special occasion, the son in law is allowed access. He is expected to remove the beddings found on his in-law’s bed and to get whatever valuables are exposed. He also has got to peep under the bed and to take anything that he finds there.
Thereafter he is led to the living room where he has to remove all the cushions on the sofa and reveal anything hidden underneath them. He is allowed to keep whatever he discovers.
He is then led into the kitchen where he is to open all the pots and pans, and eat whatever he finds. He is not expected to leave any left-overs. He is to get all the food that remains and take it to his home after this initiation.
The meal symbolizes that the groom has become part of the family and is now regarded as one of their own children. The groom is even authorized to personally tender a sick mother in law after this symbolic gesture.
According to Mr. Chalwe, this is the last in the process, of all symbolic banquets for a groom from his in-laws. The ceremonies are practiced to varying extents among Zambians of Bemba extraction. If you are marrying into the Bemba tribe, you now know what to expect.
Domestic Unit. In the past a married couple started out in an extended matrilocal family unit and formed an independent unit after a number of years. The encouragement of nuclear families by Christian churches and the ability to provide money instead of labor service to the wife’s family has meant that a husband can achieve this position with greater ease. However, the traditional basis of domestic cooperation through female relatives—mother and daughter or sisters—and ties between mother and children are still strong.
Inheritance. Inheritance of goods is relatively unimportant, and wealth can pass from a dead man to his son or to his sister’s son. The inheritance of a title or a wife is of more significance and follows the matrilineage.
Socialization. Children learn household, agricultural, and hunting skills from their mother or her relatives, although the father may be involved. Children have freedom and autonomy but must respect their elders. Although the practice has declined in recent years, initiation (ichisungu) at puberty teaches girls duties toward their households and husbands. There are no equivalent male initiation ceremonies. Children generally attend school.
Independent households, which form the basic productive unit, join together to form villages. The membership of a village is fluid, and households migrate in search of new land. A village headman who is appointed by village elders or by the chief runs each village and mediates conflicts and access to land. Chiefs are drawn from the royal matrilineal Crocodile Clan, and this has contributed to greater centralization than is found among the neighboring groups. Chiefs and headmen are generally male, but it is not unusual to find women in such positions. Chiefs have their own councilors elected by the old men of the royal village. Paramount Chief Chitimukulu commands the respect of a number of lesser chiefs across the plateau and rules his own district (Lubemba). Chitimukulu’s tribal council consists of a number of royal hereditary officials called abakabilo who have different ritual duties.
The Bemba have about thirty matrilineal clans generally named after animals. All clans have joking opposites. For example, the Goat Clan jokes with the Leopard Clan because leopards eat goats. An individual can rely on the support of his or her clan and joking clan members. Joking between the Bemba, who are known as baboons (kolwe) for their reputation for eating baboons, and the Ngoni, who are known as rats (kwindi), is an element of social life and a way of overcoming old rivalries, especially in urban areas where Ngoni and Bemba live together.
Political authority is divided between the formal government and traditional chiefs. The government follows the model of the British colonial bureaucracy. The Northern Province, with provincial headquarters at Kasama, has nine districts with elected district councils at district capitals called the Boma. Under the first postcolonial regime of Kaunda, UNIP party structures played an important role in running district affairs. After 1991, under the successor regime of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), party structures were not meant to play the same role, although their de facto political influence has been great.
During colonialism chiefs collaborated closely with the colonial officials based at the Boma. In the postcolonial period the formal judicial and executive powers of the chiefs were handed over to the district government. Nevertheless, during the first postcolonial regime chiefs became involved in formal district governance and political parties. After 1991 chiefs were supposed to remain outside formal politics, but their influence remains significant.
Chiefs and headmen are not instrumental in the perpetuation of social norms. Responsibilities toward the extended family are entrenched through witchcraft (ubuloshi) accusations that act as an important deterrent against breaking social and ritual taboos. Didactic songs, including those associated with the girls’ ichisungu ceremony, provide guidance for responsibilities toward husband, children, and family.
Before the colonial period the Bemba were known as a “warrior” people who raided their neighbors for slaves and tribute. Conflict between Bemba chiefs and between the Bemba and the Ngoni was frequent. Praise songs of chiefs and clan elders celebrate battles and past conquests. After colonialism, raiding and local conflict ceased, and political stability in Zambia has contributed to a long era of peace.
Religious Beliefs. Precolonial religious beliefs revolved around the worship of ancestral spirits (imipashi) and nature spirits (ngulu). These spirits controlled uncultivated land and were responsible for the harvest. Chiefs and clan elders prayed and offered sacrifices to the spirits at shrines, which were miniature huts housing relics or natural sites such as waterfalls and springs. Such rituals occurred at important economic events such as the cutting of trees (ukutema) to prepare chitemene fields or before hunting or fishing expeditions. Although rare, these rituals are still performed in certain areas.
Most Bemba are Christians. The United Church of Zambia (previously the London Missionary Society), Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists are important denominations. Biblical stories and proverbs are popular. The name for God is Lesa, although the etymology of the term is unclear. Christianity has been fused with older religious practices. For example, the Lumpa Church, founded by the prophetess Alice Lenshina, spread across Bemba country in the 1950s and was repressed by government in the 1960s. At least since the spread of the bamuchapi witchfinders in the 1930s, witchcraft accusations have combined ancestral and Christian belief systems.
Religious Practitioners. Chiefs, clan elders, and other ritual specialists prayed and made sacrifices to the spirits. Precolonial prophets such as Bwembya claimed to derive their prophecies from the ancestral spirits of kings. Christian prophets such as Alice Lenshina claimed to hear the voices of God and Jesus. Witchcraft purification and detection are still performed by witchfinders (abashinganga), often on behalf of traditional chiefs and councilors. Church congregations led by elected church elders exist in most villages.
Bemba man performing traditional ritual
Ceremonies. Traditional ceremonial activities include rites surrounding the preparation of chitemene fields and first fruit ceremonies. Although it is no longer widely performed, the most important semipublic ceremony is the ichisungu initiation for young girls. When a girl begins to menstruate, she is taken into the bush by a ritual specialist called Nachimbusa (the mother of sacred emblems) and instructed in the duties of womanhood through songs and sacred clay figurines and paintings called mbusa. Men are not allowed to attend the ceremony. After initiation the girl is considered ready for marriage.
Arts. Tatoos and other forms of scarification were common in the pre-Christian period. Hairstyling among women is still popular. Painting and ornamental arts illustrating biblical themes or clan jokes adorn houses and public places. There is little demand for Bemba artworks, and works generally are made on commission. Musicians, especially guitarists and singers, perform in village bars and churches.
Medicine. Traditional remedies are made from bark, fruit, and plant extracts. Knowledge of these remedies is widespread. However, if these remedies fail, a patient will go to expert herbalists who have specialized knowledge of remedies and supernatural causes of illness.
Death and Afterlife
The cause of death is believed to be a curse or bewitchment by a jealous friend or family member. After death the family will employ a witchfinder to search for the source of the bewitchment. Spirits can return to act as guardians of the bush or can be adopted by newborn children. The Bemba combine beliefs in ancestral spirits and witchcraft with Christian beliefs about the afterlife.