ETHNONYMS: Babemba, Chibemba, Chiwemba, Ichibemba, Wemba
The Bemba are the largest ethnic group in the Northern Province of Zambia, where they occupy the high plateau land between 9° and 12° S and between 29° and 32° E, covering the whole district of Kasama and much of Mpika, Chinsali, Luwingu, and Mporokoso districts. The 1986 Zambian census placed the Bemba population at approximately 1,700,000 in Zambia, with another 150,000 in neighboring countries.
Some seventeen or eighteen ethnic groups in this general area of Zambia comprise the Bemba-speaking peoples, and they form with the Bemba a closely related culture cluster. All of these peoples are predominantly agricultural and have a matrilineal-matriiocal emphasis. They practice shifting cultivation, growing finger millet ( Eleusine corocana ), which is the staple crop in the eastern part of the area, including among the Bemba, and manioc among the western groups. There is a general absence of cattle because this area is within the tsetse belt, but the Bemba do have a few sheep and goats. The Bemba-speaking peoples, together with several other ethnic clusters, are generally considered to comprise a broader cultural-linguistic category known as the Central Bantu.
The Bemba recognize the following distinctive marks of societal membership: a common name, Babemba; a common language, Cibemba, which in their eyes forms a distinct dialect; distinctive scarification, a vertical cut on each temple behind the eyes, almost one inch long; common historical traditions; and allegiance to a common paramount chief, the citimukulu, whose rule of the Bemba territory is unquestioned.
Descent, sib affiliation, and succession to office follow the matrilineal line, and marital residence is matrilocal. Each individual belongs to a matrilineal lineage, which determines his succession to different offices and his status in the community. He also belongs to an exogamous, matrilineal sib ( mukoa ), which is important for certain hereditary offices. There are about thirty sibs among the Bemba, and they are ranked according to status based on their relations with the royal crocodile sib. Inheritance is relatively unimportant, since there are few forms of inheritable wealth.
Despite this matrilineal orientation, the Bemba kinship system in some ways is bilateral in nature. The kin group to which a person constantly refers in everyday affairs is the lupwa, a bilateral group of near relatives on both sides of his family (i.e., a kindred), who join in religious ceremonies, matrimonial transactions, mortuary ritual, and inheritance. This group may be more important to a Bemba than his matrilineal sib. In addition, a patrilineal emphasis has been increasing in the late twentieth century, including a broadening of the father's authority within the family.
Superimposed upon this kinship base is a highly centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian political system consisting of three main levels of organization: the state, the district, and the village. As previously noted, the state is ruled by a paramount chief (citimukulu), whose office is hereditary within a royal sib. His authority is nearly absolute, and he is believed to have supernatural powers. The citimukulu is assisted by a council consisting of thirty to forty hereditary officials (the bakabilo ), many of royal descent, and each responsible for some special ritual duty kept secret from the ordinary members of the society.
The Bemba state is divided into political districts ( ifyalo ; sing. icalo ), usually five or more in number. Each icalo is a geographical unit with a more or less fixed boundary and name, and it is also a ritual unit. A hereditary, territorial chief ( mfumu ) rules over each icalo. These chieftainships are arranged in order of precedence, according to their nearness to the center of the country and the antiquity of their offices. To the most important of these chiefdoms the citimukulu appoints his nearest relatives. In 1933 there were three major districts: the citimukulu's personal district (called Lubemba—the center of the country), comprised of 160 villages; the Ituna district, with 69 villages; and Icinga district, with 76 villages. Each territorial chief also has his own councillors.
Each territorial chief has under him a number of subchiefs, who might rule over very small tracts of country, or rather, over a few villages. A district or territorial chief is also chief of his own village ( musumba ), and there is a significant difference in size between a chief's village and a village with a commoner as headman. The average Bemba village is rather small in size, with 30 to 50 huts and a population range of about 60 to 160. In contrast, chief's villages are very much larger in size. In the old days, a chief's village might have had thousands of inhabitants; in 1934, the villages of important chiefs had 400 to 600 huts. They were divided into quarters, ruled over by loyal supporters of the chief. The nucleus of a commoner Bemba village consists of the headman's matrilocal extended family. In older villages, such as Kasaka, there may be three or four related matrilocal family groups. The heads of these family groups are the most influential members of the community; they are known as the "great ones of the village" ( bakalamba ). It can be seen that rank is a marked feature of Bemba society. It is based ultimately on kinship—real or fictive—with the paramount chief and, derivatively, with the territorial chiefs.
The religious beliefs and practices of the Bemba are related to their social organization, particularly the matrilineal basis of the society. Traditionally the Bemba-speaking people adhered to a house religion, in which the married woman was in charge of all the domestic ritual and had access to the divine through the intercession of her forebears. She was the one who led the veneration of the recently dead at the small house shrine. She also led the public remembrance services to the ancient guardians of the land. Furthermore, the knowledge of the community's religious heritage and the guidelines for worshiping the transcendent were passed on by the women during the ceremonies of initiation.
The original house religion of the Bemba was radically altered during the centralization of chiefly authority and the imposition of Bemba paramountcy, which occurred around 1700. The chiefs manipulated Bemba religion to enhance their own power. The worship of the spirits ( imipashi ) of dead chiefs—both paramount and territorial chiefs—has since become an essential element of Bemba religion. The focus shifted from the traditional house shrine, attended by the housewife, to the court cult, where the royal relics were venerated along with other magical objects. This cult had slowly acquired more power and authority than the ritual of the house shrine, in spite of the insistence on service to the immediate family spirits and to the guardians of the land by women.
The first Christian missionaries arrived toward the end of the nineteenth century, when chiefly power was being used in particularly cruel ways. The common people regarded these missionaries as liberators, who by their medical and social work seemed to have preferential regard for the poor and for those who suffered. Women accepted them as allies in their struggle to restore the house cult, the family spirits, and the guardians of the land. The Western missionaries were seen as the messengers of God pointing the way to a better future, and as such their teaching was incorporated into the already existing worldview of the people.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, women experienced increasing difficulties with the further demands of what was called the "new way." By then, their sacred position had come under severe attack. At that time a Western style of education, with its emphasis on modernity, was strongly emphasized within Bemba society. The Protestants and the Catholics competed for the allegiance of boys and young men. Both groups saw the religious role of women as reactionary and dangerous. Their teaching was considered pagan and was discouraged as much as possible.
Women found redress only by turning to prophets who pushed for a return to older customs and traditions. For example, Emilio Mulolani, a fervent lay preacher, was in favor of the restoration of the house cult, and taught that men and women were equal, especially in the act of procreation, which was sacred. Many women were influenced by these ideas and expressed the need to have the Christian message expressed in the religious concepts of the domestic cult.
By 1964, however, with Zambian independence, it was still apparent that women were not equal partners in religious matters. Widespread spirit possession within Bemba society, which has become incorporated into Bemba Christianity, may be a cultural response to the reduction of the woman's role in the religious sphere.
Hinfelaar, Hugo F. (1994). Bemba-Speaking Women of Zambia in a Century of Religious Change (1892-1992). Leiden: E. J. Brill.
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