LOCATION: Northeastern Zambia
POPULATION: 3.1 million Bemba (or Bemba-speaking)
LANGUAGE: Bemba; English
RELIGION: Protestantism; traditional beliefs; Roman Catholicism; African Christianity; Islam
The Bemba occupy the northeastern part of Zambia. They are a matrilineal group (tracing descent through the mother's line). The Bemba belong to a larger ethnic group usually referred to as the Central Bantu. The Bemba came to their present location during the great Bantu migrations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They organized themselves into a loosely united government. At its head was a paramount chief, known as Chitimukulu (the Great Tree), and he was served by subchiefs belonging to the royal Crocodile clan. The Bemba were seen as a warlike and fearsome people by early European travelers and explorers.
Zambia was colonized (occupied and ruled) by the British in the early 1890s. They named it Northern Rhodesia.
Zambia obtained independence in 1964 under the leadership of President Kenneth Kaunda. He ruled as president for twenty-seven years of one-party government.
After unrest in 1990, elections were opened to other political parties. President Kaunda lost the presidential election held in 1991 to Frederick Chiluba, who had been a trade-union activist.
The Bemba and related groups live in the northeastern high plateau of Zambia. Although the area is well watered, the soil is mostly poor and covered by bush, scrub, and low trees typical of an African savannah (plain with few trees). Lakes Mweru and Bangweulu are major geographical features on the plateau. Because of the dense scrub, the Bemba have been described as a forest people.
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.
In Zambia, as in many southern and central African countries, people speak a variety of languages. Most of the languages belong to the Bantu language family. They share a similar vocabulary, but for the most part they are not mutually comprehensible (a speaker of one cannot understand another). Therefore, many modern-day Zambians are multilingual. They speak a maternal, or first, language as well as several other languages.
English is the national language of Zambia. Education in high school and universities is also in English.
The Bemba have a myth about the origins of their group. It is sometimes called the Bemba Charter Myth. Long ago in the land of Kola, there lived White and Black people. After a quarrel, the White people sailed away to get rich in Europe. The Black people remained under their chief Mukulumpe Mubemba. The name Bemba comes directly from this chief's last name.
The chief had sons with Mumbi Mukasa Liulu, a queen of heaven who had fallen from the sky. She belonged to the "Crocodile clan," Ng'andu.
Because of quarrels within the royal family, the sons fled with a group of loyal followers. After much traveling and many conquests, the sons and followers who had survived settled in the area where the Bemba live to this day. They set up a central government with a paramount chief, named Chitimukulu , "The Great Tree." By making war on other peoples, they increased Bemba control over more and more land. The Crocodile clan stayed in power over the other clans.
The full telling of the myth brings out the richness of its poetic, political, religious, and ceremonial aspects. The Bemba use folklore, myths, and the oral tradition to pass on needed information about beliefs, customs, and culture from one generation to the next.
The Bemba traditionally believe in the existence of a single high god, Leza. He does not deal with the problems of everyday life, and he lives in the sky. He is all-powerful and controls things such as thunder and fertility (the ability to have children). He is also the source of magic power.
Christian missionaries came to Zambia during colonization in the late nineteenth century. They converted many of the peoples of Zambia, including the Bemba, to Christianity. But few Zambians have totally given up their traditional beliefs. Most of them do not see any conflicts between the two and tend to practice both religions together.
The major national holiday in Zambia is Independence Day on October 24. Zambia obtained its independence from Great Britain on that day in 1964. On this day every year, celebrations are arranged in major cities and throughout the country. There is much drinking, dancing, and singing. In the afternoon, people go to stadiums to watch soccer games between major leagues or between the national team and the team of a nearby country such as Malawi.
There is no initiation ceremony for Bemba boys. Girls go through an initiation ceremony called Chisungu. This rite of adolescence is intended to teach girls the traditional roles women. A girl whose breasts have started to develop lives away from the group for six weeks to three months. Rites representing the duties of the girl as cook, gardener, hostess, and mother are carried out. During the ceremony there is much drumming, dancing, singing, and drama.
Although it is still practiced in both rural areas and cities, the Chisungu ceremony is slowly disappearing. Most girls grow up in Christian families and attend modern schools, which has become a new rite of passage. In school, subjects such as biology present information different from the teachings of Chisungu. The older rite keeps men in control and women in a lesser role, and these roles are slowly changing in some African societies. But many Bemba still believe that initiation ceremonies have a place in their cultural and moral heritage and believe that the tradition should continue.
Older persons are given greater respect in Bemba society, where a person's age has much to do with how others treat him or her. Shaking hands is the normal way of greeting, especially among members of the same age group.
There are also special relationships between members of different clans. Clans are descent groups, each tracing its descent from a common female ancestor. The Bemba have about forty clans. Most clans have a partner clan whose members they can marry. (Marriage of persons in the same clan is usually not allowed.) Most clans are named after living things such as plants and animals. For example, the Crocodile clan is the partner of the Fish clan. Members of these two clans can marry each other. There is also a custom of making jokes with the partner clan. For example, a member of the Crocodile clan can tease a member of the Fish clan by saying, "You are my meal today." A member of the Fish clan can answer back that without the Fish, the Crocodile would have starved to death.
The Bemba live in rural villages organized around a number of extended families (in families, inheritance is through the mother's side). Villages generally have between thirty to fifty huts. Huts are made of wattle and daub (woven rods and twigs plastered with clay and mud) and have thatched roofs. The village is also the basic political unit. It is run by a headman to whom most of the villagers are related.
The main occupation of the Bemba is subsistence farming (growing their own food with little or none left to sell) in the form of shifting cultivation. Chitemene (shifting cultivation) is a system in which crops are grown in the ash produced by burning wood from a cleared forest area. Due to the poor condition of the soil, a field is abandoned after a few years and a new one is prepared. The village may be relocated as a result of the practice of shifting cultivation. This lifestyle requires a simple building style, and people have very few material possessions.
Disease is a major problem for Bemba society. Malnutrition is common, making it possible for tropical diseases such as malaria and bilharzia to spread.
Family among the Bemba refers to the extended family that includes several generations, much like a clan. The extended family is a cooperative work group that shares food, gifts, money, and other material items. Within the extended family system, a person usually has several "mothers," several "fathers," and many "sons" and "daughters."
Polygamy (having more than one spouse) was once quite common among the Bemba. The coming of Christianity and modernization have weakened this practice.
Since the Bemba are a matrilineal society (with descent through the mother), large payments in money or goods by the bride's family are not required at the time of marriage. (This practice, called bride wealth, is commonly done in patrilineal societies, where descent is through the father.) In order to become engaged to a girl, a young man is expected to offer a small present to the parents of the girl. When they have married, the young son-in-law moves to the wife's village and works for her parents.
In the past, girls were often engaged before adolescence. Younger boys and girls are encouraged to play together before adolescence and can indulge in "puppy love." But as soon as girls begin maturing, sexual contact with men is prohibited until marriage. These days, young people find their own partners and then inform their parents of their choice.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the most common type of cloth was made from bark. Women wore it around the waist as a loincloth. Today most Zambians, including the Bemba, wear modern clothes. Men wear Western clothing (shorts, pants, and shirts). However, the designs and fashions in women's dresses are usually of Zambian or African origin.
The staple food for the Bemba is millet, which is ground into flour. A thick porridge is made from the flour and is eaten with a side dish of vegetables or meat. Two other important staple crops are cassava and maize. Other crops include peanuts, beans, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, bananas, and cowpeas.
Because of the presence of the tsetse fly, large animals such as cattle and goats are not kept. But the Bemba vary their diet by hunting small game, fishing, and gathering wild fruits. Honey, insects such as caterpillars and grasshoppers, fruits, and wild plants are collected throughout the year. Dogs are usually kept for hunting small game such as bush pig and duiker (a small antelope).
At the time of independence in 1964, education was underdeveloped in many parts of Zambia. The colonists had neglected the education of the Africans. Very few people were literate (able to read and write) prior to 1964. Since independence, the government of Zambia has spent much money to develop the educational system. It is similar to the British system: students spend eight years in primary school, four years in high school, and another four years in college. The University of Zambia has a capacity of about 4,000 students, and admission into the university is highly competitive.
Like many peoples of Africa, the Bemba have a rich cultural heritage that is transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Very little Bemba folklore has been written down. Traditional music is part of daily life, from initiation rites and marriage ceremonies to hunting parties.
In traditional Bemba society, men spend their time on political affairs and business. Farming is left to the women, who are responsible for most of the food. But men are involved in clearing new fields.
With the introduction of the modern economy during colonization, men began to move away from home for job opportunities. They worked in the copper mines of Zambia as well as South Africa. Because so many young men have left for the mines, the rural areas contain a large proportion of women. Farming is not progressing because of the lack of men to clear trees. The absence of men in rural areas has caused problems in food production, the economic standing of women and children, marriage, and family life. In most cases, women have become poorer.
Throughout Zambia, the most popular sport played by children and young men is soccer. The national team of Zambia has included some acclaimed Bemba soccer players.
In trading centers throughout the Bemba region, beer pubs are a common part of the landscape. People gather to drink both traditional and bottled beer.
Television broadcasts are available for viewing in Zambia, but few people in rural areas can afford to buy a television set.
The Bemba people are not generally known for a complex folk art culture. The making of iron tools was practiced until the 1940s. A Bemba man has four basic implements: an ax for clearing the bush and cutting wood; a hoe for farming; a spear for hunting; and, in the past, a bow (also for hunting).
Woodcarving is less developed among the Bemba compared with other peoples in the region, and weaving is unknown among the Bemba. The chief Bemba crafts are pottery and baskets.
Zambia has been relatively stable since independence (1964). Fighting between ethnic groups has not been a major problem. However, because of economic problems in the 1970s and 1980s, people became angry with the government. Unemployment in the cities and poverty in rural areas caused discontent among the government leaders, political party members, businesspeople, and university students. The result was an early 1990s change to a democracy including other political parties. President Kenneth Kaunda was peacefully removed from power in 1991. Apart from the economic misery found in rural areas, most Bemba were not directly involved in these political conflicts.
Burdette, M. Zambia: Between Two Worlds . Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988.
Holmes, Timothy. Zambia. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.
Karpfinger, Beth. Zambia Is My Home. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 1993.
Lauré, Jason. Zambia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.
Maxwell, Kevin B. Bemba: Myth and Ritual: The Impact of Literacy on an Oral Culture. New York: Peter Lang, 1983.
Roberts, Andrew. A History of the Bemba. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.
Rogers, Barbara Radcliffe. Zambia. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 1991.
Southern African Development Community. Zambia. [Online] Available http://www.sadcusa.net/members/zambia/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Zambia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/zm/gen.html , 1998.
Zambian National Tourist Board. Zambia. [Online] Available http://www.zamnet.zm , 1998.