LOCATION: Southern Zambia

POPULATION: 1.3 million

LANGUAGE: Chitonga

RELIGION: Christianity combined with indigenous religious beliefs


The Tonga live in southern Zambia along the Zambezi River. The name Tonga is apparently from a word in the Shona language that means "independent."

Many other ethnic groups in southern Africa traditionally had centralized forms of government, but the Tonga recognized no chiefs. There were, however, certain people within Tonga society who had authority. The Sikatongo was a priest who made sure that the spirits would take care of the people and make the crops grow. In every neighborhood (a grouping of several villages), there was also a man called the Ulanyika, the owner of the land. The Ulanyika was usually the first settler in the neighborhood. He had some influence in his neighborhood, and hunters gave him part of every animal they killed there.

Like all the peoples of Zambia, the Tonga came under British rule at the end of the nineteenth century. Zambia gained independence in 1979 under the leadership of Dr. Kenneth Kaunda. He ruled until 1991, when he lost the presidential election to Frederick Chiluba, a trade-union activist.


The Tonga belong to the Bantu group of peoples. They are concentrated in southern Zambia along the Kafue River and Zambezi River. Most of the Tonga area has poor soil and irregular rainfall, which makes farming difficult. For the most part, the area is thinly populated.

The Tonga make up 15 percent (or 1.3 million) of Zambia's total population, which is currently estimated at 8.5 million people.


The Tonga belong to the Bantu language family. Their language is known as Chitonga. It contains many words that are similar to those in other Bantu languages such as Bemba, Chichewa, and Luyana. For example, "to write" in all three languages is kulemba. A chicken is known as a'nkoko in Bemba, nkuku in Luyana, nkhuku in Chichewa, and inkuku in Tonga. In all four languages, a traditional doctor is called ng'anga.


The Tonga have no written history from the time before British explorer David Livingstone arrived in the early 1850s. But like many other peoples in Africa, they have a rich tradition of oral history and folklore. In almost all the villages, elders are the keepers of mythical stories. The stories, usually with animal characters, are told around a fire at night. They convey traditional principles, values, and customs, as well as the origins of the Tonga people.

One of the stories deals with the beginning of Tonga society. A local tradition suggests that before the arrival of the British there was a powerful chief in the town of Monze. According to oral tradition, the first Monze chief descended from heaven. He called the Tonga people to join him and settle in his chiefdom. Most people liked the chief because he had the power to heal, to cause rain, and to keep the peace. He did that by frustrating enemies through his communication with the spirits of the ancestors.


In traditional Tonga society, there is a well-developed cult of the "shades," or muzimu. It is believed that at death each person leaves a shade or spirit, a muzimu. The muzimu commutes between the spirit world and the world of humans. Witchcraft and sorcery are also part of traditional beliefs.

Many Tonga have been converted to Christianity because of missionary work by Europeans. Missionaries demanded that the Tonga and other people give up traditional beliefs and practices such as polygamy (having more than one spouse), ancestor worship, and witchcraft. At first, there were only a few converts. In modern times, many Tonga practice both Christianity and traditional religious beliefs.


The major national holiday in Zambia is Independence Day on October 24. Zambia obtained its independence from Great Britain on that day in 1964. During this day every year, celebrations are arranged in major cities and throughout the countryside. There is much drinking, dancing, and singing. In the afternoon, people gather in stadiums to watch soccer matches.


In the past, most Zambian peoples had special initiation ceremonies and education for children as they reached adolescence. The Tonga did also, but their initiation ceremony was simpler than most. A girl trained for her future role as a man's wife. Usually, there was a period of living away from the village, and a short ceremony marked the girl's maturity. She was given a new name to signify her adult status.

A prospective husband had to pay bride-wealth to the family of his bride-to-be, usually in the form of cattle. After marriage, a couple lived in the husband's village. Polygamy (having more than one spouse) was traditionally encouraged, but this practice is dying out.

Among the Tonga, there is a strong belief that children must be taught and trained for adult life. Children are taught proper manners by older people. During their teenage years, boys and girls are encouraged to do their separate chores according to their sex. Girls' chores are to draw water from wells and fetch firewood, while boys hunt small game and fish. But there are times when boys do girls' chores, and vice versa.


Girls and boys who have not reached adolescence are encouraged to play together. People talk freely in the presence of children about matters such as menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Most parents feel that sexual play between children of the same age is not a matter for concern. However, an older man or woman is not permitted to have a sexual relationship with a girl or boy.

When a boy who has reached adolescence decides to marry, he can find his own bride. However, he must tell his parents and uncles so that they can negotiate with the parents of the girl, since bride-wealth must be paid.

Married women are expected to respect and cook for their husbands, and men are expected to take care of their wives. In the presence of men, a woman is expected to observe traditional female etiquette such as looking downward and behaving humbly. Women are also expected to dress modestly, especially keeping their knees and thighs covered. However, in the cities many women have tried to maintain independence and resist men's control. Many stay single and earn their own living at a regular job or by doing some type of home-based work.


In colonial times, the Tonga participated fully in agriculture as a business. Early on, they were one of the few peoples to accept agricultural improvements such as ox-drawn plows and the use of fertilizer. Thus a relatively wealthy group of Tonga commercial farmers developed. There also developed a series of smaller cities along the railroad line, which helped create a rich class in the cities as well. Today, these Tonga have modern homes and, occasionally, cars.

In rural areas, people live in isolated homesteads or villages consisting of a few huts. In most cases, houses, granaries, and cattle kraals (corrals) are temporary structures that can be easily left behind when new fields must be cleared. With the coming of commercial farming and a cash economy, some modern, durable houses have been built. Their roofs are corrugated iron sheets.

As in other parts of Zambia, tropical diseases such as malaria, bilharzia, and intestinal worms are quite common among the Tonga.


Similar to many African societies, family among the Tonga extends to the wider extended unit rather than the nuclear family of wife, husband, and children. The extended family, much like a clan, shares many tasks, including farming and the provision of food. In times of trouble, such as famine and drought, the extended family serves as a safety net.

Bearing as many children as possible is important in a Tonga marriage. Children are valued for their labor and as "social security" for parents in old age. There is a feeling nowadays that modern city life has made families less stable and that the divorce rate is much higher than it used to be. Many women are staying single and breaking away from the traditional rules that kept women in a lower position.


Clothing among the Tonga is used to differentiate the sexes. As soon as children begin to run about, girls are given a dress or a skirt, while boys are given a shirt and a pair of shorts. Children are taught that boys and girls wear different types of clothes; thus, dress marks the beginning of sex identification. Some women in the cities do wear pants and shirts, but most women still prefer traditional women's clothing.

12 • FOOD

Most of the area in which the Tonga live is rural. Most people follow a subsistence way of life, growing food mainly for their own needs with little left over. Maize is the main staple; others include millet and sorghum. The diet consists of inshima (thick porridge), eaten with either meat and gravy or vegetables such as beans and pumpkin leaves. A group of relatives eat from the same dish. With their fingers, they break off a piece of inshima and dip it in gravy before eating it.


Most parents send their children to a nearby primary school. At school they learn a few basic subjects such as English, biology, and arithmetic. After eight years of primary school, some students are selected to attend high school, which is modeled on the British system of education. Subjects may include mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology. The few lucky students who do extremely well in government examinations are selected to attend the university or different types of colleges.

In 1976, the government of Zambia made education free in the hope that more people would take advantage of this opportunity. The result has been a great increase in literacy (ability to read and write). Some parents, especially in the cities, value education highly and have great hopes for their children. In rural areas, however, children's labor is viewed as more important to daily living.


Music, dance, and literature are part of Tonga daily life. Grandparents tell stories around the evening fire passing on knowledge and principles to the children. Each story can have several different lessons for both the young and the old. The lessons may be as varied as how to act clever, how to be imaginative, how to be smart and get a beautiful girl's attention, how to be successful by working hard, and how to behave in certain situations.


Most of the Tonga people are subsistence farmers, with only a little surplus food to sell for money. They also raise cattle and goats. Livestock add to the diet but are mainly a source of wealth. Cattle are also important in paying bride-wealth for marriage.

Some local farmers who have adopted Western farming techniques have become relatively wealthy and are in a special class of their own.

Many educated city people find jobs in the government. Others find jobs as teachers, nurses, or office workers, Some work on the railway. Others sell fish, salt, sugar, and other basic products in open markets.


Even in the most remote parts of Tongaland, soccer (locally called "football") is the favored sport for boys and young men. There is usually a makeshift soccer field in each village. Whenever a ball is available, boys play soccer until they are exhausted. Schoolgirls like to play netball, a game somewhat like basketball. In well-equipped high schools, boys and girls participate in sports familiar to students in the West, such as tennis, badminton, and gymnastics. In rural areas, boys and girls make up games and play together when they have free time from household chores.


The most popular game among boys and girls who have not reached adolescence is playing house. Children build playhouses at the edge of the village and pretend they are adults. Girls take on the roles of women, and boys the roles of men. Girls do the cooking and boys come to eat the food.

Although game is rare, men still like to go out hunting and fishing in the nearby woodlands and rivers.

Drumming, singing, and dancing at beer parties, funerals, and naming ceremonies are frequent activities among the Tonga. At beer parties, men and women dance together.


Pottery, carvings, baskets, and mats are crafted by older men and women for use in their daily lives. Pots are made in various sizes for drawing water, cooking, brewing beer, and storing grain and other foods.


At the time when Zambians were demanding independence from British rule, one of the most famous politicians in Zambia was Harry Nkumbula, a school teacher from Tongaland. Alongside Bemba-speaking leaders such as Simon Kapwepwe and Kenneth Kaunda, he opposed colonial rule. In time, Nkumbula lost the support of Kaunda and Kapwepwe. He was pushed aside in the new, independent Zambia. Naturally, the Tonga were not pleased. Nkumbula continued to draw support from his ethnic group. It became a political force against President Kaunda. Although the government of Kaunda did not punish the Tonga openly, few Tonga were invited to join in national politics. Despite the ethnic hostility between the Tonga and the government leadership, however, human rights in Zambia have generally been better than in other African dictatorships.


Aldridge, Sally. The Peoples of Zambia . London, England: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Burdette, M. Zambia: Between Two Worlds . Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988.

Holmes, Timothy. Zambia. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.

Kaplan, Irving. Zambia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: The American University, 1984.

Karpfinger, Beth. Zambia Is My Home. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 1993.

Lauré, Jason. Zambia. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1994.

Saha, Santosh C. History of the Tonga Chiefs and Their People in the Monze District of Zambia. New York: P. Lang, 1994.

Vickery, Kenneth Powers. Black and White in Southern Zambia: the Tonga Plateau Economy and British Imperialism, 1890–1939. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.


Southern African Development Community. Zambia. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Zambia. [Online] Available , 1998.

Zambian National Tourist Board. Zambia. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Tonga from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

alphoncious haweete
it is a good article but i think it was going to be more better if u included the initiation celemonies and the education of the youths.other things is that in some area yrs are incorrect ie the independence day of zmb. please if the art can be updated it can be good.
thie is a very interesting site and i have leart alot from it thankyou
I don't think it is true that Tongas people talk openly about menstruation. This is one of the taboo subjects among our people. It is always a subject discussed in secret and out of children's hearing distance.
I am doing a schoool project and this is the best website I have found so far thankyou very much!
mary may
Correction: Zambia did not gain independence in 1979, but in 1964. (See Introduction) However, it is correctly stated later under #6, Major Holidays to be October 1964.
I am doing a school project on tonga and this is the best web site to be on.
Good summery of the Tonga people,also known as ba Tonga.But I think it is important to mention that,the Tonga are the aliest people to settle in Zambia.
Zambia gained independence in 1964 not 1979 as quoted.
I am writing to you from South Africa an want to know more a bout this culture names and meanings Shametja, Hamalengwa. Because my Grandfather was from Zambia before he settle here in South Africa, an they say he changed his surname from Hamalengwa or Hameja to Shametja. He died before he can explain to us where he was from.
Any information that you can give will help me a lot as I really feel lost an I want to know exactly who am I an my what culture do I belong to.
Presently I am in South Africa an I am working so hard to visit Zambia where I believe I belong.

Thank a Lot
Masego Godfrey Shametja
This is a good website it gave me answers to my class culture fair project.
Alvin Chivunda Muchele
This artcle is very meaningful. I have learnt alot about my culture and takes me back in the days when i was young with my family members. Thanks for the research:-).
Joseph sakala
Please correct the date of Zambia independence; it is 1964 not 1979.
wonderfully arranged article, very educative indeed, has actually answered my assignment. Thumbs up to the author.
Real Baklu
Very educative article. I believe this documentation saves as a motivation factor to a number of us who would like to embark on similar research projects so that we can contribute to the existing indigenous knowledge. Author, you are great and your article shows sound research works. Stay blessed.
I am writing a children story based on the baTonga people of Zimbabwe. Where can I find tribal boys and girls name with their meanings. thanks
The story of the BaTonga is not complete without mentioning the other 1 million who stay just across the Zambezi in Northern Zimbabwe's Matebele-land province!
Thanks for the information am doing an academic assignment on origin of Tonga people
Thanks, I didn't know a lot of this. The are facts you failed to add though, some of which are added by people in the comment section.
sifila aso
thanks for this information this is helpful to my internal assessment in my history class and thank you very much smile
Butwell Chooka
The information about the Tonga people is so good but on the introduction, need a correction. Zambia's independence, its not '1979' it is '1964' please check and make a correction.
Lynn Jackson
Did any of the Tonga people became slaves to America! I see some of these people have the structure as my family members LOVE to know
Mywhere our elders originated from?
Clara munsanje
am tonga by tribe and i have learnt what i did not know about my tribe. and it has helped me with my research about tonga tribe in zambia. thanks so much
Olioni Ngata
I am from the Kindom of Tonga,south pacific. I really love reading this article and I'm the only one in the Kindom believed that we were traditionally came from the Tonga Tribe,Suothern Zambia.I love to see more myths if applicable please.Thanks a lots for the articles.
My names are malungo chakawa
Am 19 years old
Ever since I was born I have no idea what my name really means so please if anyone could assist me on what it means it's a Tonga name
Nice article,as m very happy to learn from this short article.
Nice article, am very happy to learn from this short article.
Good account of the Tonga. However it will be better if local names for a lot things were added.
@Shametja, if your grandfather was Siamenja then he came from the District of Kalomo or anywhere along the Zambezi river valley but if he was called Shameja then he must have been Ila a dialect of Tonga based in Namwala district. The direct meaning of Siameja or Shameja is 'the owner of the horns'
Hezron Habeenzu
Am greatful that my tribe is considered to the first settlers in Zambia before the British colony ...Nethertheless, we are going to maintain our culture as it was.And am also gland that I have learnt critical things which I didn't know about my tribe.Big up to the author.
A good piece of information. I am researching on the Tonga speaking people. Specifically, language of the valley Tonga and plateau Tonga. I will always visit this website.


They have a rich tradition of oral history and folklore. In almost all the villages, elders are the keepers of mythical stories. The stories, usually with animal characters, are told around a fire at night. They convey traditional principles, values, and customs, as well as the origins of the Tonga people.


Many Tonga have been converted to Christianity because of missionary work by Europeans. Missionaries demanded that the Tonga and other people give up traditional beliefs and practices such as polygamy (having more than one spouse), ancestor worship, and witchcraft. In modern times, many Tonga practice both Christianity and traditional religious beliefs.


The main holiday of Tonga is Constitution Day, which is held on the 4th of November every year. It stipulates the makeup of the Tongan Government and the balance between its executive, legislature, and judiciary. Other holidays include the Birthday of Tupou VI (4th of June), Birthday of Crown Prince Tupouto’a - ‘Ulakalala (4th of July), and Emancipation Day (


Among the Tonga, there is a strong belief that children must be taught and trained for adult life. Children are taught proper manners by older people. During their teenage years, boys and girls are encouraged to do their separate chores according to their sex. Girls' chores are to draw water from wells and fetch firewood, while boys hunt small game and fish. But there are times when boys do girls' chores, and vice versa.


The distinctive traditional dress 'ta'ovala' – woven waist mats – are commonly worn. Fish and vegetables are still cooked in earth ovens called Umus. And the ceremonial tradition of kava drinking, the traditional Polynesian drink, is a very real part of Tongan life.


Rugby union is the national sport in Tonga. Sumo has a following, while football, judo, surfing, volleyball, and cricket have gained popularity in recent years. Rugby league and Australian football are also played. Before each Rugby Union game, the Tongan team performs the Sipi Tau (war dance).
chrispin kalaluka
wow its realy a nice article to go through despite having some non-authentic information such as the independence date, which questions the validity of the encrypted information, secondly, menstruation issues is counted a taboo among these people.
John Bwana Siakavuba
Generally a good article. However, a few facts about Zambia and the Tonga people need to be straightened up. For now I wish to point out the need to verify two issues: the Monze element because he was Chief Mweemba's nephew (from the Zambezi Valley in the present Sinazongwe District); and secondly, free education was not introduced in 1976 as by this year, I was in my 12th year (Form V) at Kalomo Secondary School, and I had enjoyed free education since 1964 (stayed out of school in 1972) and I continued receiving free education through university where I graduated with my first degree in 1981.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: