POPULATION: 8.5 million

LANGUAGE: English; Bemba; Nyanja

RELIGION: Christianity; Christianity with traditional African beliefs; Hinduism; Islam; traditional African beliefs


Zambia is a landlocked country in southern Africa. Its political boundaries were drawn by the European colonizers. The separate groups living within the artificial boundaries were first referred to as Northern Rhodesians under British rule. They became Zambians after gaining independence.

The first Europeans in the area were the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Britain became interested in the area in the 1850s. In 1889, the British South Africa Company (BSAC) received permits to trade and set up a government in what would become Northern Rhodesia. The BSAC had economic and political control of the region until 1924. Then British government took over administration of the country. Between 1929 and 1939, four large copper mines were opened in the north-central part of the country. Northern Rhodesia became a supplier of copper to the world.

Along with many other African countries, Zambia won its independence in 1964. It had several political parties until 1973, when it became a "one-party participatory democracy." The freedom-fighter leader Kenneth Kaunda was president of Zambia from 1964 to 1991. President Kaunda's greatest strength as a leader was his ability to unite the various ethnic groups of Zambia. The first decade after independence was the decade of prosperity. Copper prices were high and so were people's spirits.

Economic growth throughout Africa has slowed since the mid-1970s. Throughout the continent, economic troubles have increased. A decrease in agricultural production and the continued growth of cities are among the causes. Zambia's problems were worsened in the mid-1970s by the sudden drop in the price of copper on the world market. In the face of economic problems, President Kaunda's government tried several economic reforms, all of which failed. Throughout the 1980s, support for the government continued to erode. In 1991, for the first time in many years, Zambia held elections with more than one political party. President Kaunda was voted out of power in October 1991, and President Frederick Chiluba was voted in.


Zambia has a tropical savanna (grassland) climate. Most of the country has a single rainy season. Zambia has four great rivers that are a valuable potential resource in the form of hydroelectric power. Zambia has a wealth of minerals, including copper, lead, zinc, and coal. The soil is characterized as red and powdery and not very fertile. The country was very rich in game before widespread hunting began. Now many species are endangered.

Half of Zambia's 8.5 million people live in cities and towns, although movement back to the countryside is increasing.

Most of the people are of Bantu origin (including the Bemba, Tonga, Malawi, Lozi, and Lunda). Some 98 percent of the population is African. Less than 2 percent are European and Asian. Seventy recognized ethnic groups live in Zambia.


The national language of Zambia is English, which also serves as the lingua franca (common language). There are several other major language groups. Bemba is spoken in the Copperbelt, where most of the labor force is Bemba. Nyanja is another common language, spoken by the Chewa and Nsenga people of Malawi, and from people of the eastern province of Zambia.


Zambians have an active tradition of oral history. Proverbs, fables, riddles, and creation myths have been passed down through many generations.


Some 72 percent of Zambia's population is Christian or combines Christianity with traditional African religions. The remainder practice traditional African beliefs, or are Hindu or Muslim.


Official holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Easter weekend (late March or early April), Labor Day (May 1), Youth Day (March 19), African Freedom Day (May 25), Heroes Day and Unity Day (the first Monday and Tuesday in July), Farmer's Day (the first Monday in August), Independence Day (October 24), and Christmas (December 25).


A number of Zambia's tribal groups conduct initiation ceremonies for boys. These rituals involve circumcision, as well as instruction in hunting and in the group's culture and folklore. At adolescence, girls are also taught about the ways of their culture and receive instruction in sex, marriage, and child rearing.

Both traditional arranged marriages and modern marriages involve the lobola, or bride-price. This is a payment by the man to his fiancians have church weddings.

The funeral of a relative, even a distant relative, is considered an event of great importance. People feel they must attend to show respect for the dead.


In formal situations, Zambians call each other by their last names, preceded by the term for Mr., Mrs., or Miss in their local languages. Different greetings are used in different parts of the country. Mulibwanji (How are you?) is common in the Lusaka area. Mwapoleni (Welcome) is generally used in the Copperbelt region. Mwabonwa (Welcome) is a standard greeting in the southern part of the country.

In most parts of Zambia, people usually greet each other with a handshake, using the left hand to support the right—a gesture traditionally considered a sign of respect. People in the Luapula, Western, and Northwestern provinces frequently use a greeting that involves clapping hands and squeezing thumbs.

People often kneel in the presence of their elders or those who are higher in social status. Like many other Africans, Zambians often avoid eye contact out of politeness. It is considered unacceptable for men and women to touch when greeting each other.


Zambia's towns are bustling centers with a host of problems that are common to cities in general. Most of Zambia's city residents live in poverty in low-cost, crowded housing. They live out of sight of the small upper class that lives in the few low-density, previously European-occupied sections of town. In the decade following independence, the population of Zambia's cities doubled in size. In those years (the mid-1960s to mid-1970s) the city represented opportunity and privilege. There was food on the table, transportation in the streets, and goods in the shops. Economic decline began in Zambia in the mid-1970s. As a result, many Zambians are moving back to rural settings and trying to make a living growing food.


Relationships between men and women in Zambia are difficult and not always strong. As heads of households, men have authority within the home. The culture's double standards accept polygyny (having more than one wife) and men's love affairs. But women must be completely faithful. This causes tension in many households. Men are not obliged to share their wealth with the rest of the family even though it is easier for men to earn a living. Cultural norms and assumptions support men's authority and power. A woman very often cannot make a living without the help of a man (usually her father, husband, uncle, or brother). And when a man dies, his property goes to his children, not to his wife. Women's access to and rights over property are still much more limited than men's.


In Zambia, there has been tremendous growth in the second-hand clothing industry, or salaula. The term salaula means "to rummage through a pile." In this case, the term refers to the bundled used clothing that arrives from industrialized nations, including Canada, Denmark, and Britain.

During colonial times, and in the decade after independence, Zambians could afford to produce their own cloth and wear tailor-made clothing. Since the decline in the economy in the mid-1970s, they have been forced to buy used clothing from local traders. They buy large bundles and sell pieces individually. Zambians still have a keen sense of style.

12 • FOOD

The most important dietary staple is a dough or porridge called nsima. It is made from cornmeal, cassava, or millet, and is typically eaten with meat stew, vegetables, or a topping made from fish. Sweet potatoes and peanuts are commonly eaten in rural areas. Families that can afford to eat hot meals at both lunch and dinner, and a breakfast of nsima or bread and tea. Beer is a popular beverage.


In 1976, the government of Zambia made education tuition-free (although there are still fees and other expenses parents must pay). The result has been a great increase in literacy (ability to read and write). Some parents, especially in the cities, place high value on education. In rural areas, however, children's labor is viewed as more important to daily living.

Education in Zambia is modeled on the British system. Children begin in kindergarten and progress through the grades to high school. Eight years of school are mandatory. In high school, fees and uniforms are more expensive than the average Zambian can afford. As a result, only a small percentage of students go on to high school. Only 20 percent of Zambians have a high school education, and only 2 percent are college graduates.


Dance, accompanied by the drum, xylo-phone, or thumb piano (mbira) , plays an important cultural role in Zambia. Most dances are done in two lines, with men in one and women in the other. Tradition associates dances with the casting out of evil spirits. Dances are performed to celebrate personal milestones (such as initiation) as well as major community and group events. In addition to their own traditional forms of music, Zambians enjoy modern music and music from nearby African countries.


When the British arrived, the people in Zambia were farmers and/or cattle herders. The people (mainly men) were recruited by the British to work for cash, either in the copper mines or as house servants in the cities. For rural businessmen and farmers, finding workers is sometimes a problem, and women have more trouble finding jobs than men do. Men are wage-earners and homeowners more often than are women, and they have greater access to money and property than women do. The census defines the working population as those engaged in agriculture, forestry, hunting, fishing, or production and other related occupations. Subsistence farming, which is not included under the category of "work," is done mostly by women.


Soccer is the leading sport in Zambia. Zambia entered a soccer team in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games held in South Korea. Also popular are baseball, rugby, badminton, and squash. Golf is considered a game of the upper class. The most popular sport among young women is a version of basketball called netball.


In the rural areas of Zambia, the main forms of recreation are drinking and traditional dancing. City-dwellers participate in social clubs, church activities, and volunteer groups. Other leisure-time activities include dancing at discos, amateur drama (ifisela), and a variety of sports. Television is available to people living in the cities and larger towns.


The people of the Northwestern province of Zambia are known for their masks, which are made of bark and mud. Fierce faces are painted on the masks in red, black, and white.

A traditional art among Zambian men is the carving of wood sculptures, which are sometimes decorated with costumes made of beads. Woven craft items include baskets and also chitenges, the national costume. It consists of a brightly dyed cloth that is wrapped around the body.

Some of the designs on Zambian pottery are thousands of years old.


Poverty, crime, unemployment, rapid inflation, lack of health and education opportunities, and housing shortages are causing growing discontent among residents of Zambia's cities and towns. Destruction of the land by soil erosion and the clearing of forests is causing environmental deterioration. Estimates indicate that of the over 59 million acres (24 million hectares) of arable (farmable) land in the country, only 6 percent is farmed. The present government must distribute land in the future so as to encourage investment and economic development.


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

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

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

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

Rogers, Barbara Radcliffe. Zambia. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 1991.


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

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

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

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What are marriages before inderpendance, are they: in community of property or out of community of property?
Martha Mukupa
Nice article. I am a Zambian living in the UK. I just wanted to point out that Malawi is not a language spoken in Zambia. I suppose it was a typographical error which needs correcting.

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