Bemba people


Bemba / Wemba / Awemba / AbaBemba


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 core Bemba group's population is approximately 400,000, excluding those who have permanently settled in urban areas. The first colonial censuses between 1910 and 1930 estimated the number at 100,000; in 1963 the figure was 250,000. Including those permanently settled in urban areas, the number of people who identify themselves as Bemba is 741,114. However, those who speak IchiBemba as a first language number approximately 3.7 million, accounting for nearly a third of Zambia's population and a significant proportion of the million inhabitants of southern Katanga.


Linguistic Affiliation

IchiBemba (or IciBemba) consists of several dialects that are associated with the distinct Bemba ethnic groups and have minor differences in pronunciation and phonology. 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. IchiBemba is a Central Bantu language. The Bantu language group is part of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo family.


History and Cultural Relations

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. 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.


Economy 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.



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.


Land Tenure

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.


Kinship Terminology

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).



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.


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 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.



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.


Social Organization

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.ç


Political Organization

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.


Social Control

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.



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.



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.



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.



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Ferguson, James (1999). Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meebelo, Henry S. (1971). Reactions to Colonialism: A Prelude to the Politics of Independence in Northern Zambia, 1893-1939. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Moore, Henrietta L., and Megan Vaughan (1994). Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia. Portsmouth, UK: Heineman.

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DAVID M. GORDON - For the original article on the Bemba, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.