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ETHNONYMS: Wemba, Awemba, AbaBemba


Identification and Location. The word "Bemba" has several meanings in present-day Zambia. The core Bemba group are subjects of Paramount Chief Chitimukulu. They live around the center of a plateau called Lubemba in the Northern Province. However, approximately twelve other groups that reside in the Luapula Province, in southern Katanga (Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]), and in the rural areas of the Copperbelt Province speak dialects of IchiBemba and consider themselves loosely affiliated with the core Bemba group. They may call themselves by the particular group nameAushi, Bisa, Chishinga, Kunda, Lala, Lamba Lunda, Ng'umbo, Swaka, Tabwa, or Ungabut the tendency in urban areas is to use the generic term "Bemba". In this broad sense the Bemba form the most important ethnic group in the urban areas of the Copperbelt, including Kitwe, Ndola, Mufulira, Luanshya, Chingola, and Chililabombwe in Zambia and a significant minority in Lubumbashi in the DRC.

The plateau heartland of the Bemba reaches a height of approximately 4,300 feet (1,300 meters) and is located from 10° to 12° S and 30° to 32° E. It rises from the lowlands of Lake Bangweulu and the Luapula Valley to the south and west and Lake Tanganyika and the Luangwa Valley to the north and east. The Chambeshi River, which feeds Lake Bangweulu and forms part of the southern Congo drainage basin, meanders through its center. The plateau is made of old crystalline rocks that are rich in minerals but produce poor soil fertility. The natural vegetation consists of thin forests of tall trees termed savanna woodland.

Demography, 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 sonsKatongo, Chiti, and Nkoleand 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.


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.

Trade. 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).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. 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 relativesmother and daughter or sistersand ties between mother and children are still strong.

Inheritance. 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.

Socialization. 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.

Sociopolitical Organization

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.

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.

Conflict. 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.

Religion and Expressive Culture

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.

Ceremonies. 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.

Arts. 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.

Medicine. 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.

For the original article on the Bemba, see Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Corbeil, J. J. (1982). Mbusa: Sacred Emblems of the Bemba. Mbala, Zambia: Moto Moto Musuem.

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.

Richards, Audrey (1939). Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe. London: Oxford University Press.

(1956). Icisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London: Faber and Faber.

Roberts, Andrew D. (1973). A History of the Bemba: Political Growth and Change in North-Eastern Zambia before 1900. London: Longman.

Verbeek, Leon (1993) Initiation et mariage dans la chanson populaire des bemba du Zaire. Tervuren, Belgium: Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale.

(1990). Le monde des esprits au sud-est du Shaba et au nord de la Zambie. Rome: Libreria Ateneo Salesiano.

White Fathers (1954). Bemba-English Dictionary. Ndola, Zambia: The Society of the Missionary for Africa.


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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, 1998.

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

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

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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 Lubembathe 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 kinshipreal or fictivewith 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 chiefsboth paramount and territorial chiefshas 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.

Labrecque, Éd. (1931). "Le marriage chez les babemba." Africa 4:209-221.

Richards, Audrey I. (1940). "The Political System of the Bemba TribeNorth-Eastern Rhodesia." In African Political Systems, edited by Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, 83-120. London: International African Institute.

Richards, Audrey I. (1956). Chisungu: A Girls Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London: Faber & Faber.

Slaski, J. (1950). "Peoples of the Lower Luapula Valley." In Bemba and Related Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, by Wilfred Whitely, 77-100. Ethnographic Survey of Africa: East Central Africa: Part 2. London: International African Institute.

Whiteley, Wilfred (1950). Bemba and Related Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, 1-32, 70-76. Ethnographic Survey of Africa: East Central Africa, Part 2. London: International African Institute.

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Bembaabba, blabber, dabber, grabber, jabber, stabber, yabber •Alba, Galbaamber, camber, caramba, clamber, Cochabamba, gamba, mamba, Maramba, samba, timbre •Annaba, arbor, arbour, barber, Barbour, harbour (US harbor), indaba, Kaaba, Lualaba, Pearl Harbor, Saba, Sabah, Shaba •sambar, sambhar •rebbe, Weber •Elba •Bemba, December, ember, member, November, Pemba, September •belabour (US belabor), caber, labour (US labor), neighbour (US neighbor), sabre (US saber), tabor •chamber • bedchamber •antechamber •amoeba (US ameba), Bathsheba, Bourguiba, Geber, Sheba, zariba •cribber, dibber, fibber, gibber, jibba, jibber, libber, ribber •Wilbur •limber, marimba, timber •winebibber •calibre (US caliber), Excalibur •briber, fibre (US fiber), scriber, subscriber, Tiber, transcriber •clobber, cobber, jobber, mobber, robber, slobber •ombre, sombre (US somber) •carnauba, catawba, dauber, Micawber •jojoba, Manitoba, October, sober •Aruba, Cuba, Nuba, scuba, tuba, tuber •Drouzhba • Toowoomba • Yoruba •Hecuba

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