The Bemba


The Bemba, also called the Awemba, Wemba, and Babemba, are one of the larg-estethnicgroupsinZambiaandarealso found in Tanzania and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Two other groups, the Hemba and the Katanga, are considered to be part of the Bemba. The Bemba number close to 1 million in total and make up between 20 percent and 37 percent of the total population of Zambia. The Bemba language Chibemba, also known as Cibemba, Ichibemba, Ici-bemba, or Chiwemba, belongs to the Bantu language group and is spoken by others since it has become the language used in the copper industry. Chibemba is one of the most widely spoken of indige-nous languages in Zambia.

The Bemba originated in the Katanga region in today ’s Democratic Republic of Congo, and they claim to have close connections to the Luba and Lunda. These three peoples appear to have originated in the Shaba area in the Congo and, some 300 years ago, began their migrations south into Zambia and Angola. It has been noted that the Bemba belong to the group known as the Sabi, who have a matrilineal system of inheritance.

In the 1650s, they founded the Bemba kingdom, and in the 19th century, they expanded into the Lua-pala and the Luangwa River valleys. Between 1750 and 1800, the Bemba expansions caused a number of splits, with smaller units becoming new kingdoms such as the Chishinga, Unga, and Bisa. The Bemba became involved in the slave trade with Arab and Swahili traders from the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean during the 19th century.

In 1889, the British South African Company was granted control over what was called Northern Rhodesia, and by 1900, all of the African peoples in this area had submitted to European rule. Bemba lands were particularly important due to the copper deposits located there. The Bemba were among those recruited to work the mines, which revolutionized life for them.The Bemba are an agricultural people, but because of the poor soils of the area where they lived, villages had to be relocated every four or five years. With the introduction of fertilizers and crop rotation methods, they no longer need to move.

They raise crops of millet, sorghum, maize, and cassava, and some keep livestock such as sheep and goats; but because of the tsetse fly, few have cattle. Since the introduction of wage labor in the copper mines and other employment opportunities opened up due to mission education, many Bemba have moved to the major cities to live and work.The majority of Bemba are Christians, but their traditional religion, which focused on ancestral spirits and women, has been incorporated into Zambian Chris-tianity.

One custom of traditional religion was that there was a shrine in every house-hold, which was maintained and managed by married women.Married women kept in touch with the ancestral spirits or ngulu through spirit possession. In the 1700s, with the growth of the political power of the Bemba king, power of the household spirits was undermined by that of the kings; and in the late 19th century, Christianity also undermined the traditional religion and the place of women.

Chris-tianity spread rapidly among the Bemba following its introduction in the 1890s. The Bemba converted mainly to Roman Catholicism, and today the Roman Church is the largest single Christian domination in the country. However, Christianity in Zambia was greatly influenced by the ancestral spirits, and spirit possession of both men and women is part of Christian worship.

Traditional Bemba society is matrilineal, and a man inherits even his political posi-tion through his mother. The Bemba are composed of 30 clans, each claiming to descend from a distant ancestor named for an animal, plant¸ or mineral.

For example, the Bena Yanda clan, the clan that became politically dominant, takes their name from the crocodile. Each of the clans is governed by a hierarchy of leadership from the local village level up to the top authority, called the Chitimukulu from the name of the great leader Chiti of the 18th century. His place of burial, called Mwalule, is still where leaders oftheBembaareburied.

The British South African Company turned over control of the three territories, Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, to the British colonial office in 1923 as the Central African Federation. The three territories had numerous differ-ences, but the principal one was the amo-unt of land granted or bought by whites. Problems over rights of indigenous peo-ples, especially in Southern Rhodesia, eventually caused the union to break, and Southern Rhodesia declared its indepen-dence with a minority-white government in 1963.

Northern Rhodesia became the new state of Zambia in 1964 under its first president, Kenneth Kaunda. Kaunda’s father was himself a Christian missionary and Kenneth was the product of a mission school. The Bemba, being generally well educated with an urban as well as a rural base, were among the most active oppo-sition populations during Kaunda’s rule, and many Bemba were arrested and accused of plotting against the govern-ment in 1981. In 1991, Kaunda lost the presidential elections to the Bemba politi-cal leader Frederick Chiluba.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Mbajekwe, Patrick U. “East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century.” In Africa Volume 1: African History before 1885, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Caro-lina Academic Press, 2000.

Stokes, Jamie. “Bemba.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Taylor, Scott D. Culture and Customs of Zam-bia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Wills, A. J. An Introduction to the History of Central Africa: Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univer-sity Press, 2002.