T H E   B E M B A 

Z A M B I A N   N O R T H E A S T   P L A T E A U 

The repeated assertion that matrilinearity is simply a matter of inheritance, and nothing else is clearly false, rather it is "at once a political economy and a religious system"  - that is, "a worldview".Wherever it occurs, matrilinearity strenghtens the personal and social power women hold.

Carla O. Poewe


The Babemba tribe of Africa believes that each human being comes into the world as good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes. When a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he/she is placed in the center of the village, alone, unfettered. All work ceases. All gather around the accused individual. Then each person of every age, begins to talk out loud to the accused. One at a time, each person tells all the good things the one in the center ever did in his/her lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days, not ceasing until everyone is drained of every positive comment that can be mustered. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe. Necessity for such ceremonies is rare! This story is originally from the book, Contact, The First Four Minutes by Leonard Sunin. The Babemba or Bemba people make their home in an area of Africa that includes Zambia and the Congo. Another source: Photo by Jessica Hilltout.



On this Website there is a lot of information about the Bemba people, which is more elaborated than the one I will present here, but I cannot guarantee its scientific validity.


"To condemn this place is to walk in it."

Meaning: Don't blame things you have not experienced.


"The Bemba, commonly referred to as "forest people" are the most dominant people group in northeastern Zambia.  Known for their common language which is spoken throughout most of Zambia as well as the " scarification made right above the eyes, the Bemba are truly a powerful influence in Zambian society.  Up until just recent times they have consciously stuck to their ancestral traditions living in materialistic sense a very simple self-sufficient traditional life, from horti - and  on slash and burn agricultural  basis, and a little hunting and fishing.  As the main crops they grew millet, potatoes, beans, and small amounts of other vegetables.  Usually people have very few possessions or saved wealth as they move around every second year or when shifting land for new slash- and burned soil.

Traditionally Bemba dress in a bark clothing, hence the name "forest people" and they live in small villages of 30-50 mud huts.  They have their own unique political system with one common chief of all the Bemba, called the Citimukulu.  An interesting element of Bemba culture is their marriage ceremonies and structure.  When a man and women are married the man goes to live with the wife's family and so generations are traced in a matrilineal fashion, as opposed to the patrilineal lineages in the area.

Bemba art differs in many ways from  the methods used in the surrounding areas.  Weaving is unknown to the Bemba people and pottery and basketry is not that elaborate but the wood carvings and cloth they make from bark is extremely complex.

In contemporary Zambia, the word "Bemba" actually has several meanings. It may designate people of Bemba origin, regardless of where they live, e.g. whether they live in urban areas or in the original rural Bemba area. Alternatively, it may encompass a much larger population which includes some 'eighteen different ethnic groups', who together with the Bemba form a closely related ethnolinguistic cluster of matrilineal-matrifocal agriculturalists known as the Bemba-speaking peoples of Zambia.They may call themselves by the particular group name—Aushi, Bisa, Chishinga, Kunda, Lala, Lamba Lunda, Ng'umbo, Swaka, Tabwa, or Unga—but 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 peaceful and egalitarian Bemba people makes up a good example of the fact that the transition from a hunter and gathering economy to an economy of horticulture and  slash and burn farming not necessarily, as propsed by some established scholars, results in a hierarchical society with some individuals dominating others, or men dominating women, even if you possibly might see some divergence having emerged over time, since the earliest form of elaborate hunter and gather egalitarianisam, reported of by  Jerome Lewis in his brilliant lectures about the Mbendjele Bayaka culture and the special requisites that makes up their complex inner structure.

Now it was long ago since this people left the life of hunting and gathering, as well as their neighbors Luapula, both of them  representative matriarchal branches of the large Bantu group of people in Central Africa, sharing the same proud history of belonging to the great Lunda queendom, earlier led by the typical matriarchal sacred Queen and her brother as representative chief or king, wich was destroyed by there European colonisers.

After their more wealthy lifestyle in this old queendom they were dispersed over the area and had to settle down out on the countryside and live the life as simple farmers.



According to Heide Göttner Abendroth in her Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2012, Bemba women, due to the fact that the main responsibility to feed their people lies upon them, enjoy an active and elevated status, are therefore considered to be`unmanageable´ by their patriarchal neighbors, who shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes helplessly skyward and say: "These Bemba women, good grief! They are the personfication of wildness itself!" In fact compared with the customs practiced by their neighboring peoples, the Bemba women enjoy an active elevated status

So, it´s the Bemba women with their digging stick, hoe and machete - who traditionally feed their people. From practicing horticulture as well as slash-and-burn farming, they have to move their fields every fourth year because of poor soil. The men´s task is to help clearing land and go fishing, while the woman sow, harvest, and store millet, maize, sorghum, beans, peas and pumpkins to be kept in reserve for lean times.  The hoe is used exclusively by women, and is also used as

This prevent them from accumulate goods, and unlike patriarchal peoples the Bemba have no accumulated wealth, no land or clan house to inherit. Nevertheless they have managed to maintain and continue their clans, including the practise of matriliny and matrilocality up until modern days.

Like other matrilineal clans in Africa, they don´t live in clanhouses but in huts arranged together inside a so called "kraal", in an aggregation of huts wich according to  Göttner- Abenmdroth reflects a matriarchal social trsadition.  (page 370)

According to the theories of delayed return by Woodburn, accumulated wealth might easily give rise to authorities trying to dominate and / or manipulate others. Possibly it might among the Bemba be more of the elders wielding power over the younger, than by the Mbendjele and other hunter and gatherers,  and specially so over the young son in laws who has been married and moved in to a new mothers clan, but I don´t know that for sure.

Wheather its true that the elder to some extent control the younger, even here, as in the egalitarian hunter and gatherer societies, people have the freedom to come and go, and its very easy to get a divorce. So both young women and men use to move around quite a lot, among their father´s families as among their mother´s as well, before they make up there mind where to settle down for good.

Skärmavbild 2017-09-25 kl. 10.05.08

The matriarchal characteristics in the Bemba and Lupaula peoples are for the first and only time thoroughly investigated and recognised  in  by the female anthropologists Audery I. Richards, Carla o. Poewe and  referred to by Heide Göttner Abendroth in her  work Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2012

Quoting Göttner Abendroth:

"The husband is in a second-class role, which is usual in this type of structure. The young husband lives in his wife´s village, where he builds himself a hut and becomes a member of her extended family, as daughters do not move away from their mother´s village. They live matrilocally in the mother´s extended family, which functions as an economic unit. The young man integrates himself into this family; first of all by performing the "bride service" for his so called father- in- law, and later transfers his collaboration into a "service marriage". There is never a question for these matriarchal peoples, of a "bride price" reckoned in cattle, as practised by patriarchal African peoples." (p. 371)

"Occasionally, when children are born, ther is a discussion of where to reside; either in the village of the woman´s extended family, or in that of the man´s. Usually however, daughters do not move away; all her relatives chime in to convince her to stay. In addition, the relationships between sisters in a maternal village are so deeply intertwined with each other and with their duties, that they refuse to follow their husbands to their villages even if the husbands wish it, Not infrequently, the marriage breaks up over these obstacles, and if that happens the woman takes a new husband." (p.371)

"The young husbands situation improves if the two clans in question get along well with each other. For Bemba, traditional cross-cousin marriage between pairs of clans over generations was the normal practice; that is the classical matriarchal mutual intermarriage between two specific, unaltered matrinileal clans. Even as late as the 20th century these marriages were considered the ideal unions and 50% of the Bemba still practice this." (p.371)

"So the Bemba´s social arrangements really consists of a linked network of clans. But these arrangements are not carved in stone, as young men and sometimes even young women move from village to village over the course of their lifetimes following their respective matriarchal lines." (p.372)



Bemba traditional cousins perform a ritual in front of Paramount Chief Mpezeni during the burial of late Mpezeni's wife in Chipata


Heide Göttner has quite a long chapter in his Matriarchal studies about Bemba religion and I can´t quote it all so I have to make an abbreviated summory of it.



As in matriarchal societies in Africa and everywhere else, the paramount also in Bemba religion is the worship of the ancestors; and especially so the First Grandmother; the ancestress who began the clan or lineage and founded the original clan village, together with her brothers, as long as her memory is kept alive. They are the guardians who are considered to bring good luck and are venerated  in the homes, or at the ancestor´s shrines and graves. In Bemba there is no such thing as coincidence, so everything that happens is due to the ancestor´s magical agency and every child is believed to be a reborn female or male ancestor. So here again, we encounter the typical feature which occur all over the world in the ancient belief in rebirth of the ancestor´s in the newborn children.

The eldest women and their brothers are those who are responsible of the important ritual duties performed at the ancestors shrines; the women for the female ancestor´s spirit and their brothers for the male.They are highly respected and also seem to exert some kind of authority as they are thought of as having the power to both bless and to curse. They must practice sexual abstinence ( the same for the chiefs only on Bijagos) Sexuality is seen as a force that makes people "hot"  and its not considered appropriate to approach the ancestors in that condition. Also after the sexual act, each person has to perform a purifying ritual of washing. And as newborn babies are considered to bee recently reborn ancestors, you have to perform the same kind of washing ritual before getting in contact with them too and the same prohibition exists with regard to the sacred hearth fire in each hut, which is also the place for praying to the ancestors. (A ritual that´s also appears  among a lot of other matriarchal peoples around the world and for example not at least the Aino people in Japan! )

These prohibitions regarding the sexual abstinence in contact with the ancestors spirits has nothing to do with later patriarchal disregarding attitudes towards sexuality as unclean. Quite the contrary do the Bemba people as well as further Central African cultures  in common live in an erotic-ecstatic world in which sexual symbolisms penetrate everything. It is only in direct contact wit the spirits that this "hot" state not is considered propriate, because of their other world being a place so different from this one with its fertility-energy.

But ancestor veneration might have its ecstatic moments too, by women not only looking upon themselves as physical vessels for ancestors spirits, as in pregnancy but also as spiritual vessels as in states of so called possession.

Quoting Göttner-Abendroth: in her Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2012,

"This is simply the typical shaman trance-technique used by elder women in their role as posession priestesses. They are shamans calling for nature spirits and ancestors sprits to come through, and they dance until the spirits `ride´them, speaking prophesy through them in their ecstatic state. Only woman can contact the spirits in this way, according to the tradition of these peoples, as they alone have the capacity to "rebirth" the ancestors" .

And women, according to mythology, also  created the ancestor religion.

The masks off bark or wood and the carved figures of female and male ancestors that are associated with this religion are also according to many accounts the creation of women. In the course of subsequent patriarchalization in Africa masks and ancestors sculptures have fallen into the hands of the men via secret societies where womens rites such as initiation are mimicked in men´s ceremonies. Later patriarchal African kings used these secret societies to advance their power.

The Bemba word for young woman “bakashana” also means “one who dances”


As other agrarian people Bemba also celebrates the seasonal changes. But perhaps the most important festival in every extended family as in the whole village is the girls initiation called "Chisungu" and is celebrated with magic rites, song and dances, symbolic drama and comic burlesques and an abundant of luxurious food and drink. This is a big event with the Bemba, as well as with other matriarchal peoples of Central Africa. For the boys though there are no initiation festivals, or festivals of comparable importance.

To understand the great importance of  this Chisungu ritual you have to consider how important the role of the women are as intermediators to the ancestors and rebirthing them to life again. It is primarily in this function the young girls are celebrated; not only because of their fertility from having got their first menstruation.

 During these ceremonies the girls are spending time in a special initiation hut, where they are taught be elder women and initiated into the honour and duties associated with being a Bemba woman. Unlike the public ceremonies in the village square, these are held in secret. The secrets that the young girls now are initiated into are strictly guarded. No Bemba man and no male or female ethnologist from outside has ever witnessed them. The knowledge it holds is about regulation of the female fertility and the secret rebirthing of ancestors spirits and gives the Bemba women control over their clan.generating power. A power that´s taken away from them in patriarchal societies.

Later when the girls become married there are wedding ceremonies, in which the young men must prove their virility. But there are no expectations of the bride to be a virgin. And clitoridectomy, in which the genitalia are mutilated, is not practised in matriarchal African cultures. In contras its very common in patriarchal societies as an extreme cult of virginity. Later when the first pregnancy appear there are further initiation rituals celebrated to stress the transition from girl to woman, and finally associated with the birth of the first cild.

The Bemba tradition of wedding are very elaborate and recognizes four symbolic banquets in relation to courtship and marriage. These are

• Icisumina Nsalamu (Acceptance of marriage proposal),

• Icilanga Mulilo [Literal meaning: “The Showing of the Fire” or “Introduction to Cuisine” – Editor]

• Ukukonkola (Granting authority) and

• Amatebeto (Thanks offering),

Heide Göttner Abendroths referrent to these writings about Bemba rituals and ceremonies is Audrey Richards:

Chisungu. A girls initiation ceremony among the Bemba of northern Rhodesia, 1956

Bemba marriage and Modern Economic Conditions 1940

African System of Kinship and Marriage, 1950

Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe (1932); Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia (1939)

The Multicultural States of East Africa (1969).


Not only in the official big festivals and ceremonies are the power of the Bemba women honoured, but also in everery days life which is infused with appropriate rites and symbols, as is common in matriarchal societies, where everyday objects and actions are loaden with spiritual significance, honouring the generative power of women. And in Bemba  art female symbolism appears in their traditional art. Carved wooden figurines are for example usually ancestress figures used for religious purpose. But also each house or hut is considered to be a wholy and sacred place of its female owner, who paints or otherwise decorates the walls both inside and outside with magic symbols signifying the generative female power. Specially ther door is richly decorated with two breasts and the "Impande-shells" that symbolise the female vulva.



The house is considered to be the embodiement of the woman herself, rendering protection and security and sharing her lifegiving, nurturing power with its inhabitants. So the front door symbolises the entrance to the  or exit of her womb, through which her husband enters and her children are sent out into the world.

Especially the treshold is considered to be a sacred place; as this is where the ancestors are being served their small offerings of food, and the women hang up the fruits of the harvest above the doorway. And the hearth is as holy as the treshold, with its sacred fire that never may be extinguished or polluted, so after each sexual act, the couple has to wash themselves in the "matrriage pot" before the go near the fire.

Often the basic symbol that incorporates a woman and a serpent are placed on the hearth and the marriage bed, as rghe seprpent symbolise the sexual power in tyhe union of the marriage couples. Snakes are thought to be the ones who bring life during pregnancy, and according to Bemba belief little snakes of energy live in all the organs of the body and especially so in the sexual ones. As women are the sex that might give birth to both sexes, they are supposed to have two snakes in their organs; one male and one female, whilst men only have one. Sometimes  the woman snake symbol as well as the two breasts with the impandeshell can be seen om storehouses, symbolising the fact that a storehouse, just like a pregnant woman is full of seed and food.


The so called "Itoshi"-monster, which is associated with the natures and ancestors spirits is a huge snake that´s supposed to live in rivers or in all bodies of water, which in turn are seen as the organs of the Mother Earth, making the earth fertile so that it may abundant of harvest and game. This is regarded as connecting women to the earth as both produce life and nourishment. Every woman is the daughter of Mother Earth and share her female generative power. She is considered to be the eldest most primodrial Goddess of them all and is either calleds Mother Earth, "Old Mother World", "Old Bone Woman" or the "Harvestbringing-Ancient one". But besides this Mother Earths there are all sorts of water and rain deities, to whome women also are considered to have the best access.

Fire, on the other hand, symbolises the energy that emerges when the Yin and Yang poles of men and women are met, and without which its considered not to be able to lead a household or an extended family or village but has to be required in abundance, as this so called "hot" state guarantees fertility and wellbeing for the land and the people. Therefore its surrounded with many rites and taboos, which pertains specially to those who hold public authority, such as village chiefs, whose important task it is to guard their land and people, and therefore might not endanger it bytransgressing any taboo. And a chief is only considered  to manage his important role if his marriage is "hot", which will depend on his wife. Its considered to be only through her connection with the earth that he also becomes a part of it and bears the name of the land as his official title, which gives the chief´s wife a central position, reflected in a folk saying about village chiefs and other authorities: "The Queen is King!"


The Bemba people recently celebrated Ukusefya Pangwena, which re-enacts the journey from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom into Bembaland. The photo above depicts Chitimukulu being carried on a hammock by a group of men at the ceremony.

The Bemba chiefs  hold the same kind of representative and deputy role that´s typical for the cieftains in matriachal society. They are elected by the eldest matriarchs and might be discharged by them to if they don´t manage their office in a satisfactory way. And no chied can act as a "big boss", as these peoples ghave ab egalitarian society based on the respect for the elders, and Göttner-Abendroth delineates its system as a "rural clan democracy". The small villages with their local chiefs make up regional autonomy.

Quoting Göttner-Abendroth: in her Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 2012,

"Modern instances where there is a `top chief´are a reflection of a practice introduced by Europeans, and represent colonial, niot indiogenous tradition. The region has been shaoed by an ongoing history of change. Even before the Europeans came various royal clans established kingdoms and introduced central governments but this did not change the practice of local clan democracy in the villages (wich began about 1000 C.E.) The Luanda kingdom, lasty and largest of its kind, was established as recently as the 15th century, and achieved its huge expansion by uniting with the Luba kingdom (toward the West of the Congo) in the 17th century to form the Luba-Lunda kingdom. A huge kingdom at that time, it extended from the west coast of Central Africa (Congo Delta) To Lake Tanganyika in the east. The sacred kings of this realm eventually became emperors . The Luba Lunda kingdom- which became a victim of the Belgian colonial lords - left cultural traces in the traditions of many Central African Bantu peoples."

Although there has been a great preassure from surrounding patriarchal cultures, not at least from the Zulús in the south, as well as from cattle-pastoraliosts in the north and Western as well as Arabic colonisers imposing their patriarchal religions upon the indigenous matriarchal African people, Heide Göttner Abendroth claims that:

"Today the two most destructive factors in the region are the Christian mission which put pressure on the matriarchal extended family, and the copper mines originating with colonisation, which draw the young men away from the villages by offering them work for money.

Thus it  it is really amazing that all these peoples who have been rooted here for so long have maintained their ancient matriarchal patterns up to present day. In spite of their tumultous history they have demonstrated a strong determination t keep their social patterns, wich go back to Africa´s neolithic, when the agriculture and matriarchy began. By retreating later into the Centrtal African rainforest many Bantu peoples retained the ancient ways."

To shed more light on this we will outline another example from this cultural region:


On this Website you can get more information about the Bemba social, economical and religious life and history »

The oral tradition of the Bemba court recalls a migration of chiefs from the country of the Luba (Kola) and reminds in many  ways of a  typical  matriarchal mytho-historian narrative. The king of Kola, Mukulumpe, married a woman who belonged to the Crocodile Clan (Abena Ngandu) and had ears like an elephant, wich I found remarkable as they worship a spirit or a "Goddess" in Issas Wolof - Serere - clan, who perform in the guise of  a crocodile called Katchikali (and perhaps, according to the Senegalese anthropologist Cheik Anta Diop, even is transported with these people to India, making up the proto-Goddess to the hindu Goddess Kali and the one in Kerala called Kathakali. The Crocodile Goddess /Queen /Ancestral matriarch Abena Ngandu  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.

This constitutes an interestring mix of many typical matriarchal mythological traits that requires a specialist to dissolve. But to me the fight between the "father " and the thre sons sounds like the classical mythological symbolic heros´battle between the predecessors and sucessors of the Queens throne mirroring the seasonal grewing and harvesting of the crop and the barren wintertime when the king / chief or Hero is taken care of in the underground of the Crown - the death - and rebirth-Goddess and then adorned with some other traits perhaps mirroring a battle between matrilineal and patrilineal succession of the royal throne. There is a more elaborate version of the myth in this article:

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. J.de 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 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).

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.


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.

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. (???This history-telling may perhaps not be a correct unbiased one. But I don´t know for sure.)

Religious Belief
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.


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. (This report I also has to be read critically. As far as I know there has never been performed whitch-hunts in matriarchal socities, but that is a later patriarchal way of blaming all misfortunes on women and / or to proletarise them according to the concept presented by Silvia Federici in her Taliban and the Wich.