The name Babemba means “the people of the lake.” The 60,000 Bemba settled mostly in northeast of Zambia, but also in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They share a number of traits with their neighbors on the shores of Lake Tanganyika: the Lega, the Buyu, and the Binji.
The territory surrounding them is covered with forests, plateaus, and wooden savannas traversed by rivers. The Bemba have the reputation of being a proud, hard people who learned the art of the hunt and the harvesting of honey.
They practice slash-and-burn agriculture; a social, ritual, and economic value is connected to the hunt. Villages, consisting of about thirty huts were abandoned every three to four years once the soil became exhausted.
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.
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.
The Bemba borrowed the bwami association from the Lega, but they have also other secret societies. Once circumcision had been performed, the bwami essentially consisted of dances, songs, and the handling of objects. Initiates would use figures sculpted from elephant tusks or wood, wooden masks, and, as emblems of the highest levels, a stool or an anthropomorphic figurine. The initiation in the elanda male society ended with the appearance of the Mask, the viewing of which was forbidden to the non-initiated. Otherwise, this oval mask that sometimes sports antelope horns was entrusted to a dignitary and hidden outside the village in a secret place. The ibulu iya alunga (“the protector of honey”) mask, used in the male alunga (kalunga) society, is unique in form. It is worn on the head like a helmet and sometimes ends at the top in a huge crest of feathers and porcupine quills. It represents a powerful bush spirit. Kept in a sacred cave, the mask is taken into the bush during the secret initiation of new members. The alunga association was in charge of the cult of the hunt, as well as social order and public dances. The wearer of the mask, hidden completely under a fiber costume, would be a member of high rank who knew the dances and the manner of speaking and singing in a guttural voice.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kin terms are of the Iroquois type. Close kinship terms are subject to declension, for example, mayo (my mother), noko (thy mother), nyina (her mother). In ego's generation separate terms are used for siblings according to their sex and age. Because of positional succession (ukupyanika) kin terminology for an individual can change. For example, through succession ego can become his mother's brother and all women who were his mother (mayo) become his sister (nkashi).
Traditionally, marriage payments in the form of goods from the groom's family to the bride's family were small and insignificant. The more important aspect of the marriage contract was the labor service performed by the son-in-law. With the increasing importance of money and goods, payments are becoming of more importance and labor service by the son-in-law is increasingly rare. Polygamy is allowed but uncommon. Marriages are unstable, and divorce or separation is common, especially if a man fails to provide labor, money, or goods to his wife's family. To a certain extent Christianity has stabilized marital relations. While marriage within a clan is not allowed, cross-cousin marriages are permitted and strengthen the bonds between brother and sister.
In the past a married couple started out in an extended matrilocal family unit and formed an independent unit after a number of years. The encouragement of nuclear families by Christian churches and the ability to provide money instead of labor service to the wife's family has meant that a husband can achieve this position with greater ease. However, the traditional basis of domestic cooperation through female relatives—mother and daughter or sisters—and ties between mother and children are still strong.
Inheritance of goods is relatively unimportant, and wealth can pass from a dead man to his son or to his sister's son. The inheritance of a title or a wife is of more significance and follows the matrilineage.
Children learn household, agricultural, and hunting skills from their mother or her relatives, although the father may be involved. Children have freedom and autonomy but must respect their elders. Although the practice has declined in recent years, initiation (ichisungu) at puberty teaches girls duties toward their households and husbands. There are no equivalent male initiation ceremonies. Children generally attend school.
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 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.
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.
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.
Chiefs, clan elders, and other ritual specialists prayed and made sacrifices to the spirits. Precolonial prophets such as Bwembya claimed to derive their prophecies from the ancestral spirits of kings. Christian prophets such as Alice Lenshina claimed to hear the voices of God and Jesus. Witchcraft purification and detection are still performed by witchfinders (abashinganga), often on behalf of traditional chiefs and councilors. Church congregations led by elected church elders exist in most villages.
Traditional ceremonial activities include rites surrounding the preparation of chitemene fields and first fruit ceremonies. Although it is no longer widely performed, the most important semipublic ceremony is the ichisungu initiation for young girls. When a girl begins to menstruate, she is taken into the bush by a ritual specialist called Nachimbusa (the mother of sacred emblems) and instructed in the duties of womanhood through songs and sacred clay figurines and paintings called mbusa. Men are not allowed to attend the ceremony. After initiation the girl is considered ready for marriage.
Tatoos and other forms of scarification were common in the pre-Christian period. Hairstyling among women is still popular. Painting and ornamental arts illustrating biblical themes or clan jokes adorn houses and public places. There is little demand for Bemba artworks, and works generally are made on commission. Musicians, especially guitarists and singers, perform in village bars and churches.
The Bemba people never produce large statues, but small statuettes are made in the western part of their territory. The sorcerers and healers used the statuettes for their rites of magic and healing. It is thought that certain female statuettes may have been used as fecundity figures – they stand on short legs with their hands resting on their abdomen.
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.
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.