Bisa people



The Bisa people are a well-established clan in Zambia.  Population in country is about 298.000 (, 2023)

They live on the eastern shores of Lake Bangweulu through Mpika and Chinsali in Muchinga Province to Lundazi and Chama in the eastern provinces of Zambia.

Bisa People

Legend postulates that they separated from the Bemba during migration from Congo after royal sisters differed. One royal sister did not offer mushroom to a nephew or niece who was hungry. When the clay pot which she was carrying on her head dropped and broke apart mushrooms spilled for all to see and and that royal sister and her immediate family were excommunicated from the migrating tribe.

Those near the lake are fishermen, those in Muchinga and eastern provinces are small game poachers/hunters. Subsistence farming is a common denominator for all. Others have migrated into urban areas to escape rural poverty.

Many practice witchcraft. Even though they profess Christianity, their last line of defense is witchcraft.


Migration and Settlement

The Bisa, like most tribes inhabiting northern Zambia, had their origin in the former Luba-Lunda empire of the Congo Basin (Thomas, 1958; Vansina, 1966). Migrations originating from this area probably began as a haphazard process of small kinship groups pushing out in search of new lands. In the course of these migrations the Ngona (mushroom clan) emerged as the dominant clan in the group destined to become the Bisa tribe. Future Bisa chiefs were chosen from this Ngona clan. According to Thomas (1958), it was not until the early eighteenth century that the Bisa emerged as a tribe and settled on the Plateau between the escarpment and Lake Bangweulu.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Bisa acquired a reputation as keen merchants. Initially, their wares were mainly ivory, cloth, and beads, but later when thePortuguese began to prefer slaves the Bisa readily switched commodities. Gamitto (trans. 1960) in 1831 noticed Bisa merchants active among their neighboring tribesmen east of the Luangwa, and Burton (1873) thirty years later described them as "acute Levantines" and well-known traders in parts of East Africa.

The Luangwa Valley was a hunting territory for the Bisa before some settled there permanently. Seasonally, groups of specialized huntsmen descended the escarpment and established temporary hunting camps in the Valley, shifting them to the vicinity of a carcass once a kill
was made. But it was the conquest of Bisa land on the Plateau by their northern neighbors, the Bemba, in the late 1820's which caused permanent Bisa settlement in the Luangwa Valley. Roberts (1966) suggests that it was the lucrative eastern trade and a dispute over the control of the Chibwe salt pans which the Bemba shared along their border with the Bisa which led the less prosperous and less industrious Bemba to conquer Bisa lands. Under the Bemba onslaught most Bisa fled toward the Bangweulu Swamps.

Those who settled in the Valley were in time to become culturally and linguistically more similar to the tribes living east of the Luangwa with whom they shared a similar environment than they were with their tribesmen who remained on the Plateau.


Rites of Passage

Van Gennep (trans. 1960) in his analysis of "life crisis" ceremonies, points out that activities composing these rituals, when examined in terms of order and content, fall into three major phases, separation, transition, and incorporation. These ceremonies begin with rites of separation which remove the subject from his social environment.
Next follow transition rites in which the participant is taught skills or behavior commensurate with his new status or position. Finally the subject is ritually reincorporated into society in his new status. But even Van Gennop recognized that all three categories may not be expressed to the same extent in all ceremonies.

Rites of passage are pregnant with symbolic meanings. The rites surrounding the killing of an important mammal such as an elephant by a maturing huntsman (described later) proves no exception. But what is a ritual? For a definition I concur with that given by Beattie (1959: 135-136) as formal and socially recognized procedures the meaning of which is symbolic rather than empirical. What is symbolized we presume to be some abstract notion and we suppose that there exists some kind of intelligible correspondance between the notion and the symbol in



The principal mode of Bisa subsistence is agriculture. The agricultural cycle mirrors the rainy season with clearing and planting at the beginning of the rains and reaping before and during the cold season. The main crop is sorghum although maize, groundnuts, sugar cane, cowpeas, pumpkins, and tobacco are also grown. Generally, rainfall is sufficient for agriculture,a1though crop success is dependent upon the timing and duration of the rains. Frequent local crop failures reflect varagies of rainfall, and regional droughts are not uncommon.
Dense populations of large wild mammals make the growing and storage of crops difficult for the Valley Bisa. The morphology of their villages reflects a protective format, with granaries toward the center surrounded by individual huts. During the growing season, however, these villages are for the most part abandoned while the Bisa devote themselves toward crop protection. Individual households and their
matrikin move to the areas which they have cleared and brought under cultivation, and during the rains they reside in individual huts surrounding the cultivated area. They return to their respective villages when the crops are harvested.
Most agricultural chores are shared by men and women alike, but the heavier work of constructing granaries and field huts is predominantly a masculine activity. Fishing is by both sexes, although by different methods. Hunting is the masculine activity par excellence for a small core
of adepts.


Clan and Matrilineage

The Valley Bisa, in common with many neighboring tribes, are matrilineal in matters of descent, social status, inheritence, and succession. Each individual belongs to a matrilineal descent group, members of which are descendants of the same founding ancestress traced back through the oldest living member of the group. The Bisa use the term Lupwa for this group which is composed of related people who have the right to inherit property from each other and to choose a successor to fill a vacant position created by the death of a member of the group. Members of this group accept responsibility for each other, and the men of the group may be expected to inherit each other's widows.
In addition, all Bisa belong to a clan (mukowa); this affiliation is inherited from one's mother (mukowa wapacifulo). But when asked the name of his clan, a MuBisa is just as likely to give the name of his father's clan, for he is also known as a "son" of this clan. He calls all members of his father's clan "father" (bena tata) although this group is not responsible for him to the same extent as are members of his mother's clan. An individual is also linked to a group called bena sikulu (grandparents) who comprise his mother's father, father's father, and members of his grandparents' clans.
Clans are exogamous and marriage to a cross—cousin (mother's brother's daughter or father's sister's daughter) is preferred for the first marriage. To marry, a Bisa man must initially reside in his wife's village (uxorilocal), for a period of service to his in-laws is a part of the
marriage contract. Gradually (and usually after producing several children), the man acquires the right to return with his wife to his natal village.
Because of the principles of matrilineality and initial matrilocal marriage, women are the core of localized descent groups and villages. The relevant grouping among the Valley Bisa is the group of sister siblings with their descendants and their uterine brother (born of the same
mother) as village headman. And it is such a group of uterine sisters and their brother, who has left his village of marriage, which forms the core of Valley Bisa villages.
Each woman within these local descent groups may become the point of future cleavage or fission, eventually resulting in the formation of new villages. For as the descendents of each uterine sister increase in number through time, the descendants of each tend to stick together.
In times of social stress within a village leading to its eventual breakup, it will be these groups of siblings which withdraw and set up their own village.


Village Organization and Headmanship

As in many Central African societies, most inhabitants within a village are related in some way to their village headman. The Bisa speak of villages as belonging to particular clans--the clan of the village headman and those belonging to the same matrilineal descent group. Valley
villages, for the most part, are small (mean village size 8.5 huts) and composed of close kin. Villages are named after their founding headmen, and successors to the position inherit the name of the initial headman. But by the rule of matrilineal descent, the headman's descendents belong to his wife's clan and may not succeed to his title; yet while the headman lives they are linked to the matrilineal
core of the village through its headman. On the death of a headman ideally he should be succeeded by his brother, then by his maternal nephew, and finally by his maternal grandson. But succession does not always follow this pattern. As the Bisa point out, succession to headmanship is dependent also upon personal qualifications, age, and residence. Men out of the village, married matrilocally or away on migrant labor, might be passed over for someone who is resident in the village but of inferior genealogical rank to those absent. The new headman succeeds to his pre decessor's name and may inherit (ukupyani) his wives and any symbols of office such as a spear, gun or axe. In the past the new headman of some villages also succeeded to a perpetual relationship within the political hierarchy under the chief.

Today, as in the past, value and prestige are attached to the headmanship of a large village. A large village is identified with its headman and he is credited with the values and understanding which are necessary to hold so many people together. But disputes crystallize about leaders of subordinate lineage sections who also aspire to leadership. As a village grows in size, segments polarize around leaders, who if their following is sufficiently large, may wish to leave the village and set up on their own.



The Bena Ngona are the traditional rulers among the Bisa. Until their number was reduced recently by government, the west bank of the Luangwa was populated by a number of Ngona chiefs, some of whom were subordinate to Nabwalya.
The separation of the chief's clan from commoners is justified in the following myth: During their migration from the Congo two sisters paused after a rain and looked for mushrooms. The following day when the march was resumed the younger asked her older sister for some mushrooms to feed her hungry child. The older sister refused, saying that she had none, and the child died from hunger. Later the older woman stumbled and drOpped the pot she was carrying.
It broke, revealing a horde of mushrooms inside. She and her descendents were condemned for this selfish act which had resulted in the death of her sister's child. Her descendents are therefore called Bena Ngona Samfwi and are denied the Chieftainship. The descendents of the younger sister became the Bena Ngona, who traditionally rule LuBisa.
In the past the chief maintained a "spiritual" monopoly over the land and its products. Clansmen who approached the chief were given land upon which to settle, and the chief's village was the focal point for external trade and contact. It was the chief from whom traders, strangers,
and travelers sought permission to pass through his land, hunt his game, or trade with his people. His bargaining position was enhanced economically through his rights to tribute and his control over ivory, slaves, salt, skins, and the other valuable resources within his territory.
Politically the chief's position was secured by the number of his followers and through ties of kinship and alliances with neighboring chiefs. He controlled an army which he protected by special magic.
The relationship between the chief and his people was one of mutual independence, although both shared a common system of values. The peOple provided the chief with tribute both in work (umulaza) and in produce (umutulo), and they staffed his army and caravans. The chief provided protection, both physical and ritual, was the final arbitrator in their disputes, and dispatched those guilty of asocial crimes. In addition, the spirits of dead chiefs were believed to control the well-being and fruitfulness of the land, and these spirits could be approached only through the living chief.

Succession to the office of Chieftainship is based upon matrilineal descent within the Ngona clan. Within the clan itself are smaller lineage groups within which succession becomes stabilized after a few generations.
Rank is based upon close kinship to the living chief and these, of either sex, are entitled to special respect.
In time, under both colonial and independent governments, many of the traditional relationships between the chief and his people have become undermined. The chief's control over settlements was taken away by the early colonial government, which stipulated minimal village size and granted permission for village movement. Some of this authority was returned to the chiefs under Indirect Rule.
The formerly important natural resources now belong to the government; ivory, lion and leopard skins should be delivered to the government bgma, no longer to the chief's musumba. Tribute in labor, meat, work, and grain has been stopped. This tribute has been replaced, in the Bisa's eyes, by government taxes and by game and trade licenses.
With the chief's economic position undermined, he may be no longer the wealthiest person in his territory. He receives a small stipend from the government and has become largely dependent upon government for his position and status. As a consequence, the interpendance with his people is weakened, for it is necessary for him to act upon and enforce decisions made by an alien administration whose values and goals may not be understood or appreciated by his people.
Yet in certain aspects the Nabwalya Chieftainship remains strong. The ritual surrounding his office continues, and the belief is still strong in his spiritual control over the fertility of the land and its mammals through his access to the spirits of his predecessors (see beyond). Certain
large mammals, i.e. eland, lion, and elephant, traditionally associated with the chief still retain this association.
Should any of these be killed by a Bisa hunter, the chief should be notified, even if he is only sent symbolic tribute.