Ndembu people



The Ndembu inhabit the western portion of Mwinilunga District in Zambia's Northwestern Province, in territory roughly 560 kilometers from the nearest sizable city. The land forms part of the plateau region of northwestern Zambia, consisting of mostly poor laterite soils. It was formerly under high savanna forest with evergreen gallery forest along the rivers but has undergone considerable deforestation around settled areas. Owing to its situation close to the Zambezi-Congo divide, it is a source area for many rivers.

The Ndembu, numbering about 50,000 in Zambia, constitute about 1 percent of the total population.


Linguistic Affiliation

The Ndembu language, which is part of the West Central Bantu Language Zone, is agglutinative with ten noun classes.


History and Cultural Relations

Between 1750 and 1800 the Ndembu, led by their chief, Kanongesha, migrated from the large Northern Lunda (or Luunda) Empire of the paramount chief Mwantiamvwa in the Kapanga District of the southern Congo. In their new home, they abandoned their former patrilineal descent system in favor of the local matrilineal pattern and also lost their centralized organization. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ovimbundu slave traders and Chokwe and Lwena raiders took many slaves from among the Ndembu and sold them to the Portuguese for guns and cloth. The British South Africa Company began to administer Mwinilunga District in 1906, and missionaries soon arrived. In 1913 many Ndembu fled over the border to Angola to avoid taxation.

In the 1930s the Ndembu began to travel for work to the new copper-producing cities in central Zambia and the Katanga region of the Congo. A money economy took root. It was not until 1964 that Zambia won independence from the British. From 1964 to 1970, because of high copper prices, the gross national product of Zambia rose to two thousand times its value in the early 1960s. That prosperity also reached the Ndembu. In the early 1970s prices slumped, however, and an endemic depression developed. The Ndembu population had risen sharply during the copper boom but did not fall when hard times arrived. Maize production in Mwinilunga fell lamentably below government targets, and the people have been hard put to feed themselves on dwindling crops of cassava (manioc).

The Ndembu tend to hold themselves politically apart from their neighbors. Formerly, they traded cassava to the copper towns; nowadays they supply pineapples to a government canning factory. In the 1970s and 1980s they peacefully absorbed a number of refugees from war-torn Angola. Their present cultural relations occur mainly in the religious sphere. There is much interaction and visiting in the form of conference meetings of the Christian Fellowship, the Apostles of John Maranke, and Baha'i adherents.



Ndembu villages are changing from a pattern of discrete circles of houses inhabited by matrilineal kin to a conglomeration of groups of two or three mud-brick houses that face inward to a small courtyard. Such conglomerations themselves seem to be villages, although they are not regarded as such. The tiny groups are spinoffs from larger matrilineally based parent villages, and an Ndembu's immediate neighbor is still likely to be a matrilineal relative. The small groups are called "farms." Circular villages still exist and are referred to by the Ndembu term for village (mukala ). A typical mukala has eight to ten houses with 30 to 50 inhabitants. The conglomerations, built-up areas, vary greatly in population—from 100 to 800 to 2,000 people. Their larger size is a response to the government's policy of centralization for the sake of the schools and of branch-committee control.

Almost all the houses are rectangular, mud-brick structures with thatched roofs, wooden doors and window frames, and hard mud floors; usually a dwelling has two rooms and a veranda. A round meeting shelter is sometimes added.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Ndembu practice hoe cultivation in small garden plots. Cassava is the Ndembu staple crop. It is grown on cleared upland and left in the ground for more than a year, then harvested during the following year or two. Owing to shortage of forest land near the now permanent villages, rotations of thirty years have given way to very brief ones of a year or two, resulting in lighter yields. Some rice is grown in wetlands. Pineapples are raised in the more fertile upland gardens, as are some peanuts, potatoes, and cucurbits. Beans and maize are grown in stream-side gardens, along with tomatoes, onions, and cabbages. Bananas and mango trees grow in the villages. Very occasionally, hunters obtain game. Fishing contributes a small amount of protein. Mushrooms, white ants, fruits, and medicinal plants are gathered. The main cash crops are pineapples and some maize and rice. A type of gin is produced, which accounts for much trade locally. Cattle raising is spreading; herds number up to fifty head. Some goats, pigs, and chickens are also raised. Most cash is acquired from jobs at the district center or from labor migration. There is a high rate of unemployment.

Industrial Arts. At the district center, tailors, carpenters, and blacksmiths operate small businesses, and others are engaged in the modern occupations of mechanic or electrician. In the villages, most men are builders and some are mechanics. Mats are made locally.

Trade. There are markets at the district center and chiefs' courts. Local stores have given way to the centralizing tendency encouraged by government policy. The missions also run trading trucks through the villages, selling South African maize meal to the many who cannot produce sufficient cassava. There is informal local trade in beef and gin.

Division of Labor. Because of their traditional role as hunters, Ndembu men still do not engage in agriculture except to clear the ground for a new garden. They weave mats and make children's wire toys. Women plant and tend their own gardens and those of their husbands, sometimes traveling with a baby as far as 16 kilometers away from their homes to garden sites with less exhausted soil. They also cook, fish, and fetch water. Owing to unemployment, a man often has no role.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, the first to settle in an area was named "owner of the cultivation." He would allow all comers to cultivate also. There is no buying and selling of land, although owing to pressure on land near the nucleated settlements, there have begun to be disputes about rights to the land when the head of a family dies.



Kin Groups and Descent. Matriliny governs immediate residence patterns, although the direct offspring of a headman will be more likely than in the past to stay in their father's village. Surnames have been universally adopted, these being the name of the father. Headmanship descends from mother's brother to sister's son.

Kinship Terminology. A classificatory naming system follows the matrilineal principle.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy has been adopted by the Christians, whereas traditionalists practice polygyny. Marriage payments are made by the family of the bridegroom to that of the bride. The common pattern of virilocal postmarital residence creates difficulties in keeping a matrilineage together; therefore, divorce, a means to return to the matrilineage, was very common in the past. Because divorce is now discouraged by the churches, matrilineal residence is becoming less clearly defined. The age of marriage for women has risen to 17 or so, thus dissociating marriage from a girl's initiation, which still takes place at puberty. Other than Christian weddings, there are no traditional marriage customs distinct from initiation

Domestic Unit. In the polygynous family, each wife has her own house, runs her own gardens, and controls her own budget. If her husband is a labor migrant, she usually resides with her matrilineage. Children often sleep separately from their parents, along with others of the same generation or with their grandparents.

Inheritance. At death, a close matrilineal senior relative is appointed as executor. He divides the property, first between uterine siblings of the elder generation, then sisters' children, and wives and children of the deceased, according to the executor's good will. Wives will return to their matrilineages once a payment has been made to the relatives of the dead man. Formerly, a ritual of name inheritance was sometimes performed in response to the call of the spirit of the dead.

Socialization. Children's growth is stunted because the land is not producing enough food. Small children are breastfed until 3 years of age and are not left to cry. Older children play at grown-ups' roles. They are assigned domestic duties, which they usually fulfill after a special word of authority from an elder. Laughter is the main sanction against faults, although theft is punished with beating. Older girls delight in caring for baby siblings, but boys play at hunting or at being soldiers. Conflict between mothers and daughters is common as the latter approach puberty. With the exception of fundamentalist Christians, most 12-year-old girls are initiated, one or two at a time, in a ritual involving seclusion for perhaps a week. Boys are circumcised in larger groups between the ages of 7 and 12 and are secluded in the bush until the wounds are healed. Formerly, complex initiations with much symbolism prevailed, with milk symbolism predominating for the girls, ending with a highly aesthetic "breast" dance, whereas masked spirit figures appeared at boys' circumcisions. Both rituals followed the form of a rite of passage. School authorities and missions now require the curtailment of initiation. Celebration rather than ritual has become the style.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Neighborhoods join informally at healing rituals and initiations, and friends join in informal groups to use or borrow a vehicle, molds for brick making, or the like. Women share pounding mortars. The churches, schools, and branch committees of government have replaced most of the crosscutting functions of the old cult associations, which were based on spirit manifestations in the form of illness.

Political Organization. A paramount chief, Kanongesha, heads a local law court and promulgates edicts concerning local safety or housing measures. He ideally attends the finale of the circumcisions. Subchiefs visit villages and harangue the inhabitants on local issues, thus creating a sense of self-identity among the Ndembu people. Village headmen, although they are becoming less important, are now chosen by election. The numerous farms give a strongly individualistic character to rural life. Modern elections are held to choose political branch heads and the rural council. Certain chiefs are nominated for the rural council by the minister of provincial and local government and culture in Lusaka.

Social Control. Very revered elders eventually become judges. They meet to hear civil cases in a village meeting shelter. More serious cases go to the district court.

Conflict. Bandits occasionally enter the region and ransack isolated villages. Local violence is mainly owing to alcoholism or jealousy, the latter being expressed in deeds of witchcraft. These are countered by antiwitchcraft rituals. Overt conflicts are resolved in the village courts.



Religious Beliefs. Some 40 percent of Ndembu are now Christians. The old religion was imbued with a strong moral character: people would be afflicted by the spirits of deceased relatives wishing to remind them (or their relatives) of their social and religious duties. This spirit would "come out" in a certain mode, the mode of the appropriate cult association. Patient, doctors, and spirit belonged to a single sacred community, which initiated the patient as a new member. When honored in a ritual, the spirit would bestow hunting prowess and healing upon on the living members.

An otiose god, Nzambi, has been co-opted into Christianity, and spirit practioners invoke this god on behalf of the sick. Cult associations have disappeared. Today dynasties of doctors exist who work through their doctor ancestor spirits or some foreign tutelary spirit. Male sorcerers possess familiars, which they deliberately raise and induce to do harm, or they use mystic poisons. Evil women—witches—contain a substance inside them that impels them to harm others. Witches are also the involuntary hosts of familiar spirits.

Religious Practitioners. A doctor (chimbuki, chiyang'a ) is first and foremost a spirit ritualist. Most doctors are men. Some come to their vocation through a call in the shape of a spirit-induced illness necessitating a ritual, by means of which the budding doctor develops his sense of spirit matters. He also learns medicines and ritual from a teacher, for whom he acts as assistant and apprentice. The office is usually inherited from some bilateral ancestor, with or without a major vocational episode. The doctors treat what are defined as "African diseases"—those that the hospital cannot cure but that are well understood by the healers. Diviners have become rare. Herbalists, men or women, treat minor ailments, and a traditional midwife, briefly trained by the hospital, attends births.

Ceremonies. Ritual (ng'oma, meaning "drum") is performed by a skilled doctor with the help of the community (formerly led by the cult association concerned) in order to reveal the spirit, previously as figurine, effigy, or voice, and still today as hunter's tooth. "Revealing" was—and continues to be—the basic principle of Ndembu religion and curing. It is mainly through sickness that an individual begins to sense the existence of spirits or witchcraft powers. Thus, it is the irregularities of life that develop the sense of nonempirical powers. Some of the curative rituals still follow the form of the rite of passage, with a preliminary rite of separation, a seclusion phase, and a ritual of reintegration. Some show a marked point when the afflicting spirit leaves the body of the sufferer. Important elements in ritual are drumming, singing, dancing, medianes, shrines, symbolic objects, revealing and removing a spirit form, the power of the doctor, the participation of the community, and the cooperation of the patient. Healing rituals are on the increase, partly because the central medical authorities are unable to control what goes on in rural areas. Thus, traditional ritual skills have been developed and adapted, often with many successes.


Expressive Culture

Arts. Mask making is almost obsolete, but drum making persists. In the past there were highly gifted wood carvers. The principal Ndembu art today is music, both in drum rituals and in churches; harmonizing and choral skill have reached a high level.

Medicine. A great number of herbal medicines are used for healing, childbirth, madness, and even as poisons. Curative medicines used in rituals have both herbal and spiritual effects. White and red clay and the horns, blood, and other parts of animals give power to ritual.

Death and Afterlife. Death used to be celebrated by the appearance of a masked dancer or stilt walkers drawn from the funerary association, followed by the burning down of the deceased's house. Medicines were used to expel the ghost. The dead existed in a number of spirit forms, some of them being able to reincarnate in a patrilateral descendant, some as matrilineal ancestral guides, and some as dangerous ghosts; the latter are still feared today. Present-day funerals are greatly simplified because knowledge of ancestor spirits is disappearing


Ndembo (or Kita)

A former African secret society that had widespread influence in the lower Congo, and especially in the districts lying to the south of that river. Initiation was made through the gangaor chief, who instructed the neophyte at a given signal suddenly to lie down as if dead. A shroud was spread over him, and he was carried off to an enclosure outside the village called vela and pronounced to have died a ndembo.

Perhaps 20, 30, or even 50 candidates "died" at one time. It was then assumed that persons "dying" in this manner decayed until only a single bone remained, and this the ganga took charge of. The process varied from three months to as many years, and the ganga was supposed by art magic to bring every one of the dead back to life within that period

On a festival day of the ndembo, the members marched through the village in a grand procession amidst universal joy, carrying with them the persons who were supposed to have died. The neophytes who were supposed to have perished comported themselves as if in reality they had come from another world. They took new names, pretended that everything in the terrestrial sphere was new to them, turned a deaf ear to their parents and relatives, and even affected not to know how to eat. They further desired to have everything they set eyes on, and if it was not granted to them immediately, they might fall upon the unhappy owner and beat and even kill him without any consequence to themselves. It was assumed that they were mere children in the affairs of the terrestrial sphere, and therefore knew no better.

Those who went through this rite were called nganga, or the "knowing ones," while the neophytes were designated vanga. During their occupation of the vela they learned an esoteric language, which they constantly employed. Perhaps the best record of the group was made by ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), who stated:

"The Great Nkissi (who here replaces the fetish) lives in the interior of the woodlands where nobody can see him. When he dies the Nganga carefully collect his bones in order to bring them back to life, and nourish them that they may again put on flesh and blood. But it is not well to speak about it. In the Ambamba country everybody must have died once, and when the Nganga (replacing the fetish-priest) shakes his calabash against a village, those men and youths whose hour is come fall into a state of lifeless torpor, from which they generally rise up in three days.

"But the man whom the Nkissi loves he carries off to the bush and often buries him for a series of years. When he again awakens to life, he begins to eat and drink as before, but his mind is gone, and the Nganga must himself educate him and instruct him in every movement, like the smallest child. At first that can only be done with the rod, but the senses gradually return, so that you can speak with him, and when his education is finished the Nganga takes him back to his parents. These would seldom recognize him but for the positive assurance of the Nganga, who at the same time reminds them of earlier occurrences. Whoever has not yet undergone the experience in Ambamba is universally despised, and is not allowed to join in the dances."



The Ndembu, also called the Lunda, number about sixty thousand and inhabit small villages in the district of Mwinilunga in the northwestern province of Zambia. Although their descent system is matrilineal, women leave home to marry into their husbands' villages, a system that sets up social tensions and, before the advent of Christianity, used to result in a high divorce rate. In this conflict-torn society, cult associations formerly had a great unifying power, calling together members from many different kinship groups to cooperate in rituals that gave moments of spiritual revelation, which in turn resolved conflicts and healed illness.

Cults of Affliction

Among the Ndembu, affliction was seen as having a spiritual cause: the spirit of a dead matrilineal relative (mukishi) afflicted a living descendant, "coming out" in a range of different modes of spirit visitation. Thus the spirit might "come out in Nkula," the mode of menstrual troubles; Wubwangʾu, the mode of twins; Isoma, the miscarriage mode; Ihamba, a spirit tooth wandering in the patient's body, needing ritual extraction; Wuyangʾa, the mode for hunters; Tukuka, the mode of Western diseases; or Chihamba, the mode of the demigod of thunder. Wu-bwangʾu and Ihamba afflictions still exist today.

The spirit "caught" a living relative in the first place because he or she had not honored the spirit's memory. When afflicted, an individual required a complex ritual, the mode of which was determined by the consideration of symptoms and by divination. The ritual (nʿgoma, "drum") was performed by a cult association consisting of those who had already been afflicted in that mode. The aim was to bring the spirit up out of the ground (the place where the spirits dwell) so that by recognizing its existence and giving it a concrete form—as a figure, effigy, tooth, or voice—it could be revealed. Ku-solola, "to reveal," was a basic element of Ndembu religion and curative ritual. The religion taught: "what hurts you, when discovered and propitiated, helps you." Through the use of medicines, drumming and singing, and distinctive rites appropriate to each mode, the spirit was brought once more into the social milieu and would, at a switch point in the ritual, begin to do good instead of harm to the patient. Often what triggered the change was a sacrifice, which might be the beheading of a fowl or a blow on an effigy, signifying killing; while the victim embodied the spirit, the act gave a sense of innocence and communitas. Ndembu sacrifice was the point where the visible and invisible components of the cosmic order interpenetrated and exchanged qualities. When the spirit world and the world of the living were at one, the patient was healed.

Life-Crisis Rituals

A young girl or boy could not become a full member of the Ndembu people without an initiation ritual. The matrilineal character of the descent system emphasized the bond of breast feeding; thus, a forest shrub called mudyi, which has milky sap, was a dominant symbol for both girls' and boys' initiations. Mudyi represented the matrilineage itself and the virtues of good family living; its "milk" was the sensory pole of the symbol's meaning, hinting at the satisfactions associated with mother's milk—a pole that gave power to the ideological pole of goodness.

Both girls' and boys' initiations were rites of passage, and they are still performed in a truncated form. The novice passes ritually from childhood into a liminal time of seclusion when she or he is neither child nor adult. Finally the initiate is reincorporated into society as a full member.

Girls are initiated singly, at puberty; the initiate used to be laid down under a blanket at the foot of a milk tree for an entire day, while the women danced around her. At evening she was carried into a seclusion hut, where she received training for three months. At the end she performed a public dance and might then be married.

Boys from five to fifteen years of age are still circumcised in groups in a sacred enclosure away from the village. They are secluded there during healing, and in former times used to be visited by an ikishi dancer, a spirit from ancient times (not an ancestor spirit). Finally the boys would rejoin society in a public celebration that used to include a triumphal dance before the chief. In both rituals the place of ordeal and humiliation used to be called "the place of death"; symbolic death and rebirth were basic features of these and many of the curative rites.

Death itself was celebrated by a masked dancer (ka-dangʿu ) who was both mourner and clown. Among the funerary symbols were three trenches filled with white-, red-, and black-colored water, representing goodness, blood and ambivalence, and death; these trenches were known as "rivers" proceeding from Nzambi, the creator god. Formerly, a stilt walker, the head of the funerary society, would come to beat and initiate the small boys of the mourning camp. Medicines and rituals are still used to keep the ghost of the dead person quiet.

Thus Ndembu religion was directly concerned with human events, whether sickness, bad luck in hunting, conflict in the village, or phases in the maturation of an individual. It was mainly through sickness that an individual began to sense the presence of an ancestor spirit; thus it was the very irregularities of life, its negative events, that created the positive sense of the supernatural, especially when the spirit possessed a patient and she swayed, her body physically released by its presence. The palpable existence of spirits developed in the course of the experience of misfortune. This is not to be explained as a compensation mechanism; misfortune did more than arouse fantasies, for it triggered well-recognized faculties (wanga ) that needed the stimulus of trouble, and then of social cooperation, in order to flower. Senior doctors still train their apprentices in those faculties and teach the appropriate material accompaniments of medicine, drumming, confession, and trance in order to exorcise evil spirits. In spite of the growth of Christianity, traditional healers are increasing in numbers. Owing to the suppression of ancestor cults, they do not appeal to the ancestor spirits of the patients, but instead are helped by tutelary spirits from among their own ancestors or from some strong departed personality. Formerly a doctor entered his vocation after being sick himself. In the case of an incipient diviner he might be troubled in his breathing until he gave in to the demands of his spirit and underwent the Kayong'u initiation.


In the past, Ndembu religion centered upon ancestor spirits who communicated with humans frequently but unpredictably. Like the people's own lives, their domain was process, not the absolute. Continually involved in human life, they could heal their descendants and make them sexually potent. Such spirits could also be reborn in their patrilateral descendants. They were often whimsical, difficult, and easily offended when forgotten, but beneficent when treated with respect. Thus all of humanity, past, present, and future, was strongly knit together. Mukishi ancestor spirits and the ancient ikishi spirits, however, are no longer recognized as necessary agents of healing or change in rites of passage.

The Ndembu also believed in the mwevulu, the spirit shadow that was thought to leave a person and wander about when he or she was asleep and dreaming. It was this "shadow" that left a person when he or she died. Certain evil spirits are still feared, principally the mufu, the dangerous ghost that arises when funerary rites have not been properly fulfilled, and the harmful andumba (sg., ndumba ), familiars sent by witches in the shape of little men with their feet reversed, or in the form of hyenas, jackals, owls, or small rodents. Two other types of beings are also feared: the leader of the andumba, the kahwehu, often the ghost of the witch's murdered husband, who is said to have continued intercourse with her, and the musalu, or zombie, which can be raised from a corpse by a witch and sent out to kill.


The pre-Christian Ndembu recognized a creator god who was known as Nzambi. Having once created the world Nzambi never intervened in the lives of humans, and his role in religion was exiguous except in a negative sense. The Ndembu girl during her sacralization and seclusion was carefully shielded from his sight—as represented by the sun. This male god, the sun, and men and boys, must be absent from her scenes of rebirth. Nzambi's place was far away above the world. He was thought to be connected with rain, animals, and fertility, and also with the moral order, which decreed piety to the dead and compassion to the living. Christians have appropriated the name Nzambi to translate the term God ; and now even traditional healers pray to Nzambi, just as Ndembu Christians have been doing for decades.