Tumbuka people


Tumbuka / Kamanga / Batumbuka / Matumbuka / Henga

The Tumbuka (or, Kamanga, Batumbuka and Matumbuka) is a Bantu ethnic group found in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania. Tumbuka is classified as a part of the Bantu language family, and with origins in a geographic region between the Dwangwa River to the south, the North Rukuru River to the north, Lake Malawi to the east, and the Luangwa River. They are found in the valleys near the rivers, lake as well as the highlands of Nyika Plateau, where they are frequently referred to as Henga although this is strictly speaking the name of a subdivision.

Tumbuka people

The Tumbuka people can further be distinguished into several smaller tribes with related yet distinct heritages headed by different sub-chiefs who are all under the paramount chief Chikulamayembe.

These subgroupings include:

To set record straight, the Tumbuka tribe was one of the small tribes who originated from Luba in what is currently known as Democratic Republic of Congo. That was before any formal government setup and they had been staying the for hundreds of years after breaking away from the bantu tribes in upper central africa.

The Tumbuka tribe and other small tribes were driven out of Luba by a Worrior tribe know as Kongolo tribe the tribe that merged with the tribes that remained in Luba after they tried to subdue the Tumbuka people and failed.


Demography and language

Various estimates suggest that over two million Tumbuka speakers live in north Malawi, northeast Zambia and Tanzania. Ethnologue estimates a total of 2,546,000 Tumbuka speakers in 2000. However, Ember et al. estimate that about an additional million Tumbuka people live in central and southern African countries such as Tanzania because of the diffusion of Tumbuka people as migrant labor.

The Tumbuka language, also called chiTumbuka, is a Bantu language, similar to many other Bantu languages in structure and vocabulary. It is classified as a central Bantu language in the Niger-Congo family, and it has many dialects. The Tumbuka are collectively known as ŵaTumbuka and one is called "mutumbuka" meaning one of the Tumbuka tribe. The Tumbuka language is closely related to the Tonga language and it has been suggested that they originally formed a single group of mutually intelligible dialects until different missionaries treated two such dialects as the standard Tumbuka and Tonga languages.

Before a British protectorate was created over Nyasaland, there were many ethnic groups in what is now Malawi's Northern Region including a substantial group culturally-related people, scattered widely and loosely organized under largely autonomous village headmen who spoke dialects of the Tumbuka language. Missionaries in the late 19th century standardised these languages into a relatively small number of groups, and chose the standardised Tumbuka language as the usual medium for teaching in the north of the country, in preference to the Ngoni, Tonga or Ngonde languages which were also prominent in the area. By the start of the 20th century, the Ngoni and Ngonde languages were in decline, although Tonga was more resilient.

In 1968, Tumbuka was abolished as an official language, as a medium of instruction and in examinations, and the secondary school entrance system was manipulated to assist candidates from the Central Region and disadvantage those from the Northern Region. Some of those that objected to the ban on the use of Tumbuka were arrested or harassed but both the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian and the Catholic Church continued to preach and use religious texts in Tumbuka in the Northern Region.

After the advent of multi-party democracy, Tumbuka language programmes began to be broadcast on national radio in 1994 but a 1996 proposal for the reintroduced of Tumbuka as a medium for teaching in the first four years of compulsory education has not been fully implemented. One effect of the failure to restore the Tumbuka language as the standard language of the Northern Region is that speakers of other languages in the region, the Tonga, Ngonde and even the little-spoken Ngoni language are now seeking parity with Tumbuka.


Society, religion and culture

Even before colonial rule was established, Christian missionaries arrived amongst Tumbuka people. Thomas Cullen Young was one of the first missionaries to publish on the culture in Notes on the history of the Tumbuka-Kamanga peoples in the Northern Province of Nyasaland. To help the conversion process, hymnbook and mythologies of Christianity were written into Tumbuka language, into a Tumbuka hymnbook. In contemporary times, the Tumbuka people are officially Christian, but they retain their traditional beliefs and folklores.

The Tumbuka people have had a sophisticated traditional religion. It included the concept of a supreme creator called Chiuta symbolizing the sun, who Tumbuka faith holds was "self created and all knowing". This religious belief has yield a rich mythology filled with morals. In a manner similar to neighboring regions of Africa, the Tumbuka have also revered ancestor worship, spirit possession, witchcraft and similar practices. Their spirit possession and witchcraft is related to folk therapies for illnesses. This practice is locally called Vimbuza, includes a therapeutic dance performed by those possessed, and this is a part of modern syncretistic Christianity observed by the Tumbuka people.

The Tumbuka people have been rural, living in villages or dispersed agnatically related clusters of rectangular thatched houses. A circular thatched granaries and kitchen would traditionally be a part of each household. The male members would spend their time mostly in a part of the house called Mpara and females in Ntanganini. In the crop season, family members dispersed, sometimes residing in isolated thatched houses near the cultivated land.

In the contemporary era, the primary staple crops of the Tumbuka people are maize, cassava, millet, and beans, along with a variety of pumpkins, vegetables, and fruits such as bananas and oranges as supplements often grown by Tumbuka women. Men have tended to be migrant workers. In the past, the farming was done manually using hoes. During the colonial rule, ox-drawn plows were introduced. Citemene, or slash and burn agriculture by small farmers is a modern era practice and continues among the Tumbuka people.



Vimbuza (pl. of Chimbuza) is a term used among the Tumbuka-speaking peoples of northern Malawi and eastern Zambia to describe several classes of possessive spirits, the embodied states of illness they produce in a person, and the therapeutic drumming, music, dance, and ritual that is performed to remedy the symptoms. As a cultural practice, Vimbuza is a local version of a more widespread therapeutic complex known as ngoma, which is found throughout much of central and southern Africa and has been the focus of important scholarship by John M. Janzen and others, and even earlier by Victor Turner in his writings about Ndembu drums of affliction.

Vimbuza, in the traditional Tumbuka people's belief, are category of spirits that cause illnesses, a concept that according to James Peoples and Garrick Bailey is similar to "bodily humours" in early European texts. The Vimbuza causes imbalance in the hot and cold forces within the human body, whose healing process, to Tumbuka people, is a ritual dance with singing and music. The UNESCO inscribed the ritualistic Vimbuza dance as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. The musical instruments that accompany the Vimbuza includes a Ng’oma or “drums of affliction”. A healer diagnoses spirit possession, and with the patient undertakes dance healing ritual treatment over several weeks or months.The dance tries to bring the patient into a trance, while the songs call the spirits to help. Men participate by creating drum rhythms that are spirit-specific and sometimes as the healer. Vimbuza, states UNESCO, creates a "space for patients to dance their disease”.

The Vimbuza tradition is effectively a set of practices and beliefs of which the Vimbuza dance is part; is a traditional healing procedure, to cure psychological illnesses as well as exorcise demons. In some places it is specifically called mkhalachitatu Vimbuza. Mkhalachitatu Vimbuza is one of the names given to Vimbuza dances performed as an exorcism rite when one is possessed by demons or evil spirits.

It is predominantly performed in Rumphi, but has spread to Mzimba, Karonga, Kasungu and other districts. The dance is also performed in Nkhata Bay where it is called masyabi and here it incorporates indigenous variations.


Zengani Traditional Ceremony

Zengani Traditional Ceremony is a traditional annual event held for Tumbuka speakers of Lundazi, Chasefu and Lumezi District in Eastern Province of Zambia, typically in October. Zengani means bringing together two tribes of the Ngoni and Tumbuka speaking people. During the ceremony people are expected to be entertained to various traditional dances like ingoma, vimbuza, muganda, and chiwoda. Traditional leaders such as chiefs attend the events.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Tumbuka peoples spans more than two centuries and may be divided into four main periods. The first period consists of the years before 1780, when the region was sparsely populated by small clusters of shifting cultivators and hunters. The second period began, as accounts would have it, with the arrival of a small band of ivory and iron traders under the leadership of Mlowoka ("he who crossed over"). The traders crossed Lake Malawi from the east between 1780 and 1800 and established themselves as rulers, imposing a new political order of centralized government on the Tumbuka. Mlowoka established his rule at Nkamanga, which became the central kingdom under the Chikuramayembe ("the bringer of hoes") dynasty, with rulers being selected from the ruling royal clan, the Gondwes. By the time of his death, Mlowoka's authority extended over a large area from the Songwe River in the north to the Dwangwa in the south. His fellow traders also founded their own chiefdoms throughout the region under their own royal clans. They imposed new customs and modes of cultivation using iron hoes and engaged in long-distance trade.

The third period began in the mid-1850s with the invasion of the Ngoni, an Nguni people from South Africa; the defeat of the Nkamanga; and the subjugation of most Tumbuka chiefdoms. Domination of the region by the Ngoni lasted until the British defeated them and established their own rule during the first decade of the twentieth century. The British restored the line of the Chikuramayembe dynasty in 1907. The fourth period extended from the domination of the British South Africa Company and British colonial rule until Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia became the independent African states of Malawi and Zambia in 1963 and 1964, respectively.

During colonial rule only minor investments were made in developing the Tumbuka-speaking regions. Colonial documents described the region as the "dead north." The north became the principal source of cheap migrant labor for the developing urban areas of central and southern Africa. However, the Tumbuka-speaking peoples had the advantage of attending mission schools as early as the 1880s and were among the most highly educated Africans in the region. Throughout central Africa they were included in the designation "Nyasa," a term that referred to their educational accomplishments and occupational achievements.



Historically, there has been variation in the settlement pattern of the Tumbuka peoples. A general pattern was for people to live in villages or dispersed domestic units. The villages consisted of clusters of rectangular thatched houses of agnatically related households. Each household had its own circular thatched granaries, kitchen, and bathhouse. There were also boys' houses (Mpara) and girls' houses (Ntanganini).

During the period of cultivation, households often dispersed to their farming areas, residing in circular or rectangular wattle-and-daub thatched houses. Each domestic unit had its own farms and elevated circular thatched farm granaries. Households with cattle had their own kraals. The settlement pattern has remained much the same, with some houses being constructed of brick with steel-framed glass windows and zinc roofing.


Economy and Subsistence

The Tumbuka are primarily small farmers who raise crops such as maize, millet, and beans, the main staples of the diet. They also grow cassava, rice, a variety of pumpkins, vegetables, and fruits such as bananas and oranges. Historically, maize was grown along the alluvial plains of rivers by Dumbo cultivation (along the banks of rivers), using hoes. Ox-drawn plows were introduced during colonial rule. Millet was cultivated through slash and burn agriculture, a practice known as citemene.

Women have been the main cultivators and the main-stay of the rural economy. Each married woman has her own farms and granaries and is supposed to provide for her children with the help of her husband. Since the Ngoni period, households have kept cattle and other livestock. The responsibility for caring for them falls to the males of the household.

During colonial rule, large numbers of Tumbuka men became labor migrants and households became increasingly dependent on the labor of women and the remittances sent home by men working for wages. With the declining economic opportunities for wage employment in the urban areas during the 1980s and 1990s, Tumbuka men returned to the rural areas, relying increasingly on agriculture and local sources of wage employment.


Commercial Activities

During the period of colonial rule the British introduced cash crops such as tobacco, coffee, cotton, and hybrid maize. Those crops were sold on the open market and to government-controlled marketing boards. Thus, there were opportunities for local wage employment, but the primary source of money to pay for domestic necessities (salt, soap, cloth, and metal pots and pans) and meet social obligations such as children's school fees and marriage payments came from labor migration. The men went off to the mines and urban centers of southern Africa and returned with goods, which they kept for themselves, gave to relatives, used as bride-wealth, and sold to others.

Since independence tobacco, hybrid maize, coffee, and cotton have been the main cash crops. The Tumbuka still rely on remittances from labor migration, but the opportunities for employment have lessened because of the declining economies of Malawi and Zambia.


Industrial Arts

In the precolonial period the Tumbuka produced much of what they consumed and used. They made bark cloth, pottery, reed baskets and mats, leatherwork, and iron tools. Much of this industrial production was replaced by commercially produced items during the period of colonial rule. The Tumbuka acquired useful skills from their missionary schooling, such as masonry and carpentry, enabling them to enter urban job markets. They also used those skills to build local brick houses, schools, and dispensaries.



Before British rule the Tumbuka engaged in local and long-distance trading of ivory, skins, guns, steel knives and spears, and cloth. The trade extended to and beyond Lake Malawi to the coast and involved Arab and Swahili traders. During colonial rule they were part of the trade in used clothes. Traders would buy candy and other items, exchange them for maize and millet, and transport those crops to the Congo, where they would be traded for bales of used clothes. The clothes would be brought back and sold in the local markets. Since independence, crops have been traded in local markets and cash crops (tobacco, hybrid maize, millet, coffee, and cotton) have been sold to marketing boards and local and international traders.


Division of Labor

The Tumbuka practice a strict division of labor based on gender and age. The main domestic tasks involving the household are undertaken by the female members. Those tasks involve cleaning, fetching water and firewood, cooking, mending, and caring for children. Women engage in agricultural activities such as hoeing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and preparing food for storage and eating. Men help prepare the maize and millet fields; build and repair houses, granaries, kitchens, and bathhouses; take care of the livestock; and hunt and fish. They are the main traders and are expected to seek wage employment to provide household items, meet social obligations, and pay taxes. Women may earn money by making and selling millet beer and baking. Since independence many have actively engaged in commercial farming. With advancing age, the demands on older women and men decrease and they retire to their own small vegetable gardens, cipa


Land Tenure

Land tenure varies in different regions. Historically, in its simplest and most general form, the chief and his royal agnates were the "owners of the land." This right was delegated to village headmen, who would allocate it to the heads of resident domestic units. The household head assigned land to his married sons, who then would assign fields to their wives. The picture becomes more complex depending on whether the headman was a commoner or a senior member of the royal clan. Ultimately, rights to the land were invested in the chieftainship. The Yombe and sections of the Kamanga provide examples of this pattern. More complicated patterns of land tenure developed among Tumbuka who adopted Ngoni customs and practices.


Kinship. Kin Groups and Descent

Most Tumbuka are organized into dispersed exogamous patrilineal descent groups (agnatic lineages) whose members trace descent from a common ancestor from a specific locality. Lineages are parts of clans that have the same clan name. Although lineages are exogamous, that is not always the case with clans.


Kinship Terminology

The kin terms of the Tumbuka have elements of the Omaha type of terminology in that the unity and solidarity of the lineage are recognized. The unity of generations is demonstrated by the fact that the men of the father's generation are called father and the men of the father's father's generation are classified as grandfathers or elder siblings, exemplifying the principle of the unity of alternate generations. The father's brother's children are classified as either brother or sister, and the father's sister's children as cousins. The mother's brother's children are called cousins, and the mother's sister's children are called brother or sister.



Marriage customs and practices vary. The most general form begins with courtship, the negotiation and partial transfer of bride-wealth, the marriage ceremony, and the delivery of the bride to the residence of the groom and his immediate agnates. The marriage negotiations take place between the agnates of the bride and those of the groom, usually with the mutual consent of the couple. The central marriage payments may be made in cattle and money. Tumbuka custom allows for polygyny. Divorce traditionally was primarily an option for the husband, but in the 1990s it was a right claimed by women and often accorded to them by local courts. Since the major Christian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, forbid polygyny and as a result of Western education, polygyny has become less prevalent. Western education and diminishing economic resources have also affected the prevalence of taking multiple wives. Sororal polygyny and window inheritance persist as widely practiced customs.


Domestic Unit

There is variation in the structure, composition, and size of domestic units. In general, they consist of linked households that are based on a three-generation extended family based on an agnatic core of male kinsmen. It is not uncommon for the male household head to be away working as a labor migrant. Among the Yombe the size and composition of domestic units have remained much the same since the 1960s, but this may change in the Uyombe chiefdom as well as among other Tumbuka peoples as men fail to leave home and others return from urban areas after failing to find wage employment.



Inheritance and succession are patrilineal. Lineage property such as cattle is inherited in the male line through a generation of brothers in order of seniority. Once the males of the generation have died, lineage property goes to the senior member of the next generation. There is, however, much leeway for contestation since many factors unrelated to age and sometimes to order of birth in polygynous families may contribute to the establishment of seniority. Succession to social positions may not always follow the pattern of inheritance. When a man dies, his wife is entitled to select his successor from his generational agnates, who include his brothers (real and classificatory) as well as his grandsons. Many Christian women select their oldest son and thus come under his authority, abrogating the rights of the husband's brothers.



Children are cared for by their parents, siblings, and grandparents. In the past, at the age of about five to seven years, boys and girls took up residence with their peers and older youths in boys' houses and girls' houses. In the 1990s those houses consisted of only a small number of friends living together. Their size has been affected by the fact that many young boys and girls attend boarding schools. Children and youths circulate freely between households, extended kin units, schools, and religious organizations, all of which contribute to their socialization.


Social Organization

Historically, most Tumbuka peoples were organized into small agnatic descent groups. Those descent groups had their own structure of kinship and ritual authority based on the seniority of older men. Women were subordinate members in their own descent groups and those into which they married. The arrival of Mlowoka and his band of traders did not disrupt those basic units but incorporated them into chiefdoms based on a centralized authority. The territorial framework consisted of the chief and his advisers and councils, subchiefs, and village headmen. The Ngoni incursions disrupted this pattern of authority, especially among the Kamanga. The rulers fled, and the Ngoni absorbed young men into their military regiments.

With British rule there was a resurgence of Tumbuka ethnic identity, a movement led by the emerging elite educated in Christian missions. The territorial system was restored. However, the newly educated elite entered the occupational structures created under colonial rule, becoming skilled artisans and craftsmen, school teachers, clerks, minor civil servants, religious leaders, and politicians. They founded schools and new religious organizations such as the Jordan and National churches. They went as labor migrants throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa and established themselves as leaders in ethnic, regional, and occupational associations. They became a force in Central African history, participating in the founding of the Malawi Congress Party in Malawi and the United National Independence Party in Zambia.


Political Organization

In the precolonial period the powers and authority of Tumbuka chiefs varied from chiefdom to chiefdom. Among the Kamanga congeries (including the Nkamanga, Hewe, Yombe, and Ntaliri chiefdoms) it would seem that chiefs had considerable judicial and ritual authority over the land and their subjects. They were the "owners of the land" with rights over its basic resources. They were entitled to ivory, skins, and other valued commodities. They had their own courts (Mpara), where they tried cases and settled disputes. They offered prayers to their lineage ancestors for the well-being of their subjects. However, the arrival of the Ngoni disrupted the structure of local authority and the ability of chiefs to rule.

Under British rule, patterns of chieftainship were restored and chiefs became Native Authorities, part of the structure of colonial administration. The Tumbuka chiefdoms were reorganized. Chiefs were selected from royal clans recognized by the British. They were in charge of courts and at the center of an administrative structure that included councils, court clerks and assessors, and chiefdom clerks and messengers. They were responsible for governing their people and to British authorities. They were minor administrators in the British colonial hierarchy. Chiefdoms were ordered into districts under district commissioners. In 1945 district boundaries were redrawn to reflect more accurately the British understanding of Tumbuka ethnic distributions. Independence did not eliminate chieftainship as an institution or fundamentally transform these chiefdoms in Malawi or Zambia. The Tumbuka still retain their ethnic identity.


Social Control

Disputes may be arbitrated within four main frameworks: domestic, kinship, territorial, and religious. Disputes related to household affairs, such as arguments between cowives, usually are settled by household heads. If arbitration is unsuccessful and the dispute relates to kinship, it may be heard by lineage elders. Disputes between villagers are heard by the village headman and, if he can not settle them, may be brought to the chief for arbitration. Disputes involving misfortunes may fall to ritual authorities such as lineage elders, diviners, and prophets for explanation, arbitration, and remediation. The local court hears civil cases related to property, debt, divorce, and marriage payments.


Religious Beliefs

Tumbuka religious beliefs fall within two main frameworks: the traditional and the Christian. The cultural elements of the traditional religious framework include a belief in a distant god (Leza/Chiuta) and in the power of ancestors and witches. Before British rule Leza was thought to be the supreme being, who created the world and everything within it. Once he had created the world, he withdrew from it, leaving human beings to manage their own affairs. The ancestor spirits of descent groups were the ones who affected the affairs of the living and communicated with Leza. Witches were believed to affect human affairs. The use of witchcraft involved special knowledge and the use of medicine to produce the desired effect. The advent of Christian missions beginning in the 1880s introduced a new inventory of spirits that became part of the Tumbuka field of religious beliefs. Although most Tumbuka are Christians, traditional religious forms remain part of their beliefs, providing explanations for their fortunes.



The Tumbuka rely on a number of sources for medicine and treatment. There are the traditional medical and ritual healers. The healers include herbalists, diviners, and prophets who know about the medicinal properties of a large number of medicinal plants. They may treat different diseases and afflictions, ranging from the common cold to spirit possession (vimbuza). Although most Tumbuka seek the services of these healers, they also rely on Western medicines and practices, and frequent dispensaries and hospitals.


Death and Afterlife

Death requires an explanation. It may be due to natural causes, witchcraft, or an angry ancestor spirit. When a person dies, the corpse is buried in a grave about 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep. The grave is considered to be a house with a special room for the deceased. The face of the corpse is carefully directed toward the locality from which his or her clan is believed to have originated. The period of mourning begins immediately after the burial and requires the confinement of the deceased's relatives. The day after the burial senior agnates return to inspect the grave for signs of witchcraft. Once the period of mourning is over, rites of purification are undertaken. Senior agnates may return to the grave and take the spirit of the deceased back to the house. Other rituals may be performed that transform the spirit into an ancestor. Ancestor spirits are believed to be close to their agnates and to affect their affairs. Many Christian Tumbuka follow these burial practices and accept the beliefs associated with them. They also believe in the Christian concepts of an afterlife involving heaven and hell and the day of judgment and resurrection.