Bemba, also called Babemba, or Awemba, Bantu-speaking people inhabiting the northeastern plateau of Zambia and neighbouring areas of Congo (Kinshasa) and Zimbabwe. The Bantu language of the Bemba has become the lingua franca of Zambia.
The people practice shifting cultivation, pollarding the forest trees and planting the staple, finger millet, in the ash derived from burning the branches. Poor soil and inadequate transportation have hindered the production and sale of cash crops, and in the 1960s and 1970s many men began to leave the area to find work in the copper mines more than 400 miles (640 km) to the south.
The Bemba claim to be an offshoot of the Luba empire (seeLuba-Lunda states) and are thought to have left the Congo in the 18th or early 19th century. They achieved a centralized government under a supreme chief, the Chitimukulu, who was a member of a single, matrilineal, royal clan. The power of members of this clan rested on the sacredness of their persons and on their prayers to ancestral spirits at relic shrines, which were thought to have influence on the fertility of the land and on the general welfare of the people. Their burial and accession ceremonies are among the most elaborate found among the Bantu speakers.
The Bemba are divided into 40 matrilineal, exogamous clans, with members dispersed over the country. The local group is the village, which is largely composed of the matrilineal relatives of the headman. It contains about 30 huts and moves every four or five years when the soil is exhausted. Polygyny is practiced; each co-wife occupies her own home, although the first wife enjoys special status.
The Bemba (or 'BaBemba' using the Ba- prefix to mean 'people of', and also called 'Awemba' or 'BaWemba' in the past) belong to a large group of Bantu peoples mainly in the Northern province, Luapula and Copperbelt Provinces of Zambia who trace their origins to the Luba and Lunda states of the upper Congo basin, in what became Katanga Province in southern Congo-Kinshasa (DRC). They are one of the larger ethnic group in Zambia. (A few other tribes in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt provinces of Zambia speak languages that are similar to Bemba but are not the same (E.g. Lamba, Mambwe, Bisa etc.). Bemba history is a major historical phenomenon in the development of chieftainship in a large and culturally homogeneous region of central Africa.
The Bemba are those who consider themselves subjects of the Chitimukulu, the Bemba's single paramount chief. They lived in villages of 100 to 200 people and numbered 250,000 strong in 1963. There are over 30 Bemba clans, named after animals or natural organisms, such as the royal clan, "the people of the crocodile" (Bena Ng'andu) or the Bena Bowa (Mushroom Clan). They were the people who finally put a halt to the northward march of the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana descended Ngoni people, through Chief Chitapankwa Kaluba. The BaShimba Leopard Clan or bena Ngo living among the Bemba people are part of the Basimba people now living in Tanzania, Uganda and the DR Congo.
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.
The Bemba language (Ichibemba) is most closely related to the Bantu languages Kaonde (in Zambia and the DRC), Luba (in the DRC), Nsenga and Tonga (in Zambia), and Nyanja/Chewa (in Zambia and Malawi). In Zambia, Chibemba is mainly spoken in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt Provinces, and has become the most widely spoken African language in the country, although not always as a first language.
The History of AbaBemba (15th Century to Present)
AbaBemba (the Bemba people) of Zambia in Central Africa are Bantu. The history of AbaBemba did not begin in the 15th Century, but the historiography of AbaBemba did. It is from the historical literature on the Portuguese expansionist project of human-stealing and direct territorial extensions on the African continent, particularly starting with the Diego Cam (also known as Diogo Cão) 1484-1485 expedition from the mouth of the Congo River to the Kongo Kingdom, that we begin to recognise the names of the ur-ancestors of AbaBemba.
Currently, there is no textus receptus of Bemba history; so, much of what is known about AbaBemba, especially about their early formative years, is a reasoned synthesis of scattered bits of history. Such history includes Bemba oral traditions (Mushindo, 1977; Tanguy, 1948), historical texts on early imperialistic ventures and post-Berlin conference European undertakings in the region (Bandinel, 1842; Richards, 1939; Roberts, 1970; Tweedie, 1966), inferences from historiographical mentions of well-known Bemba ancestors (Bandinel, 1842; Gondola, 2002; Reid, 2012), tie-ups with the historical writings on other Central African kingdoms (African Elders & Labrecque, 1949; Gondola, 2002; Reid, 2012), and Bemba-focussed historiographical endeavours of the past century (Mushindo, 1977; Roberts, 1970; Roberts, 1973; Tanguy, 1948).
Those familiar with the Portuguese ‘expansionist enterprise’ on the African continent will remember that around the year 1484, Diego Cam came across the Congo River on the Atlantic central African coast (Bandinel, 1842). He explored the river and found the Kongo Kingdom, a vast Bantu Kingdom that spanned the present countries of Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo-Brazzaville. The ruling monarch of the Kongo at that time was Nzinga a Nkuwu (Gondola, 2002). Locally, the monarchical title was Mani Kongo or Mwene Kongo which translated as ‘the owner of the Kongo Kingdom’. Nzinga (known by AbaBemba as Nshinga) was Mwene Kongo VII. ‘Nkuwu’, with the grammatical prefix ‘a’, is a patronymic: Mwene Kongo Nzinga was son of Nkuwu.
Through Catholic missionaries, the imperialists “Portugalised” the Kongo Kingdom: Mwene Kongo VII Nzinga a Nkuwu was baptised in 1491 as João I (John I) the name of a Portuguese king (Gondola, 2002; Tanguy, 1948). Mwene Kongo Nzinga died in 1506 and was succeeded by his son Mvemba a Nzinga (Mvemba son of Nzinga). Mwene Kongo VIII Mvemba (also known as Muhemba, Mbemba or Mubemba) also underwent the Christian-cum-imperialistic baptism and got, for his baptism name, a Portuguese regal name: Alfonso I (Reid, 2012).
Shortly after the 1543 death of Mwene Kongo VIII Mvemba a Nzinga (Alfonso Mubemba), the proto-ancestors of AbaBemba rebelled against the Portuguese imperialistic advances that were tearing down the foundations of the Kongo Kingdom: Christianisation, slavery, Portuguese encroachment, and European education. The ‘rebels’ broke away from the Kongo Kingdom, went east and became an integral part of the Luba Kingdom in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (Tanguy, 1948).
A 17th Century anti-imperialism rebellion in the Luba Kingdom led to another eastward movement of a breakaway group that would later be known as AbaBemba. From the Luba Kingdom, the ‘rebels’ were led by two of Luba King Mukulumpe’s sons: Nkole and Chiti (Mushindo, 1977; Tanguy, 1948). The mother of Nkole and Chiti was Mumbi Lyulu Mukasa of the Bena-Ng’andu clan. Since then, Bena-Ng’andu is the monarchical clan of AbaBemba. A crocodile (ing’wena in modern Bemba; ing’andu in old Bemba) is the totemic object of the clan. Today, in the highly protected royal archives (babenye) at the palace of Mwine Lubemba Chitimukulu, are four Christian statues obtained 600 years ago from early Catholic missionaries in the Kongo Kingdom. Mwene Kongo VIII Mvemba a Mzinga (Alfonso Mubemba), is regarded as the ur-ancestor of AbaBemba. The onomastic proximity of -vemba (in Mvemba) and –bemba (in AbaBemba) and the Christian statues in the royal archives (banenye) historically connect AbaBemba to the Kongo Kingdom.
From Kola (Kongo Kingdom), our ancestors moved to the Luba Kingdom, then crossed Luapula River and settled first at Isandulula (below Lake Mweru), then at Keleka (near Lake Bangweulu), at Chulung’oma, and at Kashi-ka-Lwena. They crossed the Chambeshi River at Safwa Rapids and settled at Chitabata, Chibambo, Ipunga, Mungu, and Mulambalala. Then they crossed the Chambeshi River again (moving back west) at Chikulu. A royal omen at Milando River compelled AbaBemba to settle down and stop wandering (Mushindo, 1977; Tanguy, 1948; Tweedie, 1966). The settlement was named Ng’wena Village and became the first capital of Ulubemba, the Bemba Kingdom. The Bemba-Ngoni wars of the 19th century were fought at Ng’wena; the Bemba-Ngoni cousinship was born at Ng’wena.
From the time AbaBemba established themselves as a distinctive ethnic group to the time of the 21st Chitimukulu (Mwine Lubemba Salala-bana-bonke), there was one kingdom and one monarch (Roberts, 1970, 1973; Tanguy, 1948). However, during the reign of the 22nd Chitimukulu (Mwine Lubemba Mukuka wa Malekano), at the end of the 18th Century, AbaBemba embarked on an expansionist project. Mwine Lubemba Chitimukulu Mukuka wa Malekano started pushing AbaLungu (the Lungu people) out of the present-day Kasama area. When he had forced AbaLungu to move west and settle on the western side of the Luombe River, the geographical coverage of the Bemba Kingdom had grown to such extent that it was not practical to manage it from UluBemba Headquarters. So, Chitimukulu Mukuka wa Malekano gave the newly acquired Ituna area to his young brother Chitundu as a separate Mwamba Kingdom, a surrogate of the Bemba Kingdom (Mushindo, 1977; Tanguy, 1948). Chitundu became Mwine Tuna, Mwamba I. This was at the very end of the 1700s.
During the reign of the 23rd Chitimukulu Mwine Lubemba Chilyamafwa, the reign that went up to the year 1808, the expansionist project continued vigorously. Chitimukulu pushed AbaMambwe (Mambwe people) north, creating the area that would be called Mpanda. On the other hand, Chitimukulu Chilyamafwa’s young brother, Mubanga Kashampupo who had ascended to the Mwamba throne as Mwine Tuna Mwamba II, continued pushing AbaLungu west and south, creating the Kalundu area. Chitimukulu Chilyamafwa created a surrogate Mpanda kingdom over which his son Nondo-mpya would reign as Makasa I; Mwamba Kashampupo created a surrogate Kalundu kingdom over which his son would rule as Munkonge I (Tanguy, 1948). Other key players in the expansionist project were the 25th Chitimukulu, Chileshe Chepela (ruled 1810-1860), and the 27th Chitimukulu, Mutale Chitapankwa (ruled 1866-1887). By the time the colonialists arrived at the end of the 1900s, AbaBemba had pushed out earlier immigrants to Tanganyika plateau: the Tabwa, Bisa, Lungu, and Mambwe. UluBemba (Bemba land) went as far as Lake Tanganyika in the north, the swamps of Lake Bangweulu in the south-west, the Muchinga Escarpment and Luangwa Valley in the east and Lake Mweru in the west. This geographical was subdivided into over fifteen (15) surrogate kingdoms under the reign of Chitimukulu’s brothers, sons, and nephews. In fact, Richards (1939) observes that the political influence of the Chitimukulu covered the whole area marked out by the four great lakes (Mweru, Bangweulu, Tanganyika and Nyasa) and extended south into the Lala and Lamba country (parts of the present-day Central and Copperbelt Provinces of Zambia).
Today, the political structure of the Bemba Kingdom remains more or less the same: Chitimukulu is the Mwine Lubemba (owner of the Bemba Kingdom); Ulubemba is divided into semi-autonomous ‘kingdoms’ under the reign of Chitimukulu’s brothers, sons, and nephews. Nkula and Mwamba are the senior brothers of Chitimukulu and are usually the heirs to the Chitimukulu throne; Nkole Mfumu and Mpepo are the junior brothers of Chitimukulu. Nkole Mfumu usually comes to the Mwamba throne while Mpepo usually comes to the Nkole Mfumu throne. Occasionally, Mpepo and Nkole Mfumu have gone directly to the Chitimukulu throne. Of the sons of Chitimukulu, Makasa is the senior.
Starting with the reign of the 30th Chitimukulu, Mwine Lubemba Mutale Chikwanda (1911-1916), the political roles of the Chitimukulu were hijacked by the British colonial administration. Since then, the Chitimukulu throne is more cultural and ceremonial than executive and administrative. But these roles are not cast in stone. The current Chitimukulu, Mwine Lubemba Chitimukulu Kanyanta-manga II, is the 38th on the Chitimukulu throne. He came to the throne in August 2013, although the public celebrations of his ascendancy to the Chitimukulu throne took place on 31 July 2015. In 2016, Mwine Lubemba Chitimukulu Kanyanta-manga II wrote a reflection article entitled: The Illusive Role of the Chitimukulu. This article set out the leadership roles the 38th Chitimukulu sought to assume. Soon afterwards, Mwine Lubemba put forward a very determined socio-economic development agenda for the Bemba Kingdom. Envisaged in the development plan is the establishment of Ulubemba Academy and harnessing the tourism and industrial potential of the Bemba Kingdom. All developmental and investment programmes are coordinated by the already-established Ulubemba Investment Centre, the brainchild of Mwine Lubemba Chitimukulu Kanyanta-manga II.
R Mukuka -23 January 2016
Quotes from the Studies of AbaBemba
Richards (1939, pp. 29–30) observes that AbaBemba
“…are obsessed with problems of status and constantly on the look-out for their personal dignity, as is perhaps natural in a society in which so much depends on rank. All their human relations are dominated by rules of respect to age and position… It is probably this universal acceptance of the rights of rank that makes the Bemba appear so submissive and almost servile to the European… Arrogant towards other tribes, and touchy towards their fellows, they seem to endure in silence any kind of treatment from a chief (sic, should read ‘monarch’) or a European.
To my mind their most attractive characteristics are quick sympathy and adaptability in human relationships, an elaborate courtesy and sense of etiquette, and great polish of speech. A day spent at the Paramount’s (sic, should read ‘King’) court is apt to make a European observer's manners seem crude and boorish by contrast.” (pp. 139-140)
Mukuka (2013, pp. 139–140), observes that
"With the introduction of the English polity in the (Northern Rhodesia) colony, the long established Bemba civilization and its intrinsic psychological realities were disrupted. For many abaBemba, the arbitrary amalgamation of 70-plus ethnic groups meant 1) a new identity, incomprehensible and groundless; 2) fears of loss of what they had known (politically, socially and economically) about managing their lives; and, 3) new centres of power (political, social, and cultural) that they had to learn to navigate. Insaka and ifibwanse, the long-established centres for educating Bemba boys and girls respectively lost their power to western schools that promised successful learners the social status next to that of the ‘white’ colonisers. Bemba cultural practices and ideals were harshly judged by both colonisers and Christian missionaries. Consequently, abaBemba asked: who are we in Northern Rhodesia? What is our place in this new amalgam? How do we fit in? Taking advantage of the written text, questions of who we are, where we are, and how we fit in found expression in Bemba literature; particularly, the over twenty documented Bemba factual novels..."
 For Tanguy (1948), the year of death of Mwene Kongo VII Mzinga is 1507; for Gondola (2002), it is 1506.
1) Bandinel, J. (1842). Some account of the trade in slaves from Africa as connected with Europe and America: From the introduction of the trade into modern Europe, down to the present time. London: Longman, Brown, & Co.
2) Gondola, D. (2002). The History of Congo: The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. London: Greenwood Press.
3) Mukuka, R. (2013). Ubuntu in S. M. Kapwepwe’s Shalapo Canicandala: Insights for Afrocentric psychology. Journal of Black Studies, 44(2), 137-157.
4) Mushindo, P. M. B. (1977). A Short history of the Bemba: As narrated by a Bemba. Lusaka: Neczam.
5) Reid, R. J. (2012). A history of modern Africa: 1800 to the present (2nd ed.). West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
6) Richards, A. I. (1939). Land, labour, and diet in Northern Rhodesia: An economic study of the Bemba tribe. London: Oxford University Press.
7) Roberts, A. (1970). Chronology of the Bemba (N.E. Zambia). Journal of African History, 11(2), 221-240.
8) Roberts, A. D. (1973). A history of the Bemba: Political growth and change in north-eastern Zambia before 1900. London: Longman.
9) Tanguy, F. (1948). Imilandu ya Babemba [Bemba history]. London: Oxford University Press.
10) African Elders & Labrecque, E. (1949). History of Bena-Ng’oma (Ba Chungu wa Mukulu). London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd.