Africa Guide

Bemba People


Location:The Bemba are located in the northeastern part of Zambia. The Bemba are the largest ethnic group in the Northern Province of Zambia. About eighteen ethnic groups, give or take a few, in the area of Zambia, make up the Bemba-speaking peoples. The Bemba are also commonly referred to as a forest people.

The location of the Bemba is well watered. The soil is generally poor. It is covered with scrub, low trees, and brush. These are common characteristics of a typical African savannah environment. The climate on the central plateau, or Central Bantu, is very favorable. There is an ample amount of rainfall to supply them with their needs.

Religion: The Bemba have their own conventional religion. They believe in the existence of a higher god called Leza. He is not in the existence of the people, he is believed to live in the sky. He has control over such things as: thunder and women and men’s fertility. He is also supposed to be the source of magical powers. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Bemba were converted into Christianity by missionaries. Today, all but a few Zambians have totally dismissed their traditional belief system. So much that the religion of most Bembas is considered to be a transition from traditional systems to Christianity.

Culture: The Bemba live in rural villages built for inherited extended families. The villages consist of 30-50 huts that are made up of wattle and daub with grass as the roof. These populations range from sixty to one hundred and sixty people. The village serves as a central political system. The state of the Bembas is divided into political districts, usually containing five or more villages. Their main job is a type of subsistence farming in the form of shifting cultivation. Each family grows its own food and is very self-sufficing. The main crops are finger millet and cassava. Other foods are grown such as: beans, peas, maize, and sorghum. Other food in their meal plans include peanuts, gourds or squash, sweet potatoes, bananas, pumpkins, cucumbers, and cowpeas. Because the soil is so poor, after a few years of using the same field they quit and turn it into a garden. Once the fertility of the soil wears out, the village moves to a more apt location for growing. Traveling is done mostly by foot, but long distances are traveled by buses that rarely come to the remote areas of the Bemba region.

Material possessions are very few. There are not very many prominent families in the Bemba culture. The ones that are prominent are because of fishing, poaching, and casual labor. This lets them buy many products that go beyond their basic need for survival, but there are very few outstanding households. Inheritance is not important since there are few forms of inheritable wealth.

Disease is still a part of their lives. The live in an area where tropical diseases such as malaria and bilharzia are common. Malnutrition is also affiliated with their culture. The life expectancy of a female is fifty-four years and fifty-two for a male.

Language: It is not uncommon for a Zambian today to be multilingual. Since the Bembas are the most dominant group, Bemba is the most common language that is spoken. The other common language is English. English plays the important role as the national language of power and prestige of the high society. The importance of the Bemba-speaking goes back to the days of the powerful chief called Chitimukulu. The state is ruled by Chitmukulu. His office is inherited. He is thought to have supernatural powers.

Dress: The most common type of clothing was made from a bark that women wore as loin clothes. Today the women wear dresses that still have designs on them that are of Zambian or African culture. The men wear shirts, pants, and shorts.

Folklore: Very little of Bemba folklore has been written down. They have one interesting myth that deals with the origin of the Bemba culture. They depend on folklore strongly. They depend on it because it is their way of passing down their culture from one generation to the next. The myth reveals a story of oral , political, religious, and ritual dimensions. It is called the Bemba Charter Myth.

Family Bonds: Family to the Bemba refers to the extended family that comprises of many generations. They all share food, money, costs, gifts, and other niceties of life. There is no ceremony for boys’ when they go into puberty, but there is for girls’. The ceremony is called Chisungu. When the girls’ breasts start to develop they are put into a hut for six weeks to three months to undergo training in cooking, hostessing, being a mother, and gardening. If a girl becomes pregnant before this initiation, they are banned. In order for engagement, the young man offers her parents’ a present of small value. Once they are married the boy moves in with the parents’ of the girl. The Bemba have about forty clans and marriage in the same clan is not allowed. The clans are named after living plats or animals

Males work clearing the fields and are mostly involved in the political affairs and trade for the village. The women are in charge of the agriculture and responsible for food. Dogs are normally kept for hunting purposes and not as a pet. The women collect honey and insects like, caterpillars and grasshoppers, fruits, and wild plants. Fishing is also done by both men and women.

The Bembas major holiday is their Independence Day that falls on 24 October from Great Britian. Since their independence, the literacy rate has been increasing dramatically. Their only restraint is the accessibility of schools.

Beer pubs are very common in the region of the Bemba. They gather to get together and drink beer and have a good time. Television is known, but not very many, if any, Bembas can afford a television. They are known for having manufactured a complex folk art culture. Weaving is however; unknown to the Bemba. They did make pottery and baskets, but they were simple and breakable.  

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