One of the most interesting things about Zambia is the tribal culture. It is fascinating to see a country with so many different tribes still so fiercely proud to be Zambian. Despite there being 72 different tribes or ethnic groups, the country still lives by its motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Somehow a nation of 18 million people has managed to strike a balance between embracing their tribal culture and unifying under the idea of being Zambian.
A first time visitor to Zambia may not even notice the differences in tribes and languages that are found across the country. But stick around long enough and you will notice the variances in language, culture, and traditional ceremonies. There are a whopping 72 different tribes, but the Bemba tribe is the largest. It is believed that around 36% of the Zambian population identify as Bemba. Of these 72 tribes, other well-known tribes include, Tonga, Tumbuka, Chewa, Lozi, Nsenga, Ngoni, Kaonde, and Lunda.
Nowadays Zambians are moving around the country, but tribes are geographically located across specific provinces. Three of the biggest tribes are Bemba, Tonga, and Lozi; all of whom have their own uniquely fascinating heritage and traditions. Here's just a couple of things to know about these three tribes.
The Bemba tribe originally came from the Luba Kingdom, which is today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. After acquiring land, resources, and women (yes, women!) from smaller tribes, the Bemba people eventually settled in the area that is today the Northern Province. Today, you will find people from the Bemba tribe in the Northern, Luapula, Central, Muchinga, and the Copperbelt provinces. This wide expanse of the Bemba tribe means that today you can pretty much go anywhere in Zambia and find Bemba speakers, including in the capital city, Lusaka.
Although Zambia’s official language is English, there are seven other official languages that come from some of the aforementioned tribes. Bemba is one of the most widely spoken traditional languages. Though some may speak Tonga, many will understand enough Bemba to communicate with a Bemba-speaking Zambian. Bembas have often told me, “We Bembas don’t know the other languages, but everyone always knows Bemba.”
If you are travelling to Zambia, it is good to know some Bemba phrases. “Mulishani” is a popular greeting meaning “hello, how are you?”. If someone asks you — as they very well might, as Zambians are super friendly — you could reply “Indifye bwino”, meaning “I’m good”. The “bw” sound in “bwino” is pronounced differently to the same word in Nyanja. For foreigners the “bw” sound is often difficult to pronounce. The “b” is almost silent, and the word is spoken from within the mouth. Just give it a try, any Bemba speaking person (or any Zambian) will appreciate your efforts.
The Lozi tribe can be found mostly in Western Province, Zambia. Western Province is one of the most remote and unvisited of all of Zambia’s provinces.
If you have ever seen anything about traditional Zambian festivals, then you may have seen pictures of Kuomboka. This traditional ceremony is held every year after the rainy season ends in March or April. The Lozi’s are the only tribe in Zambia who have a King, not a chief. Kuomboka sees the King (or Litunga) move from his summer home in Lealui in the flooded villages to his winter home in Limulunga on higher grounds. Kuomboka is directly translated as “get out of the water”.
The ceremony sees the King travel aboard a royal barge called the nalikwanda. The nalikwanda is steered by 100 paddles wearing red berets called lishushu and a skirt with black and white chitenge (an African fabric). The King resides in a covered domed shelter in the middle of the boat. The shelter is adorned with a large statue of an elephant. The elephant is the Lozi’s symbol of power.
The Maoma Royal drums are beaten in Lealui — this is the warning for the paddlers to assemble for the Kuomboka Ceremony. The journey from Lealui to Limulunga takes around six to eight hours. The paddlers are in sync for the entire time because they follow the beat of the drum.
This incredible festival is not only a shining example of Lozi culture, but also of the diversity of the Zambian tribal system. If you are in Zambia around March or April, you should consider venturing to Western Province to experience Kuomboka.
Whilst many of the Zambian tribes descend from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom (now Congo or Angola), the Tonga tribes’ origins are still somewhat unknown. It is believed that the Tonga’s were some of the earliest Bantu settlers in Zambia. As is with many tribes in Zambia, the name of the tribe is also the name of the language.
The Tonga tribe is predominantly found in Southern Zambia. Traditionally, the Tonga’s land extended past Lake Kariba (the world’s largest man-made lake) to Zimbabwe. But since the construction of the hydroelectric dam on Lake Kariba, the Tonga land has altered.
The Tonga tribe is known for incredible and intricate hand woven baskets. These baskets which come in all shapes, sizes, and patterns were traditionally used for carrying maize. These baskets are made with small vines and palm leaves. It’s incredible how sturdy and elaborate these practical baskets are. If you travel to two of Zambia’s most popular tourist destinations, Victoria Falls (Livingstone) and the South Luangwa National Park you will be able to find these traditional Tonga baskets.
If you are visiting for a holiday, you will barely scratch the surface of the incredible tribal system that defines Zambia. It is only through talking with locals that you will discover just how rich the nation's culture and heritage are. Because Zambia embodies the motto of “One Zambia, One Nation” so much, it is easy to forget that so many people, from 72 tribes coexist. It is only when you really listen, say on a public bus in Lusaka, that you can notice differences in language and culture.