HAVING been born and lived in Zambia for most of my 43 years now, I have decided to write this article to give some perspective on the so-called Bembas in Zambia and their influence on the political landscape of the country.
First, a little bit of why I am doing this.
I am a Mambwe by tribe and a Silavwe by clan. I hail from the land presided over by Chief Nsokolo in Mbala, Northen Province. Son of a retired school teacher, I have been to many parts of Northen Province, including little-known enclaves on the Bangweulu Swamps of Chilubi and Nsumbu islands.
I have learnt to make fishing nets, fish chitumpu (fishing catfish without hooks but river weeds), detecting crocodile presence, predicting storms by dipping one’s finger in the lake, etc.
I have also had the chance to meet many different types of Northerners speaking funny languages with funny accents like ichaushi, ichibisa, ichiunga and so on and so forth.
I have visited many parts of Zambia and I can safely say that I have three places dear to my heart that I need to visit and they are Sioma, Nchelenge and Kawambwa.
I have lived in and visited many European countries during and after my university days. I have been to moderate and radical European countries alike, the Koreas and the Holy Land (Israel).
Overall, I am not too bad in terms of looking at how people live, talk and what they hold dear in their lives.
That out of the way let us go back to the subject matter.
Zambia has been having elections for a long time. For my older readers, you will recall that even under the One-party State of the ‘Party and its Government’, we still had elections, albeit with only one candidate to choose from. Most of the time, they won.
As a young boy, I still recall that even in those times, the party in power still used to campaign and we would line up alongside the road to receive the presidential candidate or their envoy.
Today, the elections are a little more flamboyant, a little more emotional and slightly more expensive to run. Still, in my mind, what has not changed is the visibility of the so-called Bemba vote. It is this aspect of the Bemba vote that is the focus here and why it matters. I say it matters for the reasons below.
The Bemba tribe has been largely misunderstood by almost all Zambians.
The Bembas are in fact a very small and minority group of people, the purest form of them being confined to Chinsali District in the new Muchinga Province of Zambia.
As at 1963, there were only 250,000 of them. As regards the ‘real’ Bembas you would be talking about those who hail from places like Matumbo, Mulilansolo, etc. Kasama Bembas are migrants of the Bembas of the areas around Chinsali.
Now that we know who the Bembas are, why are most people in Northern, Laupula, Muchinga and Copperbelt provinces called Bemba by their brethren in other parts of Zambia?
Well, this really gets to me as well. I am Mambwe and I do not like being called Bemba. I am a half-caste. My mother is Bisa and my father is Mambwe. Mambwes are patriarchs and Bembas matriarchs but the man in my case won the battle, so I am Mambwe.
I will admit I speak the language flawlessly and even better than some typical Bembas, but I have an excuse. I can equally speak Bisa very well because I lived among these people for as along as I can recall.
On the other hand, ‘Bemba speaking’ is a more accurate word to use to describe the many types of people who settled in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt provinces of Zambia.
From their travels from Kola (Katanga Province of the DRC), they literally ‘dropped’ off several of their people that either were too tired to continue, failed to commit to the mission of the brothers Chiti and Nkole or misbehaved and got banished.
These dropouts formed different subsets of the original group and over time developed some differences in language from their original grouping. For purposes of this writing, Bemba will represent all Bemba-speaking tribes of the afore-mentioned regions.
Zambia’s size at 750,000 square kilometres is inhabited by many tribes. Due to the sheer numbers, the Bemba-speaking grouping occupies close to half of this area.
Zambia’s tribal groupings
The labour migration to the mines on the Copperbelt attracted a large chunk of the Bemba-speaking people and so they carved out a settlement there and literally subdued the native Lambas.
This was no mistake or fluke. For the scholars, you will recall that it was the Bembas under Chief Chitapankwa Kaluba who put a stop to the advancement of the Ngoni and Sotho-Swana people fleeing Shaka Zulu’s wrath from the south.
The Bembas have been spirited fighters from ancient times. They wrecked havoc on the Mambwes by conducting raids to grab cattle and women, killing all men and boys in their path. That I have never forgiven them for.
Due to their constant movements, the Bembas were never accustomed to keeping animals or farming. In fact they were blessed with tsetse flies in the area such that it was a perfect excuse to not rear any livestock such as cattle.
They instead perfected the art of war and raided other tribes they found and got strong young men, beans, cattle, etc which they traded for guns with the Arabs. Therein lies the history of trading in the Bemba’s DNA as seen today.
In my article piece to be published next week I will use the information I have presented here to give you an idea of what all this means in modern-day Zambia and why this country has changed forever because of this.
(To be next continued …)
By ANTHONY MUSALUKE –
Times of Zambia