An Introduction to Zambia’s Bemba Tribe

Young Bemba girls in 1932
Young Bemba girls in 1932 | © Livingstone Museum

The nation of Zambia has 73 tribes with the Bemba being the largest, making up approximately 36 per cent of the population. They have a unique history and a fascinating culture. This is an introduction to Zambia’s Bemba tribe.


The Bemba tribe migrated into Zambia from the Luba Kingdom (present day Democratic Republic of Congo) during the Bantu Migration, which took place between the 15th and 17th centuries. Legend has it that the chief of the Luba tribe, Mukulumpe, married a woman named Mumbi Lyulu Mukasa who was of the crocodile clan (known as the Ng’andu clan). She had sons called Chiti, Nkole and Katongo who fled the Luba kingdom after a dispute. They took with them followers and their sister Chilufya.

In order to expand their kingdom, the Bemba raided smaller tribes, taking their land, resources and women. Nkole and Chiti eventually died and were buried at a place called Mwalule, which is now a royal burial ground where all Bemba chiefs (addressed as Chitimukulu) are buried. Chilufya’s son was crowned the new chief, starting a matrilineal form of royal succession that continues today. The Bemba eventually settled in present-day Northern Province after they spotted a dead crocodile that they took to represent a good omen. They named the capital Ngwena. Present-day Bemba society consists of 40 clans with different identifiers.

A young Bemba girl, c. 1935–1950


The Bemba tribe are mainly found in the Northern, Luapula, Muchinga, Central and Copperbelt provinces. There are other tribes such as the Ushi, Lamba, Bisa, Chishinga, Kunda, Lala, Lunda, Ng’umbo, Swaka, Tabwa and Unga who speak dialects of Bemba and are loosely affiliated with the Bemba tribe, but are considered independent tribes. With urbanisation, Bemba speakers can be found everywhere in Zambia including the capital city, Lusaka.



Due to degraded soil in their homeland, the Bemba have historically practiced a farming system called ‘chitemene’. It is a slash and burn system where trees are cut down and burnt and the ashes are then used to reduce the acidity of the soil. Once the land has been overworked (after three or four years), the Bemba tribe will move to another patch of land. Due to increased population, which leads to pressure on the land, the chitemene system is slowly being practiced less often.

Traditional ceremony

The Bemba recreate their migration to Zambia in the annual Ukusefya Pa Ngwena traditional festival that takes place in Mungwi District. During the ceremony, the Chitimukulu (Chief) is carried on a throne made of a paper mache crocodile. There is drumming and dancing, and traditional food and drink is served. The Ukusefya Pa Ngwena takes place in August. The Bemba of Luwingu district in Northern Province celebrate the Mukula Pembe traditional ceremony, which also takes place in August.


Like many other Zambian tribes, initiation ceremonies were held when a males and females reached puberty. The female initiation ceremony is called ‘Chisungu’. Due to Westernisation, particularly the spread of Christianity, many traditional practices do not take place anymore, or only take place in rural areas. Some initiation ceremonies only take place before a man and woman are married. For instance, women prepare for marriage by hiring a ‘chimbusa‘, who are traditional counsellors that offer advice on sex, chores etc. Men also have an equivalent called a ‘Shibukombe’. An official ‘coming out’ ceremony is held for a woman before marriage called a ‘Kitchen Party’ where the bride-to-be (‘nabwinga’) is showered with gifts to start a new life.


When a man is interested in marrying a woman, he must take plates called ‘tumbale‘ filled with money, or ‘insalamu‘, to her family home. This is similar to the process of asking for a woman’s hand in marriage in Western culture. When the offer of marriage is set, the plates are taken back to the man and are filled with food. This process is called ‘Chisekele Nsalamu’. A bride price, or ‘mpango’, is then agreed upon.

A pre-wedding buffet called ‘Icilanga Mulilo’ is held for the groom. This literally translates to ‘show the fire’, referring to the fact that meals were cooked on a traditional hearth. The purpose of the event is to show the groom’s family that his bride is adept at cooking a wide variety of meals. It also signifies that the groom is free to eat in the home of his in-laws. After a Bemba couple has been happily married for several years, a woman’s family is meant to show her appreciation to her husband by organising a ‘Matebeto’, which is similar to the pre-wedding buffet but with larger quantities of food. The last of the pre-wedding food-related traditions is the ‘Ukonkola’ meaning ‘granting authority’. It is a meal prepared by the parents of the bride for the groom, and gives him the authority to make decisions on behalf of the elders of the bride’s family.

Identity and Naming

Historically, members of the Bemba tribe could be identified by scars on their faces called ‘mpoloto’. A sharp blade is used to mark the temples of a baby. This was meant to protect the child from evil spirits.

Bemba names are generally unisex with common names including Musonda, Mulenga, Bwalya etc.


The Bemba have many myths, mostly associated with water bodies. For instance, the residents near the Chishimba Falls believe that there is a spirit called Mutumuna comprised of a brother and sister who are believed to have fallen from the sky.

The Bemba believe that the Chishimba Falls are sacred due to the presence of a spirit called ‘Mutumena’


Like many other Zambian tribes, the Bemba use proverbs and stories to impart lessons to children. Mulenga Kapwepwe, an expert on Bemba culture, compiled a book on Bemba proverbs titled Insoselo na Mapinda: Ancient Bemba Wisdom For Modern Living. She also delivered a TEDx Talk on African proverbs as life hacks.

Food and Drink

Like all other tribes in Zambia, the Bemba eat the staple national dish of ‘nshima’, which is maize meal accompanied by vegetables and a protein. The dish is accompanied by a beverage made from fermented roots and maize meal called ‘munkoyo. This is served in place of juice or water to guests. The Bemba also brew beer called ‘katubi’, or ‘Chipumu’.

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