An Introduction to Zambia's Tonga People

Aerial views of Mukuni village, Zambia
Aerial views of Mukuni village, Zambia | © Sipa USA/REX / Shutterstock

Settled in the heart of Southern Africa, Zambia is a nation rich in cultural diversity, with a tapestry of 73 vibrant ethnic tribes. Among these, the Tonga people stand as a testament to the country’s deep-rooted history and traditions. As one of the oldest Bantu settler communities in Zambia, the Tonga tribe embodies a legacy that has shaped the nation’s identity. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of Zambia’s Tonga tribe, offering you a comprehensive guide to their heritage, customs, and the unique experiences that await those who seek to discover their captivating story. Welcome to the enriching journey through the essence of Zambia’s cultural tapestry, embodied by the resilient and culturally rich Tonga people.

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A brief history of the Tonga people

Unlike other Zambian tribes which claim to have descended from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom in present day Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, the exact origin of the Tonga tribe is still unknown. Iron Age settlements from as early as the 7th century have been found in various parts of the Southern Province, with the most popular being Ingombe Ilede which is translated as ‘the sleeping cow’ due to the large fallen baobab tree in the vicinity of the site. It is believed that the Mbara people who settled at the site were ancestors of the Tonga due to the similarity of their pottery to that of the existing Tonga. Therefore, this proves the assertion that the Tonga’s were some of the earliest Bantu settlers in Zambia, as they were already present in Zambia before the other tribes that migrated into Zambia as part of the Bantu Migration of the 15th – 17th centuries.

Like many other tribes in Zambia, the name of the tribe is also name of the language, which is the case for the Tonga. The Tonga form part of what is known as the Bantu ‘botatwe’ languages which are spoken by the Tonga, Ila, Lenje and smaller tribes like the Luya, Sala, Subia and Totela.

The name ‘Tonga’ means independent’, which refers to the fact that before colonization, the Tonga tribe did not have chiefs (traditional leaders) as other tribes did. According to anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, “Until the beginnings of the colonial period, approximately seventy years ago the largest named territorial unit among the Tonga was the small neighbourhood community. Ritual offices existed within the neighbourhood, but political office was embryonic or non-existent until the British Government recognized headmen and chiefs and later developed a local council with an appointed civil service”.


Aerial view by helicopter of Victoria Falls and Zambezi River

The Tonga are predominately identified by their homeland in the Southern Province. For instance, there are the Gwembe Valley Tonga who reside in the Gwembe Valley, a series of gorges below the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls measuring approximately 230 miles (370 km) long and 150 miles (2411 km) wide (Colson). Their land extended to the Kariba gorge which in 1957 became a construction site for the Kariba hydroelectric power dam. The construction of the dam displaced over fifty thousand Tonga and cut off the Tonga from Zambia from the Tonga of Zimbabwe, as previously they were only divided by the river. The construction of the dam forever altered the lives of the Tonga.

The Plateau Tonga live in the higher lands above the Zambezi river. They are distinct from the Valley Tonga in their basketwork, agricultural practices and a few customs, although both the Valley and the Plateau Tonga men and women used to remove the upper incisors and canine teeth during puberty. Both are matrilineal in inheritance and succession. According to Kariba Studies The Social Organization of the Gwembe Tonga by Elizabeth Colson, “they all speak the Tonga language, each region has its own dialect with peculiarities of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation”.

Aerial views of Mukuni village, Zambia


Traditional ceremonies

There are various traditional ceremonies observed by the Tonga people of Southern Province, depending on which chief (traditional ruler) they are under. The most well known of these is the Lwiindi Gonde in Monze district under Chief Monze. The ceremony is done to thank the ancestors for the harvest. The Lwiindi ceremony takes place during the first weekend of July.

Other Tonga traditional ceremonies include the Maliko Malindi Lwiindi ceremony of the Tonga in Sinazongwe under Chief Sinazongwe, Musumu Muyumu of the Tonga of Kalomo under Chief Sipatunyana, Guta Bweenza Bwe of the Tonga of Kazungula under Chief Nyawa and more.


Historically, the Valley Tonga women wore skirts made out of the bark of tree fibre. In terms of accessories, they wore beaded necklaces, headbands and elephant tail hairs. Sometimes beads would adorn the skirts. The top parts of their bodies were usually exposed.

According to Colson, “Upper River girls and young women wear beaded front and back aprons. As a further covering, they don a large square of cloth tied over one shoulder and dropping to their ankles. Until about 1950, Middle River girls and young women wore a fibre kilt and shawl draped over both shoulders. Today most of them have abandoned the kilt, along with with cowrie shells head circlets and the body dressing of red ochre which used to be characteristic of both regions”. Colonization brought Western clothing, so it is rare to see the Tonga wearing their traditional clothing.


The Tonga are known for their intricate basket work. The baskets were typically made by women, and served different purposes such as carrying, storing, sleeping etc and are named after the regions they are produced. For instance, the Plateau baskets are made by Tonga women living in the highlands of the Southern Province. According to Baskets of Africa, they are “traditionally used for winnowing grain. They have a heavy coiled rim and are woven of tiny vines, or creepers, and palm leaves, in a simple over and under weave style”. The Munyumbwe baskets are thicker and “woven in deep or shallow bowls”. The Sinazeze baskets are are coil woven over grass, which is a big difference from other Tonga baskets. They are rustic looking with thick sturdy walls. Sinazeze baskets are normally created with simple block patterns. The wide variety of Tonga baskets can be seen and purchased at the Choma Museum and Craft Center located in the town of Choma, Southern Province.

Tonga woman carries a basket with millet to her village at the Lake Kariba, Zambia

Food and drink

The Tonga have always kept cattle and therefore protein features heavily in their diet. Cow milk was never wasted, so that even when it went sour, it was still consumed by mixing it with nshima (the corn meal staple food of Zambia) and sugar to form a meal called ‘mabisi‘. The Tonga make a fermented beverage from roots called chibwantu. Unlike the Bemba version of the same drink called ‘munkoyo‘, the Tonga version is made from finer grits. A fermented beer was also brewed called ‘matimba‘.


Cattle are prized in Tonga culture are given the same names as humans.


According to Colson, the Tonga “formerly favored infant betrothals and combined a system of working for one’s bride with the payment of bride wealth”. The Tonga were and still are polygamous.


The Tonga of the Middle Valley buried their dead males and females with their heads pointing to the west and their feet pointing to the east. The Upper River Tonga women were also buried in the same way, but the men were buried in the reverse.


Men and women of the The Tonga of the Gwembe Valley in particular were known to smoke using large clay home-made pipes called mbanje. The male pipes were bigger and longer than the female pipes. The pipes smoked by Tonga women from the Western part of the valley were made of gourd and used conically shaped tobacco plugs.

The Tonga produced music using various drums for different occasions. At funerals, the Valley Tonga used the Budima goblet-shaped drum. A stick is inserted into the head of the drum and rubbed to provide sound. The Tonga also have an instrument similar to the mbira (a thumb piano from Zimbabwe) called the Kankobela. Contemporary musicians of Tonga descent include Mashombe Blue Jeans, Smokey Haangala and recently, a rapper whose alias is King Illest and has pioneered a genre called ‘Tonga trap’. The annual Radio Chikuni Music Festival held in Monze is a great way to discover Tonga music.


One of the most prevalent myths in Tonga history is that of the ‘Zambezi river god’ called Nyami Nyami which is depicted as a serpent-like body and a fish head. Legend has it that the Nyami Nyami was separated from his wife during the construction of the Kariba Dam in 1956 and in his anger, caused the Kariba floods of 1957.


Like other Zambian tribes, naming is a very important part of Tonga culture. A child is typically named under the circumstances it was born. For instance, a child called Miyoba which means ‘rain’ could have been born during a time of heavy rains. A child named Mutinta which means ‘different’ was the first child born of a different gender in relation to its older siblings. Banji is a name given to the first twin and means ‘we are many’, while Mpimpa is the youngest twin. Like the Bemba tribe, Tonga names are unisex.


Before missionaries brought Christianity to Zambia, The Tonga believed in a higher power called ‘Leza’ (which is now used to refer to Jesus Christ). They also made offerings at shrines for rain. The Tonga also believed that each person had a ‘Mizimu’, a general term used to refer to ancestral spirits. There are various types of mizimu such as the guardian mizimu, inherited mizimu, a house mizimu and an own mizimu who comes into existence only after a person’s death.


The Tonga are divided into exogamous matrilineal clans (several families who claim descent from a common ancestor) called mikokwa, each of which have a totem. Most clan totems are animals such as hare (rabbit), cow etc. A Tongan has two clans, one from the father’s side called kumausyi and another on the mother’s side called kumanyinya or kumukowa.

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