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The Bemba (or 'BaBemba' using the Ba- prefix to mean 'people of', and also called 'Awemba' or 'BaWemba' in the past) belong to a large group of Bantu peoples mainly in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt Provinces of Zambia who trace their origins to the Luba and Lunda states of the upper Congo basin, in what became Katanga Province in southern Congo-Kinshasa (DRC). They are the largest ethnic group in Zambia. Bemba history is a major historical phenomenon in the development of chieftainship in a large and culturally homogeneous region of central Africa.
The Bemba are those who consider themselves subjects of the Chitimukulu, the Bemba's single paramount chief. They lived in villages of 100 to 200 people and numbered 250,000 strong in 1963. There are over 30 Bemba clans, named after animals or natural organisms, such as the royal clan, "the people of the crocodile" (Bena Ng'andu) or the Bena Bowa (Mushroom Clan). They were the people who finally put a halt to the northward march of the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana descended Ngoni people, through Chief Chitapankwa Kaluba.
In contemporary Zambia, the word "Bemba" actually has several meanings. It may designate people of Bemba origin, regardless of where they live, e.g. whether they live in urban areas or in the original rural Bemba area. Alternatively, it may encompass a much larger population which includes some 'eighteen different ethnic groups', who together with the Bemba form a closely related ethnolinguistic cluster of matrilineal-matrifocal agriculturalists known as the Bemba-speaking peoples of Zambia.
The Bemba language (Chibemba) is most closely related to the Bantu languages Kaonde (in Zambia and the DRC), Luba (in the DRC), Nsenga and Tonga (in Zambia), and Nyanja/Chewa (in Zambia and Malawi). In Zambia, Chibemba is mainly spoken in the Northern, Luapula and Copperbelt Provinces, and has become the most widely spoken African language in the country, although not always as a first language. .
Origins and the legend of migration
In a country called Kola, there once was a powerful, but apparently crazy chief called Mukulumpe. He had a number of sons by different wives, but one day he heard of a woman with ears as large as an elephant's, who said she came from the sky and belonged to the crocodile clan. Her name was Mumbi Mukasa, and the chief married her. They had three sons, Katongo, Chiti and Nkole, and a daughter, Chilufya Mulenga. The impetuous young men built a tower that fell down and killed many people. King Mukulumpe was furious. He put out Katongo's eyes, and banished Chiti and Nkole. Mukulumpe pretended to relent and called back the exiles. However, he had dug a game pit to kill the three of them. Katongo, though blind, warned his brothers by using his talking drum. When they arrived alive and at the palace, the king humiliated them by making them do menial work. Chiti and Nkole left the kingdom for good, and took with them their three maternal half brothers Kapasa, Chimba and Kazembe and their entourage.
They fled east, until they came to the middle reaches of the Luapula river. Chief Mapalo Matanda of the Bena Mukulo ferried them across. In their haste, they left behind their blind brother Katongo and their sister Chilufya Mulenga, who Mukulumpu had locked up in a house without doors. They despatched their half brother Kapasa to break out Chilufya Mulenga, which he did ingeniously. But on the way to Luapula, Kapasa fell in love with Chilufya. When it turned out she was pregnant, Kapasa was disowned by Chiti. The group meanwhile, had fallen in with a 'white magician', Luchele Ng'anga. When they arrived at the Luapula, Kazembe decided to settle there, but Nkole and Chiti were uncertain. When Luchele Ng'anga conjured up a fish from a mortar, they took this to be an omen to head eastwards, and moved toward the plateau of the Chambeshi river, near Lake Bangweulu.
They crossed the Safwa rapids, and the Luchindashi river, where there was a quarrel between two women, and part of the group stayed behind, forming the Bena Ng'ona Samfwe (type of mushroom), the royal clan of the Bisa people.
The others continued southwards where they encountered the Lala people, who asked them for a chief, and were given a man called Kankomba. The migrants then turned eastwards to the Luangwa Valley and among the Senga (or Nsenga) people, they encountered a chief called Mwase. Mwase's wife, Chilimbulu, was very beautiful, and her stomach was adorned with elegant cicatrisations. Chilimbulu at once fell in love with Chiti, and so did he. She seduced him breathless when Mwase was out hunting. When he returned and saw Chilimbulu naked, with Chiti, he was enraged. He pulled Chilimbulu off of Chiti, the two chiefs fought, and with Mwase trying to kill Chiti, he was grazed by a poisoned arrow, and Chilimbulu cried out, ran to her Chiti, and stabbed herself with the arrow too, after which they both died.
Nkole and his followers took Chiti's body with them and stole Chilimbulu's body, looking for a grove suitable for their burial. They encountered the magician Luchele Ng'anga again, and he directed them toward a majestic grove, called Mwalule or Milemba. At Mwalule, they found a woman called Chimbala. They also found another visitor, the Bisa headman Kabotwe, who was there to trade and pay respect to Chimbala.
After Chimbala gave them permission to bury Chiti and Chilimbulu, and placed Chilumbulu next to Chiti. But they managed to get Chimbala to marry Kabotwe, ensuring Chimbala's ritual ability to purify those who buried Chiti. Kabotwe became the keeper of the grove, and received the title Shimwalule, which his matrilineal descendants inherited. However, Nkole had sent out a party to raid cattle from Fipa chief 'Pilula' to provide an oxhide shroud for Chiti. Then, he dispatched a party to avenge Chiti's death, killing Mwase and Chilimbulu. Their bodies were burned at Mwalule, but the smoke overcame Nkole, who also died, and now also had to be buried at Mwalule.
The Kola migrants adopted matrilineal succession, and Chiti and Nkole were succeeded by their sister Chilufya Mulenga's son. He was also called Chilufya, and was too young to rule as chief, so Chiti's half brother Chimba ruled in his place. The Kola migrants left Mulambalala, their site near Mwalule and crossed the Chambesi River north. The disgraced Kapasa however, settled on his own in Bulombwa, driving out Iwa chief Kafwimbi and his cattle.
The others traveled westward up the Kalongwa River, where two men, Kwaba and Chikunga found a dead crocodile. As the chiefs were of the crocodile clan, this was taken as a good sign. Here, the Kola migrants made their capital, Ng'wena (Crocodile) on the Kalungu River and settled the surrounding country. The groups then living in the area were called Sukuma, Musukwa, Kalelelya and Ngalagansa. They were driven off or killed by the Kola migrants, who were by now called the Bemba.
When Chilufya the king grew up, Chimba handed him the royal bows belonging to his uncles Nkole and Chiti. Chilufya thereby gained the praise name 'ca mata yabili' (of the two bows). Chilufya however, insisted that Chimba kept Nkole's bow, allowing him to found his own village at Chatindubwi, a few miles north of the Kalungu River.
Thereafter, the Bemba became many. New villages and chiefs were founded, and many chiefs succeeded Chilufya Kaluba. All of these paramount chiefs took the name of the original founder, Chiti Mukulu (Chiti The Great). They are now in today's Zambia.
(Source: A History Of The Bemba, by Andrew D. Roberts, chapter 'The Origins Of Bemba Chieftainship')
The Bemba speaking people of Central, Muchinga, Copperbelt, Luapula and Northern provinces were very active in the independence struggle and have produced many politicians. Examples include Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, Zambia's first post-independence foreign Minister and one of the founders of the United Nations Independence Party that governed from independence until 1991; the late Frederick Titus Jacob Chiluba, Zambia's second President and one of the Founders of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy that governed Zambia from 1991 to 2011; Michael Chilufya Sata, Zambia's fifth President and founder of the party currently in power, the Patriotic Front. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first President, also came from the Bemba-speaking region, even though his family originated from present day Malawi and belonged to the Tumbuka speaking people.
- A History Of The Bemba, by Andrew D. Roberts
- The Rainbow And The Kings - A history of the Luba Empire to 1891, by Thomas Q. Reefe (For general context of the breakup of the Luba/Lunda Empire, of which the Bemba migration is a part.)