THE BEMBA: A HISTORICAL STUDY OF ZAMBIA’S MOST POLITICALLY-INCLINED TRIBE

Politics in Zambia today has become a very tasking enterprise. The honorable Member of Parliament of Mazabuka Central, Mr. Gary Nkombo, once described elections in this country as a ‘dog fight’. His indignation was aroused by the seemingly unethical behavior that has soured Zambian elections for over two decades now. Politics, in general, does not receive a favorable standing in the eye of the public. Indeed, the average Zambian has a high level of political apathy. Meaning, he does not care very much about who governs this country. In some respects, I think this indifference is understandable. I was also once like that. I saw politics as a dirty game where no honorable man should indulge himself. But recently, and upon further study, I have had a change of heart. For it is impossible for you to impact people without having a tinge of politics in your blood.

Africa Democracy Ratings

Democracy and Politics

One of the main reasons that I think democracy in Zambia and Africa generally, is frail is because the idea of democracy is fairly new in Africa. Before the westerners came, Zambia observed a monarchial system of politics. Meaning, most of the tribes in the country at that time had an unelected King as a ruler. Some of these tribes are very well known such as the Bemba and Ngoni. To the casual observer, these two tribes and their kin seem to dominate the Zambian political arena. It, therefore begs the question, out of all the 72 tribes present in the country, why is it that only these few have such a flair for politics? The answer is shrouded in history and analysis of the individual political systems of these tribes. My focus will be on the Bemba because I think we can agree that there’s no other tribe in the country that has dominated politics as they have. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the title of the book that I extracted the information that will follow but it is nonetheless authentic. So, the tribal territory of the Bemba was divided into approximately 33 semi-autonomous chiefdoms, all ruled by members of one clan, the ‘Bena Nandu’ or ‘Crocodile clan’.

Chitimukulu at Bemba Ceremony of Kusefya pa Ng’wena

There were 4 major chiefdoms and 29 minor ones dependent upon them. Of these 4, about 2 were the largest and most pre-eminent; that of Mwamba and Chitimukulu. But Chitimukulu was the most senior. He had control of the military and economic power rivaled only by that of Mwamba. Anthropologists who study African people became aware that the political systems and the people, with whom they were dealing, was as complex as the system and people of Europe. This shows that politics is not a new ‘thing’ on the African continent. Initially, I took the view that since Zambia so far has had only 6 presidents, that infers that politics in this country is a recent development. But after studying history, I learned that the only political ideology that was new on the African continent was democracy.