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. The Bemba tribe is the biggest in Zambia in terms of population taking more than a third of the entire population.
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.
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.
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 (King of the Bembas (though politically called paramount 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.
In the pic: The Bemba King Chitimukulu Kanyanta Manga II being carried by his subjects during the ‘Ukusefya pa Ng’wena’ traditional ceremony in 2015.