The Mambwe People in Outline

To understand better the oral literature of the Mambwe tribe, it is perhaps necessary that I attempt to provide a brief historical background. Such a background might also be useful in providing a clue, even if only a partial one, to the oral tradition of the Mambwe people. Although information on the historical origins of the tribe seems to be only provisional and tentative at  present, it could be constructive and encouraging to the further study of  history.

The History of the Tribe

The traditional rulers of Mambwe lands are the chieftains: Nsokolo, Mpande, Cindo, Cilesya, Mwamba, Mpenza and Fwambo. The neighbouring tribes are the Fipa, Lungu, Iwa, Inamwanga and Bemba tribes. All of these belong to the Bantu group.

The name bantu comes from the root of the noun ntu which appears in various forms in African languages South of the Equator down to the lands occupied by the Zulu and Xhosa peoples. Two different versions of the root ntu go as follows: muntu, bantu (the Bemba language) and muntu, antu (Mambwe). In both versions they mean person or people belonging to the bantu group, though they may also mean man and people in general.  A characteristic of all the Bantu languages is the division of nouns into different classes distinguishable by prefixes and pre-prefixes and the rule of agreement.[1]

Many authors underline that the origin and spread of the Bantu group is one of the most intriguing problems facing research about the past of Africa.[2] Today the Bantu groups occupy one third of the area of the African Continent South of the Sahara. The Reconstruction of the vast migrations and the determination of the origin of such a numerous language group is however, still very difficult. In order to determine the origin of a given group one endeavours to connect and compare facts from various disciplines, both within the sciences and the humanities. Archaeology and ethnography afford many conclusions concerning the migration of given peoples. Unfortunately, as regards the period of the great migrations of the Bantu peoples (1500 – 1700 AD), archaeology, has as yet failed to find many convincing arguments. For this reason, too, a detailed analysis of the oral traditions concerning the origins of given groups has been undertaken, taking into account above all the results of linguistic research  and comparative ethnography concerning religious, political and social institutions.

Among the above-mentioned five methods of researching the past of a given group the least trust-worthy seems that based on oral tradition. It transmits descriptions of the places of origin of the given group, gives the names of heroes etc. It is necessary to take into account, however, that these ‘histories’ of the origins of given groups are myths.[3] Andrew Robert writes: In general these stories comprise seeds of truth, but it is important to be aware that they do not give the full truth… Their main purpose is not to preserve what actually happened but rather to explain and throw light upon the customs and institutions of the present day. They may be based on current historical experience, but memory of the original experience has been condensed and reformed into a moral lesson for future listeners.[4]

The myths speaking of the beginnings of a given group deepen community bonds and political unity and strengthen the position of the dominant class, whose origin could well be completely different to that of their subjects. A. Roberts also notes that it is necessary to be careful in using the word ‘tribe’ in what concerns relations between various migrating groups. In his opinion it is difficult to speak of tribes in the sense of social organisation in the period of the Great Migration. The word ‘tribe’ may have different  meanings: it may denote a group of people speaking the same language, belonging to the same clan or subject to the same ruler, or finally a group differing from another in its place of settlement (peoples of the Savannahs, highlanders, valley peoples etc.). In the course of time these factors could have influenced the formation of a tribe as a by-product of social and cultural changes.[5]

Considering the above reservations, it is nonetheless possible to attempt to describe the beginnings and migrations of the Mambwe tribe.

There is no basic historical proof for the origin and relocation of the Mambwe people. It is beyond doubt, however, that they have been on this territory for some 250 years or so.[6] Their own tales – myths on the subject clearly differentiate between the history of the tribal chiefs and that of the ordinary people belonging to family clans.

Oral traditions passed down by the chiefs tell us that the founder of the chief royal clan (mwene Mambwe) was Cangala, who succeeded in uniting several self-governing family-clans. He came from the land of Kola in Angola. Tradition says that he was a hunter from the Muluwa tribe. He found groups which had already tilled the land for a long time on these territories. At their request he agreed to become their ruler. Most probably the first group encountered  by Cangala belonged to the Simwinga clan. The most important person was the elder of the clan, Cindo (known as cikolwe in the Mambwe language).  Cindo was impressed by Cangala’s hunting skills and his two tame leopards or, as others said, cheetahs. The prospect of securing a permanent supply of meat for the village convinced Cindo to come to an agreement with Cangala, which was then sealed by Cangala’s marriage to Cindo’s daughter. Cangala soon became the tribal chief of the whole Mambwe people, giving origin to all the chief races of the Mambwe people: Nsokolo, Mpande and Cindo. Nsokolo became the most important. Thus, the chieftain Cindo addresses the chief of the Nsokolo tribe as his son in law, though as regards power he is subject to him.

Another tradition tells us that the relations between Cangala and Cindo were not really very cordial. Since Cangala was only a hunter he knew little about the cultivation of grain. He asked Cindo for seeds for the sowing. Cindo agreed readily, but intending to get rid of an uncomfortable candidate for the position of tribal chief for this territory he first prepared or roasted the seed meant for Cangala. When the grain failed to grow Cangala realised that he had been cheated and decided to take revenge. He knew that Cindo jealously eyed his two tame leopards, which supplied him with meat. And when Cindo asked him whether it would be possible to cross the leopards with his own goats, Cangala confirmed it would be feasible and they agreed that the two leopards would be led into the goats’ enclosure for the night. In the morning Cindo discovered that all his goats had been killed. Cangala, therefore, had to leave the land. He met with people from the Sicilima clan who offered him a field to till. The field proved to be very fertile and Cangala decided to settle on the land. He chose a woman from the Sicilima family to be his wife.

Cangala settled permanently near the Tembo mountain. He encountered people from the Simpemba clan there. One of the women from this clan became his wife. It is believed that all Cangala’s successors come from this precise union.

On the other hand, the tradition concerning the origins of the Bantu group from which the Mambwe tribe later arose is more enigmatic and imprecise. It is said that the group had come to the Plateau territory “a very long time ago” from the Northeast, and that they inhabited the land without a chief until the arrival of Cangala, who introduced a new system of rule.

It is not possible to determine univocally the origin of the name Mambwe. According to oral tradition, the first group to reach the plateau lands inhabited by proto-bantu people had sought a free place to settle. One of the members of this group, named Mucemwe, settled in Mwambala.[7] He called the terrain he occupied ‘land belonging to no one’, which in the local proto-bantu language was Imambwe. A companion of Mucemwe, Cekwe, founded the village Ngongo,[8] and following Mucemwe also called the land Imambwe. Another oral tradition recalls that the first settlers of the Mambwe tribe wore jewellery (ukasi) made of stones threaded onto a string. They brought these stones with them, so they were not known to the proto-bantu people. Magical properties were accorded to them. At the same time, being a characteristic ornament, they differentiated the new group from among the long-settled proto-bantu people. In the Mambwe language ‘stone’ is mawe. In the past, in the proto-bantu language, this may have sounded similar to Imambwe.[9]

Watson believes that it is by no means impossible that this group indeed arrived from the North East.[10] The territory inhabited today by the Mambwe tribe had served as a natural bridge between East and Central Africa for centuries. It is therefore possible that while wandering through Africa this group separated away from the Southern patriarchal Bantu group.[11] The following facts support such an interpretation: the considerable differences in tradition between tribes located more to the South of the Mambwe people, especially the Bemba tribes. The Bemba people have kept matriarchal traditions and most probably come from the lands of Kola. The traditions of the Mambwe people, however, are similar to the traditions of tribes inhabiting territories to the East of the Tanganyika Lake. A. Roberts writes: In reality there is a ‘matriarchal’ belt passing through Africa, South of the Equator forests, from the Atlantic through to the Indian Ocean. A basic exception to this principle, in sixteenth century Zambia, are the peoples belonging to the linguistic group labelled ‘corridor’ between the Malawi Lake and Tanganyika: in their inheritance customs based on the patriarchal line as well as in their language, they represent a Southern extension of the culture of East Africa.’[12]

Factors differentiating the Mambwe tribe from others originating in Luba and Kola are a characteristic system of cultivation called citemele, and the type of cultivated plants. Both of these indicate that the Mambwe tribe is strongly linked with the tribes to the South East of the Tanganyika Lake such as Pimbwe, Rungwa, Fipa and Lungu.[13] The proto-bantu inhabiting this territory most probably cultivated kaffir corn.[14] The Mambwe tribe, however, uses the citemele method.[15]It is a method totally unknown in the Luba region in Southern Zaire, whence originate most of the bantu tribes currently inhabiting Zambia.

The best results in determining the relationships between particular bantu tribes are afforded by comparative linguistic research. Detailed linguistic analysis done by Greenberg[16] and later by Guthrie[17] showed that in all probability the proto-bantu originated from the territories of Northern Katanda (Luba and Lunda).[18] From here small bantu groups dispersed in all directions following the Chari, Ubangi, Congo and Cassi rivers. Some groups probably migrated right up to the East coast, where they learnt to cultivate yams, cocoa-yams and bananas. It seems that the following tribes arose from this group, which we may call the Eastern Bantu peoples: the Mambwe, the Lungu, the Inamwanga, the Iwa and probably also the Nyakusa from Tanzania.[19]

Modern African languages in Zambia can be divided into nine main groups. Research by Mubanga E. Kashoki indicates that seven tribes from the North East of Zambia: the Mambwe, the Lungu, the Inamwanga, the Iwa, the Tambo and the Lambia show many linguistic similarities both as regards vocabulary and grammar. Taking into account their geographical location, this group has been labelled the ‘corridor’ group[20]. The percentage indicators of similarities in vocabulary prepared by Kashoki and Mann are as follows:


92            Lungu

75            70        Inamwanga

75            71        92        Iwa

64            60        78        78        Lambya

62            58        76        76        94        Tambo

54            51        68        64        70        69        Nyika

63            67        58        59        58        56        53        Bemba[21]

A. Roberts suggests that the language of the ‘corridor group’ seems to be a Southern extension of the languages currently in use in East Africa.[22]

This theory of Roberts is further backed by the opinions of those associated with the regional government in Cindo. On the basis of interviews I held in 1995 with the Ndondile governor’s consultants[23], it transpires that the Cindo family clan comes from East Tanzania from the area of Sadani, near Bagamoyo. The precise description of the migration from the Indian Ocean to the Mambwe country is indeed believable. Both the place names and river names of Tanzania seem to correspond with the real ones. It is highly probable that the Mambwe people, or more precisely the Cindo clan, had inhabited East Africa. Of course, it is not possible to calculate how long they inhabited the Sadani country, or whether this was merely a transitional stage at the time of the great migrations. The theory proposing that the Mambwe people came from the country of geographical Sudan also requires explanation. It is said that certain Zambian tribes which exhibit similar cultures and languages (e.g. Bisa) come from the regions of Sudan. It has thus been suggested that, as with Bisa, Sudan is the country of origin of the Mambwe tribe. It seems, however, that this is an error of interpretation resulting from the similarity between the words Sudan and Sadani (phonetical notation) as pronounced by the Mambwe people. In North East Tanzania (to the North of Bagamoyo) some maps show the Sadani country. Thus, it is most probable that the Mambwe people have this area of Tanzania in mind when speaking of their country of origin.

[1] This denotes the agreement of other parts of speech such as verbs, adjectives, numerals etc., with the prefix, and thus with the class of the noun which is the subject of the sentence.
[2] Cf. J.D. Clark, Prehistory of Africa, New York 1970, p. 275.
[3] This does not denote myth in the strict sense of the word, but more so a legend speaking of the migration of a given group.
[4] A. Roberts, A History of Zambia, London 1981, p. 63n.
[5] Cf. A. Roberts ibid, p. 66.
[6] The first Europeans who reached these lands thought that Mambwe were not an organised tribe. They judged that these were descendants of run-away slaves. However, the genealogy of the chiefs of the most important clans, which reach back 14 generations, suggest a different explanation.
[7] A village situated near Stevenson Road on the Mwambala river, about 55 km from the town Mbala.
[8] A village situated near the Stevenson Road, between modern Cipola and Mutipe.
[9] Both traditions have not as yet been written down anywhere. The first was conveyed to Fr. Marcel Petitclair (from the White Fathers) The informer, whose name has not been recorded, gave an ‘exact’ description of the conclusion of the migration of the group which arrived from the North East. Unfortunately, it is not possible at present to find anyone who could give an etymological explanation for the name Mambwe. The second tradition is even more hypothetical than the first and is based on the guesses of individual people. The chiefs of the main groups were unable to give a reasonable answer to the question why their tribe is called Mambwe.
[10] Cf. W. Watson, ibid,  p. 14
[11] Cf. J. D. Clark, ibid,  p. 277
[12] A. Roberts, p. 73
[13] Cf. W. Watson, p. 14
[14] This is a type of millet, sorghum. It is believed that this is one of the oldest types of grain cultivated by the proto-bantu. Cf. A. Roberts, p. 67
[15] An accurate description of this method, also called citemene, may be found in W. Watson, pp. 25-35 and in A. Roberts pp. 6-9.
[16] Greenberg showed that around 300 bantu languages are intimately related to one another and differ markedly from two great language groups from the North i.e. the East and West Sudanese languages. He therefore suggests that the maternal region of the Bantu group was that of the Upper Benue River.
[17] Guthrie compared some 500 word roots from the majority of Bantu languages and came to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the Upper Benue were probably proto-bantu, though they originated from North Katanga.
[18] Cf. K.K. Dasgupta, In search of the Zambian past, Lusaka 1986, p.27 and J.D. Clark p.277 n.
[19] Cf. S. Ohannessian and M. Kashoki, Language in Zambia, London 1978,  p.14.
[20] These tribes inhabit the natural transit lands between Central and East Africa
[21] Ibid, pp. 54 i 56.
[22] Cf. A. Roberts, ibid. p.72
[23] The interview was held in September 1995 in Cindo.  Gilioni was then the governor  in Ndondile. The Council of Elders assembled, presided by Abrahamu Simwanza (born 1914), Yonas Kansilye (born 1911) and Andisono Cindo (born 1918).