The Social Structure and Certain Beliefs of the Mambwe Tribe

As from the sixteenth century every inhabitant of the plateau belonged to some clan. Usually the name of a given clan came from some natural phenomenon, for example rain (Sicivula)[1], or some living creature, e.g. frog, lady-bird, caterpillar, (Sicula, Silungwe, Simutowe)[2], elements of special use e.g. white earth (Simpemba)[3], or activities important to life e.g. tilling the soil (Sicilima).[4] All the members of a given clan were related to each other. They believed that they descended from a common ancestor. The clan structure had two functions: firstly to precisely determine degrees of kindredness and thus avoid incest, and secondly to determine clearly family inheritance law. Among tribes with patriarchal patterns, such as Mambwe, property was passed down from father to son or to nephew.

As regards beliefs, it seems that the tribes inhabiting the lands of modern Zambia differed little in this respect. Faith in one God, the world’s creator, was universal. He would be called by different names, most often Leza, Lesa, Nyambi or Nzambi, but he would always be the Most High God, ruling over everything and everyone. Though he was never accused of harbouring bad intentions concerning man, he was nonetheless a distant, transcendent God, not partaking actively in man’s fate. Thus, people did not offer sacrifices to him. They did not want to offend him, so they did not use his real name, but only euphemisms. Proverbs and sayings attest to this clearly. Mambwe people will say ‘Leza musuzi, asisulila wenga’ i.e. God is a blacksmith who doesn’t work just for one man. He works for all. Or otherwise: ‘Leza a ntumba nambo, mwenzo kaimanyile’ – God is omnipotent, but does as he wishes ( word for word: what his heart dictates). Likewise: Leza asilila cimilile – God does not forget living creatures, and cares about everyone. For the Mambwe, God’s intentions are not fully comprehensible. They say, therefore: apa kwimula Leza pasiuka cunsi – where God prepares a meal, there is no smoke, i.e. his ways are unknown. On the other hand, this God is essential. So they also often say:  Kwimba kati kusanzya na Leza – your medicine will not work unless it contains God’s power. They believe that after death man goes to God, speaking of a man who had a near-death experience and returned from God – wawela sile kwakwe Leza, Leza wamufwita.  They say of the dead: waya kwakwe Leza mukulu – gone to the powerful God. God – Leza is also the avenger of any human being who has somehow been injured. This conviction is reflected in threats and spoken curses. The Mambwe people frequently threaten one another: Leza akulye! – may God destroy you (verbatim: eat). When they swear or back oaths they often say:  Leza andye or  Leza andepole! – may  God destroy me! These few statements show that for the Mambwe people God possesses all the attributes recognised by Christianity, though the conviction remains that Leza, the Most High God, is unattainable to knowledge, that it is impossible to delineate his intentions concerning man. As his intentions are hidden, it is safer to stay distant from him.[5] The Mambwe people are convinced that God’s decisions can be influenced through other spirits, which are often identified as powers of the earth and sky.[6] According to their traditional beliefs, the Mambwe people believe that powerful spirits control the wind, the rain, lightening, thunder and earthquakes. These can bring disaster and illness. They determine the results of hunts.

Apart from beliefs in a creator god and nature’s spirits there also abounds a belief in the activities of the spirits of ancestors: the living-dead. In contrast with God, the Creator, these live-dead participate actively in the lives of their kin. They can assist as well as harm their relatives. They must not therefore be ignored or angered.  Sacrifices of atonement and votive offerings are due to them.

Magic occupies an important place in the belief system. On the one hand, there arose the need to explain extraordinary, often unhappy, incidents in the life of a given group or individual people. On the other hand, people wanted to secure themselves against accidents in order to ensure success in hunting, war and love. Thus, the use of amulets and talismans became widespread. However, if someone achieved too great a success he would immediately be suspected of magic, becoming too powerful and jeopardising the stability of a given group. The search of magicians, who threw curses on people, was the task of a man familiar with magic (singhanga – witch doctor) who simultaneously performed the role of a quack. A person suspected of magic would have to undergo some trial. Usually he would have to drink poison, which would be vomited only by the innocent.

Three basic reasons for belief in magic can be given: firstly, these beliefs strengthened positive moral principles in a given group, radically removing people whose behaviour would be considered as reproachable; secondly the ceremonies associated with suspecting and condemning someone occupying himself with magic did away with escalating tensions within a given group, or between individual competitors, avoiding more widespread explosion of hatred; and finally, it explained the provenance of evil and calamities befalling individuals or a given social group.

Belief in the existence of spirits known as ngulu also occupies a special place alongside faith in the most high god, the spirits of nature and ancestors.[7] These are not spirits of nature, but somehow represent the lands, which are their territory. As regards the background of ngulu, it is thought that:

ngulu are no normal spirits of the dead, but represent the first inhabitants of the lands.

a ngulu may be a spirit of a chief long dead. Thus, instead of the word ngulu, mwene is sometimes used, which means chieftain, leader, king.

a ngulu may also be a person, whom mwene-ngulu had taken into his possession.

It is usually assumed that ngulu inhabit terrain of specific and unusual appearance, or as such, associated with threat to human life. Ngulu may also inhabit waterfalls, large rocks, dangerous peninsulas, steep mountains.[8]  Priests who offer them sacrifices and are in charge of their cult reside there. The function of a ngulu priest is usually inheritable. It is also believed that the ngulu are tied to one another with familial bonds: husband-wife[9], father-son[10]. According to Mambwe beliefs the ngulu possess higher powers than other spirits and may take a human being under their complete control[11]. Some ngulu are not only in charge of given places but are also patrons of certain social groups.[12]

A man under a ngulu’s control performs various religious functions. During epidemics (especially dysentery, and whooping cough), long-lasting hunting trouble, and especially after some series of mysterious deaths, a  ngulu man should intercede for the succour of the spirits responsible for the calamities. In some cases, ngulu  also perform prophetic functions (kasesema). He indicates the causes of calamities, exorcises evil spirits and prepares traditional remedies.

Usually, however, spirits of the dead known as ‘mipasi’[13] play the main role in Mambwe cult. According to Mambwe beliefs, these usually reside in graves and walk at night in the vicinity of burial-grounds. They are spirits of indeterminate sex, and thus may have charge of male and female members of a given family alike. Mipasi preserve the talents and abilities they had during their earthly life. Thus a good hunter becomes a good advisor in hunting matters, etc. In contrast with the ngulu cult, the mipasi cult (mupasi in the plural) is the domain of the leaders of a given clan or family, not named priests. In order to honour the mipasi, little houses – temples known as kavuwa or luvuwa, are built in the vicinity of rural fields on little hills. These are usually built by children since it is thought that their innocence best predisposes them for such a task. In the event of misfortune small offerings are laid down (e.g. flour, beer) in order to appease or ask for blessings.

The spirits of the ancestors (mipasi) are usually considered friendly spirits. However, in certain cases they can become evil spirits, even dangerous ones. Firstly, mipasi can become dangerous spirits, if they are neglected and the due offerings are ceased. Secondly, the spirit of a man who had been unjustly killed may become a spirit thirsting for vengeance. Thirdly, a suicide spirit is also dangerous in that it may seek to avenge his own injuries. These spirits are called viwa[14] (singular ciwa). When people come to the conclusion that some misfortune has been linked to the work of a ciwa, they try to determine its identity by calling on the spirits and then offering sacrifices to appease it. When this does not help a witch orders that the remains be destroyed by burning (-oca umuntu). The body is exhumed and cremated. This annihilation of remains, according to Mambwe beliefs, denotes the disarming of the evil spirit.[15] In conclusion, beliefs in Leza, ngulu, mulozi, mipasi and viwa comprise the basic key to interpreting other customs of the Mambwe tribe.


[1] Word for word ‘father of downpour.’
[2] Word for word: ‘frog’s father’, ‘lady-bird’s father’, ‘caterpillar’s father.’
[3] Word for word: ‘father of white earth.’
[4] Word for word: ‘the one who tills much.’
[5]  Cf. A. Halemba, ibid. p. 330, entry: Leza
[6] Cf. A. Halemba, ibid. p. 73
[7] The word most probably comes from iyulu, i.e. sky. Thus, ngulu could denote ‘the one from above, from the sky.’
[8] Ngulu may temporarily reside in people, certain animals, for example a young lion or python.
[9] The proximity and form of terrain where given ngulu reside decide this, for example Nsunzu, the greatest mountain on the Saise river, has the nearby mountain Conya, which resembles a female breast in appearance as his ‘wife’.
[10] In a series of waterfalls the first is the father, and the following are children.
[11]
[12] For example Musakanya is the patron of small children; Musonda is the patron of animals, etc.
[13] Verbatim ‘spirit which is evoked (-pala). cf. A. Halemba ibid., entries: ‘-pala’ and ‘mupasi’.
[14] cf. A. Halemba, ibid. entry: ciwa
[15] Sometimes remains are exhumed after several or even over a dozen years.