Zambia, a country in Southern Africa, has 73 ethnic tribes. The Tonga people are believed to be the oldest Bantu settlers in Zambia and make up approximately 15% of the population. This is our guide to Zambia’s Tonga tribe.
Unlike other Zambian tribes which claim to have descended from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom in present day Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, the exact origin of the Tonga tribe is still unknown. Iron Age settlements from as early as the 7th century have been found in various parts of the Southern Province, with the most popular being Ingombe Ilede which is translated as ‘the sleeping cow’ due to the large fallen baobab tree in the vicinity of the site. It is believed that the Mbara people who settled at the site were ancestors of the Tonga due to the similarity of their pottery to that of the existing Tonga. Therefore, this proves the assertion that the Tonga’s were some of the earliest Bantu settlers in Zambia, as they were already present in Zambia before the other tribes that migrated into Zambia as part of the Bantu Migration of the 15th – 17th centuries.
Like many other tribes in Zambia, the name of the tribe is also name of the language, which is the case for the Tonga. The Tonga form part of what is known as the Bantu ‘botatwe’ languages which are spoken by the Tonga, Ila, Lenje and smaller tribes like the Luya, Sala, Subia and Totela.
The name ‘Tonga’ means independent’, which refers to the fact that before colonization, the Tonga tribe did not have chiefs (traditional leaders) as other tribes did. According to anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, “Until the beginnings of the colonial period, approximately seventy years ago the largest named territorial unit among the Tonga was the small neighbourhood community. Ritual offices existed within the neighbourhood, but political office was embryonic or non-existent until the British Government recognized headmen and chiefs and later developed a local council with an appointed civil service”.
The Tonga are predominately identified by their homeland in the Southern Province. For instance, there are the Gwembe Valley Tonga who reside in the Gwembe Valley, a series of gorges below the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls measuring approximately 230 miles (370 km) long and 150 miles (2411 km) wide (Colson). Their land extended to the Kariba gorge which in 1957 became a construction site for the Kariba hydroelectric power dam. The construction of the dam displaced over fifty thousand Tonga and cut off the Tonga from Zambia from the Tonga of Zimbabwe, as previously they were only divided by the river. The construction of the dam forever altered the lives of the Tonga.
The Plateau Tonga live in the higher lands above the Zambezi river. They are distinct from the Valley Tonga in their basketwork, agricultural practices and a few customs, although both the Valley and the Plateau Tonga men and women used to remove the upper incisors and canine teeth during puberty. Both are matrilineal in inheritance and succession. According to Kariba Studies The Social Organization of the Gwembe Tonga by Elizabeth Colson, “they all speak the Tonga language, each region has its own dialect with peculiarities of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation”.
Culture – Traditional ceremonies
There are various traditional ceremonies observed by the Tonga people of Southern Province, depending on which chief (traditional ruler) they are under. The most well known of these is the Lwiindi Gonde in Monze district under Chief Monze. The ceremony is done to thank the ancestors for the harvest. The Lwiindi ceremony takes place during the first weekend of July.
Other Tonga traditional ceremonies include the Maliko Malindi Lwiindi ceremony of the Tonga in Sinazongwe under Chief Sinazongwe, Musumu Muyumu of the Tonga of Kalomo under Chief Sipatunyana, Guta Bweenza Bwe of the Tonga of Kazungula under Chief Nyawa and more.
One of the most prevalent myths in Tonga history is that of the ‘Zambezi river god’ called Nyami Nyami which is depicted as a serpent-like body and a fish head. Legend has it that the Nyami Nyami was separated from his wife during the construction of the Kariba Dam in 1956 and in his anger, caused the Kariba floods of 1957.
Like other Zambian tribes, naming is a very important part of Tonga culture. A child is typically named under the circumstances it was born. For instance, a child called Miyoba which means ‘rain’ could have been born during a time of heavy rains. A child named Mutinta which means ‘different’ was the first child born of a different gender in relation to its older siblings. Banji is a name given to the first twin and means ‘we are many’, while Mpimpa is the youngest twin. Like the Bemba tribe, Tonga names are unisex.
Before missionaries brought Christianity to Zambia, The Tonga believed in a higher power called ‘Leza’ (which is now used to refer to Jesus Christ). They also made offerings at shrines for rain. The Tonga also believed that each person had a ‘Mizimu’, a general term used to refer to ancestral spirits. There are various types of mizimu such as the guardian mizimu, inherited mizimu, a house mizimu and an own mizimu who comes into existence only after a person’s death.
The Tonga are divided into exogamous matrilineal clans (several families who claim descent from a common ancestor) called mikokwa, each of which have a totem. Most clan totems are animals such as hare (rabbit), cow etc. A Tongan has two clans, one from the father’s side called kumausyi and another on the mother’s side called kumanyinya or kumukowa.