Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Bemba are the largest ethnic group in the Northern Province of Zambia. Along with the Bemba, seventeen or eighteen Bemba-speaking ethnic groups are included in the general group. The Bemba-speaking peoples have a matrilineal-matrilocal emphasis, and are predominantly agricultural. They practice shifting cultivation, with finger millet as the staple crop, supplemented by hunting and fishing. There is a general absence of cattle, since this area is within the tsetse fly belt.


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Africa --Southern Africa


Congo, Democratic Republic of the



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in this eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

The file includes nine English language sources. Five of the sources are by Audrey Richards, a British social anthropologist and major authority on the Bemba. Richards carried out her field work in a two-and-a-half-year period between 1930 and 1934. Her major ethnography (Richards 1939, no. 2) is primarily a detailed functional analysis of Bemba subsistence activities and diet as related to the kinship system, political organization, ceremonial life and values. Her other works included in the file are an excellent analytical study of the Bamucapi, or witch-finders movement (Richards 1935, no. 9); the origin and functions of ritual sib relationships among the Bemba and the closely allied Bisa (Richards 1937, no. 8); a good general description of the Bemba political system (Richards 1940, no. 7); and a complete description and interpretation of the chisungu [cisungu], or girl's initiation ceremony (Richards 1956, no. 3). A colonial administrator, William Brelsford (1944, no. 6), provides a thorough study of the succession of Bemba chiefs. The missionary H. Barnes (1922, no. 10) provides an early account and commentary on the Bemba belief in the soul and its relation to the naming system. Two later studies examine the impact of Christianity on Bemba society and culture. Maxwell (1983, no. 11) examines the Bemba's pre-literate and oral religious and political life, and subsequent changes wrought by the superimposition of a literate, visual culture of Christianity. The Catholic missionary and anthropologist Hinfelaar (1994, no. 12) examines the impact of Christianity on the status of women and the traditional women-centered domestic cult. He also documents the tensions that have existed between commoners and the royal clan.

This culture summary was based on the article, "Bemba," by Robert O. Lagacé, from the Sixty Cultures: A Guide to the HRAF Probability Files. 1977. Robert O. Lagacé, ed. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files, Inc. It was expanded and revised by Ian Skoggard, August 1996.

BAFYASHI -- parents in charge of the female shrine -- 793

BAKASESEMA -- prophet priests -- 793

BULOSHI -- witchcraft -- 754

BULUNGU -- bored stone; divinity -- 778, 776

BUPYANI -- succession by ritual intercourse -- 788, 833

CHIBINDA -- creator; enabler of the protection of the shades; leader -- 776, 793

CISUNGU -- puberty rite for women -- 881

FIWI -- spirits of malefactors, witches, murderers, etc. -- 769

ICIFULO -- residence, place where people live, die and are buried-- 591, 769

LESA -- light envoy (a divinity), healer -- 776

LIBWE -- bored stone; symbol of productivity -- 778, 842

MAPEPO -- worship -- 782

MBUSA -- sacred emblems -- 778

MILUNGU -- divinities -- 776

MIPASHI -- ancestral spirits -- 775

MUCINSHI -- respectful mode of behavior -- 576

MUKABENYE -- wife of the sacred relics -- 793

MUSUMBA -- chief's village; residence of the royal ancestral spirits -- 769

MWINE MUSHI -- village head -- 622

NACHIMBUSA -- tudor of the transcendent; mother of the things to be handed down -- 793, 788

NG'ANGA -- healers -- 756

NGANDA -- home shrine -- 778

NGULU -- nature spirits -- 776

SHIMAPEPO -- priests -- 793

UKUPEPA IMIPASHI -- the worship of the forebears -- 769

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