African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Zambia

Hunting Song – Ambo

An Ambo song, for men out in the bush hunting game. The Ambo are a tiny group in northern Zambia, numbering less than 3,500, and speaking a language related to Bisa. The father tells his son that the hunt is taking them too far for him to accompany them.

A little child has cried:
I’ll go with you, father…

To Work in a Butchery

Another satiric song from the Kalela Dances of the Zambia Copper mines (see also The Kalela Dance and The Cases). The song is in Bisa and jokes about Mulumba who is the dance leader.

Mulumba should have a job at the abattoir
So that he may steal the heads of slaughtered cattle…

More Vimbuza Songs

Vimbuza is a spirit possession ceremony practiced by the Tumbuka people who live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi. In Vimbuza ceremonies women who are believed to be possessed by wrathful spirits are given free reign to express their anger about members of their family and the community who have ill-treated them. Their complaints are attended to and they are rewarded with gifts in order to allow the angry spirits to leave in peace. See also Vimbuza Songs that we’ve posted previously.

Tumbuka women have mixed feelings about their husbands going to work in the South African gold mines. The following spirit possession songs express some of their complaints…

The Cases

Another song from the Kalela Dance of the Zambian Copperbelt (see also the Kalela Dance). The original language of this song is a form of Bemba spoken on the Copperbelt and easily understood by other people working in the mines. Most of the songs comment satirically on life on the Copperbelt, and they include a great deal of inter-ethnic joking.

The Lamba people, who are the target here, live to the west of the Bemba, but come in great numbers to work in the copper mines.

Mothers, I have been to many courts
To listen to the cases they settle…

Vimbuza Songs

The Tumbuka people live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi, their homeland split by the border drawn by the British in 1890. But forty years before, the Tumbuka had suffered an earlier invasion, by Ngoni people fleeing the rise of the Zulu nation in south-east Africa. After many wanderings, the Ngoni settled in the Tumbuka heartlands, bringing with them a new cattle-based economy, new patterns of settlement and new systems of marriage.

A century and a half later, with the British long gone, Tumbuka women living in the Lusaka city compounds, still resent this earlier invasion. Tumbuka marriage had been matrilocal, men living in their wives’ villages, and land inherited in the female line. Taking wives from among the Tumbuka, the Ngoni demanded they lived in the husbands’ homesteads, subject to the control of the patrilineage, and forced to accept polygyny.

Over the decades, Tumbuka women have protested vigorously against this “slavery”. The form of their protest is called Vimbuza, a ceremony in which women are exorcised of the angry spirit believed to be possessing them. The possessed women are astonishingly arrogant, complaining bitterly about family members who have ill-treated them in songs to which no one can respond. They are rewarded with gifts, and with promises that their complaints will be attended to.

Individually, the songs can appear to be narrowly focussed. But the range of grievances is wide and, taken together, a consistent over-arching theme appears, in a general complaint about Ngoni overrule, about patrilineal marriage, about polygyny and the effects of labour migration. While the Ngoni boast about migration and conquest, and while the Tumbuka men are nostalgic for their pre-Ngoni empire, the women’s songs present an alternative history, an alternative vision of how life should be lived. They look back to a time of stable and harmonious relationships, when freedom from poverty, disease and spirit possession were guaranteed by the matrilineal extended family.

The following song was sung by NyaChisi, at Chimpeni village, Lundazi district, Zambia, on 25 March 1975. The references to “Orphans” and later “guarded wanderers” are powerful descriptions of how Tumbuka wives felt themselves to be outsiders in their Ngoni husbands’ homesteads.

We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans…

The Nationalist Struggle (Zambia)

Two poems that were popular during the struggles for Independence in Zambia, dating from the days of the arrest of Dr Kaunda and other leaders in 1959 during the anti-Federation struggle.

What kind of singing is this
That sounds like mourning?

The Pinnacle

A Bemba girls’ initiation song from Zambia. The song neatly describes the delicate balance of equality between husband and wife.

The Kalela Dance

A song from the Kalela Dance of the Zambian Copperbelt. The original language of this song is a form of Bemba spoken on the Copperbelt and easily understood by other people working in the mines. Most of the songs comment satirically on life on the Copperbelt.

The Watchtower were trying cunningly to convert me on Saturday,
That I should go to their meeting-place at two o’clock on Sunday.

African Poems