Over 98% of Zambians belong to one of the 73 Bantu-speaking tribes. It is important to remember that these 73 ethnic groups were put together in British times, by the British themselves. The Zambian government still maintains this number, but for the Zambians themselves, this division is not so significant.
What is true is that all these tribes belong to one of the seven language groups, namely Bemba, Tonga, Nyanja, Lunda, Luvale, Lozi and Kaounde.
The basis of a Bantu tribe is the 'clan', a group of families related by the same identifying name. The 'chief' of a clan traditionally still has a great deal of authority. Although less and less evident, this form of social organisation is still found mainly in village societies. In the cities, the situation is completely different; there, the traditional economic, social and political life does not amount to much anymore.
The rest of the population belongs to the Twa, the Asians and the Europeans. The number of Europeans has fallen sharply since independence in 1964, and is currently only a few tens of thousands. The Asians originally come mainly from West India and only arrived after the Second World War.
Zambia has a population of almost 16 million and the population density is almost 21 inhabitants per km2 (2017).
The age structure is uneven: about 46% of the population is under fifteen years old and there are hardly any elderly people.
The full picture is as follows:
- 0-14 jaar 46%
- 15-64 jaar 51,7%
- 65+ 2,3%
Natural population growth was more than 2% per year in the period 1975-2014 (2017 2.93%).
One third of the population lives in the central highlands, while the border areas with Mozambique and Malawi are also quite densely populated. 43.5% of the population lives in urban areas, giving Zambia the highest urbanisation rate in black Africa. Most of the large cities grew up along the 'line of rail', the railway constructed by the British between 1902 and 1910 from what was then Southern Rhodesia to the north. The capital Lusaka has about 2.5 million inhabitants.
Life expectancy has fallen due to the devastating effects of AIDS and is now only 51.4 years for men and 54.5 years for women.
Overview of the most important tribes
The Bemba is the largest tribe in Zambia and they constitute about 21% of the population. Their traditional areas are northern Zambia, a large area around the town of Kasama, and southwest of Lake Bangweulu. Many Bemba also live in the Copperbelt, having emigrated there for work in the copper mines.
The Bemba emigrated from Congo to Zambia in the 16th century and belonged to the powerful Lunda-Luba empire.
The Tonga constitute about 13.6% of the total population. Most Tonga are farmers, herdsmen and fishermen. Their traditional areas are the Zambezi Valley and the higher northern areas. As a result, the Tonga can be divided into the Valley Tonga and the Plateau Tonga.
Closely associated with the Tonga are the smaller tribes of Ila and Tenje. Together they are called the Bantu Botatwe, the 'three peoples'. Other related groups are the Toka, the Leya and the Soli.
The term Nyanja is actually used more for a Bantu language than for a tribe, and therefore includes different groups. In total, about 1.5 million people speak Nyanja as their first language, which is about 10% of the total Zambian population.
The Chewa people make up about a third of the Nyanja-speaking population, and the terms Nyanja and Chewa are often used interchangeably. The Chewa mainly live in the Eastern Province around the town of Chipata, and many live just across the border in Malawi.
The Ngoni live in south-east Zambia around the town of Chipata, and constitute about 4% of the total population. They are descended from the Zulus who emigrated to this region at the beginning of the 19th century. They still maintain various Zulu customs but all speak Nyanga.
The Nsenga live in south-east Zambia around the town of Petuake, along the Luangwa River and the Great East Road. They make up about 5% of the population and, like the Chewa and the Ngoni, speak Nyanja. Just across the border with Mozambique, there are many more Nsenga.
The Lozi have their own 'land', Barotseland, a large part of the Western Province. They make up about 6% of the population. These farmers and herdsmen live on the most fertile land in Zambia and are further famous for their beautiful handicrafts, which are among the finest Africa has to offer.
LALA & BISA
The Lala live around Serenje, in central Zambia, and the area towards the Luangwa River. They are closely related to the Bisa, who live further north in a large area around Mpika. Both groups are strongly related to the Bemba.
The Kaonde live in Western Zambia around the towns of Solwezi and Kasempa. They make up about 3% of the population and, like many other tribes, separated from the Lunda-Luba empire in the 16th century.
MAMBWE & LUNGU
The Mwambe and the Lungu, two closely related tribes, live in northern Zambia around Mbala and on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Many Mambwe live just across the border in Tanzania. Both tribes make up about 3% of the population.
The Lamba are originally from the Copperbelt region, but now also live in the areas west and south of Ndola and Kitwe, and even as far away as the towns of Solwezi and Mumbwe. They are related to the Bemba and make up about 3% of the population.
LUNDA & LUUNDA
The Lunda live in the north-western corner of Zambia, around the town of Mwinilunga. They make up about 3% of the population, but most Lunda live just across the border in Angola and Congo (Zaire).
A not directly related group, also called Lunda but more often spelled Luunda, lives in Northern Zambia.
The Luvale live in the far west of Zambia, near the city of Zambezi. They make up about 2% of the population, but most Luvale live just across the border in Angola.
Like many other tribes, they separated from the Congolese Lunda-Luba Empire in the 16th century. In those days they were renowned traders, including the Portuguese explorers.
Else, D. / Zambia
Posthumus, B. / Zambia : mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen / Novib
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