previous sub-section
13— From Ethnic Identity to Tribalism: The Upper Zambezi Region of Zambia, 1830–1981
next sub-section

The Evolution of the Colonial Political Economy 1920–1960

The arrival of missionaries of the fundamentalist Christian Mission in Many Lands (Plymouth Brethren) was of critical importance in the development of tribalism amongst the Luvale and Lunda. The Brethren reached the Upper Zambezi after creating mission stations across the interior of north-central Angola at the same time as the British colonial government was asserting an effective administration over Balovale and Mwinilunga. In addition to their new and powerful religious message, they offered the only access to western medical services and education, and they 'demonstrated' the utility of their teachings by becoming some of the most important traders and building contractors in Northwestern Rhodesia.[33] Both Luvale and Lunda recognized, in the years between 1907 and 1923, that they lacked the organizational and literary skills to resist the injustices arising from Lozi sub-imperialism and the land resettlement plan. The Lozi demand for corvée labour and the Chavuma resettlement programme demonstrated how easily they could be manipulated within a system they neither understood nor could effectively influence except by temporarily effective passive resistance.

In 1922 George Suckling founded the Chitokoloki Mission Station in Balovale


Sub-District, an offshoot of the original Brethren station at Mwinilunga. Suckling was an outspoken, gregarious man who quickly became identified as the spokesman for Lunda and Luvale grievances, and found himself besieged by young men seeking religious training and the literate skills which accompanied it. Over the years, beginning in the 1920s, this group of mission-educated Luvale and Lunda emerged as the most forceful opinion makers in Balovale. After Zambia's independence in 1964, many of them rose to positions of importance in the Zambian civil service where they continue to have an important influence.[34]

Without this group of educated, literate men, a development which was taking place on a small scale throughout Central Africa, the Luvale and Lunda would not have been able to resist Lozi pretensions as effectively as they did. Nor would they have been able to influence and moderate the implementation of colonial policies which they found either misguided or unjust. These forceful and articulate men carried an enormous burden during the colonial years, and, indeed, many carry similar responsibilities today. They not only responded to the political imperatives which propelled them into positions of responsibility and authority, but also began to use their newly acquired skills to give form and detail to the new 'tribal' world views which were emerging out of the tensions and structures imposed by British colonial administrative policies. While the immediate concern with history and custom can be interpreted as reflecting backward-looking conservatism, it became the most important and virtually the only tool over which the Luvale and Lunda had control and which they could use to influence policy. While officials in London or Lusaka might regard the destruction of certain local traditions and customs as one of the aims of British administration, local District Commissioners, were they to be effective, had to take them into account if the district was to run 'smoothly'. If local intellectuals could somehow link the solution of local problems to an understanding of local history and custom, they would gain a powerful lever in affecting the outcome. The Luvale and Lunda were successful in doing this although the long term implications for the development of tribalism were hardly comprehended.

I have already noted that British policy curtailed and structured hierarchically the polities of the Upper Zambezi, and that the Luvale and Lunda responded to this in differing ways. In both cases one antique chiefly title was regarded as senior to all others, although this functioned on a genealogical-legitimizing level rather than as a basis for regional administration. British policy converted the theory of Luvale and Lunda chieftainship into reality. One might have expected a greater resistance to this change, but this did not happen because the creation of a political hierarchy was not threatening to the new chiefs or the new intellectuals, and because they perceived that the implementation of a more centralized political model gave both the Luvale and Lunda greater claims to political existences separate from the Lozi. The most forceful means of doing this, in 'traditional' terms, was not only by emphasizing the cardinal importance of their history but also by developing, through historical research, their connections with their ancient origins, the powerful Ruund state in Zaire. People began to regard themselves less as members of a clan with chiefs who shared elements of a common historical tradition and more and more as Luvale and Lunda 'tribesmen', as British policy encouraged them to do, especially after the creation of Native Authorities. It was pre-eminently the group of Luvale and Lunda intellectuals educated at Chitokoloki Mission who gave form and content to these new feelings and, in turn, stimulated these growing commitments further by stressing the ethnic and historical uniqueness of each 'tribe'.[35]

We know very little about labour migration from the Upper Zambezi. Most of


what appears here is impressionistic, and my purpose in discussing it is merely to suggest the role of migrancy as an element in the development of Luvale and Lunda tribalism. The Upper Zambezi is remote from the urban centres of Central and Southern Africa. A road wasn't built linking Balovale to the Copperbelt until 1941. Before that, and for some years after, the Zambezi river was the major artery of transportation for the region. Although Luvale and Lunda responded to the meagre markets available to them in Angola and Northern Rhodesia, such marketing opportunities were restricted by isolation, the small scale of production, and the lack of efficient transport. Thus migration to labour markets was, for most men, the only source of cash.

Few Upper Zambezian people migrated to Angola or Zaire because they regarded the pay and working conditions there as inferior to those of the Copperbelt, Southern Rhodesia or South Africa.[36] The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA) recruited systematically in the 1940s and 1950s, using permanent local agents, a system of barges which penetrated all of the major rivers of the region, and out-stations where workers were housed until they could be brought into the boma for transportation. At the boma WNLA maintained its own gardens and cattle herds as well as substantial hostels.[37]

Labour migrancy gave the Luvale and Lunda their first urban experience, and those who migrated to the Copperbelt were shocked to learn that they were regarded as social inferiors by the more numerous Bemba and, of course, the Lozi. The Balovale people spoke unfamiliar and difficult languages, they remained fiercely committed to customs which others found 'bizarre', as, for example, the mukanda circumcision ceremony, and their reputation for herbal and magical expertise often made others spiteful or fearful of them. Their lack of education and urban experience, and their relatively small numbers, made it easy for others, in the bitter competition for work, to view them as rustics fit only for the worst and lowest paid jobs. The Luvale in particular soon developed an urban reputation as night soil carriers and menial workers. In general, 'Lunda' and 'Luvale' became very lowly ethnic identifications in town.[38] There is little doubt, however, that ethnic identification was merely an idiom used in the broader political economy of the urban centres in the competition for better jobs.

At the same time that perceived low ethnic status was a hindrance to finding jobs, it also laid the foundations for even more enduring social problems for Upper Zambezian peoples. By 1964, the time of Zambian independence, certain ethnically defined groups had come to dominate the choice positions within certain sectors of the economy. The Bemba, for example, had achieved this in the mining sector. And the fact that for decades such preferences were 'justified' or accepted meant not only that at independence most Upper Zambezian people held relatively unskilled positions, but also that the possibilities for rising in the system were limited. This situation was certainly not limited to any single group, but there is no question that within contemporary Zambian society certain ethnic groups or 'tribes' have larger representation in certain government departments or parastatals than their absolute numbers would permit in a random selection of qualified personnel.

The political economy of the colonial state had encouraged the creation of tribal groups in the rural areas and consequently these identities applied within the urban industrial economy as well, reinforcing the rural perceptions. This not only meant that rural peoples had to identify themselves with a 'tribe' in order to 'fit in' and enjoy official legal recognition in their local district, but also ensured that tribe, through the Pass System which allowed only so many tribesmen to migrate to town, was used to identify and tacitly to separate workers according to


their presumed abilities into such categories as the 'clever' Bemba or Lozi and the 'backward and wild' Luvale or Lamba.

The official colonial policy which regarded the Luvale and Lunda as subjects of the Lozi plagued every District Commissioner from the day he arrived in Balovale boma until the day he left. The dispute consumed so much time and so inhibited the administration of the area that it was finally decided in the late 1930s to hold a Commission of Enquiry into the issue. The Luvale and Lunda rejoiced at the prospect, partly because they were certain of victory and partly because the colonial administration had at last accepted their claims that only through an investigation of their history and customs could the matter be equitably adjudicated. The MacDonnel Commission thus took testimony in Bulozi, Balovale, the Copperbelt and Lusaka between 1938 and 1939.[39]

The MacDonnel Commission is the epic event of modern Luvale and Lunda history. By 1938 both groups had a cadre of literate, experienced intellectuals who, in cooperation with local missionaries, orchestrated their testimonies to the Commission and who, in the preparation of masses of written materials—almost all of which was historical in nature—sought to demonstrate the separate and independent origins and development of the Lunda and Luvale tribes and their autonomy from the Lozi. In doing this they presented, consciously and unconsciously, a picture of ancient and centralized tribal polities which neatly fitted British preconceptions but which, in fact, they had only recently created. Both Luvale and Lunda set down, on paper and for the first time, universalist rather than local views of their histories. They understood that not only was this immediately important for their claims to autonomy from the Lozi, but that ultimately they would have to make similar presentations concerning their own conflict over Chavuma. Therefore the Luvale and Lunda testimonies asserted their independence from the Lozi but differed dramatically in their interpretation of their origins in the Congo, the 'migration' into the Upper Zambezi and, of course, the antiquity of each group's presence in the Chavuma area.

The MacDonnel Commission issued its report in 1941. It sustained both Luvale and Lunda claims to autonomy. The government responded by creating Balovale District and separate Luvale and Lunda Native Authorities. As the Luvale and Lunda saw it, they had saved themselves from Lozi overlordship after a generation of struggle. As I was repeatedly told by one of the Luvale who played a central role in presenting the Luvale view to the Commission, it was the finest moment of his life when the decision to create Balovale District was revealed.[40]

In 1941 Thomas Chinyama reworked some of the testimony given to the Commission and published, in both English and Lunda, The Early History of the Balovale Lunda . This appeared in the Longman Central African Literature series, which had been created to give 'tribes' an outlet for publication of 'tribal' histories. The booklet was a bombshell in district politics because it asserted in bold and uncompromising terms Lunda claims to be the original settlers of Chavuma and thus the area's 'proper' occupants. Chinyama went further, claiming that Senior Chief Ishinde's title was of greater antiquity than that of Luvale Senior Chief Ndungu. The Luvale were deeply affronted, for they not only considered their 'Ndungu' title older and more prestigious than that of 'Shinde' but also felt that they, the Luvale, were the rightful owners of Chavuma.[41] With the Lozi question barely behind them, the Luvale and the Lunda became locked in an administratively vicious and sometimes physically dangerous struggle over which tribe 'controlled' Chavuma. The full implications of the exact ways in which this control would be important remains somewhat speculative. But one certainty is that the new administrative powers of the chiefs and their important


headmen would have given them greater control over land, trading licences and, later, after the beginning of the MPLA nationalist struggle in Angola, control over refugees who could easily be converted into underpaid farm labourers.[42] For the majority of Chavuma's population, who by this time had seen the new power of the chiefs and Native Authorities, the thought of a Lunda chief pursuing Lunda interests in a predominantly Luvale area was unthinkable.

Both Luvale and Lunda constantly petitioned government to decide in their favour regarding Chavuma, presenting elaborate historical documents largely derived from materials presented to the MacDonnel Commission and over the years supplemented by newly collected and interpreted information to support their claims. Both sides illegally attempted to place their own chiefs in Chavuma. In response the District Commissioner declared it a chiefless area, which it remains today. Nonetheless violence frequently broke out between Lunda and Luvale groups.[43]

As the Chavuma dispute festered, its influence was felt at every level of district administration, with both sides tending to see every decision and every policy as somehow related to the issue of Chavuma. Not only were the Luvale and Lunda involved but the by now substantial and increasing number of Chokwe and lesser groups of Luchazi and Mbunda, none of whom had recognized chiefs in the area, 'sat the fence' as their rights of residence and to land were thus bound to the fates of competing Luvale and Lunda. Since Chavuma was declared 'chiefless', with real local power being taken up by a few very strong headmen, it was less pressing, and in fact could ultimately become dangerous, to choose a new ethnic identity.

Some of the critical institutions in the 1940s were the Lunda and Luvale Native Authorities. There can be little doubt that the creation of Native Authorities, which gave in theory but rarely in practice the 'tribes' a 'modern' administrative structure, was moderately useful in carrying out Indirect Rule.[44] Yet the term coined was something of a misnomer; perhaps 'Native Responsibilities' would be more descriptive of their functions as they never had serious authority in making policy. While their creators saw the Native Authorities as institutions of modernization, their creation encouraged, or indeed forced, people to seek the solutions to local problems through the newly formulated tribal structure.

The Native Authorities were not merely the organizations through which disputes such as the Chavuma issue could be presented. They also offered to chiefs, headmen and the newly established Chiefs' Courts unprecedented power in legal matters, especially the right to collect fines in cash and kind. They thereby provided a bureaucratic 'class' or group with a new source of wealth and control. Ironically, the tribe became the very ideal of modernism, representing as it did 'modern' administration, and, through its Native Authority, access to the clear benefits to be had from western-style trading, agricultural improvements, transportation, medicine, and, most important of all, education.

Ethnic politics reached their fullest development in 1948 when government announced the beginnings of government-sponsored primary school education.[45] Schools in Luvale areas were to teach in the Luvale language; schools in Lunda areas in the Lunda language. Mission schools had generally followed this pattern although there were important exceptions such as Chitokoloki which, while in a Lunda chiefs area, taught in Luvale. The government commitment to establish widespread primary education meant that schools would be established in Chavuma and therefore, following government policy, a single language had to be chosen. Since Chavuma, even though it was chiefless, was still administratively regarded as 'Lunda' following the long-standing policy of using the Zambezi river as the 'tribal' boundary, Lunda was chosen as the sole language of primary instruction.


The majority Luvale population believed that this decision would ultimately mean the installation of a Lunda chief as well. In 1949 violence between Lunda and Luvale in the form of the burning of houses and crops and the assaulting of people reached the point where the District Commissioner in Balovale declared a State of Emergency in Chavuma and summoned troops to re-establish order. Both Luvale and Lunda informants today agree that in the late 1940s it was not safe for a Luvale to use the road along the east bank of the Zambezi from Balovale to Chavuma.

It is difficult to imagine the importance local people attached to primary education in the 1940s. Even the most rudimentary education was crucial in a British system which gave enormous emphasis to the 'educated' and which required 'certificates' for virtually every employment in the new administrative sector. Those who became local teachers, school inspectors and teachers' assistants became the 'new men' who controlled access to education. This group, which had first gained education, became the opinion makers and even the heroes of Luvale and Lunda society, coexisting with the chiefs and hunter heroes of the past. Western education, acquired formally or informally, was also one of the gateways to the emerging capitalist economy. Of course it was possible to participate in the new economy as a producer, especially a small-scale producer. But the goal of the economically ambitious was to be a trader, and for this one needed literacy and a knowledge of the details of trade.

I am not certain how the school language problem was actually negotiated, but a compromise was reached which provided both Lunda and Luvale language schools. This solution avoided the question of when the Chokwe and Luchazi would also have their own schools. The language policies of the government merged in the general problem of 'control' over Chavuma, and since there was no easy, mutually acceptable solution at hand, it procrastinated. By the mid-1950s the Luvale, frustrated by broken promises and delays, actually installed a chief in Chavuma. The Lunda threatened to go to war if the government did not remove the illegal chief and again a State of Emergency was declared.

By the 1950s Luvale and Lunda tribalism was fully developed. It reached into every aspect of life and into every corner of the district and beyond. Lunda boycotted Luvale traders and vice versa. Travel in one another's territory was unsafe and the same people who had sat together to prepare evidence for the MacDonnel Commission and who had celebrated their joint victory over Lozi pretensions now no longer spoke to each other. Couples who had married across ethnic lines found themselves ridiculed by both sides and, at times, even forced by their families to divorce.[46]

The government realized that without some kind of settlement at Chavuma, periodic outbreaks of violence would recur. In 1956 it decided, therefore, to seek a clever solution to the Chavuma problem by having the issue arbitrated by the Mwaant Yaav, the Paramount Chief of the Ruund in Zaire, the historical homeland claimed by both Luvale and Lunda.

Luvale and Lunda contact with the Ruund state of the Katanga region of southwestern Zaire had profound effects on the self-image of both groups. The ancient, highly centralized Ruund state was a perfect foil to the claims of the Lozi and others that Upper Zambezian societies were without 'proper histories and chiefs'. Here was a historical tradition to which both Luvale and Lunda had ancient claims even if their actual knowledge of the Ruund was piecemeal and rudimentary. In 1956 Luvale and Lunda delegations visited Musumba, the capital of the Mwaant Yaav, as a part of the arbitration process for Chavuma, and they later entertained his representatives in Balovale and Chavuma.


For his part the Mwaant Yaav was more than willing to cooperate with Belgian and British officials, not because he wished to lend an arbitrating hand to the Chavuma matter, but because he also was attempting to foster in the middle and late 1950s a pan-Ruund movement, a 'gathering-in of all of the peoples of the Ruund tradition. In this way Mwaant Yaav Ditend (Tschombe) hoped to lay foundations for his own expansive political ambitions of the 1960s.

Mose Sangambo, perhaps more than any other Luvale or Lunda, was intensely interested in history and perceived the political use to which a new kind of history could be put. Sangambo was elated by his visit to the Congo, first to Musumba and later to Inkalanyi, the remains of the ancient polities which predated the rise of the Ruund Empire and to which the earliest Luvale traditions are linked. There was a potential contradiction in Luvale identity with the Ruund: for the Ruund hegemony meant the suppression of the Inkalanyi polities. And it is to the Ruund that the earliest Lunda traditions are connected. But Sangambo and the Lunda representatives both preferred, though for somewhat different reasons, to see the totality of the historical traditions as common to both groups.

Sangambo and other Luvale opinion makers wished to amalgamate the prestige of the Ruund into their own current traditions and to adopt the symbols of Ruund statehood and political authority to elaborate the new political structures and realities within Balovale District. The Lunda, who are heirs only to later parts of the historical traditions—the period after the rise of Uruund—wished to be associated with the earlier parts of the tradition which would give them a kind of 'parity of antiquity' with the Luvale and thus preempt Luvale claims that their chieftainship was older than that of the Lunda and therefore, making a logical leap, that they had necessarily entered Chavuma first as the rightful 'owners of the land'. In both cases, each appropriated historical traditions which actually belonged to the other to manipulate the land dispute at Chavuma and to establish the basis for settling, on historical grounds, other potential conflicts in the district.

I do not wish, however, to represent all histoncal interests of the Luvale and Lunda, and especially those of Mose Sangambo, as being centred on Chavuma. Sangambo in particular has been collecting historical information for fifty years and, while he recognizes its utility in putting forward Luvale claims and views, he has also developed into a professional historian, as have many of his colleagues who, through their literacy and their exposure to modern historical writing, have attempted an unprecedented synthesis of Luvale history for future generations. This has necessarily involved interpretation, extrapolation from limited data and the informed judgments which all historians are forced to make. It has also meant that Sangambo and his colleagues have reconstructed traditions which they feel best represent their present and historical culture, and have also elaborated certain elements which respond to external or internally felt requirements. I hasten to note that the 'invention of tradition' is hardly restricted to the Upper Zambezi and that it plays an important role in articulating and directing opinion in most societies.[47] Nor need I elaborate on the conflict of historical interpretation which generates the great arguments within the historical profession. What Sangambo and his contemporaries have written is unique only in the sense that we are unaccustomed to finding such research and dedication in rural Africa. Out of these concerns Sangambo has given the Luvale people their first comprehensive, albeit contentious, history—a history which elaborately sets out the origins of his tribe at Inkalanyi, the emergence of the Mwaant Yaavs and the rise of the Ruund Empire, and the subsequent evolution of Luvale history down to the present day. Thomas Chinyama attempted, in far shorter form and with far less research, to do the same for the Lunda.


To enhance the tribal identities which their histories described and to assert the vitality and modernity, as well as the antiquity, of their tribal structures the Luvale and Lunda adopted, or—as they see it—readopted in the 1950s new forms of ancient political symbols from the Ruund which they had lost or which had developed at Musumba since their migration from Uruund. These included the royal crowns (michama ), the royal executioner's sword (mukwale ), and the elaborate royal fences (lilapa ) which today surround the houses of the Senior Chiefs. The stability of titles which the colonial imperium imposed encouraged the building of permanent 'capitals'—in violation of ancient custom which decreed that the chiefs capital was destroyed at his death and moved to a 'clean' place.[48]

While the visit to Musumba gave the Luvale and Lunda the opportunity to enhance their historical knowledge and to rediscover their origins, it provided no satisfactory solution to the Chavuma problem. Mwaant Yaav Ditend found his own 'pan-Ruund solution' by appointing his 'daughter' Luweji as chief at Chavuma. While this solution disappointed both Luvale and Lunda, it was nonetheless acceptable to the Northern Rhodesian government. Luweji was given Lunda and Luvale advisers to help her administration, but both sides eventually came to believe that she was actually administering Chavuma in the interests of her Chokwe husband.[49] During the late 1950s and early 1960s this led to a three way struggle for power in Chavuma between the Chokwe, Luvale and Lunda, and to the ultimate breakdown of authority and the return to house burnings, school boycotts and petitions to the government. In 1963, with independence approaching, Luweji was deposed and returned to Zaire. Luvale and Lunda partisans both attempted to place a chief of their own in Chavuma. Both failed. The government again declared Chavuma a chiefless area and turned the problem over to the new Zambian government which today still faces the same dilemma as its colonial predecessor and has had the matter 'under study' for twenty years.

During this period there have been many attempts by both sides to install a chief. Their tenacity is not the atavistic response of tradition-bound people. More correctly, no one in the Chavuma area regards their interests as adequately protected by constantly changing and often indifferent civil servants. While the lack of a chief is still a very important local issue, it is essentially an idiom which masks the anxious desire of the local population for material improvements. Luvale and Lunda intellectuals and civil servants, some of whom now hold important national positions, realize that a major contributing factor to the lack of 'development' in this potentially rich agricultural area is the tribal strife and antagonism which lead the central government to doubt the wisdom of investing limited resources in an area where localism is likely to hinder the success of any project. At the same time the Upper Zambezi is at the end of the road—at least it was for decades during the war of independence in Angola and the civil war which followed. But the major locally perceived reason why the issue must be settled is that this would be a first step towards economic development, better school and medical services, and the creation of an infrastructure which would allow local farmers and fishermen greater participation in the national economy.

previous sub-section
13— From Ethnic Identity to Tribalism: The Upper Zambezi Region of Zambia, 1830–1981
next sub-section