Preferred Citation: Vail, Leroy, editor. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. London Berkeley:  Currey University of California Press,  1989.

13— From Ethnic Identity to Tribalism: The Upper Zambezi Region of Zambia, 1830–1981

The Luvale and the Lunda

Luvale and Lunda speakers have occupied the Upper Zambezi since the


seventeenth century.[7] The area is remote from the line of rail, urban/industrial centres, markets and state services. People of the area have thus had the opportunity to maintain a vigorous commitment to their own culture while, at the same time, engaging in the labour migration common to rural communities in the whole of southern Africa, with all of the contact and changes this has made possible. In 1948, C.M.N. White, a British civil servant who lived in the region for many years and who wrote extensively about Lunda and, especially, Luvale language and customs, estimated the population at about 30,000 Lunda (including the Lunda-Ndembu of Mwinilunga District), 60,000 Luvale (whom White called Lwena), 40,000 Luchazi and 20,000 Chokwe.[8] The population has increased significantly since the late 1940s, but White's figures, although estimates, give an informed idea of the scale of Upper Zambezian societies at the peak of the colonial period.

There is a remarkable structural symmetry between the Luvale and Lunda (who are the focus of this essay) which makes them, on very important levels, societies which could, and did, coexist amiably. They correctly believe that they share different aspects of a common historical tradition, while linguistic similarities make communication relatively easy between all the societies of the Upper Zambezi.[9] My own observations confirm White's often stated view that, with relatively minor variations, a highly similar material culture exists throughout the Upper Zambezi area. Lunda and Luvale cosmologies are also remarkably similar.[10] Both groups freely intermarry, although intermarriage on the present scale is said to be recent. This has led to the irony that the two octogenarian antagonistic spokesmen of the Lunda and Luvale tribes, the Lunda Senior Chief, Ishinde, and Mose Kaputungu Sangambo are, in fact, in Sangambo's words, 'brothers' since they had the same father but Lunda and Luvale mothers.[11] There is, moreover, certainly no social, political, or structural feature which should necessarily bring Luvale and Lunda polities into conflict.

The economies of the Luvale and Lunda are also complementary.[12] The Luvale tend to favour the grasslands and thin cryptosepalum woodlands of the predominantly Kalahari sands west of the Zambezi river. An exception to this general rule is the zone of extremely fertile soils of the Chavuma area which straddles the Zambezi where it flows from Angola into Zambia. The Luvale are superior fishermen who harvest tons of mud barbel from the annual streams and ponds which appear during the rainy season. As early as the 1940s the Luvale were exporting 200 tons of dried fish to the Copperbelt.[13]

As hunters, with little if any interest in fishing, the Lunda-speakers preferred to settle in the denser, once game-rich forests found on the eastern bank of the Zambezi. Lunda-speaking farmers are, however, also attracted to the fertility of the Chavuma area, as are the Luchazi and Chokwe speakers, recent immigrants from Angola. Chavuma is the most agriculturally productive part of Zambezi District—possibly of the entire Northwestern Province with the exception of the Mwinilunga area. An ethnically heterogeneous population has inhabited Chavuma since the late eighteenth century.[14] Luvale and Lunda oral traditions do not mention any political conflicts between the two groups until the late nineteenth century when a series of 'wars' broke out.[15] In fact, the traditions of both Luvale and Lunda emphasize their peaceful coexistence in the Upper Zambezi while at the same time setting forth somewhat different interpretations of the origins of political authority and the antiquity of Luvale and Lunda political titles, and vastly different interpretations of modern settlement patterns.

Yet local politics are now dominated, to their last detail, by Luvale and Lunda


tribal strife, a tribalism which reached such intensity that States of Emergency had to be declared in Zambezi District in the 1940s and 1950s.

13— From Ethnic Identity to Tribalism: The Upper Zambezi Region of Zambia, 1830–1981

Preferred Citation: Vail, Leroy, editor. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. London Berkeley:  Currey University of California Press,  1989.