Zambian Christmas Carol


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Professor of Sociology

My Zambian Christmas Carol goes back to 1959 to the very earliest Christmas I can remember when I was a child at Chipewa  village with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. This was in Lundazi in the Eastern Province of Zambia. My grandfather and grandmother were great farmers who provided us twelve grandchildren with abundant food, including delicious red kidney beans, maize, pumpkins, cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts, chicken, and an occasional goat meat. But this year there was an air of excitement. Christmas was coming and word got around that we were going to do something surprising and special on that day.

Masikono or buns

My grandmother had saved 12 cents, pennies or one shilling during the year. My aunt           Anya Mzuzghika walked all afternoon to Hoya store and came back in the rain that evening. Whatever she had bought was dry because it had been obviously carefully concealed all through advance contingency planning. I could barely sleep due to anticipation about Christmas and whatever my grandmother was keeping secret.

Plush green grass and trees and rainbows during the Christmas Season

Early the following morning, a large clay pot of water was boiling as the grandkids jostled for position around the open fireplace. From a small brightly colored aluminum foil packet, my aunt sprinkled half of some black dry floating substances never seen before. She then poured a whole three cents, pennies, or tickey worth packet of sugar into the pot. She stirred it. The children sat near the pot as adults – uncles, aunts, older cousins – sat a little distance waiting and making a running commentary among themselves on how excited we kids were.

The maize is young anticipating a good harvest season

My grandmother handed each a small rusty metal cup. Adults and larger metal mugs. She carefully and slowly poured a little bit of the dark steaming liquid into the cups enough so that the liquid could go around the many cups. My grandmother finally unwrapped pieces of golden brown, white and soft edibles which were known locally as scones; pronounced as sikono. She split each piece among four children while adults split halves.

I proceeded to slowly take a sip of the sweet dark liquid followed by a small deliberate bite of the sikono. The whole experience was known as drinking tea with a small piece of a bun and it sent all us kids bananas with profound sheer joy, pleasure, and bragado. As kids this experience could not simply be bottled away.

Sweet juicy ripe mangoes during the Christmas Season

Soon after most of this exhilarating event was over, I clutched by now a rather small piece of bun I had saved in my hand and ran outside the house to brag to other admiring friends in the village. “Tamwa tiyi na sikono!!!” (We drank tea and ate scones for Christmas!) I and my cousin Jemusi (James) yelled at the top of our lungs as we pranced around. The other kids in the village begged for a piece of the Christmas. I gave each of them a smitten of the bun. Just enough to wet their mouths. But the kids were thrilled all the same.

That was my happiest Christmas ever. Later that morning we went to church and in the afternoon watched traditional dances.

Christmas in Rural Zambia

When European colonialists introduced Christmas through the Christin religion among Zambians in the 1880s, it was portrayed with the foundation of European culture; freezing cold, snow themed Christmas Cards, the Christmas Tree, Christmas silver bells ringing, White Santa Clause, and massive exchange of gifts. Zambian Christmas for me has always had memories of cloudy rainy weather with mist in the air. Bright green hills, grass, trees and fresh sweet tasting and smelling mangoes of Chipata. Christmas has always meant special foods with many members of the family. People showing up at our house early on Christmas with abundant joy screaming: “Hapi Kisimisi!!!!”. My mother would give the person usually a bun. The person would perform an impromptu happy jig that made mother and all of us laugh. It was always such a glorious day.

Sweet mangoes sold very cheaply by the road side. Often a whole large basket a low price.

Moving later to the City of Lusaka, Christmas had the same rainy misty weather. The shops along Cairo Road were packed between Mwaiseni Stores, ZCBZ, OK Zambia, Kingstones Bookstore and City Radio. Everyone was in a jovial mood in Lusaka as Radio Zambia both the Home Service and General Service channels repeatedly belted all day the song   “Izintombi Zamageza” from South Africa;“Happy Christmas”.

Tell your mother

Happy Christmas (Happy)

Tell your father

Happy Christmas (Happy)

Tell you mother

Happy New Year

Tell your father

Happy New Year

Happy! Happy!

Happy! Happy!


The “Happy Christmas” song ought to be part of Zambia’s Chrisman Carol or anthem because it has been around since the 1960s.

Christmas in the City

Lusaka in the 1960s did not have walls around houses. On Christmas eve night you could walk around homes in Northmead, Rhodes Park, Olympia Park, and Kabulonga, you could see which houses were holding parties. There would be some cars in front and their front doors were open with all the red, green and yellow lights blinking in the house and music blaring. People were dancing. Food and drinks were flowing freely. My classmate friend Vin and I as poor students from University of Zambia could walk into any of the homes and you were welcome to the family Christmas eve Party.

Zambian Christmas Carol.

Christmas in Zambia reflects the beginning of the rainy season and hope for a better harvest for rural people. It is a time of misty rain, bright green grass, trees, hills and rainbows. It is a time for all family members including the extended family to gather together to celebrate and share, music, dance, laughter and delicious food. All members of the family from the oldest and youngest dance during the Christmas Eve party. There could be a missing member of the family who passed away during the year and there might be young new members born. Whether you faced tremendous misfortune and tragedy during the year Christmas day is not the day to dwell on such earthly matters. After having too much to drink, some will be involved with altercations that will land them with the village Headman or police arrest. Christmas is a day to enjoy the comfort of grace from God, joy, good food,  and conviviality with family and friends.

Role of Sex in Marriage: the Zambian Cultural Heritage

February 5, 2014

I was talking to a man in his sixties in the village in Lundazi in the Eastern Province of Zambia. He told me that some muzungu first came to the district about thirty years ago and asked the villagers to dig up these green stones. The white man told them the green stones were so worthless he would pay them about Ten Kwacha for a big 10 kg. bag. The man says he now knows the deep green large emerald gems were so precious that the first whites who knew the full value of the gems made a great profit. He regretted that for a long time that the Zambian people in the villages did not realize the real value of the emeralds.

I was reminded of this when I recently read this controversial story in the Post: “A two minute video depicting a half-naked woman explicitly demonstrating an assortment of love-making postures to a bride-to-be during a traditional all-female counselling session and posted on social networking sites has annoyed traditional counsellors. Zambia National Traditional Counsellors Association founder Iress Phiri yesterday described those who leaked the video as “stupid fools”. (The Post, Jan 31, 2014)

I did not need to see the video as the descriptions in the story were enough for me to understand what it contained. But I did not want to be accused of criticizing the video when I did not see it or similar to committing the act of criticizing a book when I have not read it. When I went to check the video on line, it had been already taken down. I don’t know whether the people who posted it felt some shame or were afraid of being sued. I also know that YouTube and other respectable on line cites are not interested in posting vulgar images or pornography or images that may be offensive to communities.

What every Zambian reader young and old should know is that teaching “love-making postures to a bride-to-be” is a very precious custom that all proud Zambians should cherish and protect. The report about the posted video says that some people could be heard giggling in the background in the video  and making fun of the training demonstrations amidst some drumming.

Sex in marriage is such a special, important, private, and sacred act that both brides and grooms should be properly trained before they get married. This is why the traditional Zambian customs had elaborate customs and training rituals before a young man and woman got married.  When entering marriage, the bride knew and had been shown and taught by older experienced married women what would make her husband happy and the groom had been shown by older experienced married men what would make his wife happy. This knowledge should be private and only those who are to be married should have the access, privilege of participating and gaining the knowledge.

There are those who will argue the loudest for transparency, openness, democratic rights, and that the video images and the inside information should be made public so that everyone should know and learn. The answer is No. This same point is emphasized in the book Satisfying Zambian Hunger for Culture: “Many traditional cultural practices were very special, sacred, and only secretly exposed to special groups or age sets or cohorts who were going through the rite of passage……These are sacred ceremonies which are very meaningful to adults and their young people who are anticipating and can’t wait to participate in them. Parents, families of young people, and the entire close knit community are anxious and interested in passing on very important life values to the young people…..We hope most of these practices will be kept confidential.” (Tembo, 2012; p. 38)

Because many Zambians, especially those who are educated, may regard these rituals as archaic and primitive because of the Western colonial Eurocentric influence, they may regard these rituals with a certain disdain, embarrassment, unease,  and unwillingness to embrace the customs. Prof. Kenneth Mwenda makes this point when he asks: “But why are African people, generally, so afraid of recording their culture and traditions? It baffles me. In the end and notwithstanding that culture is dynamic and that it changes, we will end up with a lot of misrepresentations and distorted interpretations of these same normative processes because they have not been systematically recorded and archived.”

Besides this failure to embrace our cultural traditions, there are very few Zambians who are aware that many of these traditions might go back to the traditions of not only the Lozi, Bemba, Tonga, Chewa, Ngoni, Lunda, Kaonde, and Luvale and many other peoples of Zambia, but these customs go back to over three thousand years ago when we Zambians and Africans created these customs as origins of the entire humanity. These customs may have been happening before the Greek Civilization, the Roman Empire, the time of  Christ, and the Prophet Mohammed. But of course, like that man in the village in Lundazi who did not know the value of the emeralds, we Zambians do not know the full value of, meaning, and functions of these precious customs and rituals and especially their history. Most of us just think some tribal backward, uneducated or fontini people in the villages just made them up for no good reason or for  lack of better entertainment. Then we might wonder why many non-Zambians especially in the Western society, many Whites and other non-Zambians admire them and there is a growing demand to want to participate in rituals and customs that prepare both young brides and grooms for marriage.

Ms. Claire Miti in UK makes the same point: “ 26,000 years of non-stop recorded African history! How about that? We are the only ones who don’t know that fact. …And of course Egypt itself. The biggest problem with us Africans, I find, is that we keep “disconnecting” ourselves from this history, from this knowledge…. Because we believe what we have been taught in our educational institutions that “Africans never made any contributions to civilization.”


If you want to know the complete descriptions of some of these Zambian customs and rituals you can read the book: “Satisfying Zambian Hunger for Hunger for Culture (2012) by Tembo. Another book is Traditional Marriages in Zambia by Chondoka (1988). When you fully understand the significance or important history of these customs, you will be reluctant to record the private sexual marriage rituals and thinking it would be really funny, titillating, and exciting to post the video on the internet, on YouTube,  or on Face book. I commend and encourage Zambia National Traditional Counsellors Association founder Iress Phiri and the members to continue their good work.

Should Zambian Languages be Taught in Schools?

January 16, 2014

Who among 13 million Zambians today will land the best job in Lusaka, Kitwe, Johannesburg in South Africa, in London in UK, Tokyo in Japan, or the United Nation in New York because they are fluent in Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, or Lozi and dozens of other Zambian languages? The answer is no one. In introducing compulsory learning of Zambians languages in schools, is  the Ministry of Education wasting time and money? Will this policy encourage and create a resurgence of separatism, disunity,  and tribalism which the founders of Zambia tried hard to eliminate?  After all, a Zambian will communicate with more people in Zambia and the global world if they concentrate on knowing to read and speak English well as the Zambian official language. These arguments have been very common since independence in 1964. This article discusses some of the advantages of learning Zambian languages that many Zambians may not have been previously aware of. Some of the major reasons and advantages of  being bilingual and multilingual are very important in today’s world in spite globalization.

Because of all the knowledge, appreciating history, personal experiences from the village in Zambia to the United States, research, reading so much information and teaching some of it for the last 30 years, I have concluded that we Zambians, from the Ministry of Education Grade One  to grade 12 to all Universities in Zambia, we are teaching the wrong or distorted history to ourselves about ourselves. Our history as Zambians started  a long time ago from two hundred thousand years ago when we were the first humans in East Africa and Ethiopia. We spread all over the world. The evidence of us having been all over the world is all over the world right now. We just need to have the courage and conviction to find it and interpret it to the world. Europeans used to and have successfully blocked this knowledge but the internet will open the flood gate.

After early humans lived and migrated in small bands and communities for thousands of years, We Zambians and Africans created the Egyptian civilization. The arguments as to whether Egypt had white or black people may be irrelevant and it is a deliberate distraction, mifulungenye (Bemba),  msokonezo(Nyanja) kutangwaniska and kujalizgha (Tumbuka), or obfuscation that Europeans cherish which they introduced to justify the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade and later European colonialism in Africa. Europeans love to inject race into everything with whites always being superior somehow. African Egyptians in the north were olive skinned and those further south towards the equator were darker skinned.

The Egyptian civilization occurred for 2,010 or more than two thousand years from 3100 B.C.E to 1090 B.C.E. This was about 760 years before the ancient Greeks. The great Ancient Egyptian Civilization which African established was 2,460 years before the very young European Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s. The 1090 B.C.E to 2013 is 3, 013 years ago. Dr. Chisanga Siame’s article opened my eyes to the fact that using linguistic analysis known as  philology, etymology, and then the morphology, phonology, semantics and syntax of language you can trace “Siame” Namwanga Zambian name to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt three thousand years ago. Zambian languages are very important as we Africans have used the Niger-Congo Bantu languages going back thousands of years.

Introducing Zambian languages will help us understand our real wider history in the origin of human civilization as our 72 tribes are part of the earlier African civilization going back thousands of years. The deeper meanings in traditional Zambian languages  in  Bemba, Nyanja, ChiChewa, Tonga, and Lozi have buried within them our true history going back perhaps to two hundred thousand years ago.

The learning, knowledge of and deeper proficiency in Zambian languages among Zambians also improves and widens our knowledge or world view which is known as cognition in psychology. For example, among the Nyanja or ChiChewa speaking people in the Eastern Province they have more than a dozen words to describe maize, mealie-meal and nshima-related terms. Because the Lozi in the Zambezi flood plain are a fishing culture, they probably have dozens of words related to fishing and fish related food. The Tonga people have a cattle raising culture. They probably have dozens of terms that are cattle-related. English may have no equivalent terms from these Zambian languages which limits cognition. Zambian languages are not just simple words for which we should create English equivalents, but reflect a much deeper epistemology and world view which may provide an advantage in the contemporary global world. For example I argue the nshima diet among 13 million Zambians may help to reduce obesity and gaining weight which is fast becoming a health epidemic. I discuss this in this article.

Because Zambian languages are what we speak as babies and children in families, this is why they are called mother tongues. They play a special role in our lives as they reinforce and express a certain emotional intimacy among Zambian families. My speaking Tumbuka expresses my deep connection to my mother, father, siblings, and kinship. These languages reinforce very important bonds when we are children and as adults.

Finally, speaking and understanding Zambian languages creates and reinforces national unity and patriotism. There is nothing as heartwarming when as a Zambian you are away from home for many years may be living in Tokyo, London, New York or Russia. When you meet a Zambian you experience a special joy whether they speak Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda or Kaonde. Although we would communicate in English if we don’t know each other’s’ traditional languages, we often use the much more intimate town lingua franca such as town Nyanja or Bemba, Lozi, or Tonga to express our national unity and patriotism. These are some of the factors why implementing compulsory teaching of Zambian languages in schools is the best decision the Ministry of Education has made.

Zambia Center for Contemplation of Knowledge

Before gaining independence from British colonialism in 1964, an estimated 3 million Zambians belonging to 72 tribes had traditional forums in their villages in which they discussed, contemplated and exchanged knowledge about all subjects. The men contemplated knowledge at the mphala among the Easterners and Insaka among the Bemba. The women contemplated knowledge and ideas at the mtondo or pestle and mortar among the women among the Easterners. I am sure the Lozi, Tonga, Kaonde, Lunda, and the 72 tribe tribes had different indigenous traditional names for such places of intellectual contemplation.

I am proposing that we create the first “Zambia Center for Contemplation of Knowledge”. This is a physical location where Zambian men and women from all parts of the country from the 72 tribes, all races, and the globe can retreat for the sole purpose of contemplating knowledge in a safe and secluded environment for a specified period of time. The selected intellectually seasoned men and women who will be privileged to report at the  Center will have been very carefully recommended and selected for their life long devotion to both indigenous and external knowledge. Before most readers make their own assumptions of the purpose of this proposed “Center for Contemplation of Knowledge”, perhaps the best way to describe it is to explain what this Center will Not be.

The Center will NOT be a place where young men and women can stay to write Masters’ thesis and Ph. D. dissertations to gain their degrees and be a stepping stone to improve their CVs for future careers. We have 13 universities in Zambia and thousands of colleges and universities abroad where individuals who are seeking this type of training can go. This is not the place where those who want to conduct technocratic or R and D research will go because we already have universities, institutes, government institutions, and other national and international organizations where such research is being and can be conducted. This will not be a place for holding workshops because there are already thousands of hotels, lodges, and other entertainment complexes in Zambia and abroad where seminars, workshops, main stream professional conferences are and can be held. The attendees at this Center will not be sponsored by international donor agencies and NGOs as our country is saturated by donor influences the majority of whom do an excellent job in providing solutions to some of the major problems we face as a society such fighting HIV-AIDS, hunger and poverty, provision of clean water, and empowering women and girls. The place will prohibit alcohol and other possible mind-numbing activities that pass for entertainment as we already have a saturation of such establishments. Having described what it is not, what will be the purpose of this Center?

The Center will provide an opportunity for Zambian men and women to live in a beautiful and secluded quiet location for a while where they can contemplate ideas and knowledge. The retreat or place will be located away from the bright light pollution and noise of the cities. It will be best if the place overlooks a beautiful Savannah river valley or stream. The residents should be able to see both sunrises and sunsets. The residents and attendees will be asked to come with no valuable possessions. This place will be safe and peaceful with serenity and have no walls surrounding all the dwelling units. The attendees should provide evidence from themselves and perhaps others that they have spent most of their lives contemplating certain forms of knowledge to which they will devote themselves to during the period they attend the retreat at the Center. The retreat should be treated as a place for replenishing both the soul and the spirit. At the end of the retreat, the participants will be expected to produce some of the newly found ideas and knowledge for public consumption, to teach, create a community of genuine thinkers and scholars that will inspire future thinkers of Zambian men and women.

This is where serious Zambian men and women, who would be at least 45 years old, will seriously deeply reflect in a serene location all kinds of knowledge: challenges of personal life  experiences,  in history, law, oral and written literature, performing and creative  arts including dance, philosophy, religion, spirituality,  linguistics including and especially Zambian languages, in culture, economics, gender and sexuality, marriage, psychology, sociology, political and philosophical science, computer science, mathematics, statistics, food and agriculture, architecture, divinity, engineering, physics, astronomy and space, cosmology, chemistry, biology, intersection of modern and traditional medicine, and education. Some of the Western disciplines such Anthropology have been so contaminated, we should never hesitate to create  new disciplines where necessary. Merely repeating or extending epistemological theories that were developed 200 years ago with European epistemology and elsewhere may no longer be useful or give us good explanations or answers as Zambians and the world continues to change and evolve.

If you read this as a Zambian begin to think how you can make this Center a reality. My thinking is that a good location for the first Center would be NegaNega Hills overlooking the beautiful Kafue River. Another location would be the  hills overlooking  Chinyunyu Spring or Rufunsa in Lusaka Province. In the Northern Province, Shiwa Ng’andu would be perfect or on the hills overlooking the Luangwa Valley on the Mfuwe Road. In the Southern Province in the Gwembe Valley, Munyumbwe would be a good location and also anywhere on the beautiful shores of Kariba Dam.

January 15, 2014

Who would some of the inaugural candidates for the Center? We have had some scholars in

Zambia who have done some definitive work on Zambian history and knowledge. For example, Prof. Robert Serpell for more than 40 years has been using modern psychology to analyze our Zambian culture and technology, The Significance of Schooling (1993).

Dr. Mutumba Mainga Bull researched; Bulozi Under the Luyana Kings: Political Evolution and State Formation in Pre-Colonial Zambia (1973), Norah Mumba, A Song in the Night: a personal account of widowhood in Zambia (1992), Professor Mubanga Kashoki published Sirarpi Ohannessian and Mubanga E Kashoki, Language in Zambia (1978). President Kaunda has written  Riddles of Violence (1980). Vernon Mwanga, An Extra Ordinary Life (1982). Patrick Wele, Likumbi Lya Mize and other Luvale Traditional Ceremonies (1993). Dr. Yizenge Chondoka, Traditional Marriages in Zambia: A Study in Cultural History (1988), Naboth Ngulube, Some Aspects of Growing Up in Zambia (1989). These are perhaps the first Zambians who would be invited to the retreat. I am sure there are many more other Zambians. Perhaps one Zambian who impressed me about his dedication to knowledge was Mr. Sangweni who I had met 27 years ago in Lusaka. He had only a Grade 12 education and did not have any degree. But he was a self-taught phenomenal thinker.

The October Heat is Sweet

We have all watched those exciting colorful documentaries on TV of the Cheetah chasing the swift Thompson Gazelle at high speeds of 65 mph or 104 Km Per hour zigzagging through the Savannah plains in a cloud of dust. Once the Cheetah catches the prey, the deep voice of the announcer says: “This is the law of the jungle and nature in Africa”. Next you see images of very cracked hot dusty dry land which has had drought for six months with no rain which is normal for Savannah Zambia. You wouldn’t think this was normal  if you only saw the documentaries.  The elephants, impalas, zebras, wilder beasts, buffaloes are shown desperately looking for water as the small water holes have turned into thick dry mud.

These are the negative images that have dominated the media and TV screens about Zambia and Africa since the very early days of European contacts with Africa in the 1500s. The idea that we Zambians and Africans live in miserable drought for six months of the year is very attractive  to people who live the Northern hemisphere in Europe, North America, Northern Asia, China and Japan. After all it is generally not only cold here but we have both rain and cold dark freezing snow winters. Sometimes freezing rain and frozen ice and snow fall together.

This Western image of six months of misery  contrasted so much with my good life growing up in the village in Zambia that I voiced my opposition to these images of misery in a book I wrote titled “Tit bits for the Curious” that was published in Lusaka in 1989 by the now defunct Multimedia publications. The most difficult times in rural Zambia are the rainy season when there are dwindling supplies of food from the previous growing season, people work in the fields, it is cloudy and sometimes you have mswera which are slow drizzling rains that could go on day and night for a whole week. The dry season in contrast from May to November were known as chihanya among the Tumbuka which means “bright sunny days”.


This was the period when the harvesting was over. Men went hunting. Women molded clay pots, went to the river to bath and took their time scrubbing their feet and washing clothes at the river. People walked to distant villages to visit relatives sometimes travelled to Lusaka or line of rail to visit. Children like me went to dig mice and hunted small birds and animals to supplement meals. We walked bare feet during the hot October sun and caught cicadas. I had forgotten all of the Zambian seasons when I was away from the October heat in North America for more than 20 years and came back to visit in Zambia in October 2012.

I was worried about the heat. The first 2 nights at my uncle’s farm in Chainda in Lusaka,  I was sweating so much during the night I needed a fan. But my body quickly adjusted. I walked in the sun wearing my t-shirts and thin cotton shorty sleeved shirts. My taste of October heat increased each day until I went to visit the Mpika Village of Hope Orphanage run by Ms. Jeny Musakanya. I walked to the market and supermarket every day in Mpika. We drove to the orphanage farms and walked in the bush in the hot October heat and I could hear the sounds of the childhood sounds of the Cicadas.

Children from the Mpika Village of Hope Orphanage run by Ms. Jeny Musakanya attending the Independence celebrations.

Children from the Mpika Village of Hope Orphanage run by Ms. Jeny Musakanya attending the Independence celebrations.

During the 24th October Independence Day in Mpika, I wandered to the nearby football field where the celebrations were being held. There were thousands of people especially children. Frozen drinks and snacks of all sorts were being sold. Some people were sitting under the shades of trees. That’s when it occurred to me; I had forgotten that if you grew up in Zambia the seething October heat is actually sweet. It feels great to see and smell the seething heat and yet  sitting  under a tree there is always a mild cool breeze. It’s even better if you are sipping an ice cold drink or just talking with friends and relatives; what the Tumbuka philosophically call kufwasa; which is sitting quietly contemplating and just taking your time enjoying the moment in whatever you are doing.

Zambians in Ancient Egypt

We Zambians Created Ancient Egypt

Have you read an article that instantly so profoundly changes your life that you realize you are no longer the same person you were minutes or half an hour before? I will never forget the pivotal moment for the rest of my life. I was standing in front of my class as I was supervising my students who were quietly taking their two hour final examinations. That’s when it happened. I opened my e-mail and scrolled down seeing my friend’s name with whom I rarely communicate. The e-mail said read this article which I have just published. This happened on Friday May 10 from 8:05 to 8:45 hours Eastern Standard American time.

The journal article that  Dr. Chisanga Siame had just published was titled: “Katunkumene and Ancient Egypt in Africa” from the Journal of Black Studies of 20 March, 2013. As I was reading it, I realized that it was providing possible definitive proof for the first time that I, my ancestors, we Zambians and Africans were the founders of ancient Egypt. The ancient civilization of Egyptian Kingdoms headed by powerful Pharaohs dominated North Africa and the Middle East for almost two thousand years ago from  c 3100 to 1090 B.C. E. This was before Assyrians, Persians, the Babylonian Empire, Greeks, and Romans occupied Egypt. This was also before Christ. The Egyptian civilization was the first to create a large empire, establish writing using hieroglyphs,  large scale political economy, the bureaucracy and built the sophisticated massive pyramids. Europeans and their scholars for a long time have denied that any Africans were involved in the Egyptian civilization. Their argument was that if they built the Egyptian civilization, where are those same Africans and their descendants to day?

What excited me the most is that Dr. Siame had cracked the secret code which was hiding right under our noses; our clan names and our Bantu languages which have left our imprints all over North and West Africa, the Middle East and all over Africa up to Cape town on the Southern tip of the African continent.  The secret code might be buried all over rural Zambia in our 72 tribes and our languages and clan names which include Lozi, Tonga, Bemba, Nyanja, Chewa, Kaonde, Luchazi, Tumbuka, Namwanga,Luvale  and dozens of Zambian languages. Dr. Siame found out that the Bemba term uku tunkumana may have descended from the name Tunka Men the name of the ancient kingdom of Sudan suggesting a connection between the Bemba people and ancient Egypt.

Dr. Chisanga Siame also discovered that his clan Namwanga name of Siame may be traced back to the Kings of ancient Egypt named Pharaoh Siamen who ruled in Egypt from 986-967 B. C. E. As I was reading, I was getting more and more excited. I felt like calling all my relatives, my friends, President Sata and President Kaunda, or Nelson Mandela or any African who could listen. Dr Siame found connections between “the mushabati of the Silozi language of Western Zambia and the word umhlabathi found in Sizulu and SiXhosa” in South Africa (p.265). Both could be traced back to the Egyptian Pharaohs burial practices. He also found out that the use of the prefix “Nya”  to denote a woman among the Tumbuka, as is NyaBanda or NyaNkhata, may have come from ancient Egypt when our ancestors lived there.

At this time you may be asking so many questions just I did. How did Dr. Siame come up with this knowledge? Why didn’t this information come from important famous big name scholars with big grants from European universities especially Paris, London, and New York? Isn’t this an internet hoax? The answer is simple but also complicated.

Dr. Chisanga Siame graduated with a political science degree from University of Zambia in 1976. He obtained his Ph. D. in Political Philosophy from Northwestern University. These degrees did not prepare him to do this research. He had to study on his own for many years mastering hieroglyphs, looked at the work of Egyptologists, and especially that he focused deeply on studying philology, and then the morphology, phonology, semantics and syntax of language. All of this may be part of historical linguistics. There is so much information in his short 20 page published article. He had to work very hard for many years on his own in isolation  to make these discoveries. He could not get any grant for his research.

The reason why European scholars could not come up with this very significant knowledge is that they were wearing  racial lens especially during the Atlantic Slave from the 1600s and up to the period of European colonialism from the 1880s to 1960. Also you need to be deeply embedded in African language, culture, and kinship to understand some of these connections using language. Zambians in the villages of our rural areas among the 72 tribes may still have this vital knowledge which would perhaps have been lost forever had it not been for Dr. Siame. Dr. Siame grew up in Mufulira but was lucky enough that his late parents were still steeped in Namwanga and Bemba culture.

The reason that I knew my life was going to be different after reading this article is that I could not sleep after reading it. I became very emotional because many of my own puzzles and questions in my personal and intellectual life were answered by this article. For example, when I asked Dr. Siame in a personal communication he said that my father’s name Sani, who is now 89 years old, can be traced back to ancient  Macedonia (Makidonia) known as Chalkidike (perhaps Salukidike), on the southern coast, was a city called Sani, often spelt Sane. I have to talk to my father to find out how he got his name when he was born in the 1920s.

This article provides answers to me as to why my grandfather who smelted iron founded our village perhaps in the late 1800s in Lundazi. Why my grandfather on my mother’s side was such a confident tall dignified intelligent man in my village. The research suggests that I and my fellow Africans from Southern Somalia, Uganda, the Congo, DRC, Angola, Zambia all the way to South Africa might be the descendants of the Bantu from ancient Egypt about 923 years or about a thousand years ago. The forces that 150,000 years earlier had made us to migrate from Africa to the rest of the world as the first humans or homo sapiens, may have  motivated us later to make significant achievements in the Egyptian civilization. Those same physical and social qualities may still flow in all our 7 billion human veins and their genes on the planet today as descendants of Africans; this means Asians, Europeans, North and South Americans, South Pacific Islanders.

Our African Bantu history is deeply buried in our mother Bantu Zambian languages and clan names. My worry is that with so much trivial short article tweeter style information saturating cell phones, the internet, and the globalization frenzy, can this article even be published? Can Dr. Siame’s 20 page article get the attention it deserves from us Zambians, Africans and perhaps the world? Can Dr. Siame find enough money to do more of this precious research? Do we as Zambians and Africans even care about our ancient history today especially if things happened before  1990, 1964, the 1800s or let along thousands of years ago?



Zumbwe Wild Cat and Human Greed

Why is it that Martha Stewart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and other rich moguls want more billions upon billions of dollars? Why is it that we consume more and more oil polluting the environment, gorge ourselves on too much food until we become obese, build more and larger houses until logging deplete trees, we want so much sex with so many partners that teachers have sex with young boys or girls and pornography is wide spread? Perhaps the most well known example of these human excesses is a former President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. Beyond what we need, why do we humans have this insatiable desire for what ever we find good? Religious experts, biologists, economists, sociologists have different explanations for this human proclivity. But the answer might lie in a small wild animal that lives around my home village in Zambia in Southern Africa.

When a male domestic cat becomes wild it turns into what the Tumbuka people of Southern Africa call a Zumbwe. It becomes sneaky, nocturnal, lives totally in the wild and only hunts for food at night. One of the most despicable acts the Zumbwe will engage in is if it sneaks its way into a chicken coop at night. The Zumbwe is so stealthy that the chickens don’t even have a chance to raise commotion. The Zumbwe will kill one chicken and eat may be half of it. But then tragically, it will proceed to kill the rest of the twenty or more chickens in the coop. When the owner of the chickens wakes up in the morning, what appalls them is not that one chicken was killed and half eaten, but the other nineteen lifeless chickens. People often will say the Zumbwe wild cat killed the rest of the chickens because of what the Tumbuka call kaso or it’s as if the wild cat killed just because the chickens are delicious food and were alive.

We humans behave the same way; just like the Zumbwe wild cat, once we have met our basic needs for sex, shelter, food, money, power, material possessions, glamour,  we will pursue more often in a selfish and destructive way, for no other reason, besides because we can have more.

When we are in this Zumbwe mode, we engage in behaviors that destroy or threaten the physical environment, creatures, and others in our physical and social environment. We then want more money when we have enough, we want bigger houses when we already own a home, we want bigger cars so we can use more gasoline, we want to buy more shares on the stock market, we want more sexual titillation even when we have enough. The list can go on. When we look at why we do these things, the bottom line answer is that, like the Zumbwe wild cat, because we can. Even the former American President has now repeatedly said he engaged in the sex scandal just because he could; this the ultimate excess of having power.

As decent human beings we could do such tremendous good for ourselves and people around us if, unlike the Zumbwe wild cat, we did not destroy life. But instead we can become the Zumbwe or wild cat of good deeds. Indeed if we did one good or kind deed, and then paused and then performed such kind deeds for the next hundred people in our immediate neighborhood here, in the next village, town, and city and everywhere on the globe, wouldn’t the world be such a better place? Why don’t you become the next Zumbwe wild cat and “kill” the next twenty people with kind deeds?

I am Glad I am Not In Jail

As a child growing up in my home village in Lundazi in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa among the Tumbuka people, an incident changed my life forever. I was in the middle of a squabble with my little cousin that escalated into a risky duel with tiny twigs. My grandmother shouted at us to stop. We froze. She then said to me if I poked my little cousin in the eye or killed him, did I know what the Muzungu or white British colonial court messengers and police would do? They would swarm the village, slap painful metal handcuffs on me, and haul me away to jail. She said when you kill someone they will nyonga or hang you. Except nyonga has a much more ominous meaning in Tumbuka. Nyonga is when my grandmother and other women at the river were washing clothes and they would wring or twist them hard to remove the last drop of water. The thought that that’s what they would do to my neck if I accidentally murdered my little cousin scared me.

Then my grandmother said if I stole or broke the law, the same police would haul me to jail where they would feed me salt day and night as punishment. The idea of eating salt with nothing else for months and years just appalled me. From that moment onwards I decided that I would not fight, steal, kill, or break the law for fear that I would go to jail or worse be nyongad.

These thoughts were going through my mind many decades later sitting in my back yard during a North American afternoon in Bridgewater away from that little village. After weeks of relentless 95 degree heat days with oppressive humidity, this past Saturday was one of those rare near perfect summer days. I had slept well the previous night because the cooled down air had gently breezed through the shatters of our bedroom window. The sun was bright, the sky was blue with some scattered clouds and the humidity must have been down to zero. I couldn’t go to the office because the house keepers at my office were doing their annual summer August waxing of the floor. Everyone was forbidden to walk into the building until Monday. I joyfully worked in the yard all day; something that I could not have done days before because some men died of heat exhaustion risking mowing their lawn at noon in 100 degree humid temperatures in the North East.

I mowed, weed wacked, and I stared at the jungle of weeds that I was going to attack next in my vegetable garden, when it hit me. I wasn’t sweating or tired. Why was I wasting this precious day? That’s when I decided to just sit under the shade of the pine trees and really enjoy the day. There was no radio, no cell phone, no TV, no book. I heard and observed the different bright colored birds drinking and flying around my neighbor’s small drinking fountain.

Then a bunny rabbit hopped two feet into my yard maybe realizing the dogs Max and Nyika were inside the house. The rabbits and my  neighbor’s three cats always play the chasing ritual with our two dogs. The rabbit just sat there wiggling its ears. Bees, butterflies, and other insects were busily buzzing around the large flowering hibiscus shrub that I had to trim three years ago. Then I saw a large bee. It rested on the clothes line next to the shrub for a split second then buzzed on the first flower. No, it was a humming bird.

In spite of all of life’s endless problems I began to appreciate how lucky I was to experience that day, that moment of utter freedom, and serenity. This is the moment and time that I am glad I am not in lifeless jail walls  in a twelve by sixteen cell with a toilet in the corner.

I thought of my grandmother, my parents, and all the people dead or alive that I care for in my life. My wife came out of the porch door with huge sliced pieces of chilled large watermelons. We devoured them with juices dripping to the grass. It was tempting to blurt to my wife that I was glad I was not in jail. But then I thought better of it.

People Passing Through Our Lives

As I look back on my life, I believe many people come into our lives and impact us significantly for a short while. Then they disappear never to be heard or be seen again leaving us with a wonderful story with glowing warm memories to last eternity. Sometimes in moments of contemplation we wonder why the person crossed our path. Sometimes we just wonder what happened to the person as we are left without conclusions. This creates the tension that is mystery in our lives. That’s why we find nostalgia to be so sweet. Our expectations of always expecting a neat ending to a story with mystery solved is a popular Hollywood myth that today overwhelms all of us. A story has to have a conclusive ending often a good one. I have come to the conclusion that whoever crosses your life, enjoy and cherish the moment with them, because once you part they may never cross your life again. This childhood story probably best makes this point.

Mgubudu stores is still located about 25 miles north of Chipata on the Lundazi road in the Eastern Province of rural Zambia in Southern Africa. The shopping center with its 6 Indian owned shops at the time was a vibrant shopping center in the 1960s. Trucks, buses, travelers, shoppers, villagers, professionals from fifty square miles mingled there. After cycling for 8 miles one late afternoon from Kasonjola School where he was a teacher, my father bought a cold coca-cola and was sipping it sitting on the stairs of the shop. He saw a man wandering past the shop.

The man was four feet nine and filthy. He had dusty bare feet, shreds of rags for clothes; he had patched lips, and looked tired. His neck less head rested on his hunchback. My father greeted the man. The man spoke Tumbuka which is our mother tongue. My father asked the man’s name and asked him why he was so far from the town of Lundazi which was nearly hundred miles away.

The man said he had not eaten for days. He had had only one lorry ride on the way but had walked most of the way for weeks in search a job. No one would give him a ride because he did not have any money. My father got out a susu (six pence) and bought the man a coca-cola and a bun. He thanked my father profusely. The man said he had been living in poverty in the village. He was looking for any work so that he could buy some clothes. But most of all he wanted to save some money so that when he returned to his village, he would be able to marry a woman from the lobola (so called bride price or bride wealth) he would save.  After they had had a long conversation, my father had the man ride with him on the back carrier of his Humber bicycle.  He brought the man back to our house.

My mother forbade us from staring at this short, filthy, hunchbacked man. As soon as they arrived, my mother immediately put some warm water in the bathing shelter and a bar of soap. The man scrubbed off all his dirt and my mother gave him a meal and a pair of my father’s old used clothes.

The man’s name was Sekelelani which means be happy or laugh. So it was that Mr. Sekelelani arrived one evening into our family of 9 children. We did not need the help because my father was a teacher and the little plot of land we grew crops on was to supplement our food. Mr Sekelenai was to help us work in our 2 acre field growing maize and peanuts. My father paid him One pound 5 shillings a month. He saved the one pound for him in an account and gave him the 5 shillings every month. My mother cooked and served him meals. My father gave him some used clothes. Because he had a hunch back, he never wandered away from our house into the villages because people stared and sometimes made fun of him even when he took short strolls near our house in the evening. He was very self-conscious. He had  a great laugh and broad smile and we kids were very fond of him and were always listening to his many funny stories. My mother sometimes teased him in the evening as we sat in the moonlight outside after dinner. My mother would ask him why he was not married yet.

Mr. Sekelelani would always laugh and say: “Mrs. Tembo, women like me, I know how to talk to them…….”

Twelve months later, we were all sad to see Mr. Sekelelani leave one morning. My father gave him the twelve pounds cash he had faithfully saved for him and a small suitcase with a blanket and some clothes in it. We escorted him to Mgubudu Stores where he boarded the bus to his home village in Lundazi. We never saw or heard from him again.

Over the years I had always wondered and have been intrigued by my father and mother’s partnership. They were such a kind people when we were growing up. They brought so many strangers into our home and into our lives as children. They treated them all very kindly. I have always wondered what happened to Mr. Sekelelani. Did he go home to a hero’s welcome? Did he marry and live happily ever after?

Sacred Cows and Myths are Broken

In September of 2002 sacred cows and myths were broken in my African home village. The wider implications of the breaking of these myths are still unclear. It all started when the Tembo family decided to purchase two bulls to help with plowing crops during the coming growing season, which starts in December. The 2001 drought that affected large regions of Southern Africa was already hitting many village families whose harvests had been poor at the end of the growing season the previous April. Our family decided to increase the chances of improving next year’s subsistence farm yield as well as the cotton cash crop through the purchasing of two bulls.

Although I was born and raised in the African village, I have lived in the US for more than twelve years. Since my urban and American good looks and good clothes, shoes, hefty appearance, (fat by African standards) and smooth skin would immediately double the price of an average bull, my brothers 35, and 39, agreed to scout numerous villages for bulls. Once they found them, I was to show up at the last minute to close the deal.

My brothers scouted by bike a three hundred square mile area of dozens of villages in the Lundazi district covering the Chiefdoms of Magodi, Phikamalaza, Kapichila, and Zumwanda. What they encountered always breaks the average Westerner’s heart: people experience visible poverty when they own anywhere from ten to hundreds of cattle. They are unwilling to part with them despite the obvious attraction of receiving rare large sums of money in exchange. Two long days later, my brothers finally returned with some good news. They had found five potential bulls at a small village on the Eastern side of the district in Chief Phikamalaza’s area close to Zambia’s international border with the country of Malawi.

Early the next morning, we set off for the village on bicycles. By this time, I had been in the village for three weeks. I had made two long forty-two mile trips by bike and numerous miles of bicycle riding in African scorching heat without needing a sip of water. We arrived at the village at noon. As arranged, the forty-one herds of cattle were not released yet for the day from their kraal for grazing. The owner was Aliboo; the man in the town of Lundazi who owns a chain of lucrative businesses including wholesale and retail trade, bus and truck transportation, buying and selling of corn, peanuts, cattle, goats, and sheep. He was the Bill Gates of the small rural district.

The Chief Herder and caretaker, a young man in his mid-twenties, and his two assistants led us to the kraal. There was pandemonium in the kraal as the designated animals milled around to elude capture. The five bulls on sale were reluctantly pointed out to us. We picked two of the youngest, healthiest looking and strongest looking bulls. The herder looked as sad as if he had just lost someone very valuable and dear to his heart. He reluctantly strapped to a yoke the two bulls for the long return trek to our village.

After the formal transactions of the purchasing of the bulls were over, the herder pulled me aside. He expressed his tremendous regret and sadness that the two bulls had to leave. He expressed deep fondness for them. He reminisced how he had broken them as juveniles to become his most favorite haulers and when plowing the fields. It dawned on me then and there that there is more to selling and agreeing to part with an animal.

At two in the afternoon, the two cattle, my two brothers, two young boys who were escort herders and I, started the thirty-five mile walk to our village. My brother had already nicknamed the young red feisty bull “Gumuza” which means to “husk corn” and the calm black one “Boma” which means “town”. We briskly walked and chatted in the sizzling African afternoon sun passing several villages and a school. The two escort herders frequently whipped the young bulls back into the narrow dirt road and bush paths each time the animals broke and wildly wandered off into the bush.

At sunset, we arrived at a stream on the Western side on the outskirts of the Lundazi town. The escort herders released the two cattle from the yoke although they were still tethered to along rope. The bulls grazed for a while and drunk some water in the nearby stream while we sat down to rest. Our dinner comprised three small buns for each person with some margarine on them. We downed them with a cup of plain water sweetened with a couple of teaspoons of sugar stirred into it using a small twig.

As darkness fell, we began walking the rest of the twenty-three miles to our home village. In the moonless dark night, we followed the light glimmer of the narrow small dirt road. The flashlight drove the bulls berserk becoming belligerent and wildly taking off into the bush. We could not use the flashlight. We passed many villages and three schools with our hoofed merchandise. Two trucks passed us carrying gigantic loads of cotton from the scattered village markets back into the Lundazi town. Hour after hour we placed one foot in front of the other. We plodded along and sweated as we followed the faint glare of the narrow, meandering, rough, and sandy dirt road.

We were a few miles from our destination and we had been walking for a total of nine long hours. We were all so exhausted that each one more step required much more will power than energy since there was practically no energy left in all of us including the two bulls. At one thirty in the morning we finally arrived at our village. The two bulls; Gumuza and Boma were released from the yoke and feasted on some raw pumpkins. My sister-in-laws cooked a long awaited hot meal as we talked to my mom and dad about our long trip. I was already thinking of the two young bulls, Gumuza and Boma, not just as beasts that can be sold at a whim. They were part of the family. Even the young eight and ten year old nephews, who were to herd the cattle, were roused by the excitement and woke up to admire the two new members of the Tembo family as they grazed behind my house in the dark. I finally understood why pastoralists everywhere in Africa and the rest of the world are often reluctant to part with their animals even if they have a large herd. Two myths were broken:

  • That a “fat” African who has lived an American life style of a soft life cannot ride a bike for numerous miles let alone walk for thirty-five miles. Incidentally being “fat” is so rare among the people in the villages of Africa that it is seen as a culturally positive thing. A young American Peace Corps volunteer was shocked recently when she was called “fat” when she first arrived in the village. But she has since learnt that being “fat” is used in a positive sense among the Tumbuka people and traditional Zambians and rural Africans in general.
  • The second myth is that peasant cattle owners and pastoralists in traditional rural Africa are irrational when they refuse to willy-nilly sell their animals even sometimes in the face of hunger and starvation. They perhaps truly love and sometimes deeply care more for the animals than their own lives, money and material modern consumer commodities.

Burglars and Home Security

When Erma Bombeck complained that it takes so long to secure the house (Detroit Free Press: 03-02-90) before she and her husband retired to bed because of increased crime I was amused. Because it sounded more like the neighborhood I lived in until recently – only a hair worse.

Burglarizing homes and stealing of cars at night while owners are enjoying their sleep is so common that securing homes and property has become very demanding. Our home was surrounded by an eight foot brick wall with jagged sharp glass along the top edge.

Before going to bed every night the security routine was that we first locked the metal front gate between the walls entrance. We made sure the two dogs were fed, alive, and barking and the outside security lights were switched on. Then I practically disassembled the automobile engine and took it to the security of our bedroom upstairs. The front and back doors were triple locked and all windows around the house were shut. Valuables like T.V, stereo, and computers had to be shipped from the living room to our bedroom. All the doors leading from the kitchen to the dining to the living room were locked. In the morning all of this had to be undone including reinstalling the car engine before driving the kids to school at 7 a.m. The bit about undoing the car engine might be a little exaggerated but doesn’t this sound like What Erma Bombeck was describing but only a tad worse?

Incidentally, this was life in the Capital City of Lusaka in my home country of Zambia until recently in December 1989. Yes, many Americans and millions of Zambians live there and it is no more dangerous than in many neighborhoods here. My wife and I and the two American neighbors we knew were never robbed. Except one  time when I parked down town Lusaka and my spare tire  was stolen. But then I had parked there safely millions of times before the incident. Perhaps the lesson in all of this is that it doesn’t matter where you live in an urban environment these days, the world is becoming more similar than different. Urban crime is escalating in most cities of the world.

****Unpublished article to the features editor of the Detroit Free Press, 321 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48231, 7th March, 1990. After many visits to Lusaka in Zambia since 1990, the urban crime is not as bad as it was in 1989.

Themba Chako Radio Comedy

Radio Chikaya in Lundazi
Who are the Tumbuka people? They live in Zambia, a country with a population of 10 million people with 2.02% annual growth rate. It has a life expectancy at birth of 43, and adult literacy rate of 78.2% 1. The country is landlocked and shares borders with seven countries; Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Congo, and Tanzania. The Tumbuka are one of the many  Bantu ethnic groups that are found in Southern Africa. The Tumbuka speak Chitumbuka which is one of 72 bantu languages and dialects that have been recorded in Zambia. They are located in the Eastern Province of the Southern African country of Zambia straddling the border between North-Eastern of Zambia and Northern Malawi. Approximately 750,000 Tumbuka people live in Malawi and 400,000 in Zambia 2

Since the early 1920s when the British established and colonized the then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, the Tumbuka have maintained their traditional lifestyle, cultural values, and subsistence farming. But their life has also been influence by Western medicine, education, and Christianity. The Tumbuka who live in the Lundazi district of Zambia  where this radio comedy was broadcast, are predominantly subsistence farmers growing maize or corn as the staple food including peanuts, beans,  peas, finger millet, sweet potatoes, cassava. The Tumbuka grow and sell cotton cash crops. They use the cash proceeds to pay school uniform and fees, modest clinic fees, and the purchase of modern consumer goods such as bicycles, soap, radios, batteries, sugar, clothing, and traditionally brewed beer. They also raise livestock such as chickens, goats, cattle, and pigs.

The Tumbuka still lead a predominantly traditional life style in which family and close kin reside in small villages surrounded by farm lands divided according to the needs of each family. The Zambian government provides clinics, schools, and agricultural extension services. The Tumbuka have certainly been influenced by modern institutions such as schools and clinics. For example, dozens of schools including Lundazi Secondary School, Musuzi and Mphamba Basic Schools, Mchereka Schools are located in the town of Lundazi and surrounding region where these radio programs were recorded. These social influences may have created some unique ways of approaching life.

Radio Chikaya is broadcast everyday predominantly in English and Tumbuka. The one hour weekly Tumbuka show is the character Themba Chako. When I first heard the Themba Chako program, I almost on my food with laughter. It was in the evening under moonlight 30 miles west of Lundazi in my home village. We were eating dinner with my family. The 4 radio programs of YouTube:

1 F. Jeffress Ramsay, Global Studies: Africa, 8th ed., Guildford, Connecticut: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1999, pp. 166-167.

2 The Tumbuka of Malawi and Zambia,

Nshima and Ndiwo: Zambian Staple Food

Nshima and Ndiwo: Zambian Staple Food

Nshima mealFor ten million Zambians in a country the size of Texas or France in Southern Africa, the concept of “nshima” and what it stands for is the very basis of life. Nshima is the staple food eaten by not only Zambians but Malawians and many other African neighbors. Almost all indigenous African languages in Zambia probably call nshima by a different name according to the specific area language and dialect variation. The Chewa, Tumbuka, and Ngoni of Eastern Zambia and Malawi call it sima or nsima, the Bemba of Northern Zambia call it ubwali, the Tonga of Southern Zambia call it Insima and Lozi of Western Zambia call it Buhobe. A similar staple meal is called Sadza in Zimbabwe, Milli Pap in South Africa, Ugali is eaten in East Africa including in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. A similar staple meal called Fufu is eaten in West Africa particularly in Nigeria. Many Americans liken it to mashed potatoes or grits. But what exactly is this staple food eaten by perhaps an estimated 14 to 18 million people in Southern Africa alone?

washingDuring the mid 1950s in a village among the Tumbuka in Eastern Zambia, an incident occurred that was to have legendary significance about the nshima staple food in the diet of the African peoples. It was during British colonialism in the rural district of Lundazi. A village Headman, a Mr. Kasaru, had been summoned from his village to see the European British District Commissioner. As common practice in rural Africa, people making a long journey on foot usually set off at dawn.

Headman Kasaru, is said to have set off at dawn with his wife insisting that he waits so that she cooks him and eats a good nshima meal to last him during the better part of the hot tiring day. The man insisted that he was going to be alright and that after all it was only a ten to fifteen mile walk. He was sure to arrive at the District Commissioner’s Office by ten that morning. Indeed, Mr. Kasaru had a brisk walk and the hot sun beat on him. But he arrived sweating, tired, terribly thirsty with patched lips at the District Commissioner’s Office that morning. The Commissioner would not see Headman Kasaru right away. He had to wait standing in line.

Observers said that Mr. Kasaru suddenly had a glazed look in his eyes and collapsed. His daughter-in-law, who happened to live nearby, splashed cold water on his face to revive him. Later after a good hearty nshima meal, village Headman Kasaru is said to have attributed all his problems to having refused to eat nshima before he left the village for his long journey that morning. The legend and saying that circulated in the whole area was: “Njara nkhamtengo, yikatonda a Kasaru.” which translates as “Hunger is as tough as a tree, Headman Kasaru succumbed to it.”

In the minds of the Tumbuka people, and indeed in the minds of the majority of Zambians, this particular incident vividly reaffirmed the significance of nshima in the lives and diet of the people. Nshima fills you up and offers people a bounty of energy to last a walk of a long distance, working in the fields, hunting animals, fetching mushrooms in the bush far away from the village. It is for this reason that folk tales, customs, rituals, gestures of hospitality and kindness or cruelty surround someone being offered nshima or denied the meal by their hosts.

What is Nshima and Who Eats It?

It is a food cooked from plain maize or corn meal or maize flour known as mealie-meal among Zambians. The price of corn meal and ultimately nshima, is a crucial matter in urban Zambian political and economic life. The government suddenly raising the price of corn meal sparked the political riots of June 1990 in the Zambian Capital City of Lusaka. The political crisis that ensued eventually let to multiparty democratic elections in Zambia in October 1991. The ruling party of United National Independence Party (UNIP) that had monopolized power for over 20 years was voted out of office. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was voted into power by landslide.

Nshima has always been the basis of life in Zambia for as far back in history as people can remember. During the best of times the nshima meal is always eaten for lunch and dinner. This is the case during and after the harvest season in the villages in rural Zambia. This is from about April to November when the food reserves are generally adequate. During the lean months, “hunger period”, or what the Tumbuka call zinja, between December and March, the majority of rural people can often afford nshima only once per day during late afternoon.

Many of the urban dwellers, ranging from those in the low-income sector, the middle, and the affluent eat nshima during lunch and dinner. The poor, unemployed, and those in the urban shanty compounds often barely afford one meal of nshima once per day usually for dinner. What else do Zambians eat besides nshima?

Zambians are generally raised to believe that only nshima constitutes a full and complete meal. Any other foods eaten in between are regarded either as snacks or a temporary less filling or inadequate substitute or a mere appetizer. Lets say you meet a Zambian late in the afternoon and ask him if he or she has eaten. Most likely they will tell you that they haven’t eaten all day although they might have eaten a sandwich, peanuts, milk, and a few other non-nshima foods.

Nshima is such a key factor loaded with such emotional investment in the diet that many rituals, expectations, expressions, customs, beliefs, and songs have developed in the culture around working for, cooking, and eating of nshima. For example, nshima is best when eaten steaming hot. A Chewa speaking man in Eastern Zambia, in moments of great masculine exuberance might say:

“Ndine mwamuna ine, yikapola ndi ya mwana!” “I am a man who eats only hot nshima, if its cold I give it to children.”

There is a legend of an irate husband among the Chewa people of Eastern Zambia in the mid 1960s, who always admonished and insisted to his wife that the pot she was using for cooking nshima was not big enough. He wanted her to abandon the pot and use an even bigger one. The woman sung the following song:

Yacepa yacepa sefuliya

Yacepa yacepa sefuliya

Bamuna aba

Acita uluma a a ha! ha! ha! ngati mkango

This pot is small

This pot is small

My Husband

He roars Haa!! Haa!! Haa!!

Like a lion

The famous observation that while Europeans might have one or two terms for describing snow and Eskimos might have more than 15 also applies to Zambian description of nshima. There are anywhere from 10 up to 20 terms depicting various types and states of nshima. The good or perfect nshima, if cooked from corn meal, is one which is steaming hot, snow white, smooth, not too soft or too hard, and served promptly on clean beautiful dishes. The good or near perfect second perhaps more important half of the meal, the relish or ndiwo, must be well-cooked meat, fish, or poultry with delicious well-seasoned gravy or what is called soup among Zambians.

Nshima Recipe

Nshima is the staple food for 10 million Zambians. It is eaten at least twice per day; for lunch and dinner. Another second dish, known as ndiwo, umunani, dende or relish, must always accompany nshima. The relish is always a deliciously cooked vegetable, meat, fish, or poultry dish. By comparison to other cultures, Zambian recipes tend to be bland and hardly use any hot spices at all. However, they use other traditional ingredients and spices that give Zambian foods that distinctive unique taste and flavor.

Lusaka corn mealPAN
4 Cups Water

2 Cups plain corn meal

Method: Pour 4 cups of water into a medium size cooking pot. Heat the water for 3 – 4 minutes or until lukewarm. Using one tablespoonful at a time, slowly sprinkle 3/4 cup of the corn meal into the pot while stirring continuously with a cooking stick. Keep stirring slowly until the mixture begins to thicken and boil. Turn the heat to medium, cover the pot, and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.

Cautiously remove the top. Slowly, a little at a time, pour into the pot 1 and a quarter cups of corn meal and briskly stir with the cooking stick until smooth and thick. Stir vigorosly. Sprinkle a little more corn meal and stir if you desire the nshima to be thicker or less if you want softer nshima. Cover, turn the heat off and let nshima sit on the stove for another 2 to 3 minutes. Serves 4 people.

Must always be served hot with a vegetable, bean, meat or fish dish or ndiwo.

The Ndiwo Dish

ndiwoOne of the most significant aspects of the Zambian staple meal by which the nshima is ultimately identified with what in English might be called the “relish”. The relish is an English somewhat poor equivalent or translation, which obviously, does not precisely reflect or capture what Zambians often realize is the very fundamental and transcending essence of the dish. The relish is a second dish that is always and without exception served with the nshima. It has many indigenous equivalent names. Among the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia it is known as dende, among the Ngoni and Chewa of Malawi and Eastern Zambia it is known as ndiyo or ndiwo, and umunani among the Bemba speaking people of Northern Zambia and the Copperbelt Province.

ndiwo second dishThe ndiwo second dish which is always served with nshima is often cooked from domestic and wild meats that include beef, goat, mutton, deer, buffalo, elephant, warthog, wild pig, mice, rabbits or hare, antelope, turtle, alligator or crocodile, monkey, chicken eggs. Green vegetables include domestic or garden grown like collard greens, known as rape in Zambia, cabbage, pumpkin and squash leaves, pea leaves, cassava leaves, bean leaves, kabata, nyazongwe, or bilozongwe leaves. There are numerous wild green vegetables that include katambalala, chekwechekwe, katate, lumanda, and numerous others, which are all, referred to by the very well known generic name of delele or thelele among people of Eastern Zambia and Malawi. There are anywhere from 20 to 30 of this group of thelele vegetables.

ndiwo and nshimaBecause the delele and other groups of vegetables are always so plentiful and easily available in the natural environment, it is one ndiwo that is frequently held in contempt. In rural Zambia the daily conversation will often focus on how difficult it is to get ndiwo. Someone will invariably complain that they have been eating delele for three straight days. Since any type of meat protein is the most scarce, it is the most valued or desired. Infact there is a special term that is used for that irresistible desire or yearning for meat which is known as nkhuli in Eastern Zambia and Malawi.

The pair of nshima and dende or ndiwo is therefore the most significant Zambian meal. One is rarely possible without the other. The two are like siamese twins, the left and the right hand, student and teacher, husband and wife, male and female or mitt and glove in American baseball parlance. Having one without the other is possible but is always regarded as a serious anomaly or oddity. If the cook induces the condition of eating nshima or ndiwo on its own, it would be regarded as lack of proper planning. If the diners induce the condition, they would be regarded as having poor judgement or being immature.

Other types of ndiwo or dende include fish, peanuts, peanut butter (chibwabwa or chimphonde), numerous types of wild mushrooms, and many varieties of beans and peas.

One excellent reason for why nshima and ndiwo always go together is that they complement each other. Nshima eaten by itself is rather relatively plain and bland. Although if you are an experienced, seasoned, and traditional eater of the meal, the nshima has its own subtle differences in taste and flavor depending on the type of mealie-meal and how it was cooked. In fact when Westerners who visit Zambia first eat nshima their typical reaction is: “God, why don’t you add butter, sugar or something to give it some taste or flavor?” But that is exactly the beauty and deeply acquired taste and appreciation of nshima in that it is the dende, ndiwo or relish second dish that gives it the unique taste or deliciousness. The nshima therefore accentuates the ndiwo and the reverse is also true. Eating the nshima by itself will fill the eater but without any taste ecstasy. Eating the ndiwo by itself might be gratifying but the individual will not feel full or satiated. Eating nshima by itself is known as kusoza among the Tumbuka people of Zambia. Kusinkha refers to eating ndiwo or relish by itself.

Types of Nshima

In traditional village Zambia, nshima has many types and states. There is nshima that is cooked from cassava meal (sima ya chikhau or chinangwa), sorghum meal (sima ya chidomba), finger millet meal (sima ya kambala). Potentially nshima can be cooked from any grain and tubers that can be transformed into meal or flour. There is nshima that has lumps in it (sima ya mambontho). This nshima is often the result of hasty cooking and only young inexperienced girls, men, and novices are expected to make this mistake.

There is nshima yopola. This is nshima that has gotten luke warm to cold because either it was cooked too early or eaters, guests, or diners delayed in getting to the table. This nshima is rather hard and might even crumble as the eater tries to get a lump. There is nshima ya cimbala. This is nshima left over from the previous night. It is usually stone cold and wet from steam condensation over night. Children are the only ones expected to eat this type of nshima sometimes for breakfast. Adult men are not advised to eat nshima ya cimbala as it is believed to cause weakness in the joints and also likely to usurp a man’s sexual energy.

Nshima yibisi means raw nshima. This is the nshima that was badly and hastily cooked perhaps with a very weak flame due to inadequate firewood or impatience on the part of the woman or the cook. One extreme way of testing if the nshima is raw is to push one’s middle finger deep into the just cooked nshima on a plate like one would push a dip stick when determing oil level in an automobile engine. If the nshima is well cooked, the finger will hardly penetrate, as it will be too hot for the tester. But if the nshima is under cooked, the finger will penetrate all the way and the individual tester will hardly feel any discomfort.

There is nshima ya mgayiwa. This is nshima that is cooked from corn or maize that is not hand processed. It is corn meal ground directly from corn using a hammer mill. This type of nshima is darker and very coarse or rough. Many Zambians will only eat this as a sign of hardship, in an emergency, or if they are in institutions like the boarding school, armed forces, or prison. In extreme cases it might cause diarrhea because of too much roughage for those not accustomed to eating it.

There is nshima ya kambandila which is cooked from maize or corn meal that is made from corn that has hardly dried in the fields just before harvest. This is also often done in desperation as the family might have run out of corn from the previous season’s harvest.

Nshima yosoza refers to eating the nshima without the second dish; the relish. This again is an extreme tremendous sign of suffering if individuals have to resort to eating nshima without relish. This extreme case is rare as in most cases individuals who eat nshima yo soza are said to be careless. There is a learnt skill in eating a large plate of nshima matched with often a smaller potion or serving of relish. One has to learn to match the rate of eating the nshima with the specific served portion of the relish. Going to the relish pot for some more is usually unacceptable or impractical. So in the unfortunate situation of mis matching the rate of eating nshima and the relish, the individual might end up eating nshima yo soza.

Nshima features very prominently in many other cultural aspects of the community. For example, a traditional healer will often prescribe that a patient gets the herb soaked from roots of a certain tree and use it for cooking nshima. The patient has to eat this type of nshima for two to three weeks to a month. This is true for a child who is being treated for childhood epilepsy or seizures for example. This type of nshima is known among the Tumbuka people as kasima ka mnkhwala or a tinny nshima cooked for medicinal purposes.

Balanced Nutrition and Eating Habits

The perception and eating customs of nshima among rural and urban people sometimes differ. Rural people are very frugal in the way they eat nshima. They prefer to eat nshima with only one ndiwo or relish dish at each meal. This is out of necessity as cooking one ndiwo for the two meals everyday is very demanding on the time of virtually all mothers or wives in rural villages. Cooking multiple ndiwos is therefore often impractical. Urban educated middle and upper income people however regard eating multiple relishes during each nshima meal as one of the principle demands of proper nutrition and prestige. This is usually nshima with at least one vegetable and one meat or fish relish. This contrast in attitude and customs was demonstrated one day during research fieldwork in a conversation with a middle-aged man in a village in the Lundazi rural district of Eastern Zambia. Asked whether he would appreciate and enjoy a meal of nshima with several ndiwos of beans, meat, and vegetables, his vehement and puzzled reply was:

“Yayi! Uku nkhwananga dende.”

“No! Why waste so much relish on one meal?”

In other words, his reply was that it was being wasteful and rather extravagant to eat nshima with more than one ndiwo during one nshima meal. Those ndiwos would serve a better and more economic purpose by eating each one of them during separate nshima meals.

The Making of the Corn Meal or Mealie-Meal for Nshima

The traditional making of the maize or corn meal is very demanding and labor intensive. The proliferation of diesel run hammer mills has helped in relieving many of the rural Zambian women. The aim of the whole process is to make very white corn meal that will cook a very white smooth to the taste nshima. Depending on the urgency and planning habits of the individual woman, the whole process might take anywhere from three to ten days. Most women will start the process of making new corn meal when there is about a week’s supply of corn meal left in the house.

The process starts with the woman retrieving dry corn on the cob, which had been stored safely after harvest in a structure known as nkhokwe among people of Eastern Zambia and Malawi. The woman will elicit the help of children, aunts, female relatives and close friends in the village and in many cases men to remove the corn from the cob the process known as kugumuza.

The girls and women then pound the corn in pestles and mortars to remove the husks. Although this is a physically demanding task, the work is easier by making it communal when ever possible. Song is also used during the pounding, which can often be heard three to four miles away. In some cases, all the women in the village will arrange to pound the maize for their households at the same time. They agree to wake up at 3 a.m to begin pounding the corn together while they sing. The work would then be completed by mid day. There are numerous pounding songs, in all villages of rural Zambia, like this popular one among the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia.

Leader: Amama Ae – e – e – e ! ! !

All Women:

Ine Amama nkhuwela ! ! !

Nabanangilaci ine analume aba

Ine Amama nkhuwela

Vitolanenge waka viminkhwele pera

Chikhumbo namtima ine nkhawele

Leader: My mother Ae – e – e ! ! !

All Women:

Mother I’m coming back home from my marriage

What have I done to offend my husband?

Mother I’m coming home from my marriage

Let monkeys marry one another

The Heart grows fonder I’m coming home

ndiwo grindingThe songs composed by the women are often a social commentary on the goings on in the community and for expressing any stress and tension in marital and other social relationships in the community. In this song, the woman is threatening saying she is going to go home to her mother leaving the marriage. She is lamenting why she ever got married to her husband. She is mocking him that if he goes on to marry a second wife then “let monkeys” marry one another. Although the heart grows fonder because of love, she is still going to return to her mother.

After the husks have been removed from the corn, the corn is no longer called by its usual name of vingoma (maize) but mphale. The mphale-processed corn is then soaked in water for at least three days. During this period, the mphale becomes soft and the water in which it is soaking has a sour taste due to fermentation. The sour liquid, known as mteteka has an additional use. It is often used to cook sour porridge with peanut powder for what amounts to a delicious breakfast that is tangy and stimulates one’s taste buds. The various ways and ingredients for cooking porridge for breakfast are discussed elsewhere.

soaking 3 daysAfter soaking for three days, the mphale processed corn is removed, thoroughly washed in clean water, and spread on special large mats (mphasa) in the sun to dry. During the drying process, young children and in may cases women themselves have to watch, continuously guard, and shoo away village goats, chickens, pigs, cows, insects, and wild birds. After the mphale-processed corn is relatively dry, the women in rural Zambia to day have two choices for turning the corn into meal or flour. First, they could pound the corn into meal in mortars with pestles.

hammer mill Second, the women could obtain some money. They could carry the mphale-processed corn on their heads for sometimes a three to six mile round trip to a hammer mill. Bicycles are sometimes used if available. The corn is then grounded into mealie-meal for a fee using a diesel driven hammer mill. Once the corn meal is made, it is again spread on the large special mats (mphasa) in the sun to dry. These mats might be as large as twelve feet long and eight feet wide. After this, the white corn meal is stored away ready for use for cooking the nshima meal.



The Role of a Good Wife and Mother and Ndiwo

Finding different types of ndiwo or relish for each day’s meals is one of the most demanding and challenging tasks for all mothers and housewives in Zambia. The responsibility stretches every woman’s creativity virtually everyday. There are two extremes in the choice of ndiwo by the woman. A woman who is poor at it might cook one type of relish and serve it to her family for two straight days. The ndiwo gets boring or kutinkha and family members will not enjoy the nshima meals. The condition of eating the same type ndiwo with nshima for more than four consecutive meals and feeling bored with it is known as kutinkha. This is every mother and wife’s nightmare. This happens even with the most delicious ndiwo like poultry, fresh mushrooms, or meat.

A woman who is good and creative with finding ndiwo will cook one type one day and a different one the following day. For example, the ndiwo for one day might be a delele green vegetable, the following day it might be fire dried beef from two months ago, the following day she might cook beans. In this way, her husband and entire family will enjoy their nshima meals tremendously.

How the Ndiwo Dish is Cooked

There are three basic methods of cooking relish or ndiwo in the Zambian traditional cuisine. All fresh meats and fish are generally boiled in plain water until soft and salted. If available, onions, tomatoes, and vegetable oil might be added which improves the taste of the meat especially the gravy in which the nshima lump is always dipped during meals. Since most of the meat and poultry from both domestic and wild animals is natural, it is very lean with virtually no fat and has a very strong aroma.

Second, some genres of ndiwos or relish like mice, termite ants, caterpillars, and certain birds like baby doves (vibunda) are strictly roasted and fire dried. There is no other way in which they are customarily cooked.

The third and perhaps most unique but common method of cooking ndiwo in traditional villages of especially Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi is that of cooking with chidulo and kutendela. If there is any cooking recipe besides nshima that so deeply pervades the entire diet among rural Zambian people it is chidulo and kutendela. This is so perhaps because the two methods make some of the many wild foods so tender, delicious and edible.

chiduloChidulo is an ingredient that is used for cooking virtually all wild and some garden variety dark green leaf vegetables and wild mushrooms. The chidulo liquid is made from burning dry banana leaves, peanut leaves, or pea leaves, bean stalks and leaves or dry maize stalks and leaves. If the chidulo was being made from dry maize stalks and leaves, the woman who wants to cook wild or garden dark green leaf vegetables will collect a pile of dry stalks. She will then torch and let them burn completely. She will collect the cool ashes and put them in an old container with holes at the bottom. The container could be an old gourd or pot. Plain cold water up to a gallon will be slowly poured into the ashes. The water soaks into the ashes, drains through and collects into a container inserted at the bottom of the ash container. The process is known as kucheza. The liquid, known as chidulo, that is collected has a light yellow color and tastes like vinegar.

chidulo 2This is the liquid in which the wild vegetable will be cooked. Apart from the unique sought after vinegary taste it gives the vegetables, the chidulo has another perhaps more important function of softening the other wise tough and course wild greens. If many of the wild greens like cassava leaves, collard greens, kabata and many others were simply boiled in plain water, they would never be edible, tender or taste so delicious. The chidulo has other additional advantages. When anybody is ill with throat sores, they are offered delele cooked with chidulo. The salty vinegary taste helps heal throat sores faster.

Cooking green leaf vegetables in chidulo alone in never adequate. There must be the additional process of kutendela. This is adding peanut powder to the vegetables. The addition of peanut powder to vegetables is highly valued and appreciated as it adds flavor, a unique taste, and a nice aroma to the vegetable relish.

The peanut powder, used for cooking kutendela vegetables, have to be made afresh each time a woman cooks. The woman starts by getting dry raw peanuts stored away in the shell in a special dry structure known as chilulu. The raw peanuts are shelled and put in a mortar. They are pounded for a few minutes using a pestle. The pounded peanuts are taken out and sifted for fine particles of crushed peanuts to be separated and removed. The more solid particles are returned to the mortar and pounded once again. This process is repeated until enough fine peanut powder or nthendelo among the Tumbuka, is collected to cook the vegetables with. The recipe for cooking vegetable with chidulo and kutendela is as follows:


Collard or Rape Green Leaves with Peanut Powder

7 Cups or 1 lb. chopped collard greens

1 Large size chopped tomato

1 and a half Cups raw peanut powder

2 Cups water

1/2 Teaspoonful Arm and Hammer Pure Baking Soda or 1 Cup Chidulo

1/4 Teaspoonful salt

Method: Pour 1 cup of water into medium size cooking pot. Add half a teaspoon of pure baking soda and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Place pot on burner on medium heat. Add 7 cups of chopped collard greens and the 1 chopped tomato. Cook on medium to high heat for 5 to 8 minutes. Add 1 and a half cups raw peanut powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup of water. Stir thoroughly and lower the heat to below medium. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes stirring every 2 to 3 minutes to prevent bottom from burning.

Serve hot with nshima

Serves 4 people

ndiwoThis is the most basic and popular recipe in Zambian traditional cooking as it is used for cooking the majority of the many green leaf vegetables including squash or pumpkin leaves, bean and pea leaves, cassava leaves, and wild mushrooms.

The peanut powder has multiple uses in the cooking of many traditional Zambian foods. Bala lotendela is porridge cooked with peanut powder. Mpunga wotendela is rice cooked with peanut powder.

Mthiko is the cooking stick that is specially made for cooking nshima and ndiwo. The significance of the mthiko cooking stick is reflected in the beliefs and customs of the people. Men and boys are traditionally prohibited from using or eating off of the stick. The masculinity of men and that of boys of puberty age is believed to be compromised if they use the cooking stick in this manner. A woman’s femininity is often also measured, among other criteria, by how well she cooks or ‘handles the mthiko cooking stick’.

All of this requires tremendous skill and effort on the part of the woman. She has to know a good source of chidulo liquid, how long to cook the greens or mushrooms, when to add peanut powder and how often to stir the cooking ndiwo or relish. All Zambian women who grew up in a traditional home, particularly in the rural areas, acquire these skills during their childhood.

Although there have been remarkable changes in the customs surrounding how the nshima and ndiwo meal is served, there are certain basic traditional practices that have remained constant.

Once the woman has finished cooking the nshima, she serves it according to the number, ages, and types of people partaking in the meal. Children under the age of eight will eat with their mother and other female kin. The father, other males and boys over eight years old are served and eat separately. The pair of nshima and ndiwo, drinking water and basin of clean water are placed in the middle. The dinners sit around the meal making a circle. The oldest person washes their hands first and the youngest last. In cases where the nshima is served in covered dishes, the oldest person must always uncover the nshima and ndiwo first.

Zambian Nshima Eating Manners, Customs, or Etiquette

diners washingThe diners sit around the table or if sitting on the floor, they make a circle around the nshima. Zambians traditionally use bare hands when eating nshima. From time immemorial up to 2004, the custom was that all the diners first washed their hands from a dish of clean water. This custom has been changed in the entire society. A directive was apparently given from the Ministry of Health that due to reasons of maintaining better hygiene, the new custom of “D-Washa” was introduced. The new or modified custom is that the guests, elders, older adults, younger people and children wash their hands in that order. The youngest person or the host, will pour water from a pitcher or water jug so that a diner will wash both their hands thoroughly with soap and let the dirty water drop or collect in a dish. The same procedure is followed once the meal is completed. The dirty water is discarded either in between or at the end the end of the meal depending on whether the water is moderately or very dirty looking.

Manners  washingIt is considered rude for a young person to wash their hands first before the adults, older siblings, and guests have done so. Young people help to serve the adults and guests at the table to wash their hands pouring the water from a pitcher while each dinner washes their hands. A younger person or child should not stop eating and wash hands first, let alone leave the dining table, before adults do. However, if an adult sees a younger person or guest who has obviously stopped eating because they are full, the adults or the host will graciously grant “permission” to the waiting person to wash their hands. It is considered good customary behavior for everyone to wait seated at the table until everyone has finished eating and washed their hands.

Eating is always with only the one right hand. Both hands are never used when eating nshima. Only small children and perhaps strangers unfamiliar with the culture will use both hands at the same time when eating nshima. Westerners and other foreign visitors will be given forks and knives if the host notices that the guest is facing difficulties as fresh cooked nshima is always sizzling hot. One hand only is always used when eating nshima. The right hand only for the right handed individual and left hand only for the left handed person.

The customary procedure is to cut a good size lump of nshima and slowly shape it into a smooth round ball using the palm and fingers of the one hand. The nshima is then dipped into the second dish, the ndiwo, before it is eaten. All of this is often done in a relaxed deliberate way while the diners hold casual conversation. The older person is always the one to stop eating first when satisfied. He or she must leave a portion of the nshima for the younger persons and children to finish off or take to the kitchen when clearing dishes. The oldest person will wash their hands first.

It is considered very dignified and enjoyable to eat nshima slowly while making and smoothening the lump carefully before eating it; making good casual and relaxed conversation in the process. Young people eat and listen and can participate in the conversation when asked a question. But generally a well-behaved young person is expected to listen and gain wisdom from the elders during these meal times.

Zambians ordinarily will not ask you if you want to eat something especially if you are visiting a home. The educated elite and the well off might ask if you want to eat or drink something and might give you a variety of choices. But generally a host family will offer you snacks like tea, soft drinks, beer and even a main meal of nshima; the Zambian staple meal, without asking for your permission. Traditionally, it is considered rude and perhaps even selfish and cruel if you ask your guests: “Are you hungry and should we cook nshima for you?” According to custom, a guest who might be really hungry will say “No” out of shyness and embarrassment and they will then be expected to leave. It is assumed that as long as you are staying and having conversation, its considered courteous to offer you anything that the family may have for you to eat. Refusing to eat completely is considered rude unless you are close acquaintances or good friends with your hosts. Even if you are full, you can always eat a little. This is considered polite.

Common Nshima Dos and Don’ts

There are several key dos and don’ts about customs surrounding how the nshima is traditionally served and eaten among Zambians.

*Do not serve left over nshima from a previous meal to any adult.

*When eating, a younger person should never stop eating and begin washing hands first unless permitted by the older person.

*Guests who suddenly arrive when you are eating should always be invited to join in sharing the meal.

*A lone guest should never be served the meal alone. Another person, often a young reliable child, should always eat the nshima with the guest.

Nshima with ndiwo is the most important meal. It is so important and embedded in the traditional culture of the people that it features very prominently in the languages, expressions, tales of hospitality and wisdom and folk tales.

A guest will say the hosts are very kind and generous if they cook him nshima with very delicious ndiwo which may be chicken, beef, goat, or many other types of ndiwos. A young man courting a young woman will think highly of her if she cooks and serves him nshima with delicious ndiwo especially chicken.

In traditional Zambian folk tales, Kalulu the hare is the celebrated trickster. In many folk tales, Kalulu the hare will visit lion who will cook him nshima with delicious chicken. A typical story is like the following from a reader which is a compilation of Zambian folk tales from Eastern Zambia.


The Lion had a reputation all over the earth that he was a good doctor. The Lion had all kinds of medicines to treat all kinds of illness.
One day, the Lion received word that the Leopard was stabbed and injured by a wild pig while hunting it. When he heard this word, the Lion called the Zebra and said:

“Friend, the Leopard is sick. Would you like to come with me and visit him?

The Zebra agreed and said:

“Yes king, I will come with you. ”

So, the Zebra carried the Lion’s baggage.

Before they could walk very far, the Lion stopped and said to the Zebra:

“Look here my friend. You should remember this wild ndiwo green vegetable when we arrive at the Leopard’s home. When the Leopard gives us meat, you should come here and get this relish.”

The Lion pointed out the type of wild vegetable to the Zebra. After they had walked for some distance, the Lion stopped again and said:

“Look here friend, when the Leopard cooks us any food, come here and collect that ndiwo vegetable over there.” The Lion again showed the Zebra the type of ndiwo. When they arrived at the Leopard’s house, the Lion rubbed his medicine on the Leopard’s body. Soon afterwards the Leopard was healed.

The Leopard then gave wild pig meat to the Lion and said:

“King, this is yours. Eat it.”

The Lion then told the Zebra:

“Look, friend, we cannot eat this meat unless we have some extra ndiwo. Would you go and get some of that ndiwo vegetable I showed you on the way when we were coming.”

Without delay, the Zebra ran to go and fetch the ndiwo.

When the Zebra returned, he found that the Lion had already eaten all the meat. The Zebra slept hungry. The following morning, the Leopard cooked them a nice nshima meal again. The Lion played his trick again. He sent the Zebra to go and collect the same vegetable from the bush. While the Zebra was away, the Lion again ate all the food. When they both returned home, the Lion was very fat from eating all the good food while the Zebra was very thin because of hunger.

After several days, the Elephant fell sick. So he summoned the Lion for help. The Zebra refused to go. Therefore the Lion had no one to carry the baggage for him. When the Lion saw Kalulu the Rabbit walking along the road, the called him and said:

Kalulu, come here! You walk around all day stealing other people’s things. Come on! Let’s go. You can carry my baggage.”

Kalulu the Rabbit quickly agreed and said:

“King, put the baggage on my head. Laziness is really a bad thing.”

The Lion and Kalulu walked away together. On the way, the Lion stopped and said:

“Look Kalulu, when the elephant gives us food, you should come here and get this ndiwo vegetable.”

Kalulu the Rabbit replied: “That’s alright King. I understand what you say. But I have never seen ndiwo of this kind before!”

After walking for a distance, Kalulu the Rabbit stopped and said:

“I am sorry chief. I think you should be the one in front to lead the way. I forgot my knife where we stopped a while back.”

Quickly, Kalulu ran back and collected the vegetable and put it in his pocket.

When they arrived at the Elephant’s house, they were warmly received. The Elephant cooked food and served it to his two guests. The Lion sent Kalulu the Rabbit to go and fetch the ndiwo vegetable from the bush.

Kalulu took out the green vegetables and said:

“Here King! I got the ndiwo already so that there would be no delays when we eat food.”

In this way the Lion’s trick failed this time because Kalulu the Rabbit also ate the food and was satisfied.

When it was dark in the evening, the Elephant showed the Lion and Kalulu a place where they could sleep. The Lion got a nice mat where he could sleep. But Kalulu only slept on hard tree fibers. At dawn, Kalulu began to sing a song.

“Those who sleep on hard tree fibers are tough; yea! yea!
Those who sleep on a nice mat become tired; yea! yea!”

When he heard Kalulu’s song, the Lion woke up and said:

“What are you singing about Kalulu? Would you stop it because I am trying to sleep!”

But Kalulu the Rabbit said:
“Forgive me King, my grandfather taught me this song. He said if you are on a journey and you want to sleep comfortably, you should sleep on tree fibers.”

In this way the Lion was attracted to Kalulu’s idea. and said:

“Please Kalulu let me try to lay down on the tree fibers.”

The Lion fell asleep very deeply. Kalulu the Rabbit woke up and used the tree fiber to tie up the lion. After tying up the Lion in this way, Kalulu got some fire and set the fibers alight. When the Lion felt the heat and the pain from the fire, he tried to free himself but could not.

The Lion began to shout: “Oh! My! Oh! My! I am dying. Kalulu please untie me!”

But Kalulu the Rabbit ran away out of sight as fast as he could.

About the Author

Mwizenge S. Tembo obtained his B.A in Sociology and Psychology at University of Zambia in 1976, M.A , Ph. D. at Michigan State University in Sociology in 1987. He was a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia from 1977 to 1990. During this period he conducted extensive research and field work in rural Zambia particularly in the Eastern and Southern Provinces of the country. He is currently Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater College in Virginia. This material was gathered during a research field trips (1980 and 1985) sponsored by the Institute for African Studies and in August 1993 partially sponsored by a grant from the Bridgewater College Flory Development Fund and supported by the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia to whom he is very grateful. Thanks to all respondents in the villages and the Lundazi District Governor’s office.



Mwizenge S. Tembo, Legends of Africa, New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc., 1996

Mwizenge S. Tembo, Afrikaanse Mythen en Lengenden, (Translated into Afrikaans, the language of about two million white Dutch descendants in South Africa), New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc., 1996


J. Brewer, Kalulu ndi Nyama Zinzace, (Kalulu and His Brother Animals), Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1946. Translated from Nyanja Zambian language into English by Mwizenge S. Tembo, March 1986. (translated version unpublished.)

Tembo, Mwizenge., What Good is Etiquette?: Understanding the Norms of Good Behavior in Zambia, The World & I, November 2002.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Coming from the Earth: Foodways of the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia, The World & I, May 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. When Daybreak Comes: Folktales from the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia, The World & I, March 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. The Cunning Prey: Animal Tales from the Tumbuka of the Eastern Zambia, The World & I, January, 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Dimbas and Dambos: Village Gardens of Eastern Zambia, The World and I, June 1994.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Delicious Insects: Seasonal Delicacies in the Diet of Rural Zambians, The World & I, October 1993.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Tasty Mice: The Significance of Mice in the Diet of Zambia’s Tumbuka People, The World & I, November 1992.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Where Chickens Sleep in Trees: The Importance of Chickens in Rural Zambia, The World & I, September 1991.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. An Assessment of Appropriate Technology Needs of Gwazapasi and Mkanile Villages of the Lundazi District of Rural Zambia, Eastern Africa Journal of Rural Development, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981.

Tembo, Mwizenge S., Mwila, Chungu., and Hayward, Peter., An Assessment of Technological Needs in Three Rural Districts of Zambia, Human Aspects of Technology in Zambia, Preliminary Report, Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia, No. 1, February 1982.