The Significance of Kulanga


In the traditional Zambian society, a mother may ask her young daughter to get a pot from the house which has some dry beans so the mother can cook them as  relish or ndiwo for supper. Because the child is not paying careful attention like most children do, the pot slips from her hand as she is walking to her mother. The dry beans spill all over the dirt or soil. The mother is immediately very upset. She admonishes the child for being careless. She tells her to now carefully pick up the beans. The mother even joins in the picking up of the beans from the ground. The mother continues to talk to the child. The mother advises the child to always pick up pots with both hands. If this had been a clay pot or China, the child would not only have been picking up dry beans from the ground but worse there would be an expensive hard to replace pot broken to pieces.

During the whole short incident which might be resolved in a matter of minutes, the good child knows not to talk back to her mother but to listen. This is a very good example of perhaps the most powerful practice or concept of Kulanga among the Tumbuka and many other tribes in Zambia. The practice or custom of Kulanga is not only employed between parents and children but also between elders and grown younger adults who might even be married and have their own families. This short essay will define kulanga in all of its complexity and effectiveness, how kulanga is used between parents and children, between elders and grown adult children, and finally, how kulanga when well used is probably the best custom for resolving most interpersonal conflicts with a sense of integrity and dignity.

Langa and Lango

Langa in Tumbuka bantu language from the Eastern Province of Zambia and Northern Malawi is a verb which means “show”.  Langa though is different because it denotes something very unique and deeper. If you are going “to show” someone the path to another village, the term that is used in Tumbuka is  “Kulongola”. When the Tumbuka prefix “Ku” which generally means “to” is inserted before “Langa” you get “Kulanga” which has very unique meaning in the lives of the people. Kulanga among the Tumbuka connotes both criticizing with an expression of some anger and disappointment while providing advice and wisdom in the same moment of conversation.

Lango is a very closely related term which is often used separately to denote the meting out of punishment for a serious infraction that a child or a person might have committed in the family or community.  The prefix “Chi” when inserted before the word “Lango”  is “Chilango” which is a noun for “punishment”. These distinctions are important because they have significantly different meanings among the people when they communicate. For example, Kulanga for the person who is performing it is often associated with a mixture of an expression of anger, disappointment, disapproval, but also to express concern, desire to provide emotional support, good guidance and correction, love, and emotional healing afterwards. Chilango on the other hand, although the difference between the two is the Tumbuka linguistic phoneme  /langa/ /lango/  /nga/ /ngo/, has significantly different meaning.  Chilango is just punishment often after the child or any person has repeated bad conduct that has defied kulanga. This might be very rude behavior in case of a child, habitual theft, or lying, gross disobedience, or doing things that endanger the lives of him or herself or others.

One important distinction to highlight and emphasize is the difference between kulanga and kunena or abuse. When a parent is doing kulanga he or she shows a lot of concern, expresses pain, and is generally loving about it. Kunena is what can be termed abuse because it is often just vile sarcastic anger, resentment, rebuking, and even taunting the child with no clear positive purpose. When any adult crosses that line between kulanga and kunena, others in the family, neighbors, and the community will object and will inform the adult that they have crossed that line. Children often are conscious of the difference between kulanga nd kunena. Among the Tumbuka and perhaps many other peoples, a child who is the focus of kulanga will be very quiet but the child who is a victim of kulanga often cries because they realize the kunena is merely hurtful with no clear positive value or objective.

Kulanga Parent-Child

Kulanga is a very cherished customary practice among the Tumbuka because when done well it represents the best of what parents and the community expect to do to in raising, nurturing, and caring for their children from when they are very young. A parent who properly performs the task of kulanga will raise a confident, reflective, happy, social well-adjusted and intelligent child. When the child is a baby, kulanga is generally not possible as kulanga only becomes possible when a child can speak and understand language. However kulanga has to start as early as possible as there is always fear that if a child is not exposed to kulanga very early, the child may become incorrigible or may become so uncultured that any kulanga at a late stage may become ineffective. It is often lamented among the Tumbuka that a child who has grown up without anyone to kulanga him or her is  perhaps one of the worst forms of child cruelty. It is asa thought the child was raised in the wild or in isolation from the family, village, or community.

An example of how kulanga may happen between a mother and young son may best illustrate the custom.

The mother has told all the children in the family that lunch is at noon or when the sun is in the middle in tropical or savannah Africa. They are told that whatever they are doing, they should be home at that time for lunch as everyone eats together. Once the meal is over, the mother says she cannot afford to cook a separate meal for anyone else. The young son who is in fourth grade is late and wanders home way after everyone has eaten and the dishes have even been washed. As soon as the child arrives, the mother raising her voice with an obvious tone of being upset at him will ask why he is late and where has he been.

If the child is already well behaved he will already have sat down. A child talking to an adult over some serious matter while standing and looking at the adult directly is considered rude in the culture. The child will answer explaining honestly that while walking back from school he saw a bird that he shot at with a sling shot. He thought he had wounded it and began to look for it in the bushes but never found it. That’s why he is late. The child knows to keep quite. The mother then might say in Tumbuka:

Umoyo wocedwa nguheni! Wa munthu ukwenela kumanya ici ukucita nyengo zose. Para nacita ici chichitenge nchibvichi? Ku sukulu para wacedwa aticha bakukupa chilango. Para wakula kunchito wacendwa mbwenu a boss kunchito bakufunyenge. Para wacedwa umu wacitila apa ndiko kuti sima mbwenu palije tose tarya kale. Ndiko kuti mbwenu ukhalenge njara mpaka kumise usiku. Umoyo wocedwa nguwemi yayi. Nangukulelako sima. Hamba mdumbu wako wakupe burye.


The life of being late is bad! As a human being you have to be always conscious of where you are and what you are doing. If I do this what will happen? When you are late at school the teacher will punish you. When you grow up and you have a job and you are late, the boss might fire you. The way you have been late it means we already ate and there is no food for you. It means you will stay hungry all afternoon until supper time in the evening. The life of being late in not good. I did put some food aside for you this time. Go to your sister who will get the nshima for you from the kitchen to eat.

Kulanga is an opportunity for the parent to express some objection, displeasure, and often anger at the child’s behavior while during the same conversation showing concern and love for the child. The child clearly hears about the objectionable behavior and is offered some counseling and wisdom about the future and the wider world.

The reader might wonder how kulanga is done in real life and whether life every single day is just a series of rigid formal  kulanga sessions from the parent for every little infraction during everyday interaction. Like all families and children do all over the world the Tumbuka children are as boisterous and spontaneous with their parents as any other children. Most of the time the parent will simply tell the child to stop doing this or the other thing in the course of everyday normal life. They laugh, joke, the child might share what happened at school, or the parent might tease the child about something. Kulanga only happens when there a major incident in the normal development and growth of the child.

Kulanga is not just restricted to the parent-child relationship. All adults in the family, village, and community bear the responsibility of kulanga any child whom they see misbehaving. The community realizes that parents can never be everywhere the child is walking, playing, going to school, or performing chores. It is a custom or tradition that ensures that children grow up to be well adjusted.

Kulanga among Adults

One of the other most cherished and the strongest cornerstone of life among the Tumbuka is that of elders kulanga young adults. A mother, older aunts, grandparents, and other older women in the community called nchembere have the responsibility of kulanga young women as well as older women who might be married and even have children. The young woman many have done something really serious things like caught sneaking out with a man at night, lying, or if she is married may be got so angry with her husband during a verbal fight that she lost her temper and publicly said some very humiliating things about her husband or his family.

The arrangement for this kulanga is that the woman is summoned to sit on a mat and has to show  a very subdued demeanor. The women may each ask her a few intimate questions regarding what happened. The guilty woman may explain frankly what happened, She knows that if she lies it doesn’t do her any good. Lying might actually worsen the situation as the women may already know the details of what happened.

After the woman finished explaining, one at a time the elder women will express their kulanga. They might starts by saying they understand why the guilty woman may have behaved that way. But then they will go on to first rebuke her very loudly sometimes to a point at which the woman may shed tears. Then the women will offer their wisdom of how to conduct herself better and what a strong dignified woman always does. The women might even say explicitly that they are there to offer any help, advice, and support she might need in the future.

After the long kulanga session is over the guilty woman and the elder women may share light hearted conversation, some laughter, and even a meal.  If she has young children who are toddlers, they may even sit on her lap and begin to play with her.

Men elders also have the responsibility of kulanga young men and even older men who are married and have families. For  example if a young man has been caught sneaking to visit girls at night, has been drunk and disorderly or the man married man who has shown serious negligence toward his wife or some other misconduct that has brought the young man and his family public shame and embarrassment. The same procedure is followed. The guilty man will be summoned to the elders. He will sit head down before the elders. He will be asked a few questions. After he answers them, each of the elders will express their anger and disappointment very loudly. The guilty man’s father although might be present at the kulanga, just listens  but never actively participates in the kulanga. The men elders tell the guilty man this is not the way to behave as a strong, responsible, mature, adult, a young father, and dignified man. They might even appeal to the reputation of the family by saying: “Saying this is not how men behave from this family starting from your great grandfather”.

After rebuking the guilty man, the elders then very slowly and systematically give words of advice and wisdom to the guilty man. After the kulanga session is over the guilty man looks up again, has light hearted conversation with the men elders, some jokes, and even a meal.


Kulanga is probably the best way to teach and discipline both children and adults who have broken community or family rules or customs. The best and most powerful or distinguishing aspects of kulanga is that it enables parents and other adults to show strong disapproval of a behavior while in the same conversation through the change of tone express love and support for the guilty child or adult. Kulanga in a very culturally unique way combines expression of anger toward the person as well as love and support. This quite unique instance of fusing love and punishment at the same time is so close that the words that denote the two langa and lango are separated by only the phoneme /nga//ngo/.