The People and Culture of Zambia

Victoria Falls Zambia

Zambia derived its name from the Zambezi River and is best known for its beautiful wildlife. Contemporary Zambia culture is a blend of values, norms, material and spiritual traditions of more than sixty culturally diverse people. 

With its over sixty ethnic groups, Zambian Culture can be classified as highly diverse. Interestingly, cultural groups are acknowledged and celebrated each year in colourful festivals. Zambia is noted for its rich wildlife and landscapes, using these resources to promote tourism with the slogan, “the Real Africa.” The most notable landmark is Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders.” It is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and even though it is shared with Zimbabwe, it is a source of great pride for Zambians.

The population is primarily made up of seven main tribes (97%) and a collection of seventy-five minor tribes. There is also a small percentage of citizens from other African nations. The remaining population is of Asian, Indian, and European descent. Because of conflicts in the border countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, there has been a large influx of refugees in recent years.

As a former British colony, the official language spoken in Zambia is English, but like any African country, there are other languages that are spoken by the original inhabitants of Zambia. The total number of languages spoken in Zambia is seventy-three, with the most popular being Nyanja, Bemba, Lozi, Tonga, Luvale, Lunda, and Kaonde. In the Livingstone area, Tonga is the most widely spoken of the local languages, while in Lusaka and eastern Zambia, Nyanja is the most popular, followed by Bemba. Portuguese, German and French form part of some schools’ curricula.

Culturally, Zambian music is characterised by a lot of singing and dancing. The instrument that is played more than any other is the drum, and there are others such as the thumb piano (kalimba, kathandi, or kangombio in some Zambian languages, or mbira in some cultures), and the kilimba (marimba or xylophone). Another important aspect of Zambian culture is respect for elders. When greeting an elder, one shows respect by dropping to one knee, bowing the head, clapping three times, and saying one of the many terms that signify respect.

Prior to the colonial days, Zambia’s different ethnic groups lived in their own communities, each with their own culture. Much of that has changed with urbanisation and influence from western culture, but the people of Zambia still preserve their traditions and celebrate over twenty ceremonies and cultural festivals each year in the different parts of the country. Some of them are small closed ceremonies that include a group of young men or women, others involve an entire village, and then there are some which are open and attract large crowds in the tens of thousands and even include the head of state. You can expect to find singing, drums and lots of dancing at these large festivals.

Traditional art is expressed in pottery, basketry, carvings and stools. More materials are being used nowadays, such as metal (copper or wire), plastic and fabrics. Recycled art can be seen especially in tourist markets and curio centres. The chitenge material is used in dress (particularly traditional dress, or wrapped around the waist like a sarong), but this type of African fabric has recently gained worldwide popularity in African fashion clothing and accessories.

About 1% of the total population of Zambia is made up of Muslims, the majority of which are Sunni. There are also Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Bahá’í communities.

According to Scott D. Taylor in his book; Culture and Customs of Zambia, he states: 

There are various forms of initiation for girls practised throughout Zambia whereas, only a few groups practice any of such rituals for the boys. Like during cultural celebrations, these rituals have their roots in culture and are related to similar practices as seen throughout Central Africa.

Certain rituals such as circumcision for male children is done in a ceremony that heralds the boy to adulthood. Interestingly, all Zambian ethnic groups maintain coming of age rites for the girl child where she is being prepared for marital duties.

Food customs vary among tribes. For example, in the Bemba culture, it is taboo for a bride to eat eggs because it may affect her fertility. Another Bemba tradition is to serve the newlyweds a pot of chicken whose bones are then replaced in the pot and given to the bride’s mother. A Lozi tradition is to eat porridge off of a stone to bless the couple. Most ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, and initiation ceremonies, involve lots of food and traditionally brewed beer.

Typically, in the rural community, life is supported primarily by subsistence farming. Most villagers have a small plot of land on which they farm maize, groundnuts, cassava, millet, sweet potatoes, and other products. Some villagers organise larger fields to support the community and groups of women may grow their own crops for sale. 

Zambians are generally very receptive and happy people who welcome guests and visitors in large numbers to their very beautiful monumental country.


ThankGod E. Airiohuodion


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