Tumbuka people

The approximate geographical origins of Tumbuka in Africa[1]

The Tumbuka, also called Tumboka, Kamanga, Batumbuka, Matumbuka or Henga people, is an ethnic group found in Northern Malawi, Eastern Zambia and Southern Tanzania.[1][2][3] Historically, the Tumbuka people are classified as a part of the Bantu culture, and with origins in a geographic region between the Dwangwa River to the south, the North Rukuru River to the north, Lake Malawi to the east, and the Luangwa River.[1] They are found in the valleys near the rivers, lake as well as the highlands of Nyika Plateau.[1][3]

The Tambuka people were a victim of wars from the Ngoni tribe of South Africa,[4] of socio-politics behind the ivory trade, followed by slave trade market controlled by the Arabs.[5][6] The Tambuka have had a subsistence farming culture, with men in the families seeking migrant work.[1] In contemporary times, they are mostly Christians who also continue to practice elements of their traditional beliefs such as Vimbuza.[1][7]

Demography and language

Various estimates suggest that over two million Tumbuka speakers live in north Malawi, northeast Zambia and Tanzania.[1][2]

Ethnologue estimates a total of 1,546,000 Tumbuka speakers.[8] However, Ember et al. estimate that about an additional million Tumbuka people live in central and southern African countries such as Tanzania because of the diffusion of Tumbuka people as migrant labor.[1]

Tumbuka language, also called chiTumbuka,[4] is a Bantu language, similar to Swahili in structure and vocabulary. It is classified as a central Bantu language in the Niger-Congo family. The Tumbuka language has many dialects.[1] A Tumbuka calls a fellow tribe member as wa-tumbuka, meaning one of the tribe of Tumbukas.[9]


A 1906 British Central Africa map showing the distribution of various ethnic groups. Tumbuka are marked as Batumbuka and shown near the German East Africa region in this map.

In the 18th century the Chikulamayembe Dynasty led the Tumbuka people.[10] This region attracted the attention of Arab traders in the 18th-century, followed by colonial era ivory traders, given its large elephants herds.[11] In the 1840s, Swahili Arabs entered northern Malawi region, with Jumbe Salim bin Abdallah[note 1] establishing Nkhotakota trading center near Lake Malawi. Jumbe Abdallah's trade in slaves to satisfy the Zanzibar Arab center and the Middle East demand triggered raids and violence against the Tumbuka people.[6][12][13] A male slave was known as muzga or kapolo, while a chituntulu meant a young female slave.[14]

The demand for elephant ivory from northern Malawi, along with the slavery market devastated the Tumbuka people in 18th and 19th centuries.[15][16][17]

The rising demand for ivory in the European market, led to conflicts to control the export trade, resulting in politically centralized chiefdoms among the Tumbuka. These ruling groups collapsed around 1855, when the highly militarized warriors of the Ngoni ethnic group from South Africa arrived seeking slaves for the Zanzibar Arab traders, and to control the ivory market.[4][18][19] This led initially to a devastation of the Tumbuka people,[4][20] through the death, destruction, loss of family members, abandonment of the settled valleys, and disruption of their traditional agricultural methods as the Tumbuka people hid in mountains, small islands, and marshes to escape from the violence associated with large-scale human raids and elephant hunting.[16][21] It also led to intermingling and intermarriage between the people of Tumbuka and the Ngoni culture.[3]

The British explorer David Livingstone wrote about the Lake Malawi region in 1858, including about slavery of the Tumbuka people both to satisfy the Arab demand as well as between themselves as a form of "debt settlement".[5] Christian missionaries arrived in this region in the 1870s.[4] The British colonial rule expanded into this region by the 1890s, where Ngoni chiefs were sidelined and Chikulamayembe restored, the old Tumbuka culture reasserted itself. Shortly thereafter, the Tumbuka people, led by Levi Mumba and Charles Chinula, began opposing the British colonial system. This movement grew to form the Nyasaland African Congress, and ultimately in independence of Malawi in 1964.[3] The British colonial rule used the region as a resource base, but made little infrastructure investments in the Tumbuka-speaking regions, with colonial documents evidencing that this region was their "dead north."[1] After independence from the colonial rule, the economic conditions of the Tumbuka people have remained largely unchanged, their political power limited given the numerous ethnic groups in this region of Africa. The Tumbuka people continue to rely on subsistence farming and migrant work to support their families.[3]

Society, religion and culture

A Tumbuka women group dance.

With the colonial rule, Christian missionaries arrived amongst Tumbuka people. To help the conversion process, hymnbook and mythologies of Christianity were written into Tumbuka language, into a Tumbuka hymnbook.[22] In contemporary times, the Tumbuka people are officially Christian, but they retain their traditional beliefs and folklores.[4]

The Tumbuka people have had a sophisticated traditional religion. It included the concept of a supreme creator called Chiuta symbolizing the sun, who Tumbuka faith holds was "self created and all knowing".[4][23] This religious belief has yield a rich mythology filled with morals.[24] In a manner similar to neighboring regions of Africa, the Tumbuka have also revered ancestor worship, spirit possession, witchcraft and similar practices.[25] Their spirit possession and witchcraft is related to folk therapies for illnesses. This practice is locally called Vimbuza, includes a therapeutic dance performed by those possessed, and this is a part of modern syncretistic Christianity observed by the Tumbuka people.[7][26][27]

Tumbuka people's Vimbuza dance is on UNESCO cultural heritage list.[28]

Vimbuza, in the traditional Tumbuka people's belief, are category of spirits that cause illnesses, a concept that according to James Peoples and Garrick Bailey is similar to "bodily humours" in early European texts. The Vimbuza causes imbalance in the hot and cold forces within the human body, whose healing process, to Tumbuka people, is a ritual dance with singing and music.[29][30] The UNESCO inscribed the ritualistic Vimbuza dance as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.[28] The musical instruments that accompany the Vimbuza includes a Ng’oma or “drums of affliction”. A healer diagnoses spirit possession, and with the patient undertakes dance healing ritual treatment over several weeks or months.The dance tries to bring the patient into a trance, while the songs call the spirits to help. Men participate by creating drum rhythms that are spirit-specific and sometimes as the healer. Vimbuza, states UNESCO, creates a "space for patients to dance their disease”.[28][31]

The Tumbuka people have been rural, living in villages or dispersed agnatically related clusters of rectangular thatched houses. A circular thatched granaries and kitchen would traditionally be a part of each household. The male members would spend their time mostly in a part of the house called Mpara and females in Ntanganini. In the crop season, family members dispersed, sometimes residing in isolated thatched houses near the cultivated land.[1]

In the contemporary era, the primary staple crops of the Tumbuka people have been maize, cassava, millet, and beans, along with a variety of pumpkins, vegetables, and fruits such as bananas and oranges as supplements often grown by Tumbuka women. Men have tended to be migrant labor. In the past, the farming was done manually using hoes. During the colonial rule, ox-drawn plows were introduced. Citemene, or slash and burn agriculture by small farmers is a modern era practice and continues among the Tumbuka people.[1][32][33]

See also


  1. Jumbe means "chief, boss" in the regional language.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Carol Ember; et al. (2002). Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Supplement 1st Edition. Macmillan. pp. 354–358. ISBN 978-0028656717.
  2. 1 2 Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press. p. 501. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Tumbuka people, Encyclopedia Britannica
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 James B. Minahan (2016). Encyclopedia of Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups around the World, 2nd Edition. ABC-CLIO. pp. 430–431. ISBN 978-1-61069-954-9., Quote: "(...) raids on Tumbuka villages devastated the region as the demand for slaves by Zanzibar Arab traders increased in the early 1800s."
  5. 1 2 C. J. W. Fleming (1972), The Peculiar Institution Among The Early Tumbuka, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (January, 1972), pages 5–10; Quote: "Arab traders began penetrating deeper and deeper into Central Africa, slaves became a common article of commerce and slavery tool on the many cruel and degrading aspects which Livingstone encountered in these regions during the course of his explorations. Minor wars were carried on for the sole purpose of capturing slaves and they were freely traded, not only with the Arabs but among the inhabitants themselves."
  6. 1 2 Malawi Slave Routes and Dr. David Livingstone Trail, UNESCO (2011), Quote: "Slave trade was introduced in Malawi by the Swahili-Arab traders in the 19th century following a great demand for ivory and slave in the East African markets namely Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mombasa and Quelimane. The Swahili -Arabs moved further into the interior of Africa including Malawi to obtain slaves and ivory. One of Slave Trade Route was Nkhotakota where one of the Swahili-Arab slave traders, Salim-bin Abdullah (Jumbe) set up his headquarters on the shore of Lake Malawi in the 1840s. From Nkhota kotawhere he organized his expeditions to obtain slaves and ship them across the lake to East African markets, Kilwa. About 20, 000 slaves were annually shipped by Jumbe to Kilwa from Nkhotakota."
  7. 1 2 Silas S. Ncozana (2002). The Spirit Dimension in African Christianity: A Pastoral Study Among the Tumbuka People of Northern Malawi. Christian Literature Association in Malawi (CLAIM). pp. 10, 102–111. ISBN 978-99908-16-14-3.
  8. Ethnologue report for Tumbuka language, Ethnologue
  9. AD Easterbrook (1911). Journal of the African Society. MacMillan. p. 331.
  10. Shadreck Billy Chirembo (1993). "COLONIALISM AND THE REMAKING OF THE CHIKULAMAYEMBE DYNASTY 1904 – 1953". The Society of Malawi Journal. Society of Malawi – Historical and Scientific. 46 (2): 1–24. JSTOR 29778687.
  11. Edward A. Alpers (1975). Ivory and Slaves: Changing Pattern of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century. University of California Press. pp. 161–165. ISBN 978-0-520-02689-6.
  12. Owen J. M. Kalinga (2012). Historical Dictionary of Malawi. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. xix, 4–5, 7–9. ISBN 978-0-8108-5961-6.
  13. Roberta Laurie (2015). Weaving a Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, A School, A People. University of Alberta Press. pp. 21–24. ISBN 978-1-77212-086-8.
  14. C. J. W. Fleming (1972), The Peculiar Institution Among The Early Tumbuka, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (January, 1972), page 5
  15. Bethwell A. Ogot; Unesco (1992). Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. UNESCO. pp. 634–639. ISBN 978-92-3-101711-7.
  16. 1 2 David Anderson; Richard H. Grove (1989). Conservation in Africa: Peoples, Policies and Practice. Cambridge University Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-521-34990-1.
  17. Assa Okoth (2006). A History of Africa: African societies and the establishment of colonial rule, 1800–1915. East African Publishers. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978-9966-25-357-6.
  18. Bethwell A. Ogot; Unesco (1992). Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. UNESCO. pp. 634–635, 638–639. ISBN 978-92-3-101711-7.
  19. T. Jack Thompson (1995). Christianity in Northern Malaŵi: Donald Fraser's Missionary Methods and Ngoni Culture. BRILL Academic. pp. 20–21. ISBN 90-04-10208-6.
  20. John McCracken (2008). Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875–1940: The Impact of the Livingstonia Mission in the Northern Province. African Books Collective. pp. 31–34. ISBN 978-99908-87-50-1.
  21. Assa Okoth (2006). A History of Africa: African societies and the establishment of colonial rule, 1800–1915. East African Publishers. pp. 60–65. ISBN 978-9966-25-357-6.
  22. Jack Thomson (2007). Ngoni, Xhosa and Scot: Religious and Cultural Interaction in Malawi. African Books Collective. pp. 151–152, 82, 141–144. ISBN 978-99908-87-15-0.
  23. Patricia Ann Lynch (2004). African Mythology A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-4381-1988-5.
  24. Shawa, Lester Brian; Soko, Boston Jaston (2014). Tumbuka Folktales: Moral and Didactic Lessons from Malawi. Mzuni Press. pp. 10–23. ISBN 978-99908-57-03-0.
  25. Bethwell A. Ogot; Unesco (1992). Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. UNESCO. pp. 613–614. ISBN 978-92-3-101711-7.
  26. Michael Dylan Foster; Lisa Gilman (2015). UNESCO on the Ground: Local Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Indiana University Press. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-253-01953-0.
  27. Rhodian G. Munyenyembe (2011). Christianity and Socio-cultural Issues: The Charismatic Movement and Contextualization of the Gospel in Malawi. African Books Collective. pp. 86 with footnote 201. ISBN 978-99908-87-52-5.
  28. 1 2 3 Vimbuza healing dance, UNESCO, Malawi, Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)
  29. James Peoples; Garrick Bailey (2014). Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Cengage. p. 355. ISBN 978-1-285-73337-1.
  30. Steven M. Friedson (1996). Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing. University of Chicago Press. pp. 12–15, 19–21, 30–34, 64–69. ISBN 978-0-226-26502-5.
  31. Steven M. Friedson (1996). Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing. University of Chicago Press. pp. 13–15, 38–39, 122–143. ISBN 978-0-226-26502-5.
  32. William Allan (1965). The African Husbandman. LIT Verlag Münster. pp. 101–102. ISBN 978-3-8258-3087-8.
  33. C. Gregory Knight (2015). Ecology and Change: Rural Modernization in an African Community. Elsevier. pp. 161–163. ISBN 978-1-4832-6717-3.

External links

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