Beliefs and Religious Practices of the Bemba and Neighboring Tribes

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Beliefs and Religious Practices of the Bemba and Neighboring Tribes ...




    Edouard Labrecque

    Translated By

    Patrick Boyd (White Father)

    Edited By

    Language Centre


    P.O. Box 197




    Foreword 4

    Edouard Labrecque‘s published works


Chapter 1. Religion In General...………………………………………………….…6

    1. Positive Side 6

    1. Theism. Lesa God 6

     Theism: African Religion and the Bible


    2. Imilungu Ngulu: Gods and Higher Spirits 10

    A. Imilungu Divinities 10

    B. Ingulu Higher Spirits 13

    3. The spirits of ancestors and their cult 17

    A. Imipashi The Departed 17

    B. Bashinganga Diviners/Mediums, Doctors 21

    C. Kinds of Shinganga 23

    4. Totemism 24

    - Some totems 24

    - Prerogatives of certain totems


    - Certain practices 25

    5. Dynamism - Fetishism - Magic 26

    A. Nature 26

    B. Classification (Kinds of Dynamism) 26

    C. Objects Used 27

    D. Taboos 28

    2. Negative side 28

    1. Bad Spirits - Ifiwa, Ifibanda 28

    2. Evil Dynamism 29

    A. Sorcery - Ubuloshi Sorcerers 30

    B. Abusive Language - Offences, Insults 35

    C. Evil Omen 36

    D. Appendix: More Practices and Omens 36

    Chapter 2. Religion In Social Life 38

    1. To build a new village (ukusokola umushi) 38

    2. Different medicines 39

    3. Spirits of the village 40

    4. Ililamfya - the war fetish


    Chapter 3. Religion In Economic Life 42

     1. Agriculture


    2. The hunt and some food gathering 44

    3. Hunting the duiker antelope (mpombo) with nets 44

    4. Chickens and pigeons 45

5. Fishing 45

    6. Journeys 45

    7. Sickness and death 47

    Chapter 4. Religion In Family Life 48 1. From Infancy to Betrothal 48 2. Ceremonies for Engagement And Marriage 49

    A. Betrothal 49

    B. Initiation of Girls 50

    C. Marriage 54

    - immediate preparation 54

    - marriage (ubwinga) 55

    - amashikulo: presents and instructions 57

    3. Appendix 59

    A. Age of puberty 59

    B. Medicine for Menstruation 60 C. Taboos 60

    D. ‗Stealing the First Menstruation‘ 60

    E. Medicine to cause Impotency 60 F. Medicine to cure Impotency 61 G. Initiation Dance Songs 61

     Other Songs at the Occasion of the Initiation


    4. Conjugal Life 65

    A. Conjugal Relations 65

    B. The Inlaws 67

    C. Menstruation - Pregnancy 70 D. Child Birth 71

    E. The Newly Born Child 72 F. Weaning of the Child 74 G. Ukuingisha : to introduce a man into his mother in - law‘s house 76 5. Misfortunes in family life 77 A. Ordinary Misfortunes 77

    1. Child‘s Sicknesses 77

    2. Death of a Child 78

    3. Dead Child 79

    4. After the Death of the Child 81 B. Extraordinary Misfortunes 81

    1. Miscarriage 81

    2. Premature baby - baby dead 82

    3. To Give Birth to Children of Evil Omen 82

    C. Misfortunes of married people 86

    1. Abnormal Misfortunes 86

    A. Sterility of Women 86

    B. Sterility of Men 87

    C. Accidents at Birth 87

    D. Adultery 90

    E. Numerous Children Die 93

F. Divorce 94

    G. Polygamy 94

    2. Normal Misfortunes 96

    A. Ikando - Menopause 96

    B. Mpokeleshi - Substitutes Wife 96 C. Death 97

    - the last moments 97

    - before burial


    - burial 98

    - purifications


    - ritual hunt


    - beer of the deceased


    - widow and widower


    - ‗to drive away death‘


    Chapter 5. Technical Questions


    1. Consanguinity


    2. Affinity


    3. Marriage Laws


    A. Matrilineal Descent


    B. Exogamy - Endogamy


    C. Substitute Wife


    D. Impediments to Marriage 116 E. Lumbwe: Consort of a Queen


    F. Inheritance of a Name


    G. Succession Inheritance


    H. Validity of African Marriages



    Father Edouard Labrecque, a Canadian white father missionary came in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1920. He returned home in 1951 for health reasons.

    The Father is known for his articles in two reviews: Anthropos and Africa, and for his work on Bemba, Lunda, and Shila history. He contributed to the Lubuto Series, which was issued by the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Publications Bureau, later becoming Lusaka Publications Bureau.

    He left behind him an amazing number of valuable manuscripts and typescripts on various topics: history, customs, religion, flora, medicines, poetry, fables, riddles. He wrote essays in Bemba on hygiene, human anatomy, agriculture and botany, which were probably intended for the Lubuto Series. He translated a great part of the Bible and liturgical prayers. He wrote what was then called a catechism. He also tackled linguistics and wrote a Bemba grammar. All these manuscripts have been dormant up to now, and even pillaged, as copies of some of his work were circulating in the country.

    This book is the translation of two scripts:





    Both there scripts were meant to make a whole, this is proved by a general plan found in one of the scripts: Religion in general, and in social, economic and family life.

    The scripts are of unequal value. The first do appear as mere notes. This is shown by the style, by the Bema texts which were not translated, repetitions, additions and the shortness of some chapters and appendices. The second part is more elaborated and complete, although there are some appendices which are unaccounted for. We publish the work as it stands, adding only notes whenever necessary.

    The whole work was refused by the publisher in 1962, because some passages were too crude. We have either summarized these passages or omitted them without damaging the text.

    For this translation we have used two scripts: one belonged to Father Henry Wouters, who typed out the original text word by word, the other belonged to Father Joseph Fayet who transcribed Father Labrecque‘s text, brushing up the French and summarizing some paragraphs. This last manuscript contains more items than the first. This is probably due to the fact that the transcriber used a more recent manuscript. Indeed it was the habit of Father Labrecque to rewrite his texts when he had more information. We have based the translation on the older text and we indicate the few additions.

    Father Labrecque wrote in the thirties. The first part in 1931, the second in 1934. The work of Father Labrecque must be read in the context of his time, having in mind the theology and the mentality of the time. Opinions expressed in this book do in no way represent that of the missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). The value of this work is in the Father‘s approach to African customs, but in the information he gives, some of them being novelties in the literature about the Bemba.

    Unfortunately the Father does not indicate his sources and informants, nor the place of some particular customs. As he lived mostly in Bembaland, we may say that his data are predominantly Bemba. Hence the title of the English translation: BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE BABEMBA AND NEIGHBOURING


    Ilondola Language Centre th20 November 1982

    Louis Oger

    Edourd Labrecque‘s published work:

in Anthropos XXV 1930 Accidents à la naissance chez les Babemba.

    in Anthropos XXVIII 1933 La tribu des Babemba 1: Les origines des nos Babemba.

    in Anthropos XXXI 1936 La tribu des Babemba 2: Coutumes sur le mariage. in Anthropos XXXII 1938 Le sorcellerie chez les Babemba.

    in Africa IV 1931 Le mariage chez le Babemba.

    Annale Pontificales 1968 Les origines des Babemba de la Rhodesie du Nord. Mac-Millan press 1949 History of the Bena Ngoma.

    Mac-Millan press 1958 Ifikolwe fyandi na bantu bandi. (History of the Bena Lunda). Lubuto series: no list of publications is available.




    The positive religion of Africans is a collection of beliefs and religious practices whose end is simply to obtain the protection of certain superior spirits during one‘s sojourn on earth. This cult expresses it self chiefly by worship (ukupepa), supplication (ukupapata), gifts and sacrifices (ukuposela) and intercession (ukulomba).

    The superior beings to whom a cult is given fall into quite distinct categories:

    1. Deism, theism and cult rendered to the supreme being.

    2. Cult rendered to a natural phenomena and occult powers.

    3. ‗Manism‘ or cult rendered to the spirits of ancestors.

    4. Totemism, cult rendered to the totem of each individual.

    5. Fetishism, dynamism, symbolism, white magic or cult rendered to objects,

    animals, birds and living persons.

    The different intermediaries of this religion are:

    1. ‗Shinganga‘ or diviners.

    2. ‗Shimapepo‘ or priests.

    3. ‗Bakasesema‘ or interpreters of the will of the superior beings

    The moral law that springs from this is expressed in a series of prescriptions and interdictions, the base of which is fear. This religion, which we call paganism,…appears to be nothing but a mass of beliefs and practices created by a superstitious fear of great phenomena and the occult powers which direct them. (** summary of paragraphs on the nature and origin of this religion.)

    Let us study these beliefs and practices concerning the Supreme Being.(…)

    Then will study the various pagan manifestations and superstitions which comes from fear.

    1. 1. THEISM. LESA = GOD

    The name ‗Lesa‘ is the name generally given to the Supreme Being. Formerly the Lungu people gave him the name of ‗Nyambi.‘

    To begin, let us give some proverbs to explain the idea of the Africans concerning God. These were known before the advent of missionaries.

    1. ‗Lesa Mukulu,‘ the great god. ‗Mukulu‘ was the address given only to

    the supreme chiefs ie. ‗Chiti Mukulu,‘ ‗Chileshe Mukulu,‘ ‗Mumbi Mukulu.‘ Such a title expressed the chief‘s supremacy over other chiefs. One does not say ‗Mwamba Mukulu,‘ ‗Munkonge Mukulu‘ etc. When saying ‗Lesa Mukulu‘ one wants to express the supremacy of God over all other divinities or superior beings. Moreover it is a title, proper to himself and reserved to him alone. Thus, one does not address ‗Chishimba‘ (a nature spirit in ‗Mwamba‘ district) as ‗Mukulu.‘ So for the African, ‗Lesa‘ is the one supreme being.

     2. ‗Lesa mufushi tafulila umo,‘ God is the blacksmith. He does not forge just for individuals but for everyone. God is good to everybody.

    3. ‗Lesa mukunku tasalila umo,‘ God the tailor does not make clothes for only one (but for all). God is good to all.

    4. ‗Lesa mukolokolo,‘ God is wise. He is wisdom itself.

    5. ‗Lesa talombwa inama,‘ God is not requested to give us food. He knows our needs. He gives us what he wishes when he wishes. (** This proverb usually means that one does not ask game from God, but from the spirits of the forest, ‗kampinda‘ or ‗namukonda.‘)

    6. ‗Lesa te wakubikila bunga mu muti,‘ God has no need of our offerings of flour in trees. He is different to other inferior divinities which are always discontent and to be appeased.

    7. ‗Ubwile ubwapika Lesa tabupikululwa,‘ man cannot comprehend the mysteries of God. He is all intelligence, all science. (** Riddles woven by God are not undone.)

    8. ‗Icikupa Lesa teti wishibe,‘ we do not know in advance what God will give

    us. God is providence.

    9. ‗Apatebeta Lesa tapafuka cushi,‘ there is no smoke where God prepares food. He gives when we least expect it.

    10. ‗Lesa ni shimwelenganya,‘ God is the person who thinks. He is thought itself and his thoughts are incomprehensible.

    11. imfwa ya Lesa,‘ the peaceful death of the old whom God takes from the word.

    12. ‗Lesa Mukulu kampamba mwatuleulu,‘ God splits the skies by lightning.

    13. ‗Tata Lesa cipunganya nkonde na kanyenjele na kanyenjele,‘ God our father makes the banana trees rustle. (** It is he who makes the forest noises. God is the master who makes the elements.)

    14. ‗Lesa shiwatutaula mibanga,‘ God breaks down hard trees like ‗mibanga‘ (by lightning). God is all powerful. Who can resist him?

    15. ‗Lesa akupangukile,‘ may God strike you down. It is a terrible curse.

    16. ‗Cumi ca Lesa,‘ it is God‘s truth; to swear before God that what one says is the truth (literally: the great life of God).

    17. ‗Iwe Lesa leka akalonde ka kwa mama kaye no mukuku,‘ God, let my grandmother‘s little hoe go with the current; ie in your mercy, do not count my little faults against me. A prayer addressed to God by the person who has sworn in vain (kulapulula = remove a curse).

    18. ‗Lesa andye nga nabepa,‘ may God strike me if I lie.

    19. ‗Mupuma limo, Lesa alabansa,‘ God strikes down men in an epidemic. God is master of man. (** This is a wrong interpretation of this proverb, which means: He is a tyrant, but God is sparing people as a woman economises food (ukubansa), using it sparingly. This proverb is said cruel rulers who destroy people.)

    20. ‗Kwimba kati kusansha na Lesa,‘ to seek out a remedy is to work with God. God is the author of all plants and their diverse properties.

    21. ‗Katwishi Lesa ifyo emba umuti pali apole,‘ I do not know which medicine

    God dug, provided it cures; ie God has to will that the sick person may obtain the remedy for his illness. Then he will recover.

    22. ‗Lesa, ulenyensho mutende,‘ God preserve me in health.

    23. ‗Kumbo kwa mushili wakashika, kwa Lesa,‘ God is my witness as I swear

    on the grave of my relative; ie if I lie, then may I die also. (** literally: At the grave in the red soil, it is God‘s place.)

    24. ‗Washuka watwala inkoko yabuta kwa Lesa‘, you have the happiness of a person who has offered a white chicken to God. You will have many children.

    In conclusion from the above we can say that Bemba believed ‗That there is only one, supreme God‘(…) Other superior beings are demi-dogs, spirits, good and

    bad, and hidden powers to whom they render veneration (cult); but this is not polytheism.

    God is the supreme being, but pagans do not adore him. He has no temple, no priest nor any special observance. Each person recognizes his attributes and thanks him in his own way. No one doubts his existence. No one blasphemes. God is goodness. His actions to man are restricted to doing good. He does not mix with other natural or supernatural causes which act on man for good or bad. All the world of religious spirits differ from God and are inferior to him, but are nearer to man

    in his daily life and act in a Manichean way. (** Manichea: adherent of a religious

    system (third to fifth century) that represented Satan as co-eternal with God.)

    In his continual struggle for life, the African never ceases to beg for the good

    influence of beneficent spirits, while striving to avoid the evil power of the bad spirits.

    This is merely paganism, which is a religion(…). God is relegated more or less to

    another plane. He is considered in practice, but not in theory, as not being interested

    in the affairs of man.

    Theism: African Religion and the Bible

    1. The Fall: legend: The first woman gave birth to a child which was stricken

    with a deadly illness. She prayed to God for a cure. God gave her a test.

    He prepared two different dishes of food: One dish was a tasty stew (of

    mush) on which God put a little bag containing death. The other dish was

    quite repugnant looking, covered with flies on which God put a little bag

    containing life. The woman was well instructed as to the kind of food God

    had prepared and with regard to the consequences of her possible disobedience.

    One day she was very hungry and God was away, so she took the tasty dish.

    She had hardly tasted it when her child died. So death came into the world.

    2. The tower of Babel: legend recalls that the migration of people was caused

    by the fall of the great tower the sons of princes had built. When the high

    tower collapsed, a great number of people, engaged in constructing it, died.

3. Other references to the Bible:

    a) the first born (ibeli) have special names and are endowed with special powers

    regarding heredity (Exodus XIII).

    b) soldiers going to war; hunters going to the chase; fishermen going to fish;

    farmers going to the harvest, etc, all are forbidden marriage relations with their

    wives (Exodus XIV).

    c) an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus XXI, 24).

    d) sorcerers are put to death (Exodus XXII, 18).

    e) first fruits (Exodus XXXIII, 19).

    f) taboos regarding animals (Lev. XI, 7): eg wild pigs for chiefs; a few impure

    birds & reptiles (Lev. XI, 13-19; 29-32; 41-44), all these are forbidden to

    Africans as well. (Note also the rules regarding impurities, ablutions, fire,

    water, in-laws (mako)).

    g) (** This paragraph appears only in the second manuscript) ‗Pa mwela akasuba

    nga takabalike, pa kwanika amale babula umwana wa libwe uo bapelako

    amale, babula no mufito bashilapo umusalaba. (Atemwa: babulo mwiko

    bashilapo musalaba) e kulomba akasuba kuli Lesa‘. (** In the cold season,

    when the sun does not shine and the millet spread on the ground does not dry,

    people take the small grinding stone with which they grind millet, and

    charcoal, and draw a cross (on the stone). Or, they take the wooden spoon

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