A few months back while having a Whatsapp conversation with a Ugandan friend on the language she thought I spoke at home. That conversation led to me deciding to run a blog series on African Cultures told by young Africans. So I talked to a few people and they loved the idea and so I am hoping that the series will grow bigger as we cover more and more cultures.
NAMWANGA TRIBE written by Mukandi Siame
Only one person in the world still speaks Yagan, isn’t that amazing and sad all at once. If I was the last Namwanga alive I don’t know if I would be the right guardian of the language. So I don’t know what to say about my tribe, I don’t know if this will be a just representation but I hope it gives a glimpse. I am writing this because Namwanga must live. I was born and raised in the Zambia version of the city, Lusaka. Lusaka is a twelve hour drive from Northern Province where my people, Namwanga people are from.
Namwanga is an amusing language. It sounds like it has borrowed words from the other seventy two tribes in Zambia but still manages to maintain its identity. I first heard it from my father, my mother says he spoke to me in the language when I was a toddler and I spoke it back, I called him “Baba”. So when I hear the language I don’t think of the Northern Province as the distant place that it is, I think of my father and I think of the value of legacy.
The Namwanga tribe is small, so small that I don’t date within my tribe because somehow I have ended up related to every Namwanga guy I have flirted with. Incest isn’t on my bucket list. All of our grandparents claim to be related to the Chiefteness Waitwika and because of that somehow we are all one blood. I have said my name many times to people and they don’t know where it is from, from my looks they think I am Lozi; Lozi is a prominent tribe in Zambia with its people known by their confidence, dark skin and height. I am tall, I am dark and confident but it has nothing to do with tribe, I am as Namwanga as they come. You see those are the lessons learned from a nation with many tribes, we learn to just accept people as part of us because there are no visual cues to tell us apart. Because of migration we speak each other’s languages and borrow each other’s practices and every single day we see the ‘One Zambia, One Nation’ mantra manifest.
My father died three years ago, it feels like yesterday not because of the pain but because of how his presence is still felt. He made the whole family sing Namwanga hymns before bed, he lectured us in Namwanga even when we couldn’t understand it and every year he took us on the twelve hour road trip to the village. In a nation where going abroad and forgetting your culture is deemed ‘cool’, my father made it cool to be Namwanga. I remember the long road trips, playing music by Kalambo Hit Parade. They were a string quartet that played Namwanga, Mambwe and Lungu songs, they have one album that I now know backwards front.
I like being Namwanga because we are unknown and under rated, every day is an opportunity to learn who I am as a Namwanga lady and to live free of stereotype. I like being Namwanga because we are right at the border, we have learned how to hustle and we speak languages from both here and across the border. I like being Namwanga because of the exaggeration and the flair of the language, how it rolls off the tongue and how everything has a specific sound effect. The funny words remind me of my father and my grandmother who uses hyperbole like her life depends on it.
If I was the last Namwanga alive I don’t know if that would increase the pressure or increase my pride in my heritage. I want to tell you so much. I want to tell you about the road that comes from Lusaka Province where I live to the Northern Province where Namwanga people are from; the road is twelve hours long. Twelve hours of scenery and some pot holes. I want to tell you about how the development seems to disappear and how the little children get poorer and happier the further you go up the road. I want to tell you about Muchinga Escarpment and how its boldness is something you can’t miss. I want to tell you about the sign post that shows the spot where David Livingstone and his friend Chuma passed through as they explored. I want to tell you about the Nachifuku caves where Bushmen drew on the cave walls about their culture. They were the last of their kind and they told their story even when they didn’t know they were the last of their kind.
I don’t have a cave, I have a laptop and some English words but somehow I want to tell you about my tribe. The places I just mentioned must seem like random words thrown around for sport but they are real and if I had the time I would have loved to share about each of them. They are all signs that you have arrived in the Northern part of Zambia, the place where Namwanga people are from. Because Zambia has so many languages, Nyanja and Bemba somehow arose above the rest and became the two languages you will find someone speaking at every point of the country. Not the Northern Province. Sure, because of geography some people speak a more complex dialect of Bemba as well as Namwanga, Mambwe, Lungu and Nyika. But the nature of the Namwanga language makes Bemba an exhausting language to speak for most Namwanga people. You see Bembas most pronounced consonant is the soft B sound, Namwanga has no soft B sound so Namwanga people chose not to speak Bemba and learned Swahili; a language spoken in the neighbouring country Tanzania. Tanzania is closer to Namwanga people and their villages than most parts of Zambia so it makes sense; geographically it makes sense that the languages and cultures of Tanzanian people at the border and the Zambian people at the border have meshed. Namwanga people learned how to trade and still have an eye for a good business deal to date. Another aspect of Namwanga people that even Zambians don’t understand is that we have a patrilineal society but women still get their own surnames and get to be Chief. There is a Chiefteness instead of a Chief. Her name is Waitwika or Nawaitwika. There are other chiefs within the province like Kafwimbi, Muyombe and Mwenechifungwe. All the chiefs have their headquarters in Isoka district while Waitwika’s headquarters is in Nakonde. A Namwanga person; also known as Mwinamwanga inherits their name, property and titles through their father’s line. Namwanga last names are unique in that the have gender signifiers. A female last name begins with “Na” while a male begins with “Si”. These prefixes are fixed to the names. For example; if a man named Silwimba had a daughter, her last name would be Nalwimba; woman born of Silwimba but the sons would be Silwimba as men. Sikapizye becomes Nakapizye, Sichalwe become Nachalwe and so on. The concept is actually simple when you grasp it. This is the same for the Mambwe and Lungu tribes. Among Namwanga people however, women belonging to the royal clan may have surnames totally different from their male counterparts. For example, males of the current royal clan are called Siame and the females are called Nakamba. Among the Mambwe and Lungu tribes, the females are called Niame.
There are various traditional ceremonies with different purposes. There is the Vikamkanimba, Ngondo, Chambo Chalutanga and the Mulasa. The most popular traditional ceremony is called Umutomolo. It is usually held at the banks of the Lake Chila. The lake is tiny but incredibly beautiful. There are many legends about the formation of the Lake and there are dances and songs performed to illustrate the tales. Some say the lake was formed when Chila and wild fruit gatherers refused to give some of that food to a hungry woman then the earth swallowed up the greedy Chila and his village and a lake was placed where they used to be. The lake is not big but he has sparked great interest and mystery. Military wares and relics from World War one where dumped in it and can be found settling at the bottom. It also has the tendency to disappear and reappear. It is currently still there and the ceremony is performed on its banks. Here the spirits are appeased and thanked for the good year. There also dances and songs that depict how the tribes were separated and how the Mambwe, Lungu and Namwanga established their kingdom from their migrations. My favourite part of the ceremony is the food, the traditional brew and the songs. Northerners are such flamboyant people, they carry themselves with a pride that is forgiving of flaws and hard times. They just laugh and sing and tease each other. Namwanga is a colourful language and it is full of sayings and jokes and has an aged quality about it. Namwanga people love beans; different kinds of it and they grow it the most, they also grow a very aromatic and starchy rice. They also love pupwe, a vegetable leaf form of okra that is green and slimy, they mix it with beans and eat it with nsima. Nsima is a thick porridge starch made from maize meal throughout Africa and has many names and variances. There is a traditional beer brewed of millet called Katubi. It must be drank while its boiling through a wooden straw, it is intoxicating and only for ‘real men and women’. Probably why the ceremony is colourful.
I am glad I am Namwanga, yes stereotypes are usually wrong but I like to believe that Namwanga people are artistic, have a relaxed view of people and the world, they are almost born lovers of life. Because the language itself demands that one be vocal, Namwanga people are usually not shy, they are perceptive and slow to jump into a situation but they are not shy. My grandmother, the zaniest old lady I know is illiterate but she manages to save her contacts in her phone and knows who is calling and when. She is also dressed to the nines even when she is just home all day and refuses to gain weight or buy counterfeit products. She was my main reference when I wrote this and I am glad I asked her because now Namwanga history lives on and is passed from one person to several others.
It is hard to stay current, to look behind at the past and at the same time to think of the future. Rural-urban migration has made us all one people, aspiring for the advanced pleasures of city life. Every day presents opportunities that draw me further away from my original culture and I will admit that I am scared. I don’t want the flavour of being different to ever wear out. Being different and yet co-existing makes life a special experience. So writing this piece made me want to call my grandmother, she is the only person I know who speaks Namwanga fluently. It made me mark the calendar for next year’s Umutomolo in July. It made me play the Kalambo Hit Parade tape that has been playing songs sang in Namwanga since I was five years old. Namwanga was my second language, my grandmother and father made sure I knew where I was from, they made sure I knew the riddles and parables they knew when they were my age. My father has been dead for years but when I think about my culture I think about him, the source of my heritage. We bonded through culture and created memories on our many road trips to the village. I hope that one day I can share the same moments and experiences with more people.