The Mbunda people can be found in Angola, the western province of Zambia, and some parts of northern Namibia. The Mbunda are not to be confused with the Mbundu people of western Angola. The Mbunda probably originated from the Luba and Ruund empires of Zaire then migrated to Angola. Later, many of the Mbunda crossed over into present day Zambia and settled among the Barotse people. Their customs and language are similar to those of the Chokwe, Lunda, Luchazi and Luvale tribes �all of whom also trace their origins to the Ruund people. Intermarriage is common among these tribes.(1)
Before their migration into Barotseland, the Mbunda lived in an area of Angola between the Lungevungu river and the Kwitu-Kavangu river called Mbundaland. In the early 20th century they came into contact with the Portuguese colonialists. (2) The Portuguese were notorious for capturing slaves from the various tribes and selling them for export on the west coast of Angola. They were assisted in this infamous trade by the Mbundu people. The Mbundu people used a term to describe (collectively) the tribes who lived to the east �these included the Mbunda, Luchazi, Chokwe, Kangela, and some others. They called them �Ngangela�. This term simply meant �people on the horizon�, much like saying today �people of the western province�. In interviewing several Mbunda and Luchazi elders in Zambia, we have yet to find anyone who agrees that �Ngangela� is an actual people group. Rather, the term is simply a descriptive term first coined by the Mbundu (enemies of the Mbunda).
The word �Mbunda� means �soil�. And in fact the Mbunda are generally subsistence farmers who grow maize, millette, and cassava. Some Mbunda are also fishermen. The Mbunda have put themselves under the authority of the Lozi King. The Ancient Barotse Kingdom of western Zambia is lead by the Lozi Litunga and his chiefs under him. However, the Mbunda people are the second largest tribe in the Barotse kingdom (second to the Lozi). Therefore, Mbunda chiefs reside over various areas, particularly in Kaoma district. These chiefs answer to the Litunga.
The Mbunda traditionally live in villages presided over by a headman. Polygamy is accepted and common. They practice complicated initiation rituals for young boys and also young women. The male circumcision ritual is called the Mukanda and occurs when boys are ages 10-12.
Mukanda � Male Circumcision Ritual
Prior to circumcision, boys remain with the women and children. There is a very important separation between childhood and adulthood. After circumcision, young men are allowed to sit with the other men and eat under the �nzango�. They are also told the secrets of the �Mukanda�. The Mukanda is the male circumcision camp and is a real social event for the entire community. When several boys are ready for circumcision, then preparations are made for the camp. A �makishi� (a masked, garbed creature) travels to local villages to announce the approaching Mukanda. Young boys whose parents decide they are ready will be taken at night from their villages and sent to the camp. Thus follows several weeks of secret training and ritual. No women are allowed in or near the camp. During this time, the boys are all circumcised and then must wait for healing to take place. Much care is taken with various rituals so as not to displease the ancestral spirits. After the completion of Mukanda, the initiate is considered a man and no longer eats with the women and children
Female Rite of Passage
Female initiation occurs at the onset of puberty for females. This does not involve female circumcision. Rather, it is a rite of passage for young girls where they are taught traditional roles and expectations of women in their culture. During this initiation (called Litungu) the young girl or �mwali� is separated from the village, often living in a small grass structure in the bush, sometimes with other girls like herself who are undergoing the initiation rites. At night she is sometimes allowed to come and sleep in the village for safety but must return to the bush before others wake the next morning. This continues for about a month, during which time she is not allowed to bathe. An elder woman (chilombola), usually from another village, comes to �train� the mwali. During the girl�s training, family members will buy clothes, beads, and blankets. They will also make several barrels of beer. When the chilombola decides the mwali is ready, then a celebration is planned.
At this time, the mwali is bathed and dressed in a new chitangi cloth, leaving her topless. Oil is applied all over her body and her hair. The night before she comes out, the community starts celebrating with music, dancing, and beer. The next day, the girl is brought out covered by a blanket and sits on a grass mat. The people of the village gather around. The father takes a small ax and the mother takes a small hoe. The father puts money on the blanket, on top of the girls head, then he puts the ax under one side of the blanket. The mother does the same with the hoe. Together they lift the blanket, revealing the young woman. She stands and the drums begin to beat.
The girl dances publicly (a special dance taught to her by the chilombola) for 15-20 minutes. If she dances well, people will give her money (which is collected by the chilombola). Then she is taken to an open place and seated on a mat where people may continue to give her money. Later she can socialize with people and the community will continue celebrating. This celebration can last for several days. After �Litungu�, the young woman may now be given her own field. She may also have her own �choto (cooking fire). She is now considered a true woman and is available for marriage.
Mbunda Religious Beliefs
The Mbunda are very religious people. They practice traditional ancestor worship as well as a type of syncretized �Christianity�. The ancestral spirits are spirits of deceased ancestors. It is believed that these spirits affect all aspects of life for the Mbunda person. These are malevolent spirits who bring sickness, misfortune, and death. Diviners are often consulted to determine the source of person�s trouble. Sacrifices are also made to appease the spirits.
The Mbunda also practice �magic�. They often make charms and fetishes to protect themselves from witchcraft and sorcery. Sometimes people use witchcraft to punish another person or to inflict harm on someone else. Witchfinders are employed to find �witches� who are suspected of this kind of activity. Even those who profess �Christianity� are often involved in these practices.
Mbunda �speaking people and their openness to the Gospel
Despite their traditional beliefs, the Mbunda people and their close cousins the Luvale, Luchazi, and Chokwe are open to the Gospel. Chronological Bible Storying is a very effective way to present the Gospel and to address barriers in their worldview. A good foundation is very important in presenting the Good News in this context. Historically, missionaries in western province have failed to present the Story in its fullness, leaving gaps that can too easily be filled by syncretism. Unfortunately, subsidy has also been a problem. This has created dependence in some local churches. Baptist work among the Mbunda is very recent (only beginning in western Zambia in 2001) but showing great promise. New churches are being started by Mbunda and Luchazi Christians. Missionaries are training leaders and teaching through indigenous methods, like Chronological Bible Storying. The Mbunda Christians are building their own churches with indigenous materials and relying solely on the Bible for teaching. The Mbunda translation of the Bible has recently been completed by the Bible Society and will be ready for distribution within the next two years. Currently, the Luchazi and Lozi translations are used by Mbunda speakers.
(1) The History and Cultural Life of the Mbunda Speaking Peoples, , p.ix ,1994 by Cheke Cultural Writers Association, The Zambia Journal of History, University of Zambia. Lusaka Zambia.
(2) ibid p.xiv
Information compiled by Stacey D. Conard, IMB missionary to the Mbunda people of western Zambia.
The History and Cultural Life of the Mbunda Speaking Peoples, , 1994 by Cheke Cultural Writers Association, The Zambia Journal of History, University of Zambia. Lusaka Zambia.
�Mukanda: The Male Circumcision Ritual of the Mbunda Tribe�. By Joshua D. Shadd, Queen�s University Kingston, Ontario Faculty of Medicine.
A Study of Missions (a collection of papers on culture, customs, experiences and insights), by Mark E. Conard 2003.