BEMBA (NORTHERN Zambia) (-,-,-,-,2,2;5,5) (EHRAF) (®VOL.II, § 


IndexAfricaZambia → Bemba


Featured: Kaonde, Nkoya, Tonga, Ila, Bemba, Ndembu, Mambwe / Amambwe, Luvale, Lozi


The Bemba are known for their detailed sex instructions, as described by Hinfelaar (1994:p186-7)[1]. Bemba matrilinear instructions on how to please a future husband were said to be given “in such detail that many men who intend to marry a lady from another tribe set great store in her being taught by the Bemba grannies in the rural areas”. A female journalist was quoted by Hinfelaar (p186) as complaining:


“The rise in promiscuity which the nation is experiencing can be squarely attributed to the initiation ceremonies on which women spend much of their time teaching small girls how to become professional love-makers. Is this what initiation is all about, a tradition that turns daughters of the soil into prostitutes who later bring unnecessary problems like unplanned babies and diseases?[2]”.


Richards (1956:p126-7)[3], however, wrote that Bemba “instruction, in the European sense, was quite unnecessary” in such subjects as bringing up children, cooking, and acting as a housewife. “In the same way, Bemba girls are not ignorant of the nature of sex since many of them have been given to their husbands before puberty and some form of intercourse, usually incomplete, has taken place”. Sexually mature people are considered “hot” and as such dangerous for infants and young children. Hinfelaar notes in this respect: “Traditionally children were regarded as cold, that is as sexually neutral, almost genderless. It was normal for boys and girls to play together and even their imitations of parental and conjugal life was regarded as innocent”. Coitarche after initiation is considered dangerous, and not to be carried out without ritual precautions. As Maxwell (1983:p31)[4] points out: “Children can “play at sex” (Masansa). However, as soon as a girl’s periods begin, there is danger that sex and blood would mix to produce a “child of ill-omen” (Wa mputula), born outside socially and ritually sanctioned precincts. In this case, the young parents would be driven into the bush away from their community”.

Ukuwila Icisungu, to have one’s first menstruation, was celebrated as a wondrous event when the young woman received the gift of her sexuality from the Transcendent. The word Chisungu is derived from the verb ukusunguka, to be overwhelmed, to be startled and is associated with the noun chisungusho, a wondrous event” (Hinfelaar). “At their first menstruation the initiates, sometimes called Cisofu “the big elephants”, run into the forest […]. Their unbridled sexual fertility will be rescued from chaotic animal needs and brought under social control” (Maxwell).

Girls’ puberty rite is called chisungu (kisungu). Betrothal takes place before this. The rites are disappearing or abbreviated (Mair, 1969:p104; Jules-Rosette, 1980:p394)[5], “with the consequent omission of moral and magical instruction”. The first of three phases of the rite are occupied with marital instructions, “obviously belonging to Christian sex education” (Hinfelaar). “The mother and daughter cannot easily talk of sex matters together, but the grandmother [...] or some non-related midwife is not limited in this way” (Richards). A detailed description of contemporary rites is offered by Rasing (1995)[6]. She writes that the rites take place some years after menarche. “The girl is supposed to know nothing about sexuality, which is nowadays hardly ever the case. At school she learns about sexuality and many girls have sexual relationships. When girls are about ten years old, they are supposed to extend their labia [minora]. In this way they have some sexual experiences but the main thing is that they have not had sexual intercourse” (p44). “Parents and children would never speak of sexual matters in front of each other and children above the age of weaning are not allowed to share the sleeping hut of their parents, although now required to do so by almost all the schemes of urban housing. Women frankly discuss sexual matters, but are careful of referring to these when members of different age groups are present” (p27). In a later dissertation (2001)[7] the author further details the sexual significance of the rites (e.g., p121-2, 185, 248-50) in contemporary urban context. A further listing of songs is provided by Verbeek[8].

As in other Bantu tribes, small girls and boys play at marriage, building huts, cooking, “and sometimes imitating the sex act” (Richards, 1940:p15[9]; Rasing, p31). The sexes are separated at play and work and the “sex play allowed between adolescent boys and girls in a number of other Bantu societies is not permitted in this tribe”. “There is nevertheless a constant emphasis on the coming of sex maturity. Young girls sometimes join up in pairs and refer to each other as husband and wife [a footnote reads: “I have some evidence that a certain amount of homosexuality, usually mutual masturbation, occurs among the adolescent boys at this time, but my information on the up-bringing of girls is naturally fuller than that of boys”]; and from twelve or fifteen onwards they meet together in small groups in the bush to practice the custom known as ukukuna [labial stretching, as in the ®Chewa]. They speak earnestly of their duty to prepare themselves in this way for matrimony, watch anxiously to see their breasts forming, and constantly refer to the coming of physical maturity and to their ability to bear children. Bemba parents give their daughters to their husbands before puberty (cf. p64) a custom also practiced by kindred tribes such as the Bisa and Kaonde. [...] most girls have prenuptial intercourse with their future husbands, and it must be rare for them to reach puberty without the knowledge or practice of sex relations” (p16). Girl’s pubertal stages are intimately linked to social status; a distinction is made between pre- and postpubertals, and for prepubertals, between pre- and neothelarchics. Running counter Christian teachings, the Bemba socialise sex and prepare the young of both sexes for the satisfaction of the sex impulse “as soon as possible” (p18, cf. 25) and “to an extent unknown in modern society”. However, “[t]he rape of a girl who has not reached puberty is a matter of little importance, while heavy damages may be exacted for the rape or seduction of an initiated girl”.

Labia are lengthened at age 12-13, boys masturbate in groups (Raum, 1986:p38)[10].



Additional refs:


§         Hoch, E. (1968) Mbusa: A Contribution to the Study of Bemba Initiation Rites and Those of Neighbouring Tribes. Chinsali: Ilondola Language Centre

§         Jules-Rosette, B. (1980) Changing Aspects of Women's Initiation in Southern Africa: An Exploratory Study, Canadian J African Studies 13,3:389-405





Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Hinfelaar, H. F. (1994) Bemba-Speaking Women of Zambia in a Century of Religious Change (1892-1992). Leiden, New York & Köln: E. J. Brill

[2] Ms Lilian Wamulume, “Some traditions corrupt” in Search News Magazine, Vol. 2(1), Jan. 1992

[3] Richards, Au. I. (1956) Chisungu: A Girls’ Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London, England: Faber & Faber

[4] Maxwell, K. B. (1983) Bemba Myth and Ritual. New York: P. Lang

[5] Jules-Rosette, B. (1980) Changing aspects of women’s initiation in southern Africa: an explanatory study, Can J Afr Stud 13,3:389-405

[6] Rasing, Th. (1995) Passing on the Rites of Passage. Amsterdam [etc.]: African Studies Centre

[7] Rasing, Th. (2001) The Bush Burnt, the Stones Remain: Female Initiation Rites in Urban Zambia. Leiden, The Netherlands: African Studies Centre

[8]Verbeek, L. (1993) Initiation et Marriage dans la Chanson Populaire des Bemba du Zaire. Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, Tervuren, Belgium. Girls’ songs at p125ff, boys’ songs at p161ff

[9] Richards, Au. I. (1940) Bemba Marriage and Present Economic Conditions. Rhodes Livingstone Institute, Northern Rhodesia

[10] Raum, O. F. (1986) Sozialgeschichte des Kindes in Ost- und Südafrika, in Martin, J. & Nitschke, Au. (Eds.) Zur Sozialgeschichte der Kindheit. München: Verlag K. Alber, p33-73