Ndembu Religion

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NDEMBU RELIGION . The Ndembu, also called the Lunda, number about sixty thousand and inhabit small villages in the district of Mwinilunga in the northwestern province of Zambia. Although their descent system is matrilineal, women leave home to marry into their husbands' villages, a system that sets up social tensions and, before the advent of Christianity, used to result in a high divorce rate. In this conflict-torn society, cult associations formerly had a great unifying power, calling together members from many different kinship groups to cooperate in rituals that gave moments of spiritual revelation, which in turn resolved conflicts and healed illness.

Cults of Affliction

Among the Ndembu, affliction was seen as having a spiritual cause: the spirit of a dead matrilineal relative (mukishi) afflicted a living descendant, "coming out" in a range of different modes of spirit visitation. Thus the spirit might "come out in Nkula," the mode of menstrual troubles; Wubwangʾu, the mode of twins; Isoma, the miscarriage mode; Ihamba, a spirit tooth wandering in the patient's body, needing ritual extraction; Wuyangʾa, the mode for hunters; Tukuka, the mode of Western diseases; or Chihamba, the mode of the demigod of thunder. Wu-bwangʾu and Ihamba afflictions still exist today.

The spirit "caught" a living relative in the first place because he or she had not honored the spirit's memory. When afflicted, an individual required a complex ritual, the mode of which was determined by the consideration of symptoms and by divination. The ritual (nʿgoma, "drum") was performed by a cult association consisting of those who had already been afflicted in that mode. The aim was to bring the spirit up out of the ground (the place where the spirits dwell) so that by recognizing its existence and giving it a concrete formas a figure, effigy, tooth, or voiceit could be revealed. Ku-solola, "to reveal," was a basic element of Ndembu religion and curative ritual. The religion taught: "what hurts you, when discovered and propitiated, helps you." Through the use of medicines, drumming and singing, and distinctive rites appropriate to each mode, the spirit was brought once more into the social milieu and would, at a switch point in the ritual, begin to do good instead of harm to the patient. Often what triggered the change was a sacrifice, which might be the beheading of a fowl or a blow on an effigy, signifying killing; while the victim embodied the spirit, the act gave a sense of innocence and communitas. Ndembu sacrifice was the point where the visible and invisible components of the cosmic order interpenetrated and exchanged qualities. When the spirit world and the world of the living were at one, the patient was healed.

Life-Crisis Rituals

A young girl or boy could not become a full member of the Ndembu people without an initiation ritual. The matrilineal character of the descent system emphasized the bond of breast feeding; thus, a forest shrub called mudyi, which has milky sap, was a dominant symbol for both girls' and boys' initiations. Mudyi represented the matrilineage itself and the virtues of good family living; its "milk" was the sensory pole of the symbol's meaning, hinting at the satisfactions associated with mother's milka pole that gave power to the ideological pole of goodness.

Both girls' and boys' initiations were rites of passage, and they are still performed in a truncated form. The novice passes ritually from childhood into a liminal time of seclusion when she or he is neither child nor adult. Finally the initiate is reincorporated into society as a full member.

Girls are initiated singly, at puberty; the initiate used to be laid down under a blanket at the foot of a milk tree for an entire day, while the women danced around her. At evening she was carried into a seclusion hut, where she received training for three months. At the end she performed a public dance and might then be married.

Boys from five to fifteen years of age are still circumcised in groups in a sacred enclosure away from the village. They are secluded there during healing, and in former times used to be visited by an ikishi dancer, a spirit from ancient times (not an ancestor spirit). Finally the boys would rejoin society in a public celebration that used to include a triumphal dance before the chief. In both rituals the place of ordeal and humiliation used to be called "the place of death"; symbolic death and rebirth were basic features of these and many of the curative rites.

Death itself was celebrated by a masked dancer (ka-dangʿu ) who was both mourner and clown. Among the funerary symbols were three trenches filled with white-, red-, and black-colored water, representing goodness, blood and ambivalence, and death; these trenches were known as "rivers" proceeding from Nzambi, the creator god. Formerly, a stilt walker, the head of the funerary society, would come to beat and initiate the small boys of the mourning camp. Medicines and rituals are still used to keep the ghost of the dead person quiet.

Thus Ndembu religion was directly concerned with human events, whether sickness, bad luck in hunting, conflict in the village, or phases in the maturation of an individual. It was mainly through sickness that an individual began to sense the presence of an ancestor spirit; thus it was the very irregularities of life, its negative events, that created the positive sense of the supernatural, especially when the spirit possessed a patient and she swayed, her body physically released by its presence. The palpable existence of spirits developed in the course of the experience of misfortune. This is not to be explained as a compensation mechanism; misfortune did more than arouse fantasies, for it triggered well-recognized faculties (wanga ) that needed the stimulus of trouble, and then of social cooperation, in order to flower. Senior doctors still train their apprentices in those faculties and teach the appropriate material accompaniments of medicine, drumming, confession, and trance in order to exorcise evil spirits. In spite of the growth of Christianity, traditional healers are increasing in numbers. Owing to the suppression of ancestor cults, they do not appeal to the ancestor spirits of the patients, but instead are helped by tutelary spirits from among their own ancestors or from some strong departed personality. Formerly a doctor entered his vocation after being sick himself. In the case of an incipient diviner he might be troubled in his breathing until he gave in to the demands of his spirit and underwent the Kayong'u initiation.


In the past, Ndembu religion centered upon ancestor spirits who communicated with humans frequently but unpredictably. Like the people's own lives, their domain was process, not the absolute. Continually involved in human life, they could heal their descendants and make them sexually potent. Such spirits could also be reborn in their patrilateral descendants. They were often whimsical, difficult, and easily offended when forgotten, but beneficent when treated with respect. Thus all of humanity, past, present, and future, was strongly knit together. Mukishi ancestor spirits and the ancient ikishi spirits, however, are no longer recognized as necessary agents of healing or change in rites of passage.

The Ndembu also believed in the mwevulu, the spirit shadow that was thought to leave a person and wander about when he or she was asleep and dreaming. It was this "shadow" that left a person when he or she died. Certain evil spirits are still feared, principally the mufu, the dangerous ghost that arises when funerary rites have not been properly fulfilled, and the harmful andumba (sg., ndumba ), familiars sent by witches in the shape of little men with their feet reversed, or in the form of hyenas, jackals, owls, or small rodents. Two other types of beings are also feared: the leader of the andumba, the kahwehu, often the ghost of the witch's murdered husband, who is said to have continued intercourse with her, and the musalu, or zombie, which can be raised from a corpse by a witch and sent out to kill.


The pre-Christian Ndembu recognized a creator god who was known as Nzambi. Having once created the world Nzambi never intervened in the lives of humans, and his role in religion was exiguous except in a negative sense. The Ndembu girl during her sacralization and seclusion was carefully shielded from his sightas represented by the sun. This male god, the sun, and men and boys, must be absent from her scenes of rebirth. Nzambi's place was far away above the world. He was thought to be connected with rain, animals, and fertility, and also with the moral order, which decreed piety to the dead and compassion to the living. Christians have appropriated the name Nzambi to translate the term God ; and now even traditional healers pray to Nzambi, just as Ndembu Christians have been doing for decades.


The works of Victor Turner are central to understanding Ndembu religion. His early study "Lunda Rites and Ceremonies" (1953), reprinted in The Occasional Papers of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum (Manchester, 1974), provides a factual account of each Ndembu ritual. Four subsequent books provide analysis. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N. Y., 1967) is a collection of essays including discussions of the rite of circumcision, the funerary cult, initiation of a doctor, and hunters' rites. The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia (London, 1968) analyzes rites associated with menstruation, teeth, and girl's initiation. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, 1969) studies curative rites and the twin ritual. Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N. Y., 1975) analyzes the ritual drama Chihamba and compares its symbolism with that of Western religion. I have recently analyzed the work of a modern Ndembu doctor-priest in "Philip Kabwita, Ghost Doctor: The Ndembu in 1985," Drama Review 10, no. 4 (1986).

New Sources

Jordan, Manuel. "Art and Divination among Chokwe, Lunda, Luvale and other Related Peoples of Northwestern Zambia." In Insight and Artistry in African Divination, edited by John Pemberton. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Pritchett, James Anthony. Continuity and Change in an African Society: The Kanongesha Lunda of Mwinilunga, Zambia. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1990.

Pritchett, James Anthony. The Lunda-Ndembu: Style, Change and Social Transformation in South Central Africa. Madison, Wis., 2001.

Turner, Edith L. B. Experiencing Ritual: A New Interpretation of African Healing, Philadelphia, 1992.

Turner, Victor Witter. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

Turner, Victor Witter. Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life. Oxford and Washington, D.C., 1996.

Edith Turner (1987)

Revised Bibliography