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ETHNONYMS: Tumbuca, Tombucas, Matumbuka, Tambuka, Atimbuka; subgroups: Yombe, Nthali, Wenya, Hewe, Phoka, Kamanga, Henga


Identification and Location. The Tumbuka consists of a congeries of peoples distributed over an area of about 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers) in the northern regions of Malawi and Zambia. During the nineteenth century their territory was bounded to the south by the Dwangwa River, to the north by the North Rukuru River, to the east by Lake Malawi, and to the west by the valley of the Luangwa River.

The main groupings consist of the Yombe, Nthali, Wenya, and Hewe (sometimes identified as an extension of the Kamanga) and the Phoka, Kamanga, Henga, and Tumbuka. The Tumbuka cluster is bounded to the north by the Nkonde peoples, to the west by the Fungwe and Nyika, to the south by the Ngoni and Senga, and to the east by the Thonga. The southern Nkonde, Fungwe, Nyika, Thonga, and Senga sometimes are counted as Tumbuka, and some segments of the Ngoni are Tumbuka-speaking.

There is great variation in the altitude and climate in the areas inhabited by the Tumbuka. The altitude ranges from 500 feet (153 meters) in parts of the Henga valley to 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,134 to 2,439 meters) in parts of the Nyika Plateau. The rainfall pattern is bimodal, with the most rainfall occurring from November to May. Average rainfall during the wet season varies from 33 inches (84 centimeters) in Mzimba District in Malawi to 49 inches (124 centimeters) in the Nyika Plateau. This wide variation in elevation and rainfall creates a variety of ecological zones with highly fertile agricultural regions in valleys, on plateaus, and along the banks of rivers and less fertile zones of sandy loam soils in parts of Muzuzu and Mzimba districts in Malawi.

Demography. In 2001 the population of the Tumbuka was estimated at a little over 2 million. During the British colonial period the Tumbuka were concentrated primarily in four districts in the northern region of Malawi and two in northeastern Zambia. In 1921 their population was estimated at 110,267 in northern Malawi, and by 1945 their numbers had increased to 114,542. From the 1987 census their numbers may be estimated at well over 200,000. In 2001 the number of Tumbuka living in Malawi was estimated at 662,000, with 406,000 living in Zambia. Another million Tumbukaspeaking people are said to reside in Tanzania and other central and southern African countries, a legacy of labor migration. Historically, however, the Tumbuka have been concentrated in the Malawi districts now known as Rumpi, Chitipa, Karonga, Nkhata Bay, and Mzimba and the Zambian districts of Isoka and Chama.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tumbuka is the language spoken by the congeries of peoples known as the Tumbuka. It is a central Bantu language in the Niger-Congo family. Historically, there were three main dialectical forms: Henga, Kamanga, and Phoka. Tumbuka is closely allied to Thonga, Fungwe, and Nyika but is distinct from Cewa (Chinyanja). Through extended contact with the Cewa and Ngoni to the south and the Nkonde to the north, it has incorporated many Cewa, Ngoni, and Nkonde words and phrases. With a long history of labor migration and mission schooling, most Tumbuka men are fluent in a number of Bantu languages as well as English. Many men speak Chilapalapa, a lingua franca used in the mining regions of southern Africa. Women with six or more years of schooling are also fluent in English, the national language of Malawi and Zambia.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Tumbuka peoples spans more than two centuries and may be divided into four main periods. The first period consists of the years before 1780, when the region was sparsely populated by small clusters of shifting cultivators and hunters. The second period began, as accounts would have it, with the arrival of a small band of ivory and iron traders under the leadership of Mlowoka ("he who crossed over"). The traders crossed Lake Malawi from the east between 1780 and 1800 and established themselves as rulers, imposing a new political order of centralized government on the Tumbuka. Mlowoka established his rule at Nkamanga, which became the central kingdom under the Chikuramayembe ("the bringer of hoes") dynasty, with rulers being selected from the ruling royal clan, the Gondwes. By the time of his death, Mlowoka's authority extended over a large area from the Songwe River in the north to the Dwangwa in the south. His fellow traders also founded their own chiefdoms throughout the region under their own royal clans. They imposed new customs and modes of cultivation using iron hoes and engaged in long-distance trade.

The third period began in the mid-1850s with the invasion of the Ngoni, an Nguni people from South Africa; the defeat of the Nkamanga; and the subjugation of most Tumbuka chiefdoms. Domination of the region by the Ngoni lasted until the British defeated them and established their own rule during the first decade of the twentieth century. The British restored the line of the Chikuramayembe dynasty in 1907. The fourth period extended from the domination of the British South Africa Company and British colonial rule until Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia became the independent African states of Malawi and Zambia in 1963 and 1964, respectively.

During colonial rule only minor investments were made in developing the Tumbuka-speaking regions. Colonial documents described the region as the "dead north." The north became the principal source of cheap migrant labor for the developing urban areas of central and southern Africa. However, the Tumbuka-speaking peoples had the advantage of attending mission schools as early as the 1880s and were among the most highly educated Africans in the region. Throughout central Africa they were included in the designation "Nyasa," a term that referred to their educational accomplishments and occupational achievements.


Historically, there has been variation in the settlement pattern of the Tumbuka peoples. A general pattern was for people to live in villages or dispersed domestic units. The villages consisted of clusters of rectangular thatched houses of agnatically related households. Each household had its own circular thatched granaries, kitchen, and bathhouse. There were also boys' houses (Mpara) and girls' houses (Ntanganini).

During the period of cultivation, households often dispersed to their farming areas, residing in circular or rectangular wattle-and-daub thatched houses. Each domestic unit had its own farms and elevated circular thatched farm granaries. Households with cattle had their own kraals.

The settlement pattern has remained much the same, with some houses being constructed of brick with steel-framed glass windows and zinc roofing.


Subsistence. The Tumbuka are primarily small farmers who raise crops such as maize, millet, and beans, the main staples of the diet. They also grow cassava, rice, a variety of pumpkins, vegetables, and fruits such as bananas and oranges. Historically, maize was grown along the alluvial plains of rivers by Dumbo cultivation (along the banks of rivers), using hoes. Ox-drawn plows were introduced during colonial rule. Millet was cultivated through slash and burn agriculture, a practice known as citemene.

Women have been the main cultivators and the main-stay of the rural economy. Each married woman has her own farms and granaries and is supposed to provide for her children with the help of her husband. Since the Ngoni period, households have kept cattle and other livestock. The responsibility for caring for them falls to the males of the household.

During colonial rule, large numbers of Tumbuka men became labor migrants and households became increasingly dependent on the labor of women and the remittances sent home by men working for wages. With the declining economic opportunities for wage employment in the urban areas during the 1980s and 1990s, Tumbuka men returned to the rural areas, relying increasingly on agriculture and local sources of wage employment.

Commercial Activities. During the period of colonial rule the British introduced cash crops such as tobacco, coffee, cotton, and hybrid maize. Those crops were sold on the open market and to government-controlled marketing boards. Thus, there were opportunities for local wage employment, but the primary source of money to pay for domestic necessities (salt, soap, cloth, and metal pots and pans) and meet social obligations such as children's school fees and marriage payments came from labor migration. The men went off to the mines and urban centers of southern Africa and returned with goods, which they kept for themselves, gave to relatives, used as bride-wealth, and sold to others.

Since independence tobacco, hybrid maize, coffee, and cotton have been the main cash crops. The Tumbuka still rely on remittances from labor migration, but the opportunities for employment have lessened because of the declining economies of Malawi and Zambia.

Industrial Arts. In the precolonial period the Tumbuka produced much of what they consumed and used. They made bark cloth, pottery, reed baskets and mats, leatherwork, and iron tools. Much of this industrial production was replaced by commercially produced items during the period of colonial rule. The Tumbuka acquired useful skills from their missionary schooling, such as masonry and carpentry, enabling them to enter urban job markets. They also used those skills to build local brick houses, schools, and dispensaries.

Trade. Before British rule the Tumbuka engaged in local and long-distance trading of ivory, skins, guns, steel knives and spears, and cloth. The trade extended to and beyond Lake Malawi to the coast and involved Arab and Swahili traders. During colonial rule they were part of the trade in used clothes. Traders would buy candy and other items, exchange them for maize and millet, and transport those crops to the Congo, where they would be traded for bales of used clothes. The clothes would be brought back and sold in the local markets. Since independence, crops have been traded in local markets and cash crops (tobacco, hybrid maize, millet, coffee, and cotton) have been sold to marketing boards and local and international traders.

Division of Labor. The Tumbuka practice a strict division of labor based on gender and age. The main domestic tasks involving the household are undertaken by the female members. Those tasks involve cleaning, fetching water and firewood, cooking, mending, and caring for children. Women engage in agricultural activities such as hoeing, planting, weeding, harvesting, and preparing food for storage and eating. Men help prepare the maize and millet fields; build and repair houses, granaries, kitchens, and bathhouses; take care of the livestock; and hunt and fish. They are the main traders and are expected to seek wage employment to provide household items, meet social obligations, and pay taxes. Women may earn money by making and selling millet beer and baking. Since independence many have actively engaged in commercial farming. With advancing age, the demands on older women and men decrease and they retire to their own small vegetable gardens, cipa.

Land Tenure. Land tenure varies in different regions. Historically, in its simplest and most general form, the chief and his royal agnates were the "owners of the land." This right was delegated to village headmen, who would allocate it to the heads of resident domestic units. The household head assigned land to his married sons, who then would assign fields to their wives. The picture becomes more complex depending on whether the headman was a commoner or a senior member of the royal clan. Ultimately, rights to the land were invested in the chieftainship. The Yombe and sections of the Kamanga provide examples of this pattern. More complicated patterns of land tenure developed among Tumbuka who adopted Ngoni customs and practices.


Kin Groups and Descent. Most Tumbuka are organized into dispersed exogamous patrilineal descent groups (agnatic lineages) whose members trace descent from a common ancestor from a specific locality. Lineages are parts of clans that have the same clan name. Although lineages are exogamous, that is not always the case with clans.

Kinship Terminology. The kin terms of the Tumbuka have elements of the Omaha type of terminology in that the unity and solidarity of the lineage are recognized. The unity of generations is demonstrated by the fact that the men of the father's generation are called father and the men of the father's father's generation are classified as grandfathers or elder siblings, exemplifying the principle of the unity of alternate generations. The father's brother's children are classified as either brother or sister, and the father's sister's children as cousins. The mother's brother's children are called cousins, and the mother's sister's children are called brother or sister.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage customs and practices vary. The most general form begins with courtship, the negotiation and partial transfer of bride-wealth, the marriage ceremony, and the delivery of the bride to the residence of the groom and his immediate agnates. The marriage negotiations take place between the agnates of the bride and those of the groom, usually with the mutual consent of the couple. The central marriage payments may be made in cattle and money. Tumbuka custom allows for polygyny. Divorce traditionally was primarily an option for the husband, but in the 1990s it was a right claimed by women and often accorded to them by local courts. Since the major Christian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, forbid polygyny and as a result of Western education, polygyny has become less prevalent. Western education and diminishing economic resources have also affected the prevalence of taking multiple wives. Sororal polygyny and window inheritance persist as widely practiced customs.

Domestic Unit. There is variation in the structure, composition, and size of domestic units. In general, they consist of linked households that are based on a three-generation extended family based on an agnatic core of male kinsmen. It is not uncommon for the male household head to be away working as a labor migrant. Among the Yombe the size and composition of domestic units have remained much the same since the 1960s, but this may change in the Uyombe chiefdom as well as among other Tumbuka peoples as men fail to leave home and others return from urban areas after failing to find wage employment.

Inheritance. Inheritance and succession are patrilineal. Lineage property such as cattle is inherited in the male line through a generation of brothers in order of seniority. Once the males of the generation have died, lineage property goes to the senior member of the next generation. There is, however, much leeway for contestation since many factors unrelated to age and sometimes to order of birth in polygynous families may contribute to the establishment of seniority. Succession to social positions may not always follow the pattern of inheritance. When a man dies, his wife is entitled to select his successor from his generational agnates, who include his brothers (real and classificatory) as well as his grandsons. Many Christian women select their oldest son and thus come under his authority, abrogating the rights of the husband's brothers.

Socialization. Children are cared for by their parents, siblings, and grandparents. In the past, at the age of about five to seven years, boys and girls took up residence with their peers and older youths in boys' houses and girls' houses. In the 1990s those houses consisted of only a small number of friends living together. Their size has been affected by the fact that many young boys and girls attend boarding schools. Children and youths circulate freely between households, extended kin units, schools, and religious organizations, all of which contribute to their socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Historically, most Tumbuka peoples were organized into small agnatic descent groups. Those descent groups had their own structure of kinship and ritual authority based on the seniority of older men. Women were subordinate members in their own descent groups and those into which they married. The arrival of Mlowoka and his band of traders did not disrupt those basic units but incorporated them into chiefdoms based on a centralized authority. The territorial framework consisted of the chief and his advisers and councils, subchiefs, and village headmen. The Ngoni incursions disrupted this pattern of authority, especially among the Kamanga. The rulers fled, and the Ngoni absorbed young men into their military regiments.

With British rule there was a resurgence of Tumbuka ethnic identity, a movement led by the emerging elite educated in Christian missions. The territorial system was restored. However, the newly educated elite entered the occupational structures created under colonial rule, becoming skilled artisans and craftsmen, school teachers, clerks, minor civil servants, religious leaders, and politicians. They founded schools and new religious organizations such as the Jordan and National churches. They went as labor migrants throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa and established themselves as leaders in ethnic, regional, and occupational associations. They became a force in Central African history, participating in the founding of the Malawi Congress Party in Malawi and the United National Independence Party in Zambia.

Political Organization. In the precolonial period the powers and authority of Tumbuka chiefs varied from chiefdom to chiefdom. Among the Kamanga congeries (including the Nkamanga, Hewe, Yombe, and Ntaliri chiefdoms) it would seem that chiefs had considerable judicial and ritual authority over the land and their subjects. They were the "owners of the land" with rights over its basic resources. They were entitled to ivory, skins, and other valued commodities. They had their own courts (Mpara), where they tried cases and settled disputes. They offered prayers to their lineage ancestors for the well-being of their subjects. However, the arrival of the Ngoni disrupted the structure of local authority and the ability of chiefs to rule.

Under British rule, patterns of chieftainship were restored and chiefs became Native Authorities, part of the structure of colonial administration. The Tumbuka chiefdoms were reorganized. Chiefs were selected from royal clans recognized by the British. They were in charge of courts and at the center of an administrative structure that included councils, court clerks and assessors, and chiefdom clerks and messengers. They were responsible for governing their people and to British authorities. They were minor administrators in the British colonial hierarchy. Chiefdoms were ordered into districts under district commissioners. In 1945 district boundaries were redrawn to reflect more accurately the British understanding of Tumbuka ethnic distributions. Independence did not eliminate chieftainship as an institution or fundamentally transform these chiefdoms in Malawi or Zambia. The Tumbuka still retain their ethnic identity.

Social Control. Disputes may be arbitrated within four main frameworks: domestic, kinship, territorial, and religious. Disputes related to household affairs, such as arguments between cowives, usually are settled by household heads. If arbitration is unsuccessful and the dispute relates to kinship, it may be heard by lineage elders. Disputes between villagers are heard by the village headman and, if he can not settle them, may be brought to the chief for arbitration. Disputes involving misfortunes may fall to ritual authorities such as lineage elders, diviners, and prophets for explanation, arbitration, and remediation. The local court hears civil cases related to property, debt, divorce, and marriage payments.

Conflict. The history of Tumbuka chiefdoms is one of a series of conflicts. Two stand out as the most significant: warfare against Ngoni raiders and the nationalist struggle against the British, which involved extensive civil disobedience.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tumbuka religious beliefs fall within two main frameworks: the traditional and the Christian. The cultural elements of the traditional religious framework include a belief in a distant god (Leza/Chiuta) and in the power of ancestors and witches. Before British rule Leza was thought to be the supreme being, who created the world and everything within it. Once he had created the world, he withdrew from it, leaving human beings to manage their own affairs. The ancestor spirits of descent groups were the ones who affected the affairs of the living and communicated with Leza. Witches were believed to affect human affairs. The use of witchcraft involved special knowledge and the use of medicine to produce the desired effect. The advent of Christian missions beginning in the 1880s introduced a new inventory of spirits that became part of the Tumbuka field of religious beliefs. Although most Tumbuka are Christians, traditional religious forms remain part of their beliefs, providing explanations for their fortunes.

Religious Practitioners. The heads of agnatic descent groups, political authorities, diviners, and prophets are an integral part of Tumbuka religious beliefs and practices and are important for delineating the structures of social and ritual authority. Within the framework of the ancestor cult heads of descent groups perform rites to their ancestors to assure the well-being of their agnates. Village headmen and chiefs are also expected to make offerings for the welfare of their subjects. These customary practices are, however, on the decline, and many Christian Tumbuka have ceased to engage in them and do not believe in their efficacy. The belief in the powers of diviners (ng'anga) and prophets (ncimi) has persisted and is an integral part of the social structure. Diviners and prophets provide medicine for the afflicted and protection from witchcraft.

From the 1880s through the 1910s the Free Church of Scotland Presbyterian founded mission stations throughout the regions inhabited by the Tumbuka. The Tumbuka accepted Christianity. With this long experience with Christianity, most Tumbuka are Christians and belong to churches staffed by African preachers and ministers.

Ceremonies. There is no single ceremony shared by all Tumbuka that defines them as a people. Agnatic groups and chiefdoms may have their own individual ceremonies. An example is Vinkakanimba Day, an annual ceremony to recognize the founding of the Uyombe chiefdom in Zambia. Other Tumbuka chiefdoms have similar ceremonies commemorating their founding. The founder is believed to have been a member of Mlowoka's party of traders who crossed Lake Malawi. Most ceremonial occasions occur at critical points in the life cycle of individuals, domestic units, and agnatic groups. The most common ceremonial occasions are related to the birth of children, marriages, and deaths.

Arts. Tumbuka artistic expression is found in head ties, hair styles, necklaces, and bracelets. It also is represented in the decoration of houses, the making of baskets, and the design of pottery. The Tumbuka recognize the art and aesthetics of storytelling, preaching, and other forms of verbal communication.

Medicine. The Tumbuka rely on a number of sources for medicine and treatment. There are the traditional medical and ritual healers. The healers include herbalists, diviners, and prophets who know about the medicinal properties of a large number of medicinal plants. They may treat different diseases and afflictions, ranging from the common cold to spirit possession (vimbuza). Although most Tumbuka seek the services of these healers, they also rely on Western medicines and practices, and frequent dispensaries and hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. Death requires an explanation. It may be due to natural causes, witchcraft, or an angry ancestor spirit. When a person dies, the corpse is buried in a grave about 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep. The grave is considered to be a house with a special room for the deceased. The face of the corpse is carefully directed toward the locality from which his or her clan is believed to have originated. The period of mourning begins immediately after the burial and requires the confinement of the deceased's relatives. The day after the burial senior agnates return to inspect the grave for signs of witchcraft. Once the period of mourning is over, rites of purification are undertaken. Senior agnates may return to the grave and take the spirit of the deceased back to the house. Other rituals may be performed that transform the spirit into an ancestor. Ancestor spirits are believed to be close to their agnates and to affect their affairs. Many Christian Tumbuka follow these burial practices and accept the beliefs associated with them. They also believe in the Christian concepts of an afterlife involving heaven and hell and the day of judgment and resurrection.

For other cultures in Malawi and Zambia, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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