views updated


POPULATION: 11 million
LANGUAGE: English; Bemba; Nyanja; Tonga; Lozi; Lunda, Luvali and Kaonde
RELIGION: Christianity; Christianity with traditional African beliefs; Hindu; Islam; traditional African beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Bemba; Chewa; Tonga


Although the 70 recognized ethnic groups who now reside in Zambia have distinct migration histories, different languages, and varying social, economic, and political organizations, they share a common colonial and post-colonial history. Zambia is a butterfly-shaped, landlocked country in southern Africa whose political boundaries are the result of European colonization of the region. The distinct groups who were living within the arbitrarily drawn boundaries at the time were first referred to as “Northern Rhodesians” under British domination. They became “Zambians” in the post-independence era.

For at least the past 500 years, the people of Zambia have been characterized by a high degree of migration. This migration, including urban to rural, rural to urban, and rural to rural, continues today. History and archeological evidence reveal that by 1500 much of modern Zambia was already occupied by Bantu-speaking horticulturalists who are the ancestors of many of the present day Zambians, particularly the Bisa and the Ila people. The Ngoni and the Kololo arrived in the region in 1855. Both groups came from South Africa as a result of the wars sparked by Chaka. The Ngoni and Kololo found the Tonga people already residing in the south, and the Chewa and Nsenga groups in the east. The Chewa and Nsenga had migrated earlier from the territory that would later be called Malawi. The Lozis trace their history to the Lunda people, and the Bemba trace their roots to the Luba people.

Prior to the arrival of the British, the nation's ethnic groups lived in relative isolation from one another. The first Europeans in the area were the Portuguese in the 16th century. David Livingstone traveled through the region in the 1850s and “discovered” Victoria Falls in 1855. He is credited with bringing British attention to the area. In 1889, the British South Africa Company (BSAC), under the leadership of Cecil Rhodes, received permits to trade and establish a government in what would become Northern Rhodesia. The BSAC maintained economic and political control of the region until 1924, when the British crown took over administration of the country by means of indirect colonial rule.

Kalomo, now a small district capital, was the first Capital of Northern Rhodesia, until 1911 when the capital shifted to the town of Livingstone. Livingstone remained the capital of Northern Rhodesia until 1935. Lusaka became the administrative center at that time. Between 1929 and 1939, four large copper mines in the north-central part of the country opened. Northern Rhodesia became a supplier of copper to the world market.

Along with many African countries, Zambia won its independence in 1964. It was a multiparty state until 1972, when it became a “one-party participatory democracy.” The freedom-fighter leader Kenneth Kaunda was president of Zambia from 1964 to 1991. President Kaunda's greatest strength as a leader was his ability to unite the various ethnic groups of Zambia under his “humanism” platform of “One Zambia, One Nation.” The first decade after independence was marked by the government's proclaimed commitment to socialism, and its investment in social welfare programs. This was the decade of prosperity when copper prices and people's spirits were high.

The historical importance of copper and the subsequent growth of the mining industry in Zambia, led to the rapid growth of Zambia's towns. From the end of World War II to the late 1960s, Zambia's urban areas, especially the Copperbelt and Lusaka, grew at phenomenal rates. Zambia soon became the most urbanized and industrialized of Africa's countries. In 1980, 43% of Zambians lived in town, compared to roughly half that for the rest of Africa. Currently it is estimated that 36% of Zambians live in urban areas.

Compared to Zambia's relative prosperity of the 1960s, overall economic growth rates throughout Africa have declined since the mid-1970s. Throughout the continent, economic troubles have increased due to a decrease in agricultural production and a continued, albeit slower, growth of the urban areas. Zambia's problems were compounded by the sudden drop in the world market price of copper in the mid-1970s. At that time, copper accounted for 94% of Zambia's export earnings. Over reliance by the government on copper revenues had resulted in little economic diversification in general, and tremendous neglect of the agricultural sector in particular. Subsidies on maize (corn) meal, which the urban population had come to rely on, compounded the agricultural sector's problems. The combination of all of these factors in Zambia led to what observers have called “the greatest—and most rapid—economic decline” among all the nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the wake of economic problems in the 1970s and 1980s, President Kaunda's government made several attempts at economic reform, all of which failed. In an attempt to revamp the economy, the 1980s saw the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). This approach, however, failed to achieve its intentions, as it left some 73% of the people in the country living in poverty. Throughout the 1980s, support for the government continued to erode. In October 1991, for the first time in decades, Zambia held multiparty elections. Long-time president Kaunda was voted out of power and President Chiluba, of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), was voted in. In an effort to redress the economic recession, the MMD adopted the Economic Recovery Program (ERP). As of 2004, 67% of the population was still living in poverty.

President Chiluba's objectives were to diversify the economy, increasing the country's food supply and thereby reducing food imports. Because copper was the primary export and foreign currency earner, the agricultural sector has long been ignored. Only 7% of the land area is under cultivation, with corn, sorghum, and cassava being the primary subsistence crops. The agricultural system is still largely unreliable, as it is dependent on rainfall. In 2001, at the end of his second term, per the constitution, President Chiluba stepped down. Elections were held and the MMD maintained the presidency, with Levy Mwanawasa as the new president. President Mwanawasa provided a level of stability and continuity, which, combined with increasing commodity prices, led to investment and growth. In 2006 Zambia issued its Fifth National Development Plan, which has a vision for Zambia in 2030 to be a prosperous and stable middle income country. According to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, Zambia appears to be on the path toward achieving that vision.


Zambia is a landlocked country of south-central Africa, with an area of 751,000 sq km (290,000 sq mi). Zambia is bordered on the south by Zimbabwe and Namibia, on the southeast by Mozambique, on the east by Malawi, on the northeast by Tanzania, on the north and west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and on the west by Angola. Zambia is dominated by a tropical savanna climate. Most of the country has a single rainy season. Zambia has four great rivers: the Zambezi, Kafue, and Luangwa in the south and east of the country; and the Luapula in the north. The rivers offer a valuable resource potential in the form of hydroelectric power. Zambia has a wealth of mineral resources, including copper, lead, zinc, and coal. The earth is characterized as red and powdery and not very fertile. The country was very rich in game before the advent of widespread poaching. Now many species are threatened.

Thirty-six percent of Zambia's 11 million people live in urban areas, with a trend indicating that urban to rural migration is growing. Most of the people are of Bantu origin (including Bemba, Tonga, Lozi, and Lunda). Some 98% of the population is African, with less than 2% being European and Asian.


The official language of Zambia is English, which also serves as the lingua franca (common language), but there are seven national languages. Bemba is largely spoken on the Copperbelt, where the majority of the labor force are Bemba. The Bemba people were largely recruited to mine copper because of their proximity to the Copperbelt. Nyanja is another commonly spoken language which comes from the Chewa and Nsenga people of Malawi, and now also from people of the eastern province of Zambia. Nyanja can be heard most commonly in the capital city of Lusaka because of the large eastern-province population that was recruited to work there by the British. The other national languages are Tonga, spoken largely in the south of the country, Lozi, spoken in the west of the country, with its origins in Botswana, and three languages are found in the northwest of the country: Lunda, Luvale and Kaonde.


Zambians have an active tradition of oral history and have passed proverbs, fables, riddles, and creation myths down through many generations. Even today, parables are in active use in conversation.


Some 72% of Zambia's population report that they are Christian or combine Christianity with traditional African religions. The remainder practice African beliefs, or are Hindu or Muslim. Zambia was officially declared a Christian Nation by President Chiluba, who was himself a born-again Christian. However, there is religious harmony in the country.


Official holidays include New Year's Day (January 1); Youth Day, March 12, Easter weekend (late March or early April); Labor Day (May 1); African Freedom Day (May 25); Heroes and Unity Day (the first Monday and Tuesday in July); Farmers Day (the first Monday in August); Independence Day (October 24), and Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26).


Initiation ceremonies for boys are practiced among a number of Zambia's tribal groups. These rituals commonly involve circumcision in the north western part of the country, as well as instruction in hunting and in the group's culture and folklore throughout the country. At puberty, girls are also instructed in the ways of their culture, and receive instruction in sex, marriage, and child rearing, as well.
Both traditional arranged marriages and modern marriages are accompanied by the lobola, or bride-price, a payment by the man to his fiancé's family. Many Zambians have church weddings., however traditional marriages are also very common. Zambia is governed by both statutory law as well as customary law. These are sometimes in conflict with each other, such as in the case of property inheritance. Statutory law allows for the wife to inherit at least 20% the property of her deceased husband, while with customary law all property belongs to the family of the deceased husband. Many women have found it difficult to access their lawful right to property, due to the strong influence of customary law and the poor enforcement of statutory law.

Upon the death of a spouse, in-laws may require that a widow or widower undergo sexual cleansing (an act of intercourse with a member of the deceased family, often a brother or other close relative). In some areas it is said that this takes place to rid the widow or widower of the ghost of the deceased spouse. In the age of HIV and AIDS there was a lot of concern that this was increasing the transmission of HIV, therefore, many traditional leaders have outlawed the practice in their areas.

The funeral of a relative, even a distant relative, is considered an event of great importance that one must attend to show respect for the dead. However, in the era of HIV and AIDS, funeral traditions have been modified to ease the high cost of a funeral, as people were finding themselves overwhelmed with the higher than normal rate of mortality. Fortunately the introduction of HIV treatment has begun to slow this higher death rate.


In formal situations, Zambians address each other by their last names, prefaced by the terms for “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss” in their local languages. Different greetings are used in different parts of the country. Mulibwanji (“How are you?”) is common in the Lusaka area; Mwapoleni (“Welcome”) is generally used in the Copperbelt region; and Mwabonwa (“Welcome”) is a standard greeting in the southern part of the country. In most parts of Zambia, people commonly greet each other with a handshake, using the left hand to support the right, a gesture traditionally considered a sign of respect. People in the Luapula, Western, and North-Western provinces frequently use a greeting that involves clapping and squeezing thumbs. People often kneel in the presence of their elders or those who are their social superiors. Zambians, like many other Africans, often avoid eye contact out of politeness. It is considered unacceptable for men and women to touch when greeting each other.


Zambia's towns are bustling centers with a host of problems that are common to cities in general. Most of Zambia's urban residents live in poverty in low-cost, high-density housing areas, out of sight of the relatively few elite who reside in the few low-density, previously European sections of town. In the decade following independence, the population of Zambia's cities doubled in size. In those years the city represented opportunity and privilege. There was food on the table, transportation in the streets, and goods in the shops. Economic opportunities drew people from every province of Zambia, with the largest populations arriving in Lusaka from the Eastern Province (Chewa and Ngoni), and arriving on the Copperbelt from the Central Province (Bemba). The growing discontent in Zambia's large towns, as a result of the economic decline that began in Zambia in the mid-1970s, caused many Zambians to take up the challenge of leaving town and trying to make a living growing food. Recent renewed prosperity can be seen in the urban centers, especially Lusaka, where there is a housing boom, with a lot of new construction and high rents.

Average life expectancy in Zambia has dropped to under 40 years. This is largely due to HIV and AIDS and the opportunistic infections associated with it, such as tuberculosis and various cancers. The country also has a high rate of infant mortality—85 deaths out of every 1,000 live births, due to malnutrition, diarrhea, and childhood illnesses such as measles. Malaria is also a major cause of death in all age groups, but recent innovations in the use of insecticide-treated bednets, and household spraying are beginning to pay off with a reduction in the incidence of malaria.. The country has over 1,200 health facilities with 12 major medical centers, concentrated in urban areas, and smaller health centers throughout the country. Free medical care is provided for those who cannot afford to pay for it.

In rural areas, buses are the main mode of transportation. With the recent economic prosperity, more and more Zambians own cars and traffic is becoming a problem in some urban areas. Taxis are also available to urban-dwellers.


Urban and rural studies of Zambia, as well as census data, indicate that relationships between the sexes are difficult and tenuous. As heads of households, men assume authority within the home. The cultural double standards of condoning polygyny (having more than one wife) and men's extramarital affairs while expecting complete fidelity from women, causes friction in many urban households and contributes to the spread of HIV. What is more, men are not obliged to share their resources within the household, and their access to resources is greater than women's. Certain themes about relations between women and men recur in the Zambian literature. Customary practices continue to shape gender and generational relationships in conflict with, or accommodation to, ongoing social and economic changes.

Regardless of whether descent is traced matrilineally (through the mother's line) or patrilineally (through the father's line), cultural norms and assumptions support male authority and power. A woman's access to productive resources is very often mediated through a man: her father, husband, uncle, or brother. Bride-wealth continues to be transferred at marriage—from the groom's household to the bride's. Kinship and family systems often influence the manner in which women are able to act as full participants in all kinds of relationships. In general, women's access to and rights over property and people are still much more circumscribed than men's.


With the decline of the economy, and the growth of the world trade economy, there has been a tremendous growth in the second-hand clothing industry, or what Zambians call salaula. The term salaula means to “rummage through a pile.” In this case, the term refers to the bundled used clothing that arrives via Tanzania and South Africa from the industrialized north, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. During the colonial era, and in the decade following independence, Zambians could afford to produce their own textiles and wear tailor-made clothing. With the decline in the economy, they have been forced to purchase the first world's second-hand clothing from local traders, who purchase the large bundles and sell pieces individually. Zambians have a keen sense of style, nonetheless, and have been characterized by visitors and researchers in the past as being very stylish and particular about appearances.

There is little form of traditional dress, except in the western part of Zambia. The Lozi people appear to have been influenced by Victorian culture and women wear a dress made with local style chitengi cloth, but in a design with a long skirt and many petticoats. The men wear outfits more reminiscent of what one would consider traditional dress, with skins forming the man's short skirt, and a red beret on the head.

In other regions of Zambia, women commonly wrap a chitengi around their waist as a skirt. In many areas, men and women have adopted some of the more West African style of tailoring, using chitengi cloth. In both cases, these are not traditional to Zambia.


The most important dietary staple is a dough or porridge called nshima generally made from cornmeal, but in some areas from cassava, or millet. It is typically eaten in combination with foods such as meat stew, vegetables, or a relish made from fish or chicken. Sweet potatoes and peanuts are commonly eaten in rural areas. Families that can afford it eat hot meals at both lunchtime and dinnertime, and a breakfast of porridge or bread and tea. However, in rural areas, especially during the seasonal period before the harvest, many families can only eat one meal a day. Beer is a popular beverage, both commercial and traditional brews, and alcohol abuse is a big problem.


Education in Zambia continues to be modeled on the British system, where children begin in kindergarten and progress through the grades to high school. In an effort to provide basic education to all Zambian, public school is free, up to grade eight, but there are costs, such as the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) fees and uniforms which can make education too expensive for some Zambians. As a result, illiteracy is high, totaling 27% (higher for women). Only 20% of Zambians have a secondary education, and only 2% are college graduates. Recently, with the increase in orphans and children made vulnerable due to HIV and AIDS, there has been a dramatic increase in open community schools, which do not require uniforms, but they also receive little support from the government and the standards can be quite low. In an effort to redress this, there is now a distance education radio program to support the community schools and to standardize the learning among those students.


Dance, accompanied by drumming, xylophone, or thumb piano, plays an important cultural role in Zambia. Dances are generally done in two lines, with men in one and women in the other. Dances, which are traditionally associated with the casting out of evil spirits, are performed to celebrate personal milestones (such as an initiation) as well as major communal events. In addition to their own traditional forms of music, Zambians enjoy contemporary music and music from neighboring African countries. To support the arts in Zambia, the National Arts Council introduced an annual national arts awards ceremony, the Ngoma Awards, which recognize Zambian talent in all areas of the arts.


If work is defined as wage-earning, than the history of work in Zambia has largely been characterized by high levels of rural to urban migration. When the British arrived, the people residing in Zambia were farmers and/or cattle-herders. The people (primarily men) were recruited by the British to work in the cities for cash, either working in the mines or as domestic servants. For rural entrepreneurs and farmers, access to labor is varied and often influenced by gender- and age-related access to resources. Men are more often wage-earners and homeowners than are women, and they have greater access to cash than women do. Women often find work or are able to recruit workers through personal networks. The 1980 census reports that men are more economically active in the urban areas, while women are more active in rural settings. The census defines the working population as those engaged in agriculture, forestry, hunting, fishing, or production and other related occupations. Subsistence farming, which is not included under the category “work,” was dominated by females, with 69% of all women engaging in subsistence farming compared to 44% of all men.

The Bemba are best known for their slash-and-burn cultivation practices, called citimene. The Bemba farm in the central region of Zambia where the soil fertility is low. The ashes left from cutting, piling, and burning the brush fertilize the soil, enabling farmers to grow grains (mainly). After a few years when the soil is depleted, the farmer will move on and repeat the citimene process. The MMD government has placed a high priority on increasing land productivity through foreign investment, and encouraging a largely unemployed urban sector to “go back to the land.”


Soccer is the leading sport in Zambia, which entered a soccer team in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in South Korea. Also popular are boxing, track and field, basketball and cricket. Golf is considered a game of the elite. The most popular sport among young women is a version of basketball called “netball.”


In the rural areas of Zambia, the primary forms of recreation are drinking and traditional dancing. Urban-dwellers participate in social clubs, church activities, and volunteer groups. Other leisure-time pursuits include dancing at discos, and amateur drama (ifisela), as well as a variety of sports. Television is available to people living in the cities and larger towns.


The people of the Northwestern Province of Zambia are known for their masks, which are made of bark and mud, with fierce faces painted on them in red, black, and white. A traditional art among Zambian men is the carving of wood sculptures, sometimes decorated with costumes made of beads. Zambian crafts include sleeping masks, various types of beadwork, and the weaving of baskets and chitenges, the national costume, which consist of brightly dyed cloth wrapped around the body. Some of the designs on Zambian pottery are thousands of years old.

Recently there has been an increase in the production of modern art in Zambia. This includes painting, sculpture in wood and stone, lithography, and multi-media installations. Famous Zambian artists include the naive painter, Stephen Kapata, and sculptor Friday Tembo.


Poverty, crime, unemployment, rapid inflation, lack of health care and education opportunities, and housing shortages as well as a mushrooming informal economy are causing a growing discontent among residents of Zambia's towns. Pressure on the land, resulting in environmental degradation including deforestation and soil erosion, is a more immediate concern. Estimates indicate that of the 24 million hectares (over 59 million acres) of arable land in the country, only 6% is utilized. Land is currently being distributed to encourage development and investment.


Zambian women have a relatively low socioeconomic and political status. They face multiple forms of discrimination and abuses, including gender-based violence and insecure property rights. For example, in a survey in 2001, more than half of the ever-married women reported being beaten or abused by their husbands.

On the positive side, the government has enacted laws to protect women and their rights. The government has established specialized units of the police to handle cases of domestic violence and in 2006 a cabinet minister was appointed for gender and development. Zambia has also ratified many regional and international treaties that require the government to eliminate violence and discrimination against women and to guarantee their rights to health, physical security, non-discrimination and life. One such international agreement was the ratification of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which include national targets on gender equality and the empowerment of women. There are many civil society organizations that provide services and support to women, especially those who experience violence.


Amis, P. “Key Themes in Contemporary African Urbanization.” In Housing Africa's Urban Poor, edited by Amis and Lloyd. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Bates, R., and P. Collier. “The Politics and Economics of Policy Reform in Zambia.” In Political and Economic Interactions in Economic Policy Reforms, edited by Bates and Krueger. London: Basil Blackwell, 1993.

Burdette, M. Zambia: Between Two Worlds. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988.

Gann, L. H. A History of Northern Rhodesia: Early Days to 1953. London: Chatto and Windens, 1964.

Hall, R. Zambia. London: Praeger, Inc., 1965.

Kapland, I. Area Handbook for Zambia. Washington, DC: Foreign Area Studies of the American University, 1974.

Moyo, S. The Southern African Environment: Profiles of the SADC Conference. London: Earthscan Publications, 1993.

Mvunga, M. The Colonial Foundations of Zambia's Land Tenure System. Lusaka: National Educational Company of Zambia, Ltd., 1980.

Republic of Zambia. 2005 Population and Housing Census of 2000 Zambia. Lusaka: CSO, 2005.

———. Living Conditions Monitoring Survey. Lusaka: CSO, 1998.

———. Zambia Demographic and Health Survey 2001–2002. Lusaka: CSO, 2002.

Roberts, A. A History of Zambia. New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1976.

—by L. Ashbaugh; revised by E. Serlemitsos