MARRIAGE IN THE BEMBA CULTURE OF ZAMBIA
To have an in-depth understanding of the Bemba marriage process, we highly recommend you:
- Go through related FAQs
- Watch all Bemba marriage dramatization/videos produced by BeingAfrican to accompany this teaching.
Steps in the Bemba Marriage
- Ukusobolwa – To be chosen
- Ukukobekelwa – Engagement
- Icisekela or Icisumina Insalamo (Icisekela Busonge) – Acceptance of the dowry
- Icilanga Mulilo (The showing of fire – showing of cuisine) –Granting the groom permission
- Training ceremony
- Ubwinga – Wedding day
- Amashikulo – (Ukushikula – Talk / Express) Day after the wedding
- Amatebeto – Thanksgiving ceremony for the husband
- Ukwingisha (Ukukonkola) – Granting authority
Zambia has Seventy-eight tribes. The country has a very warm and friendly culture. Zambia is a Christian Nation but has other religions. Marriage in Zambia is held in high esteem. Tribes in Zambia have different teachings about marriages. But there is one commonality across all tribes: a man and woman undergo training on honoring marriage and keeping it from breaking apart (divorce).
Traditional marriage preparations are necessary for Bemba Marriages, whether a couple undergoes a Christian or civil marriage. Cultural marriages are practiced across all the tribes in Zambia.
BEMBA CULTURAL PROCESS
(Proposal to the wedding ceremony)
Traditional Bemba society looks upon marriage as the union of a man and woman forever. In addition, marriage also signifies bringing together the bride’s and the groom’s immediate and extended families
STAGES OF A BEMBA MARRIAGE
The Bemba culture considers marriage sacred as such a bride and groom undergo thorough instructions before marriage. The following are the typical steps followed in the Bemba marriage process.
- Ukusobolwa – To be chosen
- Ukukobekelwa – Engagement
1. UKUSOBOLWA – (TO BE CHOSEN)
(The girl has been chosen)
Before modern times, most marriages in the Bemba culture were arranged between families or clans. But now, when a man is interested in marrying a girl, he approaches the girl privately. Then he goes and introduces the prospective wife to his parents, informing them that he has found a girl he wishes to marry. So many questions ensue, questions relating to her tribe, her parents, and what she does for a living. They also ask if he has done a background check on the family he wishes to get married into. Some Bemba families do the background check process, but not all. Similarly, the prospective wife is subjected to all of the above questioning by her parents.
When the parents of the prospective husband and some extended families (especially uncles and aunties) agree with the groom’s intentions to marry, they choose a man to be a spokesman or go-between called bashibukombe.
The bashibukombe (spokesperson, go-between/mediator) must be an exemplary man in the community or a trusted uncle.
2. UKUKOBEKELWA – ENGAGEMENT
The bashibukombe(spokesperson, go-between/mediator) will then go to the bride’s parents and announce the groom’s intention to marry. When a day and time is agreed upon, the bashibukombe, uncles, aunties, and the prospective husband will go to the girl’s house.
Insalamo is a token fee paid by the prospective husband to the bride’s family to express his intentions of marrying their daughter. The prospective husband’s team usually takes the money (insalamo) in a covered plate (utubale).
When the two families are seated, they will call the girl and ask her about the prospective husband’s intentions to marry her. If she acknowledges the relationship, she uncovers the plate in agreement.
The insalamo (money) put in the covered plate (utubale) is decided by the groom’s team. The prospective bride uncovers the plate as acceptance of the proposal.
If the insalamo is not enough, the prospective bride’s family will protest and ask for more money. The prospective groom’s family comes prepared for such incidents and will put more money in the plate. If the bride’s family demands more money and the groom’s family protests, bashibukombe (spokesman) will mediate and help the bride and groom’s families reach an amicable solution. There is no postponement in insalamo negotiations. An agreement has to be reached the day they meet.
If the money in the plate (insalamo) is sufficient, the next step is to agree on the dowry payment date. After insalamo(money in the plate) is paid, the girl is officially engaged – it is called “ukukobekela.” The prospective bride is then sent out of the room. Discussions for setting the dowry (Impango) payment date will then begin.
The next step is the dowry payment (Impango). The dowry amount is higher than the insalamo (engagement price)
The Bembas do not charge high dowry (Impango) because the payment is for honoring the girl and is a sign of respect for her parents for raising her.
One does not have to finish paying impango (dowry) in one seating. One can pay in installments, even after he has married and has children. He is given this concession. However, in an unfortunate situation where the wife dies before the husband finishes to pay dowry, the woman cannot be buried until the whole amount is settled by the groom or the groom’s family. The man can continue paying little by little even after the wedding ceremony.
Nkobekela te chupo – Engagement is not marriage
Even if insalamo and impango are paid in the Bemba culture, the couple is not yet officially married. The man and woman are reminded that “nkobekela te chupo” – which means “engagement is not marriage.” They cannot be recognized as a married couple until they tie the knot at the church, court, or traditionally.
3. ICISEKELA OR ICISUMINA INSALAMO (ICISEKELA BUSONGE) – ACCEPTANCE OF THE DOWRY
This is a simple ceremony done by the bride’s family. They cook a meal, such as a whole chicken with ubwali (thick maize /millet/cassava hard porridge) to show the groom’s family that they have accepted and are happy with the dowry. The groom’s side does not have to do anything, but out of respect, they will return the plates the meal was served to the bride’s family with drinks or money if they so wish to.
4. ICILANGA MULILO (THE SHOWING OF FIRE – SHOWING OF CUISINE) –Granting the groom permission
This is a ceremony to grant the groom permission and freedom to have meals from the bride’s family during courtship whenever he visits.
During this ceremony, the bride’s family cooks food (different cuisines), and the bride participates in the cooking. Icilanga mulilo is a flamboyant ceremony where a group of women (dressed in wrappers of the same colour) take the food to the groom’s family on top of their heads, singing. When they reach the gate of the groom’s compound, they pause at the gate until the groom’s family throws money at them. If they are not happy with the amount, they will not budge until the money is enough. When they enter the house, there is a lot of singing and dancing. Then they uncover the plates of food, and the groom is supposed to taste the food. Singing and dancing continues.
ICILANGA MULILO (THE SHOWING OF FIRE – SHOWING OF CUISINE)
Some of the food taken to the groom on this occasion
|1.Whole roasted Chicken|
|2. Beef Stew, beef in peanut butter, dried beef (biltong), boiled beef with salt|
|3. Dry/fresh fish, dry/fresh kapenta (small sadines) cooked in oil, peanut butter|
|4. Dry /fresh beans. lentil|
|5.Different types of vegetables cooked in peanut butter, oil, or with salt only. E.g., rape, cabbage, pumpkin leaves, lentil leaves, bean leaves, etc|
|6. Snacks – cassava boiled/roasted, roasted/boiled nuts, pumpkin seeds|
|7. Sweet & Irish potatoes, pumpikins, yams|
|8. Ubwali / nshima – millet, maize, cassava, sorghum|
|9. Drinks – umukoyo (brewed with fermented maize or millet mealie meal|
This ceremony, other than being a showcase of the bride’s cuisine, also signifies the groom’s responsibility for the welfare of the bride from then onwards, including financial responsibility. After the “Cilanga Mulilo” ceremony, the bride can start cooking and doing laundry for the groom.
5. TRAINING CEREMONY
This ceremony takes a bit of time. On both sides, the groom and bride’s parents ask reputable men and women to teach the bride and groom the marriage rites called “mbusa”/ ‘ukucindila.’
Ifimbusa-bana chimbusa and bashi cimbusa
The women and men who teach young women and men everything they need to know about marriage are called “ifimbusa,” the women “bana chimbusa,” the men “bashi cimbusa.” The teachings are done separately. On the final day of the teachings (usually in the evening), the groom is brought to the initiation house, where the bride is to come and observe the Imbusa (emblems/symbols) and perform what is called ukulasa pa mbusa – shooting at the emblems, it means a man can please a woman during intimacy.
In the Zambian culture, marriage is more than physical attraction and wealth. Both men and women are taught how to honour, respect, and look after the family well. When a Bemba man or woman gets married, they marry the whole family. One is expected to look after both families – it is said, a scale must balance on both sides.
In the Bemba culture, the marriage rites are taught using songs, drawings on a cloth, or moulded images called ” imbusa”(emblems/symbols). Some of the images or symbols you would see are:
Sefa: A sieve (In Bemba, it is called Sefa) – A sieve is given to the bride not only for sieving or sifting flour but as an emblem that teaches her to sieve things she hears; not to believe everything, but approach everything with caution. One must sieve friendships, sieve information that is not right, and only retain what is valuable as a sieve does.
- Traditional wooden wire / sifter /sieve
- Modern sieve
Imbabula: A Charcoal Brazier (In Bemba, it is called Imbabula) – Used for cooking. A bride is given a brazier to instruct her always to cook food for the husband and not depend on an electric cooker in case there is a power outage, as is common in most African countries.
Beads – (In Bemba called Ubulungu)
- Worn around the waist for pleasure – enticing the husband. Also, it is believed it shapes a woman’s waist.
- The other use of beads in the Bemba Culture setting, a bride is taught to keep and use in her marriage are a string of red, white, and black beads. They are used to inform a husband of certain things without uttering a word, and a man who has been taught will understand when he sees these beads on the bed:
- The Red string of beads – When the husband finds them on the bed, he will immediately know that the wife is on her menstrual cycle, which means no intimacy.
- The White string of beads – When the husband sees these white beads on the bed, he will immediately know that the wife’s monthly cycle has ended, and it is okay to be intimate.
- The string of black beads – When the husband sees these black beads on the bed, the husband will understand that it is time to clean (shave) each other, the armpits, and private areas. This role is essential in the Bemba Culture.
If the husband dies, and when the people cleaning the body find out that he was “not clean” in his private parts, they become upset. The husband’s family charges money for neglect. It is deemed that the wife had neglected the husband during their marriage or never carried out the instructions she was taught during their marriage teachings. The husband is held to the same standard; he will be charged for neglect.
The beads below are usually worn around the waist. A bride is given the beads by the auntie before marriage, usually for the husband’s pleasure.
Red Beads White Beads Black Beads
Mortar and Pestle – (in Bemba, it is called Ibende no Umwinshi)
The above are pictures.
These are used for pounding millet and cassava. But in a marriage teaching, the mortar and pestle carry a different meaning. It is taught that when the mortar and the pestle are not in use, they must be put lying down. But if it is in an upright position and the pestle inside the mortar as if someone was pounding and it is placed in front or beside the door of the house, a man or woman who has undergone marriage rites cannot knock on the door; he or she will go away and return another time because when he/she sees the mortar and pestle in that position, it tells the passer-by or visitor that the couple is intimate and should not be disturbed.
Beans/water in the mouth, the Bana Chimbusa (the women who teach young women everything they need to know about marriage) may put water or beans in the mouth of a bride-to-be, then they ask her something and tell her to respond. Because of the beans or water in the mouth, she will fail to respond. The bana chimbusa explain to the bride that it is not all the time that one must speak her mind in a quarrel. It is always wise to close one’s mouth until an opportune time when there is no heat between the couple. They always teach the bride to avoid heated debates because this shows a lack of respect, especially towards the groom or guests, and may lead to estrangement in a marriage. The bride always has to imagine and remember this lesson when she wishes to respond negatively during a quarrel and not respond unnecessarily.
Dancing – A woman is taught how to dance; Bemba Culture believes a woman must have a soft/flexible waist. It also symbolizes a woman’s pride. She is also taught some erotic dances to please her husband. A man is also taught how to dance accordingly.
The marriage training takes about 3 to 6 months. But because of competing schedules, the time has been shortened.
Kneeling is a symbol of honour and respect. Men and women are taught to kneel when greeting elders and giving something to the elders. It is taboo in the Bemba culture to greet or give something to an elderly person without kneeling or at least even bowing. A woman must always kneel when serving her husband. It is a sign of respect/honour and love for her husband.
Eye Contact–Part of the training involves reminding the man and woman not to look straight into the eyes of an elderly person when communicating with them. Doing so is considered a sign of disrespect or rudeness; instead, one’s gaze should be down.
Gender roles training
A man is taught to be the head of the house to be a provider. A woman is taught to prepare meals and serve the husband and guests. The woman is also taught to budget and not use the last ounce of grains before stocking up again. Home management takes a big part of the woman’s marriage training ‘ukucindila.’ The same goes with the man. Being the provider and headship of the home also takes a significant part of his training.
KITCHEN PARTY / BRIDAL SHOWER
Kitchen Parties have become a trend in Zambia across all tribes. Kitchen Parties are a modern ceremony and are not part of the Bemba Culture. However, they have blended in the culture. The kitchen party is done shortly before the wedding after the man and woman have finished their training ceremonies.
The bride sits with bana Chimbusa and invites guests at a specified venue. Bana Chimbusa showcases her skills of dancing and singing. The groom brings flowers and gifts to the ceremony. The groom comes and unveils the bride amid singing, ululating, and dancing. Guests present gifts to the bride and explain the use of each gift that has been brought. Guests are allowed to sing, and dance and bana Chimbusa explains the meaning of the songs and dances. As earlier stipulated, Bembas teach in songs, dances, and emblems.
This ceremony helps the bride start her married life without stressing about kitchen utensils. The gifs range from stoves, dishwashers, fridges, microwaves, sets of plates and pans, mortars, brooms to minute things as dish towels.
A great feast with many different cuisines is served at the bridal shower. There is also a lot of singing, ululating, and dancing.
6. UBWINGA – WEDDING DAY
After the training ceremony, ‘ukucindila,’ the man and woman are ready for marriage. If it is a traditional wedding, the groom’s family and bride’s family come together with the elders blessing the couple
At this point, the bride is escorted to the husband’s house and given to the groom as his wife.
7. AMASHIKULO – (UKUSHIKULA – TALK / EXPRESS) DAY AFTER THE WEDDING
At this ceremony, the couple sits in front of the groom’s and bride’s family, and a plate is placed in front of them. Then whoever wishes to say something to the couple to uplift or caution them puts money on the plate and talks. This is also a form of introduction to the extended family. After that, the wedding celebrations continue.
At the groom’s place, wedding celebrations continue for the next 2 to 5 days (the bride does not wait until all the celebrations are over before joining the husband)
The groom and the bride will be in their home and can join the celebrations if they choose to. Weddings are considered joyous celebrations, and the Bemba feel that they cannot be celebrated in just one day. There is typically a lot of food and homebrew drink.
If it is a church or court wedding, after signing the marriage certificates and reception, the aunties will escort the bride to the groom’s house and hand her over to the groom as his wife.
8. AMATEBETO (Thanksgiving Ceremony for the husband)
Amatebeto is a ceremony whereby the bride’s family prepares various cuisine (delicacies) and deliver them to the groom 2 to 3 years into marriage.
Amatebeto signifies the appreciation of the bride’s family for how well the groom has looked after their daughter. It is a public acknowledgment by the bride’s family for the groom for keeping the family trouble-free and honouring their daughter. Amatebeto also reaffirms the blessing of the
bride’s family on the marriage.
9. UKWINGISHA (UKUKONKOLA) – (GRANTING AUTHORITY)
This ceremony takes place at the bride’s parents’ house. The bride’s parents prepare a meal for the son-in-law to eat at their house.
At this ceremony, when the son-in-law eats the meal from the in-law’s house, he is given authority to be part of the elder’s decision-making on matters affecting the wife’s family. The groom (husband) is allowed to make some family decisions without consulting the in-laws. The in-laws, in turn, pledge their commitment to honour such decisions.
The son-in-law is allowed to go into the in-law’s bedroom (traditionally, teenagers and adult children are not allowed to enter their parents’ bedroom – much less the son-in-law). Teenagers and adult children are not allowed to enter their parents’ bedrooms. It is regarded as sacred. When one gets married, they shouldn’t allow friends to enter the bedroom; a bedroom is considered a sacred place exclusively for the couple.
On this unique event, the son-in-law is granted access to the in-law’s bedroom. The in-laws hide things under the bedding, under the bed, and the son-in-law is expected to perform something like a treasure hunt (ukukonkola). He is expected to remove the bedding and take whatever he finds on the bed. He then looks under the bed and takes anything that he finds.
He then proceeds to the living room, removes the cushions, looks under the seats, takes any valuables hidden there, and is allowed to keep them.
After the living room, he is directed to the kitchen where he is expected to open the pots and pans, covered plates, and eat whatever is in there; all the food in the pots must be eaten by the son-in-law, if anything remains, he is supposed to take it back to his house because nothing is expected to remain after the ceremony.
This ceremony signifies that the son-in-law is now regarded as one of their own children. After this ceremony is performed, the son-in-law is given the authority to personally take care of the mother-in-law if the mother-in-law is sick or bed-ridden.
This ceremony is incredibly significant in the Bemba Culture, and every son-law wishes to undergo this ceremony. It usually takes place 5 to 10 years into a marriage.
Background: The virgin bride-Olden days
When a girl child reached puberty (Na Cisungu), she was immediately put in the house and not allowed to go out until her menstrual cycle ended. While in the house, she was taught how to dress during her cycle, respect elders, and cautioned never to be intimate with a man.
In certain homes, they were not even allowed to cook for the family during the cycle. If allowed to cook, they did not put salt in the food. There was the myth that if a woman put salt in the food during their monthly cycle, the family members would suffer from chest pains.
The na cisungu (the girl who attained puberty) is then cautioned to never be intimate with a man before marriage. She was told that her fingers would grow long if she ever did. This was instilled in the girl child to keep her purity (virginity). It was imperative in those days that every girl be a virgin before marriage; otherwise, she would never get married, which would bring a lot of shame to her parents and the community. The girl could not get married and could even be rejected by the husband when he found out that the bride is not a virgin.