Tongas should not blame Bembas for their language failure

The Bemba-Tonga challenge Part II

You Tongas! Don’t blame Bembas for your language failure

By Austin Mbozi

Tonga speakers are right when they complain that Bemba speakers try to impose the Bemba language on others (Bemba linguistic superiority complex self-deception), but they (Tonga speakers) are wrong to politicize the matter because it is the Tonga speakers themselves to blame for their failure to use their language in towns (Tonga linguistic stigmatization from past inferiority complexes).

It is a case of two extreme opposites; Bemba speaker superiority complex self-deception versus Tonga linguistic stigmatization. Both sides must improve. Tonga speakers must use their language more freely in cities, while Bemba speakers must stop bullying Tonga language users.

In this Part II, we look the mistakes made by Tonga speakers. Next we will look at how the Bemba speakers try to impose their Bemba language countrywide, thus creating tensions.

                                      Speak your Tonga, not political whining.  

Honorable Raphael Muyanda (The Post 8th May 2009)  a Tonga opposition MP for Sinazongwe complained in parliament that Bemba people were tribalists who want, among other things, to impose their language in Lusaka, adding in the Makeni Catholic church   in Lusaka where he worshipped, Bemba speakers addressed the church in Bemba during the English language Mass.   Some time back, the  press reported that some  Tongas in Mazabuka district demanded that any person regardless of tribe who wanted to get a job and the new Abidon nickel mine must speak the Tonga language. On The Post on 30th September by Choolwe Mweetwa, a Tonga columnist wrote that:

Sata (has) a habit of addressing the nation in his (Bemba) language ……and (the remarks he makes) that imply a disregard for other tribes and  languages generate rival tribal sensibilities and militancy never experienced in this country. …

Mazuba, a Tonga, complained in the Daily Nation Newspaper ( 8th September 2012) that Bemba speakers bully local people in Southern Province to use Bemba.

All these concerns are genuine. But those Tonga speakers who think they can solve this by putting a non-Bemba  president in office are cheating themselves. Bemba speakers never stopped linguistic bullying even when Mwanawasa, a Lenje Bantu Botatwe,  or Rupiah Banda ( an Easterner ) were  in office! This matter is social and only social solution can solve it.  If Bemba speakers use Bemba language in Honorable Muyanda’s church why can’t he just stand up and address the same audience in Tonga? If workers at Mazabuka’s Abidon mine are not using Tonga, why can’t the Tonga, who may be after all  the majority, dominate the mine using their Tonga? If Sata uses Bemba in addressing a rally in Lusaka, why doesn’t Mr Hakainde Hichilema also address them in his Tonga language?  If Bemba bus conductors bully Mazuba’s grandmother in the bus, why can’t he stand up right there and bully them back in Tonga or simply boycott their buses of whatever they are selling? What is your problem? And you call yourselves Tonga bulls? Imwe tuma useless bulls! Bulls who run away from call boys, like puppies with their tails pulled between their legs,  while your grandmothers are bullied ?   A real muchende  like myself  who looked after cattle (not calves) where we fought forest battles never gets bullied. I play football in Tonga in Lusaka and I ‘send June’ (shivers) in them!   Mainza Chona used to make Tonga jokes. Anderson Mazoka used to spice his talk with some  malaka ulweela mbuli buchi a mukupa (Tonga) and taught his favorite nkuyuma yuma song to all tribes. Although tribalists who hate certain languages got annoyed with this, Mazoka still managed to win Lusaka.

Past governments  have already done their  due role in promoting Tonga. It was introduced for teaching in Southern/Central Provinces by the colonial Department of Native Education way  back in 1929, and sill remains one of the seven official languages both on state radio and TV.  . For now, governments  should try to promote sidelined languages like Lenje (with 2% of the national population speakers) , Lamba (2.2%), Namwanga (1.7%) , Nkoya (0.7) and Tumbuka (3.9%);  not Tonga which it already promotes but its speakers prefer to waste their Kofi Olomide deep romantic  accent by switching to  Nyanja the moment they see ZESCO tumalaiti  and a ka-tarmac.

Tonga: the language that fears the city

As a result Tonga is not the call boy lingua francae even in Southern Province towns of Mazabuka, Monze, Choma or Livingstone or Chirundu. It is of course the most used language  in private conversations among the local Tongas there, but they use it  only to those they know understand the language. When they see a stranger, especially if  he looks polished up (a stranger who may be Tonga as well!)   they address them in Nyanja . Do those Tonga women selling you bananas on bus or car windows at Mwanamainda across the Kafue bridge ever address you in Tonga? Have you seen that MUVI TV and ZNBC TV street people interviewed on the Copperbelt use Bemba, but urban Tonga interviewees in the entire Southern Province won’t use Tonga but Nyanja or English?

A Tonga musician mocked his follow Tongas in this song:

Walila mukombwe toba Tonga atubuke…

Toba Tonga twasoweka…(x3)

Wanjila mulweendo, waukaka mushobe wakwabo,

Mebo pe, nsekauleki  mebo pe …(x3)

Abalo baimbi bamwi, basanganya  mushobo yabantu…

Mwaisowa tradition nobantu…

    Nkusoweka oko.


Ati kusika mu Lusaka kuya ku Kitwe

Ulayeeya kuti toba Tonga tuli bashyooto.

Anu kuti mudaala  banjila chinyanja a chibemba….

Kumubuzya kuti yebo uli mutonga;  ulakaka.

Ono atulibuzwe ino nchizi nchotuchitila boobu toba Tonga?…

Ndakuzyiba uli mutonga.

                 English translation

The cockcrow has sounded, We Tonga people must

wake up… We the Tonga are lost…

Once we travel in cities, we have rejected  our tongue…

I will never reject my tongue

Even our Tonga singers sing in other people’s  languages….

We have lost our tradition.


From Lusaka to Kitwe…You might think Tongas are few

No my brother, they have switched to Nyanja and Bemba…

You ask;  are you a Tonga? She/he says no I am not  a Tonga

We the Tonga must ask ourselves, why do we do this?…

I have known you.., you are a Tonga.

According to the 1969 CSO census, only 34.5 % of the people could speak Tonga in Tonga provincial capital Livingstone; Nyanja (87.3%) and Lozi (69.1%). Even Bemba (43.6%), all the way from Kasama, was more widely understood there.

Of course, there has been an improvement in Tonga usage in cities of late. But the Tonga speakers are improving the wrong way.  Nowadays they are so eager to prove that they can speak the language that they now speak at as a way showing off, rather than as naturally as they do in their farms. Why do they speak Tonga in Lusaka when going to Mazoka’s or Hakainde’s rallies but can’t speak it when going to Sata’s rallies? They speak Tonga only to those that they know also speak it, why can’t they speak it to everybody they meet? When you speak a language only to a selected ethnic group or during hostile tribal gossip you send the message that you want it as a tribal language. Learn from Bemba speakers. They spoke Bemba when going to Mazoka’s rallies as well as to Sata’s rallies.  Go in the bar during those tense Man U versus Man City matches and shout ’ Ndiyanda kumuulila crate ya castle nyoonse ba Arsenal  a ba Man City! My late friend, Ananiah Siabbamba used to rumpeniseat the UNZA ‘Ruins’ or even to October momas  in Tonga and all tribes loved it!



Back ground: Why Tonga language fears cities!

The first and main reason is that when all major tribes in the country were flocking to the cities in search of work as white man’s labourers, the Tonga (Tonga,Ila Lenje) were  proud, economically stable farmers who proudly refused to settle in towns unless they had an assured, ‘decent’ job. Also  unlike other tribes who stayed for life in towns the Tonga tended to return to their village farms once they retired, taking with them their children who may have helped spread the language in town.  Their rural economy was the strongest   compared to other tribes. According to data presented by John Hellen (1968), 62% of the taxable Tonga males were self-reliant from their farms in 1961, compared to 20% among the Bemba speaking in Northern and Luapula provinces combined; 21% in Eastern Province and 25 % among the Lozi-speakers.  Daniel Posner (2003) explains:

The reason for the absence of a Tonga speaking satellite (town) is that, in contrast with people living in the Bemba-Nyanja-Lozi speaking rural areas, Tonga speakers had abundant opportunities for local employment, either on many European farms located along the line of rail or as individual cash croppers or cattle headers. The fact that Tongaland was bisected by the railway line meant that any crops or cattle that were raised could easily (and inexpensively) transported to markets on the Copperbelt or in Southern Rhodesia. … Migration to distant urban employment centers was unnecessary and, for the most part, avoided.


This explains the dominance of Lozi rather that Tonga in Southern Province’s largest city, Livingstone.  Livingstone was a railroad terminus where Lozi-speaking people from Western Province boarded the train to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia for migrant labour, especially after 1940 when the Northern Rhodesia government permitted Witwatersrand Native Labour Authority (WENELA) to recruit local labour. Because the relatively ‘wealthier’ Tonga speakers in Southern Province could not accept recruitment WENELA got labour from among the Lozi.  Lozi- speaking  numbers increased in Livingstone city with the opening of the Mulobezi-Livingstone Railway and the Zambezi Sawmills in the 1930s. Furthermore, when Livingstone was capital city for Northern Rhodesia (1924-1935) many Lozi speakers  were recruited as colonial government labourers and civil servants.  By 1956, 40% of Livingstone population was from Barotseland.

The Lozi language was subsequently adopted for teaching in schools in Livingstone, though after independence the Tonga speaking people pressurised and won the introduction of Tonga in schools there.  Now both are taught in schools and for broadcasting on local radio stations such as  Radio Mosi- O -Tunya and Zambezi FM, as well as for public addresses at political gatherings.  However, it is not still clear to what extent the Tonga language has improved in terms how it is spoken or known in Livingstone town after its official recognition.

Secondly, Tonga, as the earliest tribe to settle in Zambia, have  never conquered tribes or been conquered.   As a result, they are generally less suspicious or hostile to strangers. They tend to be so accommodating that when they see a stranger they would go out of their way and  speak his/her  language, rather than let the stranger assimilate into the Tonga language.

Thirdly, it is the fear to be called a tribalist. Many urban Tonga people have been misled into thinking that refusing to speak the so-called ‘town languages’ means that one is a tribalist, since according to this view, Tonga (and Lozi, etc.) is for only Tonga people while Nyanja and Bemba must be spoken by ‘everybody’.

Fourth, in the past, there was fear to be laughed at or to be called a Mumbwa Mumbwa. The  absence of Tonga-speaking people from the streets of major cities led to stereotypes that the Tonga people are villagers. Thus their language was teased as being from the ‘the bush’, while their accent was joked about by comedians. Examples of such comedy include:

(i). Ichongedwe. This joke is composed in a song. It talks about  a Tonga man from his village who enters a shop in town. Not knowing the name for the Nike T/shirt which has a symbol of the tick ‘correct’ he says amundipe T/shirt Ichondegwe ( Give me the  T/shirt market ‘ correct’).

(ii). Colgate akati. A village Tonga man  visiting town does not know the name of Cream Donald sandwich. So he says amundipe bbaanzi yakaluma colgate akati ( give me a piece of  bread which is biting toothpaste ).

(iii). Nchabasankwa. A road traffic light turns green with a symbol of a man, signaling time for human crossing. Since the symbol resembles a man, the Tonga man from the village tells his wife to wait for a female crossing signal because this one is nchabasankwa  (only for men) to cross.

(iv) Ndiite kuti chikala. A Tonga man wants to prove his urbanisation on his first day in town. When a town man called him aisha ( popular reference for a male Tonga), he protests that aisha is a name is for Tonga villagers and says; “ you must call me chikkala” ( not knowing that this is  an insulting term which urban street boys call each other).

(v). Mabisi mabisi. In a Premier Coatings Company advert, a Tonga man could not identity the colour of cream paint;  all he could do was to resemble its colour  with mabisi mabisi,  the sour milk he is used to eating in his cattle-rearing village.


But still, these are no reasons why Tonga’s should still not use their language to non-Tonga speakers in towns now that they have proved that they are not really ‘village backwards’ as these stereotypes wrong portrayed them. Tonga speakers come from the third most urbanized Province after Lusaka and the Copperbelt. They were quite urbanized except that every Tonga, even elite ones, tend to own farms and cattle.

So having shown that it is not the Bemba responsible for the less use of Tonga language in cities, I will next show that the Bemba speakers nevertheless create tensions by taking it for granted that because Tonga speakers prefer Nyanja in towns, they   should accept Bemba as well. This is an anomaly.  Tonga speakers have the right to choose a Tonga-Nyanja mix but still have the right to refuse Bemba or any other language.

End of Part II

The opinions and assertions in the write-above belong to Austin Mbozi, not the Zambian Watchdog. You contact Mbozi using Email[email protected]

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