By Namwanja Margaret Chikwabi
Historian and educator Mutale T. Mazimba-Kaunda (MA) has crafted a fascinating and eye-opening read in A History of the Unga People of the Bangweulu Swamps (pre-colonial times to 1953). She takes us on a sweeping journey through time of this small ethnic group called the Unga who inhabit part of Luapula Province in northern Zambia. In the book, Mazimba-Kaunda delves into pre-colonial Unga society, the colonial experience of the Unga from 1890 and lastly, the impact of colonialism on the Unga people until 1953.
So, who are the Unga and where did they come from? Originally, the Unga were a branch-off of a large family of the Ng’oma totem (drum clan), separating due to the desire for autonomy by adult males. They came from ancient Kola in present-day Kabongo, Shaba Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Their movement to present-day Bangweulu swamps was over several years and they travelled in different groups well into the 17th Century. Their initial language was likely a Luba one, but their migration resulted in them speaking a variation of Bemba with distinct intonation and phrasing.
Economically, the Unga sustained themselves by hunting lechwe for food, otters for fur, crocodiles and snakes for their skins. fishing and growing crops like cassava and sweet potatoes. They also reared sheep, goats and cattle.
Family ancestry in Unga society was traced through the female members of the family, much like the Bemba and Bisa who were/are also mainly found in northern Zambia. The matrilineal system had socio-political implications when it came to succession. For example, when a king died, power was passed onto his brother and in case he had no brother, it was passed onto his sister’s son. The king’s sons could never reign, only the sons of the women of royal blood and these woman were called Namfumu (mothers of kings).
All children bore the name and clan of the mother and not the father. The history leant and institutions carried from generation to generation were of the woman. However, property and titles still went to men born from the female side of the family. Men inherited from their mother’s brothers and passed on their possessions to their sister’s children. Property ownership and inheritance in the context of marriage had its own rules.
By 1900, the British colonial state was imposed on the Unga people after the two most powerful kings within their proximity, Chitimukulu and Mwata Kazembe, were subdued. Native Commissioners were employed to tour districts and collect taxes. Mazimba-Kaunda makes the point that the Unga people resisted paying taxes for many years as a way of protesting colonial rule. Some of them ended up working in the Copperbelt and Katanga mines as wage labourers. Otters were accepted as tax, lechwe were hunted on a commercial basis, and fish trading became big business, all for the benefit of the British government through the British South African Company. On page 83, the author writes: “When a census was carried out in 1907, there were 2,500 Unga people living in 800 taxable huts.”
This book A History of the Unga People of the Bangweulu Swamps (pre-colonial times to 1953) is a significant and quality piece of work. This is evidenced from the clarity and depth with which the author writes and from the sources used to craft it: district notebooks, written material from the National Archives of Zambia, interviews, colonial office reports, e-books, articles, dissertations, unpublished works, etc. Accompanying maps, tables, illustrations and a bibliography make the book come alive because they add context and realness to what is presented on the way of life of the Unga people and how colonialism negatively affected them up until 1953.
Mazimba-Kaunda makes the point in her introduction that the last book written about the history of the Unga was over eighty years ago and was written by a foreigner. The case is, therefore, easily made for the importance of the Zambian storyteller to be the active agent in telling the nation’s diverse stories and preserving the country’s history and culture through the written word. That such type of an undertaking should be encouraged, supported and applauded cannot be emphasized enough.
There is much to appreciate in this richly detailed and eye-opening book, such as the formation of chiefdoms in Unga society, the spirituality of the Unga, how they related to other ethnic groups in their vicinity, the role they played in World War I and World War II, and how the World Economic Depression of 1929-1939 affected their economic sustainability, among other topics. If you love history, if you are into promoting or learning about culture, if you’re a student or teacher of history, this book is for you.
Year of publication: 2021
Number of Pages: 185
Publisher: Lead First Publishers
Point of Sale: Bookworld, Lusaka Museum, Lead First (+260979369836)