Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo

The name Babemba means “the people of the lake.” The 60,000 Bemba settled mostly in northeast of Zambia, but also in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They share a number of traits with their neighbors on the shores of Lake Tanganyika: the Lega, the Buyu, and the Binji. The territory surrounding them is covered with forests, plateaus, and wooden savannas traversed by rivers. The Bemba have the reputation of being a proud, hard people who learned the art of the hunt and the harvesting of honey. They practice slash-and-burn agriculture; a social, ritual, and economic value is connected to the hunt. Villages, consisting of about thirty huts were abandoned every three to four years once the soil became exhausted. The Bemba borrowed the bwami association from the Lega, but they have also other secret societies. Once circumcision had been performed, the bwami essentially consisted of dances, songs, and the handling of objects. Initiates would use figures sculpted from elephant tusks or wood, wooden masks, and, as emblems of the highest levels, a stool or an anthropomorphic figurine. The initiation in the elanda male society ended with the appearance of the Mask, the viewing of which was forbidden to the non-initiated. Otherwise, this oval mask that sometimes sports antelope horns was entrusted to a dignitary and hidden outside the village in a secret place. The ibulu iya alunga (“the protector of honey”) mask, used in the male alunga (kalunga) society, is unique in form. It is worn on the head like a helmet and sometimes ends at the top in a huge crest of feathers and porcupine quills. It represents a powerful bush spirit. Kept in a sacred cave, the mask is taken into the bush during the secret initiation of new members. The alunga association was in charge of the cult of the hunt, as well as social order and public dances. The wearer of the mask, hidden completely under a fiber costume, would be a member of high rank who knew the dances and the manner of speaking and singing in a guttural voice.

The Bemba people never produce large statues, but small statuettes are made in the western part of their territory. The sorcerers and healers used the statuettes for their rites of magic and healing. It is thought that certain female statuettes may have been used as fecundity figures – they stand on short legs with their hands resting on their abdomen.

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