Nambya people of Hwange District

Hwange district previously known as Wankie district is located in the north-western part of Matabeleland north province of Zimbabwe. It covers 116 000 square miles and its northern boarders is defined with Zambia by the Zambezi River while its western boarder is shared with the country of Botswana. It is southeast of Victoria Falls. Tsholotsho, Binga and Kusile districts are in close proximity. The district falls under agro-ecological regions IV and V in the north and south. The major rivers are Deka, Lukosi, Matetsi, Gwayi and Zambezi. The district is home of the vaNambya and they have lived in their home area for at least centuries and the language spoken is ChiNambiya and a section speaks Dombi (Tonga dialect) whilst others speak isiNdebele which is understood by other groups. Hwange is special today because of the natural resources is holds. The large mammals draw most visitors to the National park which boasts the Big Five Game and other wildlife- the lions, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, and antelopes.

Hwange National Park

The Hwange National Park and surrounding forestry areas are part of the Hwange Sanyati Biological Corridor Project which seeks to support conservation and sustainable use of bio-diversity by strengthening the management of Hwange and its buffer zones. It is also known for the rich culture and heritage associated with the vaNambya through archaeological sites such as Mtoa/Mutowa, Shangano, Bumbusi/Bumbuzi/Bumboosie national monument and other places of interest like Kune Ngoma cultural village and the Nambya community museum.        

Settlement of the vaNambya in Hwange District

The vaNambya tribal group are descendants of the Rozvi dynasty and it is believed that they came from Great Zimbabwe. The settlement was established by Dendelende (Dhende) later known as Sawanga of the totem monkey (Soko), he was the son of Mambo the Rozvi King. The totem of the Hwange Dynasty is Moyo same as Mambo’s, but later changed to Soko, the Monomotapa Mbire totem. The vaNambya are the majority in the Hwange district. They originated from Zimbabwe, where they were part of the vaNyai. Early in the 19th century Sawanga and his brother, Wanyika (Lewanika) decided to break away with their followers from the rest of the tribe and travel north to a new area. Wanyika and his people crossed the Zambezi into what is now Barotseland and settled there. Sawanga and his followers arrived in Hwange district after passing through the Sebungwe area. They built a stone walled enclosure similar to the Great Zimbabwe from sand stone rocks laid on top of each other at the top of a strategic hill named Shangano near the confluence of Lukosi and Chibungu rivers and it became the first capital city of the vaNambya. The stone walls at Shangano exhibit all the stylistic classification of wall styles from P (the earliest attributed to poorly coursed walls) to R (uncoursed walls attributed to later occupation) within the different enclosures. It is here that Dhende became known as Sewanga, shortened to Wange and his people referred to as Nambya. The name Wange became the hereditary dynastic title of the Nambya chieftainship.

The vaNambya were not the first to occupy the Hwange area. Previously, the area was occupied by the Baleya tribe (Tonga dialect) from North of the Zambezi. Their Chief Melukoba/Nemkoba of the Baleya tribe came bearing bundles of grain as a gift and a sign of peace and invited Sawanga and his people to live in his area at Bumbusi where he said land was better and more fertile. They moved from Shangano to Mtoa and the stone walls at Mtoa exhibit a style suggestive of R (uncoursed walls) whilst they have decorative motifs such as chevrons which in the traditional wall style classification were associated with the Q (neatly coursed) style just like on the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe.  They subsequently moved to Bumbusi in the upper Deka valley during the reign of the fifth King Shana who ruled from 1834-1860. Bumbusi located 40km from Hwange and it consists of dry stone walls, boulders and platforms dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, excavations in the year 2000 revealed the floors of eighteen dwellings. It was built by King Shana. The site was built using the PQ (poorly coursed) and Q (neatly coursed) styles. Other stone buildings in the Hwange district show combinations in styles. The decline of the polity at Bumbusi occurred in the 1850’s as a result of an attack by the Ndebele warriors. The decline is associated with political myths which involve disputes over succession to the throne and tradition. It is believed that the ruination of Bumbusi was provoked by the dispute following the death of King Shana. Successors included Shana’s three sons and his sister’s son. When his sister’s son Lusumbami succeeded, Shana’s sons were disgruntled and Chilisa, one of the sons invited the AmaNdebele, followers of Mzilikazi in 1863 to attack, by provoking them with a tale of a powerful rival in the north with two hearts. The Ndebele captured Lusumbami and ripped out his heart and took man captives including chief Melukoba. Many Banambiya fled across Zambezi into Zambia.

 Chilisa took over as Wange but his people were scattered and the state destroyed. After some decades the dynasty began to regroup close to the ruins and elsewhere in the Hwange area. A number remained in the Zambezi Valley, intermingling with the Badombe, the river people who aided them against the AmaNdebele. The Nambya people were displaced by the colonial government and settled in dry and rocky areas that are not suitable for farming in the establishment of Hwange National Park and the construction of the railway line. With the development of the Hwange Coal concession people near Bumbusi were moved to the Lukosi and Inyathi areas. The major industry is the Hwange colliery and associated power plants. The district is an economic hub of the country. The abandoned Bumbusi became a sacred site because it was the burial place of a former ruler and subsequent generations went there to ask for rain, well-being and protection against external aggression and disease. 

Other tribal groups in the Hwange District

The other tribal groups that settled in the district include:

  1. BaLeya
  2. Dombe
  3. Amandebele


The Baleya tribe are the first known settlers of the Hwange district. They came from Zambia and crossed the Zambezi at the beginning of the 19th century or earlier. Their first area of settlement was near Victoria Falls but the group later moved to the Bumbusi area where they lived when Sewanga and his people arrived from the South. The chief of the BaLeya was named Melukoba. He met with a peace offering and invited him and his people to settle in Bumbusi. Melukoba later became a senior headman under Chief Hwange. Moreover, when the AmaNdebele warriors invaded the area, the people of Baleya scattered and fled, whilst Melukoba was taken prisoner and later killed. Some of his followers returned to Zambia where their descendants are still living under Chief Mukuni east of Livingstone.


The Dombe tribe is found in the Hwange district. They are an offshoot of the BaTonga of Zambia, descendants of the Toka Leya who are found across the Zambezi River in Zambia. Their language is Dombe and it is at the verge of extinction. It is believed that they arrived in the upper Zambezi valley before the vaNambya. Other Dombe people are scattered among the Baleya and vaNambya. They were famous hunters. When the Nambya arrived, they lived among the Dombe although the Nambya became dominant. They also assisted the Nambya to escape during the Ndebele attacks by ferry boats across the Zambia.


The Amandebele moved from Esigodini (Essesxvale), Matobo and Gwelo to Hwange district in 1954/1955. The main group comprised of evictees from Esigodini. When they arrived they were under the traditional leadership of Nambya Headman Nkosana. They didn’t like leadership from a different ethnic group and requested the colonial government for permission to select their own Ndebele headman. They selected Abednico Mlotshwa who was the eldest son of Tebele Mlotshwa, who had been chief Mvuthu in the Esigodini district to be their headman. They are neighbors of the vaNambya on the east under headman Nkosana. The Ndebele were evicted in the 1950’s to remote Lupane and Nkayi districts.

History of the Dendelende Sawanga Kingship

The table below shows the Nambya Kings and their period of reign.

Nambya KingPeriod of Reign
Dendelende Sawanga1737-1780
Shakwa Dembetembe1807-1822
Nyanga Chazho1822-1834
Shana Chazo1834-1860
Lusumbami Debwelezilawa1860-1868
Chilisa Mhuru1868-1873
Chilota Chimukutu1873-1895
Nchengwa Nengasha1897-1903
Shambwa Nekatambe1903-1955
Chimbipo Nemananga1903-1948
Ndunduli Nedundwi1950-1974

Table 1: Nambya Kings and their period of reign:

King Nchengwa Nengasha was the last king before white settlers established the Wankie colliery company. After his death instead of kingdoms, chiefdoms were established and the government split the chieftainship into two- Chief Nemananga and Chief Nekatambe. The two were restored to chieftainship that had been downgraded to headmanship. When the minor houses were demoted headmanship the Nekatambe house rejected the proposal and refused the headmanship which was vested in Siampanda, a commoner. The Nambya then demanded the upgrade of headmanship of Siampanda to Chief Nekatambe, headman Hlegiso of the Leya to Chief Dingane, and Nkosana to Chief Neluswi. On October 31 1948 the Chief Dunduli Sibanda of the Nambya tribe of isangelo Hobo (Stoat) was traditionally installed and officially by the government in 1950.

Solomon chipaya was the son of Lungani Chipaya, Lungani being the son of Lusumbami. He grew up in Makwa and later moved to Mwemba in Hwange district. Solomon had three brothers and one sister. In 1948 he was identified as one of the royal blood grandsons of Lusumbami and was chosen to be chief Hwange. Later he was appointed as the paramount Chief in the Hwange district and all the current chiefs Shana, Nekatambe, Nelukoba including Mvuthu were his headmen.

Current leadership in the Hwange District

The district has five chiefs namely: Chief Shana (of Jambezi area), Chief Hwange, Chief Dingane-Nelukoba (of Dete), Chief Nekatambe (of Dinde area) and Chief Mvuthu (of the Mvuthu area, Hwange west). Hwange Rural District Council has twenty administrative wards of which two are peri-urban. There are five communities and four are centered on the headmen whilst the fifth is around the Chief Hwange himself.

Tribal structure

Family head

This is the lowest level of the tribal structure. The family head adjudicates petty issues in the domestic nature and confined in his own family. When the problem is of consequence he refers them to the kraal head.

Kraal head

The Kraal head controls the tribesmen and reports criminal matters within the village. He takes preliminary evidence of civil disputes before forwarding to the headman.

Headman (mlisa)

The headmen control the area (isigaba) consisting of several villages. Each village has its own kraal head and is responsible to forward admin matters to the headman. Administrative functions pf the headmen include:Judicial – he is responsible for hearing civil cases within his isigaba. Each headman has his own traditional council known as inkundla, made of senior kraal heads. Appeals from him are refered to the chief.

Land application- no person should settle in his isigaba without his permission.

Administrative – assists the government in administration functions like organization of Kraal heads and assists district commissioner.

Development – no development is permitted without the sanction of the headman.

The chief

The chief is the most senior in the tribal structure. The headman notifies the chief of any happenings within the area as he is believed to the eyes of the chief.

Nambya culture and heritage

The Kune Ngoma cultural village and the Nambya community museum aim to that showcase the culture and heritage of the Nambya people. The indigenous language ChiNambya and traditions are in danger of being lost among other imported cultures. The Kune Ngoma cultural village is an interactive and educative center where youth can be taught and trained to carve, dance, play contemporary and cultural music. 


Hwange town and the Hwange National Park were named after the vaNambya King Sewanga who was later called Hwange by the Nambya people. The archaeological sites in the Hwange district were centers of political power and were successive capitals of the Nambya State. The three sites are sacred and are an important part of the Nambya cultural identity. The Nambya have a rich heritage that they are making efforts to safeguard, which include their language and crafts and dance.

By Ashley Maganzo

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Hensen, G. L. (1973) History and legend of the Vanambya. The editor Old Shell House, Salisbury.

Makuvaza, S. (2008) Revisiting Bumbusi, a Khami type-site located in Hwange National Park, north-western Zimbabwe, Zimbabwean Prehistory 28:21-40.

Mcgregor, J. (2005) The social life of ruins: Sites of memory and the politics of a Zimbabwean periphery. Journal of Historical Geography. Vol.31, 316-337.

Nambya Cultural Association and Nambya Development Organization Trust

Ncube, G. (2020) A comparative study of the politics of chieftaincy and local government in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe 1950-2010. University of South Africa.  

Nyabezi, P. and Gronenborn, D. (2021) The Zimbabwe culture and the development of the Nambya state in north-western Zimbabwe. Cambridge University Press.

S2929/5/7 Report on the Delineation of communities, Wankie District: A. D. Elliot, Delineation Report on the Abednico Mvutu community, Wankie Tribal Trust Land, 23 March 1965. 

One Reply to “Nambya people of Hwange District”

  1. Nambya
    You state in the early 1800s some of the Nambya people led by Wenyika (Lewanika) crossed the Zambezi River into Zambia and settled amongst the Lozi of Barotseland. King Lewanika, the Litunga of the Lozi ruled from 1878 up to 1916. Wenyika of Nambya people was thus way earlier than King Lewanika’s era. Is it fact Wenyika was Lewanika?

    And did they settle amongst the Lozi or one of the smaller tribes like Ila ruled by the Lewanika House?

    You also state there was a Nkosana king when Ndebele arrived in that region; should it not be Mkhosana instead of Nkosana?

    Finally if Prince Dendelende (Dhende) was of Karanga dispensation…why do they use ‘L’ and not ‘R’ ?

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