Tonga Tribes

There are many different Tonga people, including the ones in the Pacific (though not related to Bantu Tonga). In southern Africa, Tonga people were groups of people (some related to the Karanga/Shona) who were initially not under the direct rule of the Mwene-Mutapa. The greatest numbers being in Zambia and Zimbabwe with some also found in Namibia and Botswana (Subia). Zambia has the highest number of the Tonga population averaging more than 15% of the country’s total population. Like many other tribes in Zambia, the name of the tribe is also name of the language, which is the case for the Tonga. The Tonga form part of what is known as the ‘Bantu botatwe’ languages which are spoken by the Tonga, Ila, Lenje and smaller dialects like the Leya, Sala, Subia and Totela and these cover the greater part of southern province, including the Solis around Lusaka and Lenjes in Central province. In Zimbabwe, they are found mainly in Binga District of the Matebeland North province and parts of Kariba and Gokwe districts, though Kariba and Gokwe is highly mixed with Shona tribes. The name ‘Tonga’ means independent’, which refers to the fact that before colonization, the Tonga tribe did not have chiefs (traditional leaders) as other tribes did. According to anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, “Until the beginnings of the colonial period, approximately seventy years ago the largest named territorial unit among the Tonga was the small neighbourhood community.

There are also different types of Tongas of the Lower Zambezi Tonga (among them are the Barwe-Tongas/Sena-Tongas and Samungazi-Tongas) who have a history with the Karanga/Shona people. There are even Tongas in the south of Mozambique who have mixed with the Karanga/Shona under Ishe Gambe/Gamba to form the Chopi people. There is apparently interesting link between the Manyika’s Shona dialect and Tonga when calling names -In Manyika they use prefix ‘Sa’ and in Tonga they use ‘Sia’ or ‘Ha’ (for plateau Tonga) and these mean the “owner”, e.g Samukange in Manyika is Siamukange or Hamukange in Tonga, similarly Sachitema in Manyika is Siachitema/Hachitema in Tonga. However, the greatest number of Shona dialects related to the Tonga are Korekore of Hurungwe and Mashonaland Central and the Shangwe of Kariba and Gokwe. These tribes lived together for decades if not centuries along the Zambezi valley before the construction of Kariba dam thereby giving rise to a generation of hybrid tribe that is both Tonga and Shona and these are still found on both sides of the Zambezi river.

Tonga are believed to be the very first Bantu group to cross the Zambezi river coming from the North East (between 300 – 400AD) i.e. from Nubia and the Kingdom of Kemet which comprises areas around present day Ethiopia/Sudan and Egypt and their original totem(mutupo) was the lion (Tau or Dau) though many changed thereafter. Iron Age settlements from as early as the 7th century have been found in various parts of the Southern Province of Zambia, with the most popular being Ingombe Ilede which is translated as ‘the sleeping cow’ due to the large fallen baobab tree in the vicinity of the site. It is believed that the Mbara people who settled at the site were ancestors of the Tonga due to the similarity of their pottery to that of the existing Tonga. Therefore, this proves the assertion that the Tonga’s were some of the earliest Bantu settlers in Zambia, as they were already present in Zambia before the other tribes that migrated into Zambia as part of the Bantu Migration of the 15th – 17th centuries.

Though some Tongas voluntarily joined the Mutapa empire and its great council, serving as the Mukomohashas for Mutapa’s province of Barwe, some Tonga resisted. The Tongas who were the Mukomohashas/Generals were ‘royal Tongas of the Tembo totem’ (and it is said the Tonga dynasties came from Mbire). Many of the Tonga who were independent were led by the Samungazi (who was known by the Portuguese as the Mongaz or Siamungazi in Tonga). When Mwene-Mutapa Negomo Mupunzagutu killed a Portuguese priest who attempted to convert him, the Portuguese sent an invasion force led by Francisco Barreto from Lisbon to port Sofala in modern day Central Mozambique where it marched up river to Sena. In July 1572 Barreto proceeded inland from Sena with 650 Portuguese gunmen, and around 2,200 African slaves/marauders. A Tonga fraction led by the Samungazi (Siamungazi) had rebelled from the Mwene-Mutapa in the 1550s, and was attacking the Portuguese at Tete. It is quite interesting to note that Kamharapasi Mukombwe (1663 – 1692) was one of the Mutapa kings and Munkombwe surname is a very common surname among Tongas, so is Mwene (Mweene).

As Barreto marched from Sena in July 1572, the Tonga attacked his force, and it was recorded that they attacked in ‘traditional crescent formation’. Barreto perished and only 180 Portuguese members of Barreto’s army survived and they retreated to Sena. The Samungazi Tonga, however, were weakened, thus the Mutapa forces reconquered them. The Lower Zambezi Tonga were an important part of Mutapa, they supported leaders who were anti-Portuguese, and such as the rival Mwene-Mutapas Matuzvianye, Kapararidze, and the brave Tonga chief, chief Chombe. Chombe was the brave Barwe-Tonga chief who cut the trade routes from the Indian Ocean to Mukaranga and fought the Portuguese warlord Diogo Simoes Madeira to a draw. Chombe fought the Portuguese with Tonga warriors from the Samungazi. He would retreat north of the Zambezi.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Lower Zambezi Tongas would unite with Mwene-Mutapa Chioko Dambamupute’s liberation force, along with the Chikunda (former slave marauders of the Portuguese), the Barwe (under the Makombe), and Mapondera’s warriors in ‘the last great African struggle for independence’, the Barwe Rebellion.

Totems

The Tonga are divided into exogamous matrilineal clans (several families who claim descent from a common ancestor) called mikowa, each of which have a totem. Most clan totems are animals such as hare (rabbit), cow etc. A Tongan has two clans, one from the father’s side called kumausyi and another on the mother’s side called kumanyina or kumukowa.

Naming

Like other Zambian and Zimbabwean tribes, naming is a very important part of Tonga culture. A child is typically named under the circumstances it was born. For instance, a child called Miyoba which means ‘rain’ could have been born during a time of heavy rains. A child named Mutinta which means ‘different’ was the first child born of a different gender in relation to its older siblings. Banji is a name given to the first twin and means ‘we are many’, while Mpimpa is the youngest twin. Like the Bemba and Shona tribes, Tonga names are unisex.

By Misheck Samanyanga

7 Replies to “Tonga Tribes”

  1. Tongas didn’t have Kings? What kind of thinking is that? Can the wealthiest community never have a King? What kind of thinking is that? Somehow, Elizabeth Colson has been misquoted, because in her book titled ”TONGA RELIGIOUS LIFE IN THE 20th Centurely does acknowledge the Mweemba (Sjameja) family as having had kings and that their children used to wear 🐆 skins (page 156).

    1. It’s true that they didn’t have kings not chiefs. They lived peacefully in related clans until the colonialists created chiefdoms for purposes of divide-and-rule. Please look at the history of the Igbo people of Nigeria , who equally had no chiefs. So Elizabeth Colspn is correct.

  2. I have read a book by Elizabeth colson about the Tonga people and l have met and interacted with subia from Namibia. What was interesting was that the person l met head me speaking Tonga over a phone conversation and later came to me and said lam from Namibia and l understand everything you were saying on the phone. Then l realised that we are a big group.

  3. According to the Tonga mythology, they originate from the Middle East in a region called i-JWE in their language. In JWE, the biggest of all Creators, NACAANZO, God, or LEZA in their language, physically lived there. They say He had for many years looked after all creation alone. He hot bored and fatigued. So, man was formed from the soil, ivu or ibulongo. This man was accredited as new God on earth, hence the title LEZA ‘WA AANSI (GOD OF THE WORLD BELOW THE SKY). Then Nacaanzo LEZA made this man the Father of the Tonga nation. As father of the nation, he would be the Peacemaker of the Land. Hence, the title SI-MAAMBO (MAAMBO/MAMBO). He would be entitled to tributaries of the land, chiefly meja(horns of 🐘) hence, SI-MEJA (LORD OF IVORY). MWAMI (Lord of wealth). Mambo was given a wife saluted as MJKA-MAAMBO (MUKA=MRS). The Mambo was blessed with all the creation and domesticated cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys etc.
    The family grew very large but SIMEJA had remained their key intercessor and shrine man. He was thus, called DUNDUMUNTULE OR MWIIMBA and Si-mizimu (custodian of all shades of the dead). The family was subdivided into clans for easy identification.. And Mathematically, the Tonga have a family tree that resembles the repeating days of the week or months of the year: the generations are only ODD NUMBER or ALPHA and EVEN NUMBER or BETA. What this means is that, The maternal uncle is 1 and his nephew is 2. Grandson is 3 and great grandson is 4. In this set up, all odd numbers (1,3,5,7…) And all even numbers (2,4,6,8..) are brothers in their order. Even after 1 billion years, you will know who belongs to the odd or even number. You only qualify to inherite the throne of your order. So, nephew (2 or Even number) sits as regent on his uncle (1 or Odd number) throne. Same with the female line (maternal side only).
    After many years, the family split into many factions but each had a head of sub-Simeja Si-Simaambo. Simaambo was given by God powers to call upon rain in dry spells. We came down south and had lived around large water bodies such as the Great Lakes Region, though Malawi stands out prominently. It was not until the Maravi group foufht us over our wealth that we moved into Mozambique, Zambia,Zimbabwe, South Africa etc. Then the Maambo established a Capital in what is now Zimbabwe. He bought slaves chiefly from the Bambara people from Lower Zambezi. Many years had past and many Mambos had ruled until the Portuguese and the Rozvi came with guns, the Mambo’s group suffered heavy casualties. They abandoned Great Zimbabwe and temporarily stayed around Wankie in an area called MAKWA (around 1600 or so). Later they came to join other Tongas in the Mola and Binga Confederacy. The Tonga had this mystical drum of thunder, somewhere attributed to the Venda.
    The Mambo Simeja of that time was probably a man named MUPIKA-MAAMBO (wrestler of difficulty disputes). He came with Chief Priest called SIADIMUNA (but actually SYADAAMUNA; man of Thunderstorms) who was deputised by Siamoonze/Simoonze (Moonze). They then crossed the Zambezi at the main boat harbour called INSUNGO and settled just a stone’s throw away. The other Priest was Moote. Since, most shrines or ℳalende were concentrated in the Valley and Zimbabwe, Moonze, as their trusted Prince was sent to what we now call Tonga Plateau but it was called IBU-MBO (land of the Mbo Tonga tribe).
    Other Tonga Chiefs were Sinang’ombe (Sinenhombe), Sichilaba (Sitcheraba), Shansali (Syansaali) etc.
    Around 1800 ,there was a war over a trade dispute between Kjng Simeja Simaambo and traders from Wankie in which one of them named Kayuni was also killed. The family was split.. Fleeing to Musanga (Mosanga) island where David Livingstone found them in 1860). But by 1880 when Jesuits came, the family was back at old Siameja…

  4. Those alleging Tonga never had a King must sell their stereotype elsewhere. It is amazing how all non-Tonga communities fear us to a point where smearing is the order of the day. Yes, we are stinking wealthier. We are, if you like, a Jewish community. May be our origin in i-JWE means JEW indeed.
    One of the sons of Jacob called ZEBULAN appears to be connecter to the Tonga legend called ZUBULENI.
    We are the only tribe with known and respected shrines..

  5. The Munkombwe clan (🐓) had later established themselves under Sinang’ombe (🐄 clan) but had a separate Dundumuntule or Head who was called NDONGO (ibanaNdongo). In 1940s , a Munkombwe man named Syang’ombe Zyagola-mpawaawa Simeja had eloped a Mung’ombe lady called Chibila Syaceembe Syakacela. It was a big war. And then a song was composed “Kaanzaanino bina Meki kuli NDONGO: there is a spirit of family disintegration instigated by Make’s mother and the family of NDONGO)!

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