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.


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.


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

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