The Tumbuka people live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi, their homeland split by the border drawn by the British in 1890. But forty years before, the Tumbuka had suffered an earlier invasion, by Ngoni people fleeing the rise of the Zulu nation in south-east Africa. After many wanderings, the Ngoni settled in the Tumbuka heartlands, bringing with them a new cattle-based economy, new patterns of settlement and new systems of marriage.

A century and a half later, with the British long gone, Tumbuka women living in the Lusaka city compounds, still resent this earlier invasion. Tumbuka marriage had been matrilocal, men living in their wives’ villages, and land inherited in the female line. Taking wives from among the Tumbuka, the Ngoni demanded they lived in the husbands’ homesteads, subject to the control of the patrilineage, and forced to accept polygyny.

Over the decades, Tumbuka women have protested vigorously against this “slavery”. The form of their protest is called Vimbuza, a ceremony in which women are exorcised of the angry spirit believed to be possessing them. The possessed women are astonishingly arrogant, complaining bitterly about family members who have ill-treated them in songs to which no one can respond. They are rewarded with gifts, and with promises that their complaints will be attended to.

Individually, the songs can appear to be narrowly focussed. But the range of grievances is wide and, taken together, a consistent over-arching theme appears, in a general complaint about Ngoni overrule, about patrilineal marriage, about polygyny and the effects of labour migration. While the Ngoni boast about migration and conquest, and while the Tumbuka men are nostalgic for their pre-Ngoni empire, the women’s songs present an alternative history, an alternative vision of how life should be lived. They look back to a time of stable and harmonious relationships, when freedom from poverty, disease and spirit possession were guaranteed by the matrilineal extended family.

The following song was sung by NyaChisi, at Chimpeni village, Lundazi district, Zambia, on 25 March 1975. The references to “Orphans” and later “guarded wanderers” are powerful descriptions of how Tumbuka wives felt themselves to be outsiders in their Ngoni husbands’ homesteads.

We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans…