Zambia is known to have 73 tribes. Other than the Tonga tribe, the other Zambian tribes are believed to have migrated from the Luba-Lunda Kingdom in DRC and Angola. So the real origin of the Tonga tribe that makes beautiful African baskets is unknown. Even so, some Iron Age settlements believed to have been built around the 7th century have been found in different parts of the Southern Province. The Ingombe Ilede, which means ‘the sleeping cow’, is one of these ancient settlements and it is associated with the Mbara people.
These are thought to be the ancestors of the Tonga tribe. The fact that the Mbara and Tonga communities had similar pottery skills proves that the Tonga were some of the earliest Bantu settlers in Zambia. The Tonga group speaks the Tonga Language and is a constituent part of the Bantu ‘botatwe” speakers. Others include the Lenje, Subia, Ila, Luya, Totela and Sala Bantus. The Tonga tribe’s most globally recognized form of art is basket weaving; it makes the world-famous Tonga baskets.
Before Zambian Independence
The Tonga tribe, also the makers of the best African wall baskets, were never ruled by customary leaders like chiefs, unlike other local tribes, prior to Colonization. They were an independent, self-governing tribe. So Tonga means Independent, according to Elizabeth Colson—an anthropologist. Until the British colonizers recognized the chiefs and headmen, the Tonga’s main territorial unit was the small community itself. These weavers of the top African baskets only came to know about a political office when the British government created a local council with leaders.
The Tonga’s motherland
The tribe’s predominant motherland is the Southern Province. It is further classified into Gwembe Valley Tonga and the Plateau Tonga. The former occupy the Gwembe Valley region, which is right below the Zambezi River and Victoria falls. Prior to the construction of the Kariba hydroelectric power dam in 1957, their native land extended to the Kariba gorge. More than fifty thousand settlers were displaced during the construction project; some were left on the Zambia side and the rest moved to Zimbabwe.
The Plateau Tonga community is known for its Tonga baskets, also called Plateau baskets. The community lives in the land above the Zambezi River. While the Gwembe Valley Tonga and the Plateau Tonga have unique agricultural practices and methods of weaving the African wall baskets, they speak the same Tonga language. While their language is the same, their accents and grammar are quite different.
Customary ceremonies and dress code
The Tonga people of the Southern Province are not only known for their legendary African baskets but also their different traditional festivals. However, these ceremonies vary according to the decisions of the traditional ruler or chief of the area. The most popular ceremony of all is the Lwiindi Gonde. It is practiced in Monze District under the guidance of Chief Monze and is mostly done to appease the ancestors. Done in the first weekend of July, the Lwiindi ceremony is so popularly loved. All customary festivals are done under local chiefs.
As for dress code, the Gwembe Valley women wore skirts made from the bark of tree fibers and left their torsos uncovered. On the other hand, the Plateau Tonga girls wore beaded aprons that covered their front and back. They also wore a square piece of cloth over one shoulder and it would drop up to their ankles. Both Tonga groups wore Red ochre as a body dressing and lovely cowrie shells head circlets.
Basket weaving art – the Tonga baskets
The Tonga tribe is known all over the world for its intricate basket weaving art. From the ancient times until now, the Tonga African baskets are designed by women with bare hands. Their baskets are named based on where they are made. So the Plateau baskets refer to the bowls made by the Tonga people living above the Zambezi River. On the other hand, the Munyumbwe African wall baskets refer to those made by the Tonga people living in Zimbabwe. There also Sinaneze baskets that feature uncomplicated block patterns.