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People and Culture

Zambia’s contemporary culture is a blend of values, norms, material and spiritual traditions of more than 70 ethnically diverse people. Most of the tribes of Zambia moved into the area in a series of migratory waves a few centuries ago. They grew in numbers and many travelled in search of establishing new kingdoms, farming land and pastures.

Before the colonial period, the region now known as Zambia was the home of a number of free states. Each having comprehensive economic links with each other and the outside world along trade routes to the east and west coast of Africa. The main exports were copper, ivory and slaves in exchange for textiles, jewellery, salt and hardware.

During the colonial period, the process of industrialisation and urbanisation saw ethnically different people brought together by economic interests. This, as well as the very definite influence of western standards, generated a new culture without conscious effort of politically determined guidelines.

Many of the rural inhabitants however, have retained their indigenous and traditional customs and values. After Independence in 1964, the government recognised the role culture was to play in the overall development of a new nation and began to explore the question of a National identity.

Institutions to protect and promote Zambia’s culture were created, including the National Heritage Conservation Commission. Private museums were also founded and cultural villages were established to promote the expression of artistic talents.

Zambia’s diverse cultures bring with them a wide variety of traditional skills. Crafts can be found in great variety if not in abundance and among them is some of the finest basketry in Africa.

 

The economy of most of the crafts people is based on fishing, cattle or the cultivation of crops. Craftwork is often done seasonally to supplement the incomes of many families. It was originally intended for barter and made according to the needs of other villagers. To many, especially the subsistence farmers, craftwork is their only means of earning cash.

 

Traditionally made pots and baskets in the more populated areas however, are being replaced by commercially manufactured utility items made of plastic or tin. A large part of the new generation are losing these traditional skills because of a lessening demand and others have begun to make more modern items like lampshades, shopping and laundry baskets and furniture.

 

Fortunately there are organisations such as Zintu Handicrafts in Lusaka, the Nayuma Museum in Mongu, the Tonga Museum in Choma and the Moto Moto Museum in Mbala, which aim to stimulate the production of quality craftwork both in traditional forms and where craftwork is a contemporary expression of art.

 

Basketry, practised by both the men and the women is widespread. The many forms and raw materials used reflect the environment in which they are made: bamboo, liana vines, roots, reeds, grasses, rushes, papyrus palm leaves, bark and sisal. They are decorated with symbolic designs using traditional dyes made from different coloured soils, roots, bark and leaves. The variety of uses for basketry is wide; carrying and storage, fishing traps, beer strainers, flour sieves, sleeping and eating mats and a variety of tableware. The Lozi and Mbunda people in the Western Province are particularly skilled in this field.

It is the men that usually do the woodwork and carving and produce canoes, furniture, walking sticks, utensils and food bowls as well as masks, drums and a variety of animal forms. The potters are usually, though not always women who work the clay and then fire them on open fires or pits.

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