Asserting Tonga identity: a book review of Tonga Timeline

[By Chanda Penda]

Lisa Cliggett & Virginia Bond (eds.). Tonga Timeline: Appraising Sixty Years of Multidisciplinary Research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Lusaka: Lembani Trust, 2013.

Tonga people were the earliest Bantu speakers to settle in present day Zambia about 1500 to 2000 years ago. The writing of Tonga Timeline was inspired by a conference commemorating the ninetieth birthday of the late Professor Elizabeth Colson held in 2008. A social anthropologist, Colson dedicated her life from 1956 to her death in 2016 to a longitudinal ethnographic study of the social impact of resettlement of 60,000 Tonga people of Gwembe Valley in Southern Zambia and Northern Zimbabwe, following construction of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. She was earlier deployed into ‘Tongaland’ as a young PhD graduate in 1946 by the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (now Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia, Lusaka).

According to the Central Statistics Office (2012), Tonga, a Bantu language, is the third most widely spoken local language in Zambia, at 14.5 per cent, with Nyanja at 25 per cent and Bemba at 41 per cent. In Zimbabwe, however, it is a minority language, about one per cent. Combined, there are around 1.4 million Tonga speakers in both Zambia and Zimbabwe.

On a positive note, the book is written from a multidisciplinary perspective by seventeen scholars ranging from fields of archaeology, history, cultural anthropology, social anthropology, and sociology, linguistics/onomastics, literature, gender and international relations and development. About two thirds of the authors were native Tonga speakers. In addition, most of them were educated at either Zambian or Zimbabwean universities, while the others were attached to these universities for significant lengths of time.

As the title suggests, the book begins with a foundational chapter by Francis Musonda on the archaeological heritage and runs through various phases to contemporary issues. Much of the high-profile archaeological work in Zambia has been conducted in Tongaland.

The first chapter establishes that the Tonga people were the earliest Bantu speakers to settle in Zambia about 2000 years ago. One significant, indirect, effect of the resettlement of the Gwembe Valley Tonga has been the discovery of more archaeological sites. However, there are still more grey areas which archaeological excavations ought to explore.

The next chapter gives a first-hand account of tireless campaigns against the struggles of the erstwhile marginalised Tonga of Zimbabwe. The author was, himself, at the helm of championing the cause of mainstreaming Tonga identity in Zimbabwe. The campaign was primarily done in two strategic ways: aggressive and subtle.

The aggressive approaches included advocating for teaching of Tonga language in local schools from elementary to university levels and promoting development and cultural identity on platforms of community-based associations and the Catholic Church, among others.

Subtle approaches included public figures adopting Tonga names, inspiring many others to do the same; composing and promoting Tonga Catholic Church songs, promoting traditional dances and media broadcasting services in Tonga language.

Midred Nkolola-Wakumelo presents another important aspect of Tonga culture. Tonga naming of cattle is in two categories namely, general and specific. The generic approach follows such features as appearance, function, and sex. Specific naming is much more similar to names of people in terms of: reasons for naming, sources of names and the names themselves, as cattle are usually considered to be family members.

Another chapter focuses on the evolution and management challenges of four crafts programmes (two in Zambia and two in Zimbabwe) from 1980 to 2000. One of these programmes, Choma Museum and Crafts Centre Ltd. (CMCC), evolved into what is now the Choma Museum, one of the national museums in Zambia. The author points out that, in securing larger market for crafts, crafts makers undergo trainings sponsored by these programmes. However, from the cultural heritage perspective, training crafts makers for the market compromises the functional religious aspect for which the crafts were originally intended.

In contrast, some of the research was conducted a long time ago. For instance, the data for the chapter on Tonga folk literature responding to labour migration was collected in 1989. In addition, the chapter could have been longer by using more folk tales. However, the researchers have generally balanced their chapters by simply quoting from their older work, while presenting their current work.

Moreover, the issue of HIV/AIDS could have been discussed in one chapter instead of two. This owing to the fact that both authors address the subject in the contemporary times in Southern Zambia. In addition, they also highlight the significant aspect of local culture.

Tonga Timeline is a priceless addition to the field of local history in both Zambia and Zimbabwe. It links the ancient past in the region to the present and highlights the struggles of the Tonga speaking people in asserting their identity and emphasises their claim as the earliest Bantu speaking settlers in the region. The work also inspires further research in all the different fields represented in the book.

This work is also important in highlighting the need to promote and record the unique aspects of our ethnic cultures, especially for posterity. This is because there is a general problematic tendency by many political administrators around the world to emphasise a ‘national’ identity and suppress any element which deviates from their agenda. Moreover, as seen on social media, some people find it fashionable to state that “my tribe is Zambian”. In as much as this may seem as a sensitive disposition in fighting against the evils of tribalism, it is done at the expense of embracing the richness that the diversity of our cultural identity has to offer. In fact, the Zambian National Cultural Policy emphasises “unity in diversity”.

The author is a cultural heritage researcher and consultant. Send comment to: chandapenda@gmail.com, Phone +260 979 443150.

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