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  • Chipimpi, Vulgar Clans, and Lala-Lamba Ethnohistory1
  • Brian Siegel


Common to the matrilineal peoples of eastern central Africa is their clan system, and the reciprocal joking or “funeral friendship,” relations that exist between clans with figuratively complementary names (Cunnison 1959:62–71; Richards 1937; Stefaniszyn 1950). This paper, however, focuses on the southeastern Shaba Pedicle, and the anomalous, one-sided joking between the Vulva and (allegedly pubic) Hair clans of the Lala and Lamba chiefs. I suggest that this joking, like the claim that these clans share a common mythical ancestor, is best explained in terms of nineteenth-century Lala and Lamba history, and of their competing claims to the Pedicle’s easternmost end. This region of Bukanda lies between the Aushi to the north (in Bwaushi), the Lala and Swaka to the east and south (in Ilala and Maswaka), and the Lamba (of Ilamba) to the west. The main distinction among these closely-related and adjacent peoples, with their similar customs and languages, is in the histories and traditions of their chiefs.

The bizarre relationship between the chiefly Vulva and Hair clans is not widely known. I only heard of it during my fieldwork in Ilamba. The Lala, like the Lamba, straddle both the Congolese and Zambian sides of the Shaba Pedicle, and the literature on this region, in both French and English, is fragmentary and marked by an ahistorical and uncritical acceptance of oral traditions. The Lala are probably best known in relation to Mwana Lesa’s Watchtower movement of the 1920s (Verbeek 1977, 1983). Norman [End Page 439] Long’s Social Change and the Individual (Manchester, 1968) is the only modern ethnography on the Lala, yet this study of the enterprising Jehovah’s Witnesses has little to say about their history or clans. Fortunately, Léon Verbeek’s Filiation et usurpation (1987) has sorted through the oral and colonial histories, and has paved the way for comparative ethnohistories of the peoples on both sides of the Shaba Pedicle.


The matrilineal peoples of eastern Central Africa share a number of common culture traits (Richards 1939:16–17; 1950:221–36). Among these is an assortment of some thirty to forty exogamous clans, each bearing the name of a plant, animal, or some other feature of the natural or cultural world. This clan system is common to the matrilineal peoples found between the southern end of Lake Tanganyika and the Luangwa River in the east, and west to the Lualaba and Lunga Rivers. The peoples involved are, in alphabetical order, the Ambo (or Kambonsenga), Aushi, Bemba, Bena Chishinga, Bena Kabende, Bena Mukulo, Bena Ngumbo, Bisa, Kaonde, Lala, Lamba, Lima, Luano, Kazembe’s Lunda, southern Lungu, Sanga, Seba, Senga, Swaka, Tabwa, and Unga (Cunnison 1959: 62n; Grévisse 1956:(32) 77–80, (35) 95–97, (38) 120; Richards 1939:16–17; 1950:221–22; Slaski 1950:86; Whiteley 1950:5). I do not claim that this list is exhaustive—the marital histories I collected suggest that the Lenje and Soli should also be included, and Smith and Dale (1920, 1:287–98, 308–13) describe very similar clans and joking relations among the Ila.

The same or similar clan names are so widely distributed across the region that they probably predate its current ethnic labels, and the supposed migration of these peoples’ ancestors from the western Luba or Lunda land of “Kola.” The claims to Luba origins are most frequently found in Zambia, while those to Lunda origins, as one might expect, are common to the Shaba Pedicle (Verbeek 1987:164–66, 326–28). Thus the Zambian Lamba claim Luba, while those in Shaba, Lunda origins. Such claims seem to be selfserving assertions of these chiefdoms’ antique legitimacy. None of the current ethnonyms are primordial, yet the “Muiza” (Bisa) informants Lacerda encountered during his 1798 journey to Kazembe clearly refer to the hostile “Uemba” and “Mussucuma” (Bema and Sukuuma, a subgroup of the Fipa), and to the peaceful “Aramba” (Lamba) and “Ambo” (Burton 1873:99; Willis 1981:6–7). Regardless of ethnic identities, people with the same clan name (or referent) are theoretically related. And since every person is considered a “child” of both his mother’s...


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