By Chansa Chisha M
Cover Illustration by Kiss Abrahams
I was a skinny child.
Small and short for my age, I was often made fun of by family members. When this happened, my grandfather would come to my rescue saying "Paaba umwanakashi apa. Loleleni, ni Mumbi Mukasa oyu!" Of course we'd all understand the reference. He had told us the story of Mumbi Mukasa Lyulu, the beautiful woman with ears like an elephant many times.
It is not at all surprising that I grew up fascinated with this woman especially, the part where I was supposed to turn out as beautiful as the most beautiful woman of Bemba folklore.
In order to appreciate Mumbi Mukasa’s story, we need to go back a few centuries to the Luba-Lunda migration of the 15th - 17th century AD. According to history, Mukulumpe left the Luba kingdom after a disagreement with his father, Kapopo Lapwa Mukali Wapwabantu the Luba king rightly named for his cruelty and injustices. Mukulumpe took some followers, headed north towards Luabala river and eventually set up a capital at Kalikunga.
One day while out on a hunting expedition, Mukulumpe's men came across a beautiful woman, seemingly lost. The men took her to the king who was immediately taken with her beauty. She said her name was Mumbi and that she was a Queen. When asked where she was from, perhaps due to the language barrier she pointed upwards (Ku myulu). Mukulumpe and the men interpreted her gestures to mean Mumbi came from Heaven. This is where the line between history and mythology becomes blurred.
Illustration by Kiss Abraham
No one disputed that she was a Queen instead they sang her praises as below:
Mumbi Mukasa uwa ponene kumulu. Uwa pakalala amatwi nge Nsofu.
Mumbi Mukasa who fell from the sky
Who has large and floppy ears like an Elephant
Mukulumpe took Mumbi Mukasa as his 3rd wife and she bore him 4 children: Katongo, Chiti, Nkole and one daughter, Chilufya Mulenga.
He later divorced Mumbi Mukasa although it's not clear why. Whatever the circumstances, Nkole and Chiti left Kalikunga with their mother and this is the last we hear of Mumbi.
She may have died or returned to heaven. Nkole and Chiti went on to found a capital at a place they called Isandulula chalo. Later the brothers sent men to go and collect their sister Chilufya Mulenga, to whom would be born a son who would become the heir to the throne. Thereafter, her daughter would birth the next Chitimukulu thus adopting a matrilineal system of succession. The current Chitimukulu can trace his ancestry back to Chiti through this system.
It turns out I did not grow elephant like royal ears as my grandfather had prophesied and it is perhaps my greatest disappointment that I took after my West African father and not after my illustrious Bemba ancestress but, I have grown in my appreciation and understanding of the story of Mumbi Mukasa Lyulu. As a Bemba woman navigating Christian and western patriarchal culture that most people, (especially men because it benefits them) have wrongly assumed is our tradition, the story of Mumbi Mukasa is a reminder of the unnaturalness of current society norms. From it’s hierarchy to its capitalism, overly preoccupied with the subjugation of women and children.
Significantly, Mumbi’s elephant ears symbolise Bemba womanhood and as such women were attributed such virtues as strength, leadership and grace.
Of even more significance is that when Mumbi said she was a Queen the men not only believed her without question, they also assumed she was from heaven. They did not resist or question her status because it fit into the natural order of Bemba society.
According to the Bemba creation story (in contrast to western patriarchal culture), the female sexual organ was a gift given to women as a reward for her patience and discretion. God granted women the sacred duty of giving life, and the social status of:
Cibinda wa ng’anda (head of the house),
Kabumba wa mapepo (priestess and spiritual head) and
Nacimbusa wa cisungu (guardian of virgins)
With this knowledge, why wouldn’t Mukulumpe and his men believe that a woman with elephant like ears, came from heaven?
This also gives context to why Alice Lenshina’s Lumpa Church, founded in 1955, proved to be so popular among the Bemba amassing over 100,000 members. For the Bemba they were accustomed to women being the head of their spirituality, therefore, Lenshina was easily accepted as the leader and founder of a Christian church.
Photo of Alice Lenshina by Norman Miller
Even though, a Bemba woman may not claim the throne of the Chitimukulu, hers is still a place of influence. A Chitimukulu's success or failure is said to be the result of the influence of his Queen. Mukulumpe’s reign is said to have been a time of peace and prosperity due to his beautiful wife's influence. She had great influence in helping her husband improve the lives of their people and promoted unity and cooperation among the different Bemba clans.
Furthermore, like their elephantine ancestor, Bemba women had sexual agency. Just as a female elephant can only be penetrated when she gives access, Bemba women also had the power to take control of their own sexuality, and this is reenacted during the tradition of Imbusa.
A Bemba woman was not vulnerable to male sexuality.
Clearly, Mumbi Mukasa Lyulu is someone any modern woman can look up to. She was the epitome of femininity, the embodiment of a woman who knew who she was and knew her place.
She was a Queen.
As someone who looks up to her I, too would like to walk into a village and say “I am a queen from heaven” without my people having me committed.
Chansa is a mom, foodie, traveller, blogger and collector of indigenous knowledge
Connect with her on Facebook: Wander Woman - a tale of a Zambian wonderer
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