The Tonga are thought to be Zambia’s original Bantu inhabitants.  No-one knows when they came or from where they came.  One educated guess is that they came from the Great Lakes around present-day Kenya/Uganda area and that they arrived around 1100AD.   They were certainly here before many of the great kingdoms emerged in southern Africa.  Only that of Mapungubwe could be their contemporary.  They would have arrived in waves, over the centuries, and had the same origins and the Lenje, Totela, Ila, Sala.  The name Toka must be Tonga – it depended on how it was heard and written down by the first writers.  The We, another tribe mentioned on the early map, were also Tonga, but because of their remoteness along the Zambezi River had acquired a different name. They are no longer mentioned as a separate tribe.

Not much is known about the early years of the Tonga but they stated to the first writers of their history, that they used to live in large villages.  Although they never had an organised unit under a chief or headman, they did work as a community and helped each other in times of field preparation for their crops.  Villages moved around quite frequently as the soil became exhausted, the Tonga using the slash-and-burn technique of planting crops.  Their ‘headman’ was known as Ulaanyika and it would be he who started a new village, but apart from that the Ulaanyika had few other roles.  One role which was seriously regarded was that of the Sikatongo, or rain-maker.  Rain was very variable from one year to another and even from one nearby village to another, just as it is today.  The Sikatongo had a rain-shrine and organised various religious ceremonies, praying to the ancestors or gods to bring rain. 

The Tonga had large herds of cattle.  These were small African cattle unlike the ones we know of today.  They also had goats, sheep and chickens.  As long as the rain fell, their lives were good. 

The Tonga were divided into two – those who lived along the Zambezi River in the valley and those who lived higher up on the plateau above.  They did have the same language and they same culture with differences, and they did occasionally meet up to trade. 

The Tonga living along the Zambezi River, known as the Valley Tonga, lived on both sides of the river.  The water flowed fast through the valley and it was easier to cross the river from bank to bank than it was to go up and down river.  So their neighbours were considered to live on the opposite bank, not those who lived a few kilometres up or downstream.  Those on the south side of the river were Tonga but were also called Nyai. 

Their lives were good, that is until the first invaders arrived to kill and steal from 1820 onwards.  The first raider is a bit of a mystery.  His name was Pingola and no-one knows where he came from or where he departed to.  It seems that he slaughtered many of the cattle and killed many people.  In those days the cattle were used to supply milk and were rarely killed by the Tonga for food, they were used in payment for brides and only at religious ceremonies were cattle slaughtered. 

One interesting story relates to the movement of cattle in the dry season to pasturage along the Kafue River.  Here the Tonga asked permission from the original owners of the land, the Twa, to graze their cattle.  The Twa were hunter-gatherers who lived on islands in the Kafue Floodplain. They no longer exist as a distinct tribe.

Ten or so years after Pingola had decimated the cattle herds of some Tonga, the Kololo arrived.  The Kololo were from southern Africa where they had been neighbours to the Zulu.  They had been affected by the constant warring of Shaka Zulu and had decided to find a new home, travelling northwards and ending up near present-day Kalomo.  The Kololo stayed for some years and continued raiding the Tonga for cattle.  South of the Zambezi River, the Matabele had also set up home around present-day Bulawayo and these people were even more military than the Kololo, with large impis of warriors, who raided mercilessly all over their region.  They too managed to cross the Zambezi River and raided for cattle, killing many people too.  The Kololo did move on to the west after some years but the Matabele kept on coming up until the 1890s.  

Another impact on the Tonga people was the continuous fleeing of tribespeople from the Matabele raiding grounds south of the river.  Hundreds of people came to the Zambezi to escape being captured or killed.  They all found sanctuary with the Tonga.

When David Livingstone met with some Tonga in 1855, he found them living in small hamlets, no longer their large villages in the memories of the old people.  The Tonga were still very good farmers and provided David Livingstone and his entourage with plenty of food.  However, the cattle had gone and David Livingstone only tells us that there were chickens, sheep and goats. 

Meanwhile there was another threat to the Tonga – the slave trade.  Bands of Chikunda had found their way up the Zambezi River to capture slaves.  They set up their camps on islands in the river and, after capturing slaves, kept them on the island which stopped them from escaping.  When a large enough contingent was collected, the slaves were transported or trekked downriver to be sold to the Portuguese. 

One island at the confluence of the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers is known as Kanyemba Island.  This island was so named after the Chikunda head of slave-raiding party.  Frederick Selous met Kanyemba in 1877 when he was trying to reach Katanga to hunt elephant.  Kanyemba had his own army and raided far into the interior away from the rivers where he had set up trading posts for slaves and, of course, elephant tusks.

Frederick Selous’ trip is a litany of tales of woe as he trekked through the region meeting the Tonga and other tribespeople.  At the time, Wankie’s was the crossing point of the Zambezi River for most travellers.  Wankie was a refugee from Matabele raids, his original home being at Bambusi, now in Hwange (Wankie) National Park. 

Edward Mohr reached the Zambezi River in June 1870 opposite Wankie’s Town.

We had a most luxurious meal considering our circumstances, and in the afternoon I made a grand toilet and set out to pay Wanki a formal visit, in a boat sent by him for my use.  It was … stipulated that as many shots should be fired as possible on our way across the river.  These conditions were fulfilled to the best of our ability, and when we landed on the northern bank we found about sixty people awaiting us, but Wanki himself had not yet appeared.  Soon afterwards a long procession of men moved out of the village, amongst whom Wanki was easily recognisable a long way off, for he wore a high woolen nightcap, of which he seemed not a little proud; behind him marched musicians with drums and flutes.  My own costume was somewhat fantastic, part of it dating from a Leipzig carnival; and what with it, my high riding boots and spurs, and above all my silver epaulettes, which had belonged to my late father, the effect on my host was almost overpowering, and he must have thought me a very great Induna amongst whites.  I made a formal bow in European style, and, at first, surprise kept the natives silent.  The ice was broken, however, as it often is with us, by the circulation of wine; the joalla bottle was passed round freely, and we soon came to the point.  The result of the interview, which lasted about an hour, was that for a payment of white glass beads – with blue ones they would have nothing to do here – I obtained five men as guides and bearers to go with me to the Victoria Falls, three hundred pounds of durra, and five goats.  As a parting present I gave the chief a pocket-knife with five blades, receiving in return a few spears and a battle-axe.

James Chapman and Thomas Baines also visited Wankie’s.  Their plan had been to build a boat there and use it to go down the Zambezi.  They named the hill on the south side of the river over from Wankie’s as Logier Hill.  Here are some bits from James Chapman, written in 1862:

I had a visit from Wankie, the chief here, having sent to invite him, in the afternoon, …  Wankie readily came over.  … Then came a musician, whose tones we had already heard at a distance, dancing before Wankie, and bowing and playing before me by way of welcome.  The music is performed on a primitive kind of piano inside a calabash – a sweet-toned instrument, worthy of being in the hands of a better musician, and being improved upon.

Wankie is tall, inclined to corpulency, and about fifty years of age.  With an air of dignity becoming a chief, he is in appearance, address and behaviour the best specimen of a black gentleman that I have ever met with. …

James Chapman tells us that it was a Tonga by the name of Molomo-a-tolo, who had boats which he had used to rescue Wankie and his family from the southern side of the river. 

Thomas Baines tells us a bit of a gruesome story about the original chief of the Bambusi clansmen: (The Banabea are Wankie’s people although James Chapman names them as Bashapatani.  I think, today, we name them as Nambya.  Juankie, I am assuming is Wankie, or as we now write Hwange.  Moselikatze was the first chief of the Matabele.)

I learnt from Dr Livingstone the probable reason of this, viz. that Moselikatse, having lately cut off a tribe of Banabea, under one Juankie, a petty chief to whom he was paramount, for having had intercourse with the Kakololo people, had caused Juankie to be slain.  Afterwards, however, when in Moselitatse’s country, I learnt that Juankie and his tribe were massacred for no other reason than that he was a brave and formidable warrior, and withal so crafty that Moselikatze had never been able to get him into his power.  Although acknowledging Moselikatze’s authority, he had frequently defied his power with impunity.  The Matabele, however, believing that the body of a brave warrior, when eaten, acts as a powerful medicine, imparting courage and skill proportionate to that which he possessed when living, long sought an opportunity for entrapping him; and at length succeeding in their object, they conveyed him to Moselikatse’s Town, where he was killed and skinned, and his head, heart, and sundry other parts cooked, and distributed amongst the renowned warriors of the Matabele to be eaten.

Emil Holub, in 1885, comments about the Tonga near Victoria Falls who he names Toka:

The tobacco pipe plays a very important role in the life of the Matoka.  … They have a surprising skill in making highly artistic tobacco pipes.   The bowls of the pipes are made of burnt clay and have carved animal heads such as wild pigs, gnus, buffaloes, roan antelopes, water antelopes, oxen, goats, lions, etc.  … The pipe is lit by coal.  To handle the coal the tribes use little fire tongs made by the Matotele.  … While they are smoking all quarrel and strife is suspended and when they invite strangers and unknown visitors to smoke with them this is a sign of friendliness.

About drums:

It is covered on one end with a drumskin with a hole in the middle.  A stick reaches into the cavity of the drum and is fixed with a cross stick below and above the hole.  One ties a piece of moistened baobab bark fibre around one’s hand and rubs the stick up and down rapidly.  This makes a deep droning double tone.  It is called Namarva or Wupu-Wupu (because of the sound).

All the raiding and slave-trading came to an end in 1899 when the British claimed the land under the Scramble for Africa.  The Tonga could now live in peace but their lives had been disrupted during the past 80 years; it would take time for them to recover. 

Photograph from The Tribes of Northern Rhodesia, by Vernon Brelsford

When the British administration began, the administrators were required to undertake an annual census for tax purposes.  In their ledgers, they were required to name the person, their dependents and their chief.  For the Tonga who recognised no chief and lived in small hamlets scattered throughout valley and plateau, this was a problem.  The only chief at the time who was recognised as such was Chief Monze as he had been famed as a rain-maker and therefore a Sikatongo.  In order to get their ledgers straight the British administrators travelled around the hamlets, appointed a chief and ordered the hamlets to amalgamate into villages of at least 10 tax-payers.

At the same time many men either went voluntarily or were coerced to be migrant labour to Southern Rhodesian mines and farms.  At first they went for just a few months and came back for the planting season, but some eventually stayed away for more than a year and some did not return.

When the railway was being constructed through Tongaland in 1905 many Tonga were forced to work, for free, on its construction.   To add insult to injury, after the railway was built, much of the land within easy travelling distance of the railway line was allocated for white-owned farms. 

We have to remember that for the first 25 years of British administration, the land was ‘owned’ by the British South Africa Company which ran the country as a business.  Southern Rhodesia had been made a land of white pioneers who had come to mine for gold or to farm.  Through taxes and levies in Southern Rhodesia it became a good business.  But Northern Rhodesia (or Northwestern Rhodesia and Northeastern Rhodesia, as it was then) was not as healthy for white people.  Not only malaria was rife throughout the land, but there were vast areas with tsetse fly precluding the farming of cattle.  Some white pioneers came and took up farms but many of the farms remained idle when rich land-owners in Britain bought them, never to develop them or even visit. 

The final blow to the Tonga people came with the construction of the Kariba Dam in 1957.  The dam became the largest dam in the world and about 50,000 Valley Tonga (We) were moved from their homes along the river to higher ground.  All their shrines and burial sites were drowned as the water rose.  In exchange, they were allocated land, not along a perennial river, but on the dry plateau above.