The Kaonde people were formed from three distinct clans of migrants from the Luba Empire who arrived in present-day Zambia at different times with different stories, but all from the same origin. They are, though, some of the early arrivals into our region, but the dates are unknown, probably from the 1600s for the first groups.
One group settled around Solwezi, but had also spent some time south of the Kafue River. It seems likely that when living south of the Kafue River they came into contact with the Ila people and decided to move back north. This clan is under Chief Kasongo. It was quite common for clans to be named by their totem. The clan of Chief Kasongo was known as the River Clan.
Later, another group of Kaonde arrived from the north. This clan was under Chief Kasempa of the Mushroom Clan. They met with Chief Kasongo of the River Clan and were told that they could not settle there, so moved further south. There is no history of conflict between these two clans so it is assumed that they had common ancestry and recognised each other as ‘cousins’.
Finally, the third clan arrived from the south where they had been living in the Barotse Floodplain among the Aluyi/Kololo/Lozi. They were under Chief Ntambo of the Monkey Clan. They settled in the west of Kaondeland. It is thought that they left the Barotse Floodplain after they had a dispute with the Kololo invaders so this would have been during mid-1800s. It is not known when they had arrived there.
The Kaonde never came together as one unified group under a Paramount Chief; they lived as loosely connected families with similar language and customs. They also moved around quite a bit and mixed with neighbouring tribes.
At the same time as Chief Kasongo of the River Clan settled near Solwezi, the Lunda Empire was expanding. A group of Lunda arrived in the region under their Chief Musokantanda. There were battles as the Lunda wanted to control the region and finally the Kaonde were forced to pay tribute to the Lunda. These battles were fought with bows and arrows, and spears and was before the introduction of guns, so it had to have been, probably, late 1700s.
Here is a quote from William Campbell (1910) about a Kaonde legend:
… along the Lualaba on both banks, live the Bena-Kaonde, whose full-dress name is Benakaondebamulundampanda. This Teuton-like tribal name describes the origin of the people and has reference to the Tower of Babel story. The legend runs: “Away back in the world’s history our ancestors were occupied in building a great tower to reach the heaven. While they built the white ants were at work on their wooden pillars, and down they came one after the other. They struggled on, adding pillar to pillar, but the white ants were more successful than they, and after years of labour, down came their tower, leaving them nothing but the long name by which they now describe themselves.”
The Kaonde people were farmers of the soil, but also good hunters. Some of them knew how to work with iron to produce spearheads, hoes and knives. As with other tribes the art of smelting iron was a well-kept secret passed on from father to son.
During the 1800s the slave trade did arrive in the region, although not in a big way. The Kaonde were raided by the Yeke from Katanga (Congo), forcing some to move further south. The Kaonde too learned to capture slaves because they wanted guns. They raided the Ila, Nkoya and other weaker tribes around them and sold them to the Mbundu who trekked them to the west coast and the Portuguese.
By and large, though, the Kaonde were not organised well enough to raid in a big way as they had no central organisation and army like other tribes.
Before the advent of Christian missionaries in the region, the Kaonde did believe in a god who they named Lesa. They believed that Lesa was married with him living in the sky and his wife on earth. From Frank Melland (1923):
… he lives above in the sky and shows his power by thunder and lightning – which latter kills people – his wife Chandashi lives in the ground and manifests herself by means of earth tremors (which are common hereabouts). Kapiji tells me that “one knows it is a woman because she makes a lot of fuss and does nothing!”
More important than their belief in a god, the Kaonde used to believe in spirits. The spirits are represented by the shadow. All things have shadows – people, animals, rocks and trees – so all things had spirits. The Kaonde spirit was called Chimvule. Each home had a stick (chipanda) planted in the ground outside the house, representing the Chimvule, and this was the place where the men would pray.
When a man died he no longer had a shadow and therefore his Chimvule remained on earth. Because of this, the living had to propitiate the Chimvule of the deceased so as not to receive its anger.
This is the area now described as predominantly Kaondeland.