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Women in Zambia: Tonga Tribal Culture and Traditions

The information on this page is based on anecdotal reports from Zambian nationals and permanent residents, associated with SAPEP, PEPAIDS partner NGO. It is supported by research undertaken by Nina Atkins van Kogelenberg (2009), involving over 1000 participants from the Tonga Tribe and literature such as Tonga Book of the Earth (by Pamela Reynolds and Colleen Crawford Cousins).

“Paid for” Providers


In traditional Tonga culture, women have a role of production. “Women are expected to be the providers in every way; of children, of food, of good sex. They must organise the home, bring in an income and submit to their husbands’ every whim”. She observes that even their body language around the home was subservient- the woman bowing to her husband and approaching him doubled over and almost on her knees to demonstrate her submission to him.

In Tonga culture women are such a valuable commodity that a husband must pay a “lobola” or bride price to his wife’s family, as compensation for their loss of her, in order to marry her. Over the years, women have explained to Nina they feel that because the man has, in effect, paid for his wife he has the right to expect her to be productive in all aspects.

“The mothers of today produce the husbands of tomorrow”

Until the age of five, children spend almost 100% of their time with their mother. Young boys watch their mothers’ behaviour towards their father and other males in the family and ideas about the role of women start to become imprinted in their young minds. “Sisters have to work while the brothers just sit; the children watch the father order the mother around” (Nina Atkins van Kogelenberg).

Compounding this, is that in traditional Tonga culture, the more wives and girlfriends a man has to be productive for him, the greater his status in society. Children are symbols of that production and status, so the more children a man has, the greater his status also.

The wider impact of this traditional view of women in Tonga society is that women are unfulfilled. Sex within marriage is reported as not often being an enjoyable experience for women, rather an act submitted to upon demand, and the inequality in the home leads to women feeling that they are suffering in their marriages. This often causes to women to seek emotional and sexual fulfilment with other men, and the result is that both husband and wife end up having extra-marital sexual relationships. This obviously increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Traditional Tribal Practices

In traditional Tongaland, there were strict preparations undertaken by boys and girls who were coming of age and reaching sexual maturity. These traditional preparations were done in private by the tribal clan and these were the methods through which boys and girls were taught about sex and relationships.

Gobelo was a short preparation undertaken by boys to explain to them the roles, duties and right in marriage.

Nkolola is a much longer preparation period of a few months, undertaken by girls, to teach them how to satisfy their husband sexually and their role in marriage. Nkolola literally means, “in the hut”, which is where girls are taken for these preparations. On completion, girls’ new sexual “maturity” is celebrated with an Nkolola ceremony, involving the wider community.

Over the last few decades this kind of traditional preparation has been decreasing and Gobelo, for boys, has nearly died out. Because talking about sex and relationships is completely culturally inappropriate outside of Gobelo and Nkolola, the decline in these traditional preparations have left a gap in young people’s education which is having an impact on cultural attitudes and expectations of sex and relationships. With no culturally appropriate alternatives, young people are left to form their ideas about sex and relationships from the media: from television, more recently, videos and DVDs and through access to pornography. What these portray about sex and relationships are not an accurate or helpful representation, and only serve to fuel myths, misconceptions and attitudes that promote unrealistic expectations of sex, promiscuity and ultimately lead to unfulfilling sexual relationships.


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