Zambia’s population is mostly made up of Bantu-speaking peoples divided into as many as
70 ethnic groups, although nearly 90 percent of Zambia’s people belong to one of nine ethnic
groups. The Bemba, who originated in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
dominate the Northern Province. Southern central Zambia is home to the Tonga, while the
Ngoni are the primary ethnic group in the southeast.
The Bemba (or Awemba, Wemba) are of the larger and more influential of Zambia’s ethnic groups. Although only about 11 percent of Zambia’s population is Bemba, over a quarter of the population speaks ciBemba – the language of the Bemba – as their native tongue. This is due to the spread of Bemba political control in the last half of the 19th century, and to the disproportionately large portion of Bemba-speaking labor immigrants to the Copperbelt mines from the 1920s. The United National Independence Party (UNIP) once was considered a Bemba-dominated political party as was the Movement for Multiparty Democracy Party in the 1990s.
The Tonga are the second largest group. Both a linguistic and ethnic term, Lenje, Soli and Ila are all included in the Tonga language family, but are not counted among the ciTonga speakers in Zambia. Tonga speakers constitute about 12 percent of the population and include languages such as Toka, Totela, Leya, Subiya. Ethnically, there are about 800,000 Plateau and Gwmbe Tonga in Zambia. They live in the Southern Province, south of the Kafue River and along the western half of the Zambezi River border with Zimbabwe.
Lunda is another major ethnic and linguistic group in Zambia as well as other parts of southern and central Africa such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Lunda language is one of Zambia’s eight official languages, and is spoken primarily in North-Western Province.
Besides sharing a common language with the Lunda, the Mambwe people, like the Lunda, seem to have their origin (according to oral tradition) in the pre-colonial land of what is not the DRC. They live in the northeastern part of the Northern Province, straddling the Zambia-Tanzania border. The Mambwe are best known for their iron-working and their productive, grass-composted garden mounds.
The Lozi (or Barotse, Rotse) are, historically, one of the most prominent peoples of Zambia. They were the first to be involved with the Europeans. Missionaries like David Livingstone, Frederick Arnot, Reverend Franҫois Coillard and others all wrote back to Europe about their contacts with the Lozi. In addition, Cecil Rhodes secured rights within Lozi territory through concessions secured by men like Frank Lochner and Harry Ware. Because of this, the British South Africa Company opened up Barotseland to European influence. During the 20th century, the Lozi were very open to European education, and thus provided many of the African civil servants working in other parts of the country.
Throughout the independence era, the Lozi struggled to regain the semi-autonomous status that they enjoyed as a Barotseland Protectorate, prior to the Local Government Act of 1965.
Several other smaller ethnic groups and sub-groups exist in Zambia.