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The Taabwa People of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo

Religion:        Traditional Religion
Population:     851,359 (, 1999)
Registry of Peoples code: Tabwa  109677
Registry of Language code:  tap


The Taabwa people are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and across the border in Zambia, along the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.  The Ethnologue describes their location in DRC as follows:  Katanga Province, on Lake Tanganyika, south of Moba. reports a population of 851,359 for DRC in 1999.  Their report for Zambia gives 68,680.  Operation World estimates their population at 79,660 in Zambia and 594,940 in DRC. also separately reports a sub-group called Shila (ROP 108944), but the population for this entity reports again the full population of 68,680 for all Taabwa in Zambia.

For DRC, the Ethnologue reports no new population figure since Barrett 1972 (250,000).  For Zambia they report 60,000, with no source or date.

In Zambia 26,500 Taabwa are also reported to speak Bemba as a mother tongue, and these are probably counted as Bemba in most sources.

Like most ethnic groups in south of the Sahara, the Taabwa speak a Bantu language.  Language analysts say it is close the Bemba and Luba of the neighbouring peoples.  The Bantu peoples migrated east, west and south out of Central Africa sometime around the time of Christ, or a little before.

Sources report that the Taabwa migrated across the southern Congo-Zaire border in Zambia in the 1700s.  Many Bantu migrations were going on in Eastern Africa at this time.  Over time in Zambia they intermarried with some of the people groups in the area, primarily Bemba, which affected the form of their speech, leading to the dialect called Shila.  But I notice that the Ethnologue reports that the Shila dialect is also spoken in Congo.

The Taabwa people are a Bantu group with a language similar to the Bemba.  The name is spelled Tabwa in some sources.  They are also called Tarbwa.  In Zambia they are also known as Shila or Sila, which is also the name of a dialect of the language.  They are also known by some as Rungu.

Some say that the name Taabwa comes from a verb in their language meaning "to be tied up," referring to the time when they were targeted by slavers.

The Taabwa Newtwork reports: Because of their lack of education the Tabwa used to have a minority complex, but this is changing.  Other tribes interact quite easily with the Tabwa and neighbour relations are good. Only 15% of the population live in the urban areas.

The Ethnologue classifies the Taabwa language in the Bemba Group.  It is reported that the Shila dialect is a varation resulting from the heavy borrowing from Bemba after the migration in to Zambia.  The Ethnologue, however, reports the Shila dialect is also spoken in the DRC.

Traditionally they were hunters and blacksmiths.  Today they live primarily from fishing as well as hunting. They are also involved in agriculture, growing manioc, millet, cassava, beans and maize.

The Taabwa Network reports the following:
Farming is their main source of income and they trade produce with the Haushi and Bemba speaking people.  They are a polygamous society and live in groups of 20 people.  Shelter consists of little huts made out of mud.

Conflicts are handled by the chiefs or local presidents. An offender either has to pay a fine or suffer a couple of lashes with a hippopotamus tail. The chief of the area normally calls upon the ancestral spirits to bless the land and make the soil fertile.

The Taabwa practice a type of body decoration called scarification.  "On the whole surface of the body, a recurrent motif consists of twinned isosceles triangles, the two bases of which symbolize the duality of life.  They evoke the coming of the new moon, essential to Tabwa philosophy, whose return would be celebrated monthly."  These markings are menat to "embellish the body and recall social values."    -- TRIBAL AFRICAN ART -- TABWA

The Taabwa practice a matrilineal inheritance pattern, which determines the chiefs who lead their fairly autonomous villages.  Autonomy of the villages has diminished in recent times, one of the results of colonial approaches to administration of the various ethnicities under their dominion.

The Taabwa depend primarily on farming for their livelihood.

The Ethnologue reports that the Taabwa in DRC practice three types of religion; in order of dominance: Traditional Religion, Christianity and Islam.  In Zambia they report only Traditional Religion. similarly reports "Ancestor Worship" for the Taabwa in Zambia, thought the entry for DRC reads "Traditional Religion."  It is not clear if this is meant to indicate any difference.

The Taabwa Network reports 1% Islam among the people (source SIL), with 39% Christian adherents, with 60% Traditional Religion.  In their traditional practices, like other African peoples, the Taabwa honor their ancestors.  They carve figurines of them, and have ceremonies of special recognition of the ancestors in the time of the New Moon.  The Moon is ritually symbolized by the triangle.

The Taabwa Project is a network supporting Christian work among the Taabwa in Zambia.  Their information is not clear on whether they actually have personnel or operations on-site yet.

This network describes their engagement project:
The outreach focus on supporting the Tarbwa people, one of the 100 least reached tribes of Southern Africa.  In conjunction with existing churches of neighboring tribes, the ministry extends to them.  The outreach focuses on leadership development, research, evangelism and observation.  The purpose of this ministry are being influenced by the Tarbwa Support Network.

They have an advocacy website with some information and advocacy plans.  See also their more detailed information on the Taabwa people there.

I have found no information on any Christian films in Taabwa.  Translators report that a translation of the New Testament in the Taabwa language was released in Nairobi in 2007.  Global Recordings Network reports recorded resources in the Taabwa language.

For more on The Taabwa
Global Recordings Network DRC
Shila (
Taabwa -- Ethnologue
Taabwa-English Dictionary
Taabwa Network
Taabwa ( DRC
Taabwa ( Zambia
Tribal African Art -- Tabwa

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written 24 February 2006
Revised and first posted on OJTR 9 May 2006
Last edited 3 March 2008

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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