People & Culture

Sparsely populated country

Copper Bullets

Zambia's national football team has the nickname of the Copper Bullets, because of the importance of copper in the country. In 2012, the Bullets won the Africa Cup of Nations, which was a significant event for many Zambians – see below.

Zambia’s relatively small population of over 13 million live in an area twice the size of neighbouring Zimbabwe and nearly two-thirds as big as South Africa (which has a population of over 50 million). Therefore much of Zambia is sparsely populated.

The greatest concentrations of people live in the capital Lusaka and along a 90-mile corridor of land known as the ‘Copperbelt', where the country’s major source of revenue is mined - see Economy & Industry.

Languages and greetings

A lesson in Bemba


In this video… Theresa translates a few common phrases into her local language of Bemba.

English is the official language. However, Zambia is home to many different groups, speaking more than 72 local languages/ dialects. Bemba is the most widely-spoken, spoken by more than two million Zambians in Lusaka and across the Copperbelt.

There are six other main local languages – Nyanja/Chewa (used across the country), Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda (in the west), Tonga (in the south) and Lozi (spoken along the Zambezi).

As in many African countries, Zambian society is unhurried and a formal greeting always takes place before any conversation. A typical greeting involves an exchange of ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’, followed by an inquiry and response such as ‘How are you?’ – ‘I am fine, thank you.’

Traditional customs

Too many husbands?


In this video… Jackie, office manager at the national headquarters of SOS Children in Zambia, says she has 52 ‘husbands’ within the SOS organisation. It’s because in her group's culture, the males or ‘traditional cousins’ of another tribe are regarded as surrogate ‘husbands’.

Following the arrival of missionaries in the 1800s, Zambia became predominantly Christian, so Easter and Christmas holidays are celebrated. But many people also retain some traditional beliefs and customs (see Sunday School to hear about religion in Zambia).

Traditional ceremonies are held annually in various regions. Some mark when children become adults or commemorate a season, for example Shimuenga gives thanks for the safe delivery of crops and livestock. Others mark an historical event – Umutomboko celebrates the Lunda's conquering of the west.

Probably the most famous traditional ceremony is the Kuomboka, when the Lozi people make their way in boats along the Zambezi for a ceremonial trip away from the annual floods. Kuomboka literally means ‘to get out of the water onto dry ground’. The Litunga (king) and his family lead the procession in a barge with white-dressed paddlers. This ceremony dates back more than 300 years when the Lozi people first settled in the upper regions of the Zambezi.

Arts and sport

The 1993 football tragedy

In 1993, Zambia lost 18 national football players in an aeroplane crash. The squad were headed to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal and were expected to do well. The captain, Kalusha Bwalya, was not on the ill-fated flight and held the Africa Cup trophy high with the winning 2012 team.

As in many countries, sport is hugely important. Football is the main passion and Zambians were euphoric when their team won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. The win was significant and moving because of a tragedy which occurred in 1993.

Traditional arts and crafts, such as wood carving, basket-weaving and pottery, are valued. But these crafts are under threat because of migration away from rural areas and the arrival of modern manufactured goods. National museums and craft organisations in Zambia aim to promote craftwork to keep traditional skills alive.

Basketry varies widely according to local practices and materials, which range from bamboo, liana vines, roots, reeds, grasses, rushes, papyrus palm leaves and bark. Natural dyes are used for decoration. Everyday basketry items include mats, holders, sieves and beer strainers.