Shamans of the Ndembu Tribe

The Ndembu shaman must keep the spirits pleased in order to protect his tribe .

ndembu shaman dance
Tribal dances of the Ndembu Shamans

Ndembu are an Southern African tribe , part of the ancient Lunda Empire .


Between 1750 and 1800 Led by their chief Kanongesha the Ndembu tribe left the Northern Lunda Empire and settled to the southern Congo , the district of Kapanga . In their new home the tribe abandoned the patrilineal descent system and turned to a matrilineal society . During 19th century the many of tribe members are enslaved by the Ovimbundu slave traders .

In almost all of the African cultures the shaman plays a major role in the society . The Ndembu are no exception . The Ndembu shaman (chimbuki, chiyang'a) is a key figure in the social and spiritual life of the community . Furthermore ,the tribe relies to the shaman to deal with the spiritual realm and to ensure the well-being of the tribe members . The shaman must identify the troubled spirits that are threatening the people . Relying on his experience as a shaman must then pick the ritual suitable for the case . He uses the rituals to calm the raging spirits or to help them pass in to the realm of the spirits where they will find peace .

Not everyone can become a shaman however .


Ndembu boys preparing for shamanic initiation
Ndembu boys prepared for an initiation ceremony


The shaman is be chosen by the high spirits . These spirits will then teach and guide the shaman on his path . When chosen by the spirits he is tested for his strength and endurance . The shamanic initiation begins with a severe sickness . If the pupil survives the disaster sent by the spirits he is considered suitable for a shaman . The young chimbuki is then assigned to a master shaman in order to continue his training .

The Ndembu shaman are very skillful in natural and plant medicine .


These are probably the shaman’s most important tools in his work with the spirits . He uses plant brews and potions to strengthen himself and to be able to endure the negative influences of the bad spirits . Furthermore the potion is used to protect the shaman from the discouraging visions the spirits are sending . They help him to keep his sanity and to endure the harsh influences of the evil spirits .

The ihamba spirits are one of these causing troubles to the community , but they are also threat for the shaman . The ihamba is a death hunter’s tooth which enters the human bloodstream , causing pain and illness . If not removed he threatens the host life . The anthropologist Edith Turner became witness of one such battle :

pressed Meru’s back, guiding and leading out the tooth – Meru’s face in a grin of tranced passion, her back quivering rapidly. Suddenly Meru raised her arm, stretched it in liberation, and I saw with my own eyes a giant thing emerging out of the flesh of her back. It was a large gray blob about six inches across, opaque and something between solid and smoke: I was amazed, delighted. I still laugh with glee at the realization of having seen it, the ihamba, and so big! Everyone was hooting, and we were all jumping with triumph. The gray thing was actually out there, visible, and you could see Singleton’s hands working and scrabbling on the back. And then it was there no more. Singleton had whatever it was in his pouch, pressing it in with his other hand.

In order to protect himself and the patient , the shaman prepares a brew from plants and herbs which they both consume . invincible for the ihamba .This brew makes the chimbuki invincible . 


The ancestor’s spirits playing major role in the Ndembu everyday life . Furthermore, the people must take care of these spirits well being . If the spirit is unpleased however he will punish the these who disrespect him with illness , pain and suffering . The angry spirit can take a horrifyingly incarnations which he uses to spread fear in these that are displeasing them . The Ndembu believe that of the psychological disorders are caused by these evil spirits .

The Ndembu spiritual traditions are fascinating . Their shamans are struggling to protect the society of evil influences . They will continue doing it as the people need them . Ndembu need the guidance the wisdom and the powers of their spiritual teachers .

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