Lunda people draw on Baha’i teachings to transform culture, music

May 18, 2018

MWINILUNGA, Zambia — A young man strums his guitar as others sway along beside him. “Enu mwakweñewa! Tabanaka yakudinuña,” he sings. The group repeats the line, and so begins this song quoting Baha’u’llah’s statement: “The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers.”

This is a familiar scene for the Lunda people in southern Africa. Collective singing is an essential element of Lunda communication and culture, and it not only marks the milestones of life but is also integrated into many daily activities and interactions.

“Our singing is inspired by our culture and tradition,” says Gregory Kaumba, a member of the Baha’i community in Mwinilunga. “But now, much of what we sing about is influenced by the Baha’i writings.”

The evolution of this aspect of the community’s culture is part of a broader transformation occurring, one that is remarkable for the extent to which Baha’i communities among the Lunda people have taken charge of their own development and are consciously deciding what kind of changes they want to see in their families and villages.

This profound dialogue about the future of the Lunda people was given impetus by a conference held in 2015 that brought together hundreds of Lunda Baha’is to discuss how the teachings of Baha’u’llah are being applied to the life of their society. A special focus was given to aspects of their culture. The participants at the conference consulted about how to strengthen elements of their culture that contribute to unity and a stronger community. The unifying act of group singing, for example, has been continually nurtured.

At the conference, the centrality of singing to this culture was evident.

“I remember at the Lunda conference after a very touching talk from Chief Ntambu, there was just an explosion of singing,” Gregory recalls. “It’s hard to single out someone. You cannot say this person is the one singing this song. When the friends are really touched, songs will start spontaneously. One song finishes another begins. You know, you can see it, you can tell that people have been touched just from the way that they sing. It's not something you can force and say ‘friends, sing with vigor.’ But when touched they just do it naturally.”

Since the conference, the Lunda Baha’is along with their friends and neighbors have continued striving to learn how to remain true to their rich cultural and spiritual heritage while strengthening the expression of Baha’i principles such as unity, justice, and the equality of women and men, in their individual and collective lives.

Through these efforts, a process of social transformation has accelerated which is reflected in changes in the people’s music.

“We are learning to compose songs that uplift us and speak to our nobility.”

Daniel Kaumba

“The songs of the Lunda people touch on every aspect of life: love, marriage, birth, loss, and even football,” explains Daniel Kaumba, Gregory’s brother, who is also a Baha’i and has been working in the field of education and development in the area. “There are many traditional songs that people would sing all day. But some of these songs were actually quite negative—they would insult and belittle others, or broadcast another person’s mistakes to everyone.

“Now people are reflecting more on how those types of songs did not help us feel united, and they are focusing on singing and composing songs with good messages.

“We are learning to compose songs that uplift us and speak to our nobility,” Daniel continues.

Music is an important part of life among the Lunda population. Slideshow
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Music is an important part of life among the Lunda population.

With the goal of songs that are uplifting in mind, the Lunda Baha’is have been conscious of the centrality of music to their culture. Given this centrality, they have also seen how singing can be used in a divisive way.

“When we think about singing, we are thinking about which elements of our culture promote unity,” says Gregory. “It used to be that singing groups would sometimes attack people of a different religion in their songs,” says Gregory. “But we started to compose songs in which we are not attacking any population. Gradually this influenced the other groups. Now they had seen a religion which was singing songs that embrace them also. So they began to sing songs embracing other religions. That felt like a big shift in the culture—for those songs that were dividing people to be replaced by songs that unite.

“At Baha’i events, space is given to both Baha’i songs and to traditional songs that have a positive message. People in the community started talking about this and expressing appreciation for this approach, because it doesn’t view traditional songs and ceremonies as sinful.”

In Mwinilunga, as the choir continues its song, their voices harmonize: “Ye are the fruits of one tree.” Their singing and swaying to the melody mirrors the song’s message of unity, a message the Lunda Baha’is are trying to share in more and more songs.

“Music should uplift the spirit,” Daniel says, reflecting on this positive movement.

“When there is an event that has brought joy to the hearts of the people, it is expressed in music. And when there is anything that has saddened their hearts—that too is expressed through song. You can feel the soul of the people in their singing.”