An agricultural and matrilineal people in present-day Zambia, the Tonga are a stateless and decentralized society. Joking relationships and marriages across clans help keep peace and order throughout the different villages.
There appears to have been slavery among the precolonial and colonial Tonga. Tim Matthews writes:
"Slavery, pawnship, or clientage, as it is sometimes called, probably existed among the Tonga as it did among many other Central African peoples long before the stimulus of external trade. There were many complex patterns of enslavement and conventions about slavery in Tonga society. People were enslaved for serious offences or as a result of impoverishment due to famine. Slaves could also be given to settle a blood debt. The existence of the institution, however, does not necessarily imply that slaves had special economic roles. Tonga slaves were in fact simply absorbed into their owner's lineages and homesteads, where their labors paralleled everyone else's."
Harold Barclay, in the section below, also speaks of gender inequality among the Tonga.
From Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy:
The Plateau Tonga
The Plateau Tonga are a matrilineal people living in southern Zambia. They number well over 150,000 with a population density of more than 60 people per square mile. The Tonga keep considerable herds of cattle and are also shifting cultivators, raising corn, millet and sorghum.
The population dwells in tiny villages, from four to eight comprising a neighbourhood cluster. Both because of the poor soil and the shifting cultivation, the location of a village is often changed and there is also some considerable movement of individuals from one location to another in order to establish a new residence.
In addition to residential ties, each Tonga is affiliated to a matrilineal clan, the members of which are scattered throughout the land. These clans have a highly amorphous character: they are not corporate groups; living members never meet as a group and they have no leaders. From the Tonga point of view, however, they are held together by a mystical bond with the ancestral ghosts. Their function seems to be limited to regulating marriage one cannot marry within the clan - and establishing joking relationships with the members of several other clans. In this way the clan serves as a social control mechanism, since such a relationship prescribes that an individual does not become mad at his joking relative. He engages in an easy-going, light-hearted association and presumably avoids conflict and open expression of hostility. The joking relationship, like that of avoidance, is designed as a technique to promote peace in a relationship which might ordinarily be seen as prone to conflict.
A Tonga also belongs to a matrilineal group within the clan. This is also a dispersed population, but more localised than the clan membership. Thus, a given village will tend to have a high proportion of members of one kin group. The Tonga system should not be seen as a matrilineal counterpart of the patrilineal segmentary system we encountered among the other African peoples. The Tonga are not much interested in genealogical reckoning. There is no internal segmentation or differentiation between the children of one woman within the group and those of another. It is also not at all difficult to become absorbed into a matrilineal group, although, theoretically, membership is based on verifiable descent through the female line. The group also has corporate characteristics. That is, members are jointly responsible for providing bride wealth for their members and for defending their own in feuds. At the same time they share bride wealth received for married daughters and are responsible for taking collective vengeance when one of their number has been murdered, robbed or injured. Inheritance is also governed by matrilineal group membership and there are mutual ritual obligations associated with it as well.
Each Tonga is involved in a complex pattern of relationships and obligations with those in other kin groups beside his own. Thus, one becomes an honorary member of one's father's matrilineal clan. Every household is in some . important way a matter of concern not only to the husband's matrilineal group, but also to the matrilineal groups of his wife, his father and his wife's father.
We have also said that each Clan is exogamous, but there are other marital regulations which have the effect of requiring that marriages be contracted with a wide variety of different groups, thus cementing alliances with a maximum number.
The neighbourhood in which one lives places on one still further obligations with yet other, unrelated people. Neighbourhoods control land use and exploitation of hunting, fishing and other resources. They obligate residents to a system of mutual aid in a wide variety of activities. Each neighbourhood has its own shrine and constitutes a local 'church'. In connection with this church the entire neighbourhood becomes a congregation for mourning the death of fellow residents, praying for rain and good crops, purifying the land after homicides and celebrating harvests.
Aside from residential and kin ties, the Tonga have an amorphous age grouping system which serves to strengthen intragenerational ties within a neighbourhood. A man may also loan some of his cattle out to others. This establishes new social ties; it also helps minimise the number of stock he might lose from an epidemic or raid. Finally, there are brotherhood pacts which guarantee peaceful movement, especially for trading activity between and among different contracting neighbourhoods.
Villages and neighbourhoods both have headmen and the neighbourhood headman is also priest of the local shrine. Of less significance are leaders of the matrilineal groups. Finally, there are various religious specialists including diviners and those through whom the spirits of the rain speak. A man can compound his importance by acquiring several of these positions. Nevertheless, Tonga leaders are always of local importance; there are no leaders or chiefs for all the Tonga.
Positions of prestige and influence are acquired through proving one's reputation as a worthy man. Leadership positions are pre carious in the sense that leaders can readily be abandoned by their followers. Headmen act as advisors, mediators and co ordinators. They might intervene in a dispute, but, like the other mediators we have encountered, they have no authority to enforce their views. At best they might resort to supernatural invocations. Feuds are carried on between clans and between different cult neighbourhoods. They can be brought to an end through agree ment to pay damages. The Tonga never act together as a single consolidated unit. No means exist for such a mobilisation. Tonga are apparently not eager to provoke hostilities. They, like other anarchic peoples, "stress the importance of personal restraint in the interests of avoiding any possibility of raising hackles". Colson states that Tonga "attempt to sidestep issues, are reluctant to allow their fellows to drag them into a dispute, and try to vanish from the scene if those in their vicinity seem intent on pursuing a quarrel. Or close supporters, who inevitably will be identified with the com batants attempt to restrain them, taking from their hands any weapons or tools which can be used for injury, applying gentle pres sure, and murmuring soothing words about the advisability of cool ing the combat for the moment. They do not want to take sides" or draw the wrath of a vengeful person (1974, 39).
The central mechanism of social control in Tonga society is the fact that any given individual is a member of a number of different groups, which in turn are part of a network of further obligations so that any negative action against an individual or group resulting from one set of relationships has its counter restraining effect resulting from affiliation with other groups and individuals. Let us recall that everyone has close ties with his own matrilineal group, that of his father, his mother's father and his father's father. This then establishes a connection with up to four clans. These clan relations are extended through joking relationships and marriage alliances. Further, one belongs to a neighbourhood which draws in still others who are not otherwise part of one's social network. Additionally, one establishes links through cattle loans and brotherhood pacts. By one connection or another a person would ordinarily find that effective restraining measures are built up to cover all the important social relations one might have. The fine mesh of counterbalancing obligations serves to integrate and give order to Tonga society which on the surface at least appears as a society without form. Through such means the Tonga turned 'chiefs', as well as centralised authority and integration, into redundancies.
It is a common misconception that matrilineal societies make women equal to men. But matriliny is not matriarchy. Reckoning descent through females is not rule by females. Of the latter there is no record and for matrilineal societies, such as the Tonga, we find still that men are dominant and have rights and privileges denied the women. It is of course true that in matrilineal societies women often have more leverage than otherwise, since property and status are inherited through affiliation with females. Matriliny, it is sometimes observed, provides a far more unstable kind of social organisation than does patriliny, because inherent in the former is a conflict between inheritance through females, on the one hand, and control of the social order by males, on the other. This conflict often leads to strong pressures towards patriliny, as is testified by African examples, including the Tonga. For the Tonga have deviated from the 'pristine' matrilineal type in practising virilocal residence and in ascribing no little influence to the father's kin group.
- Tim Matthews, "Notes on the Precolonial History of the Tonga, with Emphasis on the Upper River Gwembe and Victoria Falls Areas" in Chet S Lancaster and Kenneth Powers Vickery (eds.) The Tonga-speaking peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe: essays in honor of Elizabeth Colson (University Press of America, 2007), 24.
- Virilocal residence occurs where a newly roamed couple live in the household of the husband.