One of my favourite music artists in Africa is a man called Edrisa Musuuza with stage name “Eddy Kenzo“. Three years ago, he released a hit song entitled “Sitya Loss” which I have probably played more than a hundred times by now. It is sung in the Luganda language of the BaGanda people of Southern Uganda.

Recently, I had a look at the lyrics of the song and I was astonished at the striking similarity with the Icibemba language of the AbaBemba people of Northern Zambia. Incidentally, both languages are the most widely spoken in their respective countries. First some little background.

Edrisa (aka Eddie) lost his mother at 5 and from age 6, he spent 13 years on the streets of Kampala, hustling and then selling sodas and water at a football stadium where fortune looked upon him favourably, thanks to his football skills.

He received an educational bursary and later found his way into music after High School. He began writing and singing hit songs while working with other established artists. In 2010, he released a song called “Stamina” which was used by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as his official campaign song in 2011.

The 2014 hit song “Sitya Loss”, meaning “I don’t fear loss” is a testament to Eddie’s enduring spirit of never giving up even in the face of extreme odds. Having been a street kid, he had lost everything in life but he triumphed and is not afraid of loss. Back to the Bemba connection.

“Sitya” (I don’t fear) in Luganda is very similar to “Nshitina” in Icibemba. In the song, he sings “Leka nzine” (let me dance) which is similar to “Leka ‘ncinde” in Icibemba. “Nze sitya loss” is equivalent to “Ine nshitina loss”.

There are several words in the song that are exactly the same in both Luganda and Icibemba. “Leka” (let, leave), “ndi” (I am), “ya” (of), “buno” (this), “mundeke” (leave me), “kale” (already) and “saana” (a lot). Here are some of the lyrics in the song (with Icibemba / English translation):

* Nze sitya loss, ndi boss <=> Ine nshitina loss, ndi boss (I dont fear loss, I am a boss)
* Buno bulamu bumpi <=> Buno ‘bumi bwipi (this life is short)
* Chigoma <=> icingoma (drum, the beat)
* Byansi bya kuleeka <=> Ifyapanshi fya kuleka (things of this earth should be left behind)
* Nze nkugambye kale, mundeke nange <=> Ine nimyeba kale, mundeke imbe (I told you already, let me be)
* Zina <=> Cinda (dance) [NOTE: The Easterners in Zambia say “vina”]
* Awo <=> apo (there, that place)
* Yelelele! <=> Yelelele! (A joyful shout)

The roots of the first five numbers, with prefixed examples used in speech are as follows (Luganda on the left, Icibemba on the right):

1. emu (omu, limu, kamu, kimu, …) <=> mo (kamo, cimo, limo, imo, …)
2. bbiri (babiri, abiri, kabiri, …) <=> bili (tubili, fibili, libili, ibili, ….)
3. ssatu (basatu, asatu, kasatu, …) <=> tatu (tutatu, fitatu, litatu, itatu, …)
4. nnya (bana, ana, kana, …) <=> ne (tune, fine, line, ine, …)
5. ttaano (bataano, ataano, kataano, …) <=> saano (tusaano, fisaano, lisaano, shisaano, …)

The numbers six to ten are:

6. mukaaga <=> mutanda
7. musanvu <=> cine lubali (literally “four on the side” in Icibemba)
8. munaana <=> cine konse konse (literally “four on both sides”)
9. mwenda <=> pabula
10. kkumi <=> ikumi

Other similar words (among many others) between the two languages with Luganda shown first are:

omwaaka | umwaaka (year); emyaka | imyaka (years); muzzukulu | umwishikulu (grandchild); omukulu | umukulu (adult); omwana | umwana (child); akalevu | akalefulefu (chin); okulinya | ukunina (climb); ekitambaala | icitambala (bandana, head-cloth); enjala | insala (hunger); mwezi | umweshi (month); ekirevu | imyefu (beard); omusipi | umushipi (belt), wakati | pakati (between), omuliro | umulilo (fire).

All these many examples cannot be a mere coincidence. You could probably translate “Sitya Loss” into Icibemba and get a near-perfect fit. Moreover, you will find typical Bemba names in Uganda like Kasolo, Kalumba, Mwenda, Mukoba and Mulenga. A fluent Bemba speaker can make out some things people speaking in Luganda are saying.

So why didn’t I learn about all this in History class in Secondary School? The only thing I remember is being taught that the Bembas came from the Luba-Lunda empire in Congo DR and entered Zambian in the 17th Century. There was no mention of the East African connection which is about 1,500km away. The Wikipedia entry on the AbaBemba people only mentions Uganda in passing when talking about the Basimba (or BaShimba) tribe which settled in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Haiti and Congo. To explain the similarity between Luganda and Icibemba, we can consider two plausible theories.

1. Present day AbaBemba and BaGanda tribes originated from the Bantu migration in West Africa that started 3,000 years ago. This migration happened in two streams with the first one going South into the Congo forest up to Angola and the other one across into East Africa. Perhaps the two tribes split from a single source in West Africa into the two areas and preserved many of their words and names in both regions. The Bantu expansion reached South Africa by the 3rd century AD.

2. The AbaBemba and BaGanda tribes are offshoots of an earlier tribe that settled in East Africa (The Bantu migration initially reached East Africa by 500BC). Perhaps this original tribe split up with one part remaining in Uganda as BaGanda and the other migrating to Congo to become AbaBemba and then later into Zambia.

The history of the BaGanda is very obscure, with one of many contradictory traditions suggesting that their kingdom was founded in present day Uganda around 1300. The AbaBemba were already in Congo by the 1400s in the Luba-Lunda empire so either theory is arguably equally probable (although it is also possible for both theories to be true).

It is of interest to note that Luganda words are also infused into Zambian languages from Eastern Province such as Chinsenga and Chichewa. “Mzikulu” (grandchild), “Ndevu” (beard), “Njala” (hunger) and “Vina” (dance) are similar to those in Luganda (shown earlier). The word “Mwezi” (month, moon) is the same in Luganda and Chichewa.

Also of note is the fact that the North and East share many names such as Mumba, Kaunda, Mumbo, Mwenda, etc. There are other languages in the North-East of Zambia that do not seem to have these extensive similarities such as Namwanga or Ngoni. This is probably because they were late entrants into Zambia.

In my little basic research online, I have found no historical accounts showing a more direct historical link between the BaGanda and AbaBemba or their languages despite the clear similarities. I hope one day a historian or linguist takes up the challenge of finding the link. For now, I wish I could get a hold of someone who speaks Luganda and Icibemba.

P/S – During the early development of what became the Buganda kingdom (originally called Muwaawa), there was a ruler called Bemba who was cruel and got defeated in a war by a man called Kintu (“Chintu”, meaning “thing” in Icibemba, is a common Bemba name in Zambia). Kintu consolidated the original 5 clans to officially found the Buganda kingdom. Bemba had named his palace “Buganda” and that became the name of the whole kingdom when Kintu took over. Buganda means “many bundles of sticks” (which are difficult to break) and “Bemba” (in Icibemba) means a sea or large lake (The Biblical Red Sea is translated “Bemba wa kashika” in Bemba Bibles).


Sitya Loss video

Another version of Sitya Loss with Kampala street kids dancing to it (original video had 24 million views before being removed)

Sitya Loss lyrics and translation

Stamina video

Wikipedia entry on Bemba people

Luganda language

Bemba language

Bantu Expansion

Origin of Buganda kingdom

Uganda: Caesar Mulenga – New ‘King’ of Kigezi and Ankole