Chisungu : A Girl's Initiation Ceremony Among the Bemba of Zambia book cover
2nd Edition

A Girl's Initiation Ceremony Among the Bemba of Zambia

ISBN 9780367540944
Published March 29, 2021 by Routledge
226 Pages

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Book Description

Audrey Richards (1899-1984) was a leading British anthropologist of the twentieth century and the first woman president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Based on fieldwork conducted at a time when the discipline was dominated by male anthropologists, Chisungu: A Girl’s Initiation Ceremony Among the Bemba of Zambia is widely hailed as a classic of anthropology and African and gender studies.

Underpinned by painstaking research carried out by Richards among the Bemba people in northern Zambia in the 1930s, Chisungu focuses on the initiation ceremonies for young Bemba girls. Pioneering the study of women’s rituals and challenging the prevailing theory that rites of passage served merely to transfer individuals from one status to another, Richards writes about the incredibly rich and diverse aspects of ritual that characterised Chisungu: its concern with matriliny; deference to elders; sex and reproduction; the birth of children; ideas about the continuity between past, present and future; and the centrality of emotional conflict.

On a deeper level, Chisungu is a crucial work for the role it accords to the meaning of symbolism in explaining the structure of society, paving the way for much subsequent understanding of the role of symbolic meaning and kinship.

This Routledge Classics edition includes a new foreword by Jessica Johnson and an introduction by Jean La Fontaine.

Table of Contents

Foreword to the Routledge Classics Edition Jessica Johnson

Introduction Jean La Fontaine 

Part 1: The Cultural Setting

1. Environment and Activities

2. Ideology and Dogma

3. Social Structure

4. The Marriage Contract

5. Accepted Sex Roles

Part 2: The Ceremony

6. The Ritual Type

7. The Actors in the Ceremony

8. The Character of the Rite

9. The Ceremony

10. Calendar of Events at Chisungu Performed at Chinsali

Part 3: The Interpretation of the Ceremony

11. Methods of Interpretation

12. Expressed Purposes of the Chisungu

13. Deduced Attitudes

14. The Chisingu in Relation to Tribal Dogma and Values

15. Unconscious Tensions and Conflicts

16. Pragmatic Effects.

Appendix A: The Distribution of Chisungu Ceremonies in Central Africa

Appendix B: Songs Sung During the Ceremony



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Audrey Richards (1899-1984) was one of the outstanding ethnographers of her generation. She completed her PhD at the London School of Economics in 1931, under the supervision of Bronisław Malinowski. She was amongst the first anthropologists to carry out fieldwork in Africa and taught at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1937 to 1940. On her return to England she taught at the London School of Economics and was a key member of the Colonial Social Science Research Council, leading to her becoming director of the newly established East Africa Institute at Makerere University, Uganda in 1950. She returned to England again in 1956 as a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she later served as vice-principal. She was awarded a CBE in 1955 and became the first woman president of the Royal Anthropological Institute.


"…a classic for the study of initiation rites" - American Anthropologist

"…a pioneer study of a rite de passage" - African Affairs

"For fifty years, Audrey Richards enriched anthropology; her contribution during that time was one of its guiding lights. Throughout her long and fruitful life, as teacher, administrator, and social analyst, she assayed kinship, nutrition, fertility, labor, migration and ritual, in studies that are classics in their field." - American Ethnologist