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Being impalume: a religio-cultural perspective of Bemba married men’s construction of masculinity in northern Zambia.

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According to Bemba traditional culture, there appears to be some religio-cultural contrast in place concerning the requirements and expectations of what an ‘ideal man’ is, and how this is perceived and measured by many people in religious and cultural spaces. The defining factors of a man as presented in Bemba matrilineal society seem to differ from how he is constructed in religious spaces, and this is a problem. In Bemba matrilineal society, a married man will traditionally reside at the home of his in-laws. As a married man, and by this tradition, he is expected to build a house at his in-laws’ place, and is given a piece of land for this purpose while he lives with their daughter. Such marriage practice is for in-laws to assess their son-in-law, and determine if he is an ideal man for their daughter. The son-in-law therefore works very hard and looks forward to a time when the in-laws will call him impalume. In this research, I call this ‘the practice of impalume’, and use the term to indicate how an ideal man is constructed in traditional Bemba marriage. Many masculinity scholars focus their studies on the evils of hegemonic masculinity—which is aggressive, dangerous, and deadly to women and children—and indicate that there is a need for redemptive masculinity; a form of masculinity which can help men shift away from destructive and harmful versions in favour of a life-giving form which protects women and children. Religion has further been blamed for reinforcing concepts of masculinity which are destructive or harmful. The study attempts to understand the religious and cultural perspective of being Impalume for Bemba married men. An ideal man in traditional Bemba matrilineal society is called Impalume, meaning an ‘ideal man’ who is a courageous, strong, brave, and bold warrior; a man who is dependable, responsible and able to keep and protect his family. I was drawn to this topic through my personal experience as a theologian working among the Bemba people, finding that my interest in masculinity studies lies in the African context. This is an empirical piece of research, which employed qualitative methodology to collect data from the field in Kasama, the heart of the Bemba Kingdom. Three congregations from within the United Church of Zambia were selected, where married men living with their in-laws were interviewed over focus group discussions, using guiding questions. The study employed theories of masculinity, focusing on hegemonic, subordinate, and redemptive masculinity, using the concept of impalume to discuss the criteria of the ‘ideal man’ as understood both in Bemba culture and within the Christian context. The objectives of the study, which helped me to shape this research, are as follows:• To understand what it means to be impalume among married Bemba men, from their religio- cultural perspective. • To explore the religious and cultural perspectives of married Bemba men, and the implications of being impalume. • To analyse potential redefinitions of impalume, in an attempt to provide positive concepts and perceptions of masculinity for married men in a matrilineal society. The study explores the roles of men as husbands in a matrilineal society, demonstrating that they are not central within the family structure, are subordinate to their father-in-law, and have less authority over their wives and children. The study also shows how the practice of impalume is not harmful to women and children, but does have some effect on married men in a matrilineal society.The study, from the data collected, reviews the benefits of being impalume, and recommends the practice of impalume as a tool for peaceful, progressive, caring, loving, respectful, and trustworthy teachings on the construction of masculinity. At the same time, the study reviews the challenges posed to married Bemba men, as they face issues such as economic disempowerment, slave labour, and gender-based violence. The study shows how the example of married Bemba men, as a construction of masculinity, can resonate with the religious construction of masculinity—redeeming men in matrilineal societies, and limiting harmful ideologies of masculinity in favour of masculinities which are life-giving. This study challenges religious, feminist and masculinity scholars to think about the men who are abused by their fellows, and to consider ways by which they may be redeemed.


Masters degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.