On Valentine Day in the United States people express and celebrate sentimental love. Beautiful flowers, lovely cards, candle light dinners, glittering jewelry, kisses, surprise gifts, and all kinds of intimate physical expressions of love are enjoyed. Americans, modern urban Zambians, those Zambians in the Diaspora might sometimes wonder how other people in different cultures express love. Often our glimpses of sentimental love in other cultures may be represented in common caricatures, for example, in movies that show the soupy or song bird accent of the French woman or man dripping with expressions of romantic love. The Bollywood movies from India may show us stunning beautiful Indian women and handsome men dancing in endless musicals of ecstatic scenes that explode with bright colors of clothes, music, and food. Some of these obvious Bollywood expressions of love from the Indian culture were apparent in the blockbuster movie: “Slum Dog Millionaire”.
But how do lovers in other cultures of the world express the love for each other who may not have a Valentine Day, have no romance novels, use language different from English or any of the European main stream languages, or have no movies yet? These men and women have no love cards, and custom may not allow lovers to kiss or hold hands in public as a show of affection. Because of these cultural differences, it might be easy for Americans and perhaps most Westerners, and African and Zambians in the Diaspora to assume that these men and women either love each other less than we do in the modern Westernized life style or that their relationships are dictated by dry obligations of family daily chores and arranged marriages. Nothing could be further from the truth. The way lovers express sentimental love between each other may not only be different but quite fascinating.
Take for example, among the Tumbuka people of the Eastern Province of Zambia and Northern Malawi in Southern Africa. Men and women do traditionally have choices and propose to their partners. There is a word in their language that is used to express love exclusively among intimate lovers whose meaning is much broader that includes but also goes beyond just the expression of romantic love: tasungana. The literal translation is “to keep each other.” The reader might wonder how this is different from the American “caring for each other.”
Sunga is a Tumbuka verb that means “to keep”. The prefix “ta” means “we” and then the suffix “na” wraps the the sunga or “keep” around the “we”. Thus is made the deepest expression of love between couples.
When a man or woman tells his or her lover that tasungana among the Tumbuka, that means the couple not only love each other deeply but their love is mutual and the bond has been tested and reinforced over a long period of time. First and foremost the most endearing aspect of tasungana is that the love and actions to care and support each other are mutual.
In the case of married couples, it means the woman makes sure she satisfies him physically and emotionally, has children for him, cooks some of his most favorite foods, advises him what may harm his health, takes care of him when he is sick or is facing some other adversity. In turn the man makes sure he is dependable, satisfies her physical and emotional needs, provides for her, gives her children, he takes her to the hospital and nurtures her when she is sick, provides for their children, protects, and looks out for her physical safety. Although individuals can sunga or “keep” children, elderly parents, a dog, cat, car, land, or a cell phone, tasungana is only reserved normally for married couples who mutually deeply love each over a long period of time. Among the Tumbuka, all brides and grooms before they get married are counseled to practice not just love but kusungana when they get married.
In fact the Tumbuka make a distinction between the romantic love at the beginning of a relationship during courtship and the much deeper relationship when the couple is married and live together in a home and create a family. The romantic love during courtship is called kutemwana and the love that binds the couple once they are married for a while is called kusungana which transcends romantic love.