Kuomboka Ceremony

Reflecting on the History of the Kuomboka Ceremony of the Lozi People

Kuomboka ceremony is one of the biggest traditional ceremonies celebrated annually by the Lozi speaking people of Zambia. It takes place at the end of every rainy season, specifically, around March/April after the Zambezi River gets flooded.

The word Kuomboka means ‘to get out’ of water/flood. Historically, in about 1830, the Lozi people occupied the Zambezi flood plains which they proudly named Barotseland. The flood was good for farming and cattle rearing.

Covering parts of Western and Southern provinces of Zambia as well as the Northern part of Botswana, Barotseland is characterized by floods which disturbed the livelihood of the people.

To survive the annual floods, the Lozi initiated a survival strategy of building villages on termite mounds or making mounds of earth and stones to make their homes higher. The Lozi developed architectural knowledge which they used to build homesteads that survived floods, seeing that Barotseland mainly sat on flood prone areas.   

But when the floods intensified, they had to move to escape the floods. However, this escape was temporal as they had to return to their homes after the flooding season.

Moving to higher ground to avoid floods became an important aspect of the Lozi culture, which took place every year. This cultural practice is commemorated every year.

The most profound feature of the ceremony is that the Lozi and other people from all walks of life that attend the ceremony get a chance to observe the movement of the Lozi king, traditionally known as the Litunga, meaning Great king, move from the lower palace called Lealui, to the higher palace called Limulunga where he stays until the floods go down in the valley.

Origin of the Kuomboka Ceremony

The lozi people originated from the lunda empire established in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They arrived in the Zambezi flood plains in about 1835 under a female ruler called mwambwa. Their new land was characterized by floods during the rainy season.

According to oral tradition, hundreds of years ago, there was a mighty flood called Mezi ya Lungwangwa that swept across the land where the Lozi people settled, taking with it almost all the animals and villages.

Those who survived the flood feared and devised a way to escape the waters. Their high God, Nyambe, ordered a man called Nakambela to build the first great canoe, or Nalikwanda, to help the people escape.

In the boat, they carried with them seeds and animal dung. They used animal dung to fertilise the soil at the first place they landed, giving rise to the plants and animals we know today in Loziland.

Moving to higher ground after flooding became an annual event known as the Kuomboka, meaning, “getting out of the water.

Every year during the ceremony, the Litunga travels in a ceremonial royal barge boat called Nalikwanda. The Nalikwanda is decorated like a Zebra, having black and white colors.

Preparations for the Kuomboka Ceremony

Preparation for the ceremony, begins several months prior to the holding of the festival, by the Lozi people as well as citizens and tourists from other countries who wish to support the culture of the Lozi people through witnessing the processions of this special event. The bulky of the works is done by the leaders listed below with their titles and meanings:

  • Litunga – the king or keeper of the Earth.
  • Nakambela: under order from the High God Nyambe to escape the flooding.
  • Natamoyo – the Chief Justice
  • Indunas – the local area chiefs
  • Moama – drum used to signal the start and finish of the Kuomboka procession.

Historically, crafting of the Nalikwanda was done by a man called Nakambela. The boat was decorated with black and white painted lines to represent the skin colour of the Lozi people, and white for spirituality. It was as well topped with an Elephant to represent the wildlife in the kingdom.

Attire Won at the Kuomboka Ceremony

On the day of the event the Litunga is dressed in a special glamorous attire comprising of a gold beaded skirt, shirt, and a round hat. It was auniform first given to Litunga Lewanika (ruler of the Lozi people between 1878 and 1916) by the British colonizers, when he first visited England in the 1800s.

This royal attire was given to him as an honor for the important role he played in the British penetration into central Africa and for having championed the signing of mining and land concessions with them.

The attire was passed on to the proceeding leaders. It is also won during other occasions deemed to be special by the Lozi or the government.

Other attire includes the Siziba which is decorated with different traditional features. It is won by the paddlers as well as other men of the Lozi folk. Women and girls also dress in a form of Siziba known as Musisi, in Luyana language it was called Mulamba. It is also said to have been adopted from the British.

Kuomboka Ceremony Activities

The Kuomboka ceremony runs for several days, it begins with the special beating of a drum called Moama by the Litunga.

This is to announce the Kuomboka ceremony and to signify the freedom from the suffering brought by the floods and call for the royal paddlers to assemble at Lealui Palace in readiness for the ceremony.

Paddlers are drawn from different communities in the kingdom depending on their exceptional performance in the kingdom. However, a bulk of them are young men.

The Natamoyo (Chief Justice), members of the royal family and the Indunas (local area chiefs) also beat the said drum. It is continually beaten until 11pm by men who have come to celebrate whilst other mini festivals are taking place.

As the second day breaks, members of the extended royal family are chosen by Queen Mboanjikana (sister to the Litunga) to pluck feathers from the lustrous tail of a long-tailed widow bird.

From February to April, the males of this species sport long, elegant, glossy black feathers in their tails to help attract females. Mating in a polygamous way, the top males can have up to 10 different nests in their territory.

The Lozi people concluded that any male with this many ‘wives’ must have great strength. It is believed that carrying one of these feathers will give the paddlers the strength needed for the long journey ahead.

Prior to receiving their feathers, the royal paddlers engage in a refresher course at the palace after which each paddler  is given a ceremonial headdress, each complete with one of the feathers plucked earlier by the royal family and a paddle.

On a night before the Kuomboka, the royal paddlers are not allowed to spend a night at home with their wives, they sleep at the Lealui Palace. This is done to help them focus on the ceremony.

Departing Lealui Palace

Before the dawn of the Kuomboka procession, another drum is beaten to symbolize the departure of the Litunga from the Lealui Palace, the summer residence of the king, located on the Barotse Plain, the historic hunting grounds of the king.

When the sun finally rises above the horizon, the Mwenduko drum is leaned against a pole facing east, signifying that all is ready, and the ceremony is about to start.

Firstly, 180 royal paddlers dressed in traditional siziba attire board the Nalikwanda together with the king. The magnificent Nalikwanda represents authority of power, a towering statue of an elephant sits atop the first barge, complete with moveable ears.

The Litunga’s wife travels on the second boat, which is topped with a statue of an elegant crowned crane, whose wings can flap.

Once everyone else has boarded, the Litunga makes his way onto the first boat of the Nalikwanda against the rhythmic chanting of praise for him.

Once settled, a chorus of drums begin playing a song called the Ifulwa, which marks the official start of the journey to the Limulunga Palace. For the last ceremonial step before departing, the paddlers sing songs about how the great Nalikwanda was built by the Lozi people, and songs of praise for the strength, bravery, and tact of the paddlers.

As the Nalikwanda departs for a journey of at least seven to eight hours, the royal musicians on board continue playing assorted music instruments. Smaller barges join the procession, travelling in beautiful displays of alternating circles on either side of the main barges.

Throughout the journey, a fire burns on board the Litunga’s boat – the smoke being used as a long-distance signal that the king is alive and well.

Halfway through the Kuomboka procession, the boats dock at Namutikitela to allow the paddlers to rest and enjoy a traditional Lozi meal of meat and Ilya (a thick maize porridge made with sour milk).

Kuomboka Ceremony Music

Music plays an interesting role in the procession, acting as a form of complex communication between those on the boats and those they pass by. The royal paddlers sing continuously, with the melodies changing depending on the needs of the group.

If a paddler is lagging the rhythm of the others, the melody changes to inform him. If he fails to keep up, he will be transferred to a smaller barge, and in extreme cases, if he resists, he will be thrown overboard.

Throughout the journey, the royal musicians play the Maoma drums and Lozi silimba (a wooden xylophone), calling for people to follow them to higher ground.

Docking of the Royal Badge at the Limulunga Harbour

Docking of the royal barge at the Limulunga Harbor is characterized by ceremonial and victorious music.

Three types of music are recited, that been the Mwanjabila, Lishoma and lastly the Maoma drums.

Mwanjabila tunes are victorious and praise hymns meant to show that people are happy for having landed safely. While Maoma drums, signify the power of conquest.

In fact, the Litunga is given a name in Lozi culture called Mokachana, meaning a calf-like in a kraal, if people cross the river or pass through the waters a calf must be protected.

Paddlers kneel in the barge whilst offering a royal clap and dances to signify respect to the Litunga

The Ngambela is the first one to come out of the royal barge called Nalikwanda, this is done to ensure that the environment is safe for the Litunga to get off the barge. 

Once he disembarks from the barge, he meets the guest of honor and other government official present at the ceremony.

For the Lozi people, this is a special and exciting moment because it takes months or years for the ordinary local people to see the Litunga.

In Lozi tradition the Litunga is a sacred being or God, for this reason he is secluded from the public.

Therefore, local people report early to the Limulunga harbor where the royal barge docks to get the best standing position to see the Litunga in full view without many distractions.

From there the royal band escorts him to the royal pavilion, at the Limulunga Palace. Which is the winter residence of the king, located on higher grounds away from the seasonal flood plains.

The Indaba, who is the chief xylophonist together with the Inwawa saxophonist, play their instruments while waiting for the Litunga and the guest of honor to arrive at the arena. Also masses of people from all walks of life and cooperate entities are present, gather at the Limulunga palace to wait for the arrival of the Litunga.

The rhymes that the drummers play, as the Litunga debarks from the Nalikwanda determines the pace at which he will move to the royal pavilion at Limulunga Palace. 

Some rhymes require the Litunga to move fast while others require him to move slowly and majestically, for instance, a song called Kanda requires fast movements.

The passage leading to the royal pavilion is restricted to the public, to allow for the Litunga to freely make his way the Royal pavilion as a slow tune called Lishoma is being played. The drummers and paddlers dance to the song as they go to their in celebration of the king.

Special Historical Features of the Limulunga Harbor

The street leading to the Limulunga palace also known as Namo arena is decorated with special sharp ended spear trees called Boimulombwe.

It signifies royalty and protection of the Litunga. Subjects within the kingdom are also at liberty to plant the tree around their yards. 

However, those found at the palace are painted black to represent powers that the Litunga possesses visa vis powers to give land and to maintain law and order in the land.

At the palace, there is a structure called Sikalukuta which is synonymous to a parliament and were laws are made and agreed upon to promote peace in the kingdom. It is headed by the Ngambela. There is also a pavilion for the drummers /paddlers, the female choir who occupy the pavilion on the right hand side of the palace and one for the sub-chiefs.

Once he sits the audience welcome him by kneeling and clapping as words of praise are said by one of the stewards.

Thereafter, the guest of honor delivers his key note speech to the Litunga and stakeholders follow. Finally, a vote of thanks is given by the Ngambela.

Economic Benefits of the Zambezi Floods to the Lozi People

Floods in the Zambezi valley ensured that the earths of the plains were rich and fertile. This enabled them to practice farming through growing crops such as sorghum, maize, and root crops.

The Lozi people also caught fish from the Zambezi and its tributaries, and in large dams on the plains. In the dry season, they used nets and spears.

And when the water level was higher, they trapped fish using reed fences and earth dams.Also, flood plains offered good grazing.

However, during the floods the Lozi had to move their cattle to higher lands. Where they continued growing different crops, including cassava, millet, and groundnuts.

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  1. Try to compare the lozi traditional attire to the Scottish traditional attire. Could it be then concluded that the giving the Litunga that attire was one way of extending the Scottish culture and traditions to Africa?

    1. You are right. That is the impact of colonial efforts in trying to change African culture. Today, we are proud as Zambians for the magnificency of the Kuomboka ceremony but it is an embodiment of both Zambian/African and Scottish culture especially in terms of attire as you have pointed out.