Facebook  Pinterest  Twitter

The Kuomboka – a Pageant of Zambian Culture

The Kuomboka – a Pageant of Zambian Culture

Tom Varley

Now that the waters of the Zambezi River have started swelling, the Barotse Flood Plain will soon be engulfed, giving it the appearance of a lake which it may once have been. The plain is flooded every year forcing residents to move with their animals to higher ground.

The people of Western Province have relocated themselves as dictated by the floods since time immemorial. Each family has two homes, the main home on the plain and a temporary one on higher land at the edge of the plain. The movement between these two homes is known as Kuomboka when moving from the floods, and Kufuluhela when returning.

The Kuomboka pageant, as we know it today, is centred on the Nalikwanda, a name for the state barge of the Litunga, or paramount chief. It is the symbol of unity of the people of Western Province and each ethnic group in the province provides a significant contribution to its making.
The Nalikwanda is the barge in which the Litunga travels with his entire chiefly assemblage of drummers and attendants. Its movement denotes the movement of state. It is usually accompanied by other barges which include the Notila, the barge the Litunga uses when touring his kingdom; the Mbolyanga, Njemenwa, and Namaongo, which are the barges that carry the Litunga’s wives, respectively called the  Mooyo, Malena and Mooli-Mbumba, in order of seniority. Since the present Litunga, Lubosi Imwiko, has only one wife, the Mooyo, he is accompanied by only the Mbolyanga barge.

Other barges are the Matende and Namandimbwe which carry the royal property and the kitchen utensils and staff respectively. The royal barges are followed by non-royal barges starting with the Nalikena, the Ngambela’s barge, followed by the Sabelele, the Queen mother’s barge. She is called the Mukwae Ngula. These official barges are followed by hundreds of canoes belonging to ordinary individuals who choose to be part of the royal escort.
It is not clear when Kuomboka started but it is generally agreed that the pattern of movement we see today was started by King Mulambwa Santulu more than 200 years ago. He built bigger canoes for the procession, as protocol demanded. His move signalled the time to leave the plain and his subjects came together to escort him to higher ground. The capital was not then fixed in one place; about 1793 it was at Namuso (Lilundu) on the banks of the Zambezi and he moved to the high water camp (Mafulo) at Milinga (present day Blue Gums) in Mongu along the Kanyonyo stream.

After Mulambwa’s reign came the invasion of the Kololo who ruled Bulozi for a period of about three decades. During this period, the ceremony was lost. Efforts to revive the Kuomboka came after the overthrow of the Kololo by Sipopa in 1864. Sipopa, like the Lozi Kings before him, had several capitals including Nalilele on the banks of the Zambezi. His Mafulo or summer capital was first at Mabili north-east of Mongu and later at Malundano in Makuku where one of the early traders, Elis, died during his visit to the chief.

Sipopa later established Lyalui (written Leyalui or Lealui), which means ‘for the people,’ to be his capital though he never really lived in it as he had to move to Sesheke where there was insurrection and he later died there. 

Sipopa’s successor, Lewanika, inherited Lyalui as his capital and had his Mafulo at Lubaci near Limulunga. He improved the Royal Barge, the Nalikwanda, to the form it is today.  Subsequently, the reigning Litungas after Lewanika have maintained Lealui as the capital. 
Yeta who followed Lewanika moved the summer capital from Lubaci to Limulunga, which means ‘rumours or unfounded stories,’ in 1930. From that time Limulunga became the summer capital of the Litunga. The Kuomboka became the more formalized pageant that we celebrate today, in the reign of Lubosi Lewanika.

This year once again, the Litunga, Lubosi Imwiko, will be moving from Lealui to Limulunga most likely at the end of March or early April. Like his predecessors, he may start the journey dressed in his Siziba, the traditional Lozi attire for men and appear in Limulunga clad in his admiral’s uniform. The uniform which has now been taken as his official dress on state occasions like the Kuomboka was first presented by the British king to Lewanika in 1902 on his visit to England. Since then, this uniform has been used by all subsequent Litungas during Kuomboka pageants.

Today, the Kuomboka is one of the most significant traditional ceremonies in the country, attracting visitors from all over the world. Over the years the attendance at the ceremony has grown tremendously, attracting large crowds. Last year the turn out, though not the highest, was estimated at about 15,000 people.

For those who would like to travel to the Kuomboka ceremony, Mongu the provincial capital of Western Province where it takes place is reachable by all weather roads from Lusaka or Livingstone. It is approximately 520 kms from Livingstone and 612 kms from Lusaka. Or catch a bus from Lusaka into Mongu or Livingstone to Mongu through Sesheke and Senanga.

Read more about the Kuomboka from the Zambezi Traveller:
Zambia’s waterborne pageant (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
History of the Litunga uniform (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)