What is the fuss all about the Kuomboka ceremony of Zambia? "It is just a chief moving his people (and of course himself) out of his flooded abode to a drier one". That is how some people who do not appreciate culture would react when told about the Kuomboka ceremony.
Incidentally, Kuomboka means “to get out of water". The ceremony takes place at the end of the rain season, around March and April. During this period, the Zambezi River floods the plain of Western province. This is the time when the Litunga, king of the Lozi people moves from Lealui to Limulunga on higher ground.
The Kuomboka ceremony is quite a big deal and something definitely worth seeing. You haven’t been there? Well, in that case, let us take a mental tour shall we? I am sure by the end of this trip, even the non-appreciative will be on their feet clapping.
This story is a contribution from vivid eye witness accounts. It is a story of my two sons.....
The atmosphere is electric. There is a fantastically big crowd standing along the banks of the flooded river as far as the eye can see. We wedge our way through so as to have a good view of the whole Kuomboka ceremony. Better pull out that camera! Believe it or not, we are dripping wet. Now, how did that happen?
My partner Martin and I had started off around 03:00hrs from our home in Kafue Gorge. As you can imagine, the journey was terribly long. Oh, how I detest long journeys! By the time we arrived in Mongu, around 11:00hrs, my bottom was sore. But the Kuomboka ceremony was to be seen!
On arriving, we went straight to the harbour to get a boat to Lealui in the Barotse Flood plains. We were not the only ones. There was a large crowd of people fighting to find a place on the limited amount of speed boats and canoes. The boats were definitely filled beyond their capacity. I winced and hit my brother on his shoulder. The consequences of being late!
We were informed that the king was just about to start off and we did not want to miss anything. Imagine the fun if we could follow the Nalikwanda, the boat that carries the King! Early though we were, others had arrived the previous day and had secured themselves strategic positions along the river. One of those who was not so fortunate was Charlie, a British tourist.
Charlie did not seem to be in a rush though. He seemed to be enjoying watching the struggling masses. He was taking photos with his powerful digital camera strapped around his neck. He walked up to us.
Want to take a boat? he asked.
Yes.” I replied almost in annoyance. He definitely could see that we wanted to get on a boat!
Not very safe it is.” He said as he stared into the dark waters. “I would rather you drive.”
I glared at him. Very clever he was! He wanted to discourage us so that he takes our place on the boat.
If it is not safe, what are you doing here yourself? I sniggered.
To have some fun! He snickered as he took a photo of me. I winced at the flash and pulled Martin away. We managed to find a speedboat that was not so full. We literally threw ourselves into it. The people on board looked daggers at us. There was a man in sunglasses that stretched out his hand towards us. I instinctively knew what he wanted. I thrust some money into his hand.
That’s all we have,” I said. He frowned but said nothing. He started the engine and the boat shot off at a high speed. We had hardly moved a distance when there was a bang and I felt myself rising. It happened so fast. The next thing I knew, I was in the water gasping for breath. The boat had capsized, throwing all of us into the water. It had hit a canoe which had also capsized. Thankfully, I knew how to swim, but my brother did not.
As I said earlier, that’s how we found ourselves dripping wet.
Martin! I screamed as I struggled frantically to stay afloat. The back pack which had now soaked water was weighing me down. I saw him clinging to the boat along with some other people. I sighed with relief. I swam to him.
Let’s go back to shore,” I told him. I pulled him along as I swam. When we got to safety, we walked straight to Charlie who was laughing hilariously. I stretched out my hand and greeted him.
You obviously know something that I don’t” I said.
It’s not my first time. Such things usually happen. I have seen the Kuomboka ceremony several times. He said.
What do we do now? Martin asked, worried that we will miss the occasion all together. Charlie grinned.
Come, he said. He took us to his land rover. “Come in. we don’t want to miss a thing do we? Reluctantly, we got in.
That is how we found ourselves, standing here along the banks of the river at Limulunga, waiting for the arrival of the king. Embarrassing though it is, Charlie knows more about the Kuomboka ceremony than we do ourselves. He keeps asking searching questions to find out how much we know.
Did you hear the Maoma drums? he asks.
I shrug and stare at my brother. He shrugs too and says. “We came today. What are they? ”
He laughs at our lack of knowledge. “They are beaten to announce the event. They were beaten yesterday at the king’s capital in Lealui.”
I stare at the river nonchalantly, wondering how a foreigner can know more about this event than I do. The wait for the arrival of the king is a long one, especially with Charlie showering me with a barrage of questions. Martin goes for a walk and comes back later, wearing a large red hat. He looks rather ridiculous in it.
Where did you get that ridiculous hat?! I yell, like the big brother I am.
The museum, that’s where.”
Dent spend too much money on unnecessary things.”
Charlie puts his heavy hand on my shoulder and says “It is always wise to get a memento; you know to prove to the disputing world that you were actually here and you witnessed the Kuomboka ceremony”.”
Finally after a long wait, there is loud cheering and the large crowd of people which has suddenly increased rushes forward to get a good view of the procession. Charlie grabs me by the hand and we fight our way through the crowd.
I can barely see what is happening. Martin struggles to find his camera which remarkably survived the accident. I stare around vigorously but I do not see anything significant. The only things I see are small boats with over enthusiastic paddlers dressed in traditional regalia. I smirk. Where is the majestic Nalikwanda with its skillful paddlers?
Listen, Charlie says upon noticing my disinterest. I listen, but I hear only the cheering from the crowds.
It’s the drums,” Martin says, his eyes shining with excitement. Suddenly, I hear them— a nice slow rhythm. The large barge comes into view. I hold my breath without realizing it. There are dozens of paddlers on either side, skillfully paddling to the rhythm of the drums. It is painted black and white. To my amazement, there is a large elephant on top. Its ears are flapping, almost as if it is alive.
Suddenly, I feel someone tagging my arm. It is Martin. He points at the boat with round eyes.
It’s on fire, he says, almost whispering, as he points to the smoke ascending from the barge.
Don’t be ridiculous, Charlie says, almost dying from laughter. “That smoke shows all that the king is alive and well.”
Oh, we say almost simultaneously.
Behind the Nalikwanda is a smaller boat. Rather than an elephant, there is a cattle egret atop. Its wings are also flapping. Charlie explains that this smaller boat is for the queen.
Finally, the boats are moored in and the important dignitaries get off. They are welcomed with a lot of fanfare. I cannot really explain how I feel after viewing this spectacular Kuomboka ceremony. I really feel a part of my culture now than I have ever felt before. I cannot wait to tell my friends about it....
Okay, maybe we have gone a little too far in our mental excursion. But all this was meant to arouse your interest in this event. As it is, the ceremony is one of the most popular traditional ceremonies in Zambia. So lay off that cynicism and see it for yourself. It’s actually more interesting than our imagination could afford.
Next time you come to Zambia, include the Kuomboka ceremony on your itinerary. You will be glad you did!
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