Every year on the Barotse Plain, as summer gives way to winter, the Kuomboka procession makes its way down the Zambezi River, proceeding in a flurry of vibrant colours, beating drums and chanting voices. This annual procession marks the transition of the Litunga (king) from his summer to winter residence, which is located on higher ground, away from the seasonal flood plains. The exact date changes every year, depending on the ebb and flow of the natural world. It is kept a secret until right before the procession to ensure the safety of the king. It usually takes place in the month of April.
Origins of the Procession
The Kuomboka is steeped in legend and myth but originates from the annual arrival of the floods. The legend goes that hundreds of years ago, there was a mighty flood called Mezi ya Lungwangwa that swept across the land, taking with it almost all the animals and villages. Those who survived feared the flood and asked for 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, which were spread at the first place they landed, giving rise to the plants and animals we know today.
Now, every year during this season when the moon is full the procession takes the Litunga to the safety of higher ground, calling for everyone to follow.
The first day begins with the beating of the special Moama drum, which is used to signal important occasions. First, the Litunga beats the drums to signify the freedom from the suffering brought on by the floods and call for the royal paddlers to assemble at the Barotse Royal Palace. The drum is then beat by the Natamoyo (Chief Justice), members of the royal family and the Indunas (local area chiefs). After that, the king returns to his palace, leaving the drum to be continually beaten until 11pm by men who have come to celebrate. Against this continual drumbeat, other festivities unfold, including a royal canoeing regatta between the female paddlers and their male counterparts.
As a new day breaks on the Barotse Plain, 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.
Before receiving their feathers, the royal paddlers participate in a refresher course at the palace. Afterward, the local Induna will present each paddler with their ceremonial headdress, each complete with one of the feathers plucked earlier by the royal family.
On the final night before the Kuomboka procession begins, the royal paddlers spend the night at the Lealui Palace away from their wives. Per the tradition of Lozi etiquette, royal paddlers may not be with their wives before boarding the Nalikwanda.
Departing Lealui Palace
In the early hours of the morning, before dawn has broken across the plains, a drum is beaten to signify the eminent departure of the Litunga from the Lealui Palace. 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 proceed.
First to appear and board the Nalikwanda are the 180 royal paddlers, clad in traditional siziba attire that features red, the colour of warriors. A magnificent sight, the Nalikwanda is painted with bold black and white stripes – black for the Lozi people and white for spirituality. Representing 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.
Finally, 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 full Nalikwanda procession departs, the royal musicians on board continue the festivities. 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).
Music of the Kuomboka
Music plays a fascinating role in the procession, acting as a form of beautiful, 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 behind 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.
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