The picture that you see here is a picture of the over 300 year old traditional ceremony that takes place in part of my birth country, in Western Zambia called: Kuomboka. It’s a spectacular and rather blood-pumping experience to actually witness this event – from the singing, dancing, the drumming, the colourful outfits and music.
The word Kuomboka in the Lozi language literally means “getting out of water” which is exactly what happens here.
Perhaps I should add some context here. The Zambezi or traditionally known as “Barotse”- Floodplain is an immense area of flooded grassland in a region that has traditionally been under the rule of the Lozi King – the Litunga. In this rather sandy expanse of land – most of the traditional activities include fishing, livestock keeping, traditional weaving of baskets using the floodplain grass species and some agriculture takes place some places closer to forests unless much later once the floodplain has receded and deposited some fertile alluvial soils. By its name, this floodplain is dependent on the waters of the Zambezi River whose source is around the Angola – Zambia Border, from where it meanders southwards. This border region is, or has been (at least from my recent knowledge) a heavily forested area. The headwaters are within what is referred to as the Miombo woodland ecosystem.
As a floodplain ecologist I have been incredibly fascinated by floodplain ecosystems whose existence is dependent on the flooding-recession pattern to actually maintain a balance of sorts. However, the premise of this piece is to demonstrate how Africa’s traditional ceremonies and cultural practices are intimately linked to the land, water and the biodiversity dependent on these. And also why these cultural keepers (African Royal houses) are so pivotal in the environmental conversations as they relate to their very existence.
Right after the rainy season around the end of March (generally in after a good rains), the waters that arrive in the Lealui Plains of the Zambezi, flood the area. At this juncture, the King whose responsibility is to take care of his subjects and keep them out of harms way due to the precarious nature of floods, triggers a move. Now this is no ordinary move. An intricate process of discussions with his advisors (Indunas) and other cultural keepers, a three-day planning process ensues. The move must take place at Full moon. All planning done, by the early hours of the third day, the Mwenduko Drum is beaten signaling the Kuomboka will begin. The Royal Barge for the King, called the Nalikwanda, surrounded by smaller boats, is all set with a good 180 men and women to paddle it to higher ground in Limulunga. Once this drum has sounded, it’s also indicative that the King will not be spending the night at the Palace in Lealui. The spectacular barge has a wooden Elephant on top of it, with the barge itself painted in Black and white where Black signifies the Lozi People and White – spirituality.
Legend has it that many hundreds of years ago, a mighty flood called the Mezi ya Lungwangwa – literally meaning the water that swallowed everything – happened. Right after that the Lozis called upon their High God Nyambe who then ordered a man called Nakambela to build a great big boat to save the people and this boat was called the Nalikwanda -“For the People”. In this great boat, they carried with them seeds and animal dung that was eventually the vegetation and animals that now are within the present day floodplain.
This in effect signifies the fact that this is a Living System. Pulsating with this up and down dynamic of the Zambezi waters, the cycle is important not only to the overall ecology of the system but certainly to the culture of a people.
However, one ought to know that this incredible ceremony does not always take place. There have been some years in the not so recent past, that the floods have not been enough for the King to undertake Kuomboka. Changes in the rainfall patterns in the upper catchment due to recurring droughts not only have implications for shifts in traditional dynamics, but also reduced water for hydroelectricity generation that Zambia so heavily depends on. Compounded further by high levels of deforestation in the upper catchment, the impacts are dire. The issue of ecosystem connectivity is an important one.
Dotted across this river system are many cultural keepers and traditional leaders who are responsible (to a large extent) for the management of these important and critical natural resources.
I have many questions around this issue: How can cultural keepers within political/national borders (and beyond) work closely together especially in the case of Upstream-Downstream connectivity? How can these cultural keepers be the change for their communities especially in the conservation of their ecosystems and also restoration of degraded spaces? How can they galvanize communities in order to save the spaces we are so fast losing?
I know that many traditional and royal ceremonies across the African continent are ALL intimately linked to healthy and thriving ecosystems. Even the masks the men wear during ceremonies are carved from specific tree species some of which have disappeared within landscapes. For example, the Royal Chair of the Bamileke King in Cameroon, was traditionally carved out of a single tree, intricately designed by royal artisans.
Another ancient Kingdom that was dependent on a floodplain ecosystem (Inner Niger Delta) was the Kingdom of Segou – which is now present day Mali. The royals were entertained by musicians from the Keita Clan (you may know the amazing Malian Musician and Kora player Salif Keita) whose musical instrument was the Kora. All things about this instrument are land-based: the round large calabash gourd that consists of the main body, right through this gourd is a long hardwood neck (from the Keno tree in Mandinka language or the tree species Pterocarpus erinaceus), leather hide from cattle covers the gourd of the instrument and twenty-one leather strings to complete it, for use. The Kora music resonated around matters related to the land – life, harvests, droughts, water, nature, story-telling and more.
And all this to say – across Africa, our music, our ceremonies, our food-systems, story-telling, languages, clothing, artefacts and more – are all intricately linked to the natural resources that surround us. As ecosystems have changed dramatically over the years, we may not even be aware of how much cultural loss is equally disappearing. The same tree species used for making the Kora also has medicinal properties that communities in West Africa have used for millennial.
Traditional skills of basket weaving are disappearing in Western Zambia, where this incredible skill has been passed on from one generation to another. The grass used for this weaving is also dependent on the flooding cycle of the Zambezi Floodplain.
Degradation is affecting everyone across Africa more so the very vulnerable and as such the role of cultural keepers, traditional leaders and indigenous communities is even more relevant now than ever.