Zambia has several major cultural festivals which, on the whole, are rarely seen by visitors. If you can get to one, then you will find them to be very genuine occasions, where ceremonies are performed for the benefit of the local people and the participants, and not for the odd tourist who is watching.
Cultural celebrations were strongly encouraged during Kenneth Kaunda's reign, as he favoured people being aware of their cultural origins. 'A country without culture is like a body without a head', was one of his phrases. Thus during the 1980s one group after another 'discovered' old traditional festivals. Most are now large local events, partly cultural but also part political rally, religious gathering, and sports event.
Bear in mind that, like most celebrations worldwide, these are often accompanied by the large-scale consumption of alcohol. To see these festivals properly, and to appreciate them, you will need a good guide: someone who understands the rituals, can explain their significance, and can instruct you on how you should behave. After all, how would you feel about a passing Zambian traveller who arrives, with curiosity, at your sibling's wedding (a small festival), in the hope of being invited to the private reception?
Photographers will find superb opportunities at such colourful events, but should behave with sensitivity. Before you brandish your camera, remember to ask permission from anyone who might take offence.The Ku-omboka
This is the most famous of the ceremonies, and takes place in the Western Province. It used to be around February or March, often on a Thursday, just before full moon. The precise date would only be known a week or so in advance, as it was decided upon by the Lozi king. Now that the ceremony attracts more visitors, it is usually held at Easter; though if water levels are not high enough, it will not take place at all.
The Lozi Kingdom is closely associated with the fertile plains around the Upper Zambezi River. When dry, this well-defined area affords good grazing for livestock, and its rich alluvial soil is ideal for cultivation. It contrasts with the sparse surrounding woodland, growing on poor soil typical of the rest of western Zambia. So for much of the year, these plains support a dense population of subsistence farms.
However, towards the end of the rains, the Zambezi's water levels rise. The plains then become floodplains, and the settlements gradually become islands. The people must leave them for the higher ground, at the margins of the floodplain. This retreat from the advancing waters – known as the Ku-omboka – is traditionally led by the king himself, the Litunga, from his dry-season abode at Lealui, in the middle of the plain. He retreats with his court to his high-water residence, at Limulunga, on the eastern margins of the floodplain.
The Litunga's departure is heralded by the beating of three huge old royal war drums – Mundili, Munanga, and Kanaono. These continue to summon the people from miles around until the drums themselves are loaded above the royal barge, the nalikwanda, a very large wooden canoe built around the turn of the century and painted with vertical black-and-white stripes. The royal barge is then paddled and punted along by 96 polers, each sporting a skirt of animal skins and a white vest. Their scarlet hats are surmounted by tufts of fur taken from the mane of unfortunate lions.
The royal barge is guided by a couple of 'scout' barges, painted white, which search out the right channels for the royal barge. Behind it comes the Litunga's wife, the Moyo, in her own barge, followed by local dignitaries, various attendants, many of the Litunga's subjects, and the odd visitor lucky enough to be in the area at the right time. The journey takes most of the day, and the flotilla is accompanied by an impromptu orchestra of local musicians.
John Reader's excellent book, Africa: A Biography of the Continent
comments:When the Litunga boards the nalikwanda at Lealui he customarily wears a light European-style suit, a pearl-grey frock coat and a trilby hat; when he leaves the barge at Limulunga he is dressed in a splendid uniform of dark-blue serge ornately embroidered with gold braid, with matching cockade hat complete with a white plume of egret feathers.
In fact, Chapter 47 of this book contains the fascinating story of some of the first Europeans to see the original Ku-omboka, and the sad narration of the gradual European subjugation of the Lozi kingdom. It also includes details of the Litunga's trip to London, in 1902, for the coronation of King Edward VII. It was here that the problem arose of what the Litunga should wear. Reader reports:By happy coincidence, the king [Edward VII] took a particular interest in uniforms; he was an expert on the subject and is even said to have made a hobby of designing uniforms. Doubtless the king had approved the design of the new uniforms with which Britain's ambassadors had recently been issued. Certainly he was aware that the introduction of these new outfits had created a redundant stock of the old style, which were richly adorned with gold braid. Lewanika [the Litunga] should be attired in one of those, the king ordained. And thus the Litunga acquired the uniform which has become part of the Kuomboka tradition. Not an admiral's uniform, as is often reported, but a surplus dress uniform of a Victorian ambassador; not a gift from Queen Victoria, but the suggestion of her son...
When the royal barge finally arrives at Limulunga, the Litunga steps ashore in the ambassador's uniform to spend an evening of feasting and celebrations, with much eating, drinking, music and traditional dancing.Likumbi Lya Mize
The Luvale people of western Zambia have an annual 'fair' type of celebration, which takes place for four or five days towards the end of August. 'Likumbi Lya Mize
' means 'Mize day' and the event is held at the palace of the senior chief – at Mize, about 7km west of Zambezi.
This provides an opportunity for the people to see their senior chief, watch the popular Makishi dancers, and generally have a good time. As you might expect, there is also lots of eating and drinking, plus people in traditional dress, displays of local crafts, and singing.Umutomboko
This is nothing to do with the Ku-omboka, described above. It is an annual two-day celebration, performed in the last weekend of July, whereby the paramount chief celebrates the arrival of the Luunda people, the 'crossing of the river'. It is held in a specially prepared arena, close to the Ng'ona River, at Mwansabombwe.
On the first day the chief, covered in white powder, receives tributes of food and drink from his subjects – the cause for much feasting and celebration by all. On the second an animal (often a goat) is slaughtered and the highlight is the chief's dance with his sword. Shimunenga
This traditional gathering is held on the weekend of a full moon, in September or October, at Maala on the Kafue Flats – about 40km west of Namwala. Then the Ila people (whose language is closely related to Tonga) gather together, driving cattle across the Kafue River to higher ground. It used to be a lechwe hunt, but that is now forbidden!The Nc'wala
On February 24 there is a festival to celebrate the first fruit, at Mutenguleni village, near Chipata. This large celebration was recently revived, after 80 years of not being practised. It consists of two parts. Firstly the chief tastes the first fruit of the land – usually sugarcane, maize and pumpkins. Secondly there is the ritual rebirth of the king (involving the king being locked up in his house) and the blessing of the fruit – which consists of a fairly gory spearing of a black bull whose blood the king has to drink. It's all accompanied by traditional dancing and beer-drinking.
The above list of festivals is by no means exhaustive, and a few others which are known include:Kufukwila
A May celebration led by the chief of the Kaonde people, held in the Solwezi area of northwestern Zambia.Kulamba
Also a thanksgiving ceremony for the Chewa people, held in August. It's held in the Katete Province, in eastern Zambia, and here you'll be able to see lots of fascinating Nyao (secret society) dancers.Lukuni Luzwa Buuka
A celebration of past conquests by the Toka people in the Southern Province, usually held in August.Lwiinda
A ceremony celebrated by Chief Mokuni, of the Toka-Leya people near Livingstone, around February. The people honour their ancestors and offer sacrifices for rain. Malaila
A ceremony to honour past chiefs, held in July by the Kunda people. (This is currently celebrated by Chieftainess Nsefu, near Mfuwe in the Luangwa Valley.)Tuwimba
A thanksgiving festival, in October, for the Nsenga people.