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Photo: Travel PR.
The Kuomboka, celebrated at this time of year if the conditions are right, marks the arrival of the wet season in Zambia. (The elephant’s ears are removable.)

According to my little book of holidays, a celebration called Kuomboka should take place in Zambia today to mark the change of seasons. Several websites, however, say the date is flexible.

GoWhereWhen, which says that coronavirus is an issue this year, describes the event: “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. This ceremony dates back more than 300 years when the Lozi people broke away from the great Lunda Empire to come and settle in the upper regions of the Zambezi.” 

Wikipedia adds, “Kuomboka is a word in the Lozi language; it literally means ‘to get out of water.’ In today’s Zambia it is applied to a traditional ceremony that takes place at the end of the rain season, when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of the Western Province. …

“Historians claim that before the time of the first known male Lozi chief Mboo, there came a great flood called Meyi-a-Lungwangwa meaning ‘the waters that swallowed everything.’ The vast plain was covered in the deluge, all animals died and every farm was swept away.

“People were afraid to escape the flood in their little dugout canoes. So it was that the high god, Nyambe, ordered a man called Nakambela to build the first great canoe, Nalikwanda, which means ‘for the people,’ to escape the flood. Thus the start of what is known today as the Kuomboka ceremony.

“The ceremony is preceded by heavy drumming of the royal Maoma drums, which echoes around the royal capital the day before Kuomboka, announcing the event. … The ceremony begins with two white scout canoes that are sent to check the depth of the water and for the presence of any enemies. Once the scouts signal the ‘all clear,’ the journey to the highland begins. … The journey to Limulunga normally takes about 6–8 hours. Drums beat throughout to coordinate and energise those paddling the barge. …

“On the barge is a replica of a huge black elephant, the ears of which can be moved from inside the barge. There is also a fire on board, the smoke from which tells the people that the king is alive and well. The Nalikwanda is large enough to carry his possessions, his attendants, his musicians, his 100 paddlers. It is considered a great honour to be one of the hundred or so paddlers on the nalikwanda and each paddler wears a headdress of a scarlet beret with a piece of a lion’s mane and a knee-length skirt of animal skins.

“For his wife there is a second barge. This one has a huge cattle egret (Nalwange) on top. The wings move like the ears of the elephant, up and down.”

Lonely Planet points out that the dates are not fixed: “They’re dependent on the rains. In fact, the Kuomboka does not happen every year and is not infrequently cancelled because of insufficient flood waters; the 2012 ceremony was called off because it’s against Lozi tradition to hold the Kuomboka under a full moon.”

More at GoWhereWhen, here, at Wikipedia, here, and at Lonely Planet, here.

Photo: Dietmar Hatzenbichler
Legend has it that an African god told a man called Nakambela to build a great canoe to escape the floods. The boat was called Nalikwanda.

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