Rhythm, Ritual, Royalty

The Kuomboka is a spectacular traditional ceremony of the Lozi people that takes place at the end of the rainy season when the upper Zambezi River floods the Barotse floodplain. The ceremony celebrates the movement of the Litunga (the king of the Lozi people) from his summer palace to his winter palace. The Kuomboka, which literally translates to ‘get out of the water,’ takes place as the rains submerge the plains and villages become inhabitable. In response, the Litunga leads his people to higher ground, and they do it in an inimitable style. 

The Nalikwanda is the king’s primary barge; he travels in this barge along with his indunas (local area chiefs), attendants, and musicians, among others. The Kuomboka is always a highly anticipated event, but last year’s event was especially significant because it was the first since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, President Hakainde Hichilema attended the ceremony and joined the Litunga on the journey to his winter home. 

As the 2023 Kuomboka approaches, I can’t help but reflect on this epic ceremony, unlike no other. I felt privileged to attend and photograph the legendary Kuomboka last year after its two-year hiatus. 

The Nalikwanda led the journey to higher ground, steered by over 200 paddlers. The imposing royal barge is painted with black and white stripes, and a replica of an elephant fitted with movable ears sits atop it. A fire burns on board, and the smoke emitted tells the people that the king is alive and well. The queen, or Mooyo Imwambo, sets off in a separate royal barge mounted with a replica of a crane. The day is filled with dancing, singing and jubilation. 

The celebrations start two days before the main event, with the Maoma Royal Drums being beaten, summoning all paddlers to the ceremony. The following day hundreds of people gather in Lealui (the Litunga’s summer residence) to watch the Royal Canoeing Regatta take place. On the event day, all the king’s personal items were placed in the Nalikwanda. The king and his indunas, along with Mr. Hichilema, boarded the barge and set off on the five-hour journey to Limulunga (the Litunga’s winter residence). Upon arrival at Limulunga, the Litunga is greeted by scores of locals and visitors from across Zambia and abroad.

He walks up from the docks and sits under the royal pavilion, where his people welcome him with song and dance. At 9 pm, the maoma royal drums are beaten to announce his majesty’s return to the winter capital. Once the festivities are over, the Maoma Royal drums fall silent until the Kufuluhela ceremony, when the Litunga embarks upon his return to Lealui.

The Nalikwanda with 220 paddlers sets off from the summer palace
Hundreds of canoes filled with dedicated locals join in on the celebrations. They will follow the Nalikwanda on its 5-hour journey to Limilunga
The Nalikwanda makes circles around the waters outside the palace, building the atmosphere and preparing for the journey ahead
The Nalikwanda exiting Lealui
A close-up shot of the Nalikwanda with its 220 paddlers
The Nalikwanda is on its journey, followed by the Lozi people
A top-down view of the Nalikwanda.
The Nalikwanda with the summer palace in the background.

Proflight Zambia regularly operates special flights into Mongu to serve visitors hoping to attend the Kuomboka ceremony. Visit flyzambia.com for the latest Proflight news and contact details.

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