Festivals in  Zambia

T
here are more than 20 annual traditional ceremonies in Zambia, manifesting customs, social life, rituals, oral history, material and spiritual culture and if you have the opportunity to attend one, do. They provide a valuable insight to a traditional culture that has been passed down from generation to generation.

The decline of traditional customs and culture has been brought about by the infiltration of the west and western ways and the melting pot of various tribes living in the same areas. There has recently been a realization of the value of traditions and a conscious effort is being made to preserve them.

Most of the ceremonies have a deep meaning, in many cases designed to invoke memories of the transformation from childhood to adulthood. Most tribes in rural areas still practice harmless initiation ceremonies for girls which are generally conducted after puberty. They are intended to help the girls make the transition from childhood to womanhood and prepare them for marriage. Only a few tribes still practice male circumcision initiation ceremonies and those that occur happen in total secrecy.

The open ceremonies that visitors can watch are those that signify ancient times, when new kingdoms were being founded by ancient chiefs and are usually splendid, colourful affairs with much symbolism in their dancing and drumming.

View table of traditional ceremonies.

Different Festivals in Zambia

- Ku-omboka

The name means "to get out of the water onto dry ground". Every year towards the end of the rainy season as the flood plain of the upper Zambezi Valley rises, the Lozi people make a ceremonial move to higher ground. When the Chief decides that it’s time to leave (anytime from February to May), the drums signal to all the people. They pack their belongings into canoes and the whole tribe leaves en mass.

 

The chief in his barge with his family and a troop of traditionally dressed paddlers, in the lead. It takes about six hours to cover the distance between the dry season capital Lealui, and the wet season capital Limulunga. There the successful move is celebrated with traditional singing and dancing. 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. The vast plains with abundant fish was ideal for settlement but the annual floods could not be checked, so every year they move to higher ground until the rainy season passes.

-Umutomboko

The celebration is an annual reminder of the victories of Chief Mwata Kazembe, when his great kingdom migrated en masse into Luapula from the Congo earlier this century. Legend has it, the dispersal began when the kingdom’s paramount chief, Mwata Yamva ordered his people to build a tower which would reach the sky so that they could bring him the sun and the moon. The tower collapsed during vain attempts to build it, killing many of the builders and causing many of the families to flee in terror. Under the leadership of Kazembe, they travelled away across the river and into the east conquering nearly all the tribes they encountered. Each time they conquered a people, they celebrated the victory which they called Umutomboko.

 

The two day ceremony is a grand affair, mixed with ritual, semi-mystic performance, pounding drum beats and long speeches. Tributes of beer and food are brought to the chief by the women and the chief, smeared with white powder, then goes to pay homage to his ancestral spirits and is carried back to his palace to the beating of drums.

 

On the second day, a goat is slaughtered before the Mutomboko dance led by the chief. At the climax of the ceremony, the chief takes his sword in his hand and points it in all directions, implying that there is nobody who can conquer him except God, as he points upwards. He then points down to indicate his place of rest when he dies.

The brightly coloured cotton skirts worn by the chiefs and senior council are in memory of an early king who received gifts of cloth from Portuguese ambassadors.

-Shimunenga

Shimunenga is considered by the Ba-ila people of Maala to be a Divine Being to be approached when the crops need blessing, the cattle are to be taken to the plains or when a murder is committed. The Shimunenga Ceremony is the time for the people to thank their god for providing for them over the period which has just passed. The ceremony takes place once a year between September and November at the close of the old year and the beginning of the new. It lasts for 3 days and takes place at the home of the Ba-ila of Maala.Zambia culture and tradition - Shimunenga ceremony

-Nc’wala

The Nc’wala ceremony involves Paramount Chief Mpezeni dressed in leopard skin re-enacting an old tradition which has roots in early Zulu culture. The Chief must taste the first fruits of the land, (usually maize, sugarcane and pumpkin). The King must then experience a ritual rebirth which involves home confinement for a period of time before the blessing of the fruits.

-Likumbi Lya Mize

The Makishi masquerades are very popular in Zambia and are displayed with pride at the Likumbi Lya Mize ceremony on the last weekend of August every year. The Makishi come from a tradition of boys initiation in which moral lessons are imparted and practical life lessons to young boys between 8 and 12 are given. It now extends into a four day ceremony starting on a Wednesday and climaxing on a Saturday. The event takes place on both sides of the Zambezi and has vibrant market stalls where baskets, metalwork, traditional fabric and carvings can be bought. Masked dances and theatrical performance take place throughout the days and the meanings of the masks are shared with onlookers. The entertainment is non stop and various activities which visitors can witness take place over the four day periods. The traditional dress is fascinating as are the range of artefacts on display. The ceremony climaxes on Mize day on the Saturday with a royal Makishi parade for the Chiefs.

-Ubuilile

Ubuilile is the traditional ceremony of the Bwile people of Chienge, and is held in August each year. It is unique in that other ceremonies celebrate harvests, war conquests, movement from summer to winter palaces, or indeed their chiefs. Ubuilile is a celebration of the people, their self resilience, strategic thinking and self-sufficiency. It has many activities including climbing Kabwe Katenda, the rock that doesnt move, visiting Ingansa (a salt pan that is an ancient source of salt), boat paddling competitions, fishing competitions, swimming competitions, and various dance forms performed by the Pyonye, Kambasa, and Imfukula groups. The ceremony finale is the opening of the royal granary, Chayenkuwo, which never runs out of food. Visitors and residents are given food from this and in the past, this was used to feed those families struck by calamity or even refugees from neighbouring areas.