A look at the Lozi, the only people in Zambia with a king instead of a chief
The Lozi are perhaps well known for their Kuomboka ceremony that takes place almost every year in March or April at the end of the rainy season. The ceremony, described as one of the last great Southern African ceremonies, became necessary due to the flooding of the Zambezi plains (mainly where the Lozi live). The only people with a king instead of a chief, their Kuomboka essentially marks the ceremonial journey of the Litunga (the king) from his dry-season palace at the town of Lealui to his wet-season palace on higher ground at Limulunga.
The ceremony wins over thousands of spectators from the region and beyond, and so has recent calls by the homeland to become independent attracted many. Barotseland, the kingdom of the Lozi people, was a protectorate under British colonial rule and became part of Zambia at the country’s independence in 1964.
But the area, now known as Western Province, in 2012, resolved to be separated from Zambia, accusing the Zambian government of ignoring the region, which to date is one of the poorest and least-developed regions in the country. What’s more, activists have accused the government of ignoring a 1964 treaty, which granted powers to the Litunga (king) to make laws of Barotseland in respect to matters such as land, natural resources and taxation.
But to get a better understanding of the arguments of the Lozi and their demand for independence, it is ideal to look at the historical roots of the people. Numbering more than a million, the Lozi, also known as the Malozi, Nyambe, Rozi, Rutse, Makololo, Barotose, or Rotse, are believed to have migrated from the Lunda Kingdom in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Originally called the ‘Luyi’ (meaning ‘Foreigner’), they lived in Bulozi, a plain in the Upper Zambezi, and spoke a language known as Siluyana. They were ruled by a long line of female rulers until they settled in Bulozi, where they started having male rulers. Around 1830, their kingdom (Barotseland) fell to the Makololo people under a leader called Sebetwane from present-day South Africa who invaded the kingdom and changed the name Luyi to ‘Lozi’, which means “plain.”
The Makololo ruled until 1864 when they were overthrown following a Lozi revolt. The Luyi kept their new name, nevertheless. During colonial times, their kingdom (Barotseland) was a British protectorate. Blessed with gold, copper, and other minerals, colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who wanted to build a road from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt had “convinced” the king (then known by the name Lewanika) to sign over mining rights to Rhodes British South African Company under the Lochner Concession of 1890. With this, the Lozi homeland, Barotseland, became a British protectorate, a status that gave the Lozi protection from neighboring tribes who had plans of conquering the Lozi.
Five months before Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) became independent in 1964, the Lozi king was persuaded to make Barotseland a part of what would become the new country of Zambia, on condition that his kingdom “maintained that element of self-rule”. This led to the Barotseland Agreement of 1964. Successive Zambian governments have failed to honor the agreement for the kingdom to enjoy autonomy, and people in the kingdom have since demanded the right to independence, a call the Zambian government describes as treason.
In spite of these demands, which in 2011 resulted in injuries, fatalities, arrests and detentions, the king of the Lozi has continued to maintain the traditions and culture of the people. His title “Litunga” means “of the earth” or “owner of the earth,” signifying that he is the caretaker of the entire Lozi kingdom, which is a collection of regional/provincial principalities with several chiefdoms under them. Under the king (now Imwiko II) is his prime minister, also known as the Ngambela. The prime minister also has councilors or indunas under him. Among the Lozi in Zambia, the term ‘Paramount Chief’ applies to those who head the regional/provincial principalities. They also have many ‘chiefs’ under them, a report explained.
Under the monarchy of the Lozi, also known as the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE), the administrative capital remains Lealui while the political capital is in the town of Mongu, approximately 10 miles west of Lealui. The winter capital is Limulunga, where the king and his subjects move to during the Kuomboka ceremony at the end of the rainy season.
The ceremonial journey from the king’s palace at Lealui to Limulunga takes about six hours, with the focus of attention largely being the royal barge called the Nalikwanda, a huge wooden canoe for the king with paddlers. The canoe comes with a large model elephant on the top. Drums, which are over 170 years old, play huge roles in the ceremony. The king begins the Kuomboka in traditional dress but changes it during the journey to the full uniform of a British admiral. British King Edward VII reportedly gave the black and gold uniform to the king who was ruling the Lozi in 1902 in recognition of a treaty that was signed between the Lozi and Queen Victoria.
To date, the Lozi, who hold their king in high esteem, do name their children after former royal leaders. They bury their dead with their personal possessions with the belief that those items would be needed in the afterlife. Largely occupying the floodplain of the Zambezi River, the Lozi are engaged in fishing, agriculture (rice and maize), and animal husbandry.
Despite some misunderstandings between the monarchy in Lozi and the Zambian government, the two, according to a report, have “cooperated to improve the enforcement of new, sustainable fishing regulations and reverse the serious decline in the economic health of Barotse fisheries.”