Dr Livingstone, I presume?

A. H. Saleh

David Livingstone was just one of a host of foreigners through the centuries to have arrived in Zambia and fallen in love with the country. Though it has urbanised faster than many other African countries, many long-standing traditions and festivals continue to shape Zambia’s culture 

Zambia is a land-locked southern African country cradled by the mighty Zambezi River, which tumbles a roaring 108 metres to form the world’s greatest waterfall, Victoria Falls (or Mose o Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’ in a local dialect), at the border with the country’s southern neighbour, Zimbabwe. 

The first European to set sight on this natural wonder was the 19th-century Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone. Awestruck, he decided that “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”. His often dramatic accounts of his adventures drew thousands of British and other Europeans to embark on journeys to the ‘heart of Africa’. 

However, the British were only the latest in a long list of migrants from the surrounding territories to settle in the area. Successive waves of Bantu-speaking peoples displaced the original inhabitants, the Khoisan hunter-gatherers, from the third century on and the movements only petered out with the arrival of the Ngoni and Sotho people from the south in the 19th century. Consequently, the rich ethnic fabric of Zambia is composed of 72 different ethnolinguistic groups, each with their own cultural traditions. Over time, some languages, such as Bemba and Nyanja, have come to dominate, but other languages such as Lozi, Kaonde, Tonga, Lunda and Luvale are widely spoken and programmes in these languages are broadcast on the national radio. 

English is the official language but, as in other African states, a local version called ‘slang’, which contains words from several language roots, is the most common form of communication between different ethnic groups. 

Zambia is one of the continent’s most urbanised countries. Recent estimates suggest that half the inhabitants now live in urban areas. The urban drift began with the arrival of British settlers looking for farming land as well as minerals. Zambia’s economic and political destiny was set when an American scout, Frederick Russel Burnham, employed by a British exploration company, stumbled across locals wearing beautifully worked copper bracelets and other adornments. He discovered that the locals had worked on the ore for centuries and had used it as a major trading item. “The natives inhabiting this part of the country are skilled workmen and have traded their handiwork with all comers, even as far afield as the Portuguese of the West Coast and the Arabs of the East. These natives, being miners and workers of copper and iron, and being permanently located in the ground, would give the very element needed in developing these fields,” he wrote in 1895. 

The British built a railway and roads, and set up towns to mine the copper on an industrial scale and transport it to seaports. From that point to this day, Zambia’s economic fortunes rose and fell with the ebb and flow of the demand for copper. The impact on the cultural composition of the country was profound. 

The ethnic groups that had lived independently merged and mingled in the towns and cities, and new hybrid cultural forms emerged. Bars, shabeens and night clubs mushroomed and still form an integral part of the social life of Zambia. Congolese rumba and reggae are popular, although local bands also have strong followings. In the 1970s, bands such as WITCH and Mosi O Tunya and musicians like Rikki Ililonga, Chrissy Zebby and the Ngozi Family produced a distinct Zambian genre called Zam-Rock. 

Despite the allure of the cities, many of Zambia’s traditional customs have survived. The country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, had a passion for traditional music and regularly welcomed state visitors with stomping dance and song performances. He often joined in, displaying a surprising nimbleness of foot and a powerful singing voice. 

Traditional customs and practices permeate many areas of Zambian society. The lobela, crudely described as ‘bride price’, is still commonplace. The groom pays the parents of the bride in cash and kind to show his appreciation for their care of the girl. In most cases, the bride is taken to the groom’s village the night before the wedding; large quantities of food are cooked and a vast amount of beer is brewed. Celebrations, including music and dancing, can last for three days before elders instruct the newly-weds about the sanctity of marriage and the bride moves into her new home. Here, she is not allowed to cook until her new in-laws have presented her with pots and pans. 

But the full magnificence of the country’s cultural heritage is contained in the array of annual festivals that take place in various parts of the nation. These festivals draw large crowds and many urbanites make the annual pilgrimage to their home areas to participate. 

One of the most outstanding festivals is the Kuomboka, which is held towards the end of the rainy season, usually between February and May. The Lozi people of the upper Zambezi flood valley make a traditional journey to higher ground to escape the floods. They pack canoes with all their belongings and, led by the chief and his family in a barge rowed by peddlers in colourful costumes, make their way to higher ground accompanied by traditional songs and dances. 

Then there is the Mutomboko, which celebrates the victories of Chief Mwata Kazembe, who moved his entire kingdom from what is now Congo to Zambia around 100 years ago. According to legend, this came about when Chief Mwata Yamva ordered a tower to be built to the sky so that he could bring the sun and moon to his people. The tower collapsed, killing and terrifying the people. Kazembe then took charge and led his people into the east, conquering all the tribes that were encountered on the way. 

The ceremonies last two days and involve long recounting of heroic tales. Offerings are made to the gods as well as the chief who, smeared in white powder, goes to pay homage to ancestral spirits before he is carried back to his palace. 

When the celebrations reach their crescendo, the chief points his sword in all directions to imply that his people cannot be conquered by anyone except God. The costumes of brightly coloured material hark back to a time when the Portuguese explorers presented gifts of cloth to an ancient chief of the people. 

Perhaps the most breathtaking initiation ceremony is the Likumbi Lya Mize, held every August. Boys between the ages of eight and ten are required to perform special rituals as they are given moral and practical lessons by elders. Masqueraders in a variety of masks and costumes enact scenes from history and invoke spirits both evil and benign. The four-day festival is also an excuse to set up large, dense markets where outstanding craftwork, food and drinks are on sale. It all comes to a thunderous end with a royal parade by the chiefs. 

These are just some of the score or so of major festivals that take place every year in Zambia. Although urban culture may seem to be in the ascendency, the traditional core is still very much alive and well.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International