And so to the mythical ceremony of Kuomboka. Happily, it wasn't even mythical. It was a real ceremony. We even turned up on the correct weekend. Will wonders never cease?!
Partly because we had no firm information about, well, pretty much anything, we arrived in Mongu a day early in order to give us time to find out exactly what was going on and where. In some ways we lucked out: though not exactly idyllic and with prices raised by many hundred percent just for the ceremony we discovered that our “hotel” had a glorious view across the Zambezi's flood plains, was right near the start of here we needed to be and had magical sunsets. Pushing our luck just that bit too much, on the first day wandering into town for the hell of it, we were picked up by a passing policeman, Mr. Manda, and taken on a tour of some of the key places which included the palace at Limulunga, but of more importance (to Mr. Manda, at least) was a local slaughterhouse where an associate of his, Mr. Phiri, was in the process of buying a cow. The police have to eat during such ceremonies, after all. By now alone, and the guest, I had the pleasure of feeling up the cows innards and deciding whether it was a worthy cow. Yay.
Kuomboka – which literally means 'to get out of water' - is a traditional ceremony during which the Litungu (the Lozi king - Lozi being one of Zambia's 73-ish tribes) moves from one palace to the next in order to escape from floods of the Zambezi: At this point, the Barotse flood plains are over 50km wide at the end of the wet season, as it was now. Part of me wondered – and still wonders – exactly why he chooses to wait until the end of the wet season to move: to my mind, if you are going to move to a palace on higher ground, surely it makes sense to go at the start of the wet season, and not wait until the end when the water levels then start to fall.
In fact, he hadn't. Well, he kind of had. But he had actually moved a couple of weeks previously, and just come back a few days earlier in order to take part in the ceremony. So to recap, we have the most important traditional and tribal ceremony in all of Zambia delayed at short notice for a week just to suit the president's whims, whilst the whole reason for the ceremony had actually already occurred earlier still, rendering the whole thing pretty much nothing more than a money grabbing tourism and publicity stunt. Hmmm.
It wasn't bad, though.
At 6am the following morning, we were up, had joined forces with a group of American volunteers and were at the harbour. The feeling of excitement was obvious rising. And we still had no idea where we were supposed to be going. We watched a couple of boats shoot out, curiously almost entirely full of white tourists. Much faffing and waiting later and eventually we were allowed to get on our boat, although cunningly, we weren't all allowed to actually sit down before we got pushed off. A couple of panicked sittings by some Americans later (read: they fell into the bottom of the boat and stayed there), some impressive rockings as the over enthusiastic crew tried to capsize us and my idly wondering just how good the lifejacket I had been given actually was, and we were on our way.
The main problem was that I just could not get the Hawaii 5-O theme tune out of my head for the next 12hours or so.
This guy really is on a canoe and not walking on water with a pole, honest
Traditionally, tourists die by drowning pretty much every year here, and heading out through a weedy, semi-swampy river which was currently wider than some countries that i've lived in, despite my impressively renowned abilities as a swimmer* I had no desire to experience the water first hand. And so it was that we discovered that we were on pretty much the slowest motorised boat in Zambia, taking a route through the fauna that mean't that we couldn't even use the motor much of the time, heading a long way from anything resembling land, and in a boat that, as those Americans who had fallen on the floor and not moved (for fear of capsizing us) were rapidly discovering, was not quite as water tight as perhaps it could be. And we still had no idea where we were going.
All we did know is that we had been told that it would take about an hour and that the ceremony probably won't start until about 10am. As we had now been on the boat for close to 2hours, and it was 10:20 with no other boats in visible range in any direction this started to be of vague interest.
But we need not have worried. Well, not much. A short-ish while later and we arrived at Lealui. Not so much an Island, as a small clump of slightly higher land with a few houses which hadn't flooded: Even better, it was where we were actually supposed to be. After ambling around for a while (well, wading around) we discovered the palace, and crowds of people who were not quite as large as i think i expected and were at least half composed of foreigners. Hmmm. We then waited. The '10am absolute latest start' was by now well past 11:30, and we were being 'entertained' by some guys on a microphone, who pretty much spent their time telling us where to buy souvenirs, apologizing for the lack of traditional dancing and music (apparently there was too much water...) and for the delay in the ceremonies start, for which they had no idea whatsoever and were obviously trying to make up plausible sounding excuses on the spot..
The King's barge waiting for events to begin in Lealui
Then at midday, after a sudden burst of drumming, a group of people strode rapidly out of the palace gates and disappeared down the path to the harbour. It was so fast that I didn't even realise who the king was. The crowds all rushed after him with chaos ensuing as some people ended up rushing into water slightly deeper than expected...
A quick wade back to the harbour was required, though at least we chose the drier path
At the harbour, to great fanfare, the Kings barge - the Nalikwanda – a large barge featuring a central superstructure with a large elephant on the roof – was loaded, and the paddlers (150ish strong local men, all veterans of previous Kuomboka's) prepared. Though things are slightly more civilised now, the previous king used to insist that any paddler who was struggling or not pulling their weight got unceremoniously dumped over the side and left to drown.
And so the vast barge slowly heaved off. It was followed by another 9 official barges, including that of the Queen, caterers and baggage (no, not the same barge), plus any number of smaller private vessels and dugout canoes full of enthusiastic Lozi's (and some tourists). And with that, part one was over. Not having a boat to follow the King, and no huge wish to spend the next 6hours in the searing heat in a dugout canoe, it was time to head back to Mongu.
Canoeists waiting for their guests to return before following the King to Limulunga
It was at that point that we discovered our boat was missing. Hmmmm. Some waiting and calling later with no news, we found space for 6 on another boat and sent 6 on their way. The remaining 3 of us then started haggling and eventually talked our way onto another small boat. It was a drier journey back, though not without a few almost capsizing moments. And we still made it back first.
A few hours later, and we loaded into a minibus and headed over to Limulunga, where Mr. Manda had taken us yesterday, and the destination of the Royal barge. It was here we suddenly discovered the crowds. And the locals. It was absolutely heaving with cheering locals and Lozi tribes-people. But it was also depressingly commercial. Tickets needed to be bought to get to the harbour, and the whole event was sponsored by mobile phone companies and Barclays bank, amongst others.
Not a minute too soon, and after 2 scouting canoes had appeared the Royal Barge arrived to rapturous cheers. The elephant's trunk was moving up and down, and the oarsman chanting. The Royal barge moved in and out of the creek 3 times, the oarsmen showing off their skills and greeting the crowd, before finally docking, swiftly followed by the rest of the flotilla. I got talking to locals, and amongst much else had 3 requests to be my friend, 4 for photos, 2 from people offering booze, 2 offering drugs and 2 whose hands seemed to want my wallet. Sigh. The king disembarked, went to his throne and then made a speech. This was followed by speech by President Banda, which, I later discovered, barely mentioned Kumoboka or the Litungu, and instead was a not even vaguely disguised political attack on his opponent. Such class.
And with that, the meaningful sections (for us, at least) of Kuomboka were over. Much milling around and, for some, shopping, followed before we made our retreat. Proving that our luck had indeed been all used up in the first day or so, we then spend ages in a traffic jam getting back to town, whereupon we went to a restaurant with some of the worst and most incompetent service I have ever seen (that episode in itself, is worthy of a whole blog entry, though I have no desire to recall it) where amongst much else i got a bad case of food poisoning. That was topped off with a less than savory incident back at the hotel, and ended the evening with my stepping knee-high into a hole of raw sewage whilst trying to find a hedge to vomit in. What fun, what fun.
And i can confirm that raw sewage is not a good thing to step into when there is no water at the hotel to help you wash it off, and you have to leave early the next morning.
Despite that, I would certainly recommend Kuomboka to anybody that happens to be in Zambia at a useful time, though possibly won't be making desperately urgent efforts to go back myself next year...
- I can't swim. Heck, i cant even float. But I can go down/sink with hugely impressive speed and not return.