09.04.2009 - 12.04.2009
Kuomboka is one of the many traditional ceremonies of the 73 tribes of Zambia, and quite possibly the biggest- certainly the best-known. As the plains around Mongu flood, the Lozi king is moved in a large barge and in an elaborate ceremony from his palace in Lealui to Limulunga, together with the royal family, their staff and belongings. The ceremony is incredibly important to not only the tribe, but also to Zambian tourism. Almost half the people in Lealui were white tourists.
The fantastic thing is that in a true Zambian style, it was incredibly difficult to get any information of the event. No one know when it was; how close to Mongu it all took place; what was the best way of getting around. I'd stumbled upon the original date by accident, and once the ceremony was moved (but no one informed) it didn't surprise me in the slightest. Also, the king had actually already moved palaces the month before because of the extent of the floods- it's just that it was suitable to have the ceremony collide with the easter weekend. But of course.
We got to Mongu two days early- I'd recruited Rich early on in Namibia to attend with me, and neither of us had much of an idea where we'd be arriving to, going to, or doing, really. Mongu seemed dead at first glance, at the brink of its biggest annual event. We'd pre-booked a hotel, not realising we could've easily camped, and paid an extortionate amount for a room.
On Friday, we got picked up randomly by a hung-over policeman, who gave us a tour of the still-deserted Limulunga palace, and, oddly enough, the local abattoir. Hmm. Call me paranoid, but I always get a bit suspicious when a stranger takes me to a slaughterhouse. Later on, I strolled to the harbour, full of excited Zambians wearing all sorts of Kuomboka paraphernalia. The crowd was certainly getting into the whole thing, and even I gave in and bought a special chitenge.
On the main day, we got to the harbour early, with a bunch of American whipper-snappers, and hired a boat to the island of Lealui- the slowest thing ever. I was worried we'd miss the whole thing, but I don't think I've still quite grasped how late everything starts. We saw the massive barges, complete with the elephant on the top for the king's barge, and a bird for the queen's one. ( I was sadly disappointed that the catering barge did not have a massive knife and fork on top) The king arrived, and everyone went mad- people rushed to follow him through the island to his barge, and it was hilarious- the walkway is reserved for the king only, and as the island is flooded, people were stuck in mud, negotiating reeds and looking filthy. We saw the barge off, and went to find that our boat had gone- the guy probably got a better price from someone else. We stood there for a bit, feeling lost and sunburnt, until we eventually hitched a ride from another boat- we left some of the others behind, but on that island, it was every man for himself.
The barge arrived to Limulonga in an insane hassle- it felt more like a football match or a rock concert- although the atmosphere was jubilant, it all felt just a bit too commercial, with sponsorship flags flying around, radio stations having their own little platforms and shows going on.....and the entrance fee. Yes, an entrance fee to view a traditional ceremony. Bollocks.
Tens of thousands of people pushed to get as close to the water as possible, and as we were in Zambia, a lovely bunch of strangers pushed me in the front, as “this is the only Kuomboka you'll see, madam”, which I though was sweet. The barge went up and down, the dozens of leopard-clad paddlers showing their skills, and everyone cheered; I was going deaf from all the noise. The king disembarked in a cloud of dust, walked up to Limulonga palace, with the crowd pushing and cheering, and then it was all over. I bought a few baskets, again for the house I don't have, and tried to push in to see the palace. No such luck. Oh well.
A restless night later in a room with no running water, and after I refused to pay the full amount, we were in a coffee shop by the bus station waiting to go back to Lusaka once again, on another 8-hour journey (although no punctures this time). I flicked through my photos, and thought about all the things I will do differently in the next Kuomboka. It is, despite the heat, frustration and the cost, still something I'd do again- it is still an amazing experience, and if given the chance, go.