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Ancient custom affected by changing climate

May 13th, 2010 by Posted in English, Zambia

The increasing unpredictability of the seasons means that the Lozi people of western Zambia can no longer rely on many of the omens traditionally used to predict when floods will come and when they should prepare to move in the annual Kuomboka ceremony.

By Nicole Johnston
Regional Media Coordinator Oxfam GB

For the Lozi people of western Zambia the end of summer traditionally means packing their household belongings, livestock and farming implements onto a boat and leaving their houses and fields to the encroaching waters of the Zambezi floodplain.

The royal barge, the Nalikwanda, glides into the waterways of the floodplain, followed by hundreds of boats and canoes. Photograph: Oupa Nkosi/Oxfam GB

This annual migration is an ancient tradition, heralded by the ceremonial relocation of the Lozi king (the Litunga) from his summer palace in the floodplain to his winter palace in the uplands.

The soil in the uplands is mostly Kalahari sand, not rich enough to cultivate crops or graze cattle on, so the Lozi practise wetland farming in the floodplain, where the annual flooding of the Zambezi leaves the soil rich in nutrients once the waters have receded.

The ceremony is called the Kuomboka, meaning “to come out of the water”, and is the cultural highlight of the year in Western Province – creating feverish levels of preparation, rather like Christmas and New Year rolled into one.

For days preceding the ceremony, the town of Mongu, which lies in the heart of the floodplain, is abuzz with intense activity. Hotel rooms are being let for five to 10 times their usual price, and all accommodation is booked up months in advance, as dignitaries arrive from Lusaka and chiefs come from other provinces.

Mikolo (canoes) filled with entire families pole their way into Mongu harbour from distant villages and women sell red-and-black patterned chitenge (cotton wraps) emblazoned with the words “Kuomboka 2010”, while vuvuzelas (horns) blare from all over the town.

But it is the male of the species that is the star of this particular show, as young men promenade along the waterfront, showing off their traditional dress (siziba) which resembles a Scottish kilt and waistcoat made out of brightly printed fabric and the red beret (lishushu) of the Barotse Royal Establishment.

The morning of the Kuomboka ceremony sees Mongu harbour thronged with visitors desperate to cadge a boat ride to Lealui palace, which is only accessible by water. The trip takes about an hour by speedboat and the extent of the flood becomes apparent when our coxswain cuts the engine and pulls up the propeller so we can glide over a submerged bridge.

At Lealui village the royal barge Nalikwanda is moored, resplendent with an elephant figurine on the roof, the ears of which can be made to flap when the barge is in motion. In days of old this would have been made with the stuffed hide of a real elephant and with ivory tusks – today the Lozi must make do with black plastic sheeting and wood.

The men chosen to paddle the barge (in an open “audition” the day before the ceremony) bustle around purposefully, carrying paddling poles, armfuls of hides which will be worn during the journey, and taking snapshots of each other on their cellphones. Apparently in days gone by, a paddler who missed a stroke would be thrown overboard, but I’m assured this no longer happens.

The unusually high water levels this year means that guests who usually stroll from the mooring to the palace have to wade knee-deep through water, or hire a mukolo paddled by enterprising children (in which it is necessary to squat to avoid getting wet). At the palace the water has risen to within metres of the royal pavilion and has flooded the traditional courthouse.

It is becoming difficult for people to plan to move because the flood waters come late but quickly. Photograph: Oupa Nkosi/Oxfam GB

The sound of the Litunga’s musicians floats over the walls of the palace, the booming drums and singing voices underscored by the rich sound of the silimba, an instrument like a xylophone mounted on top of gourds of varying sizes. My chaperone for the day is Fine Nasilele, a proud Lozi man who works for Oxfam partner organisation People’s Participation Services. He explains that this music is played in the palace 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to tell people that the king is alive and well.

As the crowd grows, an elderly praise singer stands waist-deep in the water outside the palace gate, reciting a litany of the Litunga’s virtues. Children are raised onto parents’ shoulders and men in leopard skin peer through binoculars, desperate to be the first to glimpse the king.

The paddlers begin to apply a powder to ward off evil, and a smoking brazier is carried to the barge. “The Litunga’s barge carries the sacred fire to the uplands, so that his people will have fire when they arrive,” explains Nasilele.

At last the Litunga emerges to great ululation and whistling and is escorted to the Nalikwanda. The paddlers lean on their poles and the barge glides out of the village and into the waterways of the flood plain, followed by hundreds of boats and canoes.

“Sometimes it takes eight hours to paddle to the winter palace at Limulunga,” says Nasilele. “But this year the water is very high, so it only took five hours.”

The Lozi rely on indigenous knowledge handed down over generations to predict when the floods will come and when they should begin preparing to move. But the increasing unpredictability of the seasons means that many of the omens traditionally used cannot necessarily be relied on any more.

“This changing of the climate is really impacting on the Kuomboka ceremony,” says Nasilele. “It is becoming difficult to predict the time when we should move. In the olden days the ceremony would be held in March, but for the past few years it has been in April. We would look at signs like the colour of the sand beaches – when it turns brown we know the flood is coming. We would look at the position of the moon and at the water levels to predict when to move. But we are downstream from many other rivers, and water flows through here from as far away as Angola, so when they have floods it affects us too – sometimes we have flash floods.”

“Now it is becoming difficult for people to plan to move, especially with their livestock because the flood waters come late but very quickly. Their fields get flooded before they can harvest and people have to be evacuated. Boreholes and latrines get flooded and diseases can spread.”

When people are evacuated they often have to leave behind their harvests and seed for replanting, losing their belongings such as clothes and cooking utensils, which can be devastating for subsistence farmers already living in poverty. As the seasons grow ever more changeable the Lozi will have to face difficult choices – move permanently to the arid high ground, or try to adapt and continue to live their migratory lives on a rich but increasingly unpredictable floodplain.

To support communities to cope better with increased levels of flooding in Western Province and droughts that are becoming more common in Southern Province, Oxfam is implementing a “community-led Disaster Risk Reduction Project”.

Ann Witteveen, the Country Director for the Oxfam Zambia programme, explains that “the project helps people develop strategies to reduce risks caused by disasters with the aim of helping community members to identify ways to diversify their livelihoods – so that a drought or flood has less impact – and also to be better prepared when such an event happens.

“Climate change is already having an impact in Zambia,” says Witteveen, “but this project will build the skills of local men and women and their leaders to take control of prevention, preparedness and response actions, rather than to just be passive recipients of aid year after year.”

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