Kwomboka Ceremony, Western Province, Zambia

Each year, towards the end of the rains, the grassy waters of the Zambezi floodplain in Zambia’s Western Province become a whirl of colour, drumming and chanting as the Barotse king, or litunga, is transported by boat to escape the rising waters. This lavish ceremony is called the Kuomboka, which means “to emerge out of the water” in the local Lozi language, and is a tradition that has been practised by the Barotse people for over 200 years.

Leading a long procession of dugouts, the king rides in a large black and white barge called the nalikwanda. The barge takes him from his summer palace, Lealui, in the middle of the floodplain to his winter palace built on higher ground just outside Mongu, the province’s capital. The ceremony’s origins stretch back deep into Barotseland’s history when a great flood killed many people and devastated animals and crops. The move to dry land was therefore borne out of necessity.

The royal barge is propelled through the lily-strewn waters by over 100 oarsmen, who wear animal skins around their waist and sport bright red berets, or mashushu. The men chant as they pound their oars in time to the maoma, the royal war drum, moving their patterned oars in unison.

It takes the oarsmen several hours to row the king across the floodplain to his winter palace at Limulunga. Large crowds gather on the banks of the water to watch, while musicians dressed in the traditional siziba, a boldly patterned skirt and waistcoat worn by Lozi men, play music. When the king emerges from his barge he has changed from traditional dress into an old-fashioned British admiral’s uniform, a tradition that originated when Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, was under British administration. It’s a surreal sight amid the dust and noise of this colourful ceremony.