Kuomboka: Ancient Wisdom of the Malozi

By Andrew Rooke

Most every nation or community has an important annual event which everyone looks forward to during the rest of the year. In Western society children eagerly await the joys of new presents on Christmas morning whilst their parents may be more interested in the football final or perhaps the annual agricultural and industrial shows. Such celebrations act as cyclical foci of a wide range of emotions and aspirations, from religious yearnings, through community loyalty, to just plain letting off steam! The traditional peoples of the world also have a broad spectrum of such ceremonies; although living closer to nature than we in the industrialized nations, they are often more acutely orientated to nature's cyclic patterns as manifest in individuals, community, or cosmic environment. The Malozi people of Western Zambia in deepest Central Africa (their homeland was formerly known to Europeans as Barotseland) have one such annual ceremony, a dramatic spectacle of community and religious renewal called Kuomboka.

The ritual is necessitated by the annual flood of the Zambezi river which turns the farmlands of the Malozi into a mighty lake so that the people must move to higher ground. Kuomboka means literally "to get out of water," and this annual exodus, which occurs about the end of February, takes the form of a ceremonial procession of small boats and dugout canoes led by the massive royal barge of the Litunga, the Paramount Chief of the Malozi people. The Litunga's barge bears the legendary name of Nalikwanda and it is truly a craft of royal proportions with room for the Chief, his attendants, the royal musicians, and at least one hundred traditionally-clad paddlers. One can imagine what an impressive sight it is to see this great craft gliding deftly along the murky Zambezi waters with the huge maoma drums booming over the staccato rhythm of the Lozi salimbas (xylophones) calling the people to follow to the safety of the high ground.

This colorful flotilla obviously has an immediate economic and social motivation, but if one should ask the old men awaiting the arrival of the Litunga at the winter palace in the highlands, perhaps they will speak of a deeper significance inhering in Kuomboka, of an ancient remembrance of cataclysmic cycles in the distant past reflected each year in the Zambezi flood. The legends tell that before the time of the first known male chief, Mboo, there came a great flood called Meyi-a-Lungwangwa, meaning "the waters that swallowed everything." The vast plain was covered in the deluge, all animals died, and every farm was swept away. People were afraid to escape the flood in leaky dugout canoes only, so it was that the high god, Nyambe, ordered a man called Nakambela to build the first great canoe, Nalikwanda, which means "for the people." Then, as now, the canoe was painted in huge black and white stripes, white symbolizing spirituality and black the people. Before voyaging out on the stormy waters the canoe was loaded with every type of seeds and animal dung. At the place where the first Nalikwanda landed, the seeds were scattered to become the progenitors of the plants as we know them today, and the animals once again sprang forth from the animal dung.

There is much confusion over the exact nature of the flood Meyi-a-Lungwangwa, various authorities, perhaps deliberately, giving conflicting information as to when it actually occurred, yet the striking parallels with similar stories of a great cataclysm told in other parts of the world are immediately apparent. One is tempted to conjecture that the legend and its annual reenactment may indeed be a faint recollection of the catastrophic events attending the dissolution of the race that preceded our present race. H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine, speaks in some detail of this ancient drama and of its necessity in the cyclic pattern of human and global development. Perhaps Kuomboka also teaches the same lessons in a different way.

When one delves further into the fascinating complexities of Lozi philosophical tradition, other dramatic similarities with esoteric traditions in various parts of the world emerge which bespeak to all mankind the common heritage of the ancient wisdom. This is especially apparent in the Lozi creation myths and their teachings on the nature of the soul.

Man, the myths say, through his inharmonious actions has driven Nyambe, the high god, further and further from him, although he yearns always to find him again. It seems that long before the big flood, the god Nyambe lived peacefully on earth with his wife Nasilele. He it was, who created the forest, the Zambezi river, the fishes, animals, and Kamunu, the first man. Kamunu quickly distinguished himself from other animals in his ability to imitate Nyambe by eavesdropping on aspects of Nyambe's work of creation. When Nyambe carved wood or forged iron, so followed Kamunu. One day Kamunu forged a spear and with it killed the male offspring of the great red antelope. Nyambe upbraided his recalcitrant creation, instructing Kamunu that he should not kill his brothers; yet he continued in his habits, and so Nyambe gradually withdrew from the earth. He escaped to an island but man followed him, first on a raft of river grass and then a dugout canoe. Weary of Kamunu's unwanted attentions, Nyambe, his wife Nasilele, and his messenger Sashisho at last crossed a great river and then ascended to heaven (Litooma) on a spider's web. Undeterred, as the bark straps supporting the structure groaned and cracked under the weight of hopeful pilgrims scrambling to see Nyambe. Ever since then Kamunu has sought to find his progenitors, not by physical effort, but by giving heed to Nyambe's influence in everyday affairs and with ceremonies at special cyclic times of the year. Each morning, those who still remember the ancient ways of Nyambe, look to the rising sun, the symbol of the continuing influence of compassion, and cry out, "Here is our king. He has come." Forehead bent to the ground, they clasp their hands, and say, Mangue, mangue, Mulyete! -- "Glory, glory, glory to the one over us!"

The threads of ancient wisdom which run through other tradition are abundantly in evidence in this story. The fall from grace and man's struggle to find God is, of course, an enduring if misunderstood theme of Christian philosophy. Other traditional peoples, such as the Maoris of New Zealand, speak of man also as the only creation in rebellion against God and of the esoteric significance of the sun as symbol of spirituality and as the progenitor of our world system.

In the light of theosophical teachings one can also see in the story of Nyambe and Kamunu, the gift of intelligence and self-consciousness brought to man by higher entities linked by karma to the development of the human race millions of years ago. Man thus clothed with his newly-acquired vestments of mind and self-discrimination has for ages pitted these godlike qualities against the harmony of nature which gave them birth and, in a way, receded further from consciousness of his progenitors. Yet Kamunu feels the spiritual fires burning within and is impelled to find the harmony once again, and indeed must do so with the very tools of intelligence which brought him into rebellion against nature.

But what do the Lozi teach of the true nature of rebellious mankind? Like ancient Hindu and Jewish traditions that speak of man's nature sometimes as seven or tenfold, the Lozi picture the real man as a composite entity. Other traditional peoples also see man not as a single being but formed of several parts: the Pygmies of Zaire, for example, believe that the true man is his balimo or "higher self" and that the body is discarded by the entity at death. For the Lozi, man is made of four parts: the mubiti or situpu or "envelope"; the moyoo or "soul," which journeys to the high god, Nyambe, after death; the mulimu or "emanation" which, according to some authorities, is in fact the ancestral spirits or tribal gods, and finally the silumba or "double," of which there are several types that sometimes wander the earth after death.

Let us fly now with the grace of the great Nalikwanda back to the Paramount Chief's highland palace where the royal barge is about to land and so bring the annual Kuomboka ceremony to a close. In the huge crowd that has gathered to welcome him, we can see every shade of modern Africa, from the traditional dancers and musicians singing the praises of another yearly cycle completed, to young people dressed in the latest Western jeans and local dignitaries pronouncing speeches of welcome through a crackling public address system. Each sees Kuomboka in a different way, yet each is equally subject to the cyclical patterns it celebrates. Surely the hectic materialist world view of industrial society, which now threatens to drown remembrance of Africa's traditional life, can learn much from the ancient wisdom of Nyambe and Kuomboka.


(From Sunrise magazine, February 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)

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