A bountiful season for the BaTonga

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IT’S that time of the year again when the tribal BaTonga gather in the spiritual world and re-unite themselves with their ancestors.
The beginning of the year is a very rich ceremonial month with celebrations taking place in different places of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Listed are some of the ceremonies that take place this first quarter of the year.
The Ncwala ceremony of the Ngoni people takes place on February 28. Kuomboka Ceremony of the Lozi People of Western Province will this year take place between March 25 and April 10.
The Umutomboko ceremony of the Lunda people of the Luapula Province takes place during the last weekend of July.
N’cwala, Likumbi lya Mize, Kuomboka, Shimunenga and Mutomboko
While these few ceremonies named the ‘big five’ based on animal spotting in game parks are still favoured by the tourist board and major sponsors, the shift to multi-party politics brought with it a still-rising phenomenon of annual cultural ceremonies.
There are more than 60 annual traditional ceremonies in Zambia, manifesting customs, social life, rituals, oral history, material and spiritual culture.
They provide a valuable insight into a traditional culture that has been passed down from generation to generation.
The decline of traditional customs and culture has been brought about through infiltration by the West and Western ways and the melting of various tribes living in the same areas.
There has recently been a realisation of the value of traditions and a conscious effort is being made to preserve them. Most of the ceremonies have a deep meaning, in many cases designed to invoke memories of the transformation from childhood to adulthood.
Most BaTonga still practice harmless initiation ceremonies for girls which are generally conducted after puberty.
They are intended to help the girls make the transition from childhood to womanhood and prepare them for marriage. Only a few tribes still practice male circumcision, initiation ceremonies; and those that occur happen in total secrecy.
The open ceremonies that visitors can watch are those that signify ancient times, when new kingdoms were being founded by ancient chiefs and are usually splendid, colourful affairs with much symbolism in their dancing and drumming. The ceremonies are also an opportunity where gifts are given to the chiefs.
From January to February there is the Lwindi Toka tribal ceremony where the chief leads his people down to the whirlpools and spray of the Zambezi Gorge, where they offer sacrifices to their ancestors in thanks for the rain. The ceremony is accompanied by traditional dances and rituals.
The Lwiindi ceremony is performed every year just before the rains. This ceremony is conducted from a sacred hut about 100 metres from the village by the graveyard.
In the hut are kept the sacred drums. Before the ceremony the village people will brew plenty of beer and visitors from all over the region are welcome to the village.
On the day of the ceremony everyone moves to the graveyard where prayers are said and hymns are sung to the dead chiefs. After the ceremony is completed the people return to the village to feast and dance.
This is a religous thanksgiving festival to celebrate the first fruit of the season, where the BaTonga chiefs ceremonially taste the fruit of the land, then spear a bull and drink its blood.
It is marked by feasts, music, much traditional beer drinking and some of the best tribal dancing in the country. These activities are designed to strengthen the communal bonds within the tribe’s society.
Dancers perform repetitive movements in response to the rhythm of drums, creating a hypnotic atmosphere of motion and music.
Paramount chiefs arrive in advance in preparation for the ceremony.
Then there is the Kuomboka tribal ceremony where the name means ‘to get out of the water onto dry ground’.
Every year towards the end of the rainy season, as the flood plain of the upper Zambezi Valley rises, the BaTonga and Lozi people of Zambia make a ceremonial move to higher ground.
The chiefs usually held these ceremonies around the end of March/beginning of April each year, just before a full moon. The drums would signal to all the people.
They pack their belongings into canoes and the whole tribe leaves en mass; the chief in his barge with his family and a troop of traditionally dressed paddlers, in the lead.
The successful move is celebrated with traditional singing and dancing. This ceremony dates back more than 300 years when the BaTonga and Lozi people of Zambia broke away from the great Lunda Empire to settle in the upper regions of the Zambezi.
The vast plains with abundant fish was ideal for settlement but the annual floods could not be checked, so every year they move to higher ground until the rainy season passes.
There is also the Kathanga Nkoya cultural ceremony. The Nkoya annual ceremony is considered the BaTonga’s oldest traditional ceremony having been celebrated by the BaTonga people for over 500 years.
The ceremony is usually held on a weekend around that time of year between June and July.
The Lwindi Gonde tribal ceremony is usually held on July 2 and is the main traditional ceremony of the BaTonga people. Each year Chief Siansundu leads his community in the annual Lwiindi ceremony, traditionally held to give thanks for the first harvest of the year.
Traditional culture records that the original chief Siansundu, the first rainmaker, disappeared into the sky and is responsible for sending the rains. Gonde is the place where the first chief Siansundu disappeared, his ‘court’ claimed their chief didn’t die and this same place became the burial place for all chiefs, though only two are buried there.
The rest have no graves as their bodies just disappeared at death. Many BaTonga people believe that Chief Siansundu is said to have mysteriously disappeared and is the giver of rains.
The reigning Chief Siansundu celebrates the praise given to him by consuming the first meal from the new season’s harvest. The ceremony attracts many important people from around the country.

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