Historical Religious Practices of the Lozi

HISTORICAL RELIGIOUS PRACTISES OF THE LOZI PEOPLE:The relationship between Nyambe (God) and Litunga


The Lozi are primarily monotheistic. They solely believe that there is only one omnipotent being. However, they maintain a number of beliefs about spirits and other supernatural beings. Sophisticated rituals and offerings are concentrated on the burial sites of former kings and chief princesses. Priests intercede between the Lozi and the spirits of their former rulers. There is a varied set of values and practices concerning commoner ancestors, and rituals relating to these spirits take place on an individual level. The fundamentals of the typical Lozi secular religious system are defined by sorcery, foretelling as means of divination, exorcism, and the use of amulets as means of defence.


According to some Lozi myths and legends, the Lozi God, Nyambe ( which literally means ‘no speaking’ or ‘one who does not speak’), was living in the Libonda area with his wife.


Nyambe made the forests, the river (Lyambai or Zambezi), the plain (Ngulu or Bulozi) and all the animals and plants. Included amongst the animals was Kamunu (‘human being’) who quickly distinguished himself from other animals, for example by learning from and copying Nyambe in carving a canoe and forging iron.


And, whilst impressed by Kamunu’s intelligence, Nyambe eventually became tired and disappointed by the behavior of Kamunu as compared to the other worldly things that he had created. In particular, Nyambe disliked the constant copying of virtually everything he did. Thus, when Kamunu went hunting and killed animals for food with a spear he had forged Nyambe would scold him. Every time Kamunu killed an animal, some misfortune would befall him such as his cooking pot breaking, his dog dying and so on. One day Kamunu killed an elephant, whereupon his own child died only to be seen later on at the home of Nyambe where Kamunu continually went in order to report his misfortune and ask for forgiveness, medicine and help.


Exasperated, Nyambe moved several times to try to escape the pestilential Kamunu until finally, in desperation, he crossed the Lyambai (Zambezi), presumably from the west where the early Luyana settled, arriving first on an island. Yet Kamunu found his way to the island and regularly brought Nyambe animals and fish, presumably as tribute or for food as the story goes that Nyambe accepted these but refused to eat them as ‘they were his children’.


Later, Nyambe fled to a mountain but even there, Kamunu found him. Finally, Nyambe crossed the river again and met with the animals, telling them they must be afraid of Kamunu before ascending to Litooma (heaven) on a spider’s web. The eyes of the spider were put out on the advice of Nalungwana (a wagtail) so that it could not direct Kamunu who was bound to try and follow.


All Lozi believed in the existence of one great God, Nyambe ‘who was conceived of as the creator, the merciful, the almighty and the giver of all things. He was, by nature, without flesh and bones’. Prayers were said to him in the mornings and evenings and offerings made of seeds, hoes, spears and cattle.


The Lozi people have a much-conserved strong belief, from time immemorial, of an all-powerful being who divined over all the actions and forces of any human being. They named this all-powerful being as Mulimu. The word that even in the present day bears comprehensive meaning as God. The original designation of Mulimu is Nyambe. It was laid down that Nyambe represented the good and poor healthy, lucky and bad omen, medicines and poisons, charms and amulets.


At the time Nyambe was on earth, Mwambwa was his wife; and she was bequeathed with the ruling power and the title of Litunga on His accession. Shortly after Nyambe’s ascent to heaven, Mwambwa gave birth to a daughter who was called Mbuyu or Mbuywamwambwa.


Mwambwa, a popular leader, ruled the Lozi peoples as queen until she died (and was buried at Sangaulu) when Mbuywamwambwa took over the chiefship as the second Litunga. This succession is common to all versions of Lozi history recounted for this work demonstrating that the earliest rulers of the Lozi peoples were, in fact, female. Discounting for a moment, the tradition relating to Nyambe, it is Mwambwa, then, who is credited with leading the Lozi when they first came to Bulozi. Yet Mwambwa did not, it seems, rule dictatorially but utilized the services of Chief Councilors or Indunas.


It is said that during Mbuywamwambwa’s reign, the Lozi peoples felt that they needed a leader who would rescue them from the waters of the annual flood that each year drowned the crops and wrecked homesteads. Rainfall in the catchment area of the Zambezi as well as in Bulozi itself would have been much higher than today. And that the leader should be a male. In addition, it was felt that a male leader would be likely to be a better hunter and a more able traveler.


In Mbuywamwambwa’s place, the Lozi ‘elected’ Muyunda Mwanasilundu, commonly known as Mboo (the first male Litunga), a nickname given to him by the councilors who are always described in tradition as Indunas. Mbuywamwambwa, meanwhile, lived on into the reign of the second male ruler, her eldest son, Inyambo. Mboo, it seems, was chosen for his skills, both in leadership and as a renowned hunter, being in the habit of going out and bringing meat for the palace and the Indunas. He was the second eldest of his mother’s children, chosen over his eldest brother, Inyambo. The Indunas had come to respect him (the Lozis tend to use the verb ‘love’ in this respect). To the people he was friendly, respectful and courageous and as a result was ‘loved’ by all. To some, Mboo was the son of Nyambe. To most others, however, he was the second son of Mbuywamwambwa. A great deal of significance is attached to Mboo. His nickname means shyness or embarrassment, this being ascribed to his overdue birth, for overstaying in his mother’s womb. The name Mwanasilundu means ‘a huge mass when born’. According to some Lozi historians, Mboo knew that he was someone who had to be loyal to the Lozi people out of respect to his mother whom he had inconvenienced by his late birth.


After being elected leader (he is referred to as the first Lozi King), Mboo moved first to Libonda, which he made his capital (and then to Ikatulamwa, situated on the banks of the Zambezi (also known as Kambai – meaning face of the Chief), a village that disappeared (but was rebuilt elsewhere) as the course of the river migrated.


The Lozi religiously believed the good and bad spirits could be induced, to yield, to be reaped or get rid of by means of charms such as bones of beast or man, bits of wood or bark, calabashes and gourds. Besides the conviction of attributing that their calamities arose from the functions of evil spirits, they often thought the misfortunes were the results of the displeasure of the departed (Litunga) king who consequently had to be worshiped by certain ceremonies at his shrine.


The graves were the prominent places of worship. It was believed (even now) that glories or bad omen could ooze from a grave of a departed king. A good example is the grave called Imwambo (otherwise known as Ikatulamwa).


Imwambo is the resting place for Mboo Mwanasilundu whose given name was Muyunda , the first male Litunga of the Lozi and from whom dynastic numbering of Litungas begins.  Indeed Imwambo is the second most important royal shrine of the Lozi after that of Mbuywamwambwa at Makono, where Litungas are crowned.  Mboo was originally buried in his capital Ikatulama (now commonly but wrongly spelt Ikatulamwa).  Ikatulamwa means standing out alone, away from other villages - Makono to the south was a distance away as Nayaka was to the north.


Shortly after burial Mboo ‘escaped’ from his grave in Ikatulamwa, which was found wide, open without its contents.  His people mounted a search for the missing king until he was found.  Two versions are given regarding this search.  The first tells that the search party was aided by the trail of white traditional beads, associated with royalty much like cowry shells.  Starting from grave in Ikatulamwa  the trail led all the way through the countryside stopping at a point on a natural uninhabited mound to the north of Ikatulamwa  by the Zambezi  riverside. The spot was freshly clean beside a siulu bush tree. Also found at the spot was royal paraphernalia previously buried with Mboo in Ikatulamwa.


Another version tells that with the help of a medicine man, a drove of oxen led the party, the oxen bellowing  louder as they drew closer to the new grave! Both routes led to the same spot, gradu diverso via una, the conclusion was obvious ndondo! or, as a Roman would put it, Eureka! We have found it!  With this, the spot was officially consecrated as Mboo’s official grave.


One informant told me that the mound was then called Tweu-to-ulila because of this incident:


1.      Once Imwambo was established, the spirit of Mboo decreed a set of taboos, miila for those living in the village even to date.  Women on the menses are persona non grata and must vacate to complete their cycle elsewhere.  For this a separate village, Namuloongo, was built nearby.  Only the traditional Lozi houses, maongo - the long hut complete with its roof - were acceptable. Loitering at night is taboo; if you do, you may never find your way back. Roofs with a pinnacle-like apex would be blown off without much ado. Ducks are welcome but not chickens; for those straying into the village there is certain and instant death awaiting them. Whitemen and people of certain extraction are not welcome, entering the village is at their own peril.


2.      It is taboo for any chief or senior royal to pass Imwambo without stopping for a brief homage.  An incident is told when one senior royal who was in a hurry, had his speedboat stuck, never to go again, in mid river, its engine resting on the riverbed.


The villagers know when Mboo is happy - at daybreak, they will be greeted by a sea of white beads, which had sprung up like mushrooms overnight!   Children will pick and wear necklaces - and look beautiful at that - but only for a while, for at the next dawn all will be necklace-less, their bounty of necklaces dried up in the air. They also know when he takes leave of them: a congregation of pied crows and white cattle egrets will ceremoniously leave the village tree tops, their daily habitat, joined by open billed stork adorning the surrounding grassland, in beautiful formation depart to the west, away from the river.  Locals know he has gone to Nakatakela, a distance away for a well-earned relaxation in an area that, during his time, was renowned for a good view of wild game coming to drink water in the surrounding lakes. Mboo was a keen hunter and spent time hunting in this area. To this day the area remains a game area although, typical of Mboo, hunters fail to down their animals no matter how close or how many bullets they pump into the animal! Nevertheless, when he is happy animals would come closer and die even before the bullet hits them.


At Nakatakela there is also a beatified spot and there are incidents of people straying on to it and getting stuck. Many of the local people have narrated a series of such recent incidents. There was a case of a senior Induna who was attracted to a crop of sweet potatoes at a place locals call Linangelelo - viewing point. He then cut out some for seed, which he proudly presented to his wife.  By daybreak the ‘contraband’ had gone.  It is these strange habits or miracles of Mboo, which it is said have led to the name Imwambo.  Habit or custom is translated in Lozi as muambo.


There are however, some who say that the name is onomatopoeic, that is, it is derived from the sound of the oxen cries, mooo. This version would overturn the long held explanation that the source of the name Mboo is the remorse that his mother suffered when she was told to step down in his son's favour. Although I had this from one informant only, I put it here merely because the informant is a well-placed resident of Imwambo.  


Mboo’s grave keeper is known as Akashambatwa meaning one who cannot be felled.  The first person to occupy this position is said to be the man who, in the nation’s hour of greatest needs, released his daughter, Nambula, to take the role of sibimbi, the girl who precedes the army in battle.  At the time, the nation was facing an ominous attack from Angola and no one was prepared to sacrifice his daughter for the noble cause. It is said by some that   Akashambatwa was the name of the first occupant, which has been converted into an official title in honour of the man.  Akashambatwa was, however, no ordinary person; he was a prince, descendant of Atangambuyu, a sister of Mboo who held the principality of what is today Makoma.


Mboo has fascinated many but one thing is clear to his people - when he smiles, everybody basks in the sun, but when he gets upset, there is thunder! That is him. Well, you cannot fell him but neither can he be eaten up, that is Mboo Mwanasilundu, invincible!


If any resident fell sick, they are carried by the permission of the authorities to the grave of the most important king such as Mboo. A guarding of the grave would repeat a form of a prayer supplicating the departed king on behalf of the patients, and imploring the departed king to intercede with Nyambe that he may be restored to good health. It is strongly believed that any departed king is closer to Nyambe (God) and has powers only second to God.