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The Women of Mwata Kazembe

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Words by Chansa Chisha M

Anytime you tell the story of a people and it only highlights the heroism of men and their exploits then, it is safe to say you are not telling the FULL story of that group of people. All this is to say, you can not tell a story of a people and leave out the part women played, and yet this is the norm the world over.

The Lunda people, whose traditional ceremony I attended recently, are patrilineal and patriarchal, unlike the customs of the surrounding Bemba clans which are matrilineal. It is not surprising therefore that the women in this Kingdom play a relatively minor role in affairs of the state such that, there is little official recognition of the roles women play during the ceremony and history in general.

I was part of a group of 10 women, made up of travel writers and photographers who attended this year's Mutomboko ceremony (2023) under a programme by Zambian Women in Photography (ZWIP) under the patronage of The Women's History Museum of Zambia. Our objective was to document and build a pictorial archive of Zambia's traditional ceremonies.

Mutomboko is the traditional ceremony of the Luba and Lunda people of Luapula province. It is held annually in Mwansabombwe District on the last weekend of July and celebrates the advent of the Lunda and Luba kingdom from Kola in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it culminates in the Umutomboko or war dance by Mwata Kazembe.

During the two-day ceremony, I was keen to note the role women played. The first sighting was on the first day. Very early in the morning, there was a call to rouse Lunda women to take traditional locally brewed beer, Katata and Katubi to the Palace. The beer is used for offerings to the spirits and ancestors and as a refreshment to everyone attending the Mutomboko ceremony. The women carry multiple coloured buckets of beer on their heads in a display of unison.

Photography by Mwaba Mwila

Later on, as the crowd waited for the Umutentamo where the Mwata Kazembe addresses his people, the girls and women entertained the crowd with dances called icinkwasa, icilumwalumwa and amalepeka. These dances were also performed the following day before the Mwata Kazembe took centre stage for his iconic Umutomboko dance.

The Women of mwata Kazembe

Photography by Loliwe Phiri

On the second day, the first event is spiritual in nature. The Mwata Kazembe emerges from the palace to visit the three Nakabutula shrines that are located in the palace grounds to ask for blessings and protection. Nakabutula is believed to be the principle goddess responsible for the welfare of the throne and the kingdom. There after the procession continues to Ng'ona river where the Mwata Kazembe pays homage to the ancestral spirits of Chinyanta and his brother Nakasombola who were assassinated by drowning in the Lualaba river. This is led by, Abepika, the women who have cooked the food and carry the traditional beers that will be offered as libations to the ancestral spirits down by the river.

Photography by Loliwe Phiri and Mwaba Mwila

An observant eye will also notice that amongst the high ranking officials and royalty, namely the Bakaluunda (senior counsellors) and the Spiritual leaders, there are Chieftainesses and Priestesses. They may not be as many as their male counterparts but it is comforting to know that a woman can rise to those ranks.

Photography by Auxiria Mwanza, Loliwe Phiri and Rinah Kasongo

In the afternoon, a crowd of thousands of people assembled at the arena awaiting to watch the iconic war dance performed by Mwata Kazembe. Beforehand, maidens recounted the advent of the Lunda from Kola and the line of succession starting from Ng'anda Bilonda to the present-day Mwata Kazembe, they did this poetically in Chibemba, Chilunda and English.

The Women of mwata Kazembe

Photography by Loliwe Phiri

As the excitement built the Mwata Kazembe was preceded by three royal women; his sister Chieftainess Lukwesa, and his 2 daughters, Princess Violet Chinyanta Kasasa fondly known as Sasa and Princess Catherine Muonga Kanyembo.

Photography by Samukelo Mbatha, Rinah Kasongo and Loliwe Phiri

Are you thinking what I was thinking?

Where is the Queen? I learned that the official title for the Mwata Kazembe's wife is Mwadi. Her name is Ema Kapika Kaniembo and like her predecessors, she comes from royal stock, an aristocrat and most likely a distant relative of her husband, the Mwata Kazembe. I could find no official role for her during the ceremony except the title of Mwadi, the wife of the Mwata Kazembe and possibly the mother of a future one.

Upon reflection, clearly the women play a significant role in the ceremony, after all, it is the women cooking the food to offer to the ancestors as well as feed the royal court and invited dignitaries, it is the women brewing the Katata and the Katubi for the multitude of Mutomboko revellers, it is young women being taught to safeguard the history and rich Lunda cultural heritage for generations to come .... What is lacking is official recognition of their role in the ceremony, in the Lunda history and the role they played during the Lunda advent. This likely explains why there is little known of one of the greatest Mwadi, Queen Nachituti, sometimes referred to as the female Mwata Kazembe.

The Women of mwata Kazembe

Photography by Loliwe Phiri

Nachituti lived during the reign of the 3rd Mwata Kazembe by the name of Ilunga Lukwesa Ilunga (1760 -1805). She resided in Chisenga island under Chief Nkuba, her brother. The story is told of how Nkuba killed Nachituti's son in a jealous rage. The unofficial account (one of many) is that Nachituti's son was found red-handed being naughty with Nkuba's favourite wife.

Nkuba skinned him and used the skin as upholstery for his stool.

When she discovered this, Nachituti travelled to Kasankila across the Kabunda stream and reached the Icipango where in the presence of Mwata Kazembe, Nachituti took off her menstrual rag, threw it in his face and challenged the Mwata to avenge the death of her son adding “If you're a man avenge the death of my son.”

The symbolism of taking off her menstrual rag is equivalent to showing nudity in keeping with historical context when women have exposed themselves as a means of protest.

The Mwata proved he was indeed a man by ordering his warriors Nswana Ntambo and Kalandala to go and avenge Nachituti's son. Once Nachituti heard of the death of her brother, she took umukombo full of water and some earth and put them on akape which she presented to Mwata Kazembe with the words, "I give you the land ( symbolised by the soil). I give you the water (water in the umukombo) the rivers and lagoons this side and the other side of the Luapula are yours."

The Women of Mwata Kazembe

Photography by Auxiria Mwanza

Some argue that there was no need for her to offer this gift as the Mwata had already seized that land for himself but this disregards the fact that it was only after this gesture that the people of Mwata Kazembe finally settled and started farming the land, before that, they had been hunter-gatherers.

The Mwata then decided to marry Nachituti.

Whatever the truth, Queen Nachituti is still remembered and honoured today. During rites after the death of a Mwata Kazembe, everyone must first pay respect to the grave of Nachituti. She is the only woman buried next to the Lunde (the Mwata Kazembe royal graveyard). In modern times, there is little representation of women in an official capacity in the Kingdom of Mwata Kazembe and that is why, it is so important for us all and future generations to know and tell the story of the Mwadi, Queen Nachituti, the woman who gifted the lands and Luapula River to the Mwata Kazembe.

Photography by Chipo Chitambi and Rinah Kasongo

Chansa is a mom, foodie, traveller, blogger and collector of indigenous knowledge

Connect with her on Facebook: Wander Woman - a tale of a Zambian wonderer

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Edited by Bwalya Mphuka and Chulu Chansa


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It is amazing how women have contributed so much to raise of men and their society but nothing is told about their story. We need to tell their story. The story of Mwandi Nachituti is amazing. Thank you for telling it and please keep telling the stories of the many great but unknown women whose stories should be told. It will not only form a part of history but will give hope and courage to other women that we can do it .

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