Zambia consists of culturally and linguistically different tribes, as well as an enormous variety of different ethnic groups. Most tribes and ethnic groups are closely related in terms of language, beliefs and way of life. Currently, historians and linguistics experts can identify at least 16 major cultural groupings, and more than 72 different tribes in the country.

Traditional ceremonies remain a vital part of Zambia's rich cultural heritage and should be preserved for the good of future generations. It is for this reason that various tribes hold traditional ceremonies as a way of remembering where they are coming from and keeping the cherished traditional values. There are more than 20 annual traditional ceremonies in Zambia, displaying customs, social life, rituals, oral history, material and spiritual culture. These ceremonies provide a valuable insight to a traditional culture that has been passed down from generation to generation. Most ceremonies have a deep meaning and in many cases they are intended to invoke memories of the transformation from childhood to adulthood. Most tribes in rural areas still practice harmless initiation ceremonies for girls that are generally conducted after puberty. Only a few tribes still practice male circumcision initiation ceremonies and those that occur happen in total secrecy.

The open traditional ceremonies that you 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 the dancing and drumming.

Some Zambian traditional ceremonies

Kuomboka Ceremony by the Lozi people in Western Province

Kuomboka, a word in the Lozi language which means ‘to get out of water’. This is one of Zambia’s most popular ceremonies and takes place at the end of the rain season, when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of the Western Province. This ceremony celebrates the move of the Litunga, king of the Lozi people known as the Litunga from his compound at Lealui in the Barotse Floodplain of the Zambezi River to Limulunga on higher ground. It is preceded by heavy drumming of the royal Maoma drums, which echo around the royal capital the day before Kuomboka, announcing the event. The Litunga is ferried in the Royal barge known as the Nalikwanda. The performance and weaving of various paddling styles, dances, songs, colourful scenes, dressing styles, cultural and traditional homage and multitude of tourists puts this ceremony in the top-list of the water festivals performed all over the world.

N’cwala Ceremony by the Ngoni people in the Eastern Province of Zambia

The Ngoni people are an offshoot of the Zulus. They left South Africa and moved into what is now the country of Zambia. The N’cwala is a traditional ritual ceremony which the Ngoni use to thank God for the good harvest in their land. They also celebrate the many wars and battles they fought and won over as they moved from South Africa.

Two days before the ceremony, their Paramount Chief Mpezeni shifts from his palace called Ephendukeni to Mtenguleni. The town of Chipata (capital city of Eastern Province) always comes to a stand still every year when the Chief is escorted to Mtenguleni by Ngoni warriors dressed in Ngoni wear called Vitewe. Chief Mpezeni is driven in a slow moving open vehicle and can be seen waving to the curious crowd as the convoy makes its way to Mtenguleni.

On the day of the N’cwala Ceremony, there is so much activity at Mteguleni as thousands of people and Ngoni warriors clad in leopard skin with knobkerries and spears add a rich traditional touch to the ceremony. This ceremony offers a rare opportunity for the Ngoni people to mix and dance freely with their Paramount Chief Mpezeni. The main highlight of the ceremony is when the Ngoni warriors slaughter a black bull in the main arena with spears and serve the chief with fresh blood.

Shimunenga ceremony of the Tonga people in the Southern Province of Zambia

A ceremony for the Ba-ila people of Maala that is celebrated on the weekend of the full moon in the middle of October and November. The Shimunenga is considered to be a Divine Being to be approached when the crops need blessing, the cattle are to be taken to the plains or when a murder is committed. At this ceremony, people pay respects to their ancestors at the shrine. The ceremony also culminates in the showing of cattle wealth. It is a time for the people to thank their god for providing for them over the period which has just passed.

Early in the morning of the first day, people gather at the shrine of Shimunenga, where traditional songs are chanted. There is also a cultural march past of women and girls in traditional attire, after which people are treated to performances by traditional dancers.

On the following morning, the drum is sounded and animals are taken to the river, where cattle is displayed in the traditional manner. The first animal to cross the river will be those of the custodian of the shrine. This is followed by a demonstration of a mock lion hunt and pelican fishing. The occasion is marked with traditional songs in honour and praise of the Shimunenga ancestral spirits. Celebrations carry on in the village with pit-stops for traditional beer at different places.

Mutomboko Ceremony of the Lunda people in Luapula Province

Led by Chief Mwata Kazembe, the Mutomboko Ceremony signifies the migration of the Lunda and the takeover of the Luapula Valle. The ceremony takes places annually on the last Saturday of July. Originally, the Mutomboko Ceremony was performed by dancing and drinking beer after a battle with an enemy but as time went by and wars became obsolete, it became a distant memory. In 1971, to mark the 10th anniversary of the installment of Chief Mwata Kazemba XVII Paul Kanyembo Lutaba, the ceremony became an official event.

Ukusefya pa ng'wena of the Bemba people in Northern Province

Held under Paramount Chief Chitimukulu, this ceremony takes place annually in August, lots of dancing and singing is done. Different groups of people are invited to the stage to dance and sing for the crowd. Then, a group of people representing the Ngoni Tribe come onto the stage and perform a traditional dance. Festivities are characterised by singing (various genres of traditional Bemba songs), prayers, speeches by the chief and invited guests.