The Barotse Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 10/03/2009
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Heritage Conservation Commission
State, Province or Region:
Zambia, Western Province
Ref.: 5428

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


S 13 50 - E 22 45

S 16 40 - E 23 45

The Barotse landscape is a vast expanse of open land with a gently undulating topography incised with a network of canals that are denuded with the waters of the Zambezi when it bursts its banks at the height of the rainy season from October to May. It is also known as the Bulozi Plain, Lyondo or the Zambezi Floodplain and is one of Africa's great wetlands. It is designated as a possible Ramsar site on the basis of it being of high conservation value.

The landscape is a flat plateau at an elevation ranging between 914 to 1218m tilting gently to the south. The floodplain stretches from the Zambezi's confluence with the Kabompo and Lungwebungu Rivers in the north, to a point about 230km south, above the Ngonye falls, south of Senanga. Along most of its length its width is over 30km, reaching 50km at the widest, just north of Mongu, main town of the plain, situated at its edge.

The main body of the plain covers about 5500km², but the maximum flooded area is 10750km² when the floodplains of several tributaries are taken into account, such as the Luena Flats. The Barotse Floodplain is the second largest wetland in Zambia after the Lake Bangweulu system, which differs by having a large permanent lake and swamps, and a much smaller area which dries out annually.

The Zambezi and its headwaters rise on the higher ground to the north, which enjoys good rainfall (1400 mm annually). It consists of large, flat grassy plains. These are drained by the Zambezi and its tributaries, which form large floodplains in the ecoregion. The area is situated on deep Kalahari sands of Aeolian origin (locally known as Barotse sands), which are waterlogged in the rainy season and dry during the rest of the year. The gleysols formed in this environment are nutrient-poor and have very low clay content.

Parallel to the plains on the northern frontier of the shore is a range of higher grounds. A combination of the flood and the upland areas has provided the natural platform for traditional human settlements and land use on which the famous Kuomboka ceremony has been sustained for years.

Kuomboka ceremony has been an annual event on the ancestral landscape. The term, Kuomboka, means 'emerging out of the waters'. When the plains are fully flooded every rainy season, the Litunga (King) and all plain dwellers sail in a colourful ceremony accompanied by an orchestra of traditional music and dance all the way to the highlands in Limulunga, where a similar capital to the traditional Lealui in the plain stands established. Others living within the plain also move to higher grounds on account of the flooding.

Whilst Kuomboka ceremony refers to the journey from Lealui to Limulunga, the reverse journey to Lealui is another ceremony known as Kufuluhela. The latter ceremony is not publicised.

The landscape has various resources which include spectacular man-made canals, natural and man-made mounds, traditional houses and palaces, shrines and other sacred sites and items of special significance mostly used as part of their rituals and ceremonies, roads and footpaths, culverts, natural water bodies (tributaries, lagoons, oxbow lakes, etc.), islands, weirs, trees, grasses, and various fauna.

The canals have been used for navigation, transportation and draining of the plain. The man-made mounds are where the ancestors of the present day Lozi community built their homes in response to the regular flooding. Both the canals and mounds are still central to the socio-economic livelihood of the present day Lozi community. The latter has literally perpetuated and sustained a cultural tradition or civilization that was authored on this landscape over centuries of years.

There is also a road that runs from Mongu harbour across the plains to Kalabo. Most of this road however, has been washed away as the raised ground upon which it was built could not withstand the pressures of the flood.

Patches of evergreen forests (Cryptosepalum dry forests) in the north and east part exist. The soils are predominantly alluvial on the plains deposited from regular flooding over the years, with seemingly a balance between sandy and clayey loam soils.


The ecoregion experiences a tropical savanna climate with three seasons: a hot dry season (August to October), a hot wet season (November to April), and a cool dry season (May to July). Mean annual rainfall ranges from 800 to 1,000 millimeters (mm). The mean maximum temperature is around 27°C and the mean minimum temperature is between 12° and 15°C.

Flood levels and timing

The peak of the flood occurs on the floodplain about 3 months after the height of the rainy season in January-February. The flood usually peaks in April, and recedes between May and July, when grasses quickly grow on the exposed plain. At the river's lowest water in November the floodplain still contains about 537 km² of lagoons, swamps and channels.

The flood leaves behind a fertile grey to black soil overlaying the Kalahari sands, enriched by silt deposited by the flood as well as humus from vegetation killed by the initial flood, and from decaying aquatic plants left to dry out in the mud. It provides a good soil, but in the late dry season it bakes hard in the heat of the sun. As the floods recede, water is left behind in lagoons, swamps, and oxbow lakes.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Barotse Plains is proposed for inscription as a:

Criteria (iii): Cultural Landscape that bears a unique and exceptional testimony to a living cultural tradition

The Kuomboka/ Kufuluhela ceremonies have been taking place on the proposed landscape for over 200years.

While it is a form of adaptation, it bears testimony to the culture and traditions of the Lozi people. The Lozi society is an example of a highly centralized kingdom. Beyond conquest, the various ethnic groups were integrated in the mainstream of the culture but without losing their identity. The Litunga promoted unity in diversity.

The Kuomboka ceremony is a culmination of this unity. This is evident in the various roles played by different ethnic groups during the ceremony. For instance the Kwangwa specialize in what is known as ku loka, giving praise and adoration to the King and about the wealth of Barotse in a language known as Luyana spoken only by a few in the royal circles; the mbunda are good at ululating, while the Nkoya are the best in drumming. These roles have been preserved through time and are in existence to date.

After water has receded on the plains, around August, the Litunga sets off for his permanent residence at Lealui. This ceremony is known as Kufuluhela.

Criteria (v): Cultural landscape with an outstanding example of traditional human settlement and land use representative of a culture and human interaction with the environment.

The interaction of the people of Barotseland and their environment has resulted into various kinds of adaptation in as far as land use is concerned. They formed mounds which are used for settlements and cultivation. Through a process of land reclamation, soil was piled up over the centuries to form mounds upon which the communities in the plains could undertake their activities of habitation, farming, burials, etc. The people also developed traditional weirs (malelo) which trap fish when the floods are receding. The weirs are created in such a way that they connect two or more mounds.

Some mounds have been abandoned and are now denoted by the presence of trees especially fruit, like mango; they are now used as burial places and are also a habitation of wild animals. The process of maintenance still does take place with soil being brought in from the plains and heaped onto the existing ground to improve or increase the ground level.

The temporal shelters known as maongo are also another form of adaptation and a form of land use. They are made of reeds, grass and/or branches. As an addition to this adaptation, fishermen also use them in fishing camps on the plain.

The landscape is traversed by canals that perform three functions namely, transportation, navigation and draining of water from the plains. The mwayowamo canal is very active and stretches from Limulunga harbour to Lealui harbour. The other canal runs along the banks of the plains from Limulunga to Sefula.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

According to the written history about the Barotse Plains and the people of the Western Province, the plain has been inhabited for over two hundred years and has influenced the lives of people over time. The people have adapted to the landscape by coming up with traditions, customs, designs and features that are still a part of their lifestyles.

The landscape has a number of unique properties that meet the condition of authenticity. These include:

1. Use and function

Kuomboka/ Kufuluhela Ceremonies : The Kuomboka and Kufulehela ceremonies have been taking place on the proposed landscape for over 200years. The Lozi society is an example of a highly centralized kingdom. Beyond conquest the various ethnic groups were integrated in the mainstream of the culture but without losing their identity. The Litunga promoted unity in diversity.

Mbuyuwamwambwa Burial Site : The site is located in Makono Village on the western bank of the Zambezi River near the Nanjulwe Island. It is reported that the grave is clearly marked, though this could not be confirmed because of lack of time. Mbuyuwamwambwa was the founder and first ruler of the Lozi Kingdom before she abdicated the throne in favour of her son Mboo Muyunda who became the kingdom's first male ruler. It was Mboo who first used the title of Litunga i.e. King of the land. The site can easily be accessed from the Nangulwe Island; this island has a good sandy beach (15° 09‛ 34" S, 22° 56" 59" E) and is said to be a breeding ground for some birds.

Mbanikelako Burial Site: This is the burial grounds for Litunga Lubosi Lewanika. The site is located in the midst of a village compound, and as usual, it is located on higher ground. Lubosi Lewanika occupies a special status not only for the Lozi Kingdom but for Zambia as a whole because he presided over the kingdom at a time when colonialists and concession seekers began entering the interior of Central and Southern Africa. Concessions and agreements signed were amongst those that led to the colonization of what came to be known as North Western Rhodesia. He ruled from 1878 to 1884 before he was briefly deposed and only to be reinstated in 1885 until his death in 1916. The site lies on 34 709908 E 8319523 N, 15° 11‛ 30" S 22° 57' 14" E.

Traditionally, the graves are on mounds and are chosen as soon as the chief ascends to the throne. These graves link the past and the present generations. The dead chiefs are consulted through offerings of meat and libations with the grave attendants (li ng'omboti) as medium. Their attendants see off the Nalikwanda to Limulunga.

Lealui Royal palace and village: This palace lies on 34 716850 E, 8315957 N; 15 13 24 S, 23 01 08 E. With the Nayuma sacred site, the palace is the heart of Lealui. It was built during the reign of Litunga Lubosi Lewanika in 1878 having established Lealui as the Capital of the kingdom. It comprises several households including the house of the queen, the Litunga's house Kwandu (built in 1890), the probation centre Kamona (built in 1878), visitors' pavilion etc. The probation house is where a newly installed Litunga is kept to receive instructions before he could occupy the royal palace. The royal pavilion, the Kashandi was built in 1908. The materials used for the construction of the royal compound were obtained from every part of the kingdom including the west bank of the Zambezi River. The queen's residence, the Nanda, was built in 1906. Adjacent to her residence, is another royal pavilion, the Njiimba, where she receive her guests or dignitaries.

To the east of the royal compound, is an area where houses for King's children and kingdom officials such as the Prime Minister, the Ngambela, are.

2. Traditions, techniques and management systems

An elaborate system exists where village elders known as indunas are assigned specific roles of managing resources such as the maintenance of the royal palace, royal barge (for the Kuomboka), historic canals, forests, fisheries and wildlife including birds.

Villages : Villages constitute one of the major features of the Barotse Cultural Landscape. These villages are small because mounds on which they are built are also not big. All the villages are found on the mounds they were originally founded. But the population is subject to frequent change because of socio-economic demands. Due to flooding villagers move to dry parts and return when floods recede in July or so. They lead a transhumant life with semi-permanent settlement in the plain.

Canals: Canals (maabwa) were constructed serving different purposes. Some were used for navigation purposes in order to open up the site to human traffic. The longest is called musiyamo and stretches from beyond Limulunga and ends at the Mongu harbour. Another such canal was the mwayowamo constructed between 1887 and 1889 to link Lealui to Limulunga and also supply water to Lealui. Others include Lyabwa la twelufu and Lyabwa la Sikolongo.

Another type of canal was to allow for the drainage of the water-logged soils that form the greater portion of the land. In order to allow for varied human activities such as farming with attendant activities of housing, the land had to be drained of as much water as is possible. These run parallel to the forest edges to allow the community cultivate their crops especially those tolerant to water such as millet, pumpkins, lukesha, cassava, munanana, etc. These are grown year round. Other canals in the plains include Nonge, Lubitameyi, Sanjali and its tributaries.

Traditional weirs: In ensuring a steady and easy supply of fish as floods recede, weirs are formed to hold back some of the water (and with it, some fish). When fish is required, a small opening is created within the wall of the weir that allows for the escape of water. A basket would have been placed at that opening and fish would then be captured. Malelo is the local name for these weirs.

Temporal structures: Maongo is the local name given to temporary settlements that serve as accommodation for the plain dwellers during the period when they are away from their permanent residences, such as during the Kuomboka on highlands and at fishing and hunting camps.

Mounds: The mounds are scattered all over the plain. If there are any trees and shrubs on the Zambezi Flood Plain, they are found on such mounds. According to local people, the mounds are man-made as the grounds were raised to built homesteads or for cultivation.

3. Language and other forms of intangible heritage

The enthronement of the Litunga is an elaborate traditional ritual that climaxes at a village called Makono (the burial place of Mbuyuwamwambwa, the first Litunga), and continues at other places and Lealui.

As regards the integrity of the site, almost all the elements of the site are still intact. The location and characters of Lealui and Limulunga have basically remained original. Villages and burial sites are in their original settings, though some canals and mounds are currently not in use. The general topography of the plain is intact except for the failed road project from Mongu to Kalabo that has left a negative mark on the landscape. The cultural ceremony is still being held every year when plains are flooded.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Barotse Cultural Landscape, like the Sukur Cultural Landscape of Nigeria, has been inhabited continuously since the early 1800s. The two palaces of the Litunga (King) one in the plains (Lealui) and the other on the highland known as Limulunga, along with villages, canals, fields and their sacred burial grounds, are a remarkably intact physical expression of the society and its spiritual and material culture. The world-renowned Kuomboka ceremony, steeped in myth and ritual splendour characterise the annual transhumance of the Lozi people.

The Kuomboka ceremony stands out as unique event in comparison with other cultural landscapes on the list. The ceremony typifies the influence the hydrological/fluvial system has had on the traditional and social-economic life style of the Lozi people.

The graves for past kings are still being managed and conserved to date as in the case of the Kasubi tombs in Uganda. The graves are managed by the Li ng'omboti that bear testimony to the living tradition of the Lozi people. The graves are within the perimeters of the respective villages and they do not get inundated during the floods. The Li ng'omboti act as Priests between the dead kings and the community.

The whole system which encompasses the flood plain, villages, mounds and a system of canals is a unique example of complex ecosystem and interaction that has existed over the years. This whole area also provides a habitat for a wide range of species of plants, fish and animals.