In one of Zambia’s largest flood plains rests a treasure of cultural heritage, the legendary Kuomboka Ceremony. On the Barotse flood plain in the western province, the Lozi King embarks on a symbolic journey aboard the Nalikwanda. A black and white ceremonial barge, amidst rhythmic drums and spirited chants from 200 royal paddlers, wearing skirts crafted from wildcat skin. The men fill the waters with their lively dance and paddle strokes. However, this dazzling spectacle also ignited a realization among the Lozi people about its impact on wildlife.
The Kuomboka ceremony, meaning “to get out of the water,” symbolizes the Lozi king’s seasonal transition. The king moves annually from his primary residence on the plains in Lealui to a secondary residence on higher ground in Limulunga during the rainy season. Drawing crowds from all over southern Africa. This tradition is a testament to the endurance of ancient cultural legacies in a rapidly evolving world. However, the 300-year-old ceremony’s reliance on wildcat fur for ceremonial attire could be threatening the species they are made from.
According to Panthera, a global organization dedicated to wild cat conservation, during the 2018 Kuomboka, an estimated 200 paddlers wore fur from approximately 150 leopards and 800 servals. Each skirt is approximately made from three to four cat skins, including leopards, lions, genets, and servals.
During this yearly event, three royal boats carry up to 900 paddlers, including the King’s barge. Being a paddler is a prestigious honour for local men in the Lozi community governed by the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE). Aspiring paddlers dedicate years to mastering their skills and securing a “Lipatelo” local name for a wildcat fur skirt to be considered. Alongside these skirts, paddlers traditionally wore red berets topped with lion mane headpieces called “mishukwe,” showcasing the ceremony’s rich cultural significance.
Acquiring fur requires permits from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), unfortunately, this process seemed unguaranteed for parts of the Lozi society. This led to some members opting to harvest the fur without permits. However, both legal and illegal harvesting of leopards and other cats for ceremonial attire, alongside bushmeat poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat degradation, has devastated big cat populations in Zambia over the years. In 2019, the United Nations Global Biodiversity Report highlighted grave concerns regarding the looming extinction crisis, emphasizing the plight of endangered species, including the leopards.
This troubling situation sparked concern within the naturally conservation-minded Lozi community, signaling a pressing dilemma and a wake-up call.
“It was noted that wild species, cats in particular were in a dwindling state, and this affected our cultural activities. We needed ways and means to protect our wildlife and preserve our culture“ remarked Panthera Saving Spots Coordinator – Western Province, Induna Lishandu Maswabi.
Speaking in a candid interview Lishandu Maswabi explained that concerns about their wildlife heritage, the BRE to take proactive steps by engaging Panthera in 2017 through Peace Parks Foundation. This union led to the initiation of the “Saving Spots” project in Zambia’s western province in 2019. An initiative aimed at preserving culture and safeguarding biodiversity by replacing authentic wildcat fur with highly realistic synthetic replica fur known as Heritage Furs.
The Lozi community embraced the Saving Spots project from the start, inspired by Late Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta’s suggestion based on a successful South African initiative. Panthera’s “Furs for Life” program which targeted the Nazareth Baptist Church, eBuhleni known as the Shembe Church, aiming to curb leopard skin demand by introducing the Heritage Furs. An idea that deeply aligned with Lozi’s sustainable cultural preservation goal.
After negotiations and collective effort from BRE leadership, Panthera developed the Heritage Fur “lipatello” and “mishukwe” which were approved by the “Litunga” (Lozi King). In 2019, Panthera presented 900 Heritage furs to the Lozi king and queens in a celebratory ceremony. However, due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the royal paddlers couldn’t wear these symbolic furs in 2021. Despite this setback, the upcoming Kuomboka ceremony in the following year promised a celebration of the newfound sustainable future for both the Lozi’s culture and wildlife.
“In 2022, the Kuomboka was an exciting scene celebrating our Lozi culture. Witnessing nearly all paddlers adorning heritage fur on the king’s barge was truly a testament to our commitment to change!” exclaimed Lishandu Maswabi, beaming with pride. Thanks to the initiative, members of the Lozi community are donning the Heritage Fur lipatello (Lozi) and Amambatha and Crown from the Shembe Religion in South Africa.
To sustain this change, Panthera and BRE held a three-day workshop in Mongu and involved the community in creating a social marketing campaign that would highlight the impact that wildcat harvesting could have and the advantages of using Heritage Furs. The gathering was guided by RARE, an international organisation that provides behavioural science solutions to environmental challenges. The workshop focused on creating positive compelling messaging and visuals to support the Saving Spots initiative. Emphasizing the value of heritage furs and honouring Lozi culture as part of the Saving Spots demand reduction initiative.
Over 40 diverse stakeholders were in attendance. These included the BRE indunas, prominent paddlers, Lozi paddlers, DNPW representatives, Panthera staff, WCP representatives, Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC), musicians, local tailors, Zambia Police, educators, and a few marketing professionals. All brought together to champion the initiative. Demonstrating their dedication to the project, the Ngambela, Mr. Mukela Manyando, the king’s esteemed spokesperson, inaugurated and concluded the workshop.
In what almost seemed like a kindergarten classroom, the excitement, colourful drawings and texts on the walls were the backbone of what will be a one-of-a-kind conservation and heritage campaign in the western province and Zambia. Engaging content such as billboards, print and radio programmes, and soul-stirring songs, were drafted by the participants to align with the campaign’s objectives.
The most exciting element of this process was the slogan developed for the campaign, “SETU NI SETU”: Saluna ki Saluna, – translated as “what is ours is ours”, emphasising the crucial role of heritage fur in preserving the Lozi culture and wildlife. The Ngambela in his closing speech reechoed the slogan, “The heritage fur has been warmly embraced and aptly utilized on every vital occasion. We earnestly aspire that eventually, their production could be localised to empower our local tailors, especially our women. Setu ni Setu.”
Furthering to this, Bishop Martin Mulyata who was among the participants, highlighted age-old teachings about humanity’s sacred duty as stewards of wildlife. Quoting from Genesis 1 verses 26 to 28, he suggested the biblical call to humanity, emphasising the imperative need to protect wildlife and wear heritage fur. He affirmed, “This is our sacred duty bestowed upon us by scripture.” A reminder for the Lozi people to treasure their wildlife and heritage fur.
A children’s book to ensure growing and potential paddlers are aware of the right procedures to take in acquiring their heritage fur. The book won praise from the Ngambela. Beaming with pride as he remarked in his closing address, “This isn’t just a children’s book; its content transcends age, speaking volumes to everyone.”
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The adoption of heritage furs symbolises a significant step in wildlife conservation, preserving a cherished culture by avoiding authentic animal furs. The unwavering collaboration between Panthera and Lozi leaders exemplifies the importance of preserving wildcats alongside timeless traditions. The message from the Saving Spots project highlights the effectiveness of community-driven conservation initiatives in making a lasting effective impact.
Picture Credit: Marine Drouilly/Panthera