Exploring the rich history of the Luangwa Valley in Zambia and the role of chieftaincy in the political and social fabric of the country.
Driving past a sign that said ‘Chief Kakumbi’s Own Palace’ every day for over a week inside the game management area of one of the premier wildlife conservation areas in Zambia, the South Luangwa National Park, made me curious about its presence.
A bit of investigation opened me up to a deeper understanding of Zambian chieftaincy and its role in the political and social fabric of the country. At the lodge where I was staying, everyone hailed from the Kunda tribe for whom Chief Kakumbi was the paramount chief. Yet the locals spoke a dialect of Bantu found among the Bisi ethnic group of the Congo.
I immediately set about questioning senior members of the local Mfuwe village about their migration from the Congo into the Luangwa Valley (part of Northern Rhodesia prior to the 1960s) only to receive anecdotal stories of a migration in the 18th century. While the Kunda were a large majority of the people living in the districts surrounding the park, two other tribes, the Chikunda and Ngoni, were also present as minorities. When they spoke, I could hear a significant di-ference in their dialects, so I set about researching the history of these three tribes who were not endemic to the area.
I soon determined that it was enslavement and internecine warfare that caused large migrations into the Luangwa Valley. The valley had been unpopulated due to its inability to support livestock with a high density of carnivores and because of the sleeping sickness disease. The Luangwa River flows into the Zambezi River where a plethora of land, gold, ivory, and enslaved people, among other things, incentivized the Portuguese crown to colonize the surrounding areas at that time, including what is now Mozambique and parts of Malawi. In the absence of a colonial army, Portuguese landlords hired individuals who voluntary sold themselves for economic survival and collectively they became the Chikunda.
These armies could be over 20,000-strong which helped the Portuguese subjugate local villages.
Utilizing the Chikunda warriors, the Portuguese raided nearby villages for the enslaved individuals and ivory to sell to Swahili and Arab traders from Zanzibar.
The Kunda moved to the Luangwa Valley in the early 18th century after local tribal warfare among the Bisi people of the Luba
Kingdom of the Congo. The Kunda settled in a harsh area without the ability to raise livestock in the Luangwa Valley. Their peace was short-lived as they too were enslaved. This led the Kunda to disperse all over the Luangwa Valley for safety. As the Portuguese colonies crumbled in the 20th century, the Chikunda formed alliances with the Kunda and settled in the valley.
The militarization of the region of today’s KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa by Shaka Zulu, whose quest to consolidate his empire in the late 19th century, forced Ngoni residents of
Swaziland to flee north into the Luangwa Valley, thereby putting pressure on the already-settled Kunda and Chikunda. The Ngoni were fierce warriors and soon started raiding both Chikunda and Kunda villages for enslaved people, which was the main economic driver at the time. The Kunda, who were primarily pastoralists, appointed the Chikunda as mercenaries to protect them.
With the arrival of the British and the formation of Northern Rhodesia and the Nyasaland colony, the war with Ngoni people was won by the British, and tribal peace declared in Northern Rhodesia.
With independence obtained from the British in 1964, the new country of Zambia was born, made from parcels of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the former name for colonial Malawi.
Today, the constitution of Zambia provides substantial powers to the tribal chiefs, numbering over 241, in the matters of land utilization and local law. Thus, Chief Kakumbi of the Kunda and Chief Jumbe of the Ngoni people who own vast tracts of land along the South Luangwa National Park these days assist in game management, sustainable development and in the mediation of disputes and conflicts among the residents.
My attempt to meet Chief Kakumbi one Saturday – the day he meets with his people in the palace – narrowly failed since he had to attend a parliamentary meeting in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. My purchase of a chicken, a traditional gift taken by new visitors, did not make it to his kitchen. A casual sign by the roadside revealed so much of the rich history of the Zambezi valley, where the great explorer David Livingstone began missions and later exposed and campaigned against enslavement, and the darkest chapter of humanity.