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The Ba Ila

Traditional Ceremonies

The Ila people celebrate annual traditional ceremonies that showcase rich culture and heritage. Through these events, communities pass on oral history, material and spiritual culture. The Ba Ila people celebrate two significant ceremonies each year, one in Namwala called Shikaumpa and the other Shimunenga held in the village of Maala, Namwala district.

The Ila and their Cattle

When one speaks of the Ila people of the Namwala District in the Southern Province of Zambia, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘cattle’. The Ila have roamed the Kafue Flats for centuries grazing their treasured cattle on the rich luscious grasses.

Despite the history of severe ecological and institutional changes and decapitating cattle disease that have ravaged the region, the Namwala District still has the largest number of traditional owned cattle. Manmade dams and climate change have reduced flooding and rainfall resulting in inadequate crop harvests and reduction of pasture. 


Additionally, the change of vegetation in the Flats has brought about the immigration of an Australian weed called Mimosa Pigra which has further interfered with grazing lands. Despite these challenges the Ila have managed to remain iconic traditional cattle breeders based on a culture with a premise that one’s economic wellbeing evolves around the number of heads of one owns.


In the Ila culture, cattle are an asset class and insurance, as a hedge against hardships. They fulfill various social obligations of the family, e.g. in making payments settling disputes, forms of payments.

In recent times, cattle are draught power for ploughing and transport and provide manure for agriculture.

Because cattle are seen as a form of wealth and prestige, the Ila community has accumulated a genetically strong beef cattle line of grass fed beef cattle that roam freely on the verdant grasses of the Kafue Flood plains.

The cultural significance of cattle is culminated in the Ila people’s annual ceremony of the ancestral spirits Shikaumpa and Shimunenga. The ceremonies are held around October and involves cultural marches and dances with songs that honor the ancestral spirits. Amongst other activities and beer drinking, the main event is of a public display of cattle to show off family herds as a symbol of wealth and tradition of Ila society.

Shimunenga Ceremony

According to tradition Shimunenga, a great warrior who lived about 400 years ago, and successfully led the Ba Ila against marauders, is buried in a sacred ground outside the village of Maala. It's here where the two-day ceremony takes place – woven into a feast of dancing, drinking and singing. While chanting their songs, the women throw ceremonial sticks into "Shimunenga's bush" in the middle of the sacred ground to bring about good luck.

Broken pots mark the spot where Shimunenga is believed to be buried. And once the homage formalities have been observed, a signal from Chief Mungaila – a hereditary title handed down to each office-holder – sets off the traditional Cattle-drive.

The cattle, a symbol of wealth, are herded past the ceremonial ground so that Shimunenga may look kindly on them and protect them against pestilence in the coming year. With the cattle run a horde of spearmen, making frequent 'attacks' on imaginary enemies to mark a great defeat suffered by the Ba Ila in ancient times, which they must remember so they won't be defeated again.

After the cattle drive and spear charge, the final round of ceremonies – devoted to singing, dancing and eating. The Shimunenga ceremonies have one major difference to most other similar homage rituals throughout Africa – the Chief is not the center of the ritual, nor does he play any real part. He's simply there as a spectator and to start the cattle drive. The organizer is a specially-appointed headman, who sends out messengers every year several weeks ahead of the ceremony to gather in the far-flung clans of the ha-Ile.

The final ritual dancing over, Shimunenga is appeased – until the beginning of the rains next year.

Shikaumpa Ceremony

Shikaumpa was approximately born in the 16th century.   He grew to be a mighty warrior of the Ila people of Baambwe.  As a young man Shikaumpa had a dissension with his father which was resolved in a gesture of humility suggested by the witch doctor to present a gift of sweet potatoes in appeasement. The gift worked and the pair reunited. On his father’s death, Shikaumpa took over the chiefdom and ruled valiantly, conquering neighboring villages and plundering great wealth. His exploits earned him the name ‘Shikaumpa’, which means “the one who burns and sets fire on homes and property.” Due to his formidable fighting spirit and ability to block weapons he further earned the name ‘Mukobela’.

Shikaumpa’s valor and strength made him a hero and legend, inspiring his subjects. Before he died, Shikaumpa requested that his people remember him through an annual ceremony thus the people of Baambwe hold this ceremony each year in his memory. 

After his death, Shikaumpa’s spirit speaks through a medium to his people, advising them and foretelling the harvests of the coming year, warning of calamities and epidemics and advising same on how to deal with tragedies.

Activities at the festival include the brewing of traditional beer, various exhibitions of girls and women in traditional attire. Songs and dance to the sounds of drumbeat can be heard through the town. The festival culminates in exhibitions of cattle to show off wealth as well as exhibitions of guerilla warfare and mock hunts ending with ululating and sounds of bells.

Watch the Shikaumpa here.

Traditional Ceremonies
Photos by Johannes Van Der Weijden.
Photos by Johannes Van Der Weijden.
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