The story we are about to tell you is shrouded in the mists of time.
Which is where Rothschild Safaris come in. We love illuminating extraordinary corners of Africa that no-one else knows about.
Our tale is difficult to research and very few westerners know any of the details we will share here. And while it is lovely to have exclusive knowledge of great romance… we also think the tale is so extraordinary that it is a pity wider understanding of it does not exist.
People visit Victoria Falls by the millions. They come for its wild beauty because we grew up with the adventures of David Livingstone and maybe even because of the enduring popularity of the British Royals and their connection to this Wonder of the Natural World.
King Geoge VI and Queen Elizabeth visit Victoria Falls (not Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip)
Only a tiny percentage of anyone visiting the Falls know anything about the true history of the place… and the incredible romance that once bloomed here, and forever changed the way of life for the people that have called this home for centuries.
It all began 700 years ago.
A small village was built within a few miles of what we know as Victoria Falls today by the Leya Tribal Matriarch. A 13th Century Toka-Leya high priestess who fell under the enchantment of the Smoke that Thunders, she was a descendant of the Rozwi Empire known as Bedyango. From the village of Gundu, which was perched on a hill to overlook the spray from the Falls, the Bedyango ruled over the entire area and built shrines to its beauty everywhere. Many of these shrines still exist and ancient sites like Siloka Island near the lip of the falls remain a revered site for prayers and rituals.
The original Bedyango had carried a stone called Kechejo from Kabwe. Also known as the ‘living stone’, it was passed from chief to chief … and the matrilineal chiefdom was maintained for over four centuries. (Even later another ‘Living Stone’ would visit the incredible waterfall… but that is a story for another day.)
Rituals to avert disaster, wars, droughts and epidemics were a central part of the strong female empire and life was good until the end of the 17th Century.
It was at this moment in history that a tall, dark and handsome man strutted into the picture.
This man had been a chief himself. He had followed legends of an otherworldly waterfall all the way from the Luba-Lunda Empire of Kola and what is the DRC today.
The Congolese chief did not go unnoticed.
In fact, the Chief of Gundu village fell incredibly hard for the stranger and it is easy to understand why. Because Mukuni N’gombe was the entire package. A statesman, a diplomat, a conqueror, a lover of peace, a possessor of supernatural powers and an empire builder he also had the insight to escape the turbulence that dogged his father King Mulopwe’s Bayeke’s empire. As Mukuni travelled down from the Congo he created opportunities and good marriages for his sisters, sons and daughters allowing his family to settle throughout Central and Southern Zambia.
The Bedyango was herself impressive enough to stop Chief Mukuni in his tracks. Their first meeting happened at the Simukale shrine on a podium so everyone could ensure the newcomer meant well.
A whirlwind affair led to a joyous marriage.
Their love was so strong that she decided to cede most of her power to her new partner. She would retain the ritual duties and keep all the exclusive powers over agriculture, land, culture, birth and death rites that were important to the tribe. The male chief was put in charge of all political, economic, defence and judiciary matters. If the male chief was absent, or if there was a transitional period, the Bedyango would assume all powers.
The village was renamed Mukuni for the new male Chief Mukokalya Mukuni N’gombe. It remained the biggest village in the area until Livingstone was founded.
The love of Mukuni and Bedyango built a tradition that has survived millenia. The Mukuni and Bedyango empires still rule the area together.
It is possible to visit Mukuni village today and if you are very lucky, meet both the chiefs, one male, and one female… with powers divided exactly as they were all that time ago. Today the co-chiefs are usually brother and sister as the rulers must come from the same family. The Mukuni Chieftess is very involved with the villagers and responsible for cultural issues while the chief deals with mundane and political issues. She also has the final say in the choice of a new chief. The Chief and Chieftess maintain their own separate palaces.
The Simukale shrine remains standing.
In Modern times
The villagers of Mukuni are very poor by western standards but the chiefdom is tidy and efforts are made to assist the families who have the most need, to ensure access to medical care and to keep the children in school.
In other news. Historically a chief who could no longer attend to his duties in Mukuni village were brought to one of the three huts outside the palace and given poison to end his life. Chief Sichichele Mukuni might have been blind, old and incapable of ruling but he was also very smart and he took precautions against poison.
Later the elders invited him to the funeral of one of his slaves where they pushed him into an empty grave and buried him alive.
To this day no chief of Mukuni village ever attends a funeral.
The region has been a place of worship for the Leya people for many centuries. In December of every year, they perform the Lwiindi Basilombelombe Spray Ceremony to summon and bless the coming rains.
At this time young men of the village are initiated into adulthood. They are expected to prove their marriage worthiness by taking part. During their ceremony, they are known as Basilombelombe.
On the day, the Toka-Leya sing hymns to their ancestors and travel from the Village to Victoria Falls, going down into the Batoka Gorge at the Boiling Pot or Chiposyo. The young men smear themselves with white clay ‘mpemba’ from the river bed adding new green leaves to their costume. The white powder symbolizes purity for performers who want to come into the presence of spirits.
Water is collected from a sacred place represented by the spray of the Falls in the Boiling Pot which represents the ancestor spirits. The water is then carefully carried from the gorge. More water is then collected from the very lip of the Falls at a place known as ‘Chisamu Chilikumbede’. At a water shrine on the way back to the village, they imitate rain by pouring water over the roof of a sacred hut.
The Mukuni Leya also have a shrine site known as Nsambalwa near the intake of the hydroelectric power plant. This is where they come for cleansing activities during sickness.
All of our story is commemorated during a day-long celebration called ‘Kwasamukale’. The ceremony is part of the monarch’s memorial day and stairs have been constructed at the location where the first Chief Mukuni negotiated entry into the village (and into the Bedyango’s heart). The stairs represent each of the monarchs to have reigned at Mukuni village. The ceremony commemorates the epic journey from Kola in the modern day Democratic Republic of Congo, through central Zambia and northern Zimbabwe to the Falls. The entire history of the Bene Mukuni Royal Dynasty is re-enacted through song and dance.
Images viaRoger Erdvig, Kyle Sterk, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay, Pixabay