A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
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Development of the Railway
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To The Victoria Falls

People of the Victoria Falls

The Toka-Leya

The Toka-Leya grouping includes the Toka (Batoka), who inhabit the western plateau areas north of the river, and the Leya (Baleya), a small group located near modern-day Livingstone.

The Toka

The Toka people are a group of Tonga from the country to the south-east of Kalomo. This group first settled to the north, before the coming of the Subiya, but later moved to the Sinde River, some 9 miles upstream of the Victoria Falls.

The hereditary title of the Toka Chieftainship is Musokotwane. Mubitana (1990):

"It is generally believed that this was a nickname given to the Toka leader by the Kololo when they first came to the Victoria Falls area between 1830 and 1836. The name is said to have originated from the Toka or Tonga word Kusitoka (to cross or jump). It is stated that, when Sebitwane asked the then Toka leader whence he and his people originally came, the latter replied ‘twakasotoka mwami’ (we crossed over, chief) – referring to himself and his people having crossed the Kalomo river from Kabanga to settle in the Ngwezi, Senkobo and Sinde areas; whereupon the Kololo caked him Musokotwane (probably meaning ‘the jumper’). Musokotwane’s people also claim that it was the Kololo who first called them Toka, which is really a corruption of the word ‘Tonga’."
"While Sekute fled his islands and Mukuni went into humble submission, Musokotwane first resisted the invading Kololo and then, having been defeated, went on to serve them loyally. It was the Toka who led the Kololo up north to the Tonga and Ila territories; it was with the help of Toka auxiliaries that Seitwane and, later, Sekeletu kept peace on the north bank of the Zambezi in the Victoria Falls region. The Toka, with the encouragement of the Kololo, also plundered the surrounding villages. As Musokotwane told Livingstone in 1860: ‘The Makololo have given me a spear; why should I not use it?’. He had personally killed his rival, Chief Mukuni. According to the Livingstones, Musokotwane (Mushobotwane) was so well nourished that he was ‘the stoutest man we have seen in Africa’ (D and C Livingstone, 1865: 248).

The Leya

Towards the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries other Bantu peoples migrated south from their original homelands in the southern Congo Basin. According to native tradition the earliest of these tribes in our area was the Leya who are under Chief Mukuni. It is believed that they are a group which broke away from the Lenje tribe in the area of Kabwe in what is now the Central Province of Zambia. The word ‘Leya’ is said to mean ‘to keep out of troubles’ and the explanation is given that Sichichele Mukuni led off a number of his followers and settled the country on both banks of the river above and below the Victoria Falls.

Clark (1952) tells the story of teh first Mukuni's death:

“The story told of Sichichele Mukuni’s death... is that one of his slaves having died, Sichichele was bidden to attend the funeral by his brother, Sinyemba. Sinchichele was by then a very old man, being nearly blind and able to walk only with the aid of a stick. As he stood near the edge of the grave, feeling its depth with his stick, he was pushed in and buried alive by his brother who then assumed the chieftainship.”

During the chieftainship of Mukuni Mupotola, two groups of Subiya from the Linyanti Swamp area migrated eastward down the river and looked to settle in the area above the Victoria Falls. These Subiya were noted as being skilled fishermen.

Soon after, two groups of Subiya people from the Linyanti Swamp area migrated eastward down the river and looked to settle in the area above the Victoria Falls. Mukuni initially refused them permission to settle on the mainland, and conflict broke out. One of their leaders, Sekute, after being captured in battle and loosing all his royal drums (powerful symbols of the chieftainship), accepted an offer of peace with the Leya, marrying one of Mukuni’s sisters and being allowed to settle. The Subiya of Sekute, the adopted hereditary title, soon incorporated Leya cultural elements and became identified as the Sekute Leya.

It is said that Mujimaizi Mukuni was born from this marriage. Mujimaizi was to distinguish himself in battle against the Lozi at a place near Ngwezi knwn as Musamumuyumu (the dry tree) before the coming of the Kololo.

Clark (1952):

“Another of the Mukuni’s, at the time when the Leya were being raided by the Lozi, before the coming of the Makololo, was Mujimaezi, and it is said of him that forming an alliance with the Toka, he fought so bravely and killed so many Lozi with his battle-axe, and consequently to have been so exhausted, that he sat down at the foot of a tree and called to the Lozi to kill him – which of course they promptly did!”

The Sekute Chief was feared for his magical powers - Livingstone reports that it was believed that the Chief held on Kalai Island a pot of "medicine" which, when opened, would release an epidemic in the land (Livigstone 1857). Mukuni also credited Sekute's mystical powers, in particular the royal drums, symbols of the Chiefs powers. One of these drums, the makuwakuwa, is believed to have preformed miracles, and is said to have sailed ahead of Chief Sekute's fleet when he led his people along the Chobe and Zambezi to settle in the area, sounding loudly at the approach of danger. When Sekute was defeated by Mukuni, his people seized the royal drums, including the makuwakuwa, which is said to have escaped into the Zambezi, hiding at the bottom of the river where its sound was heard for many years afterwards.

Traditional Leya historians state that Sekute originally came to hunt hippopotami, a pursuit at which his people are said to have been particularly skilled.

Lozi oral sources indicate that when the Lozi Litunga (king) Ngombala invaded the Victoria Falls area, probably in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, he conquered the Leya under Sekute. In the 1830s the Sekute Leya were defeated and dispersed by the Kololo under Sebitwane, who invaded from the south, before the subsequent overthrowing of the Kololo and the return of Lozi dominion in the 1860s. Mubitana (1990):

“When the Kololo Sebitwane invaded Kalai Island about 1836, Siansingu was the incumbent Sekute. Although many of his people were massacred during the raid, Siansingu and a few others escaped and sought refuge at Malindi and Mpandeni near Nyamandhlovu, under the overlordship of the Ndebele leader Mziliazi. Siansingu died of leprosy at Malindi, but some of his followers returned after the annihilated of the Kololo by the Lozi in 1864. Mungala, a nephew of Siansingu, had assumed the Sekuteship. He and his people first settled at Lwanja in Mashi, but later moved back to the Victoria Falls area, where they settled at the ‘Old Drift’.”
“By 1853, the Leya were well established on the north side of the Zambezi River, as is shown by Livingstone’s sketchmap of the middle Zambezi which was made at that time (Smith and Dale, 1920). There can be little doubt that some Leya also lived on the south bank since Leya chiefs often transferred their capitals from one bank to another. Leya presence on both banks of the river up to the early 1930s is also confirmed by a report published by J Moffat Thomson, then Secretary of Native Affairs in Northern Rhodesia.”

Livingstone reports having seen in 1855 the graves of Sekute Chiefs on Kalai Island, with 70 elephant tusks set in the earth around the graves.

Livingstone also records that three different locations at the Falls were used by the Sekute, Mukuni and other peoples as places of worship for their Gods and ancestors. Coillard, writing some twenty years after Livingstone, records that the local inhabitants "believe it is haunted by a malevolent and cruel divinity, and they make offering to conciliate its favour, a bead necklace, a bracelet, or some other object, which they fling into the abyss, bursting into lugubrious incantations" (Coillard 1897).

The Leya also became the focus of Ndebele raids during the 1880s and 1890s. It was the Leya of Chief Sekute who lived near the Old Drift when the first white settlers came to the area.

Mukuni Village

The current Mukuni village lies just seven kilometres from Victoria Falls and is the permanent traditional headquarters of the Mukuni Leya people, with an approximate population of 8,000. [The Leya people under Chief Sekute live to the west of Livingstone towards Kazungula.]

The Mukuni chief chooses one of his female relatives to be the 'Bedyango' or High Priestess of the tribe - usually a sister or aunt. The Chief, along with his counsellors, arbitrates cases involving local politics and other problems. The Bedyango is responsible for religious affairs, performs rituals to avert disaster during wars, drought or epidemic and officiates births and deaths, as well as having a final say on the choice of a new chief.

The Leya worship their dead ancestors, Chief Mukuni being their representative on earth. There are several ceremonies which are performed at the village at certain times of the year and in cases of disease or drought.

The Victoria Falls region has been a place of worship to the Leya people for centuries. The December Lwiindi Basilombelombe or Spray Ceremony is performed every year to summon and bless the coming rains.

The ceremony also forms an initiation for young men into adulthood. Young men around the age of seventeen are expected to prove their worthiness to take a wife by taking part. On the day of the ceremony old hymns are sung to the Toka-Leya ancestors and the participants travel from Mukuni Village towards the Victoria Falls and down into the Batoka Gorge below. Descending into the gorge at the Boiling Pot or 'Chiposyo' the young men smear themselves with white clay from the river bed and use new green leaves to complete their ritual costume. They then collect water from a sacred place, which is carefully carried back out of the gorge and to a water shrine on way back to Mukuni Village. Here they imitate rain falling by pouring water over the roof of a sacred hut. The young men are known as Basilombelombe and also take on another challenge to collect water from a place called 'Chisamu Chilikumbede,' located on the very lip of the Falls.

Another of the Mukuni Leya shrine sites is known as 'Nsambalwa,' located on the river close to the intake for the hydroelectric power plant, upstream of the Falls. This site was used for cleansing activities during sickness.

One of the most significant spiritual shrines for the Mukuni Leya is 'Katola Buseka,' and is represented by the spray of the Falls within the Boiling Pot and representing the ancestor spirits. In the past only offerings of highly valued possessions were conducted here to placate ancestral spirits and to ask for blessings.

To approach any of these spirits one has to visit the 'Ampemba', the white powder-smearing site at 'Chizabingo,' where those taking part smear white powder known as 'mpemba'. The white powder symbolizes purity of the performers as they come in the presence of the spirits.

Another Lwiindi or ceremony is held on the first weekend of July to celebrate the end of the harvest season through feast and cultural dance.

One of the central sites involved with these ceremonies is the 'Kwasamukale,' where the first Chief Mukuni negotiated his entry into the modern Mukuni Village and is celebrated as part of the monarch’s memorial day. Here stairs have been constructed, each steo representing a reigning monarch, including the current one. The stairs remind the present ruler about the reigning monarchs before him. The ceremony commemorates first Chief Mukuni’s epic journey from Kola (in modern day Democratic Republic of Congo) through central Zambia and northern Zimbabwe to the Falls. During the day-long celebrations, the history of the Bene Mukuni Royal Dynasty is re-enacted in song and dance.

Another site of deep spiritual significance is Siloka Islandm the largest island along the line of the falls and is a revered site for prayers and other rituals.

It is said that the first Mukuni Chief brought with him a stone - Kechejo - from Kabwe, and known as the 'living stone'. This stone is passed from chief to chief and kept at the site of the Mukuni village. The story of Kechejo is that it will disappear under the ground in times of severe drought; it will also raise itself higher out of the ground in times of good harvest.

Mukuni Village is situated on a dry, sandy knoll and the soil is poor and relatively infertile and they have therefore embraced tourism, including cultural tours of the village.

Next page: The Lozi

Recommended Reading

Chapman, James (1886), Travels in the Interior of South Africa, 2 vols., London [Reprint 1971 A A Balkema, Cape Town]

Clark J D (1952) The Native Tribes in Clark J D [ed] The Victoria Falls, Livingstone. 1952.

Colliard F (1897) On the threshold of Africa - A Record of Twenty Years Pioneering among the Barotse of the Upper Zambezi. London

Holub, Emil (1881) Seven Years in South Africa. Travels, Researches and Hunting Adventures, Between the Diamond-Fields and the Zambesi, 1872-79 London.

Jalla A D (no date) The History of the Barotse Nation, manuscript in Livingstone Museum

Livingstone, David (1857), Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa, London.

Livingstone, D and Livingstone C (1865), Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries, London.

Mukuni, Chief (1957) Handbook of the Leya History, manuscript in Livingstone Museum

Muntemba M (1970) Political and ritual soverignty among the Mukuni Leya of Zambia. Zambia Museum Journal, i.

Schapera I [Editor](1960) Livingstone's Private Journals 1851-1853. Chatto & Windus, London.

Sekwaswa (Ex-head Messenger) and Mahiritona K (no date) History of Livingstone District, manuscript in Livingstone Museum

Sicard, H von (1948) The Humbe under Chief Bangwe. NADA no 25.

Smith E W and Dale A M (1920) The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, 2 vols, London

Thompson J M (1934) Memorandum on the Native Tribes and Tribal Areas of Northern Rhodesia, Livingstone.

Worthington, F (1902) Note on the Mampukushu, manuscript in Livingstone Museum

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

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