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ETHNONYMS: Barotse, Barozi, Barutse, Kololo, Marotse, Marutse, Rotse, Rozi, Rutse, Silozi, Tozui


Identification. Concentrated around the Zambezi River plain lying at 14°30 to 16°00 S by 23°00 E, the Lozi consist of a number of interrelated ethnic groups located along the Zambezi River in Barotse Province of western Zambia. As used here, the term "Lozi" refers both to the Lozi proper and to those groups that have become subject to and assimilated into the Lozi proper. These groups include the Kwanda, Malcoma (Bamakoma), Mbowe (Mamboe), Mishulundu, Muenyi (Mwenyi), Mwanga, Ndundulu, Nygengo, Shanjo, and Simaa. In addition to being members of the Lozi-dominated Barotse Kingdom, these peoples share similar customs, speak the Lozi language (Kololo), and intermarry. The Barotse Kingdom incorporated a number of other ethnic groups, such as the Tonga, Lukolwe, and Subia, but these groups have remained somewhat distinct in language and customs.

Demography. Population data for the Lozi are poor, based mainly on estimates, and do not lend themselves to an assessment of demographic trends. Figures for the whole of Barotse Province (including non-Lozi) place the population at 295,741 in 1938 and 361,905 in 1963. The 1938 estimates suggest figures of about 67,000 for the Lozi ethnic group itself and 105,000 for the Luyana group (the Lozi and related groups that consider themselves to have common origins). If assimilated peoples are included, the Lozi population in 1938 reached over 160,000. More recent estimates place the Lozi at 380,800 in Zambia (1986); 8,070 in Zimbabwe (1969), and 50,000 in Mozambique (1988).

Linguistic Affiliation. Lozi (Kololo) is the common language of Barotse Province, although many inhabitants speak other Bantu languages as well. Lozi has been classified as a Bantu language of the Benue-Congo Family, within the larger Niger-Congo Group. The Lozi language derives largely from the Sotho dialect spoken by the Kololo, who conquered the Lozi, but it exhibits some modifications, especially in phonetics and vocabulary.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Barotse Kingdom begins with the southward movement of the Luyi people sometime around 1600. Luyi history is characterized by a series of expansionary conquests and the absorption of numerous other peoples under their rule. Luyi domination was temporarily interrupted when they were conquered by the Kololo, a group of invaders from the south, who ruled the kingdom from 1838 to 1864. In 1864 one of the Luyi (now known as Lozi) princes reestablished his group's dominance by conquering the Kololo. By then, however, British and Portuguese interests had begun to penetrate the area. The first treaties between the British and the Lozi, signed in 1890 and 1900, placed the Lozi under the authority of the British South Africa Company, but allowed them considerable autonomy in self-government. During the twentieth century, there were a series of changes in the larger political institutions to which the Lozi were subordinate. From 1924 to the 1950s, they were a part of Northern Rhodesia, under the rule of the British Colonial Office. Subsequently, they were incorporated into the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and in 1964 Barotse Province became part of the newly proclaimed Republic of Zambia. Each of these political developments brought changes to the sociopolitical organization of the Lozi; the indigenous political organization increasingly lost power and functions, and the territorial extent of Lozi domination was constricted.


The Lozi occupy small, compact villages, often surrounded by a fence or palisade and usually arranged with a cattle corral or open plaza in the center. Although village sites persist over time, there is a great deal of flux in village population. Flooding of the Zambezi River necessitates abandonment of villages in the flood plains during part of the year. In some cases, all or most of a village's population will move together to their lands on higher sites. Sometimes, however, the entire village will disperse, with its members joining kin from other villages. Besides this annual flux, there is a continual flow of people from one village to another for various reasons. The prevailing house type is that of a round hut with a low cylindrical wall of rush mats or of wattle and daub and a conical thatched roof.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In a habitat characterized by great seasonal and ecological variation, it is not surprising that the Lozi subsistence economy is both mixed and complex. Lozi agriculture produces such staples as bulrush millet, cassava, sorghum, and maize, plus a number of lesser crops, including groundnuts, sweet potatoes, beans, and melons. Agricultural crops, methods, and intensity vary with the location of the plot, the type of soil, the amount of moisture, and the population's needs. Most cultivation is done with hoes, the plow being a relatively recent, and not always practical, introduction. Fallowing, manuring, crop rotation, and construction of drainage ditches are known to the Lozi and applied where deemed necessary. Most Lozi also keep domestic animalscattle in particular, but also poultry, goats, and sheep. Hunting, collecting, and fishing are all important adjuncts to the subsistence economy, and the Lozi use a variety of technical equipment in these activities.

Industrial Arts. The Lozi are skilled ironworkers. Blacksmiths smelt the iron ore obtained from stream and river beds and from swamp soils to produce axe, hoe, and mattock heads, snuff spoons, crocodile hooks, knife blades, dagger blades, iron ankle-rings, hammers, and other items. A skilled and experienced blacksmith will often embellish his work with punched ornamentations or bosses. Many utilitarian pots are vase shaped and without handles; some of these are decorated around the neck with patterns of a lighter or darker color, others are highly polished to give the appearance of glaze. Large urn-shaped maize bins are made of unbaked clay and also have clay lids. On the front of these vessels, close to the bottom, is a semicircular opening protected by an interior slide, which may be lowered or raised by horizontal handles.

The average Lozi can carve a knobkerrie or a handle for an axe or a hoe; the Lozi also produce excellent dugout canoes. Many of the wooden artifacts used by the Lozi, such as stools, bowls, and dishes, are probably obtained in trade from neighboring tribes.

Trade. Traditionally, economic exchange was carried on through barter and redistribution by the king, and trade between the Lozi and surrounding bush tribes formed a very important part of the economy. Fish and cattle, held in abundance by the Lozi, were bartered for bulrush millet; cassava meal; iron; many types of woods, bark, and grasses; and various tribal specialties of the bush people. Trade between the Lozi and the outside world began to develop in the nineteenth century, particularly with Arab and European traders. Although Loziland had few profitable exports, owing to its remoteness from the outside world, the Lozi did have ivory, beeswax, and slaves, which were exchanged for luxury items of the industrialized world. As the economic balance changed during World War II, cattle and dried fish began to be exported to centers of industry in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). Today the Lozi are part of a full-fledged cash economy with market mechanisms.

Division of Labor. The division of labor in subsistence pursuits largely follows sex lines. Men are responsible for livestock, hunting, most of the fishing, and the more arduous agricultural tasks; women do most of the work in agriculture and collecting, a little fishing, and most of the routine domestic chores. Occupational specialization was limited in the past, but has become increasingly important. Migration for wage labor opportunities has become a major means of support for the Lozi.

Land Tenure. In traditional Lozi society, all land and its products belonged to the king, and the king was obligated to provide his subjects with land and protection. In addition, every subject had the right to fish in public waters, hunt on public lands, and to use the natural raw materials of the land (e.g., clay, iron ore, grasses, reeds, trees). In return for the use of the land and its products, the king had the right to claim the allegiance of everyone living on his land, to demand tribute from their produce, to control the building of villages, and to pass laws affecting land tenure and use. In addition, the king retained direct control over unallocated land, had residuary rights to land for which an heir could not be found, and potentially had the right to give unused land to landless people or to use it for his own purposes or for public works. Land allotted by the king to villages was held in the name of the village headman, who, in turn, distributed parcels of land to his fellow villagers.

When an individual is given land from the king, he doesn't really own it. He has ownership of, or access to, that land only as long as he occupies his position within the village. Valued property, such as garden plots and fishing sites, were attached to particular villages and, specifically, to certain individuals or families within those villages. If a man leaves a village, he loses his rights to all land within that village. Once land has been acquired by right of blood or adoption, a family member (male) has the right to use it and to transmit it to his own heirs, and this right is protected by the courts, even against the wishes of the headman.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The Lozi possess no unilinear kin groups. Despite a slight patrilineal bias, kinship is reckoned bilaterally, with relations traced as widely as possible through both consanguineal and affinal ties. They have eight noncorporate name groups called mishiku (sing. mushiku ), and a man can claim membership in any or all of them, provided that he is a direct descendant in any line of a person who was a member.

Marriage. Marriages are legitimated by the payment of a small bride-price. The practice of bride-service has fallen out of use, and postmarital residence is usually in the community of the groom. Polygyny is common, but the Lozi do not practice polyandry. Co-wives are accorded relatively equal status, although they are ranked according to order of marriage. The senior wife has a few privileges, such as first consideration in the distribution of food produced by the husband, but she has no authority over her co-wives. Neither levirate nor sororate are practiced. Divorce rates are high, and an individual Lozi may have had several partners during his or her lifetime. Marriages between close relatives, extending to third cousins, are prohibited; some cousin marriages occur despite this prohibition, but with the proviso that they may not be dissolved by divorce.

Domestic Unit. Residence patterns in marriage are loosely structured. Formerly, initial residence was matrilocal, whereas permanent residence later on was usually patrilocal. However, a man could take up residence in the village of any grandparent, and possibly even in the wife's father's village, if there were no available locations in his father's village. Incidences of avunculocal residence have also been reported for the Lozi.

The nuclear family constitutes the basic economic unit of Lozi society. In polygynous marriages, each wife has a separate dwelling and her own gardens and animals to tend. She has the rights of disposition of her own produce and receives a share of the husband's produce. Cooperation in production and consumption between co-wives is highly variable. The traditional ideal is that each wife produces only for her husband and her own children, but it appears that there has been an increased tendency away from this ideal of separateness. In the past it was common for one wife to prepare food for the whole polygynous unit.

Sociopolitical Organization

During the days of the Lozi Kingdom, there was no higher territorially based organization than the village, except for the kingdom as a whole. Beginning with British rule, however, territorial organization was introduced, with villages organized into districts, districts organized into Barotse Province, and the province, in turn, forming a part of a larger political unit or state. In contrast, the Lozi Kingdom was hierarchically organized into a system of nonterritorial political sectors. Members of a sector owed allegiance to the sector head, a man who held a senior title in the Lozi court. These sectors were dispersed throughout the kingdom and served as judicial, military, and administrative units.

The Lozi Kingdom was highly stratified socially. At the top was the royalty (linabi and bana bamulena ), composed of all those who could trace their descent from a king bilaterally within four to five generations. Husbands of princesses and commoners related to royalty were also of high status. Below them were the ordinary commoners. Slaves and serfs formed the lowest strata. (The institutions of serfdom and slavery were abolished in 1906.) The king was the ultimate authority. In earlier times, a chief princess held almost equivalent power over the southern portion of the kingdom, but British rule eroded her powers. In addition, the Lozi courts had a number of stewards, councilors, and members of royalty, all of whom participated in decision making. The most important office next to that of the king was that of ngambela, chief councilor, sometimes referred to as the "imperial chancellor," a commoner who represented the commoners' interests in the court. Allocation of power within the Lozi power structure was highly complex and dichotomized. Commoner interests were balanced against royal interests from the top down.

The prerogatives and functions of the king and his courts have undergone steady erosion since the beginning of British colonial rule. As part of a larger political unit, the king was no longer the ultimate power. Power in judicial matters was first limited to minor legal cases and later placed completely within the Zambian judicial system. Similarly, the right to collect tribute was taken from the king. By 1965, most of the governance of the Lozi was through Zambian national agencies, and the right to distribute land rights was virtually the only power that the king could still exercise.

Sanctions maintaining relationships among the Lozi are general and diffuse; breaches of their rules lead to far more serious consequences than a lawsuit in court. Penalties applied to an erring kinsman may range not only from loss of rights to cattle and land, but also the loss of support from fellow kinsmen in various economic endeavors. Conscience and sentiments are major factors in inducing conformity and in making redress for wrongs. Generally, the settlement of everyday problems and the administration of justice is handled at the village level. Should the verdict not satisfy the parties involved, the case is passed along to the next level in a hierarchial court system, until satisfaction is obtained.

Historically, warfare was very common among the Lozi. Lozi kings fought not so much to enrich themselves, although they obviously increased their power and prestige through successful military operations, but to obtain land and cattle, to add to their subject population, and to extend the area of tribute-exchange in which the conquered shared. At the height of their power, the Lozi ruled over some twenty-five tribes of from 300,000 to 400,000 people spread over an area of some 200,000 square kilometers. After British rule was established in 1890, the Lozi domain was restricted to Barotse Province of Rhodesia (later, Zambia). In traditional society, rebellion against the authority of the king was common. Often contenders for power were the king's councilor or groups of councilors, who had enlisted a prince of the royal family on their behalf. When a group of councilors mutinied against a king, because of the king's policies or because he favored another group of councilors, they attacked neither the kingship itself nor the rights of the royal family to it. Each party put forward its royal candidate for the throne and fought in his name. Clearly, commoners could only seek power by serving their own royal candidate for the kingship.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Lozi are primarily monotheistic, but they retain a number of beliefs about spirits and other supernatural beings. Elaborate rituals and offerings are focused on the burial sites of former kings and chief princesses. Priests mediate between the Lozi and the spirits of their former rulers. There is a different set of beliefs and practices concerning commoner ancestors, and rituals concerning these spirits takes place on an individual level. Sorcery, divination, exorcism, and the use of amulets are all elements in the Lozi religious system.

Ceremonies. The Lozi ceremonial calendar is largely defined by the state of the flood. The two great national events of the year are the moves of the king between his home on the plain at the time of rising flood, and his eventual return after the flood waters fall. The initial move is made following the appearance of the new moon and after sacrifices are made at all the royal graves. Amid the booming of the royal drums, the king, traveling on the royal barge and accompanied by the princes and councilors of his court, proceeds to one of his capitals located on high land above the floodplain. This procession is followed by the migration of the commoners in their dugout canoes. As the flood recedes, the king is enjoined by the royal drummers to move back to the plain so that the people can return to their normal economic pursuits. At this time, the king makes his return journey along a canal dug by one of his predecessors. This trip is accompanied with far less ceremony than the original voyage entailed. Upon the return of the king to his capital, much dancing, especially of the ngomalume (royal dance) variety, takes place.

Arts. Lozi artistic expression includes ironic folktales, maxims, and songs about people, objects, and places, all of which are rich in historical allusion and proverbial wisdom. There is a band of musicians within the king's court; they sing as well as play musical instruments. These musicians perform on state occasions, or otherwise at the king's command. The instruments used by this band include a wide variety of drums (kettle, friction, small tube-shaped drums, and war drums), marimbas, the kangomhbro or zanza (ten pieces of metal fixed around a plate of hardwood on an empty calabash), various stringed instruments made of the ribs of fan palms, iron bells, rattles, and pipes of ivory, wood, or reeds.

Medicine. Diviners usually dance to work themselves into a frenzy and into a state of spirit possession to cure their patients. According to the Lozi, almost all disease is caused by sorcery. To combat these diseases, a witch doctor (naka ) is called in to perform rites of exorcism over the patient. The naka, who possesses real if limited medical knowledge, may be a member of the local community or may be invited from a neighboring village or from an outside tribe. The diseases treated by exorcism are psychic disorders that are usually attributed to possession by a malevolent spirit. These disorders are called maimbwe, liyala, macoba, and kayongo. The method of curing involves exorcistic dancing combined with the inhalation of the vapor from boiling concoctions of bark, roots, and leaves. There are also a number of less common curing ceremonies, such as the one performed when a child becomes possessed by a hunter ancestor.

Death and Afterlife. At the point of death, the individuals eyes and mouth are kept open. When death occurs, the body is flexed so that the knees come up under the chin. The body is then removed from the hut through a special opening cut in the side of the dwelling for this purpose. As the body is taken to the cemetery for burial, spells are scattered on the road to prevent the return of the ghost to haunt the village. Men dig the grave while women stand around the grave site and check to see if the grave is deep enough. Men are buried facing east, whereas women face the west. When the grave is ready, two relatives of the deceased climb into the grave to receive the body. The personal possessions of the deceased are then placed around the corpse. Relatives kneeling around the open grave then gently push dirt into the hole, while those within place dirt around the body. The grave is then completely filled. On top of the grave are placed a broken anthill and a wooden plate or some other object that has been broken with an axe stroke (dead like its owner), in the belief that they will accompany the individual to the other world. The grave of a person of status, which is situated to the side of the commoner s cemetery, is surrounded by a circular barrier of grass and branches. After returning to the village the people mourn for several days. As a sign of grief, the kin of the deceased wear their skin cloaks inside out. The hut of the deceased is pulled down, the roof being placed near the grave, while the remaining possessions of the dead person are burned so that nothing will attract the ghost back to the village. Sons and brothers of the deceased build miniature shelters in their courtyards, bearing the name of the dead, in which the spirit may come and find protection. At times of sickness or disaster, the kin of the deceased go to these shelters to worship and seek the spirit's aid.

The funeral rites for a king are far more elaborate. Before his death, each king selects or builds a village in which he will be buried, peopling it with councilors, priests, and other personnel. At his death, the king is buried in a huge grave at this site. This is then surrounded by a fence of pointed stakes and the markings of royalty erected around the location. Trees, obtained from the bush, are planted at the royal grave so that from a distance the site stands out distinctly on the flat plain. The Lozi believe that these royal graves are infused with great supernatural power, affecting the lives not only of the royal heirs but of all the inhabitants of Loziland. Each grave has its resident priest, who makes offerings at the site. The royal ancestors are believed to act as intermediaries between Nyambe (the supreme god) and man.

At death, the spirit of the deceased goes to a "halfway house" on the way to the spirit world. Here the deceased, if a man who has the appropriate tribal marks (matumbekela ) on his arms and holes in his ears, is received by Nyambe, or if a woman, by Nasilele (Nyambe's wife), and then placed on the road to the spirit world proper. If matumbekela and holes through the ears were lacking, the man was given flies for food and not welcomed; he was put on a road that meandered and became narrower and narrower until it ended in a desert where the man would die of hunger and thirst.


Gluckman, Max (1965). The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kalaluka, Likando (1979). Kuomboka: A Living Traditional Culture among the Malozi People of Zambia. Lusaka: Neczam.

Murdock, George Peter (1959). Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York, Toronto, and London: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Lynn Loreen (1972). The Origins of North-Western Rhodesia. Kingston, Ont.


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