Updated: Dec 20, 2022
When Dr David Livingstone first arrived on the banks of the Zambezi River at Linyanti, in the Caprivi Swamps, he was welcomed by Sebituane, chief of the Makololo people. Sebituane had established himself and his people as overlords to the Lozi, who themselves ruled over many tribes, including the Tonga people known as the Toka-Leya who lived along the river in the region of the Victoria Falls.
The Lozi, ruled by their king or Litunga, lived in the Barotse floodplains in the upper stretches of the Zambezi River, then known as Barotseland and now incorporated as the Western Province of modern-day Zambia.
To the south, in modern-day Zimbabwe, ruled Mzilikazi, king of the Matabele. Both Sebituane and Mzilikazi had established their kingdoms after moving their people north from their traditional homelands in modern-day South Africa – refugees from the shadow of Shaka and his Zulu warriors.
Sebituane died soon after meeting Livingstone, and when Livingstone returned in 1855, it was his successor, Sekeletu, who guided Livingstone to the Falls. Soon after Livingstone visited the region for the last time as part of his Zambezi Expedition in 1860, Sekeletu was dead and his people dispersed after the Lozi finally rebelled against Makololo rule.
South of the Falls, Mzilikazi ruled with ruthless efficiency, earning himself the reputation of one of southern Africa’s great warrior chiefs. After his death one of his sons, Lobengula, became king of the Matabele people.
Both the Lozi Litunga, Lewanika, and Lobengula became problems to be squared for Cecil Rhodes, the Englishman who had made his fortune through control of the Kimberley diamond fields and his company De Beers, and who looked north to expand his mineral and mining ambitions. Both were duped into signing treaties which gave away mining rights in their lands to Rhodes who, acting under Royal Charter granted by Queen Victoria, exploited his position to annex their lands under the control of his British South Africa Company.
Lobengula and his people rebelled against the Company and its assumed power, leading to the ruin of his capital at Bulawayo. Lobengula himself was never captured and his fate remains unknown, although today his people form one of the major ethnic groupings in Zimbabwe – the Ndebele.
The Lozi Litunga, Lewanika, had sought for protection for his people under the British flag and ‘great white Queen’, and as such was able to maintain much of his cultural authority through the colonial administration into the present day.
Closer to the Victoria Falls, the Toka-Leya people under Chief Mukuni can claim to be the true ‘people of the Falls’. Their Tonga traditions survive to this day, and Mukuni village, where the hereditory Chief Mukuni has his seat of power, is only a short distance from the Falls themselves. Many cultural traditions and mythologies closely associated with the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River stem from their Tonga culture, including the serpent like river-spirit Nyami-nyami.