Barotse

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The name Barotse refers to an extensive group of people who occupy the Western part of Zambia, portions of Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. They also may be called Barotsi, Barutse, Bulozi, Marotse, Rotse, Rozi, and Lozi. The original name of the Barotse was Aluyi. For purposes of this entry, the name Barotse will refer to all of the people mentioned.
Barotse history is complex. The Barotse people are organized with a paramount king and many subkings. Indeed, it has been said that it is a nation of royals because of the proliferation of kingships. Arriving in their present area around the 16th century under the leadership of Mboo Mwanasilandu, the Barotse established their capital at Lealui. In the vicinity of the capital, the Mashona people, the majority in Zimbabwe, often traded with the Barotse, creating a common trade language that was understood by both groups. However, it was not the Mashona who were to have the greatest impact on the complexity of Barotse history, but another ethnic group from the south, the Makololo.
In the early 19th century, a powerful conquering monarch of the Basotho people, Sebitoane, led his Makalolo armies from what is now South Africa north through the territories of the Tswana and Shona people leaving devastation in his wake. Passing through the Kalahari Desert, they encountered the Barotse people on the flat flood plains of the Zambezi and subdued them. The armies of Imasiku, the paramount king of Aluyi, were conquered in 1838. The Makololo called the Aluyi, whom they had met and defeated by a new name, Barotse, meaning “people of the plains.” In the following years, the Barotse became subject people, rising only as high as they were permitted by the Makololo elite. After 40 years of subservience to the Makololo, the Barotse revolted and eliminated most of the Basotho-Makololo royalty and oligarchy, reestablishing their own kingship lineage.
With the destruction of Sebitoane's dynasty in 1864, the Barotse had declared their national independence and selected Sipopa as their king. They were soon, however, to be subjected to British colonialism. Nevertheless, the people retained their cultural practices and heritage based on their long history. The king and the mokwai, who is usually the eldest sister of the king, rule with the authority and prerogatives of the ancestors. They are considered equal, the male and the female ruler, and each is required to obtain the assent of the other before a national edict or law is passed.
The Barotse believe that the Supreme Deity is a solar deity in the sense that the sun embodies the power of a force that energizes the universe. There are no shrines built to this deity, but there are many ceremonies and rituals intended to appease ancestral and other spirits. All evil is associated with some spirit. According to the beliefs of the Barotse, the ancestral spirits must be consulted and celebrated on a regular basis as a way of maintaining harmony and peace in the society.

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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Reynolds, B. (1963). Magic, Divination and Witchcraft Among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.