The Ila are the warriors of the Kafue Flats. It is not known when they first arrived in now-Zambia or where they came from but they were not part of the major migrations from now-Congo. It is assumed that they must have arrived during the 1500s. The traditional story from Chief Mungaila is that two brothers, Shimunenga and Moomba, lived on Busanga Plains and fell out. Shimunenga moved south with his family and cattle to the Kafue River.
The Ila people were known for the hairstyles of the men. The hair was drawn up into a point, with extra hair added and even the horn of an antelope inserted in the middle. Some accounts state that the wives had their heads shaved and the hair given to the husband to add to his coiffure. It must have been really uncomfortable; it is said that their top-knot was tied to a rafter with a piece of string to allow them to sleep and not spoil their hairdo. The reason for this amazing appendage was to allow the men to be seen on the floodplain during the rainy season when the grass could be higher than their heads.
The Lozi people who lived to the west, were the dominant ethnic group in the region and considered the Ila as part of their realm. The Lozi called the Ila Mashukulumbwe which means ‘to draw up the hair’.
The Ila people were very protective of their land and their cattle. When the Czech explorer, Emil Holub, tried to pass through in 1886 the Ila attacked. Emil Holub (and his wife) had to flee for their lives.
When the British arrived on the scene in the 1890s, the Ila did not give in easily but were impressed with the British for stopping of the raiding by Matabele from south of the Zambezi River and slave traders from various directions.
The Ila were found to be strong and hard working. William Collier, the man responsible for marking Roan Antelope Mine, travelled there with porters from the Ila. When the railway line was being constructed from Livingstone to Kafue a team of Ila workers was employed. All the other ethnic groups were very wary of these warriors and kept their distance. The Ila did not mind; they preferred their own company.
The Ila also made excellent soldiers and were some of the first recruits for the Rhodesia Police Force. They were part of the battalion which defended Northern Rhodesia during the First World War. By the Second World War, of the 400 African Soldiers in the Northern Rhodesia Rifles, 75 of them were Ila.
To the Ila, cattle was their wealth. When a Chief or an important person died many cattle were slaughtered at the funeral as a sign of respect. As many as 400 cattle could be slaughtered. The British administration approached Chief Mukobela about the waste of resources by this practice. They suggested that instead of killing so many cattle the Chief should allow a maximum of 40 to be killed and that the remaining ones should be used to raise funds for a school or an orphanage. Chief Mukobela thought that this was a grand idea but insisted that a school be built soon in Namwala and that a statue of him should be placed outside. And this was done.
Both Chief Mungaila and Chief Mukobela hold their ceremonies in Namwala. The Shimunenga Ceremony of Chief Mungaila is well-known throughout Zambia and is held in October. Many cattle are paraded during the ceremony which lasts for three days with lots of singing, dancing and story-telling.