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er gaze is severe, her gait proud and her ample dress a rich swirl of carmine. Men and women prostrate themselves in her path as she crosses the field of high grass towards the church - her skinny husband trotting two steps behind. Chief Waitwika, queen of 150,000 souls, is coming out. More than seventy tribes make up the ethnic tapestry of today's Zambia. And even in the modern presidential era - after a century of upheavals wrought by colonialism and independence - the country still depends upon its traditional leaders. With many tribal dynasties being matrilineal in structure, these leaders have never been exclusively male. The number of female chiefs has steadily diminished, however, as society has changed. " In the past it was not rare to see a woman heading a people," explains anthropologist Mulenga Kapwepwe. " But the colonial British administration reduced the number of traditional rulers - especially women - and patriarchal society has done the rest." Today there remain about 20 women among Zambia's 286 traditional leaders, each having been conveyed to the throne by a council of elders. Through their veins runs the blood of their royal ancestors, tribal leaders who came from as far afield as Sudan or Congo to form the present Zambia. Nkomeshya Mukamambo II, chieftainess of the Soli people in Chongwe district, recalls the day in 1971 when she was offered the reigns of power. " A messenger came to tell me that my son was dying," she remembers. " I ran to the village, where I found that the child was fine, but everybody was waiting to offer me the place of the late chief." Not everybody approved of her nomination. " One of my uncles, who desired the post, has Queens Zambia has a long and proud tradition of female chieftainship. This tradition, however, has been sorely tested by the changes of the last century. VĂ©ronique Mougin meets five remarkable women who strive to uphold female authority in a male-dominated world. Photos by Michel Monteaux Heritage of the bush Above: Chief Waitwika has been chief of the Namwanga people since 1999 28 Travel Zambia November 2009

Heritage taken action against me," she explains. But the challenge failed: nobody, not even the chosen one, can overturn the decision of the elders. Her Royal Highness Mukuka Mfume presides over 14 villages in northeast Zambia. On the threshold of her grass- roofed palace, this fi ne septuagenarian widow describes how she sees her duty. " It is God's will that I lead my people, and I obey Him," she explains. " To decline to become chief is unthinkable." She has now exchanged her city house for a grass-roofed palace. Royal Highness, a job for life, is not always the sinecure you might imagine: the post brings her no remuneration, unlike some lucky chiefs indemnifi ed by the government. The power of these leaders is not what it once was. They no longer arbitrate in witchcraft affairs as they formerly did - black magic does not exist, according to Zambian law - and serious crimes are sentenced at national level. Her Highness, nonetheless, is authorised to act in local confl icts, neighbourhood quarrels and cases of land theft. She also serves as government spokeswoman on such issues as the education of girls and the struggle against AIDS/ HIV. To be faithful or to abstain, to live peacefully, to work hard in the fi elds, to take care of the sick, elderly and orphaned: these are the messages that she, or one of her numerous delegates, delivers daily. And then there are the special days. Chief Nkomeshya's begins early one morning towards the end of October, when she dons her extravagant outfi t of skins, pearly headdress and jewels. Dressed in clothes bearing her image, her subjects gather in thousands to hear her implore God to bring good rains and a plentiful harvest. For these are also the duties of a chief. Traditional leaders must also lobby on behalf Above: Mukuka Mfume offers words of advice to her subjects " It is God's will that I lead my people, and I obey Him" November 2009 Travel Zambia 29