This film is held by the BFI (ID: 258618).


Colour documentary showing the migration of a Barotse tribe from Mongu to Limulunga during the seasonal floods.

The film opens with scenes of agricultural life 'in the Barotse province of Northern Rhodesia' and shows the daily life of the local Lozi people. First they are shown in the water and carrying sacks on their backs, before further sequences show them harvesting maize, cooking, fishing and cattle rearing. An African vet, with his 'modern scientific methods', administers an injection. The commentator explains that these people 'have plenty to eat and nothing to worry them', but states that they are governed by the river. As the flood season approaches, their cattle move to higher land.

The tribe prepares to migrate during the flood season. First, they `honour their chiefs' with a ritual dance, and then wait for the Chief to instigate the move. The Chief's barge is prepared and then the royal paddlers, in traditional headdresses, row. The barge is preceded by a minister 'who must clear the way of evil spirits', before all others follow. They travel on their barges, with all their belongings, including bags, cooking utensils and dogs. The arrival of the Chief's daughter marks the completion of the migration, which is celebrated with further dancing and singing.



Plainsmen of Barotseland was filmed by Louis Nell who, as head of the Northern Rhodesian Government’s rural 16mm mobile cinema unit, had travelled extensively across the country showing films to African audiences. Nell had concluded that African audiences struggled to relate to the experiences of foreign characters and to a ‘war they did not understand’. He thus recognised the need for local productions, and when the government decided to make its own films in 16mm Kodachrome – ‘shown silent with an on-the-spot voiceover narration in the language of the district’ – it sent Nell to the Killarney Studios in Johannesburg for training (Mangin, 1998, 23). Nell initially began shooting recruitment films for the Vet and Police departments. The former, Chilumba’s Choice, was, Nell suggested, ‘virtually a “Western” in disguise, without any violence’, and relied heavily on the action to tell the story, while using local names to localise and popularise the film. The latter, a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ film entitled Keepers of the Peace, was again scripted by Nell and filmed in three days (Nell, 1998, 54). He also shot material on his travels for the 16mm newsreels Northern Rhodesia News (in black and white) and Northern Rhodesia Gazette (in colour). Started during the War, both were intended for African audiences and focussed on local ceremonial events.

Nell recalls the production of Plainsmen of Barotseland in his memoirs, Images of Yesteryear: Film-Making in Central Africa. He had visited Mongu before, but now returned to film the Kuomboka, the seasonal move back to the higher ground of Limulunga. ‘The Kuomboka was Barotseland’s event of the year and everyone of importance in the district would be there’, he explained. After arriving on a five-seater Rhodesia Airways De Havilland Rapide (its ‘weekly scheduled flight’), he travelled across the flooded plains ‘with the PC in his official barge’. Nell explained the traditions of the ceremony. The royal drums, the Maoma, relayed the order to move, and the Kuomboka then started with the Litunga’s (Chief’s) ministers going ahead of the Nalikwande (the royal barge) ‘to clear the way of evil spirits’. Nell was on friendly terms with the Litunga (Chief), Yeta III, ensuring that he was able to film on the royal barge. He recalled in particular the ‘resounding cheers and ululation’ that greeted Yeta, and the spontaneous dancing, singing and ‘joyous celebrations’ which he captured on film (Nell, 1998, 66-70).

The Colonial Film Unit edited and distributed the film, which Nell noted was ‘Northern Rhodesia’s first colour film to emerge with a sound track’. Colonial Cinema published the script and printed images from the film in June 1945, and then explained six months later that ‘as an experiment, the commentary has been dubbed in two African vernaculars’, while ‘a soundtrack has now been added, the music having been adapted by the musical director of the Unit from recordings made in Northern Rhodesia’ (Colonial Cinema, June 1945, 42-43, December 1945). The music came from a song recorded by the Ngoni Tumbuka choir, and Fela Sowande, the CFU’s musical director, based his score on a Bemba folksong. Nell further noted that ‘a few bars of the music were later adopted as the theme tune for the newsreel British News’ (Nell, 1998, 70).

During 1943 Northern Rhodesia had one mobile cinema, operated by a European and his African assistant, that played to 80,000 people throughout the territory. Two more were put into operation in 1945, with Africans now trained to operate them across the country. Nell noted the inclusion within the programme of CFU films, and the most prominent amongst these was, it appears, Plainsmen of Barotseland (Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 43-46). Nell noted, for example, the popularity of the film when he played it to those living along the banks of the Zambezi in 1947. ‘With time to announce shows sufficiently in advance, we now had good audiences and since they were quite at home with the subject, they particularly enjoyed the film Plainsmen of Barotseland. True to form, they gave a rousing royal salute when they saw their paramount chief on the screen’ (Nell, 1998, 92). The film also played, along with Keepers of the Peace, as part of an experiment in Mass Education, carried out by the cinema officer in Udi, in Nigeria, in 1948. The report noted that ‘though given without commentary, [the film] seemed to be grasped as a whole’, while the dancing ‘caused much comment and not a little amusement’ (Colonial Cinema, September 1948, 62). When Peter Morton-Williams conducted his experiments into audience reactions in Nigeria in 1952, he also included Plainsmen of Barotseland amongst his geographical films. The film played widely across Africa. For example, Colonial Office records in 1949 noted that it had been shown in Togoland during the previous year, while the film was also shown at the Ministry of Information theatre during the war as an example of the Unit’s work (Colonial Office, 1949, 109).



Plainsmen of Barotseland offers some excellent colour photography not only of the Kouboka festival, but also more broadly of local African life. The film was intended for African audiences, although in its formal choices – the use of close-ups, the movement within the frame, the cuts across shots – this is not immediately apparent. The film adopts an African soundtrack and although this version contains an English commentary, it was usually screened with commentary in local dialects.

Louis Nell sought to present films of local life that his audiences could identify with and this was also important to the Colonial Film Unit during the war. The CFU did not employ a unit in Africa at this time and so sought to exploit or re-contextualise existing African footage. Nell recognised a local interest in royalty and traditional ceremonial practices, but the film also outlines and promotes modern developments. For example, a sequence shows a veterinary officer demonstrating how ‘modern scientific methods’ will protect local animals. The inclusion of this sequence may be credited to Nell’s earlier work with the vet department, but it also serves to recommend both the introduction of European methods – a European man is shown inspecting the cattle – and the use of the trained, skilled African worker, as the film shows an African man administering medicine to the animals. Furthermore, as Nell noted in his memoirs, the Chief was a modern figure, interested in film and western culture. He is represented here, not in traditional ceremonial robes, but rather in a suit and shirt.

Tom Rice (April 2009)


Works Cited

Ambler, Charles, ‘Popular Films and Colonial Audiences: The Movies in Northern Rhodesia’, The American Historical Review, Volume 106, Number 1, February 2001, 81-105.

‘Plainsmen of Barotseland’, Colonial Cinema, June 1945, 42-43.

Colonial Cinema, December 1945.

Shooting Films in the Villages, Colonial Cinema, September 1948, 62-64.

Colonial Office, Report by His Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the General Assembly of the United Nations on the administration of Togoland under United Kingdom Trusteeship for the year 1949 (London: H.M.S.O., 1949).

Mangin, Geoffrey, Filming Emerging Africa: A Pioneer Cinematographer’s Scrapbook – from the 1940s to the 1960s (February 1998).

Morton-Williams, P., Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental-Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria (Lagos: Federal Information Services, 1952).

Nell, Louis, Images of Yesteryear: Film-Making in Central Africa (Harper Collins (Zimbabwe), 1998).

Nell, Louis, ‘The Mobile Cinema in Northern Rhodesia’, Colonial Cinema, June 1948, 43-46.




Technical Data

Running Time:
15 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
332 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit





Production Organisations