Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Ncwala Ceremony

Musa and I arrive at the palace under a light shower of rain. There is a small flat-roofed, open storeroom nearby where a few dozen impis are sheltering, (and sweltering) jostling for space, bells jingling on their boots. Steam emanating from the sides of the hut. A few young men are standing about in the prickly rain, waiting. Of course the first thing you notice are the animal skins. Everyone has some kind of skin on them, whether in strips as a skirt, a headdress or something slung across shoulders. We start trying to identify all the different skins. A serval on someone’s back, a leopard, a baboon headdress, ooh, there’s a genet…. a civet there, a bushbuck. Musa is put out that he doesn’t have one. He spots a friend of his who comes over and gives him a headband made of genet skin. A spotty-stripy-furry headband. He looks just the part. Well, he is half Ngoni after all.

And suddenly its time. All sorts of vehicles have been trickling in; blue taxis, pickup trucks, a couple of busses. On cue the clouds suddenly part and the rain clears. Through the big crowd of people heading towards the palace, we spot a bunch of fresh, green millet stalks bobbing above the sea of heads. Some women (are carrying the first harvest – millet, pumpkin, maize, I couldn’t see the rest – to the palace for the chief to bless. There are knobkerries held to the sky and dancing, singing, jostling. The flash of a chrome knobkerrie belonging to an old old man. More leopard skins, another old man with a cow skin handbag, a couple of shields. And the chief comes sedately down the stairs. He is wearing a lion skin and the crowd parts as the women present him with the crops. These he ceremoniously touches and then takes into his palace. We wait. The people behind are muttering, wondering what exactly it is that happens in there.

And then we are off! The chief, wearing his lion skin, gets into one of the waiting cars and leads the procession through Chipata town to Mtenguleni – about 30km along the Great East Road - where the rest of the ceremony will take place. It’s muddy going at first, with cars slipping and sliding as if joining in the fun. More than twenty cars are in this procession. The atmosphere is bursting-at-the-seams-excitement. Knobkerries are tied to the front of cars, sticking out of windows, everywhere you look! There are trucks full of exuberant young impis, whooping and stomping. We pass a bus that looks like it has come from far – Malawi maybe, or Lusaka. The men and women inside are singing, the bus almost rocking with the buzz from within. An old man leans against the window, taking it all in – he looks like he’s come a long way; he looks tired. The whole road from the palace in Feni to the ceremony site in Mtenguleni is blocked off – the cars drive two by two, as if it’s a two-lane highway. Vehicles coming the other way have pulled over but the drivers’ smile and wave, getting into the spirit of things - they don’t seem grumpy that their journey is delayed. People line the side of the road and cheer as we go past. Musa is sticking out the sun roof brandishing his knobkerrie shouting “HAU” at everyone we pass! He’s in his element.

When the whole hooting, knobkerrie brandishing, mud spattered procession arrives at Mtenguleni, you can almost taste the spirit, the excitement. Everyone piles out of the trucks and mini-busses, taxis and pick-ups. And so the dancing begins. Musa and I walk around a little, mingling, greeting people, watching some of the dances; absorbing the atmosphere through our skin. Feeling the ground rumble with the stomping of feet.
The rain has cleared the air and all the colours seem so bright! Even in the fading evening light the colours seem to hum and vibrate, joining in the party. But the excitement has worn us out! We are tired and will leave the description of the dances to the next day.

Friday dawns and we head to Mtenguleni village, following the magnetic pull of the crowds. We can almost feel the buzz before we arrive. Throughout the next two days there is a frenzy of dancing. Old men, small boys and everyone in between. Everyone has an animal skin on them – even men in suits are carrying knobkerries and have some kind of fur on them. A bizarre mix of traditional and modern, and somehow it just seems right. There is so much going on its hard to know where to look, so we just amble in and out of the crowds allowing ourselves to be pulled this way and that.

How do I describe Ngoma dancing? It is beautiful. Men in animal skins with bells around their ankles, throwing their legs in the air and stomping their feet down in unison – you can literally feel the ground vibrate and shudder with the force of it. Dangling breasted women in vibrant chitenjes clap their hands in accompaniment. Lishombe. Each woman claps her hands to slightly different timing making a beautiful echoing, rippling sound that compliments the jingling and stomping of the men’s feet. And everyone singing. Can you picture it? Can you hear it?

At lunch we sit under the Kachere tree where the Ngoni’s first settled when they came to this area. It is a truly magnificent tree – huge welcoming branches, twisted trunk – stories etched into every nook and gnarled fissure. Boy, what history this tree must have seen.

The day trots on and the sky begins to blacken around the edges, the dark colour seeping towards the centre. Rumbling, cracks of lightening. A spectacular backdrop for the frenzied dancing.

“Looks like rain”, I say.
Musa chuckles. “No, there are too many last born children in this village”
“There is powerful mankwala (medicine) here. This is an important event. No way it will rain.”
“What’s the last born children thing?”
“Well, I’m not sure exactly how it goes but if you get a last born child to sprinkle salt and put a katemo on the fire the rain will not come here. Hey you’re a last born – shall we offer your services?”

And sure enough, the rain – big, black, full-bellied clouds – circles the village. It threatens most of the day, but the mankwala is obviously stronger than the rain and it keeps away. It seems to be raining everywhere else except here. I’m impressed!

The days bleed into each other and after no time at all its all over. I think back over the days. Snapshots: The procession of impis – thousands strong - escorting the chief to the main arena, filling the road, shouting, stamping, thrusting their shields and knobkerries into the air. The same impis rushing into the main arena with a thundering war-cry. Musa and I weaving in and out of the different groups of dancers and spectators. Rustling animal skins, colourful chitenjes. A flash of bright orange against the browns of the animal skins. Beautiful trendy gal with black knee length boots, heavy eye make-up, hip sunglasses propped on her forehead, and bright orange waist length hair extensions. Stamping and dancing with soul! “From Lusaka” says someone behind me “She comes here every year, always with different type or colour of hair” She’s cool. Here a small boy – a five year old? He’s really pulling the crowds. I bet he’s most photographed person this whole ceremony. He dances with such a great earnestness. Heartfelt. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him. It seems we all have, judging by the un-shifting cooing crowd around him. And now a threadbare man comes over to me – booze fumes shimmering off his skin. He takes the grimy genet headband off his head and puts it on mine. “You must have one too” he says. It reeks! He staggers off leaving me looking bewildered and Musa in stitches laughing. The anticipating crowds waiting for the killing of the black bull. The killing, over in a moment, the chief drinks the blood.

And so we take these snapshot memories home with us. We leave the jolly, cavorting, intoxicated crowd to continue the revelry as we sneak off home with the scent, the resonance and the images of the three days buzzing in our bones and under our skin.


aims said...

Wow! Nothing but - Wow!

Janelle said...

images are outstanding mo! see you trip. with puppies..xxjanelle

tam said...

Er, excuse me! Will you at least advertise for the book? Ok I'll do it - any one who wants to find out more about this fantastic Zambian ceremony and more like it, order your copy of Ceremony! from - send enquiry, we'll send you details of book, payment, etc....

tam said...

forgiven - I see you have been doing some advertising on my behalf. Thanks for the nomination. Where do you find the time?
Your pics are as good as the Ones.

Chimera said...

Are you sending this to a travel magazine me dear because you MUST!! It is excellent and the photos are superb. There is a literary mag called Wasafiri in London but perhaps the more posh high end ones..? Want me to have a think of ones you could google?

Miranda said...

Aims - wow thanks! I have many under my belt, I should do more...

J - uh huh. Whatever. Heh heh. Thanks.

Tam. Ooops, how remiss of me. I shall do a whole special post on it! Oh and right now I have jobs to do which means I have PLENTY of procrastinating time...PLENTY

Tanvi. Thanks. This story was for the Ceremony! book but I have so many in my brain that I MUST write down - with lots of pics to go with them....have been thinking that I should maybe send them to a travel mag. Now you are helping to give me a kick up the ass - thanks! If you CAN think of any that I could google that would be fab..thanks for the encouragement...!

BlouKous said...

I love your photographs!B&W is still my absolute favorite and I love the way you captured the atmosphere. Well done.

Mud in the City said...

Those are stunning photos! Not quite the same as being there unfortunately, but wonderful to absorb!

Val said...

those words... those pictures... i can see, hear, smell, feel. Cant wait to get my copy of Ceremony and yes you MUST get these stories out there in magazine and book form ASAP. Just finished a book called 20 chickens for a Saddle, bout a girl who grew up in Bots... When is YOUR story gonna be told?? the book made me think of you and Tam a lot

Miranda said...

bloukous - thanks! I LOVE your pics. I am by no stretch of the imagination a photographer but I have fun with a camera...

Mud - also thanks...See above! I worked on a book on traditional Zambian ceremonies and in most cases it was just a case of pointing your camera in the right direction - there was so much going on. We had a proper photographer for the book so I didn't have the pressure of coming up with the goods...lucky me

Val - yes, I must get my act together and write up the other ceremonies before they dissolve in my brain (if its not too late!). Wow, you've written a BOOK! Well done you. Can't wait to get a copy. When will my story be told?? Hmmm, I'll leave Tammy to the proper writing.xx