Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mutumboko Ceremony

It's been a while since I've written as things have been hectic here. A new intake of volunteers flew in so I've been down in Lusaka for the last couple of weeks helping to train them; we've only just finished getting the last of the new Luapula volunteers placed in their villages. It was interesting to see how they reacted to being dropped out in the bush, it brought back a lot of memories of how I felt more than a year ago when I was placed. For the most part they smiled bravely and waved as we pulled away, but I've been told that almost all the female volunteers cry when they get left, and probably some of the guys as well. Quick tip: should you ever find yourself dropping off a girl in the middle of an African village for the first time, resist the urge to try to be funny. Humor is wildly underappreciated in those situations, as I discovered.

A large group of us attended the Mutumboko ceremony just before I headed to Lusaka to help with training. The Mutumboko is a traditional Lunda ceremony (the people in my area mostly are by tribe Lundas but they speak Bemba because they were conquered by them some time in the past) performed by the Mwatta Kazembe, 1 of 7 paramount chiefs and the 2nd most powerful in all--only the Lozi king in Western Province commands more land and therefore more respect. The ceremony attracts about 10,000 people every year, so it's a big deal. The ceremony is really too complex to give you much of a detailed account of all that happens, so I'll try to hit some of the main points. Basically, it's pandemonium as soon as the Mwatta emerges from his palace. He came out dressed entirely in white with beads, an old Lunda sword, and a cow tail swish hanging off his costume in various places--he looked very Druidic. He followed a set path to the river with various stops to perform small rituals of varying significance, most of which was lost on me. At one point he crawled and rolled in the dust towards a sacred tree, sacrificed food like chicken, cassava, grounduts, etc. to the ancestors living in the river by tossing it all into the water, and was carried on the shoulders of his bodyguards back to the palace (his attendant knelt before him and the Mwatta climbed onto his shoulders. the Mwatta was quite a bit larger than his attendant yet the man gamely rose in slow motion, his whole body swaying and trembling with the exertion. Several minutes later the carrier had to be relieved, after which I'm sure he collapsed was a funny series of events) During this procession a soldier who was part of the protective circle formed around the Mwatta and his entourage by linking their arms together happened to catch my eye. I gave him a grin and a thumbs-up and suddenly he reached back and pulled me into the circle. So, there I was with the Mwatta Kazembe, his bodyguards, and his witch doctors with painted white faces and feathered headdresses. In the 14 months of out-of-placeness I've experienced here, this topped them all so far. But I was having a great time and his entourage was large enough, about 30 strong, that no one really noticed. I was, however, deeply interested to know if my presence so close to the Mwatta was some sort of taboo (only in the last 20 or 30 years have white people been allowed to attend this ceremony at all) that would result in my getting speared when people noticed me. Fortunately, no unpleasantness resulted.

The entire ceremony was basically a sustained shoving match as people jockeyed for the best viewing position. Thousands of people would run, jog, bump, and jostle their way from one station to the next. It was hot and clouds of dust hung suspended over the crowd during the last procession. I had lost contact with the other pcv's during all the commotion, my shirt was soaked through with sweat, the massive slit drum that had accompanied the procession was booming away, and I could taste the fine grit of dust in my mouth as I jogged along a short way behind the Mwatta's entourage. Occasionally they would suddenly stop and he would swish his cow-tail whisk around and do a bit of a shimmy while still sitting on his attendant's shoulders. The crowd lining the way would go wild, cheering, whistling, hooting, and trilling their voices in high-pitched cries. Then the slow, stifling, herky-jerky jog would begin again; this continued until we reached his palace, about a kilometer and a half away. There, the crowd made a rush to accompany the entourage into the palace while the soldiers tried to close the gates, which is how I found myself mashed up against one of the iron doors of the gate after I'd tried to use a massive soldier as a blocker through the rush. I scraped along the door and was basically shoved into the palace grounds by several soldiers behind me trying to get in, the Mwatta went into his palace, and that was it for the morning festivities.

The afternoon ceremony was a succession of different people performing the dance specific to the Mutumboko, culminating with the Mwatta coming out with war hatchet and sword. He danced for a few minutes in an elaborate costume, brandishing his weapons to symbolize the Lundas' victory over one tribe or another in the past. Once he had finished the Mutumboko was officially over...all in all, really interesting stuff.

It's strange to say goodbye to all the Luapula volunteers being replaced by this newest group. For those of you who've been reading my posts all along, you've often heard me mention Shawn, Richard, and Parker, my usual partners in the various expeditions I've undertaken and all of whom are leaving within the next couple of days. It is sad to see them go, but the new group is shaping up to be very solid as well. I'll end here as this post has gotten far too long, hopefully I'll be able to write another in the next month or so as I should be back down in Mansa towards the end of September. Stay well.