This past weekend, the entire village of Kazembe celebrated Mutomboko, possibly the most important day of the year in Luapula. It is a massive cultural festival and ceremony that lasts for two days and attracts thousands of people to Kazembe. And it is awesome.
The central focus of the Mutomboko is on the mwata. The mwata is sort of like the chief of all the chiefs in the province, and has enormous cultural and social power in the village. We met him earlier this summer on a bright Saturday morning. That morning was an experience in and of itself. After waiting outside the palace walls, being harassed by an insane man, we were led into a lush garden and directed to sit on reed mats in a gazebo in front of a giant wooden throne. After waiting some more, we began to look around. Across a gravel courtyard where several cars were parked, I saw a young man dressed in jeans and a blue button-up shirt walking towards us. He did not appear regal or royal at all, so you can imagine my surprise when he strolled in, sat down at the foot of the throne, and smiled at us pleasantly. This was the mwata – not an elderly, aristocratic miser but a young, gentle and amiable fellow who was pleased to meet us and accepted our gifts unassumingly.
During Mutomboko, however, the mwata is transformed into a symbol of spiritual warfare and cultural prowess. Every time he makes an appearance during the weekend, he is dressed from head to foot in ceremonial garb, at one point wearing a gold dome on his head, at others wearing red feathers and an elaborate outfit that is reminiscent of Native American garb. The weekend celebrates the triumph of the mwata, and thus the village and the people, over evil spirits and misfortune. The word, Mutomboko, means “The Dance of Victory.”
In addition to the cultural significance, the Mutomboko is another opportunity for all of Zambia to party like there’s no tomorrow.
Our Mutomboko experience began on Friday, which also happened to be the Marys’ last day at the orphanage. The festivities had already begun when we woke up on Friday, as the morning started with a ceremonial bringing of beer to the palace gates before everyone who could fit in any sort of mobile contraption traveled several kilometers away to an ancient tribal battleground and cemetery. Meanwhile, the Marys packed up and said goodbye to everyone and we headed down to the Boma (the village center.) It is normally a fairly busy place, but today it was crazy, crowded with strangers who were clearly from out of town. We took Queenie, Theresa, Henry, and Ernest with us, who were aware that it was Mutomboko and were very excited. I bought them fritters and we shared our Cokes and Sprites with the kids as we waited for two hours for the bus to arrive. When it finally did, the Marys just barely made it on before it arrived without them. In a matter of minutes, they were gone, and we were left to head back up to the orphanage for lunch, our hearts saddened by the knowledge that two beloved members of our team were headed back to the States.
Mutomboko does not allow time to be sad, however. There was much activity in the orphanage. Every year, the Morrows turn their courtyard into a sort of hotel for local Peace Corps volunteers who come from miles around to pitch their tents and enjoy delicious food. On Friday we buried a pig in a fire pit underground and let it cook for a day, and that evening Amy made an amazing chili (mine was vegetarian, of course.)
Around 30 visitors joined us for Mutomboko. Peace Corps people are some of the most interesting personalities I’ve ever met. They are all normal Americans who one day decided to spend the next two years living in a village in the middle of the bush, trying to help improve the standard of living through agricultural education, fish farming, teaching English, and medical programs. They all have unique stories and fascinating lives, and they are all a blast to spend time with. They made watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics particularly enjoyable with hilarious commentary and group guffaws.
On Friday afternoon, Emily, Jasmine, Troy, and I took Johnny, Chola, and Elias into the village to witness the inauguration of the new local chiefs. The Boma was even more packed than it had been in the morning, and we held onto the boys’ hands tightly. Before we made it to the palace, however, we had another small adventure. Every year, Airtel, a Zambian phone company that helps sponsor the Mutomboko, brings in a big truck, sets up a stage, and somehow figures out how to get enough electricity to support microphones and blaring speakers. They then invite viewers to come on stage and have dancing competitions.
We stopped in the back of the crowd to watch the antics for a few minutes. I thought we were too far away to draw any attention to ourselves, but it was only a matter of minutes before the announcer on stage was pointing to us and yelling, “You, whites, come on up here!” Grinning and giggling, we made our way to the stage. I think the first graders were a little bit overwhelmed by all the attention. We introduced ourselves on the microphone, blinking into the sun and peering out at the humungous crowd in front of us. Troy stepped up and began doing the robot, which was a huge crowd pleaser. The announcer then had Emily, Jasmine, and I come to the front and told us to start dancing.
Now, it is important for you to know, dear reader, that Zambians dance in a very unique and particular way. They dance with their hips in a fairly provocative manner, and they dance as though they were born with the beat in their souls. It often looks as though they are going to break something or pop something out of its socket. All of the kids in the orphanage can do it without ever having been taught, which leads me to believe that it is genetic. Now, let me clear.
I do not dance.
I definitely do not dance like Zambians dance.
I do not want to dance like Zambians dance.
But there I was, in front of thousands of Zambians, trying to dance in an incendiary way, and, as Albert, a local village boy and friend of ours told me later, “failing.”
We were supposed to get t-shirts for our participation, but the Airtel people said they had none and to come back later. In characteristic Zambian behavior, when we did come back, they had disappeared, and we never got our t-shirts. Ah, well. It is probably best not to commemorate such a terrible attempt at dancing by wearing violent Airtel red.
Around the front gates of the palace stood a substantial crowd. I passed a truck full of younger kids and heard my name called.
“Madame Sarah,” some of my students from the high school called, laughing, “what are you doing here?”
I told them I was here to see the ceremony, which was apparently a hilarious thing to say, and then ducked into the crowd. Eventually I got us good seats on a mat right in front of the “band” of elderly men playing traditional drums, most of which were not shaped at all like drums and looked more like giant logs or oversized canoes. A collection of chiefs, also wearing ceremonial clothing, sat nearby. Women danced, speeches were given, and the mwata sat in his chair wearing his gold dome and looking very majestic. The kids loved it.
The next morning, after shredding cabbages for the coleslaw we would enjoy with the pig at dinner, we headed down to the Boma once again, this time with another collection of kids. We took my kindergarten girls, Sandra, Janet, Beauty, and Jennifer. Like the boys yesterday, they enjoyed the trip but were a bit overwhelmed. The village was even more crowded than ever. Music blared, drums could be heard in the distance. It was a brilliant day, bright and beautiful, and there were colors everywhere. People ran and yelled and cheered. At one point we got caught in a big crowd of people who had just returned from the river where the mwata had been offering vegetable sacrifices. We preferred to keep the children away from events such as this and so just walked through the village, snacking on fritters (fried dough) and passing around a water bottle. Even with the water, the girls were still exhausted, and Beauty fell asleep in Emily’s arms on the way back.
This year was a special Mutomboko indeed, because this year Sata came. President Michael Sata flew into Mansa and came to Kazembe in what appeared to be a presidential caravan of SUVs. I know this because we witnessed it on our return to the orphanage as we passed by the Catholic church where he had gone to lunch. The road outside was lined with cars and the police seemed to have set up some sort of roadblock. Burly men stood outside the church walls holding very, very large guns. Sandra did not fail to notice this, and as we passed them she hollered, “Bad guys, those are bad guys!” I hurriedly hushed her and rushed past, hoping we wouldn’t get into any trouble. Fortunately, we were not stopped.
The most exciting part of Mutomboko was yet to come. In the afternoon, it was time for the running of the mwata. The mwata was supposed to come out of his palace and a sacrifice was to be made. Historically, this sacrifice used to be a human slave. Fortunately, it is now just an unlucky goat whose blood the mwata steps over ceremoniously before climbing into an ornate chair carried by a dozen men dressed in bright red. He is then paraded through the village, up the hill, in front of the orphanage, and to the Mutomboko arena that is in our backyard, accompanied by crowds of people running alongside him.
We were told that the mwata would not be coming out until 3:00, so we packed our bags and strolled down at half past two, thinking we would hang around and wait for him to make his appearance. Wisely, we did not bring any children this time. Hordes of people were walking towards us, trying to get good seats at the arena before the running began. It was like a scene from a zombie movie where crowds flee cities and the main character, bent on some doomed endeavor, heads the wrong way back into the city. In the middle of the Boma, we heard noises coming from the direction of the palace, and we stopped. A drunken man grabbed my hand and raised it in the air, trying to get me to cheer. And then suddenly, without warning, we were in the middle of a vast mob of people. We lost Troy in the insanity, and Emily, Jas, and I grabbed each other’s hands desperately. The mwata appeared, dancing in his seat and waving red feathers in the air. A man stole my hat (I learned later that I wasn’t supposed to be wearing it anyway) and I wrestled with him for a few minutes before he overpowered me and ran away. I suppose some lucky Zambian is now enjoying my favorite red hat.
The crowd began to jostle and rushed forward, as people tried to get as close to the mwata as possible. Guards pushed them away. We were caught in the middle and pushed forward as well, and for a long while we were shoved to and fro with no control over our own movements. At some point I got hit in the face – possibly while trying to get my hat back – and found plenty of bruises later on. Unfortunately, one or two men took inappropriate liberties in the chaos. Fortunately, I can take care of myself and while, I am not an advocate of violence, delivered a harsh slap to a face or two that surprised them and made them stop.
Finally the crowd began to move up the hill and we were able to gain our footing at last. Laughing and shouting, we ran, trotted, walked, and were pushed alongside the mwata all the way up the hill. At the orphanage, we broke away from the crowd and raced to the steps, where we picked up Johnny, Chola, Elias, and Ernest, as well as a few Peace Corps volunteers, and made our way to the arena. Tom, who is a policeman in the area, let us through the guards and we claimed pretty good seats on the ground not far from the stage and the mwata.
The next few hours were filled with much dancing and speaking. Sata made an address and announced that he is turning Kazembe into a district, news which seemed to alarm and disconcert many locals. My favorite line of his was, “I looked down from my airplane and saw that you have run out of money.” He then departed with his entourage. The mwata’s children, the prince and princess, also performed ceremonial dances before the mwata did his final dance in the middle of the arena and ended the ceremonies.
Of course, the celebrations in the village went on all night, but we retired, exhausted and hungry, to enjoy the pig (or the lentil curry, if you’re a veggie) and good company.
Of course, the Mutomboko isn’t exactly a wonderful family event at all times. Many people use it as an opportunity to get drunk, and I don’t condone the spiritual performances and sacrifices. I would certainly not take the children to those events. But from an anthropological perspective, the social and cultural significance of this annual event serves to preserve an ancient aspect of this community’s traditions and history. I think it is so incredibly important for the orphans to be involved in this remembrance of their communal past, and an embracing of their future as the ceremony begins to change with the times. I want them to know their national anthem and recognize the beat of the drums in the village as the heartbeat of the land they were born into.
The sense of community that exists during Mutomboko is also very impressive. Everybody seems to know everybody, and everyone is happy to see everyone else. Friends celebrate and families visit. There is a general sense of enjoyment and festivities that permeates even the hearts of outside observers and makes one want to celebrate – anything. Celebrate family, friends, community, the grace of God – celebrate the very fact that we are alive and that we have an amazing and beautiful world to enjoy.
In a nation that ranked 4th from the bottom in the FAO’s report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World for 2011, people could use a little celebration.