Friday, August 24, 2007

Everybody do the Mutomboko!!!!

A large part of our work at WaterAid involves promoting hygiene, safe water, and sanitation. We use any opportunities we can to talk to the public, set up displays, hand out information, and just generally educate people. One such opportunity that recently arose was the Mutomboko Ceremony which takes place every year in Luapula, Zambia.

Mutomboko is a ceremony of the Lunda people, which is one of the tribes in Zambia that populates much of the Northern part of the country, especially in Luapula, my province. As with most of the other Zambia tribes, they can trace their roots back to the Bantus, which originated from present day Cameroon and slowly migrated through central and south Africa over a period of a few thousand years. During this slow migration they broke into almost 400 different ethnic groups (usually referred to as tribes). As such, the Lundas are “cousins” of the Bembas.

The Lundas migrated from present day Democratic Republic of Congo to present day Zambia in the early 1700s, conquering and assimilating many smaller tribes as they came. They established their capital in what is now northern Luapula province. The head of the Lunda people is the Mwata (High Chief, or King), which is a hereditary title. As such, all Mwata’s bear the official title of Mwata Kazembe, which is the family name. The current Mwata is Mwata Kazembe XIX. The Mutomboko Ceremony is a celebration of these victories over other tribes, and victories over the many attacks they resisted throughout Zambia’s formative years. The Mwata leads the ceremony, performing various traditional tasks to pay homage to the ancestors and to celebrate victory.

The ceremony starts on Friday, but when we arrive in town on Wednesday it is already bustling with people. Officially, Kazembe (obviously named after the Mwata) is a village, but it is bigger and more developed than many “towns” I’ve seen in Zambia. I guess that’s one of the perks of having the king live there. We meet with a member of the organizing committee who instruct us that we must ask the Mwata for permission to participate in the event, even though we’ve already arranged everything with the committee. The Mwata has the final say however, and can tell us to go home if he doesn’t want us participating. The organizer takes us to the palace (the residence of any king or chief in Zambia is usually called a palace. The name can be slightly deceiving however. This “palace” is not what you might expect. By Canadian standards it would be an average size house on a walled property. The Mwata’s wealth is evident however in the numerous cars and trucks that he owns that are parked randomly around the house), and as we are passing through the gates, gives us some quick instructions on the proper protocol for meeting the King of the Lundas. We are taken to a large pavilion within the palace grounds and sit on straw mats to wait for the Mwata. He arrives, and must stand as he enters, and wait until he is seated on his throne, which is a large ornately carved wooden chair. We then kneel, and clap together in unison three times. This is a sign of great respect. We sit again, and the introductions begin. They are all in Bemba, so I only catch a few words here and there, and as such, have time to careful examine the man in front of me. This king is young, likely in his mid to late thirties, and speaks very softly. I have to lean forward to hear him, and I’m only a few feet away. He is dressed in jeans and a casual sweater, and is sporting a nice analog wrist watch. You could easily drop him into any North American setting and he’d fit right in, as an average working man enjoying a day off. He smiles occasionally, but has the air of someone who is used to being listened to and speaks with authority. He is amused at my last name, and instructs us in English to feel at home in Kazembe and to “act like we are free men, like our Muzungu friend”. The Mwata is quite interested in our work, and gives a long speech about the importance of helping the most vulnerable have access to clean water and sanitation. He even requests that we build a latrine just outside the palace gates for the public to use so that they can see he supports our work. We agree, and are thus given permission to set up our stand.

We leave the palace and drive to where the ceremony will be held. Celtel, the huge cell phone company that seems to own half of the country, has constructed an open air auditorium/arena specifically for this event. We chose the spot we want, but as it’s getting too late to start construction we just drop off our material and head back to Mwense, a town about 45 min back down the road which is where we will be spending our nights.

The next day we are up early and on the road to reach Kazembe and start work. There is much to do so we waste no time. We split into two groups; one to start constructing the latrine just outside of the auditorium that will actually be used by the public, and the rest of us to construct the stand and the demonstrations. We will be displaying our two types of sanplats (the slab used in our latrines), a handwashing facility, and a dishrack. The first step though, is the stand. There are no metal poles to fit together, no tents to put up - everything is “au natural” here. We have brought a bunch of 10 foot branches that were cut back in Mwense, and set about digging holes to place them in. In no time we’ve got a basic structure set up, made of tree branches tied together with Zambian rope, which is just really tough strips of tree bark, that when soaked in water work great for tying things. I love the ingenuity of Zambians! The stand is lined with tall grass and a roof of bamboo mats is put up. We then set about constructing the demos, which takes the rest of that day, and the morning of the next, but by mid-day on Friday we are finished. We also construct a full size working latrine outside the arena for the public to use.

We have finished just in time because as we’re cleaning up we receive word that the Mwata has set out for a nearby village to perform the opening ritual to start off the ceremony. We quickly pile in our truck and race down the highway to catch up. We reach the convoy in no time and fall into place. This trip was originally done on foot, a huge crowd of people taking most of the day to make the trip out to the village that was the original home of the Lunda King. Today however, it is done in a convoy of cars and trucks down the highway. The sides of the road are lined with hundreds of people, all screaming and cheering as we pass. As we pass around a curve I see that the convoy is at least a few kilometres long and made up of all different kinds of vehicles, from small cars to huge trucks packed with people.

We finally reach our destination, and quickly rush to join the crowd surrounding the Mwata who has already begun the ceremony. This particular ritual does not take place in one spot, but moves all around the village. A few quick questions to those around me lets me know what is going on. The Mwata is here to pay homage to the Lunda ancestors who have died in battle throughout the years. This village was the site of many battles, and there are some key spots throughout. The Mwata, dressed all in white and wearing a ceremonial sword in a sheath of otter skin, moves to each site, spreading an offering of each type of crop that the Lundas harvest. An attendant follows him with a basket full of beans, maize, rice, and various other crops that the Mwata takes by the handful and throws in offering to the ancestors. One particular site is a large trench that looks like a dried up river. I am told that this was a key defensive position for the Lundas, and during a battle those who weren’t fighting would hide deep in this trench.

There are literally thousands of people following the Mwata and his attendants moving from site to site. I used to take pride in my ability to navigate a crowd of people (those of you from Windsor know how crazy the riverfront is during the fireworks every year. My family had a tradition of staying until the very last firework faded and then sprinting the multiple kilometres to the car through crowds of people so that we could be the first on the road and beat the heavy traffic), but now I am tossed along like a stick in rapids. Sometimes I am able to see what is going on, sometimes I can’t. At one point, I find myself halfway up the side of the trench, about 10 feet from the Mwata. When he is finished at each site however, and it comes time for him to leave, his attendants are less than gentle clearing a path for him, and I am literally picked up by a very stern looking man and moved out of the way. He somehow manages to be quite polite about it however, and gives me a quick smile and a handshake as he rushes past to move more wide-eyed spectators out of the way.
This part of the ritual concludes in a small pavilion, with the Mwata giving a short speech, and some traditional dancers performing, accompanied by traditional drums made from snake and crocodile skin, and a large xylophone-like instrument called an ainadimba, made from dried gourds and pieces of wood. We all gather as the Mwata gets back in his brand new Subaru (can’t help but think that maybe just a little of the tradition has been lost!), then pile back into our vehicles for the convoy back to Kazembe.

The next day, Saturday, is when the big events take place. The morning is actually somewhat similar to the previous day, with the Mwata walking around Kazembe and some immediately surrounding villages to pay homage to the ancestors. One of the sites is two large trees with a large pile of hippo bones at the base. At all of these sites the Mwata throws handfuls of ochra dust (called impemba) and moves only on his knees to show respect. The Mwata is followed by all his assistants and of course the huge crowd of people, even bigger today than yesterday. The entire procession moves from site to site, accompanied by drums and singing. The final site is about a 20 minute walk from the palace at the Ng’ona River. We have managed to sneak ahead of the crowd, hoping to find a good spot along the bank so as to see what will take place, but arrive to find about 1000 people already lining the river on both sides. We work our way close to the front just as the Mwata arrives with probably close to 2000 people behind him.

This site is especially important because some time in the early 1700s, shortly after the Lundas came to Zambia, two Lunda brothers, one who was the father of the first Mwata Kazembe, were captured by a rival tribe and executed by being tied into large baskets filled with rocks and drowned in the river at this spot. Every year as part of the Mutomboko ceremony the Mwata comes and pays homage to these brothers, asks for good rains and healthy crops, then offers sacrifices of traditional beer, maize, rice and chicken by throwing them in the river. He then proceeds back to the palace to prepare for the rest of the day’s events.
Around 2:00pm the crowd makes its way to the arena to wait for the Mwata’s arrival and the main event. There is entertainment of local music groups and traditional dancers while they wait. At around 3:00pm the gates of the palace open and the Mwata’s entourage prepares to leave (there aren’t many spectators at this point, because everyone is at the arena waiting, including me, but someone told me what happens at the palace). First to emerge are his bearers carrying the royal carriage, called the Umuselo, which is a large chair made of Zebra skin carried on long poles. There are 8 bearers, all dressed in red, and they carry the Umuselo out to the front of the palace grounds, just inside the gates. The Mwata then emerges and climbs onto the Umuselo which is picked up. The bearers carry the Mwata, but don’t just walk - it’s more of a dance. A few steps forward, a few steps back, a few steps to the side, then forward again, all while lifting the Umuselo up and down in time with the beating drums. As they approach the gates another attendant is waiting at the threshold with a goat, just before they arrive he kills the goat as a sacrifice, and the Umuselo is carried over the carcass. I am told that this was originally a human sacrifice, and it was considered to be a great honour to be chosen as the sacrifice.

The Mwata is carried approximately 2km to the arena by his bearers who dance the entire way. He is followed by members of his family, by the various Lunda sub-chiefs, and his army of attendants. His arrival at the arena causes wild celebrations in the crowd, which at this point numbers many thousands. Most are kept out of the main arena grounds by a fence, and use any possible means to see, including climbing on vehicles and climbing trees. We are lucky since we have a stand set up in the arena, and are allowed to sit in our stand and thus have an unobstructed view of the events. After the Mwata arrives and gets settled the speeches begin. Chiefs from other tribes all over Zambia have come to pay respects, and a few of the key ones give speeches. The Vice President of Zambia is also in attendance, and gives a speech as well. By the time everyone is finished talking the crowd is growing restless, anxiously awaiting the main event, which is the Mutomboko dance. This dance is performed once a year to celebrate the Lundas’ victories over other tribes. It is performed first by the Mwata’s sister, then the 4 princes (one of the Mwata’s sons and three nephews), and then of course by the Mwata. This is what everyone has been waiting to see, and as the Mwata dances his way up to the raised dirt platform in the middle of the arena the roar from the crowd is deafening. The dance, accompanied by the traditional drums and the ainadimba (the xylophone-like instrument), starts with the Mwata unarmed. One of his attendants dances around him, holding a traditional sword (mpok) and an axe (mbafi). During the dance the Mwata forcefully disarms the attendant, taking both weapons, and finishes the dance with them in hand. This is to symbolize triumph over his enemies.

The dance lasts about 10 minutes, after which the Mwata retires immediately to his Umuselo to be carried (danced) back to his palace by his bearers. This marks the end of the ceremony, and as soon as the Mwata is gone from sight the crowd begins to disperse. A few hundred of the special guests (visiting chiefs, family members, etc.) are invited back to the palace for a party that apparently lasts through the night, ending around noon of the following day. We aren’t invited so we take down our demonstrations, pack the truck and start off for home. The sheer number of people in Kazembe is unbelievable, and it takes us a few hours just to get through the town and to the highway.

It was pretty amazing to witness this event, and learn about the history of the Lunda people in Zambia. There is so much tradition, and it was awesome to be able to turn to the person next to me in the crowd and get an explanation of what was happening around me. There are people from all over Zambia in attendance, so I not only learn about the history of the Lundas, but have long conversations about the Lozi, the Tongas, the Bembas, and a few of the minor tribes as well.Our stand, and our presence at the ceremony was a big success. We were able to talk to hundreds, if not thousands of people about our projects, and the Mwata promised to talk to all of the sub-chiefs in his kingdom and urge them to participate. As we drive home we are already planning our participation next year. The unanimous decision from my colleagues is that I need to return from Canada and be a guest performer of the Mutomboko dance! We’ll see about that....


Justin said...

Sounds like an AWESOME ceremony. Great to hear from you. I hope all is well.


L said...

Wow, now that is a history lesson. Sounds so amazing be witness first hand at a traditional and important time as that. Wow... thanks for sharing the details, love to hear all about it...

I trust you are well Trevor... we'll continue to pray for your safety and success. Keep them coming...

Anonymous said...

Once again thankyou for sharing Trevor. I think I've come up with a great idea. Rather than returning to Africa to participate in the Mutomboko dance, I think you should give us a personal demonstration of the dance when you come back to Canada!! All kidding aside, thankyou for the history lesson. I have enjoyed your sharing once again. Keeping you in my prayers, that you stay healthy & accomplish that which you have set out to do.

Dana S.

ashleyr said...

Great story Trevor! And, the pictures were clutch for helping visualize it! Glad to hear the project is running (relatively) smoothly...and also happy to see you don't look too too pink! Chuckling at that pic where you've convinced your coworker to accompany you for a classic EWB-Windsor thumbs-up photo at the demo-latrine....haha :-)
talk soon, Ash

Sue Titcombe said...

This is really fascinating! I would love to have been there to see the guy pick you up and move you out of the way!

Keep safe.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor. Wow, what an amazing ceremony. I, like Sue, would have loved to see the incident when you were physically moved out of the way.

I think a Mutomboko dance when you return would be neat as well.

Just want to assure you of my prayers for you daily. Sounds like you are really making a difference of the lives of the people over there.

Aunt Shirley

Anonymous said...

r u coming back to canada?

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