Of Chiefs and Headmen

“If the Chiefs are united, the nation would follow suit” (Ratu Ovini Bokini).

During my first week in the province, I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a team of district staff and NGOs for a Chief triggering in Katete district.  Triggering is the cornerstone of Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) – it is the process that gets people to agree that they’re “eating each others’ shit”, and to take action to stop that happening.  Yet, even the best triggering can use a little help from above.

So far, the 3 million people programme has garnered the support of district councils but only recently have they recognised the significant role that Chiefs and Headmen can play in driving villages and chiefdoms to become Open Defecation Free (ODF).  With this in mind, our goal for the two days was to meet with these Chiefs and Headmen, talk about shit, and get them on board the ODF train.

Our first day’s destination was the Palace of Chief Kathumba.  A mere 25km off the main road, the drive required the best of 4WDing ability, as we crossed muddy riverbeds, gunned it up sandy embankments, escaped plunging ravines alongside tracks barely wide enough to carry our vehicle, and narrowly avoided collisions with hundreds of road-unaware free-range pigs.  Yet we made it, only to find that Chief Kathumba had reluctantly been called to an urgent meeting with the Paramount Chief.   Politics is the same everywhere.

Still, we had the District Commissioner in attendance, and a captive audience of 190 headmen and headwomen, and so we pushed along with the day’s plans.  Other than a crash course in Nyanja that enabled me to introduce myself to the crowd, my language skills prevented me from understanding much of what was being said.  However, the audience seemed engaged and periodically erupted in laughter, most likely in response to some candid reference to poo.  The burning question for most, though, was:  “If we stop defecating outside, what will the pigs eat?”  I may never eat pork again.  The end result of the day was a commitment from every headman to have all villagers with adequate latrines by mid-July.  Here’s hoping.



As proceedings came to an end, I was invited to join the District Commissioner, Council Secretary and key organisers for lunch in the palace.  I was a little star-struck by my dining companions so tried to lay low to avoid any major cultural gaffes, but with skin as effervescent as mine, laying low is but a pipe dream.  “So, does Australia have this problem of open defecation?  Why is the health of the indigenous so poor compared with the white people?  Why has the new government withdrawn a promised $30 million in funding for sanitation aid projects in the region?”  Awkward.

The next day, we headed to the chiefdom of Mbangombe.   As we chanted the Chewa greeting “Yewachalo” while on our knees and clapping our hands, the Chief took his place on the throne (yes, an actual throne), before speaking his mind about the sanitation program.  With some great diplomatic finesse, my colleagues managed to convince the Chief to attend the day’s triggering with the headmen in order to ensure its success.  So, off we went to the meeting point, where 150 odd headmen and about 500 villagers waited for us in the burning sun.  And we waited, and waited, and waited, until Chief Mbangombe graced us with his presence….. four hours later.  The triggering was fast-paced to prevent heatstroke among the audience, with headmen committing to have every village ODF by the end of July.

Just as we were about to leave, the Chief suggested some entertainment and, with that, 1000 odd villagers appeared from nowhere and crowded around like moths to a flame.

I think the word ‘entertainment’ may have been an understatement.  It started with fast-paced rhythmic drumming, and half-naked men whose heads and faces were completed covered in feathers, and whose bodies were doused with dirt, leaping and foot-stomping so fast that I could end up seeing very little from behind the dust cloud that they generated.  Then some more men, wearing masks that looked like dogs, repeated the same Ghost Dance.  Next came a man with a wooden rifle rolling along the ground, before pointing it at me – the conspicuous white person – and firing a noisy shot that scared the, well, shit out of me.  Everyone laughed.

Finally, the crowd separated to allow a man on stilts enter, followed by gigantic dancing helicopter puppet, followed by a dancing armadillo puppet, and a dancing turtle.  The puppets and feathered men had no way of seeing where they were going, so were guided by the shaking of noisy tin cans.  It was mesmerising, artistic, chaos and, apparently, just a taster of what one can expect at the local annual festival held in August.  Who’s joining me?

An hour later, when the dancers started dispersing, I thought the show had come to an end.  But no, they were simply relocating to the site of their final, triumphant act.  Two feathered men scaled 5-metre-high wooden poles, and then proceeded to lie down on their stomachs on a wire that ran between them.  Bit by bit, they slid down the wire, before craftily crossing over each other, and pulling themselves back up the other side.  Then, they balanced on the wooden poles on their heads, before moving down the wooden poles to the ground, head first and hands free.  The crowd went wild.  Women danced on the sidelines.  Headmen urged me into the middle.  I resisted.  This is cirque du soleil, Zambian style.


On the final day of my excursions, I mingled with some different dignitaries, as I joined the provincial team and the German Ambassador for a trip to Chulumoyo village in Mambwe district.  The Germans have funded a number of the water projects in the area, and the field visit was to inspect the progress.  A little more laid back than the previous day’s affairs, we were still greeted by some wonderful dancing and singing by the village’s women, before a Q&A session and a tour of the water and sanitation infrastructure.

This village has done wonderfully well in setting up community-owned payment processes to ensure continued maintenance of their much-revered borehole.  With little cash flow in the village, residents instead opted to pay a membership fee using maize, which is then sold to pay for pump maintenance.  Unfortunately, the village has also been hit with drought and floods recently, so there is also a maize flow problem.  No food equals no money, equals no schooling, equals no work, equals early marriage and childbearing, equals greater poverty, and so it continues in a seemingly endless cycle.  It is easy to walk away from such a meeting wondering where to start in such a situation, but based on this community’s pride for their borehole, I guess clean water is as good a place as any.

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