You may recall that in my first couple of weeks in the Eastern Province of Zambia, I encountered a captivating cultural experience featuring men in feathers and dancing puppets. That theatrical showcase was merely a taster for what occurred last weekend.
Kulamba is an annual traditional ceremony in which Chiefs of the Chewa tribe pay homage to their King, Paramount Chief Kalonga Gawa Undi. It started before the 15th century, however was banned in 1934 by British Missionaries who felt it to be a pagan ritual that obstructed their mission of converting Africans to Christianity. It stayed banned for 50 years until, in 1984, it was revived by Kalonga Gawa Undi X. (We’re now ruled by Kalonga Gawa Undi XI).
For one day each year, more than 200 Chewa Chiefs from across Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique converge on Mkaika Palace in Katete – about an hour from Chipata – to demonstrate their unity under their King, and to fill the King in what was happening to his land and his people. Gifts of ivory, artefacts and food are also presented, which the King can then redistribute to areas of need within his Kingdom.
My initial impression of the festival was that it didn’t seem too different from a music festival in Australia. Temporary stalls were set up to sell everything you would never need at bargain basement prices; revellers became increasingly inebriated as cheap booze was consumed under the dehydrating sun; and the 40,000-strong crowd ensured that the dry August dust never had a chance to settle, while also leaving you clutching your bags and your friends out of fear of instantaneously losing them in the mob.
Fortunately, my Zambian friends had the foresight to arrive at the event early, while luck also led us to run into my colleague from Ministry of Chiefs who found us some nice shaded seats within the stadium. As the event filled up, we were treated to sensual, rhythmic hip action from the female participants, interspersed with the same eye-opening dancing that I had witnessed three months earlier.
Bare-chested men, doused with dirt and disguised in feathers and masks, kicked their feet up at lightning fast speed, before throwing themselves waywardly on the ground. Motorbike and giant dog-like puppets joined them on stage at one point, before one brave dancer scaled a 20m wooden pole as it swayed in the wind and threatened to snap – much to the Zambians’ delight.
The climax came when dancers brought on stage …..wait for it…..snakes. This “death defying” act of “magic, not science” really had the Zambians on the edge of their seats but, I must admit that as an Aussie who’s accustomed to legless lizards, it failed to impress me. If anything, I just felt pity for the poor pythons and King Cobras that were being harassed for the sake of a good show.
However, as I sat watching these faceless masked men, one question kept coming to mind: Why?
It turns out that these skills are all taught as part of military-type initiation designed to instil discipline among the Chewan youths. Boys that pass through this instruction form part of a secret society, where their identity is protected through masks and a face full of feathers.
To the Zambians, a man who cannot be “seen” is as good as a ghost, and the public’s reactions of curiosity mixed with fear give the impression that this is how the masked men are truly viewed. Indeed, the dancers are often referred to as Vilombo (animals), and are believed to emanate from dead spirits. Of course, the down side of this whole practice is that, on occasion, overzealous indoctrination and ghost-like anonymity leads young men to terrorise villagers and pilfer property (but we won’t mention that).
So, after the Kulamba ceremony has been and gone for another year, life returns to normal. The puppets are laid to rest, the dust is left to settle, and the ghosts – well – do they are ever cease to exist?