An Exorcism in Zambia

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Chimtembo Village, Magodi Chiefdom, Lundazi District, Eastern Province, Zambia, Africa
by Willy Volk

Livingstone had many ambitions when he set out to explore Africa in 1851. A doctor and anti-slave crusader, the goal dearest to him was to enlighten the Dark Continent through Christianity. In large measure, he succeeded: today, three-quarters of Zambians, for example, call themselves Christian. Despite the prevalence of churches and bibles in the country, though, many Zambians remain superstitious, careful not to let their hair blow away after a haircut; believing cats are witches in disguise; and feeling the n’ganga – the witch doctor – will cure them if the clinic cannot. In short, they worship Livingstone’s God, but they clutch onto Mother Africa’s muti (witchcraft) in case He fails.

I heard him before I saw him. His black feet landed with thuds so weighty I felt each stomp twenty feet away. When he lifted his bulky pads, I saw thick cracks etched into his old soles, like ancient riverbeds. As one foot and then another hit the ground, I sensed the power and confidence in his steps. The n’ganga was here, and he was going to exorcise the spirits from the woman in the purple shirt.

I had lived in Chimtembo for two years, teaching sustainable sanitation and hygiene methods. Although my roosters crowed each morning at four, I rarely rose before six, making me among the last in the village to do so. It was common to throw open my front door and see men drinking masese – beer made by fermenting maize – from a communal gourd. This particular morning, however, those passing the gourd were grandmothers, or agogos. “Strange…” I thought.

In my small mud house, I listened to my shortwave, sipped coffee, chomped finger-bananas. The volume outside grew. I checked the beer circle and noticed several old men – madalas, village elders – had joined the group. An old woman slowly, painfully dragged two rickety wooden chairs to the center of the village. Shirtless boys zoomed past young girls pounding maize. Teenage boys in tattered clothes plodded into the village in groups; the youngest member of the groups often carried a worn-looking wooden drum. The older boys headed for the masese, while the younger ones gathered near the chairs the agogo had positioned, slowly thumping the drums, warming their tight, cold skins. It was nine in the morning. I had finished my chores and had written a letter to my own agogo back home.

Someone hooted at the beer circle. I glanced over and was shocked to see my neighbor’s black faces were literally white. I looked closer and realized they had covered their faces with cornmeal, which gave them all a sick, chalky pallor. As they passed the gourd, they looked like ghosts chatting at a party. “Bizarre…”

The boys began pounding the drums in earnest, creating a solid rhythm. An agogo led a woman in a purple shirt to the chairs. She wore a white cloth on her head, like a nun’s habit. The white-faced women and the girls in the village formed a tight circle around the chairs and started clapping and singing in unison. The running boys stopped and kneeled in the dirt. The men loitered at the circle’s fringes, looking in: Peeping Tom Ghosts.

The agogo held the gourd overhead, gazing heavenward. She sang a few lines; the others echoed. After this call-and-response, all the women ululated, heads thrown back, tongues wagging in mouths, licking the sky. The sound: a clutch of drowning hens. Then, gourd still raised, the agogo turned and exited the village. Trailing her, the group formed a conga line – everyone clapping, singing, and chanting – that snaked out behind her. Where were they heading? “Nothing in that direction, except – ”

Suddenly: “Odi?” (Is anyone home?) Robert had arrived to say good morning.

Mwauka uli?” I asked him. How have you awoken?

Nauka makola” – I awoke well – he answered, even though I knew he had slept on a thin reed mat on a hard mud floor.

“Robert, the beer is ready at the agogo’s house. Will you be drinking?” I asked playfully. Robert was a Jehovah’s Witness. He never drank.

“Ah…no.” He laughed and shook his head. “Do you know why they’re drinking?” he asked. It was my turn to shake my head.

“That woman had a dream last week. In her dream, her ancestors told her she must brew beer. If she refuses, they will haunt her. Now, they’ve gone to the cemetery to make an offering,” he said. Ah: the conga line! “When they return, the n’ganga will perform an exorcism. Have you ever seen an exorcism?” I shook my head again.

“The n’ganga will be here soon,” he said, as he left to work his field.

If Robert were right, I was about to witness a reunion between my neighbors, whom I knew so well, and their ancestors, whom I had heard so much about. Uncertain if I needed to see a village of drunken Africans communing with the dead, I nevertheless scared up my camera and waited.

Twenty minutes later, the group noisily poured into the village. Three boys scooped up the drums and began thrashing them. A young man raced to refill the gourd. The woman in purple returned to her seat, immediately engulfed by the group. I had heard many Africans sing over the years. This morning, however, their songs sounded more urgent, more vital, and more alive than usual. Their howls and claps seemed necessary, immediate. Suddenly, I heard stomping. I hurried to my door, peered out. My jaw dropped. The n’ganga was here.

The n'ganga dancing
The n’ganga dancing
Mr. Phiri (“Mr. Mountain”) was a tall, wiry man, and the respect he commanded was as large as his name suggested. His hair was rough and thick, like used steel wool. He wore a moustache, which wrapped around his lips, stretching to his jawbone. His arms and legs were thin but not scrawny; decades of subsistence farming had formed veiny, taut muscles. The most striking feature about Phiri, however: his left eye. Near the tear duct was a finger-sized gouge, dropping diagonally into his skull almost an inch. His eye was functional but contorted; he always appeared to be looking inside himself, checking an inner guide. A childhood accident involving a bicycle, a rock, and a spear had left this wound. Someone told me that after returning from the clinic, he started having visions. Humble when we passed on the road, this morning he was the center of the action.

Never before had I seen him dressed this way. He had wrapped bark around that fuzzy hair, and from the bark, black-and-white guinea fowl feathers shot into the air. He wore an old, blue, mesh tank top with fraying white seams. He had dozens of thin, colorful, beaded necklaces draped around him. Above his elbows, he had cinched sections of faded cloth. He held a slender, foot-long stick with two feet of black hair sprouting from one end; it looked like a narrow feather duster. He wore very short, very tight, pink cut-off shorts. Over them, he wore what appeared to be a white tennis skirt. And over the skirt, he wore something resembling a tiny, white luau skirt fashioned from shredded WFP maize sacks. Around his ankles were thick leather strips, loaded with homemade, plum-sized bells that jangled as he paraded. When he walked, the feathers on his head waggled, and the cloth on his arms trailed behind like stunted wings. To me, Phiri was a grotesque, broken bird. To my neighbors, however, he was their spiritual connection ready to channel the dead.

The ancestors of the modern Zambian believe Chauta created all living things on a mountaintop during a thunderstorm on the border between Malawi and Mozambique. Today, they consider dancing to be a spiritual phone line between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. Through this physical, joyful activity, the mortal and the eternal communicate. It seemed Phiri – as a six-foot-tall fowl – was the divine link ready to dial the dead. Despite a nagging skepticism, I felt a divine tug. “…a closer look…”

I rushed to join the group. The boys flogged the drums as we sang, clapped, and gyrated. One moment: Phiri was motionless, mortal, wondering whether he had locked his front door. The next: he was the n’ganga, flailing, dancing wildly. The change was immediate, as though someone had pushed a button, tripped his “Witch Switch.”

Phiri’s frantic dancing appeared simultaneously stylized and spontaneous. As the pounding of the drums filled the village, the n’ganga rapidly picked up and set down his feet, doing little karate chops on the ground. He shook like an electrocuted belly dancer, while the bells on his ankles clanged wildly. The beads around his neck snapped furiously, clacking like desiccated metacarpals. His nylon mini-skirt floated. The feathers on his head shook violently, like a bird in a hurricane. Despite all the motion and sound, though, his face remained focused. With his introspective left eye trained in and down, he looked deep into his own soul, searching for the woman’s ancestors. The dead were about to call.

The n'ganga and the drummer
The n’ganga and the drummer
The boys hammered a driving rhythm, nurturing an animal beat. Phiri boogied like mad, churning dirt. Soon, the cloud of dust was so thick it looked like Phiri’s feet were smoldering. Women and girls sang viciously, clapping so hard I thought their hands would bleed. They were singing to the dead, begging forgiveness, pleading for them to remain in the afterlife. (I wished the dead would stay there, too.) Unable to restrain myself, I joined the singing. I bobbed my head and clapped as hard as I could. I tried to match my neighbors’ steps. Even though it was the “woman’s role,” I even ululated. I was embarrassed, but after all, I had been stressing gender equality.

Meanwhile, the men watched the n’ganga cautiously, as old men watch a new gardener. The woman in purple sat on the chair, eyes closed, her body writhing with the drumming and dancing and singing. Her shoulders shook as though she were in a car on a road filled with African potholes. The white fabric on her head flapped as she quaked, like a dishtowel in a tornado.

Suddenly, Phiri seated himself next to the woman. From nowhere, he produced a long, white cape and a burlap crown with red flaps that hung down, covering his ears. On the crown was a four inch cross, glued akimbo. Wearing cape and crown, grasping his stick with the black hair, he appeared regal. As he sat, he preached calmly, like a high school chemistry teacher explaining the rules of the lab for the hundredth time. Occasionally, Phiri passed the stick near the possessed woman, as though he were an elderly curator, lovingly dusting a sacred object. Whenever it passed near her, she quivered slightly, like an old woman registering a chill. As quickly as he had sat down, Phiri leapt to his feet and renewed his frenzied tarantella.

Over the years, Zambians had gleefully informed me: “The root from this tree cures epilepsy!” or, “This small bag is filled with a plant that snakes hate. When they smell it, they run in fear!” or, “Men drink this tea to become ‘strong’!” To them, the world was full of magic. No surprise, then, that during the exorcism, I looked for jugs of smoking liquid; for bowls of nine-legged spiders; for sinister clouds to roil and cover the sky. But: nothing. I waited for Phiri to bend over a boiling cauldron, cackle, add a mutilated toad, a wingless bat, a handful of guts. It never happened. For all the talk about potions and spells and powders in Zambia, Phiri’s witchcraft was remarkably simple. He danced. He spoke. He danced again.

This ceremony went on for hours. During the occasional breaks, someone pressed a small, handrolled cigarette into Phiri’s bony fingers. He would drag deeply, reinvigorating himself, and as the boys smacked the drums his body vibrated, and he would again launch into his maniacal dance. Frequently, people returned to the 55-gallon drum, gulped masese, stumbled back. One drunken man raised the gourd and happily hissed: “Ma-se-se!” Beer trickling from his mouth, the cornmeal on his face almost completely gone, his chocolate skin showed through the chalky coating. Now, he looked less like a ghost and more like a zebra.

The n'ganga and the woman in purple
The n’ganga and the woman in purple
Finally, the woman in purple collapsed, her chest on her lap, fingers scraping the ground. The drums stopped. The crowd parted. The agogo approached cautiously and gently pulled the woman to her feet. She cooperated but was obviously exhausted. The agogo put the fatigued woman’s arm around her shoulders, and they lurched towards her house, past the village elders who smiled and nodded, satisfied with the n’ganga. I heard “Nchito makola” – Good work – mumbled through gap-toothed mouths.

On that day, I had participated in a ceremony reaching back centuries. Despite my skepticism, I helped my lively neighbors communicate with their dead relatives. Through the n’ganga, we had penetrated the ether separating and protecting the departed; we had broken through; asked their forgiveness; made offerings; pleaded. Evidently, it worked: the people of Chimtembo informed me the dead had agreed to stop tormenting the woman. I believed them, although I was unsure exactly how they knew.

In the course of the Gule Wamkulu – the Great Dance – the living and the dead had exchanged messages, and the n’ganga had been the messenger. Over the years, of course, I had dismissed witchcraft as bogus, a fraud to foist upon the frightened and the frail. However, when I saw how Phiri’s brand of magic brought my neighbors together, I realized not all muti was about powders or pushpins. Not all witchcraft concerned itself with magic wands or midnight spells. Phiri’s muti was about working together to solve a problem; joining your community; making something happen.

More than anything: it was about celebrating the life you had.

You can contact Willy at gwmvolk at yahoo dot com

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