There are not very many traditional ceremonies here in Zambia. Surprising? To me it was: this is a country with many tribes, each with it’s own rich, unique heritage, and surely every tribe at some time had many ceremonies. Now, though, there are only 2 or 3 listed in tourbooks or covered during our training. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I found out that Chibombo has it’s very own traditional ceremony.
Last year, 2 days after I’d been posted to my village, I woke up and realized that nearly everyone was gone. I ran into one of my friends later that day, and asked him what was going on. “Ah, everyone has gone to the traditional ceremony.” I asked him what it was a ceremony for. “It is to bring the rain. But I don’t like that: only the Lord God can send the rain. So I have stayed here.” It rained the next day.
This year I was determined to make it to the ceremony and experience some traditional culture for myself. I didn’t know when it would be held until a week before, and I didn’t know quite where, but the morning of the ceremony I hopped on my bike and headed off. I had asked for directions, so I was heading down the road ‘near the one past the post office’ and the ceremony would be ‘where the road turns right (with a gesture left), a bit off the road.’ I found the right road, and luckily there were enough people going to the ceremony that it was easy to tell which right turn in the road was the one I wanted.
When I arrived, I locked my bike to a tree and started wandering around. There were rows and rows of food stalls, each selling the usual nshima, chicken, and cabbage. There were women walking around selling fritters out of buckets carried on their heads without a steadying hand. There were people selling everything from hairpieces to shirts to carved walking sticks. There was a ring-toss game set up, made from bottles set in concentric circles. And there were more people than I have seen in one place since coming to this country.
I eventually made my way through this maze, following the sound of music to an enclosed lawn with a large pavilion on one side and a stage in the center. Here, finally, was where the ceremony would be.
The festivities were set to begin at 9, but I have lived here long enough to know that, when I showed up at noon, they would just be getting started.
First, there were 3 chiefs in attendance, and each proceeded with due pomp to his place under the pavilion. Each one came in separately, in a parade of singing women, shouting men, and twirling guards. The chiefs were dressed in full regalia, with togas of brightly colored cloth, ceremonial swords or switches, and animal-skin headdresses. The guards wore leopard skins and carried spears.
When the chiefs had all settled into place, troupes of dancers took turns on the stage. They were accompanied by drummers and singers, and sometime audience members. There seemed to be no rule against just jumping on the stage if the spirit moved you.
Eventually the dancing was over, and then the modern portion of the ceremony, the endless speech-making, began. We heard speeches from several district officials as well as the guest of honor, each given in English and translated to Lenje. It turns out that the ceremony has nothing to do with rain, instead it’s a celebration of history.
Hundreds of years ago, the mother of the Lenje chiefs led a group of her people out of the Congo. They traveled for many months, and finally settled here, in Chibombo. This ceremony is celebrating that trip, and the wisdom of remaining in this place. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I can only imagine how fun the celebration would have been maybe 100 years ago. Then I’m sure everyone would be dancing and singing and ululating, and it would last all night long. As it is now, it is a fun and exciting day: I enjoyed watching the dancing and the chiefs’ processions. And maybe remembering history can help to bring the rain, too, which would definitely be a nice mbasela (bonus).