By Guy William Volk
Livingstone had many ambitions when
he set out to explore Africa. A doctor and anti-slave
crusader, the goal dearest to him was to enlighten
the ‘Dark Continent’ through Christianity. In large
measure, he succeeded: for example, today three-quarters
of Zambians call themselves Christian. Despite the
prevalence of churches in the country, 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 had lived in Chimtembo for two years, teaching sustainable
sanitation 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 for me to open my front door and see men drinking
masese – beer of fermented maize – from a
communal gourd. This morning, however, those passing
the gourd were grandmothers, or agogos.
In my mud house, I listened to my shortwave and chomped
bananas. The volume outside grew. I checked the beer
circle and noticed several old men – madalas
– had joined the group. An old woman painfully dragged
two rickety chairs to the center of the village. Teenage
boys in tattered clothes plodded into the village;
the youngest boys carried worn drums. The older boys
headed for the masese, while the younger
ones gathered near the chairs, slowly thumping the
drums, warming their cold skins. It was nine in the
Someone hooted at the beer circle. I glanced over
and was shocked to see my neighbor’s black faces were
white. I looked closer. They had covered their faces
with cornmeal, which gave them a chalky pallor. As
they passed the gourd, they looked like ghosts chatting
at a party.
The boys were now creating a solid rhythm with the
drums. 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 girls
formed a circle around the chairs and started singing.
The men loitered at the circle’s fringes, looking
in: Peeping Tom Ghosts.
The agogo held the gourd overhead. She sang
a few lines; the other women ululated, heads thrown
back, tongues wagging in mouths. The sound: a clutch
of drowning hens. Then, gourd still raised, the agogo
exited the village. Trailing her, the group formed
a conga line – everyone clapping and singing – that
snaked out behind her.
Suddenly: “Odi?” (Is anyone home?)
Robert had arrived to say good morning.
“Mwauka uli?” I asked him. How have you
“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. 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.
Twenty minutes later, the group returned. Three boys
scooped up the drums and began thrashing. A young
man raced to refill the gourd. The woman in purple
took her seat; the group engulfed her. I had heard
many Africans sing over the years. This morning, however,
their singing sounded more urgent than usual. Suddenly,
I heard stomping. I hurried to my door, peered out.
My jaw dropped. The n’ganga was here.
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. His moustache wrapped around his lips,
stretching to his jawbone. His limbs were thin but
not scrawny; decades of subsistence farming had formed
veiny, taut muscles. Phiri’s most striking feature
was his left eye. Near the tear duct was a finger-sized
gouge, dropping diagonally into his skull. His eye
was functional but contorted; he 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.
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