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Travel Image: Zambia
Travel Image: Zambia

Zambia: An Exorcism (cont.)

He had wrapped bark around his fuzzy hair, and from the bark, guinea fowl feathers shot into the air. He wore a blue mesh tank top with fraying white seams. He had dozens of colorful, beaded necklaces draped around him. Above his elbows, he had 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 maize sacks. Around his ankles were leather strips, loaded with bells that jangled. 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, 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. 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 was the divine link ready to dial the dead. Despite my skepticism, I felt a divine tug.

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

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. The bells on his ankles clanged wildly. The beads around his neck clacked like desiccated metacarpals. The feathers on his head shook violently. 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 soul, searching for the woman’s ancestors. The dead were about to call.

The dust was so thick it looked like Phiri’s feet were smoldering. Women and girls sang, clapping so hard I thought their hands would bleed. They were singing to the dead, pleading for them to remain in the afterlife. Unable to restrain myself, I joined the singing. Even though it was the “woman’s role,” I ululated, too. The men watched the n’ganga cautiously, as old men watch a new gardener.

The woman in purple sat on the chair, her body writhing with the drumming and dancing and singing. Suddenly, Phiri seated himself next to her. From nowhere, he produced a long, white cape and a burlap crown with red flaps that covered 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. 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. 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!” To them, the world is full of magic. During the exorcism, I looked for jugs of smoking liquid; for bowls of ten-legged spiders; for sinister clouds to roil and cover the sky. I waited for Phiri to bend over a boiling cauldron, cackle, add a toad, a bat, guts. It never happened. For all the talk about spells and powders in Zambia, Phiri’s witchcraft was remarkably simple. He danced. He spoke. He danced again.

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

That day I had participated in a ceremony reaching back centuries. Despite my skepticism, I helped my neighbors communicate with their dead relatives. Through the n’ganga, we had broken through the ether separating the departed and asked forgiveness. 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, 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 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.

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