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
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