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Travel Image: Zambia
Travel Image: Zambia

Zambia: An Exorcism
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 morning.

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 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. 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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