Dancing the night away…

With a full week of hard travel under our belts, we were looking forward to an easy weekend.  We had explored different options to get us out of Katete sooner — and to the Chimwemwe Lodge in Petauke (where the President stays when he visits!).  The difficulties with the water (cold, when present), listening to rats on the roof nightly, and desiring a consistent phone connection was starting to wear on us.

However, the Lonely Planet highlighted two local village dances that occur, primarily in August.  We had high hopes of attending one of these celebrations.  Tiko Lodge organizes mzungus’ visits (and, along with the economical sustainability part of Tiko’s mission, there is a payment you make to the village leader).  We both thought that this would be an awesome experience, and it would be unlike what we had done thus far.

Dustin found out through some exploring that there would be both the Girls’ Initiation dance and Ghost Dance at a nearby village on Saturday night.  So, we decided to tough it out for a couple more nights to fit in that experience.

Saturday morning started with a great tour of St. Francis hospital with one of the characters we met at the bar.  This guy, John, is Welsh and has been volunteering in Africa for the past 16 years.  He has been in Katete, working on building a new wing for the hospital for the past three years.  He had us over to his place for coffee and biscuits and took us on an extensive tour of the impressive facilities.  I was very keen for Dustin to see a hospital and a rural health center in Zambia, and this was a perfect opportunity.  We walked around and talked with people for about three hours.  Neat!

We got back to Tiko to finalize the plans for the evening’s festivities, at which point we found out that we would leave at 4pm and get back around midnight.  I was so, so tired, and I could not fathom intense culture experiences for 8+ hours in the bush.  Dustin recommended a nap – definitely a good call!  After napping for a couple of hours, we rolled out of bed to meet the group heading to the village…

There were about 8 of us heading to the village from Tiko.  We were met by one oxcart, enough for half of us to ride in.  So, some piled in, and the rest of us starting walking.  We were off!  The walk to the village was much like our run (we were heading to a different village — there are probably around 100 just in the Katete town area) — sun was setting, walking through fields, meeting people along the way…  Just a lovely afternoon walk.  After about 20 minutes of walking, another oxcart arrived, and the rest of us got in.  As it turns out, riding in an oxcart is relatively comfortable!  Who knew?

We arrived in the village around dusk.  We were greeted by about 60 cheerful, playful children — all wanting to hold our hands and lead us around their home.  We were greeted by multiple adults as we tromped around the large village (population 400).  We made our way to a cluster of trees, under which the village headman (the main man!) greeted and welcomed us.  Neat!

After greeting and touring, we were escorted by running, tumbling, laughing children back to our starting point.  The children then gathered in front of us and started spontaneously singing different songs that they had been learning in school.

Around 6pm, we were told that the Initiation Dance was to begin.  All of us, including the men — they were granted woman-status (the thought process seemed something like: well, you know mzungus — they are strange anyway, so why can’t their men count as women?).  In a hut about 10ft by 12ft (if that!), we crowded in and sat along the hard mud walls.  Women sitting on women, children sitting on laps, and all of us touching and being touched by a few different people each!  With a few candles lit and drums brought in (I think that space in Africa is different from space in other places — you can just fit more things and people in somehow!), the signing began.

The songs and purpose are to teach the new initiates about how to be married — and most importantly, how to tolerate mothers-in-law.  No joke — we were told that the songs and the motions are all about lessons learned and taught.  There were two young girls who were clearly the focus of the dancing and singing.  They seemed nervous and excited about the new chapter in their lives — and all of the women surrounded them were joyfully singing and drumming as if to say “welcome to our group, life is good but hard, and you will be sustained by communities of women, much like this one, wherever you go.”

After these two girls did their solo dancing for 45 or 60 minutes, they exited the hut.  Now, the rest of the women were free to dance and sing as they pleased.  It seemed that each woman had a few songs or dances she particularly liked; she would start the song or have a friend do so, and then start dancing in the circle.  Sometime a few would dance together…

And, as the dancing was letting up, it was time to bring in the mzungus.  Have no fear, I was the first!  I had been interacting quite a bit with the ladies leading up to the dancing and during, and it was so fun.  And that put me squarely in their sites when it was time to incorporate the rest of us.  So, I got pulled up, did a bit of booty shaking — much to the enjoyment of the ladies! — and tried to drag the other female mzungus (mzungu men, while allowed to observe, not allowed to dance) to take part as well.  I was only succesful with one…

The dancing ended some three hours after it started, and I was *exhausted*.  We were taken to another home, where a Thanksgiving-like feast was spread out for us to enjoy with a few of our Zambian counterparts.  I feigned stomach troubles so as not to take part while Dustin dug in (typical of us both!).  I sat on the ground with the woman who made the dinner and wife of one of the head-guys.  Her name was Agnes, and we had an immediate connection.

Agnes and I shared in some stilted stories (english was a bit tough) and shared laughter at her children coming in and out.  I think that I had the best seat, as those around the dinner table were mostly quiet and eating.  I, of course, prefered to talk :).  Dustin reported that the food was excellent — especially some pumpkin concoction.

After eating, we were taken to another area in the village for the Ghost Dance.  Agnes stayed right by my side — literally, we were arm in arm, which was awesome both because it felt nice and because we were walking through the bush in the pitch dark, and she kept me from falling :).  We finally made it to the campfire and situated ourselves in preparation for the Ghost Dance.

Half of our group departed after dinner (one of them was sick, so they headed home), so there were only four of us remaining.  While waiting for the Ghosts to come (literally, it is believed that during this dance, the individuals become ghosts), the children and drummers (and Agnes) sang and danced for about an hour.  Too fun!  There was not enough seats, so Agnes and I alternated sitting on each others’ laps.  I started first on Dustin’s lap, but Agnes dragged me to her lap and held me tight :).

And then, around 1045pm, the Ghosts showed up, calling as they approached and dressed in full costume.  It felt much like I would imagine a Native American dance of a similar nature — lots of twirling, whooping, calling, singing, drumming.  In some ways, it was truly magical and touching, seeing the shadows and glimpses of costumes (it was very dark) with the sounds of the drums and songs.  And sometimes, it felt downright scary — maybe they really were ghosts?

After about an hour of the dancing, the other two in our group declared exhaustion — and we headed back.  The Ghost Dance can continue for hours into the night, and as with many things, mzungus are excused for all sorts of reasons as we do weird things (like leave the Ghost Dance early).

Heading back in the oxcart under a literal blanket of stars (and followed on foot, running, one of the village drunks — lots of drinking was happening around that campfire!), we arrived back at Tiko at 1am.  What a *full* 9 hours!!

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2 Responses to Dancing the night away…

  1. Mama says:

    Would have loved to have been part of this event. How very, very special. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  2. Cate says:

    So I’d be interested in what they said about how to tolerate mother-in-laws :). Learn anything useful?

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