So I wrote this a while ago but just got around to posting it. Sometimes I procrastinate.
Sometimes in Africa I find myself in some of the strangest situations. Sometimes things that should appall or surprise me don’t anymore. Ritualistic animal sacrifice, however, is not one of those things.
I just returned yesterday from a trip up north to a village called Kazembe for Luapula’s biggest traditional ceremony called Mutomboko. In short, the ceremony is basically to commemorate the Lunda crossing from the Congo over the Luapula River into Zambia and the crushing of local enemies after power had been established. It involves Luapula’s biggest chief, Mwata Kazembe, walking around with an ENORMOUS entourage to sacred spots in the village (one of these spots was a tree which, at the base, was stacked dozens of hippo skulls; he sacrifices food to these bones to appease animal spirits and protect his people. In the past there used to be lion, elephant and other wild animal bones here as well-kind of awesome) to perform little traditional acts that symbolize important things in the Mwata’s history, such as receiving blessings from the ancestors in the form of living headmen and offering food to the river gods (for more in-depth reading go here). The whole ceremony culminates with the Mwata being carried 2.5 km from his palace amid thousands-and I mean THOUSANDS- of people to perform his traditional dance that basically broadcasts that he can conquer anyone. Except god. Of course.
In short, the ceremony was fantastic. I’ve been to small local ceremonies before, but this one definitely was the biggest and most rooted in tradition. Before each event (the whole ceremony took place over the course of a day and was broken up into mini-events), a group of drummers banged out beat to call the congregation to the royal palace. Every time the Mwata entered or left an area, guns were fired to announce his movements. He was accompanied by dozens of advisors dressed in all white. The throngs of people (over 10,000 were in attendance) were appropriately suffocating and emotive. I was appropriately drunk off skunked liter-bottles of smuggled Congo beer.
So, I got there with a bunch of other PCVs on the Friday before the day of the big festival and stayed at the Kazembe Orphanage which is run by a missionary couple named Tom and Amy.
Side note-Tom and Amy are some of the most fantastic people I’ve ever met. They work with orphans under 2 whose parents have died or are psychologically unable to care for their children. Read about their story or help their cause.
The next day we trooped out to watch (or attempt to watch) the festivities. In all honesty, the crowds were too massive and the chaos too chaotic to actually see anything without the very probable possibility of being killed. I saw part of the hippo stop, got literally crushed in the masses when the Mwata offered food to appease the river gods and copped out early when the chief retainers (chief’s bodyguards) opened the palace gates for about 10 seconds while a horde of people attempted to squeeze themselves through a 10 foot space.
The one thing though that I had been looking forward to the whole day and was basically one of the reasons why I had decided to attend (in addition to the AMAZING pig roast done by Tom and Amy) was the point in the ceremony when they sacrificed a goat. I wasn’t quite sure when they would do it but I knew it was going to be one of the times the Mwata left his palace. One of his royal bearers was supposed to kill the goat and the Mwata was carried over it in his umuselo (royal carriage thing covered in Zebra skin carried by villagers) to signify that the Mwata is powerful enough to destroy anything. In the olden days, and by the olden days I mean about 100 years ago, this goat used to be a human.
So, the goat is sacrificed right before the Mwata is paraded to the arena to perform his big traditional dance, the highlight of the ceremony (don’t ask me about this-I didn’t go because I was too dehydrated and weak to attempt to force my way into an arena packed with 10,000+ people that was only meant for 5,000). Me and a few other PCVs ended up talking to the gate keeper who was nice enough to let us into the royal palace compound so we could see everything. Lots of gunshots, drumming and ululating later, I’d had a front row seat (I literally stalked that goat so I knew that I would see it die) I’d seen my first animal sacrifice. It’s funny- maybe it was the fact that I knew that this death was meant for a human or the fact that it was for ceremony, but seeing this goat being hacked at the neck was different from seeing an animal killed for food. It was actually kind of difficult to watch, but one of those things you certainly couldn’t turn away from (probably along the same lines as car accidents and ugly babies). Didn’t really help that the goat was crying like a child and the machete was dull. I thought it was going to be a swift slice of the neck; it was more a hacking off of the head. They never did get it all the way off, btw.
All in all, my experience at Mutomboko was pretty damn unique. Something I’m glad I attended, something I will probably not attend again. It was amazing to see this slice of culture maintained and to see practices that had kept on from when Africa hadn’t yet been permeated, dictated or influenced by Western ideals and ideas. I cant help thinking though what it was like in the days when the ceremony was meant to show enemies the power of the Mwata- where rivalry influenced the ambiance and when the sacrifices walked on two legs.