Drinking with the paramount chief

Mutomboko is an annual festival held in Kazembe, a town about 40 kilometers south of my village in Luapula Province. It commemorates the anniversary of the installment of Mwata Kazembe (Paramount Chief) XVII Paul Kanyembo Lutaba in 1961 and now features Mwata Kazembe XIX Paul Mpemba Kanyembo Kapale Mpalume.

So basically this chap is the head honcho. For perspective, my village’s headman is under the sub-chief, who is under the senior chief, who is under the Mwata. The structure is kind of like a town mayor reporting to a county commisioner who reports to a state governor who then reports to the president. Mwata would be the president.

If you picture Inauguration Day crossed with the Fourth of July, you’ll have a rough idea of what an equivalent American festival would look like. Mutomboko is the second largest festival of its kind in Zambia and draws a crowd of up to 20,000 people from around the country and the world. The event also draws a small menagerie of Peace Corps volunteers from around the province who descend upon Kazembe for the ceremony, the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere, and the mouth-watering food at the Kazembe Orphanage run by Tom and Amy Morrow.

On Friday morning Emi picked me up at my house and we rode down to Kazembe together, covering the 40 kilometers in just a few hours because we’re really good at biking. Also because we were tailgated by a couple of persistent men who tried gamely to keep up with us before eventually dropping off our pace. Although we were swept up in the sea of people as soon as we entered the boma, we found other muzungus easily enough and soon had met up with about a dozen other Peace Corps volunteers at a bar called Josie’s.

We hung out there for the rest of the day, eating Josie’s nshima and drinking Congolese beers. The DRC doesn’t have as reliable regulatory agencies as Zambia does, so beers brewed in the Congo stand a good chance of having a much higher than advertised alcohol content. Plus Simba is like twice the size of a normal beer bottle and has a picture of a lion on it. Both strong selling points.

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At one point a small marching band from the Congo paraded down Kazembe’s equivalent of Main Street, entertaining the throngs of boisterous revelers. And all the while, impossibly talented 10-year-old girls with impossibly double-jointed hips thrusted frenetically to the beat of hip-hop pumping from the backs of parked trucks-turned-block-party-stages. Each truck was painted red or yellow or green and emblazoned with the logos of Airtel or MTN or Zamtel, the three cellular service providers in Zambia and the three most ubiquitous brand names in the country.

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The next morning Ryeon and Hannah and I went down to the river to wait for Mwata to make a ceremonial appearance. We were early and the Mwata was late, so we spent most of the time admiring women’s chitenges and entertaining the kids who surrounded us for two hours.

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Where’s Waldo, Zambia style. How quickly can you spot the muzungu? Each of us volunteers are about as inconspicuous in a crowd as this particular fellow.

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The Mwata finally arrived. I couldn’t see him amidst the wave of people surging forward to get a glimpse, but I held my camera phone high and clicked anyway because it was what all the cool kids were doing.

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Stefan watching the proceedings. Yeah, we stand out just a little bit. Stefan more so than most of us, because Zambians think he looks like Jesus. He does look kind of like Jesus.

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Outside the palace, we chatted with a few of the attendants and learned more about the rest of the day’s program. The festivities would conclude with a huge assembly at the arena where the Mwata would dance, which we had heard would be the highlight of the festival.

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A group of us thought it’d be a good idea to get there early to make sure we got seats. Not quite. Hannah, Ryeon, Chantel, and I ended up sitting on the ground for two hours in full sunlight with little kids’ knobby knees digging into our backs for two hours, waiting for the Mwata to arrive. And by the time the ceremony finally started, it opened with another hour of unrelated announcements. We were a little less than enthused.

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We ultimately broke and bailed at the 3-hour mark after exchanging meaningful glances with Mickeve and Sarah Leonard, who were sitting across from us and looked about as uncomfortable as we felt. Later we found out that we had left right before the announcements ended and the dancing had begun. Oh well. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the Mwata’s dance, but we did stay long enough to watch him make his circle around the arena like a victorious gladiator.

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We returned to the orphanage for a delicious dinner, after which Sarah Perry gave me my second haircut of the week – she cut my hair on Monday and it looked great, but then I made an ill-advised attempt to trim the back of my head sans mirrors and it ended up looking like I got into a fight with a rat and lost. After Sarah worked her magic and made me look pretty again, a group of us trekked back into town for some dancing.

However, after we got to the bar we ran into a friend we had made the day before who turned out to be a friend of the Mwata. He was heading to the reception at the palace and asked if we wanted to come meet the paramount chief. We didn’t need to be asked twice. This was a golden ticket, the Mutomboko equivalent of bringing a quartet of tall, leggy blondes to a frat party.

We high-tailed it over to the palace and were quickly ushered into a heavily guarded compound surrounding a large, modern house. Once inside, we were led directly over to the porch where the Mwata was holding court with a handful of his subjects. We kneeled and clapped slowly three times in the traditional greeting of respect, then received the okay to sit. He invited us to ask him questions, flicking his hand casually for a couple of his attendants to come scurrying over with cases of Castle and Mosi. I hadn’t been planning to drink that night, but when the most recognizable and heavily-guarded man in the province offers you a beer, you’re not really in a position to refuse.

With the Mwata’s encouragement, we plied the paramount chief with questions about his favorite book (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), what he wishes he could do that he can’t because he’s Mwata (be alone), and which he likes more, nshima made from cassava or nshima made from maize (cassava). Finally we begged our leave as the hour drew near to midnight, each of us drunker than we had been before arriving.

We stumbled back up the hill to the orphana

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6 thoughts on “Drinking with the paramount chief

  1. OMG, well Matthew, I can honestly say that story tops about all of mine…and I’ve got quite a few years on you! LOL! It sounds amazing…and I liked seeing that pic of you, you look terrific! We miss, and love you….(your greeting is still on our main line’s voicemail…I think we will leave it there forever!) xoxoxoxox

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