Abridged from “Wayaleshi”, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959.
The Zambezi had been rising steadily bringing down waters from Angola and the Congo border. First they covered the grazing lands and the village gardens. Then, in the last few days, the waters had risen to the mounds on which the villages of the Lozi people stand. Mounds became islands, shrinking day by day. The waters drove before them and into the villages the fierce red Serowe ants, the mice, the rats and the snakes of the flood plain.
The Lozi people are impatient. They want to leave the plain and move to the escarpment where they have their winter villages. But they may not move until their ruler, Mwanawina III, starts the exodus from Lealui, his capital. Pools are already appearing in the council hall, but the chief’s residence is still dry.
In the quiet palisaded enclosures they are singing in the archaic court language of Luyana. An old man beats a harsh metallic-sounding xylophone and chants a plaint such as I imagine the lone man in the moon may sing among his deserted craters.
Why dost thou hide from the nation?
Come out, oh many coloured stick.
Leave us not to drown
Come! Lead us up from the plain.
The people wait for the chief, but the chief waits for the new moon. Until then the Lozi must endure the vermin and the mosquitoes and the damp rising in their huts.
Dawn, the following day, the great war drums are beaten, deep resonant drums calling out over the waters. They are calling to the men whom the chief wishes to honour to be his paddlers this year. They are calling the keepers of the royal graves who must be there on the day of the Kuomboka ceremony.
The villages on their mounds seem to be floating on a sea of mist but the sun disperses the mists and we see they are islands in a shallow lake.
A swarm of canoes and barges converges on Lealui. Mine is among them; sixteen sturdy paddlers take me there. We pass canoes laden with household articles whose occupants waive greetings to us. The excitement is palpable.
“We start at ten” a tribal dignitary explains to me. He is wearing a loin cloth and a head gear of crane feathers. Ten o’clock comes and then eleven. But this is Africa. At twelve we are still waiting. I wade around aimlessly, trousers rolled up, my shoes around my neck. I watch them loading up the state barges. Lubinda, my Lozi colleague, explains: each barge has a name and a rank: foremost the Nalikwanda, then the Notila, followed by others. They are strange vessels: A basketwork shelter divides each into two. The shelter stretches across the entire width, making the movement of paddlers between fore and aft impossible.
The heat has become intense but at last there is a stir in the crowd. They are bringing the Maoma drums. They are wading through shallow water and lift them on to the Nalikwanda: First the big drum, the male one, then the slightly smaller, the female, and finally the small one, the child. The exodus can begin. A royal procession emerges from the palisaded enclosure: carriers are bringing the royal spears, others carry rifles. After them come musicians. And then, splendid in grey top hat and Edwardian morning coat comes Mwanawina III, Paramount Chief of Barotseland. With dignified, slow tread he walks towards the landing stage. An old man steps forward to chant praises. I join the procession. Like a mace I hold up my microphone. I try to look as if I always wore shoes around my neck and the bottoms of my trousers rolled: Ceremonial dress for a broadcaster?
Suddenly our procession comes to a halt. We have come to a shallow stretch of water. Should the Paramount Chief take off his shoes and wade? Or be carried pick-a-back? Men rush forward carrying a long canoe. They throw it over the water as a temporary bridge. The crisis is averted.
We board the Nalikwanda. They direct me to a place at the back. “We will call you when the Maoma drums start.”
Seventy paddlers strain to free the barge from the land but fail. This is a new barge this year, bigger than ever. Men wade into the water to push us off. We get under way. A xylophonist and two drummers start up a song. Seventy half-naked bodies bend in rhythms to the music.
“Bend!” they sing. “Bend”. They chant of the exploits of great paddlers of the past. It is hard work and this is the hottest time of the day and those chosen to do it are not youngsters but men in their fifties and sixties, some may even be older.
Hundreds of canoes follow us. Others are waiting en route. They shout their greeting and fall in behind.
A canoe is making fast against our side. A paddler says something to me in Lozi, which I do not understand. He gestures and two or three others join in. The canoe is for me! They help me over the side and hand me my recording gear. With a few swift strokes they bring me to the front of the barge. A dozen arms stretch to help me in. I salute the Paramount Chief and am about to make some polite conversation when I notice the hushed silence. I make haste to set my tape running.
A powerfully built man steps up to the great Maoma drum. The paddlers pause. He lifts two great drum sticks and beats them down on the drum a few times rapidly. A deep-chested sigh, as of relief, comes from the expectant paddlers. Then he lurches at the drum and beats a rapid and powerful rhythm. A second drummer jumps forward to beat the second ‘female’ Maoma, then a third. They beat a complicated pattern of cross-rhythms, like some dance on Olympus. I have never heard such drums before, so deep and powerful and resonant.
Pleasure comes over the faces of the paddlers. They strain to keep up with the beat. An old man of maybe seventy, not content with the backbreaking paddling, skips up and down between beats. He yells a war cry and stabs at the water with his paddle. Another, four or five feet away, shouts with all the energy he can command. I can see the veins sticking out on his neck but I cannot hear him. The drums drown everything.
The chief sits shaded under the canopy. His fingers follow the rhythm. He observes the paddlers. They are not as disciplined as paddlers in the days of his father. Some do not keep perfect time.
The induna in charge of the barge sees it too. He gives a signal and someone rapidly sticks a paddle between an offender’s legs, gives a jerk and pitches him overboard. There is a yell of delight from the remaining paddlers. One of them explains to me in English: “In my father’s days such a man would be left to the crocodiles, or to drown.”
Today a canoe comes quickly to his rescue.
I doubt the story. There do not seem to be any crocodiles around and the floods are too shallow for any man to drown. But the Lozi enjoy stories of their gruesome past. The same man tells me that in the old days live babies were entombed in the drums to make them cry louder. Who knows? Maybe they were.
The pounding of the drums sets my very insides shaking. It surges through me. I stand with difficulty upon my white man’s dignity. If they beat it much longer, I too might skip up and down and yell!
A snake slithers out of a half-submerged bush as we pass. A swarm of red-breasted bishop-birds rises and chatters in protest against our noisy intrusion. A formation of pelicans flies off. And no doubt the evil spirits, too, flee as we approach.
Several hours of backbreaking paddling, then, at last, the long journey to Limulunga, the winter capital, is almost at an end. We are approaching the escarpment and can now see the Paramount Chief’s European-style residence on the hill. But progress becomes difficult. The waters are too shallow for our barge and we have to stick to a channel dug in the last century which is now silting up for lack of slave labour. Repeatedly we get stuck and paddlers jump overboard to lighten our barge and to push it off.
The hill ahead of us is alive with people. Some have waded out to welcome their ruler but curtains have been pulled across his shelter to hide him from their gaze. We approach the landing-place. The crowd surge forward and the first ranks are pushed into the water. Some start to fight for a vantage point. A woman throws herself headlong into the water and splashes her face as a sign of obeisance. The royal guards use whips to clear a path but again and again dancers crowd into it. The guards lash out.
Our barge is now made fast and the drums beat a finale. Suddenly the curtains are pulled aside. A roar goes up and, like one man, the crowd goes down on its knees.
Mwanawina emerges. Servants help him ashore. The musicians strike up xylophones and we form a procession. Slowly Mwanawina climbs the hill. He seems oblivious of the people. Once he whisks his antelope-tail fly-swatter, but he does not seem to see the crowd. Behind him they rise to their feet, row after row, like a field of wheat in the wind. They close up the path behind us and dance up in our wake. A cloud of dust engulfs us.
Mwanawina settles down in a small pavilion outside his residence. The festivities begin. For three days now they will celebrate – three days and three nights.
Missionaries come to pay their respect. So do indunas and other office bearers. Unlike the missionaries, they crawl into the royal presence, squat down and let out a long-drawn yo-sho, yo-sho. They throw sand over their heads and clap their hands.
Dancers advance shaking rattles on their arms. They stamp heavily. One steps forward. He is clothed in a kind of fur made of bark cloth. He sports a long phallus covered in hide. A magnified shiver goes down his body. He arches back and his loins jerk forward rhythmically. His dance enacts the sex act. The drummers shout encouragement to him. A toothless woman emerges from the crowd to dance a female counterpart. He dances around in a circle, his arms spread out: his mask is dark, with small slit eyes and from these eyes come two streams of painted tears. They cut up the dark face with white lines. The face is turned towards the heavens in unvoiced dumb suffering. The dance mounts to a crescendo. There is vigour in it, joy and suffering, procreation and weeping. He pulls himself to his full height, balances for a moment, then collapses to the ground as if in post-coital exhaustion.
The royal guards rush in. One drummer protests. They lash their whips at him. The masked dancers scatter.
From the opposite side a crocodile of little girls marches into the square, barefoot in red school gym-tunics.
They form up and start to sing with shy little voices. Then they take each other’s hand and slowly gyrate in circles.
The missionary who is sitting with the chief turns to his lady-colleague and says:
“Look! Look! How charming. They are dancing the minuet.”