Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meeting People

A face of the Nguni tribe. By pure luck, I passed their homeland on the day of their annual Nc'wala ceremony. When I'd got up that morning, I didn't know it existed. Thanks to a bored Zambian border patrolmen and some luck, I attended the ceremony with an official contingent from the Malawian national government's Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people there. The dress you see in this picture wasn't the norm, but there was plenty of it. Headbands from the skin of various big cats floated in and out of a crowd packed with grilled meat, drums, tents from various NGOs promoting health concerns, and big banners from the new sponsors, a big bank and a big cell phone provider.

There would be long speeches by bureaucrats, singing, dancing, free food and drinks for all, and then the main event: a bull would be slaughtered by a spear to the heart, and the chief would drink its blood. A security guard told me confidentially that it used to be a lion they killed, but with modern safety concerns for the crowd getting pics with cell phones and video cameras, they'd reduced it to a smallish bull tied to a tree.

The main ceremony happened in a compound with guards at every entrance. When one of the Malawian delegates tried to get in, he was stopped and asked for ID. But they waved me on through without any questions. I stepped in, and stopped when I heard another one of the delegates asked for ID. I turned to the guard and said "excuse me," loudly, about to ask some pointed questions about waving white men through and not others. But when he turned to me, I got a better idea. And that was how I found myself in the absurd position of telling security that, no, it's okay, they could let in the official delegation from the government of Malawi because, "they're with me."

After talking to a few people, I managed to get up close and personal by pulling out my camera and mingling with the paparazzi in the middle of the grounds. We moved around in a herd, getting the best lighting for our shots, and staying out of the way of whatever chieftain or group would be processing onto the grounds. I had to keep reminding myself to keep the camera out instead of just watching the performance. It was better than a front row seat.

It was a good day. On my ride out to the next town, I got to hear a lengthy debate on the future of the tribe. The appointed butcher had taken three stabs to bring down the bull instead of just one, much to the shame of the tribe. One man maintained this meant that "things had changed" and it showed the weakness of the Nguni. Another fiercely defended the tribe, saying it was just the one man, who would pay dearly.

It's been a show of how the last week or so has gone. Most of the highlights have been unplanned, and totally centered around the people I've met. I've been approached and shared afternoons with a huge cast of characters, almost all with legal first names to make you do a double take. I hung out with a private guard named Innocent, a 71-year old night watchman named Morning, a science law student named Advantage, and even a cab driver named Gift Master. All of them very eager to meet and talk a stranger from a far off place.

The big exception to all this, was one highlight that was very much planned: Victoria Falls. The rainy season is just ending, and the massive waterfall is at it's highest flow. There are three main paths in the national park. One is impassable at this time of year-- it's right across the top of the falls to an island. The next is a far-off trail with strategic viewpoints for photography. The third is right in front of the falls, across the rocks, and one long bridge. On the photographers one, you get sprayed with a lot of mist. Guess what happens in the close one.

I put my camera in two ziploc bags in my pocket, and my money and passport in another ziploc bag. Then I went in for some walking glory of water and wind. It wasn't a shower, it was a pounding. As I walked, across the green cliffs surrounded by white mist with the falls as a backdrop, a full circle halo of rainbow stayed around my feet for as long as the sun shone, moving with me as I walked, ran, skidded, and slid in the water I could breathe. Watching the water flying into an invisible whiteness, you start to get an idea what the sirens sounded like when Odysseus had himself tied to his boat. Very few things that deadly are that beautiful. 1.5 million liters per second go over that cliff around now onto some very sharp rocks. So you just lash your mind to the mast, and walk through the water and rainbows.

I think I'll miss this.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Victoria Falls is one of my favorite places! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
    I was wondering--how do you upload photos from your camera to the blog as you go? Do you have a connector cord to use in internet cafes, or do you always use your personal laptop?

  2. Victoria is a dangerous beauty.

  3. I love the Malawi delegation anecdote. Also, I actually think a lot of things that deadly are beautiful (orcas? mountain cliffs?) - that's part of what makes them so deadly, of course.

  4. Malawi delegation comment: very aikido: blend and re-direct.

    And, on the serendipity front: I was interpreting a linguistics meeting yesterday where they talked about Nguni languages!

  5. Ha HA! A computer I can reply to coments from! Wow it's been, what five countries since I could do this? Let's have it:

    Claire: Usually I use the SD slot in my netbook, pick a few, write captions in picasa, and then upload. Before that netbook and most recently, I'd use a USB cable on a net cafe's machine to transfer my photos onto a backup thumb drive. Then from there I pick a few, upload, and write captions in picasa web albums.

    Emily- yeah, but maybe not as dangerous as I make it out to be. Though hippos and elephants are known to go over regularly when swept away by the current.

    Count C- Yeah. I feel like there are some very old poems about that point...

    Catherine- Hmm. "The aikido of diplomacy." I smell a self-help book in the making.

  6. Picasa won't send these photos through (she complained). Doesn't work on two computers here. I've tried 4 times now, even left it "waiting for Picasa" for about an hour and nothing. Is it only at our end?? Long to see the photos. : )

  7. Catherine,
    I had same problem with Picasa not showing the pics on this particular blog entry. There is another way. Go to the side bar with all the pictures for Africa and the Middle East, click on that, select the "all" on the thumbnails and scroll down to the ones you haven't seen yet....Julia aka Anonymom.

  8. Photos and links fixed, thanks for letting me know. Also uploaded a few of vic falls that didn't make it the first time. Enjoy!

  9. Oh yes, the Drumbeats of Africa calling, been too long since my last visit to VIc Falls, Blantyre and Namibia. Lekker Trek Ou Maatjie ;-)

  10. Enjoyed reading this story. Your blog is inspiring.