Zambia, Ncwala: A Traditional Ritual Of Thanksgiving

The Ngoni people are one of the many ethnic groups living in Zambia. Just before spring, they gather to celebrate the Ncwala annual ceremony. This is a meeting of fraternity, during which a glorious past and the pride of being Ngoni are celebrated.

This last Saturday of February is a sunny day in the area of Chipata, in the eastern region of Zambia. It is a good omen, especially in the rainy season, when for weeks, the sky is covered by clouds. This day is a great day among the Ngoni tribe, a warlike people of Zulu origin, now living in Zambia and Malawi. On this day, in fact, they celebrate the traditional ritual of thanksgiving called Ncwala. The traffic on the main road that links Chipata to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka, is heavier than usual due to the dozens of trucks and buses, which are packed with people, heading to Mtenguleni. People of all ages are gathering from every corner of Zambia and the neighbouring countries to enjoy this national holiday. At about eleven o’clock in the morning, there is a huge crowd around the square of Mtenguleni where groups of warriors, holding shields and spears, dance and shout the way their ancestors used to do in the past to frighten enemies before battles. The Inkosi Ya Makosi (the supreme chief) arrives after the warriors’ performance. All the dignitaries of the tribe, who are dressed like him in their traditional attire, escort him. The Inkosi, who will seat at the arena where the ritual is held, distinguishes himself by his feather hat.

After the introduction of the several personalities attending the event, the Ngoni ceremony begins. One by one, the warrior groups enter the arena, performing typical war dances and songs. What predominates is not the colour or variety of their clothes, but the sense of force, which is almost ‘aggressiveness’, that the performers are able to express.

Some women join the men in the dance. Some groups arrive with their children who are the symbol of the future followers of an ancient tradition which was restored only in 1980, after it had been prohibited for a long period. After the dance, while some warriors make a fire, some others drag a bull into the arena for the performance of the ritual sacrifice. An elderly chief pierces the heart of the bull with a spear. Tradition dictates that the animal must die of just one stroke, as a signal that its sacrifice has been accepted by the ancestors’ spirits. The warriors use wood bowls to collect the blood of the bull, which is offered to the lnkosi first, along with the first piece of bull meat which is roasted without salt. The fight between the different groups attending the ceremony, to get pieces of the bull meat, concludes the ritual. The fight is real and some participants get wounded. The drinking, eating and dancing go on late into the night.

The Ncwala is the final act after a whole week dedicated to revision, penance and thanking. At the beginning of the week, the Inkosi Ya Makosi and the several tribe leaders gather in Mtenguleni to offer the divinity and the spirits of the ancestors the first fruits of the harvest and to thank them for their protection.

On Monday evening, some elders collect the offerings in a basket and put them under the branches of the msoro, the great sacred tree located at the entrance of the village. Then one of the elders, on behalf of all the Ngoni people, says a prayer to the ancestors asking for forgiveness of the sins committed by the tribe throughout the year and to thank them for the cattle and the fertility of the land. Then, the tribe leaders along with all the other people celebrate with a feast the end of the months of shortages. The following days are dedicated to a detailed review of the events of the year. Each chief presents the Inkosi with a detailed report of the events that occurred during the year and of the current situation in his area.

An old man who acts as a priest says prayers of thanks, request and repentance. The Inkosi and the other leaders accordingly plan measures to improve the living conditions of the people during the new year. At that meeting, the leaders also decide upon the kind and amount of the aid which the more fortunate Ngoni are supposed to give to their brothers in difficulty.

The ‘great week‘ is also an opportunity for the people to demand leaders’ accounts for their actions. People on this occasion are also entitled to present before the Great Chief and his Council eventual complaints about local chiefs’ conduct. If it is proven that the accused has acted unfairly, he will be submitted to punishment. Occasionally, it may happen that leaders who have abused their authority or who have not complied with their obligations are removed to ensure the well-being of the people. The fear of this annual review makes many tribe chiefs act carefully when it comes to govern their people.

The Ngoni people, who lost much of their identity, including their language when they mixed with the Chewa people, are proud of their traditions and try hard to keep them alive and pass them on to their descendants.

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