The ‘war machine’ that invaded one of the most modern and cherished buildings in Malawi—the Bingu International Conference Centre (BICC) in Lilongwe last Friday—seemed ruthless to boot.
The orchestrated foot-stomping reverberated throughout the massive hall, as the warrior-dancers exhibited crisp battle formations even as they pranced, teased, feigned and effected mock enemy killings with their spears and knobkerries.
Each one of them was resplendent in animal skins. No, these were not any odd animal skins; all of them cut the grade by showcasing skins of leopards, the menacing and dangerously cunning animal that only strong-hearted fighters dare, let alone kill.
There was even an exhibition of fair play. The warriors punctuated their show of raw power by often cowering, and seeming to be under enemy attack. Then, their decorated body-covering and psychedelic shields would be waved up and down, in defensive manoeuvres, with aplomb –before choreographed spear-jabs would indicate the imaginary attackers were left for dead.
These were the Impi (warriors) at the Mzimba Heritage Association’s fund-raising dinner dance for the Umthetho annual gathering to take place at Hora, in Mzimba District, early in August.
The Impi were making a colourful statement that their cultural roots, which connect them to the legendary South African warrior-hero Chaka Zulu, are still intact—but minus the blood-thirstiness of those days when weaker tribes were annihilated during territorial wars!
But modernity, symbolised by the sparkling BICC, remarkably did not easily roll over in defeat during the invasion.
Several men in the ferocious-looking Impi clearly seemed ‘let-downs,’ as they did not put on the full animal skin armour. Also, even if most of the warriors and the women came directly from the King’s headquarters at Edingeni in Mzimba, almost all of them slackened the rules, as they were not characteristically bare-foot when they were stopping the tiled and heavily carpeted BICC floor.
Curious on-lookers could have also spotted several of the better-dressed warriors dangling their cellphones on their bodies. When the social media’s you-can-run-but-you-cannot-hide reality inevitably kicked in during the dancing, one warrior actually cowered away from the Impi formation and went on to answer a cellphone call!
One other warrior was luckier. But his exposure came when he must have accidentally fliipped on a cellphone switch, or icon, for there was a tell-tale light shining through his animal skins around the chest area.
Nonetheless, the people who were privileged to watch the Impi invasion spectacle could not help noticing that the modern cry for gender mainstreaming had already been embraced by our forefathers.
About a dozen women were the spark of the entire show. They were the golden singers whose modulated lilting singing tempos dictated the foot-stomping gusto of the warriors.
Actually, whenever Impi leaders wanted a song change, they would, each time, trot to the women, at the back of the war machine, to seek a buy-in from the women before the switch to the new song would be effected. Talk about calling the shots!
For those who may not have seen the war machine up-close, the lethal attack weapons of spears, arrows and clubs were unsettling. Such uninitiated people must have heaved sighs of relief when the Impi, after a barked instruction, laid down their weapons as they faced the high table.
Those sitting on the high table included the Mzimba King, Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa V, guest of honor and Labour and Manpower Development Minister Henry Mussa, Finance, Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe and fundraising committee chair Barnett Phiri.
Mzimba North Parliamentarian Agnes Makonda Nyalonje and Aziz Ibrahim enjoyed the privilege of sitting on either side of the King, after paying for the honour.
During a poignant moment—when the rest of the warriors knelt, facing the King—a leader among them boldly stepped forward. Some onlookers must have had their hearts in their mouths when they saw the audacious-looking warrior waving his spear about, sometimes too close to the high table.
To many, the warrior seemed to have been ‘speaking in tongues’. Only the nodding of the Inkosi ya Makosi, and a few others around him, showed that the deep Ngoni language spoken by the warrior was not only being deciphered but also appreciated.
Actually, the message giver, or the ‘hall crier,’ seemed to become more animated when he saw the Royal King’s nods.
Who could fault the dancing and prancing warrior, as he seized the moment to dramatically roll off a litany of names of some rivers, sites and several powerful Ngoni chiefs’ names?
He was proving to be the expert in narrating the Mzimba Ngoni’s chequered migration routes –literally through thick and thin– before they settled where they are now based in these modern days.
Explains Phiri on the relevance of the moment: “That is called the Chithokozo time when one of the warriors makes incantations signaling the arrival of the King. It is also done during ceremonies where the King is around, to signal the power aura in that place. Most people don’t understand what is said, due to language challenges, speed and other things.
“But what is generally said concerns the origin of the King, his family line, how forefathers travelled from South Africa, how they fought on the way, how they crossed the mighty Zambezi River (owela u Zambezi nge Zi nkhonjane… wadaula amanzi no muchiza yaqamukana).
“The chronicler also talks about the Ngonis’ taste and desire for the long-horned cattle in Tanzania, just to mention a few issues. All this is said in praise of the King, to prove that he is no ordinary man.”
In a flourish, after some 30 minutes of the Chithokozo time, the warrior saluted the Ngoni King, prompting the Impi to retrieve their weapons and leave the scene in their military fashion.
Another eye-catching event involved the auctioning of two sets of leopard skin regalia. The King offered the sets to the fundraising committee for the auction, which was a highly-competitive and interesting affair, which saw the bidding mounting to just under K1 million before two winners emerged.
The take-home message for many was that although millions live in cities, these people still have strong attachment to their culture in villages. That was partly why the traditional Impi regalia was valued so highly.
As a fore-taste to the four-day Umthetho ceremony, which will reach its climax on August 8, the fundraising dinner dance at BICC was exciting. It is clear that those who will attend the event are in for a much more enjoyable time, as the Ngonis will be celebrating their cultural roots in style at the historic foot of Hora Mountain