Trouble is brewing in Mzimba for the Ngoni who aspire to preserve their culture amid the new National Parks and Wildlife Policy and the revised Act which outlaws possession and use of wildlife products, JOHN CHIRWA writes.
It is the 10th anniversary of the Umtheto Cultural Festival in Mzimba District. The setting is Hora Heritage Centre, at the foot of Hora Mountain.
All is set for the event to begin as men, who are elaborately decorated, sing and stamp their feet, wielding their shields, spears and clubs while women sing, clap and ululate in unison. The dance performance known as ingoma is symbolising a war scene.
Their costume includes a headgear made of feathers, ornaments worn on the limbs; a network of beads wrapped across the chest and stomach, and around the neck hang various types of animal skin.
In no time, a troop of chiefs appears on the venue from the 10 huts that have been constructed on site to create a royal model village.
These are the amakhosi (chiefs) of Mzimba who have accompanied the Inkosi ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V to lead the event.
The amakhosi are donning leopard skins while M’mbelwa is donning a lion skin to symbolise power and authority endowed upon them in equal measure to that of a leopard and a lion, respectively.
As the royal leaders sit down, Mzimba Heritage Association (Mziha) chairperson Boston Soko takes up the microphone to welcome the audience, but of importance in his address is a concern that Mzimba is losing wild game due to deforestation.
He says disappearance of wild animals has threatened their culture as they no longer find animal skins locally to use as regalia in their dances.
“Our Ngoni culture is threatened by the disappearance of forest cover. Mzimba district does not have wild game any longer. And that has affected the lives of the people who love meat, but also special skins for impis. All the skins we see over there are very old, mostly inherited from our forefathers. Nowadays, skins come from South Africa where they are manufactured industrially,” he explains.
Soko’s speech revives memories of an incident that took place at the Songwe Border Post in Karonga in February this year when the Ngoni chiefs en-route to Tanzania were briefly detained for being found in possession of wildlife products such as bangles, headgears and animal skins.
Wildlife officials feared that the cultural custodians’ display of wildlife products could promote poaching and endanger lives of animals.
According to the new National Parks and Wildlife Policy and the revised Act, it is a serious crime to keep and wear regalia made from animal skins and other wildlife products without authorisation from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.
The policy and the revised Act criminalise possession and use of wildlife products to protect endangered species and other wild animals which are at the risk of extinction.
Speaking recently in Mzimba during a sensitisation meeting of the policy, Department of National Parks and Wildlife director Brighton Kumchedwa said his department is persuading the leaders to promote Ngoni culture and traditions which do not endanger wildlife.
He said the department wants to make the chiefs active players in wildlife conservation.
“We are holding meetings to sensitise the chiefs and other local leaders to the new policy and revised Act and penalty provisions,” he said.
However, Mziha secretary Aupson Thole says animal skins and ivory bangles will remain the identity of the ngoni from Mzimba even if it is outlawed to wear them.
“Putting on animal skins is a symbol of identity of who we are. For example, coronation of M’mbelwa cannot happen without a lion skin while that of amakhosi cannot happen without a leopard skin. This is our cultural identity. So, government doesn’t need to make an Act or a policy to oppress a specific ethnic group,” he says.
Thole says government needs to recognise the Ngoni as partners in addressing wildlife crime and not as poachers because “most of the skins that we put on are inherited, nobody can say we are poachers”.
“If they were making such laws, first and foremost, they should have consulted the people that use the animal skins. In this case, they should have gone to the M’mbelwa Chiefs Council and discuss how best to formulate such laws,” he argues.
The case presents the dilemma of wildlife preservation and cultural promotion without endangering lives of animals.
The amendment of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, as well as the establishment of the Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit and the Inter-Agency Committee on Combating Wildlife Crime, are some of government’s commitment to preserve wildlife.
However, Malawi is also a signatory to the 1972 Unesco Convention of Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 1952 Convention of Protecting Heritage.
Thole, a retired officer of the Museums of Malawi, argues that the Ngoni regalia are protected by these Conventions because “I cannot have an intangible cultural heritage without the object which has a value, and that value is an intangible heritage”.
But Department of National Parks and Wildlife assistant director Jester Nyirenda advises the Ngonis to borrow a leaf from their fellow Ngonis in South Africa who rely on factory-made animal skins for Ngoni gear.
But Thole has no kind words to such an advice: “The Parks and Wildlife Department in South Africa has gone ahead in treating these animal skins and selling them. We bought a lion skin for the late President Bingu wa Mutharika from South Africa in 2008. Why can’t they borrow a leaf from their colleagues in South Africa themselves? They need to start treating these animal skins and we will buy from them, unless they tell us to start poaching and manufacture these skins.”