Every year on the last week of February the Ngoni people of the eastern region in Zambia celebrate the Ncwala Ceremony. This illustrious event is a thanksgiving ceremony to celebrate the first harvest of the year. The Ncwala celebration attracts multitudes of people from south and central Africa and some international friends of the region. It takes place in the Chipata district near the Zambia and Malawi border. The host is the paramount chief of the Ngonis; Inkosi yamaKhosi, uNdabezitha Chief Mpezeni. This year’s event was nothing short of elaborate, with the Ngonis decorated in animal prints, colourful beads and pride. Men clad in their traditional Zulu attires, with their spears raised high while women were in their colourful traditional Zambian wraps; chitenjes. There was singing, dancing, ululating and praise singing, with the chief’s imbongi chanting the Ngoni victories in Zulu.
This year’s event marked the 38th anniversary of the Ncwala since it was revived in 1980 by the paramount chief Mpezeni III. The theme for this year’s event was “Preserving Our Culture, Environment and Our Heritage”. Although I was a foreigner at the event, I felt a sense of kinship with the Ngonis because of their links to the Ngunis of South Africa. The Ngonis trace their roots back to the Zulu people who were part of the migration north during the Mfecane wars, after escaping King Shaka’s militaristic rule between 1815 and 1840. They were led by Zwangendaba Jele, through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. When they arrived in Malawi they conquered some tribes including the Chewas of Malawi, taking women as wives and men as warriors for future battles. After the death of Zwangendaba, the tribes split into several groups who eventually formed kingdoms in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. Today the Ngonis can be found in Malawi, in the Mzimba, Ntcheu and Karonga districts. In Zambia the Ngonis are in the Chipata district and the Inkosi yamaKhosi Chief Mpezeni has his kraal in Mutenguleni village where the Ncwala ceremony takes place every year. In Tanzania, the Ngonis are in the Matema district. The Ngonis in Malawi and Tanzania also have their annual celebrations which have been fashioned after Umkhosi Womhlanga, the annual reed dance observed by the Zulus under King Goodwill Zwelithini at the royal kraal in KwaNongoma.
The Ncwala celebrations take place over three days beginning with the Ungoni Exhibition which showcases historical Ngoni relics and artifacts that tell the story of the migration from South Africa. This exhibition attracts a large number of people who want to learn more about the Ngoni history and their way of life. The exhibition was hosted by the Zambia Ministry of Tourism and Arts. For the sports and adrenaline junkies there was motor bike and bicycle race. There was also a rally through the streets of Chipata where the paramount chief parades, greets and interacts with his people, a gesture that is always welcome because Chipata is mostly inhabited by Ngonis and they have immense respect for their chief.
There is a significant spiritual aspect to this event where the Ngonis take some time to thank their ancestors for past war victories as they were travelling north after escaping the Mfecane frenzy. They also spend a significant amount thanking God almighty for making sure that there is sufficient rainfall to yield an abundant harvest. They sing Zulu and Ngoni hymns; amahubo to summon the ancestors. There were numerous trance inducing moments as the people would lose themselves in this powerful moment of worship and Ngoni pride. There were times where I was transported to South Africa, including the moment when the Zambian National anthem was sung. The Zambian national anthem, Stand Up and Sing of Zambia, Proud and Free borrowed its melody from South Africa’s national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika, which was composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897. The Zambians sing the “Woza Moya” portion which was removed from the South African version national anthem.
The Ngonis of Zambia take their Zulu links very seriously. One of the items on the programme was a reading of the Ngoni history, starting from the migration north to current affairs that affect the tribe today. It was during this history lesson that I learned that the former president Jacob Zuma played an important role in reuniting the Ngonis to the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, by arranging a meeting between the Ngoni delegation and the king himself. We heard that the Zambian Ngonis travelled to KwaNongoma and were treated with great care and hospitality. Unfortunately, Zuma could not attend the event his year and sent three of his children to represent him. His two daughters were seated closest to the paramount chief for the duration of the event. The links don’t end there as Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi was one of the dignitaries in attendance in last year’s Ncwala event. The event organisers hope to invite some Zulu dancers to upcoming events for a culture exchange.
The event was a raving success and the Zambia Tourism Agency was thoroughly impressed with the work that went into the preparations. I could not help but shed a tear when I counted all the things we have in common than the differences that seek to divide us. For a moment, Kwame Nkrumah’s idea of a united Africa was palpable. “I am an African” The words of Thabo Mbeki were resounding in my ears as the dancers were singing amahubo and summoning their ancestors to bless the event. It was difficult to ignore the fact that the Ngonis look like us, they speak like us. We eat the same food and pray to the same God. This was an incredible validation and proof that xenophobia is a foolish concept that should never be entertained, because when all is said and done, we are one people. One Africa.
Lulama Njapa is a freelance travel writer and music lover who left the corporate world to fulfil her long-held dream of seeing the world. In a moment of wanderlust, she bought a one-way ticket to Malawi where she is currently travelling solo and satisfying the travel bug. Follow her travels on:
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