Friday, May 2, 2008

Into the heart of Zambia....and back again!

Well, plenty of things have happened since I last had a reliable Internet connection! So lets start at the top.

Firstly, it was harder than I had ever expected to leave Maru-a-Pula at the end of the term. The staff, students, marimba kids, and everyone else had become such a family to me that I was almost heartbroken to have to leave them. And it's always the case that at the end of your time in a place you learn what you would have liked to know at the beginning! Some of my students were absolutely heartbroken to have me leave as well... which I hadn't expected at all! Especially some of my Form 1 theory/recorder students who hadn't really been my main focus during the term. But I will sure take a lot of good memories away from MaP with me!

I also need to thank my friends and colleagues at MaP for making my stay such an amazing part of my fellowship year. In many ways I could not have asked for a better situation. The marimba was fabulous in every way--I will not hesitate to say that it is the most intense and enjoyable marimba experience I have ever had! The students in the group were a lot of fun and I enjoyed playing with them and learning from them. In some ways I was a sideline because I wasn't able to come on the US tour with them, but they still included me and made me part of their family, which I greatly appreciate. Some of you may already have heard about the fiasco in Johannesburg with this touring group, but for those of you who haven't I have to post something about this.

Since Alport Mhlanga arrived back in Gaborone in late January he and I have been working practically non-stop on a renovation of the performance marimbas. There were many details to be attended to from re-stringing to tuning to modifying the buzzers, and we must have put in over 100 hours of work simply on the instruments themselves in addition to all the rehearsal time, administrative work, finding costumes, etc. This wasn't Alport's first overseas tour with a MaP marimba band, so he had all the details sorted out and planned for, up to and including the packing methods necessary for the instruments so that they could all fit as luggage on the airplane for no extra charge. After a sleepless night of taking marimbas apart and strapping the pieces together in all sorts of strange ways, the band hops into a bus and tows their equipment to Johannesburg to get on their flight. Now, unfortunately, there had been a change in the baggage regulations regarding metal and wood since the last MaP tour...which meant that while the students could get on the plane, their instruments stayed in Johannesburg. But was that the end? Well, it could have been! An emergency call went out to practically every percussionist on the East Coast in an attempt to track down 10 Zimbabwean Marimbas with F#s, up to and including the marimba player from the pit orchestra of Broadway's The Lion King. CBS actually ran a news clip on it! And the most surprising thing of all is that they actually found marimbas! Apparently there was a die-hard marimba player who had moved from the Southwest with her set of marimbas in the New York areas and she was able to save the day. What a crazy thing! I'm told that the tour went well, so it must have been ok, but I sure wish I had been there to help sort out that mess!

Instead, I had hopped into a car with one of the PE teachers from Maru-a-Pula who is from Zambia. We started at 3:30AM and drove the whole day, stopping only at the border post to get the appropriate clearance for the car. We made it all the way to a town between Livingstone and Lusaka before stopping for the night--that must have been the longest day of driving I have done in a while! We also were hindered by several stretches of road where the potholes have completely taken over. It was actually amazing to see the extent to which the road has deteriorated... the only way I can think of to describe it is resembling the surface of the moon! But we made it, in the end. Little did I know that these potholes would be my downfall in a little over a week's time!

The next morning we attended the retirement service of a lovely old nun who taught at the teacher-training college where my friend from MaP had lectured several years back. This lady was a great friend to her, so we both attended the service and the celebratory meal afterwards. What an interesting event! There was a traditional choir there from the Northern Province who sang the most beautiful songs!

I am trying to upload a video, but I haven't had a lot of success with that in the past. I also enjoyed eating with my hands :) as is traditional here. It really takes some skill to get this non-finger-food into your mouth without spilling it everywhere and looking like a total spaz. It was quite fun, though!

After that it was straight on to Lusaka, where we arrived quite late. We stayed the night with a friend of my colleague and that was actually very cool. I enjoyed seeing her home and meeting the family and it was really nice to crash for a night in peace. However, I was greatly mistaken when I thought that this was the "difficult" part of the journey... as it turned out I was dumped on a bus to Mongu in the Western Province the following morning without any real directions, no airtime on my cell, and the vague idea that I was supposed to ride the bus to the end of the line and then look for a friend of my friend's named Frieda. I was a bit more than apprehensive about this, but I really shouldn't have been, I suppose.

The bus ride itself was definitely an experience! I found that there was a large distance to cover, not much space on the bus, very few rest stops, and in general just few conveniences. Lucky for me that I don't ever get hungry when I travel these days! But I met a really nice man on the bus named Father Francis. He was actually a catholic priest and we had a lot of good discussions on my way out West. In fact, he was able to give me contact information for a man who is part of the Lozi Royal Family and used to play the Shilimba (Lozi marimba) for all sorts of things. But that's jumping ahead of myself. After arriving and finding this contact of mine in Mongu I got to attend the last day of the Kuomboka Ceremony.

The Kuomboka Ceremony takes place annually on the banks of Limulunga. The ceremony celebrates the end of the rainy season each year by displaying the return of the chief to the wet part of the region. He is paddled by a collection of young tribesmen in an oblong-shaped boat under a canopy with a large replica of an elephant on top. His wife and minister also got boats, with other animals adorning the tops. After a rather elaborate ceremonial trip downriver to Limulunga, the Chief disembarks and presides over four days of traditional music and dancing provided by his people from all over the area. I missed out on the first bits because I only arrived for the last day of the ceremony, but I did get to see a lot of traditional music and dancing on the last day. It was really an interesting spectacle! Firstly, the outfits were different than I had expected. The men actually wore skirts--supposedly this is from the Scottish colonial influence, but I was just confused. They aren't kilts, but actual knee-length skirts with a sort of elaborate red/black/white patterning. But they are very proud of these outfits, so there must be something more to them!

The dancing is hard to describe, so I will simply put up some pics (all poor quality, I'm afraid, as I was taking them from behind a few rows of people!). But I can describe the local Shilimba in more detail. The Lozi call their marimba a "shilimba" and it is played as a solo instrument or with two to three players. This differs from the Zim-marimba tradition in which each player has their own instrument and several instrument play together because there will only ever be one shilimba on the stage at a time, but there could be anywhere from one to three players on the various ranges of the instrument. In general, the players used a "split-hand" technique rather than a rolling technique and the rhythmic texture was very thick. A single melody did not arise from the instruments, the focus was on the texture and complexity of the music. For those of you who are marimba players, think about the main tenor part to Nehmamusasa and then add in a few more players on similar parts! The left hand will generally beat out a bass line while the right hand plays around with rhythm and what they hear as melody, but if a player is left-handed he may just stand on the opposite side of the marimba so that his left hand can play the higher notes instead! That was quite fun to watch. The shilimba also never plays alone. It is an instrument that is so interwoven with the singing and dancing that accompany it that they are one and the same to a local.


The following day I looked up Dr. Lewanika, my connection from this man I met on the bus, and got to question him for about an hour on the practices and traditions that surround the shilimba. Turns out there are several uses of the instrument, ranging from everyday entertainment to secret-code-like communication with their shaman during ceremonies. That was the most interesting thing about it to me--the music and the vocals were inseparable to this man, who had played the shilimba as a youth. Apparently it is also part of the smoke and mystery surrounding the shamans, because Dr. Lewanika kept describing the music as a necessary part of the shaman's movement--the player had to be sensitive to signals telling him when to play, otherwise the shaman's movements wouldn't be as full of weight and he would lose the intimidation factor.

That interview marked the last of my days in Mongu and I boarded a bus back to Lusaka the following morning. My intention was to stay several days in Lusaka, but I found once I arrived that there was very little to see or do. I spent a day walking around, seeing markets, etc. but didn't feel like giving it to much more of my time. I then boarded a bus to Livingstone, where I thought I should stop by to see Victoria Falls on my way south to Namibia. But against my better judgement I decided not to pre-book my bus ticket because it would take a rather arduous walk through the blazing afternoon heat. I was assured that I could just show up in the morning at the bus--which I did, except that it was fully booked. So instead of getting on the reliable bus where they gave you bottles of water and free cookies I ended up on a bus run by Marks Motors...normally a pretty reputable company as well. I had an interesting trip for the first several hours... of course, having to fend off the too-enthusiastic young Zambian men who are always asking for your phone number, but nothing majorly inconvenient.

But then we hit that lovely patch of road that I described from my trip northward as looking like the surface of the moon. About 1 km into this disaster-zone we hit a pot-hole too hard and the bus ground to a halt. Now, if I hadn't been on the bus for the entire day, if the bus hadn't been infested with cockroaches, if I hadn't had to fend off one particular 20-year old guy for the whole journey, I might have been more lenient and patient with the drivers. But as it was, I was tired of nonsense. After the first three attempts to fix the bus failed (there was a leak in the break line that wouldn't let the bus move) and my oh-so-friendly 20-year old Zambian hailed a passing pick-up for a lift, I decided to jump in as well. So there I am, with my huge backpack full of clothes, small backpack full of computers and other random stuff, and no jacket, bouncing along in the back of a pickup along the worst road imaginable. And surprisingly, it was a lot of fun! There were three other Zambians with us who were also out of patience: two older ladies and an old gentleman. They were hilarious, debating how far it was to Livingstone about every two minutes, chatting with me about my trip and about how I had found Zambia, and just being amiable. The best part was that this annoying fellow I have been describing was silent for the whole trip! I think he was intimidated by the older crowd, and maybe that I was so comfortable chatting with them. But in any case, I certainly enjoyed the trip. As my one and only experience hitch-hiking, I would say that it was a success. And it is surprising how normal it is to hitch a lift in Zambia... the normalcy of it makes the risks lower and the utility higher. But the most important part was that I made it to Livingstone as planned and didn't have to put up with yet another bus break-down!

My time in Livingstone was much less eventful. I went to see the falls the day after I arrived, and it certainly was a stunning sight to see. There was much more water than I remembered from my visit in December--so much, in fact, that you needed a raincoat to cross the bridge onto the island where you view the falls! I have never seen so much mist in my life, and despite my raincoat I managed to get soaked through.

Something else that I didn't know was that on nights when the moon is full you can come back to the falls in the evening to view a "lunar rainbow" that the moon casts in the mist of the falls. This idea intrigued me to the point where I had to go see it--despite paying extra admission--and it was definitely worth it! What a cool thing... a rainbow in sort-of pale shades of white and gray, no real colors to speak of, but cast so strongly in the mist that you could see the full arc. I guess there's no reason why that shouldn't be possible, but it is definitely something I had never thought about before. I wish I could post a picture, but it's not something that photographs well with a tiny automatic camera! It is definitely one of those sights that has made me wish I had the knowledge and equipment to do some real photography, though!

I spent the next few days bumming around in Livingstone before I calculated my budget after taxes and realized that I have way more money than I should at this point in my fellowship year! To celebrate, I took a micro light over the falls--basically that's a motorized hang-glider that you go up in with just a pilot and you! And what a view, I can tell you! I was pretty nervous... that genetic fear of heights does still have a hold on me... but it was worth the terror. Check out the photos and I'm sure that you'll agree about the view! They don't let you take your own camera up, so all the photos are from a camera mounted on the wing of the craft and don't quite do the view justice, but still. I also got to see a better view of the canyon than I had ever seen before and I learned a fair amount about the geology from my pilot. He was pretty cool--he even let me fly the thing for a few minutes! That was an adrenaline rush, I can tell you!

A few days later I got on a bus and headed for Windhoek, Namibia, where my next post will pick up from. Whew! These posts do pile up when you're away from the internet!

1 comment:

Dad said...

There is a direct link to the CBS story about the MaP band's marimba search at