BaTonga ceremonies a living culture

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By Elliott Siamonga

AS we get into the festive season, with many looking forward to Christmas, indigenous communities, such as the BaTonga, continue to cherish their rich cultural calendar which saw them celebrate over 30 traditional ceremonies throughout the year. 

Singing, dancing and drumming are key components in the festivals and ceremonies of the BaTonga as well as their Gwembe cousins from Zambia.

With over 16 dialects in the country, the BaTonga have maintained their rich and diverse cultural heritage despite the impact of Western influence. 

The BaTonga mark over 30 traditional ceremonies annually in different parts of Binga and Zambia. Colourful and resonating with primordial forces of untamed Africa, throbbing with the beat of hand-carved ngoma butimbe drums, these ceremonies are accessible to visitors, but only with the implicit understanding that tradition allows no commercial compromise. 

The BaTonga also celebrate lwiindi gonde, kuomboka, gonde, chungu and maanzi aabila lwiindi which are celebrated from January to November every year. 

One of the most celebrated ceremonies among the Zimbabwean and Zambian Tonga is the ‘kuomboka’ which signals the monarch’s annual move from the now flooded Zambezi lowlands to higher ground and is a spectacle of imagery; a huge barge (nalikwanda) — complete with paddlers and a replica, ear-flapping elephant — makes its way along the river accompanied by drumming and dancing.

The kuomboka ceremony is quite a big deal and something definitely so much worth seeing even the non-appreciative will be on their feet clapping. Kuomboka literally means ‘to get out of water’ in the Tonga and Lozi languages. The ceremony takes place at the end of the rain season, around March and April. During this period, the Zambezi River floods the plains of both the Zimbabwe and Zambian western sides.

Other ceremonies, such as the rain-asking ceremonies chungu and maanzi lwiindi are celebrated in October. During these ceremonies, the tribesmen desist from any field work dedicating the month to rain-asking. Once the first rains fall, they are then allowed to start preparing for the next cropping season.

BaTonga traditional music is rich and diverse, traditional musical instruments such as the ngoma buntimbe drums, the nyeele and other assortments of horns and small drums make the music interesting to listen to.

The kuyabila music is very important to the BaTonga people. It is sung by one person (man or woman) accompanied by the friction drum (namalwa) or a rattle (muyuwa). 

It can also be accompanied by an ordinary drum using a special rhythm. It is performed at a funeral or any other time in order to relieve stress. When one sings in this way, people listen carefully to what is being sung. For example, a man could sing in praise of his cattle, of a difficult journey he had undertaken. In the middle of the song, the listeners call out, encouraging him as he sings (kumutembula). 

Another dance performed is the chikaambe-kaambe. The dance is performed during the mukanda ceremony. The mukanda is an initiation ceremony for both boys and girls. There are different styles of dancing which are connected with particular songs, such as the mulupumbe, where one girl would join in the dance circle and is quickly followed by another and so on until all have danced.

Another initiation dance is the ndikiti which is performed at funerals and traditional beer parties. At initiation, it is danced to during the night, before the girls come out of the initiation venue and during the day of the actual feast. At a funeral, it is danced to before the deceased is buried and during the actual burial. 

What is all the fuss about these ceremonies of the BaTonga? 

Is it just chiefs presiding over ceremonies where people dance and beat drums?

These are important ceremonies to the BaTonga, they are the essence of what it means to be Tonga.

They are no different from Christmas or Easter celebrations, they are of great significance to them (the Tonga).

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