Kaleba: The multi-purpose BaTonga weapon


SYMBOLS and weapons of the past assist the consolidation of culture and if culture and religion can be harnessed in the pursuit of dominance, so much the better.
When a man can present himself as a warrior or at least as divinity’s chosen servant and his supporters promote his fantasy, he can wield authority like no other.
Symbols, cultural artefacts and weapons have played an enormous part in the formation of the cultural fabric of a great many African tribes.
Without symbolism, religions and philosophies would not have flourished and in some cases, entire languages would not have been able to take root.
The colonisation of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa took place from 1840 onwards and different values became omnipresent.
A lot of African weapons and symbols were acquired as curios by travellers, traders and missionaries in the century before and left the continent.
Colonialists, most often, did not give indigenous weapons and symbols the merit and attention they deserved and thereby African weapon and symbolism history was not preserved or documented.
Africa, and indeed Zimbabwe, must have lost numerous pieces of weapons and cultural symbols on the wayside of migratory existence.
These smuggled items had a greater influence on modern weaponry and symbolism of African people and their culture.
Given the vastness of the African continent, symbolism, iconography and weaponry were not used in the same way in different areas of Africa, but by examining the use of symbolism in individual tribes.
Among the most well-known of all the African tribes, the BaTonga dominated their area of northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia until the colonial era.
In BaTonga tradition, symbols play a large part in courtship procedures and expressions of love.
Young female BaTonga wear beads inscribed with symbols given to them by their suitors.
These symbols are usually of love and are offered as love tokens.
Other symbol-inscribed beads may not be love tokens and may in fact be cautionary symbols given to the girl by her family to protect her from unwanted attention.
Different people from different tribes revere different types of weapons and symbols that range from knives, axes, knobkerries, spears in the case of the Masai tribal men of Kenya as well as, bows and arrows in the case of the Basarwa or Bushmen.
The Bushmen expertly use the bow and arrow to fight and hunt wild animals or protect against predators.
The Xhosa of South Africa are experts in using the knobkerrie, while the Masai tribesmen will never miss with a spear when there is need to protect their livestock.
Other tribes are experts in using the knife; they can stab or skin an animal with much ease.
One of the most well used weapons among the BaTonga is a small axe called ‘kaleba’.
Along with the Nyaminyami walking stick, the kaleba is a revered symbol among the BaTonga tribesmen and women.
The small axe comes in different shapes and sizes and can be seen wedged on logs as one travels along the Binga Road from the Siachilaba Fish Market.
The small axe is crafted by expert blacksmiths.
This craft has been passed over the years and there are special men who are approached to design the axes.
It is razor-sharp and has a bowed wooden handle which is decorated with different animal and reptile designs.
The blades were carved from wood as well as seven-ringed ivory laminated sections on the upper blades during the 1950s but now it is forged using steel by an expert ironsmith.
The small axe does not only serve as an iconic symbol but is used as a deadly weapon that can decapitate one’s head in a flash depending on the prowess of the user.
The small axe is used by men when they go hunting or for other traditional ceremonies.
It is also a common feature at traditional beer ceremonies and drinking spots.
Apart from using the axe as a weapon to protect oneself from wild animals and other dangers that may befall the men, the axe is used by women when they go to fetch firewood.
The small axe is very handy as it can be used with dexterity.
It is multi-purpose and is always tucked at shoulders of men or in their belts.
Complementing the kaleba is a short knobkerrie or the symbolic Nyaminyami walking stick normally used by the elderly BaTonga to aid them on long distances, but the kaleba is always carried along for defence.
The BaTonga tribe also sanctifies religious objects and attaches great symbolism to them.
One example of this is the ceremonial head stool which is kept hidden and closely guarded.
This stool represents supplication to the ancestors – an ideal particularly close to the hearts of the BaTonga well-being and the embodiment of the land of the Zambezi Valley.
No one may sit on this stool and it never touches the ground.
In the Zambezi Valley, there has been a scramble for the BaTonga’s indigenous arts and crafts in the form of BaTonga doors used on stilted huts, traditional fishing baskets, the ngoma buntimbe ceremonial drums used during special ceremonies and funerals, the ndombonda smoking gourds, decorated herbal gourds, spears, the nyele musical pipes and other artefacts now found at the BaTonga museum.
Elsewhere in the country, headrests, walking sticks and other assortments of artefacts are still being sought after by art and gallery owners whose insatiable appetite for tribal art is still growing by the day.
The women also use miniature hoes called katemokavamwali which are used during the Chokwe, Luchazi, Luvale and Mbunda female initiations in Angola, DRC and western Zambia.
Katemokavamwali is also used by boys at the mukanda or initiation ceremonies.


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