JACK ZIMBA, Mwansabombwe
IT WAS only a casual inquiry by the banks of Ng’ona River in Mwansabombwe district, Luapula Province.I asked one lad – about 16 years old – where I could buy akalumba.
Akalumba (lightning) is witchcraft used to kill people, popular in Luapula.
Many people here believe in black magic or witchcraft.
The previous day, I had walked into the newly-opened Mwansabombwe museum, which displayed, among other items, witchcraft objects. One of them was labelled akalumba, which the curator explained as something witches use to kill.
And so my inquiry was not really out of the ordinary, but then, I did not expect to get the answer I got from the youth.
Although his initial reaction was to laugh off the question, the youth later became serious about the matter.
“I know a man who lives at that house who can sell you what you are asking about,” he said, pointing to a house nearby.
“Oh, wait,” he said suddenly. “That man over there in a green shirt, his grandfather deals in such.”
Momentarily, the lad was introducing me to another young man of 20-something called Mulenga.
“His grandfather can give you what you want,” the lad told me, and left us to discuss.
Mulenga had come to the Ng’ona River to look for medicine for his sick child.
He had already collected some roots from a certain tree standing in the river when we met.
“I hear your grandfather can sell me akalumba,” I inquired.
“Yes, he can,” replied Mulenga.
There was no hint in his voice or on his face that what we were discussing was generally considered evil by society.
Mulenga then led me to a nearby village and made me wait by the roadside while he went to enquire after his grandfather.
“You have to wait here so I can let him know you are here and if you can see him,” he said.
After a long wait, I began to suspect the young man was only bluffing, and had made a fool of me. He had gone for good.
But then Mulenga returned with his grandfather, an aging man with missing front teeth.
The old man introduced himself as Dr Shilandeni, but his real name is Joseph Musonda.
He was born in 1942 and started practising his medicine in 1969.
We sat under a tree as he told me about his practice and fame.
“I’m the best in this village,” he told me.
“My medicine works. No-one has come to me to say the medicine failed,” he said.
“It does not matter the season,” he added.
Two other young men, besides Mulenga, sat with us under the tree, laughing and giggling as the medicine man bragged about his powers. They clearly had great admiration for the old man.
One of the young men, who introduced himself only as Commando, showered the old man with praises, talking about his greatness.
But he had not yet answered my curiosity. Would he sell me akalumba?
“How much do you sell akalumba for?” I asked him.
“I would not want to mention a big amount, because I’m not after money, I just like to help people,” he said.
The old man had no straight answer to my questions, and usually answered with a question, as if trying to read my mind.
“What has brought you to me?” he asked. “You must have a problem. Who is troubling you?”
The medicine man’s insistence on knowing who was causing me trouble made me rather uncomfortable. At that point, it was clear he meant business, he wanted us to transact and close this deal.
“How much?” I pressed.
“You can just give me K250,” he finally said.
It was the most awkward moment for me, but our exchange confirmed the many stories I had heard before on my travels around Luapula about the prevalent belief in witchcraft.
Tobias Tembo is the man who collected the witchcraft objects displayed in the museum.
He is head of chiefs and traditional affairs for Mansa district.
Mr Tembo said the exhibition of witchcraft objects at the museum had attracted many locals.
“It is what people mostly cared about,” Mr Tembo told me. “It is the only exhibit that attracted masses.”
Mr Tembo said the belief in witchcraft is very common in Luapula Province, but he said Chienge district stands out.
A few years ago, while travelling to Chienge by bus, I was taken aback by the conversation I overheard from a woman and man seated next to me.
They both spoke with relish and a sense of admiration about a man they both knew to be a powerful wizard.
Stories about witchcraft abound in Luapula and places like Mununga have become synonymous with witchcraft, although Mr Tembo thinks the place is not as bad as it is portrayed.
The road leading to Mwansabombwe and beyond has no sign-posts warning motorists to look out for crossing livestock – mainly chickens and goats – but experienced drivers on this road know better to avoid hitting, if only a little chicken.
But in case they do, there is an unwritten rule they follow.
The rule is that if you hit an animal, you have to stop and look for the owner and compensate them for their loss.
Those that disregard the rule are said to experience strange happenings, even accidents.
But are these stories true, or the locals tell them to just scare reckless or inconsiderate motorists?
“They tell these stories because they believe them,” says Mr Tembo. “To them it is real. But they cannot be proved.”
Moments after recording my interview with the medicine man, my recorder went missing. Did the medicine man play his evil tricks on me?
But like Mr Tembo said, nothing can be proved.
JACK ZIMBA, Mwansabombwe