It has become apparent to me that that there is nothing more to us, Zambians. We are not a people deeply rooted in any traditions, beliefs, rituals or anything. This idea that we are a great people with values and traditions passed down millennia is a myth.

Everything about us is violable. There are no red lines; for us, anything goes. Perhaps, Zambia is what it is; a name, a place and a bunch of people bound together by nothing more than fate.

I attended the installation of Chitimukulu, Henry Kanyanta Sosala a few years ago. It was also my first time to attend Ukusefya Pangwena, the traditional ceremony which celebrates the migration of Bemba people from the Luba Kingdom in Congo, to present-day Zambia.

If my going there was a pilgrimage to celebrate my identity, history and Bembaness, I came back lost and deeply troubled.

There were thousands of people, the air filled with intrigue and mystery as royal drummers and courtiers performed rituals which seemed to evoke the presence of celestial beings. The festivities reached a crescendo as Mwine Lubemba, Chiti Mukulu made his grand entry, as courtiers, singers and dancers punctuated each step with rituals, praises and song.

I waited for the grandest of this historical moment to see the Chitimukulu enter the main arena hoisted high on the back of a crocodile, pa Ngwena, adorned in sacred and scary regalia rich with charms, beads, history and perhaps bits from the dead.
Alas, the Chitimukulu entered the main arena. Yes, he looked like a King, but not a Bemba one. His regalia was an unfamiliar piece of mistaken identity, an excessively shiny, multicoloured golden embellished robe with a matching crown, bearing no historical reference nor significance. It looked like the sort you would see in an Asian movie mimicking opulence.

Rather than find myself in Chitimukulu’s pieces of identity, I was lost in them. But nothing would prepare me for the caricature, the paper-mâché crocodile upon which his throne was hoisted, and upon which the whole ceremony of Bemba migration is told.
Bemba people, listen, if you are reading this; that ‘crocodile’ is a travesty. If we are half a great people as we purport to be, the story of Mukulumpe, Chiti, Nkole and the Bemba empire cannot be told on the back of that joke, and the Mpezeni agrees. He had offered to summon among his subjects, the best taxidermists and sculptors to mount a life-size crocodile and gift it to the Bemba people.

Once, I watched another traditional ceremony and was at a loss of words. A mobile company had supposedly sponsored the ceremony — nearly all the subjects including courtiers where brandished in the corporate colour of the mobile company. Their Chief arrived in a BMW, open roof, standing and waving at subjects in a manner of a small-time politician. In a different ceremony, their Chief too, arrived in a land cruiser and by so doing, skipping half the rituals. I cannot think of anything as sad as these moments.

I have seen a chief interviewed on television clad in a pair of jeans. By all means, our chiefs should wear jeans, if they so desire, drive good cars and surf the internet. But in life, time and place are important. Those western suits, Brazilian weaves and wigs not only reduce the natural authority and mystery that royals have, but they also make a joke of us, their subjects. Those graduating gowns and police uniforms worn by members of different royal establishments, what is the story with that?
Surely, we have keepers of royal histories who can work with local designers to interpret and reconstruct authentic and aesthetic royal regalia and emblems. The Ministry of Chief Affairs could be of more value by embarking on such a project with different royal establishments, no?

If there is one thing admirable about our colonizer, and the one lesson we failed to learn from them, its keeping tradition. The British love and protect their traditions. They are keepers and guardians of their history and traditions, however trivial — the Japanese; extremely modernized and extremely traditional, all at once. I watched the coronation of their new emperor with fascination; every detail steeped in tradition and history. Closer to home, we have Ethiopians, South Africans all guarding their traditions.

I will never forget a delegation from Botswana halting the official opening of an intergovernmental meeting on account that the shade of blue used in their flag, was wrong. It was a perceptible difference to the rest of us, yet to them, it was a violation of their identity and not tolerable. The meeting couldn’t start until a new flag with the correct colour was found. In our case, the green colour on our flag is changeable and violable; the latest version is neon green, different from an earlier variation of a deep vegetation green. Our identity crisis is deep so much so that in search for a new identity we resorted to a chicken as a national monument and piece of our identity.

These days, pasta and noodles are our new norm. For most women, the coveted hair is pieces shaved off from the heads of women of other races, often as sacrifices to their gods. Our schools now teach foreign languages as compulsory while we discard our own. Newborns are now given Hebrew and strange names and spoken to in English. The day you will meet an Englishman called Mulenga Smith, Sibeso Mundiya Jackson or Moono Williams, let me know. We have a whole generation who cant speak a word in their mother tongue, yet and sadly English is not and will never be their mother tongue. This is profoundly sad, because children are losing not a language, but the encrypted codes by which they must live their lives. As I have said earlier, our history, beliefs, values and wisdom are strictly tied to the language.

Countrymen, we have to make up our mind on who we are as a people or perhaps ours is a sad case of everything being lost in the fire.

Sampa Kabwela is an artist & publisher. You can reach her on [email protected]