Confession. I went to visit the local Mganga.
I have always wondered about these dudes (and dudettes) who have been rumored to have such extreme powers, that even some of the high and mighty in our societies sometimes nyapa nyapa like rats in the night to visit them. Not to mention those whispers of major football games only being played at such a day and time that the Consultant Mganga deems best. I mean, with all those posters you see put up everywhere in Nairobi: Mganga kutoka Tanga! Anatibu Mapenzi, Kuita waliopotea, Madaraka Kazini, Kutokatiwa stima na kadhalika, won’t you have jumped into the wagon to visit one as an ‘educational’ excursion?
So sometime back, I joined a group of friends for such an excursion. We took a long winding road from the Butiama Cultural and Tourism Centre, dusty and well beaten. It was quite uneven and roughened. While both sides of the road offered a beautiful scenery of some shade of green, and homesteads dotted all over the horizon, it was not so easy on the vehicles we were using. Of course, you don’t expect the mganga to be easily accessible, do you?
After about 20 minutes’ drive, the driver parks by the roadside. When Mwalimu Tom, who has been here before (with last year’s group of students) points out the homestead, I scan around. No, I don’t believe in witchcraft but I could not help looking around just to put myself at ease that we were actually in normal surroundings. Just in case someone shows up in a broomstick you know. The compound itself has 6 houses, four grass thatched huts firmly rooted in each of the corners and two iron roofed houses on both sides, facing each other. Zawadi, the gracious leader of our entourage leads the way through a skinny path flanked on both sides by well-tended mihogo farms into the mganga’s homestead.
As we approach, I can see some kind of thatched shed propped up on branches. Its walls are not mudded. It is right in the middle of the compound. Just next to it, an old lady sits, looking at the approaching group with curious eyes. There are three women with small babies sitting next to her, and a number of children of various ages running around. With our approach, all activity stops and all eyes are on us. Mikekas are brought and laid out for us to sit. Mwalimu Janet insists that we have to remove our shoes before we do. Seeing a few hesitant looks, Zawadi says that she will explain later why the shoes have to be off.
A middle aged lady comes from the house and Zawadi walks over to her. Standing outside one of the huts in the corner, they can be seen engaged in an animated conversation. Mwalimu Tom explains that the woman was actually the mganga and they were negotiating a deal. Ha! I had assumed it was the old lady! Don’t stone me.
The old lady was in the meantime keeping us entertained. Speaking in Kizanaki, the local language, she asks why we had not even greeted her yet she is our senior. One of the youngsters sitting near him, a young man of about 16, translates this to Kiswahili. Mwalimu Janet responds that we had said hi and maybe she had not heard us. The lady insists that we do it again. We all chorus, Shikamoo! She laughs heartily, long and loud before responding, Marahabaa!
Meanwhile, it seems like a deal has been struck. Zawadi comes back beaming and informs us that all is set. The mganga’s work station is inside the hut at the farthest corner. Later, when I manage to take a peek inside, it is dark and stuffy with bottles and jars full of dawa set strategically at one corner. I can imagine how scary it would look in the night or if the consultation required that the door be closed. However, since we are quite a number, it is decided that the divination will be done outside.
The young man goes inside the hat and appears with 5 spears, rusty and well used. We all turn and look at him wondering what he has in mind. He walks slowly behind us, looking at us keenly. Our eyes follow.
Tu! Tu! Tu!
He sticks the spears in the ground behind us. In a line formation. One after the other.
From the other side, the Mganga, appears, dressed in her regalia. Over her dress, she has tied a sheep’s skin, and wears a turban of cowrie shells will strands of beads falling around her face. Her neck and shoulders are covered with rows of bead necklaces. Is that a prayer necklace I spot among them? I am not sure. In her hands, she holds four medium sized gourds, tied in pairs by a barely visible string. She hands one pair of gourds to the young man who seats right next to her. Behind her, one of the women sits with her child on her back. The other two women sit on the other side of the shed. The chicken which have until now been walking around clucking nonchalantly seems to have gone to roost as she starts shaking the gourds and chanting.
Cha! Cha! Cha!
Quietly at first then the sounds ascending steadily.
Cha! Cha! Chachacha!
Truth is, this is getting a tad spooky for me. I glance at my phone to check the time. Quarter to six. I find myself hoping that this gets done with before sunset. I do not want to be here after dark. I feel like I am in the middle of a Nollywood movie that has those children who look at you and then, zap! You turn into a chicken!
As we watch the drama unfold, another middle aged woman walks in, dragging a child along. I see Tom smile, and I know that he has a story to tell.
Aisee, the prop has arrived, he chuckles.
The chanting continues. The tune has now changed. The woman with a child sitting behind mganga has also joined in now. The sounds of the gourds shaking can actually get in your head, and I find myself listening to Tom’s chatter.
Then. Silence. We sit, waiting.
Then the mganga says something to Zawadi in Kizanaki and apparently it is time for questions. It was over? I had been waiting. What for? I am not sure. I think I had expected some more drama or something. Oh well, an artist can hope, right?
The mganga, through Zawadi, invites us to try and play the gourds. The questions come flying. Are there no rules about not touching the diviner’s tools of trade? Apparently, no. What is the significance of the spears behind us? It reminds the mizimwis that they are expected to be on call, and each spear represents a different spirit. Does she allow her wateja to use western medicine? No. does she herself go to hospital when she gets sick? Sometimes. How did she become a mganga? Her bibi (grandmother) inherited the gift to her through a vision. Is there a hierarchy among the wagangas? No, mganga’s reputation depends on their skills.
I can see Zawadi and Tom laughing silently through all this. Later, I came to learn that we had been given ‘half a show’ because the ‘consultation fee’ had not been increased from last year’s visit. Apparently, last year the ‘prop’ lady had burst into ‘epileptic fits’ rolling all over the ground when the spirits manifested ‘alipandwa na mizimwi’. And the answers to the questions were very different this year. As per the last one, she never ever went to hospital or took modern medicine. And she was the mightiest of all mgangas in the region.
Aisee, ukienda kwa mganga, utapata majanga!