I have always loved stories. During my childhood days, there were two kinds of stories that thrilled me stories about ghosts and those about witchcraft.
Ghost stories scared me because of my vivid imagination which tended to make unreal things seem very real. Stories about witchcraft did not scare me at all. Rather, they fascinated me.
Witchcraft can be divided into two broad categories – witchcraft for benevolent purposes and witchcraft for malevolent purposes.
The former includes herbs and medicines for self-protection, promotion at work, amassing wealth and the healing of seemingly incurable diseases. The latter includes herbs and medicines for killing punishing ones’ perceived enemies.
The stories I liked to listen to were those concerning witchcraft for benevolent purposes.
One of the most famous stories of witchcraft in Zambia
is that of the traditional snake, referred to in the vernacular (Bemba) language as ‘ilomba’. This special snake is said to bear a face that resembles the owner. It's purpose is to make the owner wealthy by magically collecting money, food and other necessities from other people on behalf of the owner. The snake is said to be invisible for most of the time but can be made visible by a qualified witch finder.
In certain cases, such as when the owner fails to feed it properly, the snake has been reported to appear publicly, apparently as a sign of protest. Although there are many people who claim to have seen the snake, I have never had the privilege of seeing one.
The story regarding the creation of this snake is an interesting one. The snake is said to be a by-product of a prescription for certain ailments that cannot be cured by western medicine.
The patient is usually given some medicine in the form of herbs which he or she is asked to add to some water in a dish. The patient is instructed to use the water to wash his or her face. He or she is told to put the dish with the used water in a secret place until something appears in the water.
After a few days, a small worm begins to form in the water. The patient is then told to feed the worm with blood from a chicken. At this stage, the patient is told that he is spiritually linked to the worm and cannot disconnect himself or herself form it, except by death.
The benefit of keeping the snake is that the subject’s health and life are immediately transformed to a higher state. He or she attains perfect health and begins to experience a remarkable level of prosperity
The medicine man then gives instructions about the safe custody and special feeding of the creature. The special feeding instructions involve the periodic sacrifice of a close member of the subject’s family. All the subject is required to do is to mention the name of the victim at the appropriate time. The price
of non-compliance is death.
Events happening to the snake have simultaneously affected the owner. The late P K Chishala, one of Zambia’s most popular musicians, has sung a song about this snake. In the particular song, beating the snake caused the owner to suffer the pain of the blows.
The story of ‘Years’ is another intriguing one. This involves the selling of one’s ‘years’ – a portion of the number of years remaining out of the subject’s allotted life-span – in exchange for extraordinary riches.
The subject volunteers the number of years he would like to have subtracted from his life as an offering to the spirit world. He or she is then instructed to enter a private chamber with a machete in his or her hand, and instructed to kill the very first thing that he comes across by striking it with the machete. The subject is warned that the consequence of failing to slaughter the object is either insanity or death from some unnatural illness.
When the subject enters the inner chamber what he or she sees is a representation of one of the following: his mother, his father, his wife, or one of his children. When the subject strikes the object before him, the real life death of the person represented by the object occurs instantly.
Persons have been known to suddenly become exceedingly wealthy after the death of a close member of their family. Such wealth cannot be explained by any logical cause. Someone living in a shanty compound may suddenly buy a house in a rich residential area. He or she may also come into possession of extremely profitable businesses.
When the allotted years are over, the candidate dies suddenly from unexplained causes. It is interesting to note that the craving for riches is so strong among some people that they are prepared to go through a ritual that they clearly know will not end well.
There is a story which has continued to be told up to the present time – that of human beings turning into crocodiles in order to attack and feed on other human beings. Although no proof has been produced to authenticate this belief, many ordinary Zambians believe that some crocodiles are humans turned into predators.
One of my late aunties used to tell a story about a man named Chali, who lived in a village in Samfya district in Luapula Province. Chali would often turn into a crocodile and get into the waters of Lake Bangweulu to catch women and children who came to the lake to either swim or bathe.
In order to turn himself into a crocodile, Chali would remove all his clothes and rub two special sticks against each other. He would leave the two sticks and his clothes under a shrub on the shore of the lake. To turn back into a human, the crocodile would have to bite on one of the two sticks.
My aunt recounted that one day a witch finder was called in to catch the crocodile which was said to be behind the disappearance of a number Samfya residents. Through a dream, the witch finder was shown who the man behind the crocodile was.
The witch finder patiently waited until the day that Chali went to the river to hunt for his human meal. As soon as Chali had turned into a crocodile and entered the waters of the lake, the witch finder went where the clothes were and threw some powder onto the sticks. When the crocodile returned to where the clothes were hidden and bit one of the sticks, nothing happened.
The witch finder went back to the village and informed Musonda, Chali’s brother, that his brother was the crocodile responsible for the deaths. Musonda refused to accept the witch finder’s verdict.
Later in the evening, the villagers who had gathered at Chali’s house were astonished to see a crocodile crawl towards the house. It stopped right in front of Musonda and seemed to plead for his intervention.
The witch finder asked Musonda whether he should turn Chali back into his human form.
Musonda solemnly replied, “That thing is not my brother. I have nothing to do with it.”
The crocodile seemed to sense the import of Musonda’s words. It slowly turned around and headed back to the lake. That was the last that anyone saw or heard of Chali.
(TO BE CONTINUED)