Elvis in Africa

Chewa ElvisOne day not long ago, I first encountered what I thought was a bust of Elvis Presley. His image was unsettling, as if his face had been surgically removed a la the movie “Face/Off.” I soon realized that it was a handmade ceremonial mask of “The King” made in the Chewa tradition. I thought it odd that the Chewa people of central and southern Africa would fashion a mask honoring a 1950s American music icon. What I initially found creepy – to be honest – has now become an intriguing fixture in my life. “Elvis” now pops up in mysterious places at odd times as if possessed by a ghost or repositioned by a trickster. One never knows when Elvis will be sitting in front of a podium ready to deliver a speech or at the water fountain waiting for a drink.

No one knows when the mask was made or who made it. It was most likely made by a Chewa artist. Their masks have been an important part of performances of the secretive Nyau society. Information on Nyau dancing indicates that: “Masquerade is a complex art form involving many parts: costumes and masks, music, choreography, lyrics, and the ambient situation (location, weather, time of day, etc.) Masquerade has apparently existed in Africa for millennia, and it is still actively practiced today. Dances and masks have different meanings for different audiences: some are secret, and some public, with layers of meaning for different audiences.’ The Chewa Elvis masquerade of Zambia and Malawi developed after the American singer became well known in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. All Elvis masks include certain elements: a thick, pompadour wig, long lamb-chop sideburns, bright, pale skin, a narrow upturned nose, and thick, slightly parted lips. The dancers, always young males, perform a provocative, gyrating choreography mimicking Elvis Presley’s famous hip movements. The masquerade is an example of how African traditional art forms have evolved over time, with interesting changes in the last century, particularly with the advent of international communications.”

Nyau traditions of the Chewa people may be shrouded in mystery, but one thing is certain: Elvis is alive and well in Africa.

Special thanks to Janet Peterson for contributing information used in this posting.

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part V)

I entered Zimbabwe in early afternoon.  Malawi, where I had been early in the morning, seemed so far away now.  I drove on through unremarkable countryside until Eastern Mashonaland, an area dotted with weathered mountainscapes rising curiously up over the dry flat land.  More people lived here than in Mozambique.  They lived in what appeared to be slightly better conditions than in Mozambique, although many were quite poor.  Unlike Malawi, I saw few bicycles in Zimbabwe, a sign that most locals had little discretionary income to buy such expensive items.  The Zimbabweans, however, had a better transit system than Mozambicans.  Far more trucks operated in this area transporting locals who hailed them using arm flourishes akin to hitchhiking.

I drove on until I reached Mutoko, a large town an hour inside the border.  I stopped at a filling station with my tank nearly empty.  No diesel.  My heart sank.  What would I do if I ran out of fuel?  This was Zimbabwe after all, a place that faced chronic shortages in virtually all commodities, including fuel, until it replaced the hyperinflationary Zimbabwean dollar with the U.S. dollar as is legal currency a few years ago.  I went to another station across the street and fueled up.  Saved, I thought.  God is my buddy.  Although it was a risk driving alone through this part of the world running on faith that I would pass without incident, it isn’t a cliché to say that God was my co-pilot on this trip.  He assured me in so many ways that I had nothing to fear and that He would keep me safe, including the moment when I was driving on the highway and suddenly confronted a semi-truck hurtling headlong towards me in my own lane.  The driver was trying to pass another truck and ran me off the road.  If not for God’s urging me to pull over and my quick response, I might have died, as so many people have on Africa’s highways.  I recalled an incident just a month before in which a missionary serving in Zambia died in Zimbabwe when his bus was hit head on by a truck.  Can I say I’m lucky to be alive?  No, not really.  I know God willed it.  If He had wanted to call me home at that instance, He would have.

I checked my tire pressure in Mutoko.  Very low.  All the tires had lost one quarter pressure, an unsurprising fact given that I had run my tires over 1,500 kilometers of broken, pothole-marked roads and harsh terrain.  While the man at the tyre (tire) shop filled them with air I surveyed the town.  Across the street was a market and bus station filled with loitering people.  On either side of the tyre shop were other auto repair shops with car parts, burned-out chasses, and tires strewn in front.  I saw the remains of an overturned car beside the road.  Mutoko was not a pretty town but definitely a fascinating glimpse into Zimbabwean culture.  I stopped by a small market to buy a cold drink and chose a non-carbonated faux orange drink from the nearly empty refrigerator.  The store owner said it cost 50 cents and asked if I would like to buy some chips to round the purchase up to one dollar.  I agreed even though I was not hungry for a salty snack.  Business was apparently slow, and she needed the money more than I needed food.

I drove on from Mutoko to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, content that I had enough fuel and tire pressure to return to civilization.  The journey ended quietly, and I pulled into town at dusk.  I was concerned about arriving after dark in Harare, a large city I did not know with its fair share of crime.  I also vaguely knew the general direction to my hotel but not the exact location.  Once again, God delivered me right to my destination, and I pulled in at nightfall.  I am thankful my buddy kept me safe.

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part IV)

Tete, Central Mozambique’s largest city with about 150,000 inhabitants, was far different from the neighboring countryside.  A surprisingly modern city in the heart of an underdeveloped region, its architecture had a Portuguese flavor dulled by the years that followed independence.  Situated on the banks of the Tete River, its eastern and western banks were linked by a suspension bridge that had seen better days but was currently undergoing renovation.  The city center reminded me of others I had seen during my travels to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, and Brazil, another former Portuguese colony.   An outpost of centralized-style governance, all roads in the area quite literally led to Tete, and virtually all services, from government administration to filling stations, were located within a short drive of the city center.  There were no other way stations for hundreds of kilometers.  I passed up the opportunity to fuel my car because I had three-quarters of a tank of diesel and did not want to buy the metacais necessary to purchase fuel in Mozambique.  I had less than a quarter of a tank left from a fill-up in southwestern Malawi when I finally passed another service station over 250 kilometers down the road in Mutoko, Zimbabwe.

One highlight of a visit to central Mozambique is geography.  The landscape changes from stunning to tired and worn and back and gain, growing progressively drier as you drive west.  The foliage turns from leafy green to sagebrush and thorny scrub.  Most of the rivers in this area had already dried up despite the fact that the rainy season just ended, leaving the land and its people increasingly thirsty and dependent on stagnant borehole wells.  The mountains near the Malawian border are wild and forbidding.  I reckoned that very few tourists had ever visited this area, most notably due to the lack of tourist infrastructure – roads and hotels – and the fact that the land is still riddled with hidden land mines left over from the civil war that affected Mozambique for several decades before it ended in 1993.  While I am an adventurous sort who would gladly lose myself in a place such as this, the presence of land mines made me hesitant to make this wish a reality.

Not far from the Zimbabwe border I saw three small, colonial style buildings at intervals along the road that looked conspicuously out of place amidst the cinder block rondavels and block houses.  Featuring stucco walls with tiled roofs, they looked as if they had been transplanted in southern Africa from rural Portugal.  I realized that this must have been the ruins of a former estate owned by a colonial Portuguese family that probably grew tobacco, a major crop in the area.  The terrain looked as if it had once been cultivated and shaped in a manner more fit for Europe than rural Africa.  The estate had most likely been abandoned by its owner either after Mozambican independence in 1975 or during the subsequent civil war.  It was now overgrown with wild brush and small, unkempt fields.  Locals had moved into the remaining structures and had lost the battle to keep the estate intact; they now spent their time growing maize in small plots and cutting trees to make charcoal.  The story of this estate and the underlying tragedy of its demise would make for an interesting read.