Photo: Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock

How I Was Conscripted Into a Zambian Version of the Chicken Dance

by Hayden Birch Sep 27, 2012
Hayden Birch worries she’ll have to explain the basket of chickens on her head.

I KNOW THE SECRET to popularity in an African village. As a Peace Corps volunteer in a swampy, northern corner of rural Zambia, I discovered that development organizations have designed a system of conducting workshops — the more, the better — to achieve any objective, from training community health volunteers to dispersing information to village leaders.

Participants in workshops are a select few, and they’re rewarded with free food and a t-shirt, both of which incite a fervent demand on the part of villagers to be chosen to participate. The free t-shirt is later worn on special occasions, such as large community meetings, where a maximum number of people will bear witness to this individual’s workshop attendance, and ideally, be jealous.

Originally, I was not interested in holding workshops. But after seeing the value the community places on them, despite the fact that I wasn’t representing a highly funded international organization, but rather, the sustainability-driven Peace Corps, I caved. My popularity skyrocketed. Community groups began approaching me frequently with project ideas. I was now advancing towards a level just a notch below that of the wealthy American organizations that provided bicycles to their workshop attendees. I was happy with ‘semi-cool,’ as long as I could still maintain some vestige of sustainability.

* * *
On the first day of my largest workshop yet, 70 traditional leaders assembled to discuss how to reduce the stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS in their communities. Due to an unavoidable scheduling conflict, I apologetically told the group I’d be arriving slightly late and set off on a dusty path to my other meeting, hoping to return to the workshop as quickly as possible.

Along the way, I approached a home where wedding preparations were in full swing. Though briefly entertaining the tempting option to creep by and feign obliviousness to my surroundings so I could get back to my obligations in a timely fashion, I knew that in this culture failing to greet the group would be a social faux pas from which it could take months to recover.

I entered the hut, with every intention of a two-minute obligatory cassava pound, perhaps several earnest stirs of the oversized pot of stiff maize porridge, thus ensuring the approval of all guests, and then continuing down the dusty path. But as the most predictable thing in Africa is that the day will never go according to plan, this is not what happened.

It was a distinctly white-girl move, vastly inferior to the complex gyrations surrounding me.

As I passed a cautious toe through the doorway, several women leapt from their crouched, pot-stirring positions and abruptly ushered me into a room where groups of women had gathered, feverishly arranging pots and baskets filled with food that covered nearly the entire floor. This food, cooked by the bride’s family, would be presented to the groom as evidence of the bride’s ability to adequately fulfill her household duties.

Feeling slightly stunned by the chaos around me, I opted to stand in the middle of it all, useless and in the way, and wonder what would come next. My thoughts were interrupted by a lanky woman with puff-sleeves who snatched one of the larger baskets, hastily placed it on my head, and gave me a gentle shove out the front door. While my confusion grew, another woman swiftly tied a decorative cloth around my waist and yelled, “Go!”

I’d been made a member of a large procession. Several dozen women lined up around me and began marching down the dusty path, all with baskets of food on their heads. I spotted two elderly, slightly hunched women sprinting past the group, drums cradled under their arms. They stopped in the middle of the market, and as the procession approached, began drumming a rapid, spirited rhythm. This seemed to be our cue, and the entire mass of women erupted into motion, hips moving at impossible angles, matronly African buns shaking.

I stood motionless, partly because I was enthralled by the scene, and partly because I was gravely concerned about dropping the basket that rested on my head, which I had a sneaking suspicion was filled with cooked chickens, a high-value food reserved for weddings, funerals, and VIP guests. Several shouts directed me to start dancing, and I was jostled into action, attempting a safe hip-swivel. It was a distinctly white-girl move, vastly inferior to the complex gyrations surrounding me, in which joints defiantly disregarded the constraints of anatomy. But I felt it was sure to appease, while still maintaining the security of the basket atop my head.

The drumming stopped, the behinds jiggled to a standstill, and the hunched drum ladies scurried off. The procession realigned itself and marched forward, heading in the direction of the Catholic church…the venue of the workshop I was scheduled to attend. I peered around the rows of women, concerned that we’d stop to dance in front of the workshop, which would blow my “I have a meeting” excuse.

I would become the girl who ditched her own workshop to dance with the wedding party. I didn’t want to appear unreliable or uncommitted. As I grappled with this dilemma, the drummers returned and positioned themselves directly in front of the church, and the procession followed close behind. As the hunched drum ladies began beating out a throbbing, imperative rhythm, the procession once again exploded into motion.

The workshop participants, who until now had appeared to be having a thoughtful discussion and taking meticulous notes in their exercise books, poured out of the church to investigate the source of the racket. And there I was, the workshop organizer with ‘another important meeting to attend,’ shaking my butt with a basket of cooked chicken on my head.

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