Staying in Chawama, a compound outside Zambia’s capital Lusaka, I spent many an evening chatting to the local women as they sat outside and cooked on their charcoal braziers. It intrigued me how a lot of the gossip would come back to one topic: the importance of ‘chinamwali’, the traditional initiation training most Zambian women go through before they get married.
From the way things sounded, this is the key to a successful marriage, but during our chats the women never quite revealed what is actually taught during these mysterious ceremonies. Of course I grew more and more curious, and when I finally got the opportunity to attend one, I did not have to think twice.
After paying the entrance fee of 2,000 Zambian kwacha, less than half a dollar, I walked into the small, dark living room. It had just one window and the furniture had been shifted to the side. It was cramped with women of different ages, from old senior teachers to recently married matrons, and of course a handful of fellow students.
In the corner two ladies were seated, holding large drums. The door was closed behind me, and while I was still trying to gauge the atmosphere, the ladies started undressing, some just pulling up their shirts to reveal their bellies, while others remained with only their underwear and a ‘chitenge’ cloth wrapped around their waist.
Without any further introduction, the drums started beating and the women burst out in song. The drum beats were so intense and loud that I could physically feel them, as the ladies all started shaking to the rhythm in sync, instructing us to copy them.
Most of the dance moves were clearly sexual movements. Every few minutes the song and the beat changed, introducing a new move. I could not understand the song lyrics, all in chiNyanja, so I was left to guess how some of the motions would actually come in handy in practice. Most moves were imitating sexual positions, while others were dances to arouse your husband or exercises to become more flexible.
As I watched the more experienced ladies dance, tilting their waists independently of the rest of their bodies, I really did not think my body was capable of doing such. But as I struggled to imitate, the old ladies would come to stand behind me, holding my thighs to make sure only my waist would be free to move.
‘No, no, you’re doing a Shakira,’ they said when I would still be shaking too many other parts. When I finally managed to get it right, they clapped and cheered with excitement.
Bridget Banda, who went through this training before she got married three years ago, looks back on it as a very positive experience. ‘I have grown because of it. I see more maturity in myself. Now, when I see women who did not go through it, I think I am much better off.’
She feels most Zambian men want a woman who is initiated. ‘Did you not go through training?’ is a commonly heard remark from men scolding their wife. In some cases disappointed husbands even end up sending their wives back to be taught more, one of the worst possible embarrassments for the family.
‘Most men know what to expect of a woman before they get married,’ Banda explains. ‘So when their wife does not live up to that, they end up having affairs.’
That is one of the main risks of not going through initiation, says Florence Mutambo, one of the experienced ‘banacimbusa’ who are teaching me. ‘If you do not know how to please you husband in bed, he might just end up going to a prostitute,’ she puts it plainly. ‘Those people are professionals at these things, so he will be much better off there.’
The first minutes of this quite explicit training were pretty awkward. Some of my fellow students and teachers would really get into it, almost as if they were actually in the act. But when I looked around, everybody else seemed quite comfortable. Shy and reserved as Zambian ladies may be about these issues in public, inside this room the atmosphere was amazingly free and open.
‘I am going to try this with my husband tonight,’ one lady said. ‘My husband never likes it when I do this,’ complained another, after which one of the old ladies would give some more tips and tricks on how to do it better.
The next day I learned even more moves and skills, like how to shave my husband ‘down there’.
After making sure the door was shut, there was nobody peeking through the window, and stressing ‘this is only for the bedroom, this is only for your husband,’ one of the matrons started giving a detailed demonstration of how all the moves we had learned are used in context. Holding her imaginary husband in every imaginable position, she went on for more than fifteen minutes, while the other women clapped and threw money at her in appreciation.
The way lovemaking was turned into a series of dance moves made it more abstract and fascinating to watch. It was nothing like a porn movie, but more like being in a theatre and watching a fine art performance. I could only admire these women, who have almost perfected this skill.
Before I came here, I would not have believed it was possible for women of different generations to freely share such intimate knowledge on this level. It really functions as a social and educational platform, and the way we bonded made it into a great experience. Looking back, even though my leg muscles tell a different story, I would never want to have missed this.