The attempted rape of a minor during a traditional ceremony has raised questions about perpetrators using these ancient rituals to justify and get away with sexual abuse.

The family of a 14-year-old girl are calling for criminal charges to be laid against a man who participated in the “kuthila nsembe” traditional ceremony of the Nsenga people in Chieftainess Mwanjabanthu’s chiefdom in Petauke district in eastern Zambia.

The police commanding officer Davis Simwanza, told MakanDay that no report has been filed against the man in question. He also said there haven’t been such cases reported to the police.

Chieftainess Mwanjabanthu has condemned the incident and apologised to the family of the teenager who was part of the “nsongwe” dancers. This is a group of scantily clad girls who are all under the age of 15 and who perform during the “kuthila nsembe” traditional annual ceremony which is celebrated to thank the ancestors for the good harvest.  

During the ceremony, a pre-selected Nsenga man usually chooses one of the young maiden dancers, locally known as ‘ndola’. The man carries the young girl away from the main arena to a secluded place where she puts on clothes that cover her whole body.

But on Saturday 17 September 2022, these events took a nasty turn when the ndola, was carried away by a visiting Ngoni locally referred to as “fisi” (hyena man).

This “hyena man” was part of the ‘ingoma’ dancers who escorted the two Ngoni Chiefs - Kapatamoyo and Msahawa to the ceremony. Ingoma is a very famous dance among the Ngoni people where men sing and stamp their feet, while wielding their shields, spears and clubs by symbolising a war scene. It was originally a war dance performed after a successful battle.

The ingomas are elaborately decorated. Their costume includes a headgear made of feathers, ornaments worn on the limbs, a network of beads wrapped across the chest and stomach, and around the neck hang various types of animal skin. 

The “hyena man” grabbed the 14-year-old from the hands of the selected man to perform the task. The girl was part of a group of young maiden dancers but, instead of taking her to a place where she could put clothing on, he took her to a nearby bedroom where he tried to rape her. There was a time in history where the man who chose the young ndola would carry her away and be the first one to have sex with her. This, however, is no longer supposed to be the practice.  

The job the hyena men perform is a tradition handed down to them from their ancestors. A custom they too pass down to their children. Like a hyena, these men are hunters of girls who have come of age.

The 14-year-old teenager describes her traumatic experience at the recent September ceremony.

She told MakanDay that what shocked her the most was that, in the house where she was taken, there were some elderly women. The women were also attending the ceremony, but they chose not to stop the attempted rape as it was in line with very old traditions.

“He started touching my breasts, undressed me and forced me to lie down,” she explained. “He also undressed and wanted to lie on top of me.”

She added: “I cried for help and begged the women who were in the sitting room to come and rescue me, but they told me to stop crying and that I should just comply with the man because that is tradition.”

The girl, who looked traumatised, said she was only rescued by her grandmother who heard her crying for help.

“My grandmother quickly entered the bedroom where I was and confronted the man who was almost raping me. He pinned me to the floor with his hands and I was powerless,” she added.

The grandmother to the girl said after the ‘fisi man’ was prevented from raping the girl, he started demanding money from the girl’s parents before he would release her.

“He blocked me from entering the bedroom and told me to give him K50 for him to release the girl,” said the victim’s grandmother who also describes how she was helped with K20 (US$1.25) by one of the women in the house for man to release the girl.

The girl’s mother told MakanDay that her daughter has not recovered from what happened to her. She has demanded for the man to be arrested for indecent assault of a minor. Traditional leadership blocked the woman from reporting what happened to the police.

“My daughter is very young, she has not yet started flirting with men, I know that man and I want him arrested for sexually abusing my daughter,” she said.

“There is no such tradition here and where did he get authority to carry my daughter from the arena to go and abuse her?” Women give consent of their children to take part in the ceremony.

Chieftainess Mwanjabanthu says: “There is no such a thing during the ceremony, for a virgin girl who dances, showing her breasts to be subjected to sex with a man who carries her from the arena after the dance. Those who are doing that are portraying a very bad picture of our ceremony and it is shameful to hear ofthis development.”

Some of the people who witnessed the act have been left in shock. Joseph Mwanza, who was at the ceremony, called for the abolition of traditional practices that expose children to sexual harassment.

“Traditional leaders should stop using under-age children as dancers at the ceremony because such practices expose young girls to sexual harassment,” he said.

Eastern Province council of chiefs chairperson, Chief Mnukwa told MakanDay that “any behaviour bordering on indecent assault on our girls and women cannot and should not be tolerated whether in the name of traditions or not”.

Chief Mnukwa is one of the Ngoni chiefs, under Paramount Chief Mpezeni and was one of the chiefs who attended the ceremony. He said he did not witness the incident.

“As traditional leaders, (we) attach a lot of value to the dignity of our women, and not long time ago, Inkosi ya Makhosi - Mpezeni banned the exposure of breasts by our women when dancing the ingoma dance whether at the ceremony or at any other place,” he added.

In some remote regions of the country, it used to be traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a man after their first menstruation. Such ceremonies that opened girls to sexual abuse have been stopped.