A Spirit-honouring Dance and Festivity
There was a big drum out on the compound – it was often so. With the eluma dance in prospect, a tiny boy came at it with a couple of sticks and rattled the mountainside. A matter of seconds; then silence. Now the big boys came at it, and two or three stayed at it sustainedly. When the men displaced them, the elaborate oratory of the drum began in earnest. Three eluma flute-players were out there. The compound was crowding with children. Some of the older ones were evicting the brown sheep. Men were approaching from other ridges, in groups; others, already assembled, held back at the compound edge. Just beside me, someone was stretching out a sky-blue kid goatskin to dry in the sun, making a popping sound as the pegs that were to clamp it to the hard earth pierced the hide: it was to be a child’s cloak. Its early death (Isaya explained) was the consequence of being taken down to the market, finding no buyer, and on its ‘growing tired’ climbing the mountainside, the gods took it.
Giant earthen jars of banana beer were set there, beside the drums – two or three of them now – on their trestles. Here were assembled precisely eleven eluma (reed orchestra) players, each enclosing in the right hand a tiny single-noted erirenga, a reed gloved with plaited grass stained alternately dark, chequering it, and bearded with a tuft of colobus fur. Each erirenga was pitched to a different note, so that between them they climbed a chromatic scale, over-topping the octave by a tone or two. The flautists revolved in a shuffling circle, blowing antiphonally, sounding forth like a concertina played by an idiot, obsessively jerking open and squeezing the instrument as the keyboard hand blindly shifted across the stops, drunk from his own inspiration. The reeds, presages of eternity cut from the Congo’s rainforest, were provided by Bambuti pygmies. I remembered then the sound on the record playing in the lane in Fort Portal, and perceived at once the pygmy influence reaching into these high cols, by blood and secrecy, by the low road. As the circling pipers crossed before the drummers, they concertedly bent towards them in obeisance. Isaya explained, ‘They are receiving life.’ And so too the circling dancers. One who had been with us for days, with a humorously elongated upper lip, gyrated out from the throng to posture before me with exaggerated turns, calling out ‘Musabuli!’, then returned to his fellows, each with hands held forward, arms half bent, in utter concentration and urgency in their staccato stamping, and jerking twists of the loins in bark cloth, slaves of the drumbeat, the rattle-rhythm, the erirenga breath-rhythm. Women in their goatskins and ankle rattles joined the dance, in their own circling and individual rotating, yet exchanging no glances with the men. The sexual dissipation was nil, for was not the seed half-sacred? That which was reproductive was in bond between dancers and ancestors for the fleet collision in recumbent dark of the male and female resting perpetually in the tribe.
Wait, now. ‘They are receiving life,’ said Isaya. What did he mean by ‘life’? He was putting into English the Lukonzo omilimu, a term which has all the torque of the Saviour’s promise to bring his followers ‘life’ more abundantly – that is, inwardly and eternally. Hence such grave intensity: this was not dance but prayer. It was the conjuring of that force, ntu, inherent in the species man, which by ritual and invocation bind the living and the dead, reconciling them (when so required), straddling ancestry and progeny, balming and embalming present life with contentment and enduring wisdom. Hence the attribute of the elder, that honour accruable among the Bakonzo – as among other Bantu people – by the old. The elder is closer to the dead and by virtue of his acknowledged age a better conduit of this essential ‘life’, inner no less than outer. Thisomilimu is the source of his persuasiveness: persuasiveness both ways – on behalf of the living to the ancestors, and on behalf of the ancestors to the living. Let us enhance omilimu by judicious sacrifice. Besides the kid, we killed a sheep (at least one), and ate most of it, vicariously for ancestors, putting out a portion in small shrines on steep, hidden places for the actual palate of ancestors, where only they would find it. This eluma mabina continued virtually without pause for two days and nights.
IP and © Tom Stacey 2003