|The Great Ceremonial Hut|
As evening approached at Shakaland, guests gathered for sundowners at the U Kamba bar. The low thatched shelter was open down one side and furnished with tall stools around tables made of upended logs. Lanterns swinging from the roof provided a dim romantic light, and a gently swishing ceiling fan cooled the night air.
Whilst James drank Lion beer with two conservationists, I chose a quiet corner to write my journal and watched black and white chickens with long yellow legs twitter and cheep as they stepped daintily between the logs, pecking at the dirt floor in search of stray peanuts. Their soft mutterings turned into squawks of alarm when the resident Staffordshire bull terrier playfully darted in their direction.
After dinner, at 8.30 sharp, the sound of drums and the thud of feet on compacted earth heralded the approach of dancers. As they moved in single file between the guests a deep mysterious chant filled the enclosure. Although not many understood the leader’s Zulu speech inviting us to an evening of dance, it was obvious that we were to follow, and we did.
One by one we entered the Great Ceremonial Hut through a metre high opening and settled ourselves on raised seating around thatched walls. The dark interior was hazy and the smell of wood smoke burned my nostrils.
The drummers were already in place, one on each side of the hut. Animal skins were pegged out against the curved interior walls, whilst in its center a fire burned, filling the air with a strong herbal aroma.
As we waited for the dancing to begin a young Zulu woman passed in front of us carrying a pot filled with smouldering wild heather. With a graceful sweep of her hand she encouraged us to brush the herbal smoke towards our faces whilst breathing deeply. “It will frighten away evil spirits”, Dube assured us.
Suddenly, with a thunderous crash of drums, the male dancers leaping, gyrating, whirling, entered the hut. Their voices filled the smoky interior with a Zulu chant that sent a tingle up and down my spine. These were the sights and sounds of a distant past, primitive as the African jungle itself.
For the next hour we were treated to an amazing spectacle. The drums thundered until I thought my ears world burst, then whispered as the drummers brushed their hands across tightly stretched skin surfaces.
Beside the entrance, a man crouched on the floor playing a primitive bow-like instrument. Its music, a weird drone produced with the aid of a stick and his lips, accompanied the drums throughout.
The chief, Baba Ngemo, wore a circlet of leopard skin around his head. Expressionless, he sat facing us in dignified silence.
Clad in no more than aprons of wild cat tails in the front, fastened to skirts made from unborn nguni calfskins at the back, fluffed up cow tails around arms and knees, and for the sake of modesty, black underpants that could be seen between the swinging cat tails, the men danced until their bodies gleamed. As they leapt into the air, ribald comments rocketed back and forth between them.
Each dance had its own name; among them the Bull dance and the Pondo dance. During the latter a thunderous roar of “Haw dammit” every minute or so conveyed the gist of the dancer’s feeling. With each explosive “Haw Dammit”, the audience roared with laughter and the dancing girls screamed their approval. Not tapering to a quiet finale as some performances do, this one ended with a mighty shout, a leap into the air and it was over.
Then it was the turn of the girls. Without any translation needed it was obvious that they intended to outdo the men. Ranging in ages from 10 years to 20, scantily dressed in only beaded skin aprons, the girls leapt to their feet and with no preliminaries launched into the most energetic foot stomping dance I have ever seen. They rocked, stamped, screamed, flung their legs so high that their knees touched their foreheads. Everyone, audience included, shouted and clapped to the roar of the drums. The whole hut rocked with sound.
During cultural experiences in countries around the world, I have seen the traditional dances of the North American Indian, Spanish flamenco and the energetic red-booted Ukrainian folk dances. I have seen English Morris dancers waving handkerchiefs and crashing sticks together and Scottish dancers stepping daintily between sharp swords, but never before have I seen such dancing as we saw that night in a smoky hut in Africa. It was a raw, awe-inspiring display of youthful vitality. It was magnificent.
Just after dawn the following morning while photographing a herd of goats wandering between the huts, I met one of the dancers and asked him whether he had suffered any after-effects following such energetic exercise the night before. He laughed heartily, “You are thinking we are feeling some pains on the bums. No way”….It was my turn to laugh.
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted on Wednesday, 21st September, 2011