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Chapter 1.

Big Dances

We had many visitors to the farm. In Pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity of life not to the travellers alone but to the settlers. A visitor is a friend, he brings news, good or bad, which is bread to the hungry minds in lonely places. A real friend who comes to the house is a heavenly messenger, who brings the panis angelorum.

When Denys Finch-Hatton came back after one of his long expeditions, he was starved for talk, and found me on the farm starved for talk, so that we sat over the dinner-table into the small hours of the morning, talking of all the things we could think of, and mastering them all, and laughing at them. White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone. We then kept up the theory that the wild Masai tribe, in their manyatta under the hills, would see the house all afire, like a star in the night, as the peasants of Umbria saw the house wherein Saint Francis and Saint Clare were entertaining one another upon theology.

The greatest social functions of the farm were the Ngomas,the big Native dances. At these occasions we entertained up to fifteen hundred or two thousand guests. The entertainment offered by the house was however in itself modest. We would give the old bald mothers of the dancing Morani and the Nditos,the maidens,snuff, and the children,at those dances to which children were brought,sugar, distributed by Kamante in wooden spoons, and I sometimes asked the D.C.s permission for my Squatters to make tembu, a deadly drink, fabricated from sugar cane. But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on. This was to be found near my house, the big lawn was plain under the trees, and the square, in the forest between my boys huts, had been laid out level. For this reason the farm was highly thought of by the young people of the country, and the invitations to my balls much valued.

The Ngomas were held sometimes in the day and sometimes at night, In the day-time the Ngomas needed more room, since they brought with them as many onlookers as dancers; they therefore took place on the lawn. At most Ngomas the dancers stand in a large circle, or in a number of smaller circles, and there keep jumping up and down, the head thrown back, or stamping the ground to a rhythm, throwing themselves forward on one foot, and back on to the other, or again slowly and solemnly walking round sideways with their faces to the centre of the ring, the prominent dancers separating themselves from the ring, to perform, jump, and run in the middle of it. The day-time Ngomas left their mark stamped upon the lawn in larger and smaller dry brown rings, as if the grass had here been burnt away by fire, and these magic rings would only slowly disappear.

The big day-time Ngomas had the character more of a fair than of a ball. Crowds of onlookers followed the dancers and grouped themselves under the trees. When the rumour of the Ngoma had spread widely enough we would even see here the flighty ladies of Nairobi,the Malaya, a pretty word in Swaheli,arriving in style, in Ali Khans mule-traps, all wrapped in lengths of gay large-patterned calico, and looking, when seated, like large flowers on the grass. The honest young girls on the farm in their traditional oiled and greased leather skirts and mantles, took up their position close to them, and frankly discussed their clothes and manners, but the beauties of the town, cross-legged, remained as quiet as glass-eyed dolls of dark wood, and smoked their little cigars. Swarms of children, enraptured by the dances, and keen to learn and imitate, stormed from one ring to another, or were carried away to form little dancing-rings of their own on the outskirts of the lawn, and there jumped up and down.

The Kikuyu, when going to a Ngoma, rub themselves all over with a particular kind of pale red chalk, which is much in demand and is bought and sold; it gives them a strangely blond look. The colour is neither of the animal nor the vegetable world, in it the young people themselves look fossilized, like statues cut in rock. The girls in their demure, bead-embroidered, tanned leather garments cover these, as well as themselves, with the earth, and look all one with them,clothed statues in which the folds and draperies are daintily carried out by a skilled artist. The young men are naked for an Ngoma, but on such occasions make much out of their coiffures, clapping the chalk on to their manes and pigtails, and carrying their limestone heads high. During my last years in Africa, the Government forbade the people to put chalk on the head. In both sexes the rig-out is of the greatest effect: diamonds and high decorations will not impart to their bearers a more decided gala appearance. Whenever at a distance you catch sight, in the landscape, of a group of red-chalked Kikuyu on the march, you feel the atmosphere vibrating with festivity.

An open-air dance in the day suffers from lack of limitation. The stage is far too big for it,where does it begin and where end? The small figures of the individual dancers may be all dyed, with the entire back-part of an ostrich floating behind their heads, and the bold cavalier-like cockspurs made of Colobus-monkey skin at the heels, they cannot help looking spread and scattered under the tall trees. The show,including larger and smaller rings of dancers, spread-out groups of onlookers, and children running to and fro,flings your eyes from one corner of it to the other. The whole scene has some likeness to those old pictures of a battle, observed from an eminence, in which you will see the cavalry advancing at one side, while the artillery takes up its position at the other, and isolated figures of ordnance officers gallop diagonally across the field of view.

The day-time Ngomas were likewise very noisy affairs. The dancing music from flutes and drums was often drowned in the clamour from the audience, the dancing girls themselves gave out a strange, long-drawn and shrill shriek when, in one of the figures executed by male dancers, a Moran made a jump, or swung his spear over his head, in an exceptionally fine manner. An unbroken stream of congenial conversation was kept up amongst the old people on the grass. It was pleasant here to watch a couple of ancient Kikuyu women carousing, with a calabash between them, absorbed in gay talk, presumably of the days when they had themselves cut a figure in the dancing ring, their faces more and more radiant with happiness as, in the course of the afternoon, the sun sank lower, and the supply of tembu in the calabash as well. At times, when the group was joined by a couple of old husbands, one of the women would be so carried away by the memories of her young days that she stumbled to her feet and, flapping her arms, took a running step or two in the true Ndito manner. She was ignored by the crowd, but enthusiastically applauded by her little circle of contemporaries.

But the Ngomas of the night were set about in earnest.

They were held in the autumn only, after the maize-harvesting, and below the full moon. I do not think that they had any religious significance to them, but they may have had so once; the manner of the performers and onlookers suggested a mysterious and sacred moment. These dancers may have been a thousand years old. Some of them,which was highly approved of by the mothers and grandmothers of the dancers,were held by the white settlers to be immoral, they felt that they must have them prohibited by law. One time, when I came back from a holiday in Europe, I found that twenty-five of my young warriors had, in the height of the coffee-picking season, been sent to jail by my Manager for having danced a forbidden dance at a night Ngoma on the farm. My Manager informed me that his wife could not possibly put up with the dance. I upbraided the elders of the Squatters for having held their Ngoma near my Managers house, but they gravely explained to me that they had been dancing at Kathegus manyatta, four or five miles away from it. I then had to go to Nairobi to talk matters over with our D.C., who let the whole lot of dancers come back to the farm to pick coffee.

The night dances were fine spectacles. Here you were not in doubt as to the theatre of the show, it was formed by the fires and extended as far out as the light spread, indeed fire was the central principle of the Ngoma. It was not really needed for the dancing, for the moonlight of the African Highlands is marvellously clear and white; it was brought to create an effect. The fire made of the dancing place a stage of the first order, it collected all the colours and movements within it into a unity.

Natives will rarely overdo an effect. They had no great flaming bonfires lighted. Firewood was carried to the dancing-place during the day before the dance by the Squatter women of the farm, who will have looked upon themselves as hostesses to the feast, and was here piled up in the centre of the dancing-ring. The old women who honoured the ball with their presence at night took their seats round this central pile, and from there a row of small fires, like a circle of stars, was fed through the hours of the night. The dancers again were dancing and running outside the fires, with the forest-night as a background. The place had to be fairly big or the heat and smoke would get into the eyes of the old onlookers, but it was all the same an enclosed place in the world, as if it had been a large house for the joint use of all within it.

Natives have no sense or taste for contrasts, the umbilical cord of Nature has, with them, not been quite cut through. They held their Ngomas only during the time of the full moon. When the moon did her best they did theirs. With the landscape bathing and swimming in gentle powerful light from the sky, to the great illumination over Africa they added their little red-hot glow.

The guests arrived in small parties, sometimes three at a time, sometimes a dozen or fifteen,friends who came together by appointment, or who had joined company on the road. Many of these dancers had walked fifteen miles to get to the Ngoma. When travelling many together they brought flutes or drums with them, so that, on the night of the big dance, all the roads and pathways of the country would resound and ring with music, like jingles shaken at the face of the moon. At the entrance to the dancing-ring the wanderers paused and waited for the ring to open to them; sometimes, when they came from very far away, or were sons of the big neighbouring Chiefs, they were received into it by one of the old Squatters or prominent dancers of the farm, or by the monitors of the dance.

The monitors of the Ngoma were young men from the farm like the others, but they were there to keep up the ceremonial of the dance, and made the most of their position. Before the dancing began, they strutted up and down in front of the dancers with knitted brows and a grave face; as the dance grew livelier they ran from one side of the ring to another, to watch that everything was going as it should. They were effectively armed, carrying bundles of sticks tied together, the one end of which they kept burning, by dipping them from time to time into the fire. They kept a sharp eye upon the dancers, and wherever they espied anything of an unseemly nature going on, they were at them at once; with a terrible expression and a furious snarl they hurled their whole bunch of sticks, the burning end foremost, straight at the body of the offender. The victim was seen to be bent double at the stroke, but he never gave a sound. Perhaps a burn of this kind was no dishonourable wound to be carrying away from an Ngoma.

In one of the dances the girls would stand demurely upon the feet of the young men and clasp them round the waist, while the young warriors with an outstretched arm at each side of the girls head, held on to their spear with both hands, from time to time lifting it and striking it down to the ground with all their might. It made a pretty picture, of the young women of the tribe having taken refuge at the bosom of their men against some great danger, and of the men guarding them, even by letting them stand on their feet, protecting them against snakes or any other dangers from the ground. As the dance went on for hours the faces of the dancers took on an expression of angelic ecstasy, as if they were really all ready to die for one another.

They had other dances in which the dancers ran in and out amongst the fires, where one head-dancer made a number of very high jumps and leaps, and there was much swinging of spears; it was, I believe, built upon a lion-hunt.

They had singers at the Ngoma, as well as flutes and drums. Some of these singers were famous all over the country, and were made to come from far away. Their singing was more a rhythmical recitation than a song. They were improvisators, and made up their ballads off-hand, with the quick, attentive chorus of the dancers joining in. It was pleasant to listen, in the night air, to the one gentle voice being raised, and to the regularly repeated, measured call of young voices. But as it went on all night, with the drums falling in for an effect from time to time, it became both deadly monotonous and strangely excruciating to hear, as if you could not bear either to have it going on for one moment longer, or to have it ever stopped.

The most famous singer of my day came from Dagoretti. He had a clear strong voice and was, besides, himself a great dancer. When singing he would walk or run inside the dancing-ring in a long, sliding stride, half-kneeling at every step, he held the one flat hand to the corner of his mouth; it was probably done to concentrate the sound, but it gave effect of a great dangerous secret being confided to the congregation. He looked like the African echo itself. He used to move his audience to happiness or to a warlike mood as he chose, or to real convulsions of laughter. He sang one formidable song, a war song, in which the singer is, I believe, imagined running from village to village calling the nation to war, and describing to them the massacre and the loot. A hundred years ago it would have made the blood of the white immigrants run cold. But generally he was not so terrifying. One night he sang three songs, which I asked Kamante to translate to me. The first of them was a fantasy: the whole party of the dancers were imagined getting hold of a ship and sailing to Volaia. The second song, Kamante explained to me, was all in praise of the old women, the mothers and grandmothers of the singer and the dancers. This song sounded sweet to me, it was long, and must have described in detail the wisdom and kindness of the toothless bald old Kikuyu wives, who listened at the pile of firewood in the centre of the place, and nodded their heads. The third song was short, but drew great shouts of laughter from everybody, the singer had to raise his shrill voice to be heard through it, and laughed himself as he sang. The old women, who had now been put in good humour by being so strongly flattered, beat their thighs, and threw up big gapes, like crocodiles, at it. Kamante was loth to translate it to me, he said it was nonsense, and gave it me only very much shortened. The theme of it was simple: after a recent epidemic of plague, the Government had set a price upon each dead rat handed into the D.C.s,the described how the rats, universally pursued, were taking refuge in the beds of the old and young women of the tribe, and what happened to them there. It must have been amusing in its details, which I did not get; Kamante himself, while translating it to me very much against his wish, at times could not repress a sour smile.

At one of the night Ngomas a dramatic incident took place.

The Ngoma was a farewell feast, given in my honour a short time before I was going to Europe on a visit. We had had a good year, it was held in great style, there may have been fifteen hundred Kikuyu present. The dance had been going on for a few hours; as I came out to have another look at it before going to bed, a chair was placed for me with its back to one of the boys huts, and I was entertained by a couple of the old Squatters.

All at once a great stir ran through the ring of dancers, a deep movement of surprise or fear, a curious sound, as when the wind blows through a bed of rushes. The dance slowed up, slowed up, but it did not stop yet. I asked one of the old men what was the matter. He answered quickly, in a low voice: Masai na-kudja,the Masai are coming.

The news must have been brought by a runner, for it lasted some time before anything more happened, probably the Kikuyu were sending back to say that their guests would be received. It was against the law for the Masai to come to a Kikuyu Ngoma, too much trouble had arisen from this kind of thing in the past. My houseboys came up and stood by my chair; everybody looked towards the entrance of the dancing-ground. When the Masai came in, the dance stopped altogether.

There were twelve young Masai warriors walking in, and when they had taken a few steps they stopped, waited, and looked neither right nor left; they blinked a little towards the fire. They were naked except for their weapons and their magnificent head-dresses. One of them had on the lion-skin head-dress of the Moran at war. A broad stripe of scarlet was painted vertically from the knee to the foot, as if the blood was running down the leg. They stood erect, stiff-legged, their heads thrown back, silent and deadly grave, their attitude was at the same time that of the conqueror and the prisoner. It was felt that they had come to the Ngoma against their own will. The dull beating of the drum had run across the river into the Reserve, had gone on, and gone on, and troubled the hearts of the young warriors there; twelve of them had not had it in them to resist the call.

The Kikuyu were deeply agitated, too, but they behaved well to their guests. The chief dancer of the farm welcomed them into the dancing ring, where in deep silence they took their place, and the dance was begun once more. It was, however, different from what it had been before, the air was loaded now. The drums began to beat in a louder voice, and a more rapid rhythm. Had the Ngoma gone on, we should have seen some striking feats, when Kikuyu and Masai would have taken upon themselves to show one another their vigour and skill as dancers. But it did not come to that: there are things which can not be carried through even with the good will of everybody concerned.

What happened I do not know. All of a sudden the ring swayed, and was broken, some one shrieked aloud, in some seconds the whole place before me was a mass of running, thronging people, there was the sound of blows and of bodies falling to the ground, and over our heads the night air was undulating with spears. We all got up, even the wise old women of the centre, who crawled on to the stacks of firewood to see what was going on.

When the emotion had calmed down, and the storming crowd had dissolved again, I found myself in the centre of the swarm, with a little cleared space round me. Two of the old Squatters came up to me, and reluctantly explained what had happened: the violation of law and order committed by the Masai, and the present state of things: a Masai and three Kikuyu were badly wounded, cut to pieces, their expression was. Would I now, they went on gravely, consent to sew them up again?otherwise everybody was likely to get much trouble from the Selikali,the Government. I asked the old man what the fighters had had cut off. The head, he answered proudly, with the Native instinct to make the most of a catastrophe. At that moment Kamante was seen to advance across the place, carrying a long-threaded darning needle, and my thimble. I still hesitated, and at that moment old Awaru came forward. He had learned tailoring during the seven years that he had been in prison. He must have been looking for an opportunity for practising, and showing off his craft, he volunteered to take charge of the case, and at once the interest concentrated upon him. He did indeed sew up the wounded, they got well under his hands, and he himself in after times made much of the achievement, but Kamante told me in confidence that the heads had not been off.

As the presence of the Masai at the dance had been illegal, we for a long time had to conceal the wounded Masai in the hut reserved for white visitors servants. Here he recovered, and from here in the end he disappeared without a word of thanks to Awaru. It comes hard, I believe, to the heart of a Masai to be wounded,and healed,by Kikuyu.

When towards the end of the night of the Ngoma, I walked out to ask for news of the wounded people, I found, in the grey morning air, the fires still smouldering. A number of young Kikuyu were in action round them, leaping and poking long sticks into the embers, under the direction of a very old Squatter wife, Wainainas mother. They were making a spell to prevent the Masai from having any success in love with the Kikuyu girls.

Chapter 5. A Kikuyu Chief | Out of Africa | Chapter 2. A Visitor from Asia