Drumming and dance

Today I am really wishing that I were one of those super-talented writers who can convey colour, rhythm, movement and passion just through words. Or that I could have taken some video to attach to describe yesterday evening.

I was walking home from a visit to my tailor, and could hear drumming. Extremely fast, staccato, poly-rhythmic drumming (done using sticks rather than with the hands), galloping to a crescendo at the end of each ‘song’ when all the drummers came together for the final “krak kraks”. I’ve heard this type of drumming before, but never tracked down the source as it echoes off the buildings, seemingly coming from one direction and then another depending on where you stand – and always, certainly, from some hidden private courtyard.

But this time I walked right past the source. The gate was slightly open and two women were peering through. I looked too – and it wasn’t more than a minute before a woman inside spotted the white face and so invited me in.

There was a group of four men drumming and a semi-circle of some forty women, dressed as only women from this part of the world can: long, floating layers of chiffon and satin in vibrant red, gold, purple, turquoise… They were seated, but every now and then one or two would stand up and go to the centre to dance. I knew I had been invited so that I could ‘perform’ for the women at some stage but also that it would be worth the embarrassment in order to watch the spectacle.

I’d heard of these women-only get-togethers where the women dance in a very sexy way, but could not have imagined the reality. The dancing is very vigorous, with some jumping and throwing the arms about, but mostly based around exaggerated shaking of the bottom and thrusting of the hips, whilst one hand holds up the fabric of the dress/skirts at the front – in many cases right up to crotch level. It was amazing to watch. There was even one veiled woman there, who kept her scarf covering her hair whilst she lifted her skirts above her knees and shook her stuff.

There was also call and response between the chief drummer and his troupe, clearly the drummed ‘songs’ had stories to them, but unfortunately all in Wolof so as usual I had not a clue about what was going on. Except that the evening was clearly about the women being able to display their sexuality to the full in the safe environment of a group of like-minded women.

I’m sure I looked very unsexy when I was dragged into the centre to dance – and I certainly didn’t lift up the front of my skirt (although I was glad to be wearing a bright yellow and black flowery skirt rather than my usual drab beige trousers)! Whilst up there a woman who’d done plenty of dancing quietly explained to me that she was the griotte and (traditional history and praise singer) and the drummers were her griots. I therefore had to make a financial offering to them – but CFA1,000 ($2) was enough, the same amount that I noticed other dancers were giving.

Eventually I made my quiet escape. I had hoped to find out more about the dance from colleagues, but all I could get is that it is called ‘taneuber’ – and is a version of the much better-known sabar dance that is performed in public by both men and women.

Net-hunting with pygmies

The highlight of my holiday in the Central African Republic was not the wildlife, as I had expected, but a morning spent with the Ba'Aka.  This pygmy tribe are indigenous to the rainforest, still mostly living as hunter-gatherers in a lifestyle that will have hardly changed over thousands of years.  They are believed to be amongst the closest people, genetically, to the original humans.

They really are very small, many with front teeth chiselled to points (which they consider beautiful), and with intricate little tattoos all over their faces.  Thye seem very innocent, almost childlike in their behaviour, which we saw clearly during our morning together.

We accompanied them net-hunting: me, another tourist, a guide, and an interesting American man (Louis Sarno) who has lived with them for the past 27 years.  There were around 15 Ba'Aka going out on the hunt - men and women together as this like most tasks are shared equally - carrying their long, fibre nets, machetes and a couple of spears, and all quite excited as they enjoy the hunt.

We followed them into the forest (as I constantly ducked to avoid branches and vines I could see the evolutionary advantage of their short stature) and they quickly set up the nets, hooking them up to the vegetation so as to form a long, metre-high barrier which curved round almost into a circle.  Then, inside the nets, they began to beat the vegetation with sticks, calling out with traditional cries, to flush out any animals into the nets.

The first attempt was unsuccessful but on the second go they caught two blue duiker (tiny blue-grey coloured antelope), which would be shared out traditionally according to each person's role - who flushed it out, whose net it ran into, who killed it, etc.

On the way out of the forest someone spotted some fruit ripening high up in the canopy, and before I could even switch my camera on one of the Ba'Aka had climbed maybe 30 metres up a tree trunk resembling a narrow telegraph pole, with no branches or anything to hold on to for support except for the trunk itself ... amazing.

After the hunt the Ba'Aka piled into the backs of our vehicles.  Elated, they were like an excited bunch of schoolkids in the back of the school bus on a field trip!  They started singing and clapping - traditional songs, polyphonic and mostly just sounds rather than words, but occasionally with some high-pitched chattering sounds like a monkey's alarm call (apparently representing the spirits).  It was a magical experience being with them as they sang (not for we tourists but for themselves, to express their joy after a successful hunt), like being transported into another world.

Sadly though it is a world which might not continue.  The American explained how Bantu poachers have entered the forest, with guns, killing animals in large numbers to sell to the bushmeat trade in the cities of the region.  Ba'Aka net-hunting is sustainable as they only take what they need to eat and as their population density is very low (average 1 person per square kilometre) the impact is also low.  Hunting large numbers of duiker and monkeys, with guns, is not sustainable and wildlife numbers have crashed.  He told a sad story of how he went out with an older Ba'Aka man to be shown the way they hunt monkeys - with bows and poisoned arrows - but that the man couldn't demonstrate his skills as they didn't find any monkeys. Later back on the road they met a Bantu man with a gun, carrying a sack full of dead monkeys.

Indeed in the course of my week in the forest I saw only a troop of de Brazza's monkeys, a few balck-and-white colobus, and two solitary putty-nosed; apparently a couple of decades ago there would have been monkeys everywhere.