Friday, May 16, 2014

Mourning By Celebrating

A friend of mine recently invited me to attend a special event. Vitalian's father was a member of a traditional singing/dancing/drinking group...  and I'll be darned if I can remember the word for that kind of group. This is what you get for not writing things down right away, I guess. The group may be attached to a Juju, I'm not sure. There were costumed warriors, in the least.

In any case, Vitalian's father died twelve years ago, and since then the group has not paid proper respects with a mourning celebration. Until now. The remaining members of the group, and family members, and friends, and whoever else is around in the neighborhood, all gathered at the deceased's compound to sing and dance and drink and feast. All day long. The singing is a kind of repetitive, rhythmic affair. It continued for most of the time I was there. I could hear it coming up from the valley as I walked down the bishop's hill to meet Vitalian, and I could hear it as I journeyed home. Instrumentation consisted of a drum or two, half a hundred voices, and twice as many swords.

As I entered the compound, which had gone to ruin since Vitalian's father's death, I noticed a common ceremonial greeting that I have seen before: the participants draw their swords (or cutlasses, they are called) and clanged them together twice, in a methodical way that is reminiscent of warfare but far from it. When I asked about the meaning of it, all I got as an answer was, "it is our tradition."  It seems the meaning of the tradition is lost to most, because I asked a handful of people and never got a deeper meaning than "tradition." It might be a secret, but I highly doubt it. I think that people just don't know anymore.
Man with cutlass
I sat and watched the singing, until someone invited me into the ruined house, which was nothing but newly made benches fashioned crudely over the remains of crumbled mud brick walls. I was given a horn brimming with palm wine, a sword to greet others properly, and then I watched. At SAC and other places almost everyone speaks English very well, but here it was all Lamnso' and pidgin. I mostly just stood still, greeted with my limited vocabulary, and took in the sights.

It was fascinating!  I watched a whole goat roasted over an open flame. The same goat had been alive and was led around the compound when I arrived.  The crowd numbered around 100 or so at one time, but people came and went constantly. There were mostly men and boys. Only a third of the people there could have possibly known the father as a friend, given their ages. 
Vitalian leading goat

Goat being roasted
Everyone wore traditional dress, at the very least a traditional cap. I had to wear a cap to even attend. I have learned that people here often don't like to be photographed but I was encouraged to take my camera and snap as many photos as I wanted.
Man in traditional dress
After an hour of dancing and sword clanging and drumming and singing, everyone gathered and sat in a circle, while men constantly made rounds serving palm wine from calabashes. (It is bad luck to serve yourself.) Men who knew the Father gave speeches in his honor (there are always speeches!), and mimed battles, and told jokes. At least, that is what I think was happening, it was all in Lamnso' at this point. The boys were even served palm wine into their outstretched cupped hands, slurping it up before it drained out. I think they got more on the dirt than in their mouths. Then, the drumming and singing and dancing started, and after a bit I left with Vitalian to his brother's house, where I was served food,  It was fufu and njama-njama, of course. It's always fufu. People eat fufu nine meals out of ten.

Mourners dancing
While I was there, the singing-dancing-warring-juju group sent some costumed men to beg/demand/collect something to drink, And Vitalian was ready with little packets of whisky and rum to give to them.

All told, there were several goats and many fowl consumed, along with 200 liters of palm wine... by the time I left.  There were still hours left to go, and the mourners would continue until it was time to go, which was whatever time they needed to leave to walk back to their houses in the dark. 

It was all very fascinating to see, and I loved how the people celebrated the life of this man dead over a decade. It was especially uplifting to see people who probably never knew or barely knew the man celebrate him. I was frustrated that people could not tell me more about the traditions. It seems that oftentimes there are traditions that people have here that are either lost or waning. We've heard tell it used to be that every so often people would gather in a square or junction or large compound and have a huge bonfire, and they would tell stories and sing and dance and pass on the tradition that way. Now, the young people have no interest in what their grandparents have to say and sing, and prefer to spend time on their phones, and even the internet for some. Some technological and cultural advances come at a cost.


No comments:

Post a Comment