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Jambo Paulo - Jambo Mykoli: 26 - Ngoma And A Hunt

"On the last Saturday of every month, all the tribal people working in or around the town held a ngoma, a night of dance and songs,'' writes Kersi Rustomji, recalling his early days in East Africa.

On the last Saturday of every month, all the tribal people working in or around the town held a ngoma, a night of dance and songs. They gathered at a field in Gambhu, close by the river. Everybody collected great pile of wood, and prepared a large bonfire. As the evening approached, all the folks made for the field.

All the women dancers dressed in a brilliant multicoloured kitenge, a wrap around made of cotton cloth. They wore shells, copper wire, and leather armbands. The armbands had intricate patterns woven in multicoloured beads. The women also wore a variety of headgear, which ranged from beaded and ostrich feather headband or a discarded woman’s hat, festooned with beadwork and feathers or grass heads. All the men wore a short kilt like wrap and had bare chest, but wore leather bound bells on upper arms and below the knees. Some had white patterns on their faces and chests.

However, the chief drummers and the more senior players of a variety of mbira, a hand plucked metal-keyed sound box, iron hand bells, kayamba a rattle made from reeds and filled with seeds, and marimba, and a wooden xylophone, dressed in their special tribal regalia.

The musicians, who were all men, donned various animal skins, according to their status. The chief drummer and the ngoma leader, who played the two very large and deep sounding drums, wore a lion skin. The snarling mouth of the lion perched just above his forehead, while the rest of the skin covered his back and sides. The long tail, stiffened with a bailing wire bobbed behind him.

The second drummer who played three smaller drums wore a leopard skin, which to me was more magnificent than just the tawny lion skin. All the other musicians were similarly clad in skins of lesser animals like the vervet, or any of the number of gazelles and antelopes or zebra. However, none wore the heads, as they did not have the seniority to do so. They also wore iron bells on thongs, tied on the upper arms and just below the knees, and a couple had a referee’s ‘Thunderer’ whistle around their necks as well as a police whistle, made of brass and used to summon help. Most of the dances started and ended with a sharp long shrill on these whistles.

As darkness approached, the crowd gathered and the ground filled in an accepted 'official' politically correct fashion. All the non-African town folks gathered on the bridge ward side. Seated on deck chairs, mkekas, rush mats, or folding canvas stools they commenced their drinks and picnics. Here too the Europeans and the Asians kept their distances across an invisible line. If the Provincial or District Commissioner were to come, an enclosure with chairs, a bar and eating facilities, were erected for him and the entourage. Their presence gave the ngoma a very special and prestigious 'official' status. They inspected a police guard, and various chiefs and elders in their traditional robes and headdresses of ostrich feathers, and other befitting traditional fineries. A short very English accented Swahili speech followed and the mambo, the do, started.

The bonfire was started and when well lit, three shrills blasts from the whistles brought a loud roar from the crowd. The women ululated. Arm and leg bells rang, as men and women raced onto the field. The chief drummer, standing tall in front of his two large drums began a beat. Bhoom-dhadha, bhoom-dhadha, bhoom-dhadha, and the rhythm throbbed. Gradually it became louder and faster and then the other drums joined in. Dha-ga-dhing, dha-ga-dhing, dha-ga-dhing, the smaller drums replied, and a burst of whistles followed. The dancers beat the ground in the rhythm and the iron bells on the legs clanged. Then the mbiras, the kayambas, and the marimba, rattled and chimed.

The mass of dancers circled and stamped the tempo around the bonfire. Then one at a time, the men whirled or leapt in air, followed by the next dancer as soon as the first one landed. Others somersaulted in mid-air or leapt as high as they could. A cloud of fine dust rose and an orange glow from the bonfire shone through it. The tempo became faster and faster and the bodies, whirled and twirled and danced and danced. Ululations by the women and piercing shrieks rose in air and the dance area became a seething mass of moving, jumping, and gyrating bodies. Then reaching a loud crescendo the music stopped. Three sharp whistle blasts gave rise to a very loud ululations and claps, and the dancers flopped to the ground. The powdery red glowing dust swirled over their recumbent bodies, as a light breeze wafted it over the river.
The crowd on the verges always joined in, but only the non-African children and the African onlookers did so, as the Europeans and the Indians considered it undignified to participate in such frenzy. For us kids the ngomas were the greatest event of the month, for as we grew older we separated from mums and dads and stayed on and joined in the festivities. Later in the night after the roasted meat, which my Hindu mates did not eat, Simba our house help escorted us home and returned to the ngoma, which continued into the dawn. The Sunday after the ngoma was a day off for all the workers from the docks, the station, the shops, and the homes.
Even more fascinating for us children was the chief drummer, Mzee Ngoma, Old Man Drummer, named so as a mark of respect for his drumming and not just his age.

A wonderfully jovial man he was and during the dance breaks, he called the children to play his drums. He gave us the drumsticks, then holding our hands beat out a slow tempo. Then saying, ndio, ndio, ndio, yes, yes, yes, he stopped with a great laugh, clapped, twirled once, leapt high and helped the next kid. The drum solo played by him, assisted by the other drummers, was the most magnificent piece of the whole performance, the rhythm of which has not ever stop throbbing in me.

One Sunday Kanti, our neighbour’s son, and I were in the back garden, when we spotted Simba. He sat under a mango tree filling his pipe. It had a cone shaped clay bowl and a long slim metal stem. The raw tobacco he used had a very strong smell. Simba, of course was recovering from a very vigorous night at the ngoma. As he spotted us, he waved us over and we sat down for a yarn. After a chat about the ngoma he told us some great news. ‘Sikia. Kesho kutwa, sisi tuta enda kuwinda nyama kuba saana. Weka mshale tayari. Haya, toroka sasa! Listen. Day after tomorrow we are going to hunt a big animal. Get your arrows ready. Now run off!’ He stuck the pipe in his mouth and blew a gray blue cloud of strong smelling smoke.

We pleaded with him to tell us more but the pipe did not leave his mouth and more smoke rose around his head.

For the next two days, Kanti and I checked and rechecked our stick arrows. We checked the points and whittled or ground them on a stone. Some we overdid and damaged the shaft by splitting it on the stone and most of our talk was about this big hunt. All our friends also wanted to know about it, but we could not tell them any more than what we knew.

Ever so slowly, Tuesday arrived. As soon as the school was over Kanti and I ran home, using all the short cuts through the shambas, bush, and vegetable gardens. We dumped our bags and clutching our bows and arrows sought out Simba but he insisted that we had our milk and bread first. Very quickly, we guzzled it all, and urged him to start. He told us to wait by the back gate of the garden under the mango tree.

We now knew we were going into the bundu, the woods, through Sheikh Maina’s shambas. Simba soon appeared only this time he carried his long slender fimbo, bush-walking stick, and wore his red short wrap-around. We were getting more and more excited every minute and could hardly wait. As he joined us, he explained that this was our big hunt, and that we had to be very careful and hodari, brave. Nodding but unable to retain our excitement we trailed behind him into the shamba, then into the wood.

We followed a thin regular track that we knew led to the river. As we went deeper in the woods, Simba reduced our pace. With a finger to his lips, he beckoned for silence, and proceeded further down the track. Almost half way to the river, Simba left the track and entered a very large patch of scrubland, with thick yellow grass, dotted with bushes. Stepping high we made our way into the scrub, following Simba as carefully and silently as we could. Deeper and deeper we went, until we came to a small knoll, covered in very thick growth of grass and lantana bushes on our right. Simba stopped and very slowly squatted in the grass, and as we squatted, he peered at the undergrowth, and we tried to follow his gaze.

We scanned the place for some time but did not see anything. Then using his stick as a pointer, Simba showed us the trampled down grass. This we were unable to spot until he pointed it out, because, the half bent grass did not mean much to us. We nodded to him as we grasped what it showed. He half rose and we began to move through the grass. Half bent and stepping high through the dried grass we trekked until we passed the lantana clump. From here, we proceeded towards a thicket of castor plants. The track continued towards the river but as we came behind the castors, Simba stopped and squatted near some stones. We waited just a little behind him, continually keeping the knoll in our sight.

The grass here had thinned and the few scattered trees cast dark shadows. Simba peered at the ground, and then with a nod he proceeded into the thin grass patch. Crouched, he took small slow steps and we followed similarly. Again pointing with his stick, he showed us some scruff marks in the thin grass. Excitedly we nodded our heads. We followed these marks until we went past a well to our left and a patch of cassia bushes ahead of us.

Again, Simba stopped and after a long look at a clump of cassias, he waved us on. He took us right through the middle of the cassias. We had to duck and weave through the thin leafy branches. Our bows became tangled but we managed to keep up to him. As we emerged from the clump, Simba pointed to a rather large thicket of half-dry mpungate, prickly pear cactus, a short distance in front of us. The lower part of the tall thicket concealed by tall dry grass and small twiggy bushes was quite dark from the shadow of the thicket.

Simba squatted on the ground and we did so beside him. Covered in sweat, dust, dry leaves, and grass, it was hard for us not to scratch, but a very severe look from him stopped our scratching and fumbling. After a few moments, he pointed with his chin and very slowly circled his hand. We nodded and got ready to follow him. Crouched almost to the ground and keeping the cactus to our left, Simba began to circle the thicket. About half way round we approached the shadier side and Simba squatted onto the ground. Very carefully, we squatted by his side, and put our heads between our knees, as he did. This was to adjust our eyes to the lessened light in the cactus shade.

A few very long minutes passed, and as he raised his head, he pointed the chin towards the bottom of the prickly pears. Both of us peered very hard but we did not see anything except a hummock of dry tawny grass. Gently we shrugged our shoulders and pouted the lips in question. Again he chin-pointed at the brown grass, patted his hip, and pointed a finger at the base of the bush. As we stared hard, we saw the outline of a blackish brown rump. Kanti and I gasped in utter amazement, for we had not seen anything so big in our previous hunts.

The back and the rump we looked at was almost the size of a donkey, its head and legs concealed in the undergrowth below the cactus. Wide-eyed and open mouthed we stared at it, until Simba touched me. He gestured as if pulling a bow, his eyes wide and head nodding.

Simba pointed at the base of the dry prickly pear bush
As quietly as we could we moved to his right and fixed our arrows. Two shafts flew out and hit the brown shape. Instead of sticking fast, both the arrows fell to the ground close to the animal. We looked at Simba, but he shrugged his shoulders, and gestured for another round. These too hit the mark but did not penetrate. Before the arrows always stuck into the dummies Simba made but this was very different. He crawled a little closer to the clump as we looked at him and we followed him. We were now about two meters from our quarry. Once again, we notched our arrows and fired. Even as the arrows flew, we saw the shape move. Then as the arrows hit the hide and fell, there was a loud snarl. In the next instant, a large lion faced us, hunched on all four, and growled. Its head went up, another roar followed, and it rose very high on its back legs, the front paws in air above its head.

With the loudest scream ever, waaa, both Kanti and I dropped our bows, and ran and ran and ran. We did not stop until we reached the well. We leaned against the well away from the lion’s direction gasping and quite terrified. Neither of us said a word. A few moments later we heard Simba whistle for us. Guardedly we rose and peered over the well top. Down the track, we heard voices and laughter, which came closer and closer. We saw Simba coming very briskly carrying our bows, but still laughing, and behind him we saw another man with a lion’s head over his forehead.

A tawny skin flapped over his shoulders and a tail bobbed in the rear. Soon we realized about the big hunt. Simba had set it all up with Mzee Ngoma, the Old Man Drum, and lured us into it.

When the two of them met up with us at the well, we got a proper ribbing from them. ‘Ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho, ho! Tazama hawa pigaji wa nyama.’ ‘ Ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho, ho! Look at these great hunters.’ They teased. Sheepishly we joined them, and bursting with great excitement, we made for home.
For us, however it was truly a very big hunt, which I still have not forgotten. What a tale we had to tell all our friends at school. Of course, we did not run off, but very bravely stood up to the large looming lion, and shot all our arrows at it. Why, we even chopped the tail off the dead lion, and removed the claws to keep.


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