The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XV. The Lion Dance
We took our hot baths and sat down to supper most gratefully, for we were tired. The long string of men, bearing each a log of wood, filed in from the darkness to add to our pile of fuel. Saa-sita and Shamba knelt and built the night fire. In a moment the little flame licked up through the carefully arranged structure. We finished the meal, and the boys whisked away the table.
Then out in the blackness beyond our little globe of light we became aware of a dull confusion, a rustling to and fro. Through the shadows the eye could guess at movement. The confusion steadied to a kind of rhythm, and into the circle of the fire came the group of Monumwezis. Again they were gathered together in a compact little mass; but now they were bent nearly double, and were stripped to the red blankets about their waists. Before them writhed Sulimani, close to earth, darting irregularly now to right, now to left, wriggling, spreading his arms abroad. He was repeating over and over two phrases; or rather the same phrase in two such different intonations that they seemed to convey quite separate meanings.
"Ka soompeele?" he cried with a strongly appealing interrogation.
"Ka soompeele!" he repeated with the downward inflection of decided affirmation.
And the bent men, their dark bodies gleaming in the firelight, stamping in rhythm every third step, chorused in a deep rumbling bass:
"Goom zoop! goom zoop!"
Thus they advanced; circled between us and the fire, and withdrew to the half darkness, where tirelessly they continued the same reiterations.
Hardly had they withdrawn when another group danced forward in their places. These were the Kikuyus. They had discarded completely their safari clothes, and now came forth dressed out in skins, in strips of white cloth, with feathers, shells and various ornaments. They carried white wands to represent spears, and they sang their tribal lion song. A soloist delivered the main argument in a high wavering minor and was followed by a deep rumbling emphatic chorus of repetition, strongly accented so that the sheer rhythm of it was most pronounced:
"An-gee a Ka ga An-gee a Ka ga An-gee a Ka ga Ki ya Ka ga Ka ga an gee ya!"
Solemnly and loftily, their eyes fixed straight before them they made the circle of the fire, passed before our chairs, and withdrew to the half light. There, a few paces from the stamping, crouching Monumwezis, they continued their performance.
The next to appear were the Wakambas. These were more histrionic. They too were unrecognizable as our porters, for they too had for the lion discarded their work-a-day garments in favour of savage. They produced a pantomime of the day's doings, very realistic indeed, ending with a half dozen of dark swaying bodies swinging and shuddering in the long grass as lions, while the "horses" wove in and out among the crouching forms, all done to the beat of rhythm. Past us swept the hunt, and in its turn melted into the half light.
The Kavirondos next appeared, the most fantastically caparisoned of the lot, fine big black men, their eyes rolling with excitement. They had captured our flag from its place before the big tent, and were rallied close about this, dancing fantastically. Before us they leaped and stamped and shook their spears and shouted out their full-voiced song, while the other three tribes danced each its specialty dimly in the background.
The dance thus begun lasted for fully two hours. Each tribe took a turn before us, only to give way to the next. We had leisure to notice minutiae, such as the ingenious tail one of the "lions" had constructed from a sweater. As time went on, the men worked themselves to a frenzy. From the serried ranks every once in a while one would break forth with a shriek to rush headlong into the fire, to beat the earth about him with his club, to rush over to shake one of us violently by the hand, or even to seize one of our feet between his two palms. Then with equal abruptness back he darted to regain his place among the dancers. Wilder and wilder became the movements, higher rose the voices. The mock lion hunt grew more realistic, and the slaughter on both sides something tremendous. Lower and lower crouched the Monumwezi, drawing apart with their deep "goom"; drawing suddenly to a common centre with the sharp "zoop!" Only the Kikuyus held their lofty bearing as they rolled forth their chant, but the mounting excitement showed in their tense muscles and the rolling of their eyes. The sweat glistened on naked black and bronze bodies. Among the Monumwezi to my astonishment I saw Memba Sasa, stripped like the rest, and dancing with all abandon. The firelight leaped high among the logs that eager hands cast on it; and the shadows it threw from the swirling, leaping figures wavered out into a great, calm darkness.
The night guard understood a little of the native languages, so he stood behind our chairs and told us in Swahili the meaning of some of the repeated phrases.
"This has been a glorious day; few safaris have had so glorious a day."
"The masters looked upon the fierce lions and did not run away."
"Brave men without other weapons will nevertheless kill with a knife."
"The masters' mothers must be brave women, the masters are so brave."
"The white woman went hunting, and so were many lions killed."
The last one pleased Billy. She felt that at last she was appreciated.
We sat there spellbound by the weird savagery of the spectacle-the great licking fire, the dancing, barbaric figures, the rise and fall of the rhythm, the dust and shuffle, the ebb and flow of the dance, the dim, half-guessed groups swaying in the darkness-and overhead the calm tropic night.
At last, fairly exhausted, they stopped. Some one gave a signal. The men all gathered in one group, uttered a final yell, very like a cheer, and dispersed.
We called up the heroes of the day-Fundi and his companion-and made a little speech, and bestowed appropriate reward. Then we turned in.