I‘d like to start from the beginning where our good old car departed Arusha city, a Land Cruiser that gets some fix from time to time, especially after driving into the remote areas where the roads are bumpy and sometimes unexpectedly impenetrable. Luckily, we had never gotten stuck in the bush in the middle of nowhere. We were heading to Lake Eyasi, one of my favorite areas in northern Tanzania. Favorite not only because it is the unique area with a good number of various indigenous tribes, but also because of its ecosystem, its dry land, its unique dry jungles, candelabra trees and various cacti, numerous types of Commiphora Africana trees, ancient gigantic baobabs, sisal here and there, and just because of the incredible African wild dusty setting. Some of the areas are so scenic and yet so simple - full of riverbeds, some rocks and sand- that you find yourself immersed into a surreal `movie set`.
That day we were driving to the Datoga wedding. Whenever you find yourself at an indigenous ceremony, you never know or have a clear expectation of what you may see, that is what keeps drawing me back over and over again - to see those authentic events, to be amazed and stunned all over again.
Datoga settlements or Mang’ati settlements (Mang’ati is how Maasai call Datoga, which means The Enemy, and is in fact a derogatory name for Datoga) are usually scattered at a distance from each other and not too far from water sources. By 'not too far' I mean an hour or two of walk. Our visit was carefully prearranged so the village host was expecting us, me in particular, as I was the only white attending the event. I had my team with me - my guide and my Tanzanian partner. Our guide did not need much time to locate the right village. Somehow magically he knew all the paths even if there was no path he still knew the direction. This tells me a lot about the sense of space and time in which local people live. I always get the impression that they live in a different dimension and have an invisible power and intelligence which we, westerners, have long lost, due to our continuous race for development and detachment from nature.
The village was successfully found and I saw the huts with thatched roofs from far away and people going in and out of a small hut entrance. The village itself was surrounded by thorn tree branches for protection from wild animals. We parked our car near one of the huts inside the village and I jumped off the car to greet my hosts. My cameras were set aside for this special moment. Knowing a little Swahili helped me to give the needed respect to the men and women. I touched everybody’s hand very softly, as per tradition, you don’t really shake hands but softly touch the palms of another person and look them in the eye. You feel like an alien, you feel out of place, out of your comfort zone. Your mind starts to get outside of the box and gradually you become a part of another dimension, another world. I passed by numerous people greeting them, catching their curious glances and was invited into one of the huts. Surprisingly, that day I saw mostly women. A lot of them were inside the huts busy with cooking. I stepped into the hut and breathed in a strong smell of smoke along with other minor smells such as raw and cooked meat mixed with a smell of sweat - the hut was packed with women. Everyone was greeting me, they were concerned to find me a place to sit, they did not let me sit on the floor. Once they greeted me, they kept on with their tasks, laughing and talking in between, hugging and greeting the newcomers and passers by. I was there, watching, observing, taking a moment to immerse myself in the atmosphere. There was gentle chanting along the way. Women took their time to cook and to eat before the dancing and ceremonial part was to start the next day.
I was hypnotized by the beauty and dignity of one elderly woman; the light was coming from the outside through the small entrance door of the hut and beautifully lit her face and the color of her eyes, which looked light pale brown color, it gave a mesmerizing feel to her appearance; the way she moved...slowly, her glance, her gestures, her beautiful bracelets made of scrap metal by Datoga blacksmiths were shining in the rays of sun. It made me want to capture the moment. My camera was set aside till later, I knew the moment had not yet come.
My team put our light tents for the night right behind one of the huts. The sun started to get brutal, it was close to noon, and lunch was on the way. We were at the groom's village. There were three big huts located one opposite the other, and all huts were full of women. It was the second day of the ceremony with mostly food preparations and the goat slaughtering, chanting, and talking. At times it seemed as though time stopped as nothing was happening, but the heat made it hard to stay out so most of the day I stayed close to women and inside the huts.
The darkness has fallen and the cooking and preparations lasted until deep night. The men approached the settlement singing and making a very particular woo sound similar to the one of a big bird somewhere in the remote bush. There were many of them and the sound was continuing deep into the night, it didn’t prevent me from sleeping, but rather seemed like a lullaby to make me fall asleep faster. I was looking forward to the third and the last day of the ceremony, which was supposed to be a woman’s day, a bride’s day.
At the dawn, the sounds of women talking woke me up and I felt great excitement at the start of the day. They had just slaughtered a cow and I saw them in the sunrise dim light at a designated spot a little away from the huts. The sun was fast rising and the light was changing from minute to minute – from grey to purple to orange and then to golden. It was chilly and I was covered in my Maasai shuka (blanket) watching the women and having a small talk with them. I felt warm there with them. The women were working hard to get the beast skinned, the meat cut, the guts taken out and dried in the sun later on. The food preparations resumed. The shed made of tree branches was quickly set up near one of the huts, the big aluminum pots were set for cooking. One of the huts was filled with rice, the women were working hard on cleaning the grains sitting on the floor. Chanting resumed. The guests from the bride’s family started to arrive from far away bringing the gifts with them. Some of them brought maize flour in beautiful exquisite hand-made little calabash bags covered with cow skin, some brought cow milk and cow fat, all in calabashes of different shapes. There was a long eating procedure that day, women were eating and cooking and eating again. One hut was designated to be a dining area packed with people sharing lunch. Or was it lunch or breakfast? I cannot recall, the time stopped and there were no hours, just being present there and now, dissolving in that atmosphere of mutual sharing, laughing, working, preparing, just living.
The dancing part started quite out of nowhere. Very spontaneously women started dancing, whistling and singing. An elder woman was using a piece of untreated dry cow skin beating into it with a wooden stick to bring rhythm to the dance. I was excited just as everyone else around me, I did not feel ‘mzungu’ anymore (that is how Africans call white people), I felt part of the celebration, I felt accepted. I was lost in the crowd suddenly surrounding me and the dancing women. The hypnotic dance was on repeat, non-stop hip movements started from innocent movements and turned into a sexual performance with women imitating the acts of intercourse. The celebration was just about to start.
Photo by The Image of Africa