Martin Auer: The Strange War, Stories for Peace Education
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Arobanai lifted her head out of the water in the river. In front of her lay Apa Lelo in the afternoon sun. Thunder could be heard in the distance, but the rain wouldn’t come until later. That left enough time to set up the huts. In the grassy clearing, the children were already playing; here and there lay bundles in the grass. The men, who had been there earlier, had left the bundles lying at the spots where they wanted to have their huts and had then gone straight to the hunt. The women who had children had allowed themselves more time during their journey because they wanted to gather mushrooms and roots on the way. Arobanai rubbed down her body in the water. It was lovely to walk into a new camp and to wash off all the dust and sweat of the trek and of all the earlier camps. A new camp was always a new beginning, full of new possibilities and prospects. She shook the water out of her short, curly hair and waded back to the riverbank. Then she lifted her bundle high over her head and carried it through the river to the other side. She knew, when she lifted her arms that way, that her hard breasts protruded even more forcefully, and the water from the river made her body shine, and all its shapes appeared even more beautiful. On the other side, the first boys stepped out of the forest with their kill.
Apa Lelo was the nicest camp that Arobanai knew. The Lelo made a loop at this spot, so that the camp was almost an island. In the middle of the island the trees stood far apart and formed a natural clearing, but way up in the top, their crowns almost touched one another, so there was plenty of light but it was still never in the full glare of the sun. Just about in the middle of the island, a group of trees divided the clearing into two almost equal halves. The children had already claimed their playground under trees on the riverbank, a little removed from the clearing where the huts would be standing, but still near enough to be safe.
Arobanai looked for the bundle that belonged to her father, Ekianga. Her mother hadn’t arrived yet, and the first thing she did was untie the bundle of leaves in which she had wrapped a glowing ember. She placed a few dry twigs on it, blew at the red-hot coal, and the flames reached for the kindling.
Gradually, more and more people started showing up. Some of the men brought meat and then went off again to cut sticks and leaves. The women lit fires and began to cook. Almost all of them had gathered mushrooms and roots – the children brought them in by the armful – and a sauce was cooked in the pumpkin bowls, and pieces of meat were tossed in.
When the men came back with poles and big bundles of broad mongongo leaves, the women began to build the huts. They pushed the poles into the ground forming a circle; then they lashed the tips into a dome with liana vines. Thinner twigs were woven into the frame, and the broad, heart-shaped leaves were fastened to this wreathwork. People who had set out later or who had interrupted their journey to look for whatever delicacies they could find were still arriving. And the women who were already working on their huts laughed and called to them, telling them how wet they would get, because the rain clouds were getting closer and closer.
But the men who had supplied their women with building materials, ran back into the forest and cut down poles, sticks, and leaves for the latecomers. Relatives and friends built their huts close to each other. Families that didn’t get along very well with each other, settled down on opposite ends of the camp from each other, and if that wasn’t possible, they set up their huts so that the entrances were pointing away from each other.
The storm clouds caused the evening to come early, the fires were brought into the huts, and time and again the position of a leaf had to be corrected where a little bit of water was leaking through into the hut. But the rain didn’t last long. The fires were soon burning again in front of the huts. The women made some improvements to the roofs, and the men sauntered once more into the forest with their bows and arrows, maybe to bag one more bird or monkey before it got too dark. Smoke was coming out of the huts, and a blue haze lay over the camp, which suddenly turned orange and gold and red when the clouds separated and the sun shot its last ray across the sky.
Arobanai lay on her back in her parents’ hut, and held her little brother by one arm, while she lifted the little giggler by his legs. From the huts all around the families could be heard chatting with each other, and now and then an uninvited listener chimed in with a comment that caused an outburst of laughter.
Kenge, a still unmarried young hunter, had built one of the neighboring huts. A majority of the young boys were crowded in with him. Arobanai heard them telling each other about the animals they would hunt from this camp and the girls they wanted to flirt with. When she heard Kelemoke say her name, she called over to him, "Your legs are too crooked for me. You need to become a hunter first, you little pup!" They replied with roaring laughter. The boys beat their chests and thighs and shook helplessly with laughter. Kelemoke was one of the most skillful runners and, after all, had already killed one buffalo by himself.
Ekianga, without shouting, simply said in a loud voice, but in such a way that it could be heard five huts away, "A man’ll get a headache from all this shouting. Let’s have some peace and quiet, so we can get some sleep!"
That at least caused the boys to tone it down to a whisper, and only now and then could they be heard snickering and chuckling. Arobanai smiled. This would be a good camp, she felt. She would have a lot of fun here.
But in the morning, sorrow filled the camp. Arobanai was awakened by a long, drawn-out, horrible scream, the dreadful lament of a person who has fallen into total gloom. They all rushed out of their huts. Balekimito, one of Arobanai’s father’s aunts and the mother of Amabosu and Manyalibo, was dead, very dead. The old woman, who was greatly respected by all and a grandmother many times over, had already been sick before the move to the new camp. Her sons, Amabosu and Manyalibo, didn’t want to leave her behind. They would have stayed with her until she got better, but the hunting had been bad in the old camp, and Balekimito had insisted on going with them when everybody moved. But the trek had weakened her, and now she was very dead, and would soon be dead forever. Her relatives crowded into her hut. Her sons were pacing back and forth, with tear-streaked faces. Her daughter Asofalinda tried to comfort her brothers but kept breaking down in tears next to the old woman’s bed. Only Balekimito herself was quiet amidst the wailing, weeping crowd. She reached for her sons’ hands, pulled her daughter to her and whispered, "I am with my children. I’m not dying alone. It is good."
With her still alert eyes, she looked around the hut and caught sight of her great niece Arobanai. She waved to her with her hand, which was transparent like a dry leaf, to come over. "You’ve become pretty," she whispered. "Have you already picked out a boyfriend?" She grinned and grasped Arobanai’s wrist tightly. Arobanai, numb with shock, was crouching next to the old one’s bed. Balekimito fell asleep, but her grasp didn’t loosen. The girl remained crouching. The men and women kept their wailing down, so as not to disturb the old woman’s sleep. When the sun stood high above the camp, Balekimito stopped breathing.
Now there was no longer any reason to hold back. Asofalinda suddenly had a hemp rope in her hands and placed a noose around her neck. Three men had to stop her from harming herself. Children crowded into the hut and then ran back out. They threw themselves on the ground and started beating the earth in helpless anger. The ancient Tungana and his wife Bonyo crouched in front of their hut, tears running down their wrinkled cheeks. Arobanai, still numb with grief, was huddling in the middle of the wailing and crying people. And the wailing and crying would never end because Balekimito would never again wake up. She was dead, not only just dead, she was dead forever, and would always lie there that way and hold on to her wrist.
Not until Arobanai’s mother Kamaikan stepped up and softly bent the dead person’s fingers back, was Arobanai able to burst into tears too, to writhe on the ground, and cry her grief and terror away.
Not until the evening did the camp slowly calm down. Weary from the sorrow, they all just lay in front of or in their huts. Then old Moke stepped into the middle of the camp and started speaking very quietly. People moved up closer to be able to hear him, and he said with his calm, melodic voice, "It’s not good for everybody to just sit around and be sad. The fires are going out and no one is cooking dinner. Tomorrow everybody will be hungry and too weak and too tired for the hunt. She, who was a good mother to us all, died well. Everybody should be happy that she lived so long and that she had such a good death." He was answered by general nodding.
Manyalibo said, "Yes, that’s right. Everybody should be happy. All this mourning won’t help anyone. It’s got to stop. We should have a party. We should call the Molimo and have a feast for the Molimo."
And Njobo, the great hunter who had killed an elephant alone said, "Yes, her death is a big thing, and we should have a big feast. We should celebrate until the moon has been full once and twice, or even three times!"
The next day, two young men went from hut to hut with a lasso made of liana. They threw the noose into the hut and waited. The residents of the hut placed a few bananas in the noose, or maybe roots or a piece of dried meat. The young men acted as though they had to catch the offering and fight over it. Then they went on to the next hut. In the middle of the camp there was soon a well-filled basket on a pole next to the Molimo fire.
The whole day, the young men made a big mystery out of the Molimo. Women were not allowed to see the Molimo. The young men indicated that the Molimo was dangerous, the great animal of the forest, and only men could deal with it. Arobanai, who, with her girl friends, was scraping out the inner bark of branches to get material for ropes, wanted to object angrily, but an aunt just calmly gripped her arm, smiled a little and shook her head. In the evening, after dinner, the women hastily withdrew with their children to their huts. The old men, the hunters, and the young men gathered around the fire and began to sing.
Arobanai was playing with her young brother. Outside the men were singing. Just when Arobanai was just about to fall asleep, Kamaikam gave her a little push. In the glow of the burning embers, Arobanai could see that her mother was smiling and pointing towards outside. She listened. The men sang, and quietly so that they could not hear her, Kamaikam hummed along:
"Around us is darkness, great darkness.
Darkness is around us, great, black darkness.
But if there is darkness,
then the darkness is good.
Darkness is around us, great black darkness,
but if there is darkness,
and the darkness belongs to the forest,
then the darkness is good."
Every night the men sang the songs of the Molimo. And the women withdrew to their huts and acted as though all of this was none of their business. When the men sang, the great animal of the forest answered them. He called with the voice of the buffalo, with the voice of the antelope, with the voice of the elephant. He called with bird voices and leopard and monkey voices. And then the men sang again and hummed their songs around the fire. The songs came from close by, from far away, from the north, and from the south.
Sometimes the men sang until the early morning. Every man had to take part. Every man had to spend the night singing and eating, eating and singing. If one of them fell asleep, it was said, the great animal of the forest would eat him.
"They don’t need to act like that!" said Akidinimba sullenly, when she was picking berries with Arobanai and other girls. "I know what it is. It’s a big pipe, a pipe made of bamboo. They blow into it and shout and sing. Yesterday it was Ausu who was running around in the forest with the pipe."
"He’s got a beautiful voice!" said Arobanai.
"We’re not supposed to talk about those things!" said Kidaya. "Women don’t talk about those things!"
But at night, when the men were singing, Kamaikan smiled and hummed along, and Aunt Asofalinda told a story, "Once, a long time ago, the Molimo belonged to the women. The women sang the songs and ran through the forest with the Molimo. The forest is good to us and watches out for its children. That’s why we sing songs for him, to make the forest happy. But sometimes the forest sleeps, and then bad things can happen. Then we wake up the forest; then we fetch the Molimo so that the forest wakes up and doesn’t forget its children in its dream."
"And why are the men now running with the Molimo?"
"Oh, the men. They always think they know everything. They say they are the big hunters. They know how to deal with the animals of the forest."
And Kamaikan smiled mysteriously and told Arobanai to be patient.
In the fifth night of the the Molimo, Kelemoke came to her in her hut. Arobanai was totally amazed. "If you don’t sing with the men, the great animal of the forest will eat you!" she said and poked him in the side with her finger. Kelemoke laughed quietly. "Why should it eat me? Your mother and aunt are sleeping. Your father is singing. What better time is there for love? Why should the animal of the forest eat me if we’re doing what everybody does?"
Every other night or so, Kelemoke found the chance to sneak away from the Kumamolimo. Arobanai crept out of the hut, and they usually met at the bopi, the children’s playground. There they giggled and whispered and played the game of love. It was all the more exciting because it was forbidden. A boy and a girl from the same hunting group could not marry. And Arobanai knew whom she wanted to marry. It was Tumba, a boy who hunted with Abira’s and Motu’s group. But, in the meantime, why shouldn’t she amuse herself with Kelemoke, the strongest hunter among the young men, who could have had a wife a long time ago, if he hadn’t had to wait. He had to wait until a close female relative from his group was of marriageable age and at the same time a girl from another group came to him. They could then have an exchange: the female relative could marry a man from the girl’s group, and he could marry the girl. If the hunters didn’t exchange their "sisters," it was possible that one day a group would be without women. No girl would have said no to Kelemoke, but she, Arobanai, was the most beautiful. That’s why he had chosen her. No girl had such beautiful breasts as she had, and such slender legs and such a round bottom. When the moon would bless her with the blood, then there would always be time to marry.
The next day brought heated debates and bickering. Sefu had arrived, the old trouble maker. It wasn’t that they didn’t like him, that sly joker, but why did he have to set up his own camp, just fifty steps away from the big camp? He considered himself the leader of five families. How could five families organize a hunt? "It’ll be the same as last time," said Asofalinda, Ekianga’s sister. "If he needs something, he says he belongs to our camp, but if he has something we’d like, then he says he’s just passing through." She imitated Sefu’s whining voice. When the laughter had died down, Masisi, who was related to Sefu, said, "It’s good to have many hunters and many nets." "Yes, and many eaters!" said Asofalinda.
It turned out that Asofalinda was right. Sefu didn’t often give anything for the Kumamolimo, the food basket that had to be filled every day. "It’s not my Molimo," he said during the day. But when he had given something, or rather, when someone from his camp had given something, then Sefu came and devoured large portions. When he had eaten his fill, he sang a little and took the first opportunity to disappear back into his hut. "If he doesn’t behave himself," the young men threatened, "we’ll go find him in his hut, and if we find him sleeping, we’ll nail him to the floor with our spears, and when he’s dead forever, we’ll bury him beneath the Molimo fire. We’ll tell his wife the animal of the forest ate him, and then nobody’ll ever talk about him anymore."
But, of course, things didn’t go beyond threats, and Sefu said, "Why shouldn’t I go to sleep when I’m tired? No one would be such an animal as to prevent a tired man from sleeping. Besides, this Molimo is not my Molimo. I just come to be friendly, to pay my respects to the Molimo, and I’m being threatened with spears!"
True, in the mornings the Molimo often scolded him. For the morning was the time when the Molimo came into camp. He came closely surrounded by the young men, so that he couldn’t be seen. The young men romped and ran around with him among the huts, and they beat on the roof of the huts of those who had misbehaved in some way the day before. The boys beat on the roofs and shook the walls. Sefu’s hut was often shaken up, but so too were the huts of couples who had had a loud argument, of hunters who had stayed away from the hunt too often, of girls who had too openly flirted with boys who were related to them. The Molimo respected no one. Whoever he scolded had to just take it.
The days in Apa Lelo were happy days. Arobanai often went along on the hunt. In the evenings the men usually discussed where they would hunt the next day. The men and the boys told about tracks they had seen and compared the chances of finding game at this or that location. The women voiced their opinions too, especially regarding the forest fruits that they wanted to gather before and after the hunt. The first of the young men started out soon after sunrise with their nets and spears and a piece of burning ember to start the hunting fire. Fire was the forest’s greatest present, and one had to give the fire back to the forest. Then the forest was in a good mood and blessed its children with a good hunt. When the hunting fire was burning, the other hunters showed up too. And the women and children also went into the forest, to collect mushrooms and berries, and they followed certain lianas until they came to their roots, which were sweet and tasty.
One morning, when the hunters had gathered, Sefu was missing. They figured he had left his camp, but he hadn’t passed by the hunting fire. They shook their heads, and someone said that maybe Sefu had started his own hunting fire. No, they all shouted, not even Sefu would do something like that. When they arrived at the place where they first wanted to spread out the nets, Sefu was already there, had lit a fire, and was eating roasted bananas. Ekianga and a few other men went off for a quick scout of the area and then instructed the others in which direction to spread out the nets. The women took their bundles and went ahead with their children. Everybody stopped chattering and jabbering, and almost without a sound they slid through the forest. The men also scattered; everybody knew exactly where he had to spread out his net, which was more than a hundred big steps long, so that together they would form a large semi-circle. When Ekianga gave the signal with the call of the kudu bird, the women and children, forming a long file, rushed through the forest, yelling and howling. Arobanai startled a sondu. The frightened antelope jumped out of the bushes. "She’ll run into Kelemoke’s net," she called happily to Kidaya, who was running next to her.
When they had reached the hunters, Kelemoke had already killed the antelope. His mother was putting the best pieces in her basket. The other women were crowding around the two of them, "My husband let you borrow his spear!" – "We gave your sisters liver when they were hungry and your father wasn’t home!" – "My father and yours always hunted together!" they yelled. Kelemoke was enjoying his role, and with a grand gesture he distributed the meat to the women without concerning himself with their reasons. He already knew who deserved what.
Sefu walked up and whined that he hadn’t had any luck. But nobody offered him a share. He turned to the women, "You’re driving the game away from my net on purpose. Why don’t you drive it in my direction too?"
"Hey, you have your own womenfolk. Go complain to them!"
"Oh them. They’re just lazy bone heads."
The women laughed at him and shrugged their shoulders.
Kelemoke had given Arobanai’s mother an especially nice piece from the thigh. Arobanai had already started walking back to the camp with her basket, which was filled with meat and nuts. She wanted to come back when the hunters spread out their nets for the third time. She was walking with Kidaya, who was asking her all about Kelemoke, but Arobanai just laughed and hinted at some things. On their way they met old Moke, who had seen leopard tracks. In the camp they told the other girls and women about the leopard tracks. "The men will get a scare when they see those tracks!" they shouted, snickering. Arobanai crouched down and imitated the prowl of a leopard. The other women formed a line, as though they were the hunters who were moving through the forest in single file. The leopard leaped at them, and the hunters fled into the trees, screeching.
After they had almost died laughing, Arobanai decided she’d like to go back to the hunters in the forest. But the men came back from the hunt earlier than expected, grumpy and defeated. No one wanted to say what had happened. Only Kelemoke grumbled, "That Sefu. He just makes too much noise!" And Kenge said, "Up to now we’ve always treated him like a man, but he’s an animal, and we should treat him like an animal." And he yelled over to Sefu’s camp, "Animal, animal!" even though Sefu wasn’t even there yet.
He arrived later with a group of older hunters. Without saying a word to anyone, he went straight over to his camp.
Ekianga and Manyalibo, who had arrived last, crouched at the the Molimo fire. "That Sefu brought dishonor on all of us!" said Ekianga to no one in particular. And Manyalibo said, "Sefu brought dishonor on the Kumamolimo. We’ll break off the Kumamolimo. The Molimo feast will come to an end. The best thing for us is to go to a new camp."
"Everybody come here," said Ekianga. "Everybody come to the Kumamolimo. This is a serious matter. This has to be settled right away!"
Everybody gathered; they sat on stools made of four short branches bound together or on logs, and Kenge yelled over to the other camp again, "Hey, you animal, come over here, animal!" The boys laughed, but the men ignored him.
Sefu sauntered over, trying to look completely innocent. He looked around, but nobody offered him a place to sit. He went over to Amabosu, one of the youngest lads, and yanked at his stool. "Animals lie on the ground!" said Amabosu.
Sefu was close to tears, "I’m an old hunter and a good hunter. It’s not right that everybody’s treating me like an animal."
Finally Masisi said to Amabosu that he should get up and give Sefu his stool.
Then Manyalibo stood up and began a long speech: "Everyone wants this camp to be a good camp. And everybody wants this Molimo feast to be a good Molimo feast. But Sefu is spoiling everything. The camp isn’t a good camp anymore, and the feast isn’t a good feast. When his daughter died, he was happy to accept our offer to fetch our Molimo for him. But now when his mother has died, he doesn’t want to provide anything for the Kumamolimo."
"It wasn’t my mother," Sefu said defiantly.
"Not your mother?" Ekianga shouted. "She was the mother of all of us here in the camp. I hope you’ll fall on your spear and die like an animal! A human doesn’t steal meat from his brothers. Only an animal does something like that!" Ekianga shook his fist furiously.
Sefu began to cry. Now for the first time Arobanai found out what had happened. On the second hunt, Sefu had set up his net in front of the other nets and in this way had caught the first game that the drivers had scared up. But he had been caught. Now he was making the excuse that it was all just a misunderstanding. He had lost sight of the other hunters and hadn’t been able to find them. That’s the only reason he had set his net up where he just happened to be.
"Sure, sure," said old Moke. "We believe you. You shouldn’t make so much noise. Our mother, who died, isn’t your mother. So you don’t belong to us. You can set up your net wherever you want to and hunt wherever you want and set up your camp wherever you want. We’ll go far away and set up our camp somewhere else, so that we won’t bother you."
Sefu had to admit to himself that he had made a mistake. With a group of four families he could never organize a drive. He apologized and said it had really been only a misunderstanding, but he would give back all the meat.
"Then it’s all okay," said Kenge and stood up immediately, and the others got up too and walked back with Sefu to his camp. There he told his wife harshly to give up the meat. And the young men rummaged through all the huts and looked for meat that was hidden under the roofs. Even the cooking pots were emptied. Sefu tried to cry, but everybody just laughed at him. He held his belly and cringed, "I’ll die of hunger and my family too. All my relatives will die because my brothers are taking away all my food. I’ll die because no one gives me the respect I deserve."
They let him blubber and returned to the Kumamolimo. The feast was again a feast, and everybody sang and danced and ate. In the distance they could hear Sefu moaning. The women called him names and imitated his wailing. But when everybody had eaten, Masisi filled a pot with meat and mushroom sauce that his wife had cooked and disappeared. A short time later the moaning stopped.
At night when Arobanai crept out of her hut to meet Kelemoke, she saw Sefu sitting and singing with the men at the the Molimo fire. A child of the forest like all the others.
Arobanai had experienced such things many times. They argued, they complained, they threatened each other. But the children of the forest needed each other. Alone, without the others, no one could survive. That’s why there was always a solution, a way out. Whoever had a complaint stepped up to the middle of the camp and started protesting, cursing, or forcefully stating his or her case. But often enough, the camp members who were asked for support didn’t turn against those who were in the wrong but against those who made the most noise. A good camp was a peaceful camp. A loud quarreling camp was also a hungry camp. Often just loud, general laughter decided a dispute. But a person who had been shamed was quickly forgiven. Arobanai remembered when Aunt Kondabate had fought with her husband. In her anger, she had started to tear off leaves from the roof of her hut. That was her right. After all, she had built the hut. Her husband had just looked on silently. Then she tore off more leaves from the hut. At this point her husband should have stepped in and made up with her, because when a wife tore down a hut, that was the end of the marriage. But Kondabate’s husband said nothing, and so she continued to tear down the hut leaf by leaf. Tears had already started pouring down her cheeks, but the man had remained firm. After a while he only said, "Kondabate will get pretty cold tonight." Then she had to keep on tearing down the hut. What else could she do? She couldn’t allow herself to be put to shame. Finally there weren’t any more leaves, and, weeping, she started to pull on the poles. Now everybody was watching, spellbound, because when she had pulled the last poles out of the ground, she would have to tie up her bundle and go back to her parents’ camp. Kondabate’s husband was also close to tears because he loved her dearly and certainly didn’t want a divorce. But if he had now given in he would have had to endure the laughter of his teasing friends for days. Everybody could see the gears turning around in his mind. Finally he calmly said, "You don’t have to tear down the poles, it’s only the leaves that are dirty!"
"Huh?" Kondabate shouted in amazement. But then she understood, and relieved she said, "Yes, these leaves are full of bugs." And together the two of them went to the river to wash the leaves. Then they hung them back on the hut. Never before had anyone washed leaves. But Kamaikan, Arobanai’s mother, took a few leaves from the roof of her hut and mumbled, "These bugs are really a nuisance!" And she too went to the river to wash leaves, as though that were the usual thing to do. And for a few more days, women went to the river and washed a few bug-ridden leaves, hiding their grins.
The days, like the river Lelo, flowed by easily. The forest made gifts to its children: nuts and roots, berries and fruit, mushrooms and meat. The young men showed off the animals they had killed and flirted with the girls. The old people wandered around close to the camp, but usually they sat in the shade and talked about their long-forgotten deeds. The children played near the river, climbed up the young trees in little groups until the trees began to sway and bend down to the water. Then they all jumped off, and whoever wasn’t quick enough got thoroughly shaken up by the rebounding tree. The men made little bows with blunt arrows for the little boys, and then the little girls and boys played hunting with a tired, placid frog. The women showed the girls how to build a little hut, and then, with great seriousness, the little girl cooked a meal of mud and nuts for her young friend. Then they went into the hut and played children making, the way they had seen their parents do it. In their games, they tried everything they would have to be able to do when they grew up, and without realizing it, the games would become the serious stuff of life. The children called all adults, "mother" or "father", every old person, "grandfather" or "grandmother", and someone could always be found, who would allow himself to be the hunted buffalo or a leopard that would jump out and ambush them and then eat them up while everybody laughed and giggled.
But the pole with the food basket that was always full next to the fire in the middle of the camp reminded them every day that a big feast was taking place, that the forest itself was being asked to remember its children and to be happy with them.
In these days, Kidaya was blessed with the blood. She proudly shared that information with her girl friends. And only a few days later it was Arobanai’s turn. Now, in addition to the the Molimo, there would be also be an Elima celebration. Aunt Kondabate built an addition to her hut, and the girls and their girl friends moved into it. From Kondabate they learned new songs here, songs that only women sing.
Some guests arrived. They were an old couple who normally lived with a hunting group in the north, people said. First they stayed in Sefu’s camp where the man had a relative. Then they came into the main camp. Old Moke greeted them respectfully. The old woman went straight to Kondabate’s hut. Kondabate also greeted her with great reverence. The girls watched her shyly. The old woman crouched down and sang and practiced with the girls. But she didn’t sing the songs of the women, the songs of Elima, she sang the songs of the Molimo that were reserved for men only. That scared the girls, but Kondabate nodded solemnly and started singing along. The girls joined in shyly.
On this evening there were not one, but four baskets filled with food hanging on the pole at the Kumamolimo. Manyalibo fetched a burning ember from every hut to light the the Molimo fire. The men and boys were excited and nervous when they started to sing. Then the girls came from the Elima hut, led by the old woman. She took embers from the the Molimo fire and lit a second fire next to the first. The women gathered around this fire. The girls, who had painted themselves with the stain from the black gardenia, danced in a long line, and the women sang the songs of the Molimo louder and louder and more and more forcefully. On this evening the women led the singing and the men sang along. The old woman from the north sat at the fire that she had lit and fixed her eyes on the flames. Across from her sat Kondabate, the beautiful Kondabate. As though spellbound by the old woman’s gaze, she too stared, motionless, into the flames. But then the old woman began using her hands to imitate a dance. She spread and bent her thin, dry fingers; her bony arms jerked and punched the air in every direction, as though they didn’t belong to her. But then she stood up and started dancing. She danced around the men’s fire, while the men sang without looking at her. Her singing and dancing became more and more intense. She jumped into the burning coals and danced in them. Then she started to kick the fire apart with her feet. With wild kicks she flung the embers in all directions, and the men had to dodge them as well as they could. Old Moke rose and gathered the fire together again, but the old one tore it apart again. In this way she reminded the men three times that it was the women who had tamed fire and tended it, that it depended on women whether the fire went out or kept burning, whether life ended or went on. Then the old woman grabbed a liana rope and looped it around the necks of one man after the other. Whoever had the noose around his neck hushed, and after the last man had been tied up, the singing stopped. For a while there was silence, broken only by the voice of the forest. Then old Moke said, "It’s true, we are bound. We are bound and can’t do anything. We have to give something to be free again." Ekianga said, "We’ll give the meat of the antelope to be free again." Manyalibo said, "Let’s also give the skin of the civet cat." The men agreed. Then the old woman undid the nooses, and those who had been freed started singing. The next morning the old woman and her husband had vanished.
Other visitors came: young men from groups whose hunting grounds were far away, many days of walking. The news of the Elima festival had spread quickly. Whenever hunters met hunters from other groups in the forest, they chatted and gossiped, and they found out the latest news about their relatives. They talked about each other’s luck at hunting, and the fine feats of great hunters they knew became even more amazing.
The young men joined the hunters of Apa Lelo. Most of them had aunts and uncles or distant relatives in the group, and they stayed with them or they hung out in the huts of the bachelors. Their aim was to get into the Elima hut in the evening. But the girls’ mothers guarded the hut and threw rocks and embers at the besiegers.
Sometimes the girls emerged, painted with white clay and armed with long, woven whips. They raced through the camp, and if they liked someone they lashed out at him with their whips. Sometimes they hit adults too and old men, but that was only for fun, a friendly tribute to their manliness. But when they hit an eligible bachelor, it meant that there was an obligation. The one who was hit had to visit the girl in the Elima hut.
Tumba, the one Arobanai had silently chosen, made himself scarce. So Arobanai and her friends decided to go look for him. They departed one early morning, their breasts and behinds decorated with white designs, and they ran to the west, following antelope and elephant trails. They ran with long, silent steps until late in the afternoon they reached the camp where Tumba’s group was staying. With yells, they descended upon the sleepy camp and chased the men around the huts. The men and boys defended themselves as well as they could, raced to the garbage piles behind the huts and threw whatever they could get in their hands at the fiery girls. Finally Arobanai caught sight of her chosen one. He was using his bow to shoot dry banana peels at the girls. But he had to throw in the towel to the nine wild combatants. Arobanai didn’t spare him.
On the fifth day he finally came to the Elima hut. He put up a manly fight against the mothers in order to get in, but after he had succeeded, he had done his duty. He could now either devote himself to Arobanai or leave, or he could choose another girl. And that’s what the guy did too. He flirted with Kidaya, and when night came, Arobanai could hear only too well what the two of them were up to. So she decided to grant a hearing to Aberi, who had fought his way into the hut on the first day and since then had tried to get her to like him by any means available. She would do with him what Tumba and Kidaya were doing, and if she liked it, she would ask him to hunt an antelope for her parents and to find a sister in his group who wanted to marry one of her brothers. And if she didn’t like it – there were more pretty boys out there, great hunters, who boasted that they would bring their bride’s parents not one, but two antelopes. Antelopes? No, an elephant or maybe even two! Life was beautiful. The forest took care of its sons and daughters. It gave them not only meat and fruit to eat and clear water to drink, but it also gave them fire, and it gave them the joys of love.
"It’s dark around us," whispered Arobanai,
"but if there is darkness,
then the darkness is good."
Then she lay down with Aberi on his mat and started to tickle him. He giggled and reached out for her.
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