The Dance in Kenya - An adventure in a missionary village in Africa

I had been staying in a missionary village called Nakwamoru in North West Kenya for four days. Located in the Turkana desert the medium sized village is inhabited by two priests (one Irish and one local), a dozen or so nurses and around seven hundred of the local Turkana people.

It was my last night and dusk fell at around six o'clock . As the sun slipped behind the Cherangini Hills the punishing heat of the day lifted and a warm evening took its place. Darkness enveloped the village. I was dining with a small group in the mission house. We had just finished our evening meal when a distant murmur of little spirited melodies began to trip across the village for all to hear. "The young people dancing" I was informed. It was an intriguing sound.

Ashi a trainee priest from Nigeria and Ekai a local Turkana agreed to go with me to the source of the musical hubbub. It would mean a walk of approx ½km across the village. It was a moonless night and there was no illumination from any building except from the mission house. My two colleagues were both dark skinned Africans and so they camouflaged brilliantly in the night. Before setting off a torch was placed in my hand. This was not just in order to find the way, I was told, my self preservation was at stake.

After darkness none of the missionaries ever go outside without a torch. A beam of light is essential to ward off the roaming scorpions that come out at night to scuttle across the sand. If trod upon their instinct is to flail and bite.

That evening I was wearing a pair of breezy sandals and was thus fair game for any wily scorpions. We proceeded across the sand cautiously. Pointing our torch and our attention at the ground we navigated acoustically towards the source of the musical song. Our tentative crossing of the sands took a little over ten minutes and thankfully we met no poisonous chompers on the way.

Arriving, we stumbled into an electric atmosphere of mania. The air was muggy and there was a thick alfresco smell of sweat. In the dark and with no illumination of their own were roughly one hundred young Turkana gathered together in a swirling crowd.

Their pounding bare feet leapt about stirring up great clouds of dust. My eyes squinted adjusting to the scene and I moved around to get a good view. Many were clad in tee-shirts and light clothes while others had traditional cloaks and neck adornments. In the middle of the crowd swaying to and fro was a shifting circle of dancers holding hands. All those forming the enclosure sang together in unison.

Others moved from the outside to the middle of the circle and leapt into the air. Many different rhythms were clapped out and a competition arose amongst the encircled jumpers. They were nearly all men and in striving for the highest leap each was attempting to attract the most female attention.

I was determined to take some photos of this amazing event. I bustled my way as near to the edge of the circle as I could, prepared my camera and snapped a picture. The flash split the darkness of the sky. Screams of excitement and fear erupted, but hardly without missing a beat, all resumed the song and motion of dance. Cameras are unknown in Turkana.

The only flashes ever seen come from gunshots. On four occasions my camera flash blazed the night and each time all the singing swelled into a collective yowl before quickly subsiding to a rambling hedonistic chant and chorus. The photography didn't stall the evening; it made its own contribution to the intoxicated dervish.

The flashes did declare however that there was a visitor among the locals. Hitherto I had been barely noticed but now I quickly became an object of curiosity. Wherever I paused or stopped a crowd quickly gathered, peering at me astutely.

The tables were turned; I was now the exotic object. A multitude of silent starers persistently surrounded me in the dark and I began to feel unsettled. I located Ashi and Ekai and we left the dance and began heading back to the mission's house. While walking and as the sound of dance dropped off, Ekai explained that many the songs we had heard were about rain and cattle, the two great organs of life for the Turkana.

Back outside the mission's house we bid eachother goodnight. I was tired and ready for sleep and so I went to prepare for bed. However, the night's acoustics were not over. Many, many crickets had come in to hide in the house and were chirping loudly in high chorus.

I located and silenced the ones that were in my room but I was resigned to undertake a similar hushing up of the rest of the house. It reverberated with cricket melody. I lay down upon my bed, draping my mosquito net over me. As the day's tiredness accumulated and I began falling asleep the resonating crickets began to harmonize with the continuing song from the distant dance. Amidst the humidity of the night's drama, I drifted into dream.

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