culture: two

yesterday afternoon (sunday) i did something terribly touristy.

generally i am someone who, when traveling, tries to stay away from large groups of tourists. or, if i do get close/wrapped up in a tour-group i tend to observe them with as much fascination as i would observe any culture. travel, to me, should be an opportunity to learn new things, form relationships as well as a deeper understanding of a place. (basically, traveling should be pilgrimage. but that is another post for another day.)

back to yesterday afternoon–after much internal debate i decided that i would go to the bomas of kenya for the cultural-dance show. i love cultural dances and music. as a matter of fact, i do not think there is a culture whose dancing and singing i would not enjoy viewing/hearing or taking part in (at least once) so i didn’t have to work very hard to convince myself to go.

my cultural adventure began with modern-traditional kenya: taking a matatu. a matatu is the 15 passenger van that functions as a shared taxi, running specific routes like buses. this, however, makes the system sound far to organized. that is another subject for another post, i digress.

i waited at the ‘stage’ for a matatu going the direction i wanted to go, and boarded a hunters-orange matatu named “nutty professor”, paid the nice conductor my 5 shillings and held on for dear life as we bumped along the road. in typical matatu fashion, about 2km from where we started the engine overheated. a lovely woman named robinnah pointed me in the direction of the bomas and said i would be better off walking. she was right.

i reached the bomas, was proposed to by the 2 gate guards (competing proposals, mind you) and walked to the entrance of the auditorium. i was (of course) a little late and the show was beginning as i stood in line for my ticket. if i hadn’t argued with the fellow selling the tickets i wouldn’t have missed the first dance. (technically, as an east-africa resident i should not have to pay the massively-higher expat fee [read: tourist fee]. but i forgot my passport at corat so couldn’t “prove” it with my work-permit. apparently my uganda driving permit doesn’t count!)

the dances and the music were really interesting and well done.  the percussion ensemble alone was worth the price of my ticket, though! drums and other traditional percussive instruments were played together fusing instruments and beats from all over kenya. (and of course ‘jambo kenya…’)

as i mentioned, i really enjoy cultural dances and music–but the more i attend shows like this one (“professional”)the more i wonder about it. for example: when it was the samburu warrior dance, with the men jumping and the women singing their praises after their “successful cattle raid” i was…underwhelmed. the men were dressed like samburu warriors, but the ochre in their hair was fake. as a matter of fact, they were wearing wigs that were just ochre colored. and while they jumped, and they jumped well–i couldn’t help but thinking about the real-live warriors in karamoja…whose jumping is filled more pride and passion than perhaps any ‘outsider’ can muster. the men of the bomas jumped well, and are quite fit–but they did not express that necessary…something that is there when people are truly doing their dances. truly singing their songs.
i don’t know, maybe i am just ready to be back in karamoja. or maybe i’m just “spoiled” by being allowed a sneak-peek into the ‘real’ lives of people doing their dances… the ngikarimajong in karamoja, the muganda in buganda, the acholi in acholi-land…the ateso in teso. there is just something more… real about seeing the people who own the dances and the songs living them rather than performing them.

at the end of the performance, during a luo dance guess who was pulled down on stage to dance? this kid. i could feel my face turning beat red, but tried to just let go and learn from the gentleman who pulled me from my seat and the women who soon surrounded me, wrapped me in a conga, put a headdress on me and passed me around–hips a shakin. it was a great time! they even danced me off stage with them to the dressing rooms where everyone (including me) was sad i didn’t have a camera!

another part of the ticket price includes a tour of traditional “villages” on the grounds. i had not planned on touring these, but after paying the full tourist-price for the ticket, i figured i’d better at least check it out. the “villages” are collections of traditional houses built and labeled as to which part people group they belong to, and what is what. For example, in the luo community you can see the “husband’s house”, “first wife’s house”, “second wife’s house” and “married son’s house” as well as granaries and cattle “shade”.
i wandered around behind a tour group, only listening in when the guide was explaining something i hadn’t seem before, or listening to a mzunug’s questions.

frankly, i found this whole part of the experience creepy. these empty huts with no signs of life… no fire burning, no children running around… no mamas cooking/peeling/beading/directing children… no chickens, cows or goats… it was, well. dead.

for me it felt less like a cultural experience and more like kenya’s version of disney or something. no flashing lights or rides, but just places to tour. totally out of context and dead. no life was there. it made me uncomfortable and uneasy.
and ready to get back to life.

and then i made a mistake.
the guide was talking about the hut representing turkana’s homes. and i noticed that this one was made from palm fronds. you cannot find palm fronds in turkana, at least not what i’ve seen. from what i have seen and heard about homes in turkana (that is kenya’s north western corner that borders with karamoja, by the way) they are built from sticks. like massive baskets, really. so i wanted to ask about this, and see if some turkana homes are indeed built from palms.

i tried to ask the guide while no one was listening, it was just a quick question but turned into what i was dreading. a tourist overheard my question–listened to the answer and my explaining how in the world i know where turkana/that i live in uganda etc. and then the following came pouring forth: “you must be so brave!” “it must be so hard!” “you must do really good work!” “you must be ready to go home to civilization!”

i still do not know what to do when people respond to me in this way. i do my best to deflect-saying that i’m not really all that brave–that it is delightful and yes, sometimes difficult. i tried not to say “how would you know about my work-what if i’m terrible at it?” (and succeed) and just ignored the civilization comment. (none of us in the group had time for that.)

needless to say, it was not the end to a cultural experience i was hoping to have that day. but, it was a cultural experience nonetheless. when the tour ended and we were, of course, channeled into the craft market i learned how to play a pentatonic scale marimba from the swahili coast, danced with 2 toddlers (all 3 of us playing gourds with shells on them–their father playing the marimba, their uncle on traditional flute and mama clapping the beat) greeted every shop owner and emerged on the other side having not spent a shilling.

i then tried really hard to not feel a little smug when i walked to the matatu stage while the tour group battled traffic in their cushy bus. why would i dare to feel smug? because there is nothing like sitting thisclose with your two newest and literally closest friends while rockin out to the latest swahili rap. something about life comes to mind…


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