Skip to main content

“Champion!” they say as we walk back through the fields to the homestead where we’ll be served beer in compensation for our efforts. I raise my fist in celebration: I apparently won today’s cultivation. I seem to remember finishing in at least fifth place due to exhaustion and confusion, rather than genuine completion, but I’m not going to argue about that now. We arrive, the 30 or so original cultivators mysteriously appearing to have acquired a few more members, including Charlie who comes around the corner at just the right time. A bucket of water is brought out and we attempt, mostly in vain, to wash off some of the dirt from our hands and feet. Everyone leaves their hoe on the rocks outside and I make sure to point mine out to someone else so at least they can remember. We enter the main courtyard of the homestead and I linger awkwardly until someone can point for me where to sit. The children arrange themselves, after some brief animated discussion, in perfect age order along one small bench. Next to them sit some of the teenagers with me placed slightly separately. Next year is the grand finale of the male initiation process, known as Wa, where two (maybe three, yet to be determined) 20 something year olds will dance to become fully fledged adults. This year is full of anticipation and preparation for the next and so the two and a half initiates are seated distinctly on the next bench. The rest of the adults line themselves around the rest of the courtyard, ending with the elders being seated at the opposite end of the children.

A large bucket filled with beer and a basket filled with the wooden drinking bowls, known as calabashes, are brought out. The man who usually serves the beer, who we refer to as ‘Sideways Hat Guy’, sits down, turns his hat to the side and starts filling the bowls. The man who usually distributes the beer, who we refer to as ‘Alain’ (his real name), takes the bowls one by one and gives them out, beginning with the host and then working the way down the age hierarchy. These two always coordinate perfectly so that each time Alain makes a trip back to the central bucket, Sideways Hat Guy is ready to hand him the next calabashe and in a short time everyone has a drink in their hands. Having just worked non-stop for a couple of hours, everyone is pretty tired so there is subdued conversation, if at all. One of the initiates has a small stick in his mouth, signifying that he cannot speak, but all of them are sat very peacefully as they are under observation by almost everyone present to scrutinise their ability to behave as mature adults. After a few minutes, one of the men gets on his knees a few metres away from the initiates and crawls towards them, making a clicking sound with his tongue. He stops directly beneath one, virtually coiling himself around his legs and begins whispering pleas and demands in Kabiyé, while the initiate stares into the distance impassively. The man on the floor puts his hands around the initiate’s calabashe and continues to try to coax it from him, until eventually giving up and crawling away again. As a reward for resisting giving away the beer, the man soon returns, this time with a chicken in his hand, and once again crawls towards them. This time, he stops a short distance before and expertly bashes the chicken’s head on the floor and releases it to allow it to twitch briefly before dying. It is placed under the initiate’s feet and I seem to be the only person who realised that anything has just happened. Next, the young children all stand up and walk over to the initiates and each pour a small amount of their drink into the initiates’ calabashes until they are all full to the brim again. They return to their seats but soon finish their drinks and leave, presumably at the instruction of the elders.