Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dancing in Freedom Square

The last few weeks in Rumbek have been up and down. The Independence celebrations lasted for about a week, schools and many offices where closed and there were events every evening on Freedom Square (dances, athletics and football competitions).

On Saturday morning, the Bishop of Rumbek, Ceaser Mazzolari died while giving mass.  He has been in Rumbek since 1990 and was a big and popular figure. He opened the proceedings on Independence day and was very active in local events generally.  His passing has meant the schools are closed again while preparations for his burial and service are made. My Dinka language course has also been cancelled until next week.

In the mean time have been getting on with some of the more ‘fun’ aspects of my research. One of the things I have been interested in the archival records is the regulation of dances in the colonial period. There are quite a lot of references to the problems of dances as violent events that often got out of control and had to be more strictly managed by the chiefs and government authorities. I have written a short piece about it in this month’s issue of the UK Sudan Studies Journal.

I wanted to attend some dances here, and there have been many happening. The young men in the family I am staying with go every evening and they have been taking me along to see and meet people.

What happens is…groups of young men, wearing boxers, bits of tinsel (left over from the Independence celebrations) and smothered in dust parade into the centre of town. This is meant to give the appearance of people who live in the cattle camp (and it does, pretty well, do this). These groups of men, shouting, sweating a high on testosterone, produce an experience that is not dissimilar to watching a lad’s Friday night out in Newcastle. When they get to Freedom square they start a dance, mostly they are doing one that involves jumping round backwards in a circle, singing and shouting bull names, girls join in too.

After a bit of asking around I discovered that these dances are organised by local students, and they are supposed to be a celebration of Dinka ‘culture’.  It’s a kind of self-mimicry or self-representation. Many of the participants feel quite distant from the ‘cattle culture’ in town, but they find ways to display and venerate it. Even though most people I spoke to thought the technical abilities of the dancers left something to be desired…and they were apparently (though not to me) very obviously not the cattle keepers they were acting as.  A fascinating kind of cultural heritage production.

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