Illustration to accompany ‘A New Celebration’ by Simon & Buburuz, c. 1997
A NEW CELEBRATION
Narrated by Youssou Hissen Hadebe
Jamai was in her father’s garden, her copper-toned skin slick from the pouring rain. Not that it was the place to be on this, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, but what is one to do? Her long legs pranced among the millet stalks as she sang praises to Ngai.
Behind her glided a mechanical mahuti, which resembled a rooster in block form. Its cockscomb of sensors wriggled in search of grubs. The built-in box behind the ‘neck’ was already half-full of grain when I called from the trail: “May I help?”
Jamai glanced up with a smile and beckoned me on. Her rain shawl, I noticed, was embroidered with a tangled design of vines. Woven them was her totem, the butterfly. I shunted my sandals and joined her.
We were both in our mid-teens at that time. Although Jamal I s skin wasn’t black like mine, it is a feature our two families, the Hadebes and Dlaminis, have chosen to overlook. However, her strange features—those green eyes and split parentage—were enough to bar her from virtually all tribal functions.
“My uncle is visiting us today,” she said abruptly. The sudden break in the silence almost made me tear up a stalk by the roots. The mahuti chirruped imperiously as Jamai smiled and continued.
“I’ve never met him. My relatives in Kibarenge cut Baba off when he married Mama.” She rambled on in the same cheerful voice, plucking grains faster and faster. “I wonder what he’ll be like, if he’s as dour as Baba or…well, whatever.” There was a new huskiness under her natural Swahili, no doubt an influence of her mother’s spirit.
There were about twenty plots here, one for each of our village’s families. Fruit trees and amaranth bordered individual lands, and at alternating corners were container-blocks of humus. Our machines were housed in nearby sheds, from which they could be floated out at our convenience. A normal work shift would last six hours. Jamai didn’t have to pick the millet heads by hand, we had specialized tools for that. That was simply her way, the traditional ways she embraced.
Over the patter of rain she asked, “Youssou, is it true Kwanzaa did not originate in Africa?”
“That is so,” I replied. “My teacher says the ceremonies crossed over from the Americas about four or five hundred years ago, not long after the last war. It first landed on the Atlantic coast and spread inland like kudzu. Supposedly Kwanzaa has replaced all the old festivals lost in the destabilized times, and every people has made it to their own liking.”
“Ah. I ‘ve often wondered.” She reached into the humus-bag strung across her belly, and carne up empty, I shook myself off and started to rise, but she smiled and said, “Never mind.” Then she closed her eyes and stretched out her hand. Jamai had become very practiced in the use of her power. Except for the rise in the wind she gave few outward signs of its use. In the corner of the field, the humus block’s lid flopped open. Suddenly a black glob streaked towards her waiting hand.
It didn’t land gently. Dirt splattered in a dozen directions. Jamai t s eyes snapped open with a start and stared at the putrid clods scattered in a five-meter radius around her, and already attracting flies. “Sorry, I must have wished too hard
“So you have,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I see your butterflies are not around. Come to that I haven’t seen many caterpillars, either.”
She glanced at me meaningfully. “I can’t allow them in here,” she replied, turning away. “You don’t know how hard it is to keep them away. All this ready-made food is such a temptation even I–aiii!”
Her anguished cry and a sudden squirting sound made me snap around, Jamai’ s face and hands were drenched in a yellow, rancid-smelling liquid. I whirled at the rustle of grass in time to see a pair of ten-year-olds, led by an older boy, scurrying away. I ignored all three then and, taking off my overshirt, wiped Jamai ‘s face off. Then I yanked up the offender, a jokester’s squirting flower, and flung it among the weeds.
“If they put as much ambition into their studies as they did with their pranks,” I grumbled, “Baba Elgonyi would be the envy of Africa! Their fathers will hear of this–”
“No, they won’t.”
“Jamai, those boys should be punished.”
She gripped my arm and insisted, “Let them have their way. Once I’ve been initiated into the tribe, they’ll have no choice but to accept me.”
That made sense, so I let the matter drop. We worked another hour, trying to ignore the flies whining about us. When the rain petered down, we Ioaded the tools in the mahuti’s chute and sent it back to its shed.
The instant Jamai ‘s feet stepped from the field, she was swarmed by dozens of butterflies that almost seemed frantic for her company. A momentary spring carne into her step, and with her allies flapping around us we walked up the trail, lugging several sacks of pickings on our backs. A weaverbird poked its head from its nest as we passed, then nipped back inside to tend its young.
As our village, Baba Elgonyi, came in sight I felt Jamai’s nails dig into my arm. She smiled but her grip tightened. The shoulder-high grass was kept trim by automated mahutis to ankle-height in a twenty-meter radius around the village, which was bracketed by acacias.
By the time we reached Baba Elgonyi Jamai ‘s smile had vanished altogether. Old women scolded me with their eyes, their mouths puckering in disdain. Jamai glanced at a mother and child. The little one ducked behind her mother’s skirt, and Jamai stared longingly at the ground.
Part of me wanted to scream. What was the matter…no, I already knew. Part of it was pride. Our elders claimed to be the true custodians of African tradition. Such claims were dubious at best; our celebrating a festival that originated in the American Union ought to be proof of that!
Of all our people Jamai followed the Old Ways most faithfully, and that had to gnaw at their entrails. Yet the biggest part was that, emotionally, Jamai had always been something of a mouse. And mice attract -tormentors.
But this mouse had claws—a power she didn’t understand and couldn’t control. This, plus her outlandish appearance, made her someone to avoid. She didn’t want this but what could we do? Only slender, knobby-kneed Kalila Maji had the courage to call out to us. We exchanged greetings, then we moved on. I nearly jumped out of my skin when Jamai gave a husky shout: “HODI!”
Ah, we were near her father’s dwelling, so it was proper to announce our coming with the traditional cry. Her breath wheezed away in the next moment. I soon saw why. There stood her father Siboniso Dlamini and her grandmother Cele, old and frail but no less straight or proud than she’d been in her youth. I didn’t know the other fellow until Jamai whispered, “Uncle Kadar…”
So this was her long-lost uncle. He was a slight man, not so muscular as mzee Dlamini, but tall and lean. There was a difference in spirit, too. He practically radiated sociability and joy, a great contrast to his brother’s expressionless gloom.
At her father’s bidding Jamai approached with awkward steps, a gazelle in unfamiliar territory. I’d rarely seen her so small and brittle. After some time where she looked like she would swallow her teeth, she lowered her gaze and murmured, “Jambo, mzee.”
She wasn’ t ready to commit herself, uncle or no. The silence was abruptly shattered when Kadar Dlamini lunged and practically sucked her into an embrace. Her eyes flashed wide with shock. She glanced to me, mouthing, “What do I do?”
I shook my head, mouthed back: “Oh no, you decide
She bared her teeth. Slowly her fists uncoiled and clung to her uncle’s tunic. The elder Dlaminis took Jamai inside their hut. I was still standing there rather stupidly until Cele Dlamini squeezed my arm, saying, “We shall expect your family for dinner this evening.” Then she too entered the hut,
At home in my room I lay on a woven grass mat hoping to relax. I started thinking, anyway. I suppose it was my youth, yet for several seasons the Kwanzaa ceremonies hadn’t meant as much as it had when I was a child. Jamai was part of the problem. In past Kwanzas she was always at her father’ s knee. I made a habit at each year’s karamu dance of asking her to dance. She in turn always refused and I would find another partner. At night’s end she would compliment my dancing and follow docily behind her father.
In the two seasons past Jamai had been a stranger to the dance, and I had found partners few and far between. No one was accusing me of being a kohingo, or heart- breaker; they simply found excuses to beg off on.
What was it with Jamai and me? Since our first meeting I ‘d treated her like a younger sister… well, perhaps that was it. I’ d lost a brother and sister before my eighth year. I must have had a need to protect those closest to me. Perhaps I think too much, also,
My family’ s dinner was quiet. All the Kwanzaa implements were spread on the sacred mat. Center-stage as it were was held by the kinara, or candelabrum, having one candle for each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. At one corner was the corn, symbolizing children. My father’s eyes often wandered to them, perhaps remembering the ones he had lost, On the wall behind us was the bendara flag with Nguzo Saba, the Seven Values, written across its red, black and green bands.
On the five days past we had celebrated the principals guiding us and knitting our peoples’ together. Tonight, the sixth, was no exception. Our words were no different than any other families, so I will not waste any space in repeating them. It was afterwards that we threaded our way through the crowd gathering for the evening’s festivities to mzee Dlamini t s dwelling.
We heard the ululations and stamping of happy dancers from our host’s guest room. Tonight was the community feast Karamu, and all the village’s families had come together to celebrate. Later on would come the libation speech. For now there would be singing, dancing and poets expounding their verse.
Kadar Dlamini, I observed, listened to the ringing drums with delight. A cushioned bench ran around the inner curve of the partition wall, separating this room from the rest of the house. I sat beside my parents, then carne Jamai’s grandmother and the two reunited brothers. Jamai was on her knees, much to her father’s chagrin, at his feet. Traditionally this was the place for an elder’s daughter, though frankly I think Jamai took the Old Ways too literally sometimes.
The unity cup was passed around, beginning with Siboniso Dlamini. Jamai sipped from it next, then her uncle Kadar until we each had taken a sip. After much small talk, Kadar turned to Jamai. “Your father tells me you have been silent these five nights regarding Nguzo Saba,” said he. “Does something disturb you? Tell us.”
“No, nothing is the matter, n she replied, too softly. “I haven’t found my direction, that’s all. It’s nothing.”
It was a lie, everybody knew that. We also knew it was a matter to be discussed in private, so we did not press her. Now Kadar Dlamini addressed his brother. “It is time I explained why I am here. But first, I want it known that I had no objections to your marriage outside the tribe. That is your own affair.”
“Thank you, brother,” Siboniso Dlamini said.
“Brother, our family has finally been persuaded that fifteen years has been long enough. Your kin invite you to spend the final days of Kwanzaa in Kibarenge.”
A world of expression chased itself across mzee Dlamini’s face—disbelief, doubt, finally open-mouthed joy. This news had to be the fulfillment of fifteen years’ hopes. Jamai pressed his knees together and nodded excitedly. Still, he hesitated. “Brother, I’m delighted, but …I am expected to deliver the libation speech tonight—”
“Leave them a visual,” Cele Dlamini snorted. “Others have done so.”
“Then I accept, brother. Tell our elders Jamai and I won’t be long.”
Kadar’s features lengthened. His hands twitched as he spoke “Brother, the invitation…was for you alone.” The regret was evident in his tones. Still, the effect on mzee Dlamini was electric.
“Is that supposed to be an invitation? You welcome me and reject my child!”
“It wasn’t my decision! The family elders are not prepared to accept one of foreign blood, even now. I told them this was foolish–”
“Not bloody well hard, it would seem!”
Neither combatant noticed their mother Cele pull her shawl tighter around her body. With a sinking heart I looked to Jamai. Her hair was beginning to stir, a sure sign of the spirits working in her. “Elders I said quietly, but my father silenced me with an impatient gesture. Beside me Mama asked, “Youssou, is there a ventilation leak somewhere?”
I swallowed, then gave her an abashed smile. Cele Dlamini had also noticed and sat erect. Jamai’s hair now flowed as though it were propelled by a harmattan wind. Only when the walls creaked did the elder DIaminis cease fighting. This home had survived earthquakes and monsoons with impunity. Now we could all feel the floor shudder under our heels. Power was building inside her spirit and I feared a terrible blow when it was released.
Trembling with her own turmoil, Jamai slammed her hands on her knees, shrieking like an enraged mandrill: “SHUT UP!”
Thunder smashed in our ears, rock scraped. The room threw us in a sideways lurch. When our hearts resumed beating, at a faster pace now, we saw a crack in the partition wall behind the two brothers deep enough and wide enough to slip one’s hand into.
After that spectacle nobody dared speak. Jamai sagged onto her knees; these surges were always a drain, I knew. The scent of perspiration salted the air. I will not be the cause of this,” she said. “Go with him, Baba. I will stay.”
“That’ s a relief.”
My family and I stared with absolute astonishment, as did Cele Dlamini–and Kadar. The speaker, Siboniso Dlamini, glanced around the circle of faces and hastily added, “The better to heal our family’s rift. Perhaps next year they will have come to their senses and accept my child.”
Next year, I fumed inside. How many times had I heard this before? Next dance, next Kwanzaa. But Jamai nodded, as she had countless times before.
Needless to say our gathering degenerated into polite conversation. My family said its farewells long before Jamai had begun to clear the dishes. While the others said their goodbyes, I ducked towards the kitchen when Jamai was scrubbing dishes by hand, alleviating her frustration in fevered activity.
Then her uncle stepped in from another doorway. I hung back, fuming, as he paused, his hands crossed in front. With her back still turned Jamai said with a plea, “Leave me alone.”
Kadar took her arm and turned her to him. “Little one, this isn’t what I wanted. Your cousins are simply… dense.” Jamai huffed, but she almost smiled. “You understand?”
She nodded again, deferring in silence. He hugged her, and then, perhaps because of the surroundings, my head cleared. Yes, I thought, there was still something I could do. I wasted no time gathering allies. Hurrying back to the guest room, I took Mama and Cele Dlamini aside. They needed little persuading to go along with my plan.
Everything fell into place fairly easily. Yes, yes, we didn’t have the official Kwanzaa implements, but we made do. In a clearing not far from Baba Elgonyi, a poster-board became our mat, leftovers our provider. Between us we were able to cop seven candles and a pair of antiques which, when put close together, made a fair imitation of a kinara.
I was helping to hang silk screen prints from my room on nearby limbs and vines. As she arranged our makeshift table-mat, Cele Dlamini asked, “Aren’t you concerned you may well widen the rift between yourself and your friends? You cannot be loyal to two masters.”
I paused only a moment in my actions; Cele Dlamini did not. “You are a hunter who has chanced upon a gazelle of extraordinary loveliness,” she said. “Moreover, it heeds your voice. Your brothers fear it is diseased from its mother’s womb, that this is why its mother died. Soon they begin to fear you have been as well, and with sticks and pebbles they try to drive it off. For your sake, it will not leave.”
She straightened over her work and studied me wryly. “Why am I different?” I blurted, “Why am I the only one to see what’s good in her?”
“When you see my granddaughter, she replied, “You behold what a wonderful thing Ngai has created. That is your gift. There is also your father’s stubborn streak. You may need that. There will come a time you will have to stand alone by her side.”
“Let them come,” I retorted. “I will fight them, individually or in pairs–” And I may have gone on all night if Cele Dlamini hadn’ t laughed. I laughed, too, but she had given me pause. My spirit was part of the rocks and springs and the land that was Baba Elgonyi. To be cut off from my friends and kin was not part of my plan, if one could say that I even had a plan. I turned to the third party in our conspiracy. “What of you, Kali la Maji? Is the risk worth the prize?”
“My father is not the council of elders,” she replied in her birdsong voice. She stood in the fork of a ground-hugging tree, hanging ribbons. “Not everybody hates Jamai, they just haven’t the courage to rise above the rabid jackals in charge.”
That was a point I hadn’t considered, Kalila was hanging another ribbon when Mama staggered through it. Cele Dlamini and I rushed to take her burdens.
And what burdens! A fiber-sack dangled from one arm, a tote of food was tucked in the other. On her head was a silvery box-like contraption which Kalila snatched up while we exchanged “jambos.” “An Atomizer 2-7!” she exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted one!”
I ignored her ramblings over the music box and asked Mama where Jamai was. She panted, “She’ll be along shortly. She wants us to play the track on that disc.”
That was more in Kalila’s field. Like an excited monkey she fiddled with controls, seemingly at random but with actual precision. Fortunately she tuned the volume down to .05; after all, it was not called an Atomizer without good reason.
From the machine came a steady pounding of a drum, beating a one-two rhythm. Toom-dm-dm-toom…then, above the drumbeats there was a shaking of leaves. Her presence was near, yes. My gaze rose into the tangle of’ vines above.
From a point five meters above us issued a keening moan, A silhouette began to rise, arms curved like leopard’s claws. There was no need to guess who that shadow was. Beside me, Mama gasped. Cele Dlamini was more serene, watching Jamai with interest. As for myself, I felt a surge of excitement rising in my belly. Jamai did not disappoint us.
Her arms snaked up and crossed above her head. While the rest of her body was quite still, her hips swayed sinuously, attentive to the drum’s every beat. The keening became a whisper, then a song.
With hips still in motion, she did a half-turn, curtsey, another spin. She glided beneath a branch, moving with a butterfly’s grace. Mama began to keen, too, though for vastly different reasons. Meanwhile, Kalila Maji was whispering quiet encouragement as Jamai went on with the dance.
The drumbeats quickened. Jamai I s feet pattered faster on the branch, about as fast as my heart thumped within my chest. The branches had to be slippery from the recent downpour. One slip would bring her crashing down. No, I scolded myself, I wouldn’t allow such thoughts.
She spun, her feet completely leaving their perch. For an instant that stretched into infinity my body went numb and my blood turned to water. In the same breath she completed the turn. Jamai flung her arms wide and with a cry of “haiii!”, the dance was over.
She clambered down a vine to our applause. Flushed and perspiring from her endeavor she ran to me, crying, “Jambo, Youssou! Habari yako?”l
“Mauri sana, Jamai,” I replied, adding, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
Jamai overlooked that remark. “Mama Hadebe, Jambo! And Kalila Maji, tool What a far-flung conspiracy you’ve gathered, Youssou!”
We settled down for what amounted to a small snack. Here talk was not stifled by fear of idle ears. Kalila and Jamai spoke of women’s things until I had the muster to ask, “How did you, well…?”
“You are glass, Youssou,” Jamai said wickedly. “My eyes are everywhere, in the tallest baobab or the lowliest sprig.” A pale-winged butterfly fluttered onto the knuckle of her upraised finger, which made her point rather effectively. “When my friends showed me your haul it wasn’t hard to guess your intent. Besides, you have been a good and trusty friend. I wanted to thank you without words.”
“You have,” I agreed, raising a gourd. We all did the same and together drank a toast. I ‘m afraid Cele Dlamini dampened our festive spirit.
“Granddaughter, it is still customary for you to speak what you believe about the Seven Values. Has Nguzo Saba no meaning for you?”
Jamai bowed her head. “No, Grandmother, why should it? I don’t know I should believe about myself, or where I belong.”
“We know that,” Kalila grinned. “That’s why we invited you here, so we could be a clan unto ourselves
Jamai hadn’t yet raised her eyes, but a smile grew at the corners of her mouth. “You’re right, I am a selfish child. Perhaps…” She reached into the trusty pouch around her waist. “I should give this to you now.”
She passed me a narrow wooden tube, with holes drilled along the spine. “You made me a flute,” I said, rather stupidly.
know you like made-things,” she said. I blew in the mouthpiece and was rewarded with a pleasant whistle. Not perfect, but well enough. Jamai started to turn away.
I held up the cloth-wrapped package I’d been carrying all night. Jamal watched as I peeled back the corners, then her eyes flashed bright, green. I was holding an armband of polished brass. On it was a raised pattern featuring her totem, with its wings spreading from the hinged edge. It took me three months to make but her awed stare was worth all the effort.
She hardly breathed as I clapped the band to her arm. For the longest time she fondled it, just grazing it with her fingertips. Taking her hand, I guided her to our improvised kinara.
Five of the seven candles were lit. She took one tapir, I took another. As we touched the tiny flames to the last candles, the distant drumbeats from the village reached a shattering crescendo…then died out altogether.
The tapirs froze in our hands. The dance wasn’ t scheduled to end before dawn; it was scarcely past moonrise, Kalila Maji hurried back to investigate. Jamai climbed onto the fork of a dead baobab and watched her do. Twenty minutes later Kalila returned with news that made the lot of us pack our things and follow her home.
Everything was as Kalila had said. The beaten paths in the marketplace were deserted. Lights shone from every home, but not a soul was about in the village. A circle of inward-curving hooklamps still illuminated the Celebratory Square. In the purified dust, delivered only five days ago, were the imprints of dozens of feet, all leading away from the lights.
Jamai gazed at me with beetled brows, but I couldn’t understand this, either. The karamu was the height of our Kwanzaa festivities. Where had everyone gone? Suddenly my father appeared, calling “Jambo, my friends!” We all mumbled a dazed “jambo” and continued to stare like mesmerized goats.
Father said to Jamal, “I didn’t hear what you said to your baba, child, but it appears he has heeded you. What did you tell him?”
Jamai fidgeted with her hands. “I-I only spoke from my heart,” she said. “I said I was tired, that I wanted to dance with the elder mothers like every other girl.”
As I listened Jamai t s shoulders no longer slumped. The hesitancy vanished from her voice. “I told him I wanted to run with the children and browse in the market without feeling like the crawling death. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Father beckoned us into the communal hut. Once in the ground floor Reception Hall, he played back the libation visual that mzee Dlamini had given a little over an hour ago.
It wasn’t, a flattering speech. The entire village was brought under condemnation for ‘having violated the spirit of Kwanzaa’, as he put it. This was on account of our arrogance, he said, and our self-deception in believing we represented the pure African. He closed by saying, “Go to your homes, and contemplate the folly we have all committed.”
None of us knew what to say. Father solemnly stood. “The elders have rescheduled the karamu for two nights hence. We would be honored if you would attend, Jamai Dlamini.”
Upon hearing this Jamai’s arms flopped to the ground where she knelt. Her eyes shone as she tried to stammer a reply. “She says yes, Father,” I finally said.
“What does my father say? n Kalila asked.
“He boils as the waters of Baganda Falls,” Father chuckled, “but in this he was overruled.” At Father’s urging our little party returned to our homes also. All but Jamai and me. Her hands still brushed the gleaming band on her arm.
“The dance you did tonight was the most assertive act you’ve ever done,” I told her. “I’ m proud that you did this for us.”
“For you, she whispered, with an intensity l t d never heard from her before. ” l’ d walk through Hell for you, Youssou. I’ve tasted your heart and know it to be true.” Her hands sought mine, squeezed tight. “Whatever comes, whatever devils we might face, know that I am yours, flesh, blood and spirit.”
“And I ‘m yours,” I replied with equal fervor. Hand in hand we watched the flames of the kinara, burning bright.
This story was originally published in Medusa’s Hairdo, @ 1997 Byrd White Press, editor Beverly Moore.