Thursday, July 29, 2010

Osiri Hill, Kenya, Part 2

 Wednesday, 14 July, 2010

I spent another day in the company of the Luo around Osiri Hill.  We arrived a little earlier than yesterday since we had so much to do, and this was our last day here.  As happened yesterday, a group of dancers and singers met our car.  This time, it was a group of women, in fact, an organization headed by Hellen Akinyi Kanda Nyakobiero, that benefits local women and children.  They hopped and popped and helped bring some of the others out of their shyness throughout the day.

 No more opening ceremonies for this day—we got right down to it, having performances throughout the day of stories, riddles, history, quizzing on traditions and customs, and proverbs.  It seems that, thanks in part to Hellen, but also to the general vibe, people were a bit more relaxed today, which led to some wonderful interactive oral literature.  I should perhaps mention that performances here, and also generally in Africa, involve the audience in ways that would seem downright inappropriate to a western audience.  The performers often go through a ritual call-and-response greeting and then, throughout the performance, entertain the audience’s comment, jibes, often incorporating them into the whole.  There is a kind of willing participation—active rather than passive reception—that enlivens the performances here and makes them unique to the occasion.  Of course, I will be exploring how nonsense may play a role in this distinctly African way of performing.

In our break from performances, we walked down to the shores of Lake Victoria, where I could, if I so desired, walk in the steps of the hippo, their tracks sunk deep in the mud. 

We walked through the fields of wild ongongo, tall and strong arid wildflowers, to return to the hut.

And now it was time for my performances…  Because most of the audience had little or no English, I chose the more performative pieces, “The Bathing Hymn” from The Tenth Rasa, and “The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” (from Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play—and by the way, thank you Mrs. Quinto, not only for the leather trousers but for allowing me to perform this in Oral Communication in the Year of Dour Gourd, 198XX).
"This is the story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles!"
Towards the end of the day, we were able to ask the participants to give some of the children’s rhymes they knew, which of course are often brimming with nonsense (and this is why people are reluctant to perform them, sadly).  And then, as an experiment of sorts, we actually asked them for nonsense.  Of course, the word for "nonsense" in Luo, in its literal meaning, does not designate a literary genre, although there is a different word, oyuma, that implies a kind of silliness and stupidity of speech that has some semblance of structure.  Adrian tried to explain a little, but we left the rest up to the group as to how they might represent a performance of oyuma.  The result was hilarious:


This film is of Hellen Akinyi Kanda Nyakobiero, the leader of the dance group mentioned above.  A few people arose and performed this kind of piece, ones mostly involving sounds, laughter, wild gestures and facial expressions, and audience engagement.  Few words were spoken, and the audience loved it.  Most interesting to me was that it seemed that this kind of performance was an accepted part of their repertoire—a kind of nonsense performance that even Adrian, who has done significant research and field work, didn’t know (note bene: Adrian’s field work has mostly involved the story of the Luo hero, Gor Mahia, which is distinctly non-nonsensical).  As texts, these are mostly just sounds and gibberish, and so my western scholarly brainbean wants  immediately to exclude them from the nonsense cannon.  As performance of oral literature, however, they have structure, sense implication, and other goodliness that my students will recognize as hallmarks of the Real Thing.  As I try to consider concepts of performance nonsense, which would have to be the main mode of African nonsense oral literature, I can see how these “texts” could indeed be considered nonsense.  Certainly fodder for future floundering.

By way of a croaking goodbye, I performed one last piece, “Dürgen Chugaa,” the Tuvan fast-talking nonsense chant by the group Alash, in my best counter-counter-baritone kargyraa throat-singing.

After a long, leguminous day of nonsensical proporpoises, we had to say our goodbyes, with an array of speeches and much goodwill bubbling up and reaching from Lake Victoria to the top of the Inspiration Tree.  One of the men said to the crowd that these performances reminded them of the richness of their own oral literature—something that, with “developed” cultures continually encroaching on the “developing,” they tend to forget. I was told to bring word of the Luo to Obama himself, and I promise that if I ever meet him, I shall. 

Imagine spiritual ostrich feathers on my head