Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Bwola Dance

Gulu, Uganda. The Saturday before last:

An Irish woman is sitting near Hannah and I at Kope Cafe. She gets up to do something that wazungu often do in Gulu Town: complain.

"I ordered my food over an hour ago," she barks at the man behind the counter. "Is it coming or not?" He assures her that it is and, a couple minutes later, out it comes.

A few minutes pass and the unmistakable rumble of a parade rounds the corner. Hannah and I, along with everybody else in the restaurant except for the Irish woman, gather outside.

A banner proclaims: "Manchester United Fans."

A rag-tag marching band slams out a boom-chuck beat and fills the air with triumphant brass.

Following them, a man in a red Manchseter United jersey, the uniform of the British football team, yells into a microphone, riding atop a white pickup truck weighed down with giant speakers and fans waving Manchester flags. One of them holds up a poster of the great footballer Nani.

All around the truck, men in red jerseys chant and dance, going forth with their knees bent low.

The parade passes. Hannah, myself and everybody else return to the interior of quiet Kope Cafe. The Irish woman is enjoying her smoothie, no doubt, but she has a sour expression. I read The Saturday Monitor. Hannah reads The Independent. Two hours pass and we are served: an omelette for Hannah, pancakes for me. We eat, pay, exit and then proceed down Gulu's main drag.

Gulu is abuzz today. The parade is up ahead. The weighed-down white pickup blasts the indestructible beat of Acholiland: a driving kick, a shaker going double-time, jaunty tom-toms.

Hannah decides to fetch her camera in our hotel room. I am equipped with notebook and pen. Thematically, but not on purpose, I'm wearing bright red Ray-Ban knock-offs. We chase the parade.

We merge with the crowd as we enter a wide, dusty field. Hannah branches off to ride on the hood of a car. I'm just behind the weighed-down pickup. The fan on board looks around at the crowd and yells, over and over, "Mansester fan! Mansester fan!"

Men in red jerseys are everywhere. Some of them walk up and ask me if I'm a fan. No, I say, I'm a journalist. Accordingly, I try to make sense of what's happening. Did Manchester win a game today? Yesterday? Will they play tomorrow? Has the season opened or closed? They give vague and unclear answers. Later, Stella, a student at Makerere University, explains that Manchester won the season and brought their shining cup to Kampala for a stupendous celebration. That was last May, she adds.

So, then, it's just a celebration.

Sammy, a gaunt, red-jerseyed fan with a huge smile, shakes my hand. He tells me that the parade has just visited Gulu Hospital. Now, a contingent of fans will present boxes of laundry soap to the inmates at Gulu Government Prison.

"You should be friendship to everybody," he tells me.

It's right over that way, he says, gesturing off to the left. Henry Kaija, a prison officer, a rather young and gentle-looking man with a generous expression and a "Rooney 10" jersey, red of course, bids me to come along. Already Hannah, taking photos a few yards away, has been invited by some other fans. We look at each other and agree to go to prison with them.

The police in Uganda wear khaki fatigues and tote AK-47s. The cover story of The Independent this week is about the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, and how the police force is building its muscle as the strong arm of President Yoweri Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement. The police used not to play the army's role - and in fact most police did not support Museveni - but now, apparently, it does.

In early June, the police raided the offices of the Democratic Party. Then, two opposition MPs were thrown in jail after staging public demonstrations. A few days later, Kampala District MP Nabila Sempala was touring her district when police dragged her off to jail, all the while tearing at her skirt. In protest, on the day of presenting the 08/09 National Budget, opposition MPs walked out of parliament.

This is bad, but the Independent investigation team expects much worse by the time of the 2011 parliamentary and Presidential elections.

Taking all of this into account, you might expect the police of Gulu Prison to be fearsome types, all scowls. Not true, with all these Manchester fans filling up the reception room. The khaki-fatigued cops are all smiles and handshakes.

Everyone checks their cell phones and Hannah and I check the camera, my notebook and our bags. The group counts itself out, to 21, and without further ado the big door to the prison courtyard opens. Hundreds of young men's eyes greet us.

The first thing I see is a man with no legs wearing a yellow shirt and matching shorts. (Later, I wonder, how does a man with no legs get thrown into prison?) We walk to a canvas tent in the center of the courtyard. I look around at perhaps 400 men in matching yellow shirts and shorts, sitting on the dirt ground, waiting, staring forward. A man with a sinister gaze licks his lips. Another, his eyes buried beneath a brow so furrowed that it looks frozen in place, glares forward. Some of the inmates look soft. Others are shirtless and menacing.

There are some large, metal, steaming bowls at the other end of the courtyard. There's what looks to be a shower area that has been hit by a rocket. There are about eight wide rooms with nothing in them but inmates. And I gather that this decrepit prison contains nothing other than this incredible amount of people, all crammed together and watched by a handful of Kalashnikov-toting cops, penned in by some crusty walls and a very long length of barbed wire.

The fans offer Hannah a chair at the very center of the tent. I sit to her right. The fans place four heavy boxes of soap at the edge of the tent. The deputy warden calls up a skinny, older man in his yellow uniform to translate what's going on from English to Luo. Then, each of us introduce ourselves. The fans all yell something, wait for the response of the crowd, then give short, bombastic speeches, presumably about football.

Then comes the "royal dance," the bwola dance, to entertain the guests of the prison.

The bwola dance used to be performed only in the courts of Acholi chiefs - during their coronations, during special ceremonies, after their deaths. Now the bwola dance goes on in competitions, festivals, at schools, at prisons. Norman Okot, a music and dance trainer at Health, Education, Literacy and Sports (HEALS), a lifeskills program for children, tells me later that bwola is a very special dance of Acholiland.

A man sits on a drum before the tent of fans. He taps out a beat with wooden sticks onto the two drums in front of him. Twenty men in shorts and t-shirts are lined up in two rows off at the other end of the courtyard. A man stands at the lead. He yells out a nasally call, a long and oblique statement in a form of Luo that, some say, doesn't make sense to many Acholi. The men call out a response, deep and guttural.

In unison they kneel down, elbows elaborately placed to their sides, and then move forward, the shells on their ankles jingling. Their arms arc around and each of them hits a small drum in their hand. All twenty of them pop together.

Standing behind them, a man in a ragged shirt slams on a giant drum. The call is still oblique and nasally, the response deep and guttural. They all creep forward in short and majestic stride. The cycle continues and then, without warning, everything comes together.

Now they are in yaro, the true shape of bwola, a fierce and ornate circle that consumes the man at the drum. The two drummers converge and make a galloping beat. The circle is swift. Lean male bodies gleam with sweat. Vigorous but ornate, synchronized perfectly, their shells jingling at their ankles. The arms of the prisoners arc around in unison and hit twenty small drums. Pop.

Hannah sits at the center of the tent, one leg crossed over the other. She tells me later that the experience felt colonial. The men, she said, seemed to be dancing only for her.

A cloud of dust swivels around the dancers as they reach acura, the climax. The Manchester fans around them join in the dance, angling themselves to widen the circle, kneeling down and trotting forward, clapping their hands in unison. A hefty fellow in a red jersey blows into a flute made of animal horn, an obute, wiggling his fingers. There is a loud, high-pitched, two-tone cry.

The Manchester fans invite me to join, but I turn down the offer. Sammy tells me later that he is disappointed in me. He is a man, he tells me. He dances the bwola because that is what men do.

The galloping of the drums slow and eventually stop. The circle breaks apart. The bwola has come to an end. It is time to leave the laundry soap for the prisoners.

After the inmates give a ceremonial clap as a thank you and goodbye, the fans, Hannah and I exit the courtyard and head back into the free world. The sun is beating down and a crowd awaits us all. Hannah and I, as newly-coronated Manchester fans ("You're a Manchester fan?" countless people ask, to the point that I get sick of explaining myself and just start saying "Yes.") are strongly urged to join the parade in a march towards the hotel at the other end of town. There will be a feast to finish off today's celebration.

Hannah and I are being separated by more and more delighted fans. I wonder about going to the feast - if we will be hit by an inertia of meeting and eating that will spiral off deep into the night, then into next morning, then into God knows when. We break through the crowds and reunite, then slip away and head back to our hotel.

And the parade - banner, marching band, weighed-down pickup truck, indestructible beat of Acholiland, red jerseyed Manchester fans, and all - continues its journey through the day.

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