Saturday, July 9, 2011
Following the dancing crowds and whistle blowers was easy; they were all going the same direction. Hundreds gathered, crowding in to see and hear the electronic voice blasted through the microphone.
Who was speaking? I couldn’t tell. Nor could I see him; the wall of people stood in my way. But I figured it had to be one of the city officials.
When I asked, Sabet told me that it was in fact the commissioner speaking. He was obscured by the crowd at first, but when I finally got to see him I was impressed. He wore a cloak designed to look like the new South Sudanese flag. It hung over his suit, trailing all the way down to his leather shoes.
He looked very official.
But what caught my attention at first really wasn’t the cloak or the shoes; it was his hat.
Made of entwined black and silver Christmas tinsel, it moved briskly each time he moved, shimmering in the harsh afternoon heat.
It was mesmerizing.
After a few minutes of standing in the sun, a nice young man in a new suit and gold lapel pin offered the women in our party seats. To reach them, I had to walk past even more elaborately decorate officials in suits and cloaks, then a mass of military dignitaries in green army uniforms.
The soldiers were wizened with age but tough and proud. Several turned to stare at the Kowajas in brief interest, and one even smiled at me kindly.
We were directed to sit just behind them and to the right. Everyone else privileged enough to have a chair in the shaded tent area looked withered from the heat, like I was.
Dressed in their finest, many wore wool suits and massive hats. But no matter how hot they might have been, no one took any of it off.
At one point a marching band filtered past us in brocaded red uniforms, toting brass instruments. The women in the band wore thick grey stockings, and I shuddered to think how hot they must have been.
One girl had numerous runs in her stockings. Why I fixated on this I cannot say. Perhaps it was because I could understand nothing the droning voice said.
Too hot to sit any longer, I got up abruptly to go photograph a man wearing a strange costume. Was he wearing leopard skin over his biker shorts or was it hyena? I had to get a closer look.
To get to him, I had to walk between two of the most official looking men in the group. One I had seen before. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw him earlier this week at the clinic when he came to speak to me about a sick relative.
I recognized him by his mustache. It was grey and white but only grew in two curly masses on each side of his mouth, like two commas. It suited him well.
But his mustache wasn’t the fist thing I noticed. In fact it was hard to see it at all under his hat.
He, like the commissioner addressing the crowd, wore a very unique hat. It was metallic blue and shimmered intensely every move he made. It, too, was made of Christmas decorations and tinsel. But the tinsel was bigger; each strand had circular cut-outs dangling from them.
As I started clicking pictures of the man in the speedo and animal skin, I got brushed off to the side by what appeared to be the commissioners personal guard --a special forces unit. They wore dusky blue fatigues and looked very serious, and even more serious holding their gazes locked with AK-47s in hand.
After they cleared the path, Mr. Commissioner concluded his speech and made his way back to his seat. He sat next to Mr. Mustache in the blue hat, who I believe was the Secretary to the Commissioner (but I’m guessing here).
Then for the next few minutes I proceeded to take all of their pictures over and over again. They didn’t seem to mind or get tired of the attention. The Commissioner immediately took off his black-silver tinsel headdress and put on a metallic blue one just like his friend.
The crowd did not clap after the speech; however there appeared to be some cheering and celebratory whistle blowing. And the band played loudly and off-key.
Then the commissioner’s car was brought, the special forces cleared the scene, and he left quickly.
It was over.
Most of the crowd exited en masse, but I stayed to take a few more pictures. Several small groups were dancing and listening to music through the PA system.
Children ran around asking me to take their pictures, and I happily complied.
Just before I left, I pushed my way behind the dwindling crowd to my right and found a bull tied to a post with its neck slashed.
Cow dung appeared to be mixed together in the blood which was attracting flies.
“Why would they sacrifice a bull?” I wondered. Was this an animistic tradition. I took a picture determined to ask Sabet about it once I got a minute.
During lunch, Sabet explained that the Dinka Christians try to do everything in the Bible. Meaning they uphold the Jewish tradition of animal sacrifices for their ceremonies.
“Really? This is done because of the Christian influence here, not animism?” I asked a bit confused. He assured me that it was the Dinka church trying to fulfill the Old Testament law.
The ceremony was hot but I’m so glad I got to see it. I’m thrilled that I got to walk among the crowds, see the dances and hear the shill cries of delight.
This is truly a day to celebrate!
To echo one man who cried out to me in the festivities: “Happy Freedom South Sudan!”