Inside the Van
The van driver has learnt patience, the van driver has learnt not to answer back when a sweaty face is thrust in his front window and his mother is roundly insulted, for his stinginess. The van driver has learnt calm, he knows to ignore the way they bang with their outstretched palms on the outside of his van, and hit his back window with their sticks. He does not stop - he drives slowly, placatingly, moving the van a few meters every time the crowd opens up around him. A group of kids dance in front of us, provocatively thrusting out their tongues and their little bums, the sweat and dirt on their faces. The van driver's face would win an International poker-face competition, no problem - he can see right through the kids. I keep looking at my watch - my appointment is at 2, it's a quarter past right now, and at the rate we're going I'll be at least an hour late. To think I myself once took part in these masquerades, to think I too once walked the city with these people, dancing and shouting and raising a storm of dust which descended on our bodies in layers.
There is a man sitting behind me who has gotten off on a rant, about how all of these kids doing the masquerade are the sons of Muslims. He says this in a "they are well and truly damned" voice, and everyone in the van ignores him. This, rather than stop him, seems to give him the idea that we are all listening in rapt attention - he goes on and on. I try to be clever and work out a defense in my head: "to be honest, Sir", [I imagine myself saying, with a knowing look on my face], "Christmas is not even strictly speaking a Christian festival - it is a pagan one" [I vaguely remember reading this factoid somewhere]. But then my imagination betrays me, and the version of the old man in my mind says: "So? That does not invalidate my point", and the image in my head melts, starting with my smug smile.
I look at my watch. I'll never get there in time.
I have often wondered what the hunting is a metaphor for. Why, every Christmas and New Year, did we walk through the streets of Banjul, dirty and dusty, wielding weapons, cross-dressed, leading before us a guy dressed up to look like an animal (complete with skins and a head), stopping at every house to collect donations? Was it a model of an actual hunt, a dance to create good luck and gain the gods' favor, as primitive societies have been known to do? Or was there a more nuanced explanation, a darker one: did the cross-dressing signify the end of the world, with everything turned upside down, men become women and vice versa, and the animal we followed the devil, leading us all to our doom (and luring us with money - the donations we received)?
Inside the Van
We're still painfully meandering through the streets of Banjul. Think of a pot-holed road with many tiny bends, think of having to stop every few seconds, think of noise and chaos outside, of girls in mini-skirts and stockings, and dreadlocked guys drawing a line of sparks in front of the van with a machete whilst holding out a box for the driver to put money in. The old man - the same one who won my mind-argument so conclusively - is still at it: he is off on a wild tangent now, somehow he has moved from the wrongness of the sons of Muslims celebrating a Christian festival, to the total lack of discipline in our schools and how it affects development.
The woman sitting next to me slides open a window and spits out of it. I have given up on getting there in time, or even being forgivably late. The woman turns to me and looks at me appraisingly. I feel apprehensive - what is she about to tell me? I sit up straight, draw in my chin, adjust my glasses on the bridge of my nose in a pose I have been told looks rather fetching. I wait for the revelation she is about to make. She looks at me for a while longer. Then she seems to decide I am worthy of whatever information she is about to impart. I lean forward expectantly.
"The hunting doesn't even look very good", she says, her mouth curled down in an "I could do better" sneer.
The hunting itself, the actual costume, takes weeks to make. A month before Christmas is when the hunting designer begins to get together the materials he will need - the horns, the calabashes, the rafia, the skins, the glues needed to stick everything together. He works hard at it, day and night, receiving increasing admiration from everyone as it changes from what looks like a dried skin and an animal skull, to what looks like a dried skin and an animal skull, only glued together. The whole enterprise happens in a secret back-room somewhere, in a room thick with cigarette smoke - before the day of its coming out, the hunting is a closely guarded secret, and only an inner circle within a vous have access to it. This is to prevent sabotage, and the stealing of ideas by other vous.
T-shirts are printed and sold, with the logo of the vous or football club/hunting society on the front, and a meant-to-be-pithy saying or two ("Victory and Oneness is our tradition", "Who God chooses Man shall not destroy", "No Fear"). Teenagers are sent to cut down trees - the branches are cut and used for clappers. By Christmas morning, everything is ready.
Inside the Van
"You know, the whole hunting tradition started in Sierra Leone", the woman tells us. Everyone in the van is looking and listening to her now, and the old man has shut up, resentfully hunched up in his seat and telling his prayer beads, as if to say "Fine! Choose to listen to a story about the hunting, when you could be listening to me tell you about hell and discipline and God. See if I care when you get burnt". As usual, everyone is ignoring him.
"That is why", the woman tells us, "all of the songs are either of Sierra Leonian origin, or adapted from the same. Back in Sierra Leone they had big hunting societies, and they used magnificent animal heads and skins, beautiful things which made you stop and gasp.
"Here", she says, gesturing out of the window with the same expression of lips curled down, "the huntings are not so grand. They lack....spirit, after you have seen the Sierra Leonian ones these ones make you feel almost depressed."
We are silent, looking out the window at the hunting dancing on the road, seeing in him the magnificence being described by the woman, transported to another time when huntings ruled the World with powerful magic. When I turn around quickly, I catch the old man (of "you'll all be damned!" fame) looking too, and I imagine there is a wistful look in his eyes.
It is 3pm. The sun blazes overhead, but we do not feel it. We have just finished eating lunch, and re-invigorated we are once again on the march, our hunting the best in the country, our songs the loudest.
We pass a tourist, and he gives us a dollar, smiling and snapping pictures with his digital camera. We pin it to one of the outer calabashes of the hunting. "Only we in Banjul have a dollar", a guy yells out, and soon we have all taken up the cry. We pass a woman, a famous radio actor, and she dances with our hunting, whirling and almost coming to lie down on the road, surprisingly limber for someone so old.
Two kids walk ahead before the hunting, before us, holding a banner with our team name and logo on it. A girl holds a calabash full of palm oil, and every few seconds she dips a broom into it and whisks some on the hunting. The hunting's dance is a flash of white socks and red leather (he does not wear shoes, only socks, layered one on top of the other), a broom of twigs in each hand.
When at last we return home, at dusk, all the old people on my street - the ones who could not come with us - are standing outside, smiling and waving, welcoming us back home.
It only looks silly if you're on the outside, looking in at it....
Inside the Van
...or sitting in a van, late for an appointment. I try to quiz the woman about the origins of the hunting, the metaphors involved, but she does not know about these things, or does not wish to talk about them. After a while she, too, falls silent, words failing her in her quest to describe to us the wonder of seeing a "real" hunting, and in her failure we are snapped out of the shared dream space we had all begun to occupy, and hurled back into the real world, to the heat and humidity inside the van as we wait for the hundredth hunting to pass.
The van driver has learnt patience. As have we.