When the Colobus Man asks you to dance…

I don’t have a perfect body. I never have and probably never will. But the one part of my body I’ve never worried about is my butt. That is to say, I never gave it much thought until one hot day in Kenya.

The walk from the house I was staying at in rural Kaimosi to the town center was always a bit tedious. I never knew how long it would take me to shake my cloud of accompanying children, how many carts would be unloading in my way, how many potholes and mud bogs I’d have to pick my way around and how many cows would be seated obstinately in the trail before me. On this particular day, heading to a minor festival, I met an unusually high number of obstacles. By the time I arrived the festivities were already well under way. As I entered the compound where the celebration was being held, I could hear strains of music. I gravitated toward the back of the crowd where I occasionally glimpsed a blur of black and white fur flashing above the audience. Clearly I was missing something exciting, but I couldn’t see a thing from my vantage point.

I slowly edged my way to the front of the onlookers and was pleased to find an open spot of grass right at the front. As unobtrusively as possible, I made my way over to the opening and eased down onto the grass. No sooner had I arranged my skirt around my knees, than the music stopped. I couldn’t help but marvel at my impeccable timing! Just as I settle in for the show, the band stops.

1995_Kenya-5I looked up expecting to watch the musicians carrying their instruments away from their grassy “stage”. Instead, I was confronted by a wide, toothless grin beneath a towering hat of Colobus Monkey skin wavering just inches from my nose. It didn’t take me long to realize that this little, old man wanted me to dance and wasn’t going to start the show again until I complied with his wishes.

Was he serious?! My heart pounded fiercely as I glanced up at the 200 or so people gathered behind me. The air filled with exasperation as the other spectators surged forward to get a better look at the person responsible for the sudden silence. My heart sank, then pounded even more quickly. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to dance to traditional Kenyan music and even if I did… talk about stage fright! I gave him my sweetest smile and most imploring puppy eyes, desperately willing him to let me off the hook. He gave me his toothless grin in return and sat himself down on the grass across from me, patiently waiting for me to see things his way.

My civic sensibilities urged me not to leave the crowd hanging. I wanted to get into the spirit of things and dance, but my body felt like lead and surely my legs would behave like rubber. My inertia was suddenly broken as two of my friends jumped up and dragged me to the “stage” before us. Pleased, my new- found monkey-pelted friend sprung from the ground and the band broke into a joyous tune.

The music was so energetic and upbeat that even my skeptical body was soon swept away by the rhythms. I forgot all about the spectators and was lost in laughter as my friends and I tried to keep up with the Colobus man. Taking pity on our inept dance moves, a few of the Kenyan women joined us and we spent the rest of the time clumsily imitating their effortless and graceful moves.

I could have kept dancing for hours, but was abruptly brought back to reality when, after the last song finished, that toothless grin and towering hat appeared before me once again. My Colobus friend pumped my hand vigorously as he enthusiastically complimented my authentic Kenyan dancing. I stared at him in disbelief as he informed me that he was hoping to give a few concerts in the U.S. someday and would be pleased if I would demonstrate traditional Kenyan dance for my fellow countrymen.

I was flattered by his comments, but surely this was just his way of thanking me for dancing despite my initial preference to stay glued to the ground. I expected to blend in with the other white faces once attention diverted from the concert to the lunch banquet, but, to my astonishment, the compliments kept coming. The rest of the day every other Kenyan who’d seen me dance went out of their way to shake my hand and tell me that I danced very well, just like a Kenyan woman. My chest swelled with pride, but I was simultaneously baffled by all the attention. The friends who had joined me on the dance floor were notorious for their dancing talent, why weren’t they receiving any compliments on their performances?

When I later bumped into a trusted Kenyan friend, she too excitedly told me how proud she was of my authentic Kenyan dancing. Curiosity had the best of me by this point. I knew she’d give me an honest answer so I asked what all the excitement was about and why I was apparently so much better at Kenyan dancing than my friends.

She stopped and faced me squarely. She beamed and smiled broadly as she proclaimed, “Your tall friend? She too skinny. She can’t dance, she got no butt! Your other friend, she got a big butt, but she don’t know how to move it. You? You got a BIG butt and you SHAKE it!!!!!”

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