Darlac 4

There were seven jars attached to a framework in the centre of the room and as soon as the chief s sons-in-law had arrived and hung up their crossbows on the beam over the adventures of Dick Tracy, they were sent off with bamboo containers to the nearest ditch for water. In the mean¬while the seals of mud were removed from the necks of the jars and rice-straw and leaves were forced down inside them over the fermented rice-mash to prevent solid particles from rising when the water was added. The thing began to look serious and Ribo asked the chief, through his interpreter, for the very minimum ceremony to be performed as we had other villages to visit that day. The chief said that he had already under¬stood that, and that was why only seven jars had been provided. It was such a poor affair that he hardly liked to have the gongs beaten to invite the household god’s presence. He hoped that by way of compensation he would be given sufficient notice of a visit next time to enable him to arrange a reception on a proper scale. He would guarantee to lay us all out for twenty-four hours.
This being the first of what I was told would be an endless succession of such encounters in the Moi country I was careful to study the details of the ceremony. Although these varied in detail from village to village, the essentials remained the same. The gong-orchestra starts up a deafening rhythm. You seat yourself on a stool before the principal jar, in the centre, take the bamboo tube in your mouth and do your best to consume the correct measure of three cow-horns full of spirit. Your attendant, who squats, facing you, on the other side of the jar, has no difficulty in keeping a check on the amount drunk, since the level is never allowed to drop below the top of the jar, water being constantly added from a small hole in the side of the horn, on which he keeps his thumb until the drinking begins. After you have finished with the principal jar, you move to the right of the line and work your way down. There is no obligatory minimum consumption from the secondary jars. At frequent intervals you suck up the spirit to the mouth of the tube and then, your thumb held over the end, you present it to one of the dignitaries present, who, beaming his thanks, takes a short suck and hands it back to you. In performing these courtesies you are warned to give priority to those whose loincloths are the most splendid, but if, in this case, the apparel off proclaims the man, age is a more certain criterion with the women.
The M’nongs are matriarchal and it is to the relatively aged and powerful mothers-in-law that all property really belongs. Although the women hold back for a while and it is left to the men to initiate the ceremonies, the rice-alcohol, the jars, the gongs, the drums and the house itself are all theirs. It is therefore, not only a mark of exquisite courtesy but a tactful recognition of economic realities to gesture as soon as possible with one’s tube in the direction of the most elderly of the ladies standing on the threshold of the common-room. With surprising alacrity the next stool is vacated by its occupying notable to allow the true power in the house with a gracious and impeccably toothless smile to take her place. This toothlessness, of course, has no relation to the lady’s great age and arises from the fact that the incisors are regarded by the Moi’s as unbearably canine in their effect and are, therefore, broken out of the jaws at the age of puberty.
The chief s wife at Buon Dieo possessed, in spite of her years, a firm and splendid figure. She wore a gay sarong, probably obtained from a Cambodian trader, and in the intervals of drinking smoked a silver- mounted pipe. Her ceremonial demeanour was slow and deliberate as befitting her station and it was some time before the wife of another dignitary could be invited with propriety to join the party. A small group of these awaited their turn and at their backs hovered a row of solemn, Gauguinesque beauties, the chief s daughters, whose husbands, if any, being of no account in the social hierarchy of the tribe had been sent about their business while such important matters were being treated. No more than seven or eight leaders of Buon Dieo society separated us from these bronze Venuses, but each one would have to be entertained with protracted urbanity.
With a great effort, the two or three dowagers were disposed of, and we were down to the nursing mothers, who, removing their babies from the breast and passing them to onlookers, tripped lightly towards us. Although the rice-alcohol, with its queer burnt-cereal taste, was weaker than usual, my friends said, it was beginning to take effect. The Mot’s had slipped into an easy-going joviality and the nursing mothers received some mild familiarities, for which they exchanged good-natured slaps. Their capacity for alcohol, though, was greater than that of the elder ladies, and they were not to be deceived by a mere pretence of drinking on our part. Calling for beakers they sucked up the alcohol, spat liba¬tions, syphoned off liquor until the beakers were filled, and presented them to us. Taking stock of the situation we saw that we had drunk our way to within two nursing mothers of those perfect young representa¬tives of the Polynesian race, the chiefs daughters, who flung us occasional glances from between sweeping lashes. But we were all flag¬ging, dizzy with the alcohol and the stunning reverberation of the gongs. And the morning was wearing on. It would have been difficult to imagine our condition by the time we had drunk our way down to an interesting social level. The Mot’s encouraged us with smiles and gestures, but we could do no more. It was at a village in the vicinity of Buon Dieo, where two years previously an extraordinary affair had taken place. A family of eight persons were suspected of magic practices to the detriment of the village. According to local custom a representative was chosen as accuser and a trial by ordeal arranged. This consisted of the villagers’ champion and the head of the accused family plunging their heads under water, the first to withdraw his head, in this case the accused, being held to have lost the day. According to the rulings of customary law governing this rather unusual case the charged persons were found to be possessed by certain minor demons, located in each case in a bodily organ. The general attitude thus was a sympathetic one. The prisoners were regarded as dangerously sick and only curable by the removal of the affected organ. After this was done they would be once more regarded as entirely normal members of society. The fact that death quickly followed the operations was entirely incidental and most sincerely regretted by all concerned. This was all the more so since the eight were regarded as having, quite accidentally, died the ‘bad’ death and therefore certain to be converted into revengeful ghouls unless propitiated by the most costly sacrifices, spread over a period of two years. In conformity with this obligation every animal in the village was soon slaughtered and the rice reserves converted into alcohol. The villagers then borrowed from neighbouring communities until their credit was completely exhausted, after which they settled down to starve.

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