The Rhades 2

Having by this time taken part in several Moi ceremonies, I was beginning to appreciate some of the fine points which at first I had overlooked. Thus, I had noticed that when beginning to drink from each fresh jar a polished ritualist like Ribo spat a libation through the loosely woven bamboo floor, doing so in a most grave and deliberate manner. Following this practice for the first time, I noticed that although the spiritual essence of the libation may have been accepted by the tutelary spirits, the physical presence was received with acclamation by eagerly guzzling ducks, which, attracted by the sound of the gongs, had mar¬shalled themselves under the floor, directly beneath the jars. The row of notables seated opposite nodded benignly at this gracious performance. Their spirits were beginning to pick up, under the belief, probably, that a full-blown ceremony was going to develop after all. Attendants were hovering hopefully in the background with titbits of raw meat on bam¬boo skewers, and others who had been surreptitiously sent down to the river were now arriving with tubes full of water and waited in expectation of the order to top up fresh jars. The boys seated at the gongs were beating out a frenzied rhythm. But Ribo was looking at his watch, and as soon as the minimum three cows’ horns had been accounted for, he asked the chief for the palaver to begin.
The Moi’s, in the way of most so-called primitive peoples, put them¬selves to great efforts to be polite to strangers. Although there was no doubt about the general disappointment at this breaking up of what had looked like being a good party, there was a great show of understanding of the importance of the occasion, and every village male able to attend was immediately sent for. Within a few minutes they were all lined up like a photographer’s group along one wall of the common-room; as earnest¬looking as theological students in the presence of a cardinal. Not an eye strayed in the direction of the jars from which the neglected drinking- tubes curved despondently. There was a dead silence and as soon as Ribo began to speak every man and boy was clearly straining his ears, although no one understood a word of French. It was curious that none of the matriarchs was present.
Ribo began with a familiar gambit. ‘Tell them Tuon,’ he told the interpreter, ‘that the spirits are angry with the Moi people. Tell them that when the people of Buon Plum were counted, twenty years ago, there were eighty-six adult males. Now there are forty.’ Tuon put this into Rhades and Ribo said that, although unable to speak the language, he understood it enough to know that the plain facts were being clothed in the poetic eloquence which the Rhades, with their reverence for the spoken word, would expect of their administrator.
‘The Rhades will vanish from the Earth,’ said Ribo, warming to his subject. ‘The Annamites will come to Ban Methuot as they came to Dalat. They will cultivate the rice-fields of the Rhades and their dogs will scratch up the bones of the Rhades’ ancestors.’ In a lugubrious voice Tuón rearranged this jeremiad for local taste. The Arab-looking chief seemed depressed. Ribo belaboured his hearers shrewdly with threats of post- mortuary horrors unless they helped themselves before it was too late. ‘Do you want to keep out the Annamites?’ he asked. ‘Do you want to keep the country for your children and grandchildren to be able to perform the rites for your spirits?’ There was a brief roar of assent. Ribo explained that the only way this could be done was to increase their numbers by combating the malaria that was killing them off. This could be done by buying medicine and mosquito nets with the money earned by the sale of surplus fruit and vegetables. Was that agreed? It was. And would the chief see to it that the new wealth wouldn’t be turned, as usual, into jars and gongs. The chief gave his word.
With this the palaver was at an end and we were about to go when the interpreter told us that a meal had been prepared for us. Among the Moi’s it is disgracefully rude, and offensive to several powerful spirits, to refuse an offer of food. Such an offence would in theory be compoundable only with a sacrifice of alcohol. A great effort should also be made to eat all that is offered. Ribo was alarmed again. The Moi’s are the most omnivorous race in the world, and he warned us that a delicate situation might arise if, for instance, we found ourselves served with a dish of the highly prized variety of maggots that are cultivated by some tribes for the table.
However, we underestimated the sophistication of the chief of Buon Plum. A rickety table and three chairs were carried into the common- room. The first bowl arrived and we saw, with relief, that it contained only plain rice. There followed a dish of roasted wild poultry, and – a culinary surprise about the equal of being served an elaborate French sauce with one’s fried fish in an English cafe – a saucer of nude mam, the extract of fermented fish whose truly appalling odour is so strangely divorced from its flavour. There were ivory chopsticks provided and dainty Chinese bowls. The whole village in its undissolved photogra¬pher’s group looked on in entranced silence. As we picked up our chopsticks the chief made a sign and one of their number came forward and began to play on a flute. The interpreter Tuon was an evolue. This in Indo-China is the usual designation for one who has forsaken the customs of his or her race, dresses in European cast-offs, wears an habitually subservient expression and is sometimes privileged, by way of compensation, to ride a bicycle. True to type, the evolved Tuon looked like a beachcomber, but perhaps his evolution was not complete, since he had not yet acquired a fawning smile. Ribo had noticed that some of the people of Buon Plum had been taking him aside, as it seemed, to discuss some private matter, and he asked what they had been saying. Tuon said evasively that they weren’t pleased about something. Weren’t pleased about what? Ribo insisted. About the people who had been sent to the plantation and hadn’t come back, Tuon said. And what was to stop them? Ribo asked. If they had wanted to come back, they would have done so.

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