The Rhades

NEXT MORNING we reached the country of the Rhades, who are said to be the most advanced of the Moi tribes. Like all the others they are great talkers and topers and have the familiar self-depreciatory humour (‘our women are the ugliest in the world’), but they have not yet been infected with that sense of doom, that listlessness in the face of threatened extinction that seems to beset most members of the animal species after they have passed a certain stage on the downhill path. It has also been found that the Rhades will accept slight modifications in their way of living if such innovations can be represented to them as approved by the spirits.
Ribo had sent word calling the personalities of the village of Buon Plum to a palaver. Their village had been selected as the guinea-pig for the social experiment that was his pet project. The idea was to introduce agricultural innovations and anti-malarial measures. Buon Plum was to become a model village; an object lesson to all its neighbours, who, it was hoped, would be anxious to follow suit. That was how it went in theory. But it was clear that Ribo could not convince himself that it would really work out that way. There were so many factors to be taken into account; some, I thought, that as a French official he felt unable to specify. However, Ribo had gone so far as to persuade the people of Buon Plum to put in a great deal of work, clearing an area of forest and planting a communal orchard and vegetable garden. They were to plant maize and manioc, which they wouldn’t know how to turn into alcohol. As a result, he hoped (but doubted), they would eat more and drink less. This time he was going to talk to them about anti-malarial measures.
We were met, outside the village, by the chief accompanied by the heads of families, each carrying leaves of tobacco and a small bowl containing cooked rice and an egg. It was correct to take a leaf of tobacco from each, and to symbolise acceptance of the food by touching the egg. The chief had the fine, pensive face and the curving nostrils and lips of the best type of Yemeni Arab. (Do anthropologists still go about taking cranial measurements and if so, what could they make of the diversity of the Mot’s?)
The chief and his notables were all turned out in their best turbans, jackets and loincloths. Every man held ready for inspection a Japanese diploma or a certificate of service with the French-raised militia. Ribo, alarmed by the formal atmosphere, decided to ask the chief, at this stage, for the ceremonies preceding the palaver to be cut to a strict minimum. The chief bowed gravely in agreement but pointed out that as a new¬comer – myself – was present, a brief rite inviting the protection of the various spirits could not be avoided. Ribo shrugged his resignation and we accordingly went up into the common-room of the chief s long- house, where my friend’s pessimism deepened at the sight of the lined-up alcohol jars. The arrangement of the room was almost identical with that of the M’nong R’lams; the benches running round the walls, the battery of gongs and the great buffalo-hide drums. On the beams, hung with leather shields, crossbows and drinking-horns, were the art- treasures I was coming to expect; a daringly sporting Vietnamese calendar showing a bathing beauty, a car-chassis oiling chart, a Tarzan cartoon.
At a sign from the chief I took up position on a stool opposite the principal jar but with my back to it. The gongs struck up but I could see nothing of what was happening, as all the activity was going on behind me. I was alone in the middle of the room facing a blank wall awaiting my formal presentation to the spirits before I could be allowed to join the ceremony. Someone came and stood behind me and began a low-voiced incantation, barely audible above the clangour of the gongs. I was told afterwards that this was the sorcerer, who had come in with a white cock, had bathed its feet in water and was now waving it over my head. As soon as the incantation was complete the sorcerer turned me round on the stool and handed me the bamboo tube from the tall jar. At the same time the chief s wife, the only woman in the room, took a thin, open-ended copper bracelet from one of the jar handles and fastened it round my left wrist. This conferring on the welcome stranger of the copper bracelet must be a custom of extreme antiquity, since it is practised by Moi tribes all over Indo-China, most of which have lived in separation in historical times. It carries with it temporary tribal protection and a number of minor privileges, which vary in detail from village to village, such as the right to touch certain of the sacred drums. There is a fuller degree of initiation which is undertaken by some Europeans wishing to take part in the more closely guarded ceremonies such as those accompanying the removal of the front teeth at puberty. In this case the initiate pays for the sacrifice of a pig, and a little blood drawn from his foot is mixed in alcohol with that of the pig and drunk by all present. On such occasions a thicker bracelet is conferred, on which is engraved a secret mark. Further sacri¬fices are indicated by additional marks, the bracelet serving thus to record, for all to see, its wearer’s services to the community, and is the equivalent on the spiritual level of the Japanese diploma or the French certificate of military service. Many Europeans are to be seen wearing half a dozen or so of the thinner bracelets. They are one of those mild affectations, like tying on the spare wheel of one’s car with liana, which mark the old Indo-China hand.

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