Central Annum

THERE IS A SCHOOL at Pleiku for the children of the Jarai and Bahnar tribes in the neighbourhood. With some difficulty, and by putting pressure on the chiefs, the children are persuaded to come and sit in its classrooms, where they learn a few words of French and acquire higher education embracing a nodding acquaintance with Napoleon’s cam¬paigns and the names of the principal rivers of France. As it happens, the European idea of education as a process quite separate from other aspects of living and occupying most of a child’s energies until, say, at least the age of fourteen, is quite incomprehensible in its wastefulness, from the Moi’s point of view. A Mo’i cannot be persuaded that there is any virtue in knowledge which cannot be applied. At six years of age the Moi child is introduced as a matter of rigid tribal custom to certain light tasks in the rice-field; he learns a little carpentry and receives preliminary instruction in the arts of gathering food. He is usefully employed, for his labours are integrated with the village economy, and they increase in usefulness in proportion to his growing older. These serious activities are, no doubt, far more enjoyable than learning lessons in a classroom. However it has been decided that if the Mo’is are to be turned into valuable colonial citizens they must be educated according to Western standards. So to the school-room they go.
The recruiting campaign for scholars having gone well at Pleiku, it had been found necessary to build an annexe. But at this stage tribal custom was too strong to be ignored. The children’s parents would not allow them to occupy the new building unless it had first been conse¬crated for use; that is, put under protection of the tribal spirits by an appropriate sacrifice.
A sacrifice of this kind must be made as soon as possible after sunrise, as it takes several hours to prepare the flesh for the subsequent feast. At seven o’clock, then, in the cool morning, when the pines threw long shadows over the red earth, a young buffalo was dragged into the school- yard and tied to the sacrificial stake.
The buffalo is regarded by the Moi’s as spiritually more than an animal, and hardly less than a human being. It is therefore entitled – unlike other animals, which are simply knocked on the head – to a slow and highly ceremonial death. This is always accorded it. As a further sign of respect, the animal is presented before the sacrifice, as in this case, with a generous drink of rice-alcohol from one of the sacred jars.
It was held by a rope of rice-straw round the neck and was terrified by some mysterious animal premonition. In the background had been set up ritual masts, their stems ornamented with stylised geometrical de¬signs; suns, moons, toucans’ beaks, flies’ wings, buffaloes’ teeth, and their tops sprouting artificial branches of frayed bamboo, from which hung streamers and carved plaquettes. These masts are the Moi’s’ equivalent of flagpoles. They are highly artistic and their intention is to attract the visual attention of the spirits to be invited to the ceremony, just as they are summoned audibly by gongs. After the sacrifice the masts are planted about the villages as a permanent decoration, providing thus a perpetual gala effect. The sacrificial stake, too, often subordinates solidity to art. It sometimes breaks, allowing the buffalo to escape. However lamentable its condition, no attempt is made to recapture it, since this would conflict with the spirit’s evident wish.
As soon as the buffalo had been attached, a group of pupils, carrying gongs and dressed in sombre, handsome blankets, appeared. With a slow, mournful beating of the gongs they began to circle about the buffalo which, more alarmed than ever at these sinister preliminaries, made panic-stricken efforts to break free. Four more pupils joined the death procession. They carried a huge drum supported on a framework of poles, which had been borrowed from a local chief. This drum, I learned, was valued at fifteen buffaloes and there had been a great deal of fussy admonition on the chief s part before he could be persuaded to let it go. A few minutes later, the chief himself, who had been worrying about his property, turned up, and, wearing a military medal on the breast of a new, white sports-shirt, took his stand in the front row of the audience to make sure that there was no culpable negligence. When beaten, the drum gave out a most important sound, a muffled growling, agreed by those present to be irresistible to the spirits, however aloof.

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