We find a great spot to camp amount the gum trees, and are soon visited by some friendly locals wondering why we are there. One man in particular – Francis – is extremely friendly and really wants to show us around.
After some thought he decides we had better ask the chief of the area for permission to camp on this land, and so I walk with him down to the Chief’s compound.
It is customary to bring a gift, and a small bottle of whiskey is perfect I am told. The compound is beautiful, with wood carvings surrounding every door. The Chief himself is a friendly older man with a huge smile showing many missing teeth. He sits in a large room with an open fire, and receives guests all day long. After sitting quietly for five minutes he invites me up to take a cup (actually the hollowed-out horn of a cow) which he fills with palm wine. I am told to drink it immediately before he fills it again, and then again.
He is extremely happy to have us here and finishes the informal meeting by inviting us to tomorrow’s huge funeral celebration nearby. The people here get together once a year to celebrate all of the people that have passed away during the year – they believe it’s a time to be happy, not sad, and so it’s a huge party.
When I arrive around lunchtime the next day I am immediately given a huge plate of delicious beans and rice and a huge cup of palm wine, which is being poured out of the same eight gallon drums commonly used for fuel. I can see a lot of them stacked around, and judging by the merriment I assume many are empty already.
Soon I am invited in to see the chief – though this time it is a much bigger chief, and the room is packed with all the other chiefs and senior people from the whole region. They are all seated according to rank, and a few strict policies must be followed – I take off my hat and flip-flops and am told to only accept palm wine with my right hand. Again I must drink the whole thing when it is filled by the chief, and again it is filled multiple times in quick succession.
Outside women and children are dancing and singing with extremely high energy and happiness, and the highlight of the day comes when the spirits pay a visit. I could not quite understand if these guys represent good things or bad things, though everyone is scared of them and always runs aways when one approaches. While taking photos the spirits demand an offering, to which I throw down a couple of pouches of whiskey – apparently a great offering.
The sun beats down, and the dust in the air is thick, though not a single person seems to mind. Everyone is smiling, chatting and laughing happily, enjoying every second of this huge festival.
I feel lucky to have been a part!