Reflections on a Harvard Tribal Gathering

DAVID J.M. MUFFETT spent 17 years in Northern Nigeria and the Camerouns as an officer in the British Colonial Service. Now a research fellow at the Center for International Affairs, Mr. Muffett wrote this article after seeing his first football game--Harvard versus the University of Massachusetts. The game ended in a scoreless tie.

"All the analogies drawn, all the Hausa words used, and all the definitions are entirely authentic," Mr. Muffet says. "I apologize in advance for any undue Irreverence!"

The little tufts of coarse red rag fluttered bravely on the tips of the fetish sticks which that morning had been set up in position around the arena. There was an expectant hush as the spectators, massed on the tiers of rock which formed the amphitheatre, settled in their places.

Many had come from far away, travelling great distances, some throughout the night, to be there. From farm and hamlet, from "tungas" (homesteads) and "ruggas" (nomad encampments) and "zangos" (fishing settlements) they had gathered together with the rest of the tribe to witness the greatest of the spectacles. They were impatient, but not restive, and the multitude of hawkers, some selling baubles, others charms, trinkets and geejaws, did a roaring trade, enhanced as it was by a general air of levity and open-handedness which encouraged free spending.

Away at the end of the arena the dancers were assembling, one troupe from each of the two villages which formed the nucleus of the separate clans. As is usual, and common to all tribal ritual, the assemblage was circumscribed and hedged in by rigid attention to the details of convention and tradition.


First, the maidens, each dressed in the strange, even bizarre, attire appropriate to the age group. Tall, slender, yet well built and comely, they exhuded an air of vibrant sexuality. Each had obviously spent considerable time and money in bringing her appearance to the pitch of perfection. Eyes were carefully shaded with "kohl" (antimony), skins painted and bodies held taut and provocative within the stresses of the short little kilts and tightly fitted "matari" (little short jackets designed to display the lower half of the bosom).

The Royal Drum

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, the drums began to throb and the horns to bray. Deep and profound through all of it rolled the resonant bass of the "tambari" (the Royal Drum) which was held by the tribe in an almost religious awe and took the whole skin of a full grown ox to dress each surface. The tambari is the repository of the basic tribal esprit de corps and is held in both reverence and affection.

Then suddenly, its beat was stopped; the silence could almost be felt; until, after a pause, it was broken again by the sharper, more compelling clamour of the "algetas" (panpipes) and "gangas" (small kettle drums controlled by squeezing the strings under the arm pit whilst being beaten) of the challengers.

Eagerly, breathlessly, the maidens swung into the complex routine of the dance, drilled and practiced, yet at the same time refreshingly and excitingly individual.

Shuffle forward; shuffle back; turn, bend and stomp, repeated time after time in endless succession, each third beat of the foot being accentuated in unison by the thwack of cupped palms brought sharp upon the curve of naked thighs.

The dresses themselves were completely ritualistic, and bore little, if any, resemblance to normal or rational attire. All were of one pattern, save only for those of the leader and under leaders. Each was designed to combine a strictly regulated minimum of decorum with yet a more than adequate hint of charm and personality undisclosed. The vivid colours, the high piled coiffures, on which many hours of preparation had been lavised, primping and setting each curly ringlet in place with preparations of rancid butter, wax and oil; the fantastic feathered headdress of the "magajiya" (leader of the female dancers), the throb and beat of the swirling paces, the glow of sweat, the shining eyes of enthusiasm, all combined in a vivid phantasmagoria of colour and of sheer physical, animal magnetism.

The Hosts

By tradition, all the female dancers were drawn from the village that had taken up the challenge. The hosts were, by immutable tribal lore, much more severely restricted and as a result, somewhat at a disadvantage. Here, the girls of marriageable age were, by time honoured edict, by a veritable law of the Medes and Persians which changed not, segregated and formed into a compact mass, separate and distinct, "of" but not "in," the ranks of the general audience.

Instead, their place was taken in the arena by the "gadarawa" (male dancers, usually humorous, affecting outlandish or archaic attire) who spun and twirled and twisted, cupping their hands to their mouths the better to emphasize the strident coarseness of he hoarse cries which they continually emitted.