Others reinvent themselves, changing careers and industries until they find something that works.
It’s not often I find myself smack-bang in the middle of an event usually reserved for royalty. In fact, I don’t think it happens. Ever.
But one warm afternoon in the small city of Man, in Cote d’Ivoire, my luck is about to change. Suddenly I was treated to a spectacular mix of colour, music and a touch of African magic.
For the past two months my partner Ben and I have been weaving our way down the coast of French West Africa and during our travels, we have whispers and mutterings about the legendary stilt dancers of Cote d’Ivoire and their sacred spirit dance performed entirely on wooden stilts.
When we arrive in Man, north west of the capital, Abidjan (which is also known as the Paris of West Africa) we ask around about this magical dance, but are promptly told the performance is rare to see, especially for tourists. In fact, the last time stilt dancing was performed in in the region was for the country’s new President, Alassane Ouattara.
So, as we approach Cote d’Ivoire we reluctantly accept that we won’t see this unique celebration. Instead we enjoy the area’s stunning waterfalls, buzzing markets and feast on endless supplies of mangoes and avocados. But on our final afternoon just as the sun is beginning to set, we hear drums in the distance…slowly beating louder and faster.
Out of nowhere a banged-up bright green Toyoto ute arrives carrying twenty local Yacouba men, each beating cowskin drums and singing at the top of their lungs. Their shoulders, hips and heads sway simultaneously to the infectious beats. We stare in awe, as the group of men point at us, ordering us to follow. We jump into a taxi and trail the heaving truck to the outskirts of town. We aren’t the only ones to be sucked into this vacuum of rhythm and dance – more and more locals are now following the truck, clapping and cheering as they run alongside. The legendary stilt dancer has come to town.
Eventually we arrive at a small village and our musicians jump out onto the road – the heavy drumbeats and the loud singing does not stop. From every direction, locals begin running towards the colour and chaos. There are now hundreds of people gathering around us and cars are stopping and blocking the street. Suddenly the cheers become shrieks of excitement as a ten-foot tall Yacouba stilt dancer steps down from the back of the ute.
This is what everyone has been waiting for. The towering masked performer wears a green and gold striped jumpsuit with thick black hessian over his face. The almost mythical figure kicks one way and then quickly twirls the other.
Children of all ages stare up at the dancer with big smiles across their faces. The older men and women are split in their reactions. Some are overcome with excitement and look almost possessed with admiration, others have a look of fear and use their hands to shield their faces when the dancer comes near.
In the middle of the chaos we ask a younger man standing next to us to explain what is happening. He tells us that Gue Pelou - the stilt dancer - is considered a mediator between the land of the ancestors and the land of the living. ‘It’s like a spirit that talks to us through acrobatics on stilts’ he tells me. We realise this performance is a musical embodiment of the tribe’s social ideals and religious beliefs.
The man continues to explain the mask brings blessings and protection to important celebrations such as marriages, deaths, initiations, harvesting and sowing.
‘It was actually women who discovered the stilt dancer, a long time ago. The women went fishing one day, and it appeared to them. They brought it back to the village, and the men were very curious about what was behind the mask. When they tried to look inside, they found nothing—it was completely empty, and the mask’s clothes just fell to the ground. It was a very secret, very spiritual type of mask. Now, each village in the area has a long mask or stilt dancer, and the mask has a name.’
Even today it is obvious stilt dancing remains secret and sacred. Cote d’Ivoire’s Yacouba people only make up about 6 per cent of the nation’s population and only a select few are allowed to learn the dance. Initiation is only possible if stilt dancing is done in your mother’s, father’s or grandfather’s family. Sometimes if you marry into a family and have a deep and committed interest, you may be allowed to take part.
We learn the identity of the mask dancer is always kept secret. The green and gold costume covers everything - head, hands and feet. During our performance when the jumpsuit slid down slightly around the neck, the dancer’s special helpers rush over to cover up any identifiable features.
Man’s stilt dancing is similar to that of the Moko Jumbie. Moko, in the traditional sense, is a god. He watches over his village, and due to his towering height, he is able to foresee danger and evil. His name, Moko, literally means the ‘diviner’ and he was represented by men on towering stilts and performed acts that were unexplainable to the human eye.
Many believe the Moko made it all the way to Trinidad by walking across the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Africa. The Moko legend managed to survive purely through living in the hearts of slaves taken from Africa.
The procession continues to snake its way up a hill towards the village centre where the chief is patiently waiting on his special chair under a big mango tree. The giant dancer takes quick, long strides up the steep incline and not once does he look like stumbling. Instead he is strong and stable on his wooden legs and even manages a few cheeky kicks and feigned falls along the way. Finally the dancer and his followers are in the village square.
The chief is wearing a neat orange shirt, loose brown pants and black sandals. He is flanked by his son, who sits to his left, and to his right, a senior village elder. We are pulled towards the circle of people, which is quickly forming. The clapping starts and then a huge bang – the dancer moves to the middle and the real show is underway.
The formalities begin with the chief giving the dancer a few West African francs as a way of buying a blessing. One of the mask’s helpers takes the money and pops it into a straw basket as the stilt dancer starts his performance for the village leader. The chief can’t stop smiling.
The group of dedicated drummers continues to keep beat as the Gue Pelou looks around to find the next person worthy of a blessing. A tall man in his early twenties holds out his money and is promptly plucked from the crowd. He slips off his shoes and enters the sacred dancing circle. The young man knows what to do. He brakes into his own dance routine – pumping the sky with his arms and stamping his feet to the ground – and the stilt dancer mirrors every move.
The drummers’ biceps are now bursting and sweat is dripping off their faces and chests. When he has no more moves to make, the young man returns to his spot in the circle as the rest of the crowd claps and cheers.
Suddenly, Ben is pulling coins from his back pocket as he tries to unlace his hiking boots. The stilt dancer looks down at him, ready to dance. A burly six-foot-three with no dance training to his name, Ben decides to unleash his best nightclub crumping moves. His fists are up near his ears, pounding backwards and forwards while his booty is shaking up and down in a move Beyonce would be most proud of.
Astonishingly Ben’s moves are copied perfectly. The crowd whoops with glee - a mixture of laughs and cheers - as they watch this tall white man dance with their sacred figure. Ben returns to the outside of the circle feeling blessed in more ways than one.
Next on the dirt dance floor is another traveller from Ireland. She pulls out her finest Irish jig - delicately springing up and down on pointed toes, with one hand swishing her skirt from side to side. The crowd laughs, realising this is perhaps one dance the sacred mask cannot copy.
I am next. Reluctantly I get up, racking my brain for any type of dance move. All I have is some on-the-spot shuffling - MC Hammer style - followed by some step aerobics I can barely remember from my gym days. My confidence grows as the sacred figure follows my lead. I stare up at the black mask, still unable to see his face, and try to take everything in - the cheering hundreds of people; the pounding of drumbeats; the remote village surroundings - and realise this is exactly how a celebration should be: raucous and spontaneous. My bare feet are now caked in mud and sweat, but I feel amazing and truly alive.
The celebration finally ends as the moon rises into the night sky. We know we have witnessed something rare and elusive, an experience that will make our journey through French West Africa impossible to forget.
Steph is a Sydney-based journalist with 13 years experience. She has worked for BBC World News and Sky News London and has been a reporter, producer and presenter with Australia’s regional and national TV stations. Steph and her partner Ben Hogarth are on a year away to explore exotic locations around the world. They’ve been wandering through West Africa, Ethiopia and Sudan and, at some stage, will head to ltaly and France for a little R & R.
The Serengeti Great Migration
The snow-covered peak of Mount Kilimanjaro pops out through the clouds, something of a grand welcome for the plane full of passengers we are with. As we touch down, Kilimanjaro disappointingly disappears behind a blanket of cloud. Thankfully my attention is drawn to the myriad of other sights and sounds closer to the ground.
My partner Ben and I grab our bags from the small carousel and walk out to find our guide and soon-to-be best friend, Prim, holding a sign with our names on it. We hop into the six-seater Toyota Landcruiser 4WD and set off on our journey of a lifetime into the legendary wilderness, the Serengeti.
We drive into the bustling and vibrant town of Arusha and watch in awe as women dressed in beautiful colors walk past us carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. We see tall Maasai warriors walking past proudly, wrapped in their iconic red and blue blankets, while small boys shyly approach us keen to practice their English and sell us local jewelry and wood carvings.
We get back on the road and finally arrive in the Serengeti unsure of what to expect. We’ve read the famous books and admired beautiful photos of the endless plains of Tanzania. So, will the national park live up to our great expectations?
As we enter the open plains, it is very clear the Serengeti will not only live up to our high hopes, but in fact exceed everything we have ever imagined.
Our timing is great. It’s early June, which means we are not only blessed with seeing lions, leopards, hippos, buffalo, hyena, giraffe and gazelle, but we are also there to witness the Great Migration.
The annual Wildebeest-Zebra Migration is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and has provided the backdrop to many National Geographic documentaries.
The huge gathering of animals stand head to head and happily hang out with each other all day long. But their abundance draws an eager crowd of big cats – lion, leopard and cheetah – which is great for us, but not so great for the zebra and wildebeest. Africa’s smorgasbord is open for business.
Just like the tour books say, we are lucky enough to see the ‘Big Five’ – elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhinoceros. But the highlight of the day is spotting two leopards lounging lazily in a large Acacia tree. We happily snap away as they snooze away.
As our guide Prim drives us around the Serengeti plains, he takes great pride in teaching us not only about the spectacular animals on offer but also about the importance of the flora and the history of the Maasai who resided over the land.
By the time the sun begins to set over the Serengeti, we leave satisfied, inspired and still a little in shock from the display Mother Nature has given us.
We spend our night in Dunia Camp – the perfect combination of luxury and style with an authentic (and at times a little un-nerving) wildlife experience. We enjoy a hot shower, exquisite food and a fine drop of wine or a G&T.
Dunia Camp is tucked between the wildlife areas of central and southern Serengeti and there are no fences! From our lavish tent we can hear the lions roar and the zebras call. When I say tent, I could easily mean suite.
We eat a beautifully cooked three-course meal before heading to the campfire to listen to the animals and gaze at the stars. It’s the perfect end to what has been a mind-blowing experience.
While the beauty of the Serengeti is known worldwide, the experience for the traveller is very much a personal one. By no means do I feel like another tourist, instead the journey is intimate as a trip to Africa should always be.