The heart of the dance

Two leg­endary pho­tog­ra­phers who have roamed Africa’s re­motest parts for four decades have pub­lished per­haps their most stun­ning book yet, cap­tur­ing sel­dom-seen dances and cer­e­monies The women came out … Some of them had never seen a white woman. We were

Sunday Times - - Insight - By NA­DINE DREYER

With her gen­teel man­ner you’d be for­given for mis­tak­ing Carol Beck­with for an el­e­gant so­ci­ety host­ess who spends her time or­gan­is­ing soirées and char­ity balls. In re­al­ity she’s one half of an in­trepid pho­to­graphic duo who have trav­elled to some of Africa’s most in­ac­ces­si­ble places to doc­u­ment the con­ti­nent’s van­ish­ing cer­e­monies. For more than 40 years Beck­with and her part­ner An­gela Fisher have cap­tured rites of pas­sage and the other tra­di­tions in 44 coun­tries across the con­ti­nent. Their lat­est project, African Twi­light, is a two-vol­ume mas­ter­piece of mind-blow­ing pho­to­graphs and ac­com­pa­ny­ing text that took 14 years to com­plete.

In the course of their work the two have faced po­lit­i­cal up­heavals, closed fron­tiers, se­vere droughts and threats to their lives. They once or­gan­ised a mule train of 16 an­i­mals for a trip to Sur­ma­land in Ethiopia, trav­el­ling up and down 3,000m-high moun­tains near the bor­der of Su­dan for six days. “When we ar­rived in the first re­mote vil­lage, the women came out to meet us and some of them had never seen a white woman. We were deeply touched by how warmly they greeted us.”

This trip had a fright­en­ing cli­max. At the end of their five-week stay, they learnt of a plan to am­bush their mule train. “We had bro­ken a car­di­nal rule in Surma so­ci­ety — all Surma must be treated equally — and we had sin­gled out three vil­lages of 250 peo­ple to work with, out of a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 14,000.”

So their guide in­vited all the Surma chiefs to a goat roast at their camp and the pho­tog­ra­phers asked them at the end of the feast if they would do the women the hon­our of es­cort­ing them out of the re­gion — at 3am in the morn­ing. The chiefs agreed. “At sun­rise we spot­ted Surma war­riors hid­den high up in the branches of trees point­ing their Kalash­nikov ri­fles at us. But they were so awed by this pro­ces­sion of chiefs that they did not fire and we reached the bor­der in safety.”

The Kuba king­dom in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo — fa­mous for its carv­ing tra­di­tions — in­vited them to record cer­e­monies that were nor­mally held in se­crecy and had not been pho­tographed since the 1970s. Af­ter three weeks on this as­sign­ment they were told, due to elec­tions in the coun­try, that there could be dan­ger at the air­port in Kin­shasa and they had to get out quickly.

“We got back to Kin­shasa and when we were en route to the air­port we got caught in a traf­fic jam and peo­ple started go­ing crazy,” Beck­with said. “So we got out of the car with our lug­gage and started walk­ing. Tra­di­tional women came around us to pro­tect us from ban­dits on the road. We walked out of the traf­fic jam and then flagged down a ve­hi­cle to get us to the ter­mi­nal.”

They al­ways try to learn at least 50 words of the lo­cal di­alect. “We do this by writ­ing the words on our hands so that we can look at peo­ple and kind of glance down at our hand and peek, and feel very com­fort­able in con­vers­ing with them. Even if the con­ver­sa­tion is very sim­ple. It starts on the hand and the words go down the arm as the days progress.”

Some of the cer­e­monies they wit­nessed have never been pho­tographed be­fore and the two pho­tog­ra­phers es­ti­mate that 40% of these rit­u­als now only ex­ist in the pages of their books. “Over the years, we have had to go fur­ther and deeper into Africa to find cer­e­monies that were re­ally still in­tact.”

Beck­with and Fisher al­ways try to show their im­ages to the peo­ple they pho­to­graph. “The prob­lem with get­ting pho­to­graphs back into Su­dan is that there was a civil war for 30 years. Carol and I had done a very big shoot with the Dinka peo­ple in Su­dan, but we couldn’t get back,” Fisher said in an in­ter­view. “Once the bor­ders opened we de­cided to go back in again. We went down to the Nile swamp­lands, and we found all the peo­ple that we’d been work­ing with.” One of them was an elder who had never seen him­self in a mir­ror. “He was look­ing at him­self 30 years ago as a hand­some war­rior, and he was so moved.”

They have learnt a lot on their trav­els: the ben­e­fit of knowl­edge be­ing passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next; the im­por­tance of el­ders shar­ing their wis­dom; the value of rites of pas­sage that de­fine and teach us what is ex­pected at each stage of life.

On their first trip to­gether they en­coun­tered the Wo­daabe peo­ple of Niger. “We trav­elled with them by don­key and camel for six weeks. We lived off one cal­abash of milk a day and when we grew tired or im­pa­tient with the long jour­ney, our Wo­daabe chief would say to us: ‘She who can’t bear the smoke will never get to the fire.’” ➜

PENDE MUTHATHO MASK, DEMO­CRATIC REPUB­LIC OF CONGO Per­form­ers in ‘an­gry masks’ wear­ing net­ted raf­fia cos­tumes dance fre­net­i­cally to amuse their au­di­ence.

EKOKO N’UTEH MASQUERADER, BENIN Dancers from the Uteh com­mu­nity wear these red-feath­ered masks to pay homage to the oba, or ruler, of Benin. They also at­tach raf­fia ‘rat­tle’ pods to their legs.

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