The women danced frenetically under the scorching and relentless sun. Even in the shade the heat was almost unbearable, so out in the open, it was stifling.
Their traditional dress was stained under the armpits and beads of sweat had long since ceased, now it came in rivulets, running down every inch of their bodies. They didn’t seem to be tiring though, they were buoyed by some palpable excitement, as if they’d been waiting on this day all their lives. Some had; a chance to dance before the king! Why, who wouldn’t have? They thought as they twisted this way and that sharply, stomping their feet, delighting in the plumes of dust rising up around them and the cheers from the on-looking crowd.
“Imagine, tomorrow it’ll be our turn!” It was a short, beautiful woman, with an up tilted nose. She clapped her chubby arms and whistled for her comrades.
“I can’t wait!” Her companion, slightly taller and even more robust, replied with glee. All around, similar comments made in between the cheering were heard. The villagers were in a state of celebration. A cacophony of drums, offbeat flutes and song added to the general mayhem and Milo turned away, slipping unnoticed from the noisy spectacle. Short, plump with stunning features, Milo’s heart shaped face with rounded cheeks was accented with a broad nose, eyes that sparkled and a mouth that titled upwards, as if she were permanently on the edge of a laugh. Today however, her mouth was pulled down in a sort of worried grimace. She was not looking forward to tomorrow.
Away from the dancing, the village was silent. Milo appreciatively took in the peace as she strolled through, heading to an enclosure at the very end of the village near the trees. Whistling softly, she called to a powerful looking, light brown mare, who came trotting dutifully to her. Milo led her out, deftly swung on and was off at a gallop, disappearing through into the forest. Hours later, the sun had set and finally, a semblance of cool had pervaded, both in the temperature and the general frenzy. The tired but exultant villagers went about their tasks quickly, racing with the fast growing darkness. No one liked to be outside once it was too dark to see.
“Oh! Where could she be now?” a large, kindly looking woman sighed exasperatedly as she stood outside one of the numerous small huts. She wrung her hands and gazed out toward the horse pen, and the forest beyond, sighing even deeper when she saw Milo come tearing out of the forest. She clucked her tongue and went inside to light the fire.
“Hi aunty,” Milo came in breathlessly, her eyes alight and her skin tingling from the fresh air, “Here, sit down. I’ll light it,” she said as she hurried to take the wood her aunt was holding.
“You know, tomorrow’s an important day,” her aunt commented nonchalantly.
“Pff,” Milo exhaled loudly, “Sure…”
“You only get one chance to impress Milo, one chance to prove…”
“To prove I can dance,” Milo snorted indignantly.
“To prove you are worthy of the King’s favour!” Her aunt heaved her great mass off the small stool she’d been perching on, “Just…just try not to do anything to…ahh, forget it. I’m going to bed.”
“But aunty, your supper…”
“You’ve upset me too much…I’ll just have to starve tonight.”
Milo started after her, suppressing a smile at the thought of her rotund aunt starving, then stopped. She wasn’t in a placating mood, thoughts of tomorrow still hung over her like a bad smell.
The next day dawned cooler. The sun still came out in all its glory, but great puffs of fluffy white clouds drifted lazily in the sky, blocking it from time to time. The villagers thronged the set arena and once His Majesty, riding on a magnificent black stallion had arrived, it was time for the second round of the dancing. Milo stared down at her feet to hide her scowl. She’d been very unfortunately placed front and centre, and as the drums began to beat, she reluctantly forced herself to move, albeit stiffly, a dignified, haughty look on her pretty face. She needn’t have worried about her obvious lack of enthusiasm; she was quickly swept up by the wild antics of the women around her. They gyrated and threw themselves about, waving their arms to jingle the bangles that lay thick on them. Then, as the noise rose to a crescendo, the King’s horse was startled and shied violently, sending the dancing women screaming, which in turn spooked the horse even more. Warriors, seeing their King half dangling off the horse, moved forward with shouts even as the women continued to scream and scatter. Milo would have rolled her eyes at the absurdity of it all, but there was no time. She leaped into action, moving forward with palms raised to the buckling animal. The horse kicked out twice more, then pranced nervously as it eyed the slowly approaching woman. “There, there… You’re just scared aren’t you,” she said gently, then turned to address the King who was still struggling to right himself, fighting furiously with the reins, “Slowly your Majesty, you have to move slower.”
The King, afraid but even more flustered at the embarrassment, raised his brows in amazement. Who was this who dared instruct him? But for all his blustering, he knew she was right. Calming himself, he took control once more, much to the relief of the panicked crowd. “Thank you uhh…” The King’s deep voice carried clearly across the arena. “Milo,” she answered, dropping into a clumsy curtsy, her eyes widening as she remembered protocol, “Your Majesty,” she added hastily.
“Hmm,” he looked her over appreciatively, “I wonder why I haven’t noticed you before.”
Milo face was full of mirth and her laughter filled voice was heard by every villager. “Well your Majesty, I’m not one for dancing.”
This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on February 20, 2021.