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Blame the ground

agikuyu dance

David Maina is the managing consultant of Perfometer Agribusiness Consulting House, on the board of iServe Africa, and he’s also a great storyteller and writer…

Among the Agikuyu community, there used to be various social and religious ceremonies and there was a reason for every ceremony. Such ceremonies marked good times as well as bad times. One remarkable component of each of these ceremonies was songs and dances where each group would have a chance to present their song or dance of the season. Songs carried deep messages that matched the purpose of the ceremony. They were a significant part of the culture of the Agikuyu especially during the years before and slightly after the Independence.

Two things were crucial for any song; the message the song communicated to the audience and how it was danced. The best dancers were recognized and awarded for standing out and everyone among the dancing groups did their best to be recognized as the top performer of the day. While the lyrics were predetermined, the dancers had liberty to be creative in the way they moved or shook their bodies and made facial expressions, how they remained vigorous in coordination with the instruments accompanying the performance.

Middle-aged men performed a dance that required some of them to carry spears and shields, signifying their role as the protectors of the community. The dance started with slow movement and softly stamping the ground with their feet to bring out the sound of the beaded kigamba percussion that was tied between the ankle and the knee. In the last stages the dance however required that the dancers jump higher and (even) higher. As they danced they became more vigorous and jumped even higher and their voices grew louder. Their voices mimicked a lion as a way to bring out the warrior in them. The last stages of the dance were therefore very important in identifying the champion of the day. It was those who jumped the highest and shook the most that were awarded the best dancers.

The audience would cheer the men from their sub-clan, in the hope that the most outstanding dancers would be their own. Sadly there were those who were unable to catch the momentum and they retained a low jump and a soft stamp on the ground up to the last stages of the dance. They were branded lazy and poor performers by their peers and they would not be trusted as guards due to their poor performances during the dance.

A point to note however and particularly the lesson to learn was that the poorest performers in the dance would be the first to justify their poor performance. In most cases they would say, “The grounds chosen for this performance were very rocky and I feared I could hurt my feet, I am sorry that’s why I was not able to dance to your expectation, If the grounds had been smoother, I swear I would have been the best.” And so it was always the (rocky) ground and never them. This is typical of a majority of us leaders and followers today: it is (almost) always a reason outside ourselves that something failed.

[For the rest of this article and more on leadership and culture, grab Issue #2 of Conversation Magazine.]

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