I stop taking pictures for a minute, and just listen to the sounds of the place: insects droning, children chasing each other in the next baked-earth yard, and the low, soft burble of the women laughing and chatting, enjoying one another's company as they work. The language of the Ndebele is beautifully mellow with deep, round syllables accented by a sprinkling of the clicks and squeaks of the Zulu language from which it derives.

Then there is another sound--a chirp, a whistle; it is Betty, with a plastic referee's whistle held in her teeth, swaying and shuffling across the courtyard to the tempo of her whistle chirrups. One at a time, other women set their work aside, stand, and join her in a slow, graceful sideways conga line of a dance. The singing starts sotto voice, with deep, sweet harmonies as a dozen of the beaders join in the performance. I am told they dance only occasionally for their own amusement, but always at festive gatherings, and in this case, for us, because we are guests.

A basso note is added. Johanna is blowing into what appears to be a drier vent hose while holding the other end up over her head, creating


a rhythmic tuba pulse as she takes her place in the curving line of dancers.

I can't resist. I have to start moving to the beat, doing my best to imitate their steps--and friendly hands move me right into the middle of the line. There is a brutal African sun overhead, and not a bit of breeze, but the dance is slow, the exertion minimal, and I don't worry about fainting. And then a woman who is not dancing brings me her headdress and places it on me, with its bright loops of bead strings swinging under my chin. Another woman is inspired to put her beaded scepter in my hand, and somebody snaps a wide plastic neckpiece in place. Finally, a dancer sacrifices her multicolored wool blanket to be draped around my shoulders. We sing (I contribute to the occasional yeah-yeah-yeah). And we dance.

I am quite a picture, wearing my glorious Ndebele ceremonial regalia over my khakis and T-shirt, my blondish curls drooping, and my dripping face the color of a waning South African sunset.

-Toby Tuttle

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