On this first day of winter here, summer at home, I woke up at the Ilboru Safari Lodge contemplating the Solstice winds blowing in the night. Solstices mark endings and beginnings as we leave an old season and move into a new one, and I felt it in the air. This first day of a new season inspired a feeling of change. How apropos, as it would be a full day of unique experiences.
We began with a journey to an organic and fair trade community coffee plantation in the Tengeru region East of Arusha, and we were welcomed by being danced and sung onto the farm by old Meru women at the very hour of the solstice. This was our first initiatory experience. I’m brought back to the idea of “rejoicing in the presence” that I feel from the essence of Africa. That’s what welcoming is, and that’s what love is. The people of Africa know how to welcome you, which was a consistent, touching element throughout our sojourn. It was an honor to be so welcomed with song and dance, an offering of rhythm and spirit that pulled us in to participate as if we were long-awaited returning family members.
We followed the elder women in a dancing line onto the property and then proceeded on a tour of this beautiful place that employs and feeds community members. Sustainability is built into the plantation, including deriving power from the methane gas emitted by their cows’ waste.
Then came a most exquisite experience for me. After learning about how this cash crop of shade-grown coffee was cultivated, we were treated to a fragrant roasting demonstration on an open fire. The coffee beans offered us a performance of their own through the percussive sifting of hulls, making a distinctive shekere (shaker) sound. This was followed by the grinding of the coffee. Usually, I could care less about such a process as I am not a coffee drinker, so I had little interest in the final product itself, yet I had no idea what was coming.
I had long heard from my West African drum master about how rhythms were originally created by women pounding grains in large wooden mortars or upright standing bowls with stems wielding hefty pestles, which are club-shaped instruments used to pulverize. Well, suddenly, there it was happening in front of me. Roasted coffee beans were put into a big mortar, and one of the women began to beat them into powder as they sang a traditional song to the rhythm she struck. Then a friend joined her as the beat doubled up. This was mesmerizing, and the songs were fascinating.
Several of us took a turn with the mortar and heavy pestle trying to keep the beat as an expert counterpart held steady and the chorus of women and traveling companions sang along. It was more challenging than it looked. The pounding implement must’ve weighed 20 pounds and needed to be held in both hands, raised up and brought down in a fluid and even motion, which was a challenge and very satisfying! This was a primal experience, and the songs drove and compelled us. The singing and clapping provided motivation and made the task more fun, like someone working out in the gym with music playing in headphones, and this felt like a ceremony or ritual with ancestral roots.
The voices of these women were incredible, and the woman singing lead while we were there was sonorous and archetypal sounding and so beautiful. All of these elements come together in these rituals to create this drink, which is not something that is consumed to help with early morning waking to start the work day, but something that is imbibed as a ritual reflecting those rites that move us through life in a rhythmic way in connection with everything.
This is why rhythm is such a part of everything and why there are songs and dances for it all because it’s all meant to be a celebration. At the same time, it’s an invitation to slow down, slow down, slow down. This was something that we were reminded of frequently as we shook off our western habits of rushing through everything and settled into the natural rhythms of our experience. This coffee ritual was a perfect example of something easy for us to overlook yet containing great depth if given the time and opportunity to express itself.
As we concluded our visit to this plantation, I remembered what I had written some days before traveling regarding conception and potentially being reborn on this trip. It felt like I was in a birth canal, emerging into a different space. As if I and everything were brand new.
I had been encouraged to open to the grace of my loving while in Africa. I was aware of how much I love Africa, its music, rhythms, earth, and its cultures like the Maasai, and I knew this would only expand as I got deeper into the journey. This experience with the Meru people added to the depth and diversity of the love I felt for this continent, and I felt there was more to come this day and each day hence.
Solstices are times of crossing, and on this day, I crossed over into the magic of Africa in a deeply meaningful way, going back to the origin of what initiated a rhythmic tradition that sits at the basis of my soul’s calling. I had just seen how women naturally served as the practical originators of African rhythms. At some point, the practices were formalized when blacksmiths took the mortar, opened up a channel through its heart, and covered it with antelope skin, thus giving voice to the djembe drum, which holds personal significance for me as my main rhythmic instrument and a source of so much joy and creativity.