Saturday, 30 April 2011

inns & taverns: kunikubwa's belly

The great baobab Kunikubwa stands alone in the savannah.  Giraffe cannot reach her lowest branches, the trunk is wider than even the greatest dire elephant.  Shamans sing her children walked west to plant forests.  Local shamans honour her and tribes walk for days to anoint chieftains under her boughs.  There is a hollow in her trunk large enough to hold two dozen people in relative comfort.  This is Kunikubwa's Belly where travellers drink knowledge and shamans are reborn to serve the spirits. 

Outside the Belly is a worn groove in the trunk where footprints have walked.   The bark shows some signs of stripping but without harm to the tree.   Three small firepits smoulder some distance from the groove. These are tended by tribesmen preparing bananas for brewing.  Within is a dry, shadowed chamber lit by bison skulls lit with greenish foxfire.  There are no chairs or tables, only rush mats.  The lack of facilities is met with indifference and a warning to avoid the firepits when feeding Kunikubwa.  Though animals visit Kunikubwa, many do so peacefully.

Drinks are served in wooden bowls or half-gourds.  The usual is banana beer, wheat-leavened, dark with sediment and drunk to the bittersweet dregs.  At midsummer, Kunikubwa blooms at night with luminous white flowers disturbed by moths, bees and hunting bats.  These flowers are harvested with bone blades and wooden bowls to make an exquisite white beer.  Bees and bats whirl among the pollen-thick flowers.  To pluck a flower is tabu, those doing so are attacked by lions.  The fruit of Kunikubwa are blessed to the tribes.  From them a creamy beer is made as well as sweet paste nutritious enough to be a hearty meal.

The Old Man and Old Woman tend Kunikubwa's Belly.  Typically a pair of shamans of indeterminate age due to their fearsome masks, paint and robust health.  Their word is law in the Belly.  Rarely seen in the day, firepits are tended by would-be shamans and acolytes.  Sometimes the gods don those same masks.  Whether for amusement or for serious matters, this means the masks carry authority beyond their aspect. Behaviour in the Belly is conducted with utmost respect.  To the tribes, this is a holy place.  Even witches who hate the gods respect Kunikubwa's Belly.

Accommodation is determined by whim of the current Old Man and Old Woman.  Usually the price is a story or song.  The hollow sleeps sixteen in comfort plus the Old Man and Old Woman with their two favoured acolytes.   If the guest is disrespectful the price is higher.  One warrior lost their best spear - later he picked a blossom and died under a lion.  Otherwise, shelter can be found under the boughs of Kunikubwa especially near the fire pits.

Shamans are initiated during the equinox and the solstices.  When the Old Man or Old Woman initiates someone, nobody except other shamans are allowed to stay in the Belly.  Ominous drumming, chanting and occasional screams can be heard from within.  The only other time guests are turned away from the Belly is the anointing of a chieftain.  Then the only ones welcomed are the chieftain's closest kin and champion (if one is chosen).  The emergence of either chieftain or shaman is marked with celebration and dancing.

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