A source of strength to slaves, call-and-response ritual sustains Kili climbers

Nearing collapse, Glassman and her group make the final assault on Kilimanjaro's summit, with lamps on their heads to light the way.

Joe Kwong

Nearing collapse, Glassman and her group make the final assault on Kilimanjaro's summit, with lamps on their heads to light the way.

We knew we were in for spectacular vistas, and the sight of a billion stars glistening in the inky night above Mount Kilimanjaro left us speechless, stunned by the mystery of the cosmos as well as its indescribable beauty. We also knew we were in for exhaustion, despair — an almost irrepressible need to give up and turn back. Here, too, Kilimanjaro fulfilled expectations.

The fourth day of the trek consisted of an eight-hour climb to the summit base camp. We were instructed to sleep for a few hours, eat, and then sleep again before attempting a final ascent at midnight. Nauseous from altitude sickness, I had not slept or eaten for days. I was not alone in fearing that we wouldn’t make it, that we’d wimp out, that our hearts or lungs or brains might explode in the thin Tanzanian air.

At midnight, in the pitch dark and freezing cold, we began the tortuous 6 ½-hour climb that mountaineers call the zombie march. Surrounded by black nothingness and the glistening cosmos above, all we could see of ourselves was the winding trail of lamps attached to our headgear, like a small congregation of disembodied souls trying to merge with those distant stars.

Every step was excruciating. My mind screamed at me: “Stop this! Give up! Go back! You don’t need to be doing this. Go home. If you say you want to go back, no doubt everyone will be relieved and will go back with you, etc., etc.”

And that’s when Kilimanjaro delivered something as wonderful as it was completely unexpected.

Gently and yet powerfully, one of our guides started singing above us on the path. He called out a verse in Swahili that somehow included our names. The porters behind and below us called it back to their leader. The verse evolved further as the guide echoed and adapted the porters’ response and further still as they sang it back to him once again.

It was call-and-response chanting, a sound that has echoed down the centuries and across continents, from its African origins to the field hollers that relieved the misery of slaves in the old South. And here it was, rising organically from the ordeal to which we had subjected ourselves here on Kilimanjaro.

Of course it is grotesque to suggest an analogy between the suffering of slaves and the challenges we had chosen to endure as privileged travelers on a deluxe adventure. We were testing our limits by choice, while the inhuman horrors endured by slaves were inflicted upon them. But the power of call and response, that venerable African tradition, was driven home to me, there on the slopes of Kilimanjaro: its ability to lift the spirit and forge communities that can shoulder burdens few could survive alone.

Call-and-response hollers among slaves laboring in American fields were, of course, much more than a diversion from monotony, oppression and bodily pain. Among the cruelties imposed upon them, slaves were not allowed to talk to one another while working. They were allowed to sing, however. It helped them coordinate their labor.

What their overlords didn’t quite grasp is that it was also a way to pass messages from field to field. The hollers – typified by a lead singer calling the song and the community of fellow workers (or worshippers) singing it back as a chorus — were based on African song patterns.

In due course, they formed the basis of the Blues, in which the vocalist calls the verse and the instrument repeats it back. Later, the fusion of these African rhythms with European musical overlays gave birth to jazz, New Orleans’ most distinctive contribution to American culture.

When Americans took over the Louisiana colony, they clamped down on the few freedoms afforded slaves during French rule, but they allowed the slaves to congregate in Congo Square for dances on Sundays. Ned Sublette in “The World That Made New Orleans,” suggests that allowing the slaves to participate in these dances prolonged their lives and therefore raised their value, it being physically therapeutic to alternate repetitive motion with a different, releasing motion.

Young Louis Gottschalk spent part of his childhood across the street from Congo Square, where he was exposed to the music and dancing of the slaves on Sundays. His musical compositions — influenced by African rhythms and song styles — figured in the development of modern jazz.

There were five of us adventurers in the group that attempted Kilimanjaro earlier this year: me and my husband, his daughter, her fiancé, and a young stranger who somehow ended up with us. But as was also true of antebellum plantations, it took a small army of people to support we privileged few: the guide, two assistant guides, a couple of cooks, and three porters per person, a paid crew of 22 Africans.  As we Americans lumbered ineptly up the mountain, the porters ran on ahead, carrying much of our gear — and there was a lot of it — on their heads.

The higher we climbed through beautiful and otherworldly terrains, the more difficult the ascent became. We traveled from tropical rain forest to heather and moorlands, to a moonscape of arctic desert and finally to the glacial summit.

I asked our African companions whether they thought the mountain had a spirit. They each responded in horror: “Oh, no! I am a CATHOLIC!” The irony did not escape me, a white woman and an ordained priestess of Vodou, that I seemed to be the only practitioner of a traditional African religion on the mountain. But as I teetered on the edge of collapse, I had reason to wonder if my faith would be sufficient to sustain me.

It was the chanting, once our crew fell to it, that made it possible to go on, step by step and breath by breath. I remembered the words of Ramchandra Ghandi — Mahatma’s grandson — whom I had met in India: “The breath is your best friend,” he told me. “It is the last one to leave you when you die.” Instead of focusing on how miserable I was, I thought about every bit of information I had ever received that could strengthen me. And that brought to mind the men and women, in addition to Ramchandra, who had brought me each piece of information.

Though every step remained excruciatingly difficult, time condensed, collapsed, and we entered into an eternal now. Six-and-a-half hours melted away and so did the boundaries between us. We were a team at last, somehow carried past our individual limits to the summit of the magnificent mountain.

Call and response had lifted up the captive Africans toiling in the American South. It had carried them to an eternal place of great beauty and power that could not be chained or whipped out of them. It carried an unstoppable, unconquerable freedom with it.

We adventurers could only glimpse that epiphany on Kilimanjaro, but it was as powerful a moment as a spiritual seeker could possibly imagine.

All that power, mystery and potential is hidden somewhere in the rhythms of jazz and the call and response of the blues. Even below sea level, it lifts us out of our personal suffering and carries us to the mountaintop.

It was certainly easier to descend than to climb Kili. During the two-day return to the Tanzanian plains, my companions listened to their iPods and talked football and politics. I felt too present for that and instead listened as birds and monkeys called the verses — and streams, wind and waterfalls called back the refrain: the call and response of the divine all around us, slave and adventurer alike.

Initiated in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1995, Sallie Ann Glassman is high priestess of the New Orleans based Vodou society, La Source Ancienne Ounfo. She is an artist and the owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica and founding co-chairman of The New Orleans Healing Center, at 2372 St. Claude. 

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  • Jack

    Sallie Ann, What a a great adventure, a beautiful story and marvelous insight! Thank you