A surprisingly recent instance of human evolution has been detected among the peoples of East Africa. It is the ability to digest milk in adulthood, conferred by genetic changes that occurred as recently as 3,000 years ago, a team of geneticists has found.- The New York Times, December 11th 2006
They called themselves the White Dancers. No one was sure where the name came from. Some people said it was a reference to the Gmklah dance, where the young men of the village smeared their bodies in chalk to propitiate the wind gods, others claimed that it came from a vision the old medicine man had claimed to see before he died - a strange fantasy of hideous monsters, shaped like men but with white skin, dancing to an Oogoomba drum louder than any ever heard by mortal man. Whatever its origin, the name had stuck.
Not that it got used much. The old people of the village disapproved of the White Dancers, and the younger ones had learned to conceal their admiration, so no one ever spoke of them. Mbutu's father, for instance, would spit on the ground every time someone mentioned 'those boys' in his presence, and Mbutu's mother would shake her head and remind his sister to stay away.
Mbutu himself found the White Dancers fascinating. Four strapping young men, dressed in deerskins that couldn't have been more than a year old, sitting by the great Usabda tree at the edge of the town, talking and singing through the day. It was rumoured that the White Dancers were men of exceptional strength - mighty hunters and fine cattle herders as well - but everytime Mbutu saw them they seemed to be lazing about, lying in wait for the girls to come by on their way back from the well so they could tease them.
Not that the girls really minded being teased. Not by the White Dancers. There was something special about them, something almost magical about the way they sat and moved and talked. Something about the way their skin glowed and their teeth shone. They were sleek and deadly, these men - they carried themselves like spears - and yet you had the feeling, somehow, that they would not hurt you.
One day, Ndok, the eldest of the White Dancers, caught Mbutu staring at him and wanted to know why. At first Mbutu tried to deny it, tried to pass it off lightly, but when Ndok would not relent and dragged Mbutu over to his circle of friends to be interrogated, the combination of fear and awe at being in the presence of his gods made Mbutu blurt out the truth. He admired them, he said. He wanted to be like them. The White Dancers laughed at him at first, then, realising that he was serious, tried to dissuade him, telling him he was too young, that he should come back when he'd had a chance to grow up. Eventually, hoping perhaps to scare him, they offered to let him take the terrible test that every White Dancer had to take if he wanted to be part of their group.
Mbutu called their bluff, of course. Which is how he ended up, one moonless night, slipping through the side of his parent's hut where the grass had worn thin, making his way half a mile along the village path to where the White Dancers waited, their faces grim in the flickering bonfire. He wondered what the terrible test would be. Would he have to hunt something, perhaps wrestle with some wild animal? Looking around him, he noticed that there was a cow tied to a tree at the edge of the clearing. Could the cow be part of the test? But a cow was not difficult to handle - surely becoming a White Dancer required more gruelling a challenge. Perhaps the cow was bait, he thought, meant to draw some feral monster out of the darkness.
"Are you ready, Mbutu?" Ndok asked him. He nodded. "You're sure? You can still leave, you know. We will take mercy on your tender years." Mbutu shook his head emphatically. "Very well, then, let us begin."
At Ndok's nod, the youngest of the White Dancers moved over to the cow, carrying a bowl. Then, as Mbutu watched in horror, he proceeded to place the bowl under the cow and bending down, laid his hand on the cow's breasts. The very sight of it made Mbutu feel queasy. He had imagined many things on his way to the clearing - all manner of gruesome acts had passed through his head - but he had always assumed that they would be honourable acts, acts befitting a warrior or a hunter, nothing so depraved and disgusting as caressing cattle. Were the White Dancers nothing but perverts then?
It got worse. Having spent a minute feeling the cow's breasts, the young man proceeded to squeeze at her nipples, aiming the jets of white, viscous liquid that spurted out of her into the bowl he had placed on the ground. Feeling the eyes of the others on him, Mbutu forced himself to watch, wondering how he would react if they asked him to do the same, trying to imagine touching that pendulous tit, the feel of it in his hands, the squishy sensation of the liquid running through his fingers. He didn't think he could do it.
But it didn't come to that. Instead, when the bowl was three quarters full, the young White Dancer stopped his squeezing, and picking the bowl up carefully, came towards Mbutu. It was then that Mbutu understood what his ordeal was to be. Meekly, absently, he accepted the bowl from the young man, then stood staring down at its contents. The liquid was disgusting - pasty and white and flecked with bubbles. Small islands of fat floated in it, like old man Gnsingo's dandruff. No one could drink that. He remembered stories he'd heard about how the bodily secretions of the cow were poisonous, of people being forced to drink them and being violently sick and even dying. Were the White Dancers trying to kill him? Surely not. And yet who knew that he was here, that he had come to meet them? Could it be that they had decided to murder him for his insolence?
"Go on, drink." Ndok said. For a moment Mbutu considered flinging the bowl aside, trying to make a break for it. But the four White Dancers were standing right next to him and he could not hope to escape. An obscure sense of pride took hold of him. No, he would not cower, would not try to run away. Let them poison him if they wished, he would take it like a man.
Closing his eyes to keep out the sight of the nauseating liquid, Mbutu took a deep breath and brought the bowl to his lips. The liquid tasted sickening, thick and clammy and reluctantly bland. He felt himself starting to retch, but there were hands holding his head up now, hands steadying him, and someone was keeping the bowl from being spilled. He took another deep breath and went on drinking.
By the time the bowl was empty he felt sullied, violated. It was as though some essential innocence, some innate lightness of spirit had been washed from him by this unholy fluid. And yet, now that he let himself feel it, there was also a sense of fullness, a warmth that flowed through his limbs, making them feel not heavy, but at peace. As his body slowly recovered from the torture of these last minutes, he felt himself returning to a deeper gravity, a more complete being. The waves of nausea were starting to die down now. He felt released, almost happy.
The White Dancers were smiling at him. Hesitatingly, he smiled back. Then they were laughing and slapping him on the back (he felt a spasm of nausea again), telling him he was one of them now, that they had known all along that he would make it, that he was one of the chosen. Soon, he too was laughing with them, joining them in the idiotic dances they danced around the clearing, throwing his head back to sing the songs he'd heard them sing amongst themselves so often that he knew them by heart.
It was almost dawn by the time Mbutu made his way back home, having promised to meet the others later in the day under the Usabda tree. On the way back to his parents hut, he stopped to wash his mouth out. He had to be careful. He couldn't let anyone at home smell the milk on his breath.