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Samsoni

The three sculptures shown in the video below are from the Sukuma Peoples of North/Central Tanzania. They were collected in Sukumaland. Samsoni, the figure, was commissioned by Sukuma healer Hilu in the early 20th century. By inheritance he was handed down to his son, Ishirini Sumni, following his death. Sumni's son, Ishirini na Kumi inherited Samsoni, along with the airplane and the zebra mask when Sumni died in the mid-20th century. Ishirini na Kumi remembers the three being together since he was a small boy. All of these men were Nfumu, or, traditional medicine men. They belonged to the Bukomyalume society, one of two dance societies among the Sukuma.

These figures were used in a competition between the two dance groups, the Bukomyalume, and Bugobogobo. While not frequently seen in today's competitions,*"the large corpus of Sukuma dance figures, called mabinda, were used in performances as recently as the 1970s to capture the spectators' attention and finalize a victory in competition. Most frequently Sukuma figures are used to satirize character types (either in the opponent dance group or in the village), create narratives with invented characters, or simulate sexual relations. Separated by the confines of the performance space, dancers perform the unsuggestible or move the figures in sexually provocative ways to excite a growing crowd and entice them to stay on their side.

Sukuma Dance

Throughout Tanzania, the Sukuma are admired for the spectacular appeal of their dance performances . Annual competitions, occurring after the harvest season from June to September, draw large crowds in rural Usukuma and provide a forum for the richest display of Sukuma arts, including song compositions, drumming, body movement, costuming, and the use of masks, dance objects, and figural sculpture. With a diversity of performance styles, Sukuma dance itself is not easily defined or taxonomized. However, there are consistencies in successful competition strategies, a long process involving the fortification of the dance field through architectural devices and empowering and protective substances, the personal enhancement of dancers through marking the body with such substances, and strategies for the actual dance performance involving movement or song composition, costumes, the use of additional implements or "attraction devices" and, above all, timing. This complex strategy, especially as it includes the use of powerful medicines and objects, is prescribed by an nfumu (pl. bafumu; medical practitioner).

The challenge for the performers is to continue to excite, provoke, enthrall, amuse and, above all, to draw the spectators to their side of the competition field. The verb that is used to describe a good competition, kubidumaga, means "to invade or battle one another." For the Sukuma audience and performers alike, the competition is a war. Metaphorically, this competition takes on the seriousness of an actual battle, especially when one considers the use of substances and objects as medicinal or empowered "shields" and the implantation of "minefields" on the opponent's ground.

Dance competitions emphasize the dichotomy of the two dance societies, Bagika and Bagalu, and the history of their competition can be traced to these societies' founding leaders, Ngika and Gumha. According to oral histories, the initial dispute that engendered the creation of two societies occurred in the late nineteenth century, when Gumha Misinzo competed with the older Ngika Wandela to show his prowess in song composition and medicinal training. Both men had traveled at different times to ndakama (a general Kisukuma term which means "the south"), the Tabora region, for their practitioner training. According to one version of the story, Gumha and Ngika each claimed to have the stronger medicines and they began competing with one another on the dance field with music and medicine. (11) Ngika was known better for his great knowledge of medicines than his ability to compose songs, while Gumha is recalled more for his musical abilities than his medical experience. Each used their special talents in music and medicine to compete, and each has been mythologized by his successors and contemporary followers as the leader with the most potent medicines. (12) Balingi (sg. ningi; performance leaders), continue to compete with song, dance, and medicines in much the same way as these two early competitors; Ngika's followers, the Bagika (literally "people of Ngika"), are still mythologized for their medicinal prowess while the competing dance society, Bagalu ("people of change") (13) are known for their compositional abilities." *(Sukuma figures, boundaries, and the arousal of spectacle, by Aimee Bessire, African Arts Spring 2005)

According to Ishirini na Kumi, Samsoni was used in other ceremonies than the dance competitions. Marriage, birth, harvest ceremonies and rain dances are among the other uses of the figures, which would travel to other villages to perform. During the ceremonies, other objects are used by the Nfumu. Traditional doctors inherit shitongelejo, or objects of ancestral remembrance, from their ancestors.These objects, such as a fly whisk, gourd rattle, or beaded headband, are used in healing practices and are said to stimulate the aid of the ancestors in curing a patient. Bulungute Muleka, the current leader of the Bagalu Dance Society and a famous traditional doctor in Usukuma, explained that his ancestors give him advice concerning the condition and treatment of a patient. Nyumbani Shilinde often gives offerings to his ancestors, and seeks medical guidance from his deceased grandmother, who was also a healer and his teacher. Mbula, a young practioner, also gives offerings to his family and uses shitongelejo when contacting his ancestors for assistance. Bertha Milroth describes shitongelejo in "Traditional Religion of the Sukuma" as,"objects believed to possess supernatural power because a spirit inhabits it and endows it with strength and spiritual energy....they become shitongelejo once the property of those who have become masamva and [are]now in possession of their grandchildren. Strength, energy, powers of healing,of giving peace, of bestowing children, cattle, good crops, etc, are believed to reside in these shitongelejo."

In the video and still photos presented, the ceremony to release the figure and the airplane and zebra, is shown in detail, exhibiting some of these other objects. The dance troupe is made up of five men, of whom Ishirini na Kumi is the leader, as well as the Nfumu. The competitions are ever changing. While figures were first on the scene in the dances, other sculpture followed as the times changed. Always looking to supply new excitement, pieces such as the airplane came into play. In today's competitions even modern, Chinese-looking dolls have made appearances that excite the crowd. In the video the use of a rubber Halloween mask is another example of new props.

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