The setting: a little universe of frontier self-sufficiency. Dadanawa has a scruffy grandeur all its own. A dignity of dirt and hard work. It’s not Amerindian, but its acceptance is earned and ungrudging. Set up in 1865, around the turn of the last century it was the biggest ranch in the world. Many Amerindians work at Dadanawa, and many times I have been surprised to hear stories from older friends in Aishalton who broke in some tough horseback years here in their leathery youth. It smells strong, musty and slightly rank- cowhorn dust, bat excreta, cow blood, skins, wood dust, ancient plumbing and a miasma of droppings. The blend is not unpleasant, evoking the musk of an old, strong ox. Evocative, but of somebody else’s more laborious life, emanating the kind of history that never gets written down. It’s Annie Proulx rather than Oklahoma. Everything has been repaired. Everything- the walls, the kitchen pots, the ancient landrovers, the vintage English cisterns, the short band radio. I love the place. It is everything I’m not. The welcome here is thorough but undemonstrative- its one kinship with Yorkshire. There is no power and they are having water problems, so we are asked to bathe in the river.
The women: wildly different, but hiding it under culturally identical layers of reserve. The ones I haven’t met before are quietest. Their ages range from 22 to 66, their confidence from zero to buoyant, their skills from excellent to beginner. Half have mis-read the letter, and expect to be practising cutting fabric and using an electric machine. The other half want organisational training, but some struggle to write and none do mental arithmetic easily. The most skilled women have met many times through training courses in exotic distant urban centres like Lethem. Others have gained confidence through church work or cooking for the school hot meal programmes. Some barely open their mouths at all. I think it is fair to say that Amerindians are cautious about new people. I cannot always distinguish it from suspicion. I try very hard here to be gentle and encouraging. It’s hard not be overpowering: I feel like a bottle of chilli sauce trying to act like milk. My skin colour is intimidating, and my education, and my identity as a teacher, and my fluent English.
The highlight: our fashion show. I asked each village to bring samples from their centre. I am staggered at the range they have brought. Painted tablecloths, school uniforms, patterned skirts, embroidered children’s dresses, perfectly waistbanded men’s trousers. I brought a few props- hats, sunglasses, necklaces, and a little make-up. I have picked out songs I think they might like for the catwalk- although it’s more of an oxwalk. One woman dresses as a man, another as a schoolboy. Each woman chooses her song. For a brief magic two hours, it doesn’t rain. We plug my laptop into the jeep stereo, turn on the headlights in lieu of floodlights, and down the stairs they come, to B.B King and Macy Grey, Mika and Basement Jaxx. We finish with Queen hollering “We Will Rock You”. They all sashay down the steps one last time, boogieing as our cheers and clapping make a tiny blip in the vast silent presence of a black savannah night.