A Festival on Fire: The Phenomenon of AfrikaBurn

A Festival on Fire: The Phenomenon of AfrikaBurn

Having started in 2007 with a mere 800 people setting up to play in the desert, this year, 10 festivals and 10 years later, the cap on ticket sales was put at 11,779 with roughly 20% of participants flying in from overseas to take part. What is the phenomenon of AfrikaBurn? What makes people spend thousands on a week of roughing it in the desert? And where is this festival, formed and created by the people who attend it, headed? By NADIA ROSENTHAL.

It is quite easy to see the appeal of the AfrikaBurn festival after you’ve got over the enormity of the organisation required to get there. As we drive into the desert I am struck by the poetry of it – the vast, surreal, almost lunar landscape, the heart of the Tankwa Karoo, the venue of the festival chosen in particular for its remoteness, “on the longest stretch of road in South Africa without petrol stations or nearby assistance”, states the Afrikaburn website.

My heart relaxes, the desert draws me in, its nothingness, its emptiness. In a sense it invites catharsis. Here is space for me – to be. As the vehicles collect on the dusty road, piled with what is needed for living in the desert, for a week, perhaps less, I feel proud to be part of this gritty, hardy crew, each carrying their part. At the perimeter of the festival, a wasteland of stones, against the skyline we see unearthly metal figures from previous festivals. My heart skips a beat at the creative possibilities. Tipped into a topsy turvy-world, spirits and smiles are as wide and open as the horizon.

What makes Afrikaburn so distinctive is that the festival grows out of 11 principles firmly embraced by the participants. First is the principle of Participation which ensures that festivalgoers, or participants, are not there to consume, to be passive receivers of entertainment. In fact, the festival in its entirety, with support in funding and organisation from the organising body, is created by its participants.

The principle of Gifting encourages a culture of gifting. And this is not bartering, as those who have not been to the festival often incorrectly assume. The mission statement on the website makes this quite clear: “It’s a decommodification zone with a gift economy that’s about gifting without expecting anything in return.” So everyone here leaves behind thoughts of commercial enterprise and thinks instead of what they are going to contribute, facilitating a powerful sense of generosity and ownership and an atmosphere of heightened creativity.

Charmed and delighted by the offerings, the bright colours surreal against the desert, like the sunflower girl who just walked past with sunflowers all over her dress, the medicine man who hails with his traditional remedies to offer resuscitation to those who have partied a little too hard, or the metal wire horse that pulls a chariot and looks a bit like a whitewalker horse, we want to charm and delight. We are inspired, as offered by the principle of Radical Self-Expression, to find and gift our most radical expression.

For some, as an Israeli girl who travelled to the festival tells me of her experience, a week of this is therapy. For those not accustomed to this level of positivity and openness, it takes a while to adjust, to feel safe, to trust that we will be safely received. It’s like adjusting to bright light after being in darkness for a while. It breaks down the boundaries of our little realities. It brings a sense of immediacy and we are encouraged to engage. And, not having to spend a cent for a week, it allows us to experience a different possibility to our capitalist reality. In the words of a reflective festivalgoer, “It allows us to see how things could be different.”

So it all sounds fun and rosy, right? An escape into a fantasy reality of love and happiness? Well no, not quite. There is also an element of the real that one does not get away from. This time it came through with gale-force wind and with that a sandstorm followed by below freezing temperatures at night.

The principle of radical self-reliance means that somehow we have to get 3ft steel pegs into the ground, that we need to bring all of our water, to wash ourselves and our dishes in. It means that sometimes we wake up gritty and not able to make our tea for all the sand blowing into it. It means having to walk for minutes to stand in a queue for an open pit toilet. It means that some days we are just not so bright.

But in my experience that is a part of what makes it wonderful. In our modern world where so much is comfortable and easy, it is a return to roots, a grizzly tribal element with celebration of fire where the men, as a result of their superior natural strength, are called to wield the sledgehammer, and the women, in wanting to be useful to, heaven forbid, cook the food and wash the dishes. But it is also a strange juxtaposition of the modern and the old, the tribal and the star age, where the supermodern camper vans and solar chargers are mixed in with the tents, as the natural human tendency to find easy solutions to everyday challenges kicks in. And this brings us back to how the festival is developing.

With popularisation always comes the herd, those that come for the party, to be with the crowd, willing to bypass the effort required to be true to the principles. As with its parent festival, Burning Man, where those with wealth (of course not all) are known to fly in tented villages that are set up with chefs and serving staff, similar services have sprung up around AfrikaBurn to offer things such as delivery of water and wood as well as setting up of tents.

Bringing their everyday habits, this year at the festival there were those who got their daily jog in by jogging around the central circle (the binnekring), and in the early hours of the morning I saw a man chatting away on a satellite phone to what must have been his wife – consoling her, mind you, of his faithfulness and good behaviour. For a long-time burner, speaking also of marvels this year of a library as well as a Tankwa Marathon, “this is the nature of the beast, you never know what you are going to get”.

For the organisers these tendencies introduce the challenge of finding the balance between being interventionist and allowing the festival to take its own shape. As Monique Schiess, creative lead of AfrikaBurn, says, “AfrikaBurn is essentially an anarchic movement that allows people to experience a different way of life with a view that this experience will have an impact on their everyday lives.”

With this the organisers limit their role as ensuring the conservation of the principles of the festival, but where they do speak of trying to direct its growth is in terms of extending the reach of its effects – into our everyday live and through outreach. For this, various avenues have been opened, including sponsored community tickets. But, as Schiess outlines, the real power of outreach comes from inspired participants through self-motivated projects such as Pedals for Peace, a group which, after organising bikes for festivalgoers, gifts them to local community schools. The Mantis project, a similar participant-inspired undertaking, involved a collaboration between local community members and puppeteers in the creation of a beautiful giant praying mantis, which was then accompanied by its creators to the festival.

For Schiess, the principle of self-reliance remains central towards the aims of the burn: “Setting up one’s own tent is a great leveller and a wonderful community builder; it can also be as creative as building a sculpture. In a sense, to be able to truly give and create, we need to be self-reliant.”

She says having the preceding example of the Burning Man gives Afrikaburn the opportunity to nip these short-cut tendencies in the bud and measures have been put in place for this.

Speaking of the harder/ more “real” elements of the festival, for me the sandstorm was one of the most memorable events. Venturing out with my neighbour’s goggles and swaddled like a Toureg, it gave new meaning to the costumes and showed up the ingenuity of adaptation in others around me.

And anyway, for those that won’t see the beauty in the storm, after any storm there is always the calm. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, suddenly the dust clouds clear or the warm sun comes to thaw out the cold and you find yourself in the most serendipitous moment on a rise, talking to exactly who you need to be talking to, the magnificent sun warming the earth and your bones. The present moment is made even more wonderful for the difficulties you have just endured.

Invariably, for whatever reason we come to the festival, we will always catch a glimpse of something else. We might be inspired to contribute more, we might become less fearful of outdoor roughness, or even be drawn into the beauty of it, and resolve to do something a little differently the next time. DM

Photo by Jolene Bertoldi.


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