'There's a spare seat in a car going to the Kuru Dance Festival; want it?' asked a fellow San supporter.
Did I want it? For as long as I've been researching the ways of these indigenous hunter-gatherers of southern Africa (about two decades) I'd dreamed of seeing them perform their age-old trance dance ritual. Grainy film footage and, in later years, high-fidelity recordings, did nothing to convey the alleged spiritual power of San shamans.
Also, I’d heard reports that this ancient healing custom was dying out as the dispossessed San are forced to relocate to urban areas, their traditional music and dance swamped by waves of relentless rap and grinding hip-hop. Here was a chance to see traditional trance dancing under a full moon, surrounded by unspoilt African bush.
I grabbed the last seat in that car as fast as you can say ‘lend me a sleeping bag’.
Cape Town sparkles at the green tip of South Africa. It is oceans, vineyards and verdant glens away from Ghanzi, a Kalahari desert town in Western Botswana where the Kuru dance festival would be held. We set off on our 1 000 mile-journey before dawn leaving the Mother City to slumber under Table mountain’s down-duvet.
Four hours later we were at the foothills of the Cedarberg range marvelling at the rugged reflection of the peaks in the Clanwilliam dam. Archaeologist estimate that the mountains are home to more than 2000 rock art sites. Under overhangs and high up on sandstone cliffs one can see the ancient therianthrophic figures that characterise San rock art.
(I visited some of these sites the year before in the company of some San who, like me, had heard about the murals attributed to their ancestors, but never actually seen them. Our guide, John Parkington, Emeritus professor of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, explained how the painters’ red pigment might have been made. One of the San shyly volunteered that in his homeland they still get a red pigment from the bark of a certain tree. 'But not for painting spirit-things,' Tsamgao Cwi mourned.)
At this time of year, very early spring, the Cedarberg resembles Switzerland in summer. The valleys are green and blanketed with wild flowers, flashy Namaqualand daisies that transform this normally arid area into a photo opportunity. I wasn't given the chance to stop and snap; we still had a subcontinent to cross.
Technicolor and tarred road gave way to the lunar landscape behind the range. Beige and brown now. Boulders, dust, no visible water, the dirt road rattled us over precipices and passed caves where I imagine the first people lived, millennia ago. From this vantage point they could keep an eye on the herds of antelope that must have roamed the plain before us. Now it was empty, not even a rusting windmill to puncture the flat-line horizon, nothing but us, beetling northwards, our dust trail the only evidence of recent human passage.
A news report on the car radio about San archaeological finds elsewhere in South Africa. Arrowheads made from bone and ostrich eggshell jewellery have been dated to 44 000 years ago. Ha, take that, ye governments (past and present, black and white) who claim that the land your pastoralist forefathers settled in this part of the world was devoid of human habitation at the time. Don’tcha just love it when synchronicity sends a < to your impulsive ventures?
Eventually we reach Calvinia, one of several remote, single petrol pump-towns with an imposing Dutch Reformed church and little else. Mind you, the homemade milk tart was good. I ate it in a restaurant with an enormous faux rock arrangement in the middle. Why, I wonder?
My travelling companions are an interesting bunch: Jobe and Magdalena, from two of the 30 San language groups resident in Botswana, Namibia and to a lesser extent, Angola and South Africa. As trainee curators, this pair are festival-bound to identify a dance troupe to invite to !Khwa ttu, the San cultural and educational centre outside Cape Town where they are currently based. I take the opportunity of the long car journey to discuss with them the challenges of turning traditional San folk tales into an e-book. They are enthusiastic. Jobe, in his deceptively laid-back drawl, labels it as ‘Chapter One’ of the digital app idea I’d originally had. (I haven’t abandoned that idea, just become more realistic about how enormous the task is. Having a ‘practice run’ via the e-book will be instructive for all concerned.)
The driver and owner of the car is Felix Holm, a veteran of trips into inaccessible areas. He deals in traditional African crafts. I am interested to learn about issues surrounding the commercialisation of this business. I’d imagined that sensitive intermediaries like Felix would be a godsend for San looking to sell their beadwork outside of the Kalahari. So they are, helping poverty-stricken families to earn some cash. But the trade has led to the San being introduced to labour-saving devices such as automatic drills. While these increase output and save the teeth of the bead makers, says Felix, they also subtly alter the original product and may result in industrial waste, albeit micro-scaled. Instead of bead making leaving a detritus of organic matter (plant twine and eggshell chips for example) there is now non-biodegradable debris littering the bush.
Felix guns his well-worn Fiat Multipla towards the Botswana border, entertaining us with tales about his Afrikaner ancestors. One anecdote has all the makings of a Wilbur Smith bestseller – more than a century ago, a branch of the family, Boers fed up with the living under British rule at the Cape Colony, set off into the interior along with their servants, cattle and children. They clashed with Black pastoralists and in a raid the entire family was massacred, save for newly born twins. The boys were saved because their black nursemaid hid from the marauders, apparently suckling the babies to keep them quiet. (I bet the Vroue Federasi has something to say about that!) The maid returned to her tribal village with them, where, several years later, a party of trek Boers came across the blond-haired boys and reclaimed them. They went on to feature in Anglo-Boer history.
Late at night we reach our overnight stop, Bokspits, on the edge of the Kalahari desert. The ground is frost-hard as I pitch my tent.
I wake refreshed, keen to see the ranks of red sand dunes that characterise the southern Kalahari. No time to stop and sand surf, the moon is waxing – night after next it will be full-fat and the trance dances must begin. We have hundreds and hundreds of miles to drive yet.
And drive we do, reaching the shimmering asphalt of the Transkalahari highway at midday. Here is cattle country grazed bare. Hungry herds have broken through fences to reach the stalks on the verges of the highway. It makes speed unwise and our slow progress agitates Felix who warns that the highway is a nocturnal no-no. “Then this road’s like a donkey dormitory. Something about their coats absorbs light so they’re impossible to spot till it's too late.'
He drives as fast as he dares, but almost immediately warning lights flash on the Fiat's dashboard. Felix stops, gets out and peers under the hood. No sign of overheating. We all hold our breath as he waits before turning the key. The car starts immediately. Whew! Passing vehicles are few and far between.
10 miles further on and the Fiat's dashboard starts flashing like a Xmas tree. The engine falters. Falter is followed by stutter and stutter by stall. We stop and Felix pores over the manual. “I think we better find a place for the night.” There is one 20 miles away; stopping and starting, cajoling the car and cursing it, we eventually make it, cheering when we see thatch-roofed rondawels. They have space, a troglodyte tent, khaki canvas partially encased in faux rock. Faux rock seems to be the rage here.
I sleep in a proper bed, but not well; too busy mulling over the cruel possibility of being stranded just two hours from my dream destination should the Multipla not start next morning.
It doesn’t. I whisper to Felix that I’d overhead a couple talking about the Kuru Dance festival in the dining room the night before. I’d noticed them, as they were chomping on the biggest steaks I’d ever seen. Now we approach them and Thandi and Isaac agree to transport Jobe, Magdalena and I, as well as the trailer of camping gear. They are lively company and I am pleased to offer them lunch when we arrive at our accommodation, the very pleasant Thakadu Bush camp. (No faux rock.) The extensive game meat menu pleases: warthog, eland, springbok, kudu. Botswana is carnivore’s heaven. It’s salad and fresh veg that are luxuries here.
Our rescuers leave and we face up to our ongoing transport problem. Granted we are just 35 miles from the festival site, but we may as well be back in Cape Town. First there’s the long bush hike back to the highway. Once there, no guarantee of a lift; Kuru is beyond Ghanzi, the nearest town. I hear there is a taxi driver in Ghanzi – he isn’t taking calls. In desperation I grovel over to a group hosting a children’s birthday party.
Hey, is that a Pumba kneeling at the waterhole to drink? And now eland are startled from a thorn thicket by strains of “Happy Birthday to you.” I get into conversation with two aunties trying to keep flies off Little Mermaid’s iced tail. They turned out to be the famous ‘white-San’ sisters, Polly and Ada Harbattle. Here’s another Wilbur Smith saga: their father, a white rancher from England, took a San woman as wife. Instead of keeping his ‘half-caste ‘ family hidden in a hut, as polite ex-pat society would have preferred, he proudly acknowledged them and sent them off to England to be schooled.
The Hardbattles are soft; warm and humorous about their straitened circumstances. They too need a lift to the festival as their ‘old bangers’ aren’t up to the off-road trip, they explain.
I retire to my tent, defeated. I spot a Nissan negotiating the challenging game lodge road. Success. It parks at the next campsite. Two smart young Botswanans I will come to know as Kgalaletso (Glorious) and Onalenna (He is with me) hop out. They have driven 500km to have a girls’ weekend at the dance festival. Yes, we can tag along.
On arrival at the game farm, now called the Kuru Conservancy, we learn that the festival site is another seven miles into the bush. The sentries at the gate shake their heads at the Nissan and its intrepid driver. We must hitch a ride (story of my life) in a four-wheel drive vehicle; one will be along, eventually… The moon rises higher and higher, beaming down on trance dancers somewhere deep in darkness I can’t penetrate. I try to block my ears against the sound of far too distant drumming.
Cars pitch up, a surprising number considering how far on the road to nowhere we are. None have space for extra passengers, not even two let alone the five of us! An hour inches by, it’s getting winter-desert-at-midnight cold. I kick stones to keep the circulation going in my numbed feet. Finally a 4WD vehicle with just a driver pulls up. He’ll take us. Another half hour and a lot of gear-grinding later, we are there!
But what’s this concrete structure? I’d anticipated a campfire, not this ugly, open-air auditorium. Once inside I appreciate the protection it offers from the chill wind. And the raked seating; there are rows and rows of spectators. Oh vrek, is this going to be San culture canned for the masses?
A troupe of elderly-looking people files into the arena wearing skins and dance rattles. Their loincloths and pubic aprons are well crafted and well worn. They have beautiful beaded headbands and ornaments. Ahh, this is no tourist getup, it’s the real thing and I’m seeing it. How-lucky-am-I!
The women sit in a semi-circle and begin clapping a complicated rhythm. One voice lights up, bright as a flare shooting into the ancestral sky. Others join in. I’m having a goosebump moment. Men shuffle around and around the singers and soon kick up a veil of dust that shines like fiery gauze. Suddenly a dancer buckles at the knees. He is caught by minders who lay him on the ground. His body stiffens, his legs shake, the hairs on the back of my neck rise as his back arches in a convulsion. This must be the n|omkxao, the owner of medicine. Oh-oh-oh! I hold my breath until woozily he stands up again. But now he digs into his armpits for the n|om, the healing power he has summoned from his spirit guide. He lays hands on people. They seem to swoon and unbidden into my brain comes ‘Lynx-effect’. I feel like a child caught being disrespectful in church. Better close my eyes and open my heart. I hear/feel clapbeat, heartbeat, clapbeat, heartbeat; chanting like a muscular mantra. Warmth around my shoulders now despite the sneaky wind. I feel the knots in my neck loosen.
‘It is over; it is finished,’ scolds a deeply disappointed voice via the P.A. system. I jerk out of my meditation. ‘People have disrespected the tradition!’ But it isn’t my anti-perspirant thoughts that have spoiled things. Flash photography, expressly forbidden at the night event, is ruining the shaman’s concentration.
And so this extraordinary experience is cut short. As I stumble, disconcerted, out of the stadium, I remember the author, John Fowles, writing about photographing the glory of a butterfly. So busy was he capturing it on film, he never really saw it, he wrote.
I have permission to do some photography at the festival tomorrow. I vowed to remember just to look, too.
Next day we again get a Glorious lift to Kuru and this time quickly secure a ride over the thumps and bumps. Today the conservancy teems with more people than game. The car park is so full even the ‘attendant’, a fully-grown ostrich, is having trouble ‘patrolling’ between the vehicles.
A surprising number of non-San dance troupes are listed on the programme. They’ve travelled from far and wide, courtesy of sponsorship from the biggest gem diamond-mining group in the world, Debswana, a partnership between De Beers and the Botswana government. The company’s ubiquitous banners boast about Debswana’s contribution to local communities. I wonder how literate San view these. My understanding is that while some Tswana societies have had schools and roads built by Debswana, San communities who live less than a dozen miles from a mine (e.g. those at Kedia who live near to the Orapa mine) have been completely ignored. Credit to the savvy young San who organised this Kuru Dance festival, I think, for finally getting Debswana to put some money on the table for the San.
The other PR coup for the 2012 festival organisers lay in persuading performers from other ethnic groups to participate in what is seen as a San cultural celebration. Despite evidence that vast tracts of what is now Botswana belonged to San hunter-gatherers, the Naro or Nharo, the largest San language group in Bots, are now a marginalised people, many eking out an existence as labourers on settler farms and in some cases living as serfs among their Herero landlords. The fact that the stadium was packed with Tswanans showed that many are curious about San culture; they also have respect for San healers, consulting them when their own healers have failed. The Bots. Government, however, seems determined to colonise the San, both in terms of their land and language.
I am grateful for the shade of the stadium canopy as I watch troupe after troupe of dancers stamp, clap, drum, and leap, strutting their stuff in an array of traditional dress, from shimmying raffia skirts to the stately Victorian-style dresses of the Herero women.
While I love the verve and energy of the young people who mostly make up the non-San troupes, it is the elderly San troupes that really move me. Today the singing seems particularly pure, and the narratives contained in the dance are both instructive and dramatic. Chuckle-chuckle at sly San humour when one shaman pulls out a stethoscope during the healing ceremony.
Crowd as fascinating as the dancing – a kaleidoscope of skin colours and head gear; striking juxtapositions: white man, paparazzi lens thrusting through young San bucks in skin breech clouts and duiker horn- head dresses. A slight San next to a massive Herero. Who wouldn’t be intimated?
Text message from Felix, still stuck 250 miles away. The car needs a specialist mechanic and spare part. A week or more. Eeek! I have a lawyer's meeting I'm anxious about back in Cape Town and can't afford to cancel again. I need to get to an airport, but where, how? Thandi, who gave me my first lift, spots me and calls me over to meet her Swedish friend, Elisabet. We chat; I tell her I have only been to Sweden once, to a tiny place, a mere railway siding inside the Arctic Circle called Porjus. ‘I used to live in Porjus,’ Elisabet laughs. The talk turns to dance, then to tango. We are both students and have mutual dance partners. This is getting too weird. I am stranded in the Botswana bush without my stilettos and need to hustle.
I work the crowd and finally land a linguist travelling to Namibia the next day. He’ll drop me at Windhoek airport.
Now there is one last lift to find, my final shuttle between Kuru and the Transkalahari highway, between this world of wondrous coincidences and the mechanised maelstrom out there. But the gifts this experience has bestowed aren’t over yet. A local white rancher offers me a ride.
What follows is as accurate a record of our conversation as my memory will muster. I include it especially for some of my Afrikaans readers who have objected to the dialogue of characters like Etienne and André Marais, Boer bosses in Salt & Honey and Kalahari Passage.
Me: Do you employ San on your cattle ranch?
Him: Ja, some, but they’re no good.
Me: Er, in what way?
Him: Lazy. These are desert men, hey. They don’t
expend any unnecessary energy. Useless when
it comes to making fence posts. Takes them
weeks. Ja-no, for fence posts you need a
Zimbabwean. A Zimbo can chop wood all day;
chop till he drops. But he can’t set a fence straight;
posts all over the show. Ask him what the hell
happened, he’ll tell you the cattle leaned on
Now your Bushman, er San, he can run a fence
straight as an arrow, across any kind of terrain.
And it makes sense. These okes are used to
walking everywhere in this bush without Sat Nav,
so they don’t take the long way round.”
‘Ja-no’, as my Afrikaans characters say, my trip to Kuru was an inspiration, in all sorts of ways.