Imagine you find yourself in another world, where everything around you is different from what you’ve grown accustomed to. The people, the interactions and the environment build a stage for a fantasy circus where anything goes and any form of artistic expression can define the spirit of your day.
If this thought attracts you, just read on.
Last week, the nearing end of the South African camping and outdoor season was marked by the 6-day festival called AfricaBurn. After experiencing it, I can hardly believe that I almost decided in the last minute to stay at home.
The reason for this is a pretty well working pre-selection of participants, due to the difficulties of joining the event. If you are not really committed to go, the amount of necessary preparation might intimidate you, especially if you are not aware on what you’ll miss out on, while staying comfortably at home.
The venue lies in a deserted area in the Tankwa Karoo National Park, along a 250 km long, lonesome gravel road. This area near the border between the Western and Northern Cape provinces is one of the most arid regions in South Africa, receiving a pitiful 50 to 70 mm of water per year. No villages, trees or rivers, no shade, infrastructure or even cellphone reception. The last dusty stretch, 116 kilometers before reaching the festival, is a stony rubber graveyard. The sharp stones on a rock hard surface can rip your tires to shreds, causing the trip to become rather expensive, even with a 4×4. Additionally, struggling to change a tire, running out of spare tires or the right tools, means being stranded in the desert, waiting for help.
AfricaBurn is the South African version of Burning Man, an event best described as an art festival, held yearly in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, in the United States.
Burning Man started in the 1980’s in California with a few friends burning a temporary human sculpture (“the Burning Man”): an expression of situationist performance art.
A bigger community grew around it year after year through word of mouth alone, leading to a festival of 50.000 participants in 2010 and regional Burning Man events like AfricaBurn, which takes place since 2007.
AfricaBurn adheres to the ten principles of Burning Man, one of which is Radical Self-Reliance. This means participants are expected to be completely responsible for their own subsistence. There are no food stalls or bars at the camp and not even water is being sold. No showers, nobody picking up your litter or building a festival stage. There just isn’t any “them” as organizers to take up these responsibilities. But the days in the Karoo are extremely hot and the nights are cold, dust is everywhere and sand storms can occur. Coming back to the amount of preparation needed, this means for example, every participant will have to bring about 5 liters of water per day and erecting shade structures is essential.
So why make all this effort to go there? In my case it was persuasive friends with enough foresight to know that this is one of the most extraordinary festivals on this planet.
Here are some other principles which, together with the harsh but beautiful Karoo environment and the obligation to self-reliance, make AfricaBurn deserve this title.
- As mentioned, all participants look after themselves. – Does that sound as if people watch over their stuff cautiously, knowing they won’t be able to buy anything for a couple of days while being apart from civilization? Actually not at all. The festival is based on a gift economy, which means that its participants (“the burners”) are encouraged to give gifts to one another. And the funny thing is: Gifting in this context means doing so unconditionally. Unlike normal circumstances, where we often carry a mental cashbook in our heads, noting how much value person X adds to our lives or how much more we have done, at AfricaBurn, you just give.
- Moreover, this is not about trading: there is no expectation of a service in return for whatever you have given someone and there is no cash in use at the festival at all. It first felt unexpectedly uncomfortable standing in a queue waiting for a delicious hamburger to be made for me, with all the extras, and then to just take it, say thanks and leave. Sometimes people give away whatever comes to mind. A little boy stood in the sun, spraying water onto people to cool them off. And a girl from a neighboring camp came up to us, offering a glass of wine she didn’t want to finish but didn’t want to throw away either. I don’t think someone would easily do that at any other camping ground. People could take it the wrong way or feel uncomfortable drinking from a stranger’s glass. It turned out to be a very good wine and the gesture actually made me quite happy, not in the least as I earlier had run out of my own. Others offered creative activities in their tents like free drum or yoga sessions, paintings to make or take, or just made music. The gift economy is in fact being taken so seriously, that my friends and I, 24 hours after arriving at the camp, hadn’t actually opened our cooler boxes to eat some of our food.
- Another great principle of the festival is the No Trace Policy: The environment should be left in exactly the same state or better than it was found. This means that every participant is obliged to take his litter back home, there are no public bins and the toilets are built above holes in the ground. No piece of toilet paper, not even a single nutshell is supposed to be left behind, as it will take years to decompose in the desert.
- Everyone is accountable. Participants are encouraged to assume civic responsibility and to be part of a community in which laws are obeyed and communicated to others, without the help of festival staff, security or police. The last two principles described, worked together fantastically at the festival: I was amazed seeing a young woman, firmly advising an older man to immediately pick up his ditched cigarette bud. Again something I haven’t witnessed before in “regular circumstances”. He did so, said sorry and turned away, ashamed. Otherwise, the community is incredibly peaceful, friendly and helpful, united in hedonism. You can walk up to anybody and say whatever you’ re thinking. It’s not uncomfortable like often between strangers, but instead feels as if everybody is your friend or acquaintance.
- All the above aspects encircle the heart of the festival, which is the arts. Every burner is encouraged to participate in the festival through radical self-expression: masquerade and art projects of any kind. Laid out in a horse shoe, the camp surrounds a very large open space, in which many temporary sculptures, art exhibitions and installations are being put up, often with kinetic, electronic and fire elements. The arts are seen as gifts to the community, even though grants are available for big projects. Many of the installations are interactive and, once again, serve a purpose or contain an opportunity for the community. Imagine something like a clothes line on which one can anonymously hang up a secret of which (s)he wants to get rid of, or telephone booths and a post office through which communication within the camp is possible. Moreover, there were plenty of altered cars or trucks, so-called “mutant vehicles”, ornamented and transformed into stages for live bands, party ships or fantasy transportation. Walking through a field of colourful, neon flowers, one sees an actual hot-air balloon and microlights flying over the camp. Bicycles were transformed into elephants or sharks, a huge stiletto was a slide and a carriage was powered by two guys walking in its treadmill wheels. Spending time at the festival is so exciting and stimulating that you can sometimes feel exhausted getting back to your tent. In the night, the camp turns into a sea of colourful lights and looks like a circus or amusement park with differently themed tents becoming clubs, roofed by the most spectacular African starry sky. The highlights are definitely the burnings of the (often enormous) art sculptures, which take place every night and are accompanied by fire dancers, drums and festivity. When a fire lights up, the crowd will move towards it from all corners of the camp, magically attracted to its mesmerizing shine. It is truly beautiful to see fires that big and I haven’t experienced anything as primal and tribal as the celebrations of burners around the fire.
It is crazy to think that all that has happened and existed at the camp has disappeared by now, leaving nothing but the desert. This fits to what someone said: Trying to describe AfricaBurn, is like trying to tell of a dream you’ve had. It’s impossible to communicate the actual experience.
For me, AfricaBurn was a model and an inspiration to believe in the possibility of a different and better society. But everybody can make AfricaBurn what they want it to be, it is pure inclusiveness. And that is really the beauty of it all.