The monotonous rhythm and choreography to the relentless sounds of ‘uwe uwe uwe uwe uwe’ is all I noticed from my first experience at the Kuru Dance Festival.
“It all sounds the same, is there no remix version to the song?” I wondered aloud.
“Shhh! Listen closely, feel it, then you will understand!” someone whispered patiently into my ear.
Only then, when I truly started to pay attention, did this young city slicker begin to appreciate the subtle beauty of an ancient song steeped in Khoi San history.
This past weekend the annual Kuru Dance Festival took place at Gantsi district arena (some 25km away from Gantsi, just before the D’kar settlement).
It is now 20 years since the inaugural festival but, after driving over 650km from Gaborone full of excitement and anticipation, I must admit I was slightly disappointed at the low turnout of spectators.
As is the norm, on the Friday night the groups took turns demonstrating what they call the ‘healing dance’.
The Khoi San believe they are able to heal the sick through the power of song and dance, traditionally performed under the full moon.
The set up is that the women sit around the fire whilst the men take turns dancing around it.
During the dance, the men sometimes fall into a trance. Although it is said you have to experience it to be able to properly explain the feeling, the dancers say they go into some sort of ‘space’ which is not human form. Only when they are in this space (trance) are they able to channel the energy and heal the sick!
The hypnotic dancing continued through the night.
Some of the groups had performers as old as 89, but, seemingly unaffected by the rigours of age, they too danced all night, only stopping with the first rays of the sun.
At one point they invited the audience to join them, and, determined to embrace the moment, I did.
I tried to close my eyes as we went around the fire, desperately hoping I would fall into a trance, but alas it was not to be.
Maybe you have to have some special sort of skill, maybe I was too self-conscious or maybe you just have to believe in it, I don’t know!
After the night’s non-stop activities, the Festival’s official opening took place on Saturday morning.
Groups from South Africa and other regions in Botswana had all assembled at the arena for a showdown of song and dance.
I wasn’t too interested in the dance, mostly because it was incredibly hot, so I decide to explore the arena instead.
On my wanders, I came across the ever popular ‘Nyoka’.
I am a naturally inquisitive person (a useful trait for a journalist!) and I was curious to try out this smoke – maybe it tasted like one of those expensive cigars.
One puff later and, overcome by a coughing fit and choking in smoke – something everyone else seemed to find extremely humorous – I passed it on.
Let’s just say I found the taste less than pleasant!
They refused to tell me what they used for the mixture and continued to pass it around as they took turns to happily smoke this strange substance.
With ‘Nyoka’ coursing through my system, I returned to the arena, where in my ‘Nyokand’ state I started to enjoy the performances. All of a sudden the rhythms did not sound the same anymore.
I sat there in awe as the groups performed, hoping I’d be given the chance to join them again and just maybe I could get into the trance too.
For their part, the major sponsors of the event, Reinette van der Merwe, the Managing Director of Barclays Bank of Botswana, reiterated the importance for them as a business to support such initiatives.
“For you see, in traditional Khoi San custom dating back many a decade, this time of year is treasured for its ability to heal the sick through the song and dance performed under the light of the full moon.
“Over the years, this platform, this beautiful festival, has also become a means through which we celebrate this rich heritage and culture. We are humbled by the community’s welcoming of us to be a part of this festival, actively participating in its growth and splendour,” she said.
I urge you to try out the Kuru Dance Festival, I urge you to come bask in the trance experience – it is truly an event like no other!