Reflections on 10 years of AfrikaBurn

Next week marks the start of the 10th week-long AfrikaBurn festival in the Tankwa desert. The theme this year is simply “X”; the Roman numeral that signifies the number 10, as well as the letter which represents an open signifier. “It’s a time for both a backward reflection and an imagining of possibilities and futures,” the organisers explain on their website. In keeping with this sentiment (and possibly to abate our FOMO at not being able to attend this year), we asked 4 people who were at the first ever, and early Burns, to reflect back on their desert experiences and share a few stories and photographs ahead of this year’s festival of fire, radical expression and self-reliance.

Aurora Drummer has attended every AfrikaBurn since the festival’s South African inception back in 2007.  

I went to the first AfrikaBurn because a friend had mentioned it and it sounded like a dream. I had no experience with festivals or even camping really, so we were thoroughly under prepared for the experience. We had brought a pop-up marquee, with no pegs, and thought that this was going to provide us shade! Upon arriving, we realised how unlikely it was to keep the thing up for more than ten minutes, and we quickly abandoned any previous ideas of living in luxury. Our tent was missing a fly sheet. Luckily there weren’t very many people that first year, and we’d brought great food, and so everyone was willing to help us out. We quickly fell into a friendly community with those camped around us and thus began my lifelong addiction to the event. I’ve gone to every AfrikaBurn since its inception, which makes this year my 11th burn (there were two in 2009 I think).

My first burn was really remarkable. I’d never experienced anything like it, and the harsh conditions really changed the way we interacted. Because it was originally at the end of the year, the temperature was much hotter in the day, and so by 11am, wherever you were, you stayed until it was cool enough to move. The people who were in the bedouin tent became your friends for the day. Although the event is more manageable in April, some of the enjoyment gained from shared misery is lost.

Aurora Drummer

My first year is still my favourite, but last year is a close second. The theme of “gift” pervaded the experience and I felt a sense of participation I had not felt since the first burn. Everyone I met seemed to be doing something, which I hadn’t experienced in previous years. There seemed to be fewer ‘tourists’. My favourite experiences around gift giving have always been on the giving end. There’s something quite wonderful about handing out 200 cold cocktails to weary people and sharing a moment with each person. 

For me, the burn becomes more magical the more you plan for it. Months of preparation lead up to a week of exhilaration in which anything can go wrong. One year I had to climb a precarious structure to get the signal needed to call a friend to bring an important forgotten cocktail ingredient! A previous year I’d phoned my late arriving boyfriend from the top of a giant Lego man in order to check that he was there. While I was there, a nine-year-old shared some valuable life experience with me. I’ve since forgotten it, but it seemed profound at the time. I’ve seen real weddings, seen friends getting engaged, seen less real mass purple weddings, watched couples break up from afar, and had amazing interactions with young children. I got love-bonded to one of my closest friends at the first burn (photo below) and she’s coming this year from Taiwan and we’ll try renew our vows! 

1929302_14711760625_9931_n

Jessica Auerbach joined a troop of musicians to attend the first AfrikaBurn, mostly out of curiosity.

It seemed like fun. I liked the idea of the gift economy; some friends wanted to play music and that seemed cool. My first impression was that it was full of white people, to the degree that it made me a little uncomfortable, and that it was dusty. However, I loved the toilets on the edge of the campground, the beautiful views they allowed 🙂 I don’t specifically remember the gifts, other than one guy giving people jokes. I think just being in a place with such wonderful art everywhere felt very cool. Actually, this polaroid was a wonderful gift! I was part of a music group and that was what we were giving. 

30287_396740978450_3973976_nburning man 2007 059burning man 2007 027 burning man 2007 021burning man 2007 077 burning man 2007 078

Alison Green has attended the Burn twice, once in 2007 and again last year in 2015, and says the difference was huge. 

What made you first decide to go to AfrikaBurn? 

To be honest I can’t entirely remember – but at the time (first one in 2007) it felt like a potential movement; like-minded people coming together, in a wasteland, to create beauty. Also I had a friend who had just come back form BurningMan and was raving about it and so going to SA’s first ever one felt like the first step.  

What was your first impression when you arrived at your first Burn? Has this changed? 

The freedom, the incredible effort everyone had put in (Vuvuzela’s 10 metres high spewing fire) the sense of offering – everything is given, nothing expected, how easy it was to engage with strangers. 

Does any year stand out for you? If so why? 

Both were exceptional, for different reasons.

What’s your most cherished anecdote, story or experience?

There are lots… some of them just moments – seeing things, others are feelings… its hard to describe. One significant experience is arriving at sunset and missioning out into the binnekring to find a rollerskating rink and a whole lot of people zipping around it in 80s gear! Never expected to see that in the desert. The ‘compliment off’ pop-up table from last year where you sit opposite someone and compliment them until you run out of compliments, the actual Burns, the dancing monkeys, the green Gi-joe yoga team, the ‘REAL wedding’ which took place last year – very moving, the Captain’s Ball… It’s all very hard to explain if you haven’t been. 

Captian's Ball, 2015

Captain’s Ball, 2015

1483777_10155586970960584_3275784779706167571_o

How has the festival changed for you personally over time?

I felt like the first one was die-hard crazy enthusiasts trying to create a community and live the code of radical self-reliance. It was small; less than 1000 people. Now it’s over 10 000 and some of the ethos seems to have been lost, or at least, the feeling of intimacy is not the same. However, the bigger numbers also mean better, bigger and more art, more infrastructure and more diversity.

What is the best thing that you’ve received as a gift? What have you given? 

Free, good cappuccino! The first year we ran a Pleasantville 50’s inspired camp. We dressed up everyday and went around offering cookies to everyone. Last year we were part of a Treasure Hunt theme camp where participants had to find a number of clues and then participated in a flash mob at sunset. Our flashmob was a beach scene water fight. It was awesome to get about 50 people randomly passing by involved! Great fun!

Clan, 2015

Clan, 2015

Tabitha Guy attended AfrikaBurn for the first time in 2010, and has gone to all but one of the events since then. 

I first heard about the event though my friends who had gone previously. I had moved back to Cape Town in 2009 and heard such awesome things about the event. It sounded like nothing I had ever experienced before, so was super keen to go. I’ve been every year since except for 2012, and I basically cried the entire time that the event was on. Haha. So in total I’ve been 5 times.

My first impression was one of complete awe, excitement and adventure but with a healthy dose of trepidation. It is such a mental shift. You’re out in the middle of the desert, you have to have the foresight to plan and bring everything you may need with you, so it can be quite daunting. But you find out quite quickly after you arrive that there is such a incredible sense of community out there, people are so much more open and helpful and just generally great human beings that anything you my have forgotten or overlooked either doesn’t matter out in the desert or a friendly neighbour will happily provide you with. The ethos of the event seems to bring out the humanity in us that gets disguised and shrouded in the ‘default world’. 

IMG_5407

Clan burn, 2015

Clan burn, 2015

There isn’t a year that stands out more than another, each year has its own set of new experiences and with each year that I went my group of friends were more organised and we grew our Theme Camp into a really great space on the Binnerkring. But I would have to say that the earlier years that I attended were a lot more intimate and perhaps because of the event being smaller were slightly more enjoyable. The last 2 years the event has definitely grown in size, as has our Theme Camp, which has been really great. Our group have been a lot more involved in the Organisation and we’ve got a more cohesive camp offering a really fun gift to the Burn. So it’s really hard to say which year stands out. 🙂 Similarly, each year offers new experiences, but the one that stands out the most are always the Temple Burns (which are the silent burns usually held on the Sunday night before the event ends), they are incredibly mesmerising and spiritual, it shows the cleansing/healing side to what burns and fire can offer, changing what normal destructive connotations fire has in regular society to a real positive one.

I don’t really see AfrikaBurn as a festival, my easiest description of it is an Alternate Community. It has festival qualities, but I think how it began was to create a space where certain confines of regular society can be broken down and people can exist freely and equal to one another. Hence the gifting community effort, it isn’t bartering or exchanging gifts or things, it is an individual or group offering something to the community that they feel will enrich it. So how it has changed for me over the years is seeing how people interpret this ethos and offer back to the community. It’s so impressive to see how dedicated people are and the incredible artworks that people build, so as much as it’s gotten bigger over the years and sometimes feels more like a festival, there are still many people who create/build/bring so much to make AfrikaBurn the alternate community that it is.

IMG_5396

2010

2010

2011

2011

Clan burn, 2013

Clan burn, 2013IMG_5398

Clan, 2014

Clan, 2014

2014 & 2015

2014 & 2015

Being a gifting society makes it a super lovely, happy and open vibe. Theme Camps have offered things like pancakes, ice cream, tea, dress-up tents, post office, bicycle lending, jewellery making, stick on tattoos, movies, live music, DJs, chill tents, hot shower, coffee, hugs and so much more. My favourites probably being the Tea camp in 2011  where you could go get a cup of tea and biscuits pretty much any time of day. Also the Burning Mail every year where you can write on already printed AfrikaBurn postcards and send them from the Burn (the camp posts them for you). The gifts that I’ve been a part of giving have all stemmed from our Theme Camp, where we have offered over the range of all the years body painting, mud pools to splash in, being able to dress up and create your own AfrikaBurn passport with photo included, sundowner cocktails and canapés, massage tents, under-the-sea chill lounges, fancy dress pirate themed balls, with artworks including a pop-up shark tent, life guard tower, beach resort themed camp and so much more.

2015

IMG_5399IMG_5412

Look out for photo essays and films from AfrikaBurn X coming in May. 

Tags:


Between 10 and 5