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Niren Tolsi ventures to Swaziland’s Bushfire Festival for a different kind of party he shares his experience with The Red Bulletin.
The sun has just dipped behind the Mdimbe mountains in Swaziland leaving the sky orange and blue, and creating blackened silhouettes on the horizon. It is Sunday evening, and the 10th edition of the Bushfire Festival is drawing to a close.
The crowd has been kicking up a dust storm all afternoon with their dancing and hip-shaking, but the dust settles during the ache of a particular song that resonates with the people there.
The lyrics hauntingly demand a generosity of spirit towards one’s fellow human beings.
“You must know yourself before you know others,” sings Malian blues guitar god Aliou Touré.”
Glancing around at the assembled audience – all with happy, smiling faces; youthful and the young at heart; black and white – one is reminded of Touré’s belief that music imparts a joyful optimism into the world.
Bushfire exhorts festivalgoers to “Bring your Fire!” to dance, but to also “ignite a collective response for social change”.
The festival’s social responsibility extends to donating its profits to the Young Heroes, a non-governmental organisation that supports more than 1,000 HIV-Aids orphans.
All profits from merchandise sales to the Gone Rural boMake (Gone Rural Women) community development initiative, which helps create jobs for women in the artisanal craft sector.
Theirs is an easily mixed crowd – an academic here, a dance instructor there, all colours of the new South Africa – happily working together on a fry-up.
The Bushfire Festival’s Pan-African programming means Bushfire draws a very different crowd to that of its counterparts in neighbouring South Africa. Theirs is an easily mixed crowd – an academic here, a dance instructor there, all colours of the new South Africa – happily working together on a fry-up.
But there is a realisation that this party is held in a country without a constitution to protect and advance rights, with a supposedly divine leader who would appear to be the only person with any real freedom. The realisation becomes weirder given the number of non-governmental organisation types and gap-year-do-gooders from Europe and North America at the festival.
“I really like the festival and I love the music, especially the Swazi artists,” says Julie Tirtiaux, a first-time festivalgoer from France who has been working as a law clerk in South Africa’s Constitutional Court.
“I have never seen so many interracial couples before during my time in southern Africa. There is certainly something beautiful about it.”
“I have never seen so many interracial couples before during my time in southern Africa. There is certainly something beautiful about it.” The institutionalised patriarchy of Swaziland does not go unnoticed and is evident in some of the conversations and hook-ups on a frenzied Saturday night where more than 15,000 people get down.
“It’s difficult because you get accused of viewing the country through Western eyes,” Tirtiaux says. “But culture is dynamic and always shifting. It would be fascinating, if one considers the stats around Aids, to start a conversation about the need for culture to evolve so as to consider the interests of others.”
In terms of revenue and visitor numbers to Swaziland, Bushfire is arguably the biggest thing to happen here each year.