Thursday, 3 January 2013

A Firey Energy

Once a year the Bush Fire Festival in Swaziland brings together a diverse group of performers and audiences who gather at the eclectic House on Fire venue in the Malkerns Valley. As an adjunct to this event the Bush Fire Schools Festival takes place over two to three days prior to the main event. For the past three years I have either acted as MC for this event or have been a facilitator . . . . . . . .

Picture a large audience of 200 school kids first thing on a chilly May morning. The atmosphere is edged with uncertainty. The kids are wary of where they are. For many House on Fire is an entirely new and rather strange place to be. They are drawn from schools of varied locations and backgrounds and they are cautious of each other. They are timid and unwilling to speak and express individual views. Cliques are split up and they are herded into reluctant groups. These four large truculent groups are 50 strong and contain representatives from many different schools and are given apparently confusing instructions about where to go, and when to eat lunch, and where the toilets are. With these brief directions I send them off on an uncertain journey of discovery that will take a day to complete but may endure for a life-time.
Mncedisi Shabangu & Hamilton Dlamini blow some warmth into a chilly 
May morning with 'Woza Albert'
Contrast this with the same audience later in the afternoon of the same day. There is a very different energy. All look tired and some individuals look exhausted, but now the atmosphere crackles in stark contrast to the morning moroseness. I stand in front of a buzzing group of teenagers who have been exposed to a remarkable set of experiences over the past eight hours and the latent energy is palpable. Interestingly the one small group who were obviously there under pressure to attend still look even more disinterested than they have been throughout the day. I wonder why?


During the day participants have been involved in making familiar and unfamiliar music using unconventional instruments. They have taken part in strenuous and edgy physical theatre with one of the foremost practitioners in this art. Story telling using poetry, rap and mime and the spoken word have been investigated in depth. In previous years similar groups have also sung in formal choir sets, have watched a mulungu fluent in Zulu with the hairstyle of a chicken sitting on top of a pole, and have been part of the largest drum circle ever seen in Swaziland.

Steve Barnett - the "Silent Conductor" in the crop circle
At the end of the day the professional facilitators encourage their audience to talk about their experiences. Have they enjoyed the day? What have they enjoyed most? What do they think they will take away from this experience? The responses are quick, individual and articulate. No one seems to be afraid to express their views. A facilitator may have scared some – and they say so. Someone liked the music workshop the most, particularly learning how to pick a tune out by blowing on a piece of plastic water pipe. Someone else was inspired by using rap to explain ideas and emotions. Others are bemused by the way they have been encouraged to express deep-set feelings and emotions in a safe space.


Mncedisi Shabangu, Hamilton Dlamini & Prince Lamla talk Physical Theatre
under the trees
Throughout the day I have skipped from one facilitated session to the next, never staying long enough to experience a full session. Although I regret that I have missed the nuances of each activity I have been able to watch students who were quiet or inexpressive in one activity blossom in the next, and have observed those natural extroverts who have grabbed each new opportunity with verve and excitement. And I have watched the small unenthusiastic school group dragging themselves from one point of purgatory to the next!

Talking to both participants and the facilitators during and afterwards I hear views about the schools festival providing a platform for expression. For some participants it has been a safe haven and for some a well needed but edgy space. I hear descriptions of new tools being provided for new ways to express emotions and ideas. From the facilitators I hear expressions of amazement of the latent talents and willingness and yearning for expression that the young people of our small country harbours.
Harmonica lessons with Adam Glasser
These views are mirrored by the comments made by the teachers who attended the day before where they shared their own experiences with the professional facilitators whilst also being immersed in the same activities that their pupils were to experience the next day.
It would be tempting and trite (and a little paternalistic) to say that the schools festival offers a glimpse of a mirror image of Swazi society. It does not aspire to this but what it does do for me is provide an intriguing keyhole view of a new community. A community that wants to use and share the tools to which it has been exposed to express feelings and emotions and tell stories to you and me on a variety of stages and platforms, and most important to be able to do so without fear. A community that incidentally when asked for feed-back on the days experience shouted in almost one voice "we want dance and poetry as well"! What do you make of that? Such a community can only be a force for good, for the givers and the recipients.
And what of the reluctant small school group?
Well lets face it they represent that minority in every society that will want to dampen the ebullience, verve and courage of others. Perhaps they are there to remind us of the contrast between having positive expression and that deadly, sapping negative energy of lethargy. I hope they attend this year. I would be delighted to see them participating with the same spirit as the others, but if they don’t they will surely see again how painful alienation can be, and perhaps from that even they will understand.
 © Steve Mitchell 2012
This article in its original form, and without photo's, was first published in 'Bhomisa' (a dedicated festival newspaper published by the MTN Bushfire Festival and the Swazi Observer) and in the Swazi Observer. 

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