Martha Graham famously said that ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul’ in Limpopo the Tsonga women leave nothing hidden as they dance under the harsh sun bearing their souls and their love for their culture that has helped shaped the face of my home, South Africa.
It was hot, the type of heat where you step into the sunlight and you instantly feel your skin prickle and heat up. The type of heat you can feel in your lungs when you breathe deeply, the exact type of heat I’d imagined I would experience in Limpopo. Bump. Swerve. Bump. Hoot at stray cow. I’d become accustomed to the dirt roads that wind through Limpopo’s villages and after a day of exploring the Ribola Art Route in the beating sun I’d started to zone out the beauty that surrounded me, in favour of dreaming of my cool hotel room and even cooler swimming pool that accompanied it.
One more bump, I heard the ignition turn off. My first reaction was ‘please don’t make me go out into that damn sun again’, my second reaction was ‘holy smokes look at those outfits’. We’d been in search of a group of Shangaan women who share their stories and their history through dance and we’d found them, dressed in colours that stood out starkly compared to the dusty and parched landscape that surrounded them.
Bright pink, vivid blue, beads by the thousands but more striking than their uniforms; their dark eyes. Eyes that drew me in and sent me back to a different time and right back again. Eyes with knowledge and a history that I could only ever hope to grasp a sliver off. I felt uneasy, as if I was intruding on their space, their culture and their traditions, an unwelcome voyeur. I couldn’t be more different from these strong women on whose backs an entire tribe is upheld. A sense of unease that I often feel when experiencing other cultures quickly settled in. It’s not in my nature to make contact with other beings through the lens of a fish bowl, I never like to feel like I’m an outsider staring and studying them from ‘the other side’. And then then a drum started beating.
Every head in the clearing where we were gathered turned to an elderly woman who had begun beating a huge drum with such force it echoed up into the hills beyond us. A clean clean crisp ‘wha, wha’, and then the shuffling of feet. A procession of women started making their way into the clearing their dresses making a rustling sound, like wind through the trees in a forrest. Everyone’s jaws simultaneously drop.
As the dancers began to sing of their history and culture, my role as a voyeur fell away as I began to tap my feet to their music, I began to feel a longing for something that I would never have. I’ll never have a culture so deep and entrenched in my soul that I would willingly dance, layered with heavy clothes in unfathomable heat for a stranger just to show my pride. I would never get the opportunity to dance until sweat pored down my face to pay homage to my ancestors just because it was important to me.
As we drove away, skin pink and hair matted with sweat I thought to myself: ‘That’s what makes Limpopo different, the pride of its people’.
My experience with the Xibelani Dancers of the Chavani Dance Group was part of my Open Africa Road Trip (check out #weopenafrica for more) which I took part in earlier this month. Open Africa is a grassroots company that is doing an incredible job of stimulating community based tourism in South Africa.
Community based tourism means job creation and really connections with local people on a scale that have been hard to come by before, it’s a real way of travelling that I think will shape tourism in South African and the world over the next few years. If you’re still looking for something to do this December I would really recommend taking a short drive to Limpopo and experiencing the pride of the people and the incredible beauty of the land for yourself. Plan your road trip with Open Africa here or here.