Afrika Burn is a week-long festival in the desert of Tankwa, 4 hours from Cape Town. About 10,000 people build their tents and adapt to the basic principles of this community: inclusion, radical self-expression, decommodification, leave no trace, participation, and gifting, among others.
Sina, a friend from the festival, described it as an applied utopia, the most accurate definition that I have found so far.
My first perception is that of a great party, music, costumes, and drugs. Or simply thousands of hippies camping. That would be the most superficial observation. In the first 24 hours, I understand that behind that there is a whole system: the first thing I discover is that collaborating and helping is essential to be a part of the experience. From washing dishes or building a shower to collaborating on the piece of art (that’s a short description) that my camp contributed to the community.
We created a steel structure in the shape of a beetle that transforms plastic into fuel, and which is also a professional stage for DJs. That’s just one of the hundreds of works that people build for the event.
Then I come to understand that solidarity and generosity have no limits. Interaction with others shows their good vibes. Constant smiles with strangers and even hugs and sometimes kisses before exchanging a word. We all help each other, we are all connected, and as hokey as it sounds, we are all one.
Several days of feeling that almost everyone is kind, and there is no violence or fear, we discover the magic of our species.
On Wednesday, my first morning, I go for a walk with Victor, an 11-year-old boy who is staying in my camp, where there are about 20 people. This is the fourth time that Victor has been to a burn. He already knows what happens here, he knows the themes of most of the camps and it is perfectly oriented (it is very easy to get lost).
Neil, his father, told me that Victor “is a kid with his eyes wide open”. I thought it was a great description.
Victor struck me because this place seems like an incredible place to be a child. It seems many adults come here to be children again. A simplistic comparison would be to say that this is a kind of playground, both entertaining and surprising.
Here, as I said, we forget about money and exchanges based on material value. The people range from those who spent thousands of dollars to build a structure to burn it at the end, to those who distribute hugs or drawings or just dance. There is an overall feeling that no one is more than anyone else.
I find a coffee shop called Aliens, with sofas where they give away coffee in exchange for compliments. I meet K, a blonde from my camp who had already caught my attention. The erotic connection is immediate; here there is space for lust, unbridled and fantastic.
Night comes and we eat at the camp with the others and go out again to explore this alternate world. The electronic music is perhaps the best in I have heard, and even though I am not a fan I felt the greatest musical euphoria here. We are going to see Victor’s dance presentation in one of the theme camps. This kid amazes me more and more.
After the show, I continue the journey with K, who makes it clear to me that it is better to take advantage of the night by separately exploring. At first, I feel the sting in the ego, but then I understand the great favor she did for me. It’s a lesson in independence, what is freedom but the freedom to walk away with only kindness in our hearts.
Dependence coming from fear does not fit here. I walk alone, I reflect, I observe my sensations and I learn. I find a movie theater where they’re showing Pulp Fiction and I lie there for a while. I am grateful for everything, again.
On Thursday I start the day with my first shower. Then I go out to help build and move our art to a new location, thousands of kilos of experimental metal requires a lot of work. We loaded generators, steel sheets, all kinds of tools and relocated the structure to make a party that night.
I notice the fragility of my hands compared to others like Pops, a man around 60 who invented our beetle-shaped machine. Watching others work so that I can enjoy our party later is rather embarrassing. I work The women in our camp have impressive physical strength, doing the heavy lifting, assembling, welding. I finish my job and feel satisfied. No one is more than anyone. Everyone collaborates.
That night walking with my Canadian friend Jason with whom I came here we met Sina, a German with whom I spent most of the time from there on. I think this relationship is the most difficult to describe, the most sublime, the most surreal. If soulmates exist, that would be the closest thing to describe it.
With her I walked around the burn for hours, I think we traveled more than 60 kilometers in 3 days. We explored the sculptures, discovered an immense red thread network with a large mattress that is far in the middle of the desert, a water bed with a view to the stars, huge spiders, phosphorescent globes, and many other things.
I try again to describe what she was to me: a kind of fulfillment, a guide, and in all the time I was with her I think she did not say a single word that was superfluous. Her intelligence was clear, her comments seemed to read my mind. We walked and talked for hours that first day, then we went to sleep, each to our own camp.
We agreed to meet on Friday at 11 am or 3 pm at the pizza where we first met. If someone didn’t show up, no problem.
She was there and we went for a communal bath together. We took our clothes off and we lined up naked with dozens of people. Then we lathered and bathed with raised arms, literally like a car wash with those huge sponges.
The weather was spectacular, the energy of the whole place rose markedly as the week went by.
Crazy outfits on, we went out to walk. At one point we reached a camp where about 30 people passed a microphone to talk about polyamory. We went in and listened to a piece of the conversation about the challenges of this relationship model, how difficult it is to let go and allow us to love without attachments, in different ways, and with different people. I learned new things.
The importance of honesty and communication. The challenge of redefining love. The concept kept spinning in my head. So many paradigms are broken here that it’s necessary to have this type of space.
Sina and I went exploring. Jason stayed there facing the situation with a former partner and they worked through past wrongs. He managed to take a load off. Everyone seems to get their lessons here if they listen.
Sina and I continue, and I am still amazed by my partner, I do not know what it is but there something very special: it could be the best version of myself, or a version of myself in another life, or as if she knew everything that I have still to learn… I do not know but it’s awesome. Everything is easy, relaxed, comfortable, and at the same time surprising and absurd. As if we had met on another planet. One really feels on another planet a good deal of the time.
At night we see the burning of the clan, the most imposing structure. Flames of 40 meters rise in the air. The act transmutes to me some of the spirit of the festival: a structure that could take months to build, that required money and effort, collapses in flames. At the most intense moment of the burning, we are intercepted by a guy with a black cape, a movie character who surprises me with his inspired speech.
He asks us where we are from, Sina says Germany and the man gives an impeccable discourse on Germany’s greatness. After the speech, she describes it as epic, the exact word. I still have his face and his voice in my head. We travel more structures and camps. We ended the day on a marshmallow cushion bed.
In the morning I take a shower, fix the camp and at 2 pm I meet Sina after a fiery and passionate meeting with K back at our camp. This is all new to me. I arrived to find her just in time. Sina, K, -I have thoughts that confuse what’s “right”, what’s moral, etc, but it seems OK too. Here I understand that it’s not necessarily wrong to have two loving relationships.
In most of the wider world, we have created a system that routinely punishes sharing love, but it does not have to be that way. There are other possible rules. With honesty, guilt cannot exist in the mind. Sina is my companion, my soulmate. K is passion, fire… I can not explain this. I’m still digesting it.
I spend the day again with Sina, the exploration is endless, the sunset epic. We see it from a wooden structure with the best reggae in the background and with Victor there jumping around and dancing. We walk through the whole festival in rhythm and flow.
We all take care of each other. We do what we want, with all the creativity of the world and we end up together here. We are one. We see the cabaret, we go to the coffee shop, and we walk through the camps a lot more. We ended the night in the waterbed under the stars. Maximum fulfillment. Sunday morning I get up to breakfast and pack.
Everything during this week that I asked for was given to me. The most basic principles of happy human relationships resonated strong in me: love and respect, generosity, solidarity. I felt like a discoverer of the infinite ways of loving.
One young man who I chatted to echoed my thoughts: “the first time I came to this festival I saw what can happen if humans are given freedom”.
I also remember the Israeli with shiny eyes who told me that here he understood the power of being good to others, the power of treating others as we treat ourselves.
Like a desert flower’s short but striking life this social experiment reveals all its beauty for a week and then disappears without a trace. Soon this desert will be empty, clean and silent as if nothing happened here at all.