Makhirikhiri lives on: The song in East Africa’s heart

Shumba is a surprise household name in East Africa
Shumba is a surprise household name in East Africa

On a recent trip to Tanzania’s former capital, Staff Writer, BABOKI KAYAWE stumbled on a curious fact. When the East Africans hear ‘Botswana’ they only hear one name and one song.

DAR ES SALAAM:  Though most of the (not even a handful) people I conversed with in the former Tanzanian capital were happy to exchange pleasantries, they were not much into chatting about the weather.

My interaction with the legendary Africanist Julius Nyerere’s people, was as limited as my stay in Dar (as the locals lovingly call their city. I was there for only three days, but for some reason magic happened whenever I told people where I came from. I left the place feeling proud.  Proud of the potential our culture has in marketing the country abroad.

As soon as I set foot in Dar, the thick humid air gave me a tight hug, a real African daughter’s welcome. I was guilty of not having checked ahead via Google on the weather in Dar and stepping out of the airplane my lungs gasped for fresh air.


“This place is really humid.  I can’t even breathe,” my colleague said, with an oxygen-suppressed countenance.

As we got on the hotel shuttle, I was quickly revived by the driver who instantly became elated upon hearing that our three-person team was from Botswana.

“Oooh Botswana, Makilikili!” he exclaimed.

Perusing our obviously confused expressions, he enthusiastically continued: “The dance group? The traditional dance group from Botswana. Makilikili?”

My cognitive senses awakened.  It is a difference of dialect, the minor distance from South Africa to the East that had caused the communication breakdown.

“You mean Makhirikhiri. So you know the song?” I proudly asked.

He affirmed, and turned to shower Shumba Ratshega’s traditional dance group with palatable language of praise and respect.  I have to admit that was my true BOT50 moment.  I forgot the humidity that was making it impossible for me to breathe. I felt welcome. I didn’t have to explain that I resided in Botswana, “near South Africa”.

Years ago, the then sensational traditional music troupe (it later split) toured East Africa in what was now obviously an unforgettable undertaking. They left an indelible footprint.

Any Motswana visitor to East Africa, or cyberspace interaction with East Africans can never end without an inquiry on Shumba’s Makhirikhiri.  Bravo, the indigenous song and dance can do much more given top-notch marketing and exposure.

I reflected on our progress as a country in the 50 years since independence. Batswana have successfully copied trends from South Africa except for the amazing adroitness with which our beloved neighbours have refined and packaged their culture into exportable services in high demand beyond the African shores. South African artists, from jazz to kwaito, have created demand for their cultural products, tapping into the inexhaustible and sustainable export asset called heritage.

Some of our own people are doing quite well on this front – We see you! The South Africans are sustaining the export of cultural tourism on commercially viable levels and as Batswana, celebrating 50-years, we need to emulate such positive trends.

The Dar es Salaam experience is a lesson. As redundant as it sounds, creativity is indeed an ingenious trait and process intrinsically linked to the core and depth of the soul.  It is a language of the ‘bad ass’ souls, and each soul is peculiar. The peculiarity of ours, the Tswana traditional dance, lives in the beat – yes the rhythm, the unmatched flair that the hand clapping is, the life in the song and off course the sweet rattling sounds of the rattles worn at the shins produce. These elements are reinvigorated by the spirit, which takes charge once the dance breaks out.

We can try copying others as much as we like, but we cannot replicate their heritage as perfectly as they can.  They can try our traditional dance as much as they want, but will never get close to how we ‘kill’ it.  

This indisputable fact is on display in Tanzania and the enduring success Shumba has and continues to have.

“I would really love to see them perform again,” our shuttle driver said, as he headed towards our hotel.

In 2010 Shumba and his group came to East Africa.  They sang, they danced and they remained in the hearts of the locals. They introduced all Batswana, at once, to Nyerere’s people.  In the few days I stayed in Dar es Salaam, even if I stood on mountains and announced myself, I would never approach an introduction of the magnitude Shumba gave me as a Motswana.

Makhirikhiri tells the story of troublesome women who cheat their husbands and live the high life always eager to go out with other monied men.

Talking to Tanzanian media during one of his tours in 2010, Shumba said African culture was vital to the development of the continent.  He also expressed the urge to go on performing traditional songs, dress, beat and styles, which are unique to the continent.

While he was hailed for evoking a cultural revival in Tanzania, I too bow my head in thanks to Shumba for the marvellous branding of Botswana and its cultural offering to us.

Every Motswana is known in Tanzania and East Africa, thanks to Shumba’s lyrical prowess.  African culture is increasingly recognised and appreciated the world over.  Shumba, together with equally talented singers, should take it to as many nations as possible, leaving a piece of Botswana in every corner of the world.

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