Five years ago I made my debut attendance at the Son of the Soil (SOTS) Cultural Festival and it was love at first experience.
That first impression was so deep and it lasted. It was at the Bahurutshe Cultural Village in Mankgodi where I had the most nostalgic experience ever at a cultural festival.
The festival transported me to days when we used to play ‘house’ after school. Those were the days when SOTS still had its identity. The soul of SOTS was its unique format as a participatory event. Attendants did not just come to watch or be entertained, they paid to come and learn to cook traditional meals, sing traditional songs, learn the dances and play childhood games. It was a festival of those who refuse to grow into uppity grown-ups who do not want to nurture their childish selves with some bit of fun and games.
At night, when the traditional beer had taken away all inhibition, we made a big cycle under the full moon. Women tucked their mateise in their underwear to run and duck freely during the games. In that moment we all connected with our younger selves and became young and free. After pulling hard in the Ntsanyana Boriki games we rolled down dirty on the ground like true daughters and sons of the soil. We played the train game with the head guy mimicking the train’s loud horn while the rest of the individuals acting as locomotives made that ‘chuku-chuku’ sound as the train moved around.
The 2011 event received raving reviews in the media and it was also when the social media penetration was picking up. So many pictures posted online helped to market the event.
The following year in 2012 the event was, as expected bigger than ever. It was moved to a wider open venue at Masimo Gateaway in Rasesa. There were marquee tents for people to get cover from the scorching sun. The new crowd seemed unsure of what to do at the festival. The organisers did their part to announce that at SOTS you create your own fun. You come to play, sing, dance, cook, eat and drink.
The 2012 event also came with a new feature of jazz artists who performed at night on a big stage. This was a new innovation that broke away from the popular event’s participatory theme. The regulars at the festival tried to play night games, but when the jazz came on everyone stood and watched the performers.
At Masimo Gateaway the event appeared like an early Letlhafula Cultural Event. The organisers promised a much bigger and better show for the following year.
In 2013 it was bigger as they promised, but as for ‘better’ it is debatable. The live music part of it was bigger and better than some live shows. The first timers as usual enjoyed the show, but regulars complained of non-participation. There was also a complaint about the venue being too open for Bana ba Mmala’s intimacy.
In 2014 the organisers chose a new venue for the event as it was held at Boetelo Resort at Notwane Dam. The organisers introduced a three-day format of the event. On day one, which was a Friday they brought Basarwa from Qcanga near Gchwihaba in the Ngamiland District to entertain. They performed their healing dances around the fire and it was a good show.
On day two the venue was suited for the event, as it was more intimate and had tree shades for those who wanted to play their own ‘black-mampatile’ away from the rest of the crowd. The crowd was on point too as they defied the rainy weather and danced to great sounds of old mbaqanga tunes that were popularised by Radio Botswana in the olden days.
At night there was a large bonfire where attendants circled and started the riddles and storytelling sessions. Late at night after good laughs from Setswana comedy, live music performances kicked off until early hours of Sunday.
In 2015 the event went back to its original date of last Saturday of January, which was very commendable to keep the consistency.
The event came with two distinct additions to the programme. There was a very informative free Setswana workshop hosted at the National Museum.
The Friday night event was meant to be a night of riddles and storytelling, but the session flopped terribly.
The main event was as usual colourful with women strutting their stuff in gorgeous mateise and mostly African print outfits.
This year the participation level was at it’s lowest.
Most of the attendants just sat under the shades enjoying their traditional beer and taking selfies waiting to be entertained.
Only a few chose to get dirty and dance, play the bucket race, koi or play batho-safe. Even when the famed South versus North Choir competition started most people became spectators. That was so un-Son of the Soil. After the choirs, the live music shows began. Nono Siele and Shumba Ratshega provided good entertainment.
This year I left the main event unfulfilled. On my way out I asked a few festivalgoers to give their impression of the event. One summed it up in one word, ‘lukewarm’ while others said they are happy as it was their first time - they did not know what they have missed.
Lately, there has been an explosion of cultural events. And it is time for these events to have unique identities. So Bana ba Mmala should protect the soul of their event. All activities should be centred on participation lest they become just another moneymaking scheme disguised as a cultural show.