The beauty of culture in dance

Established in 1992, shortly after independence to showcase the culture of the Setswana community of Namibia often referred to as Bakgalagadi ba Namibia, the Kalahari Cultural Group is among leading cultural groups in the country and has won several national and international accolades.

For a cultural group whose roots are traced to Botswana, the success of this traditional outfit borders on competitiveness and the pride of keeping their heritage alive.

For the past two years, the group has been winning Namibia’s annual national cultural festivals and over the years, there is no national event, be it State visits, Independence Day, or corporate gatherings in Namibia, that they do not RSVP.

Says group leader, Josef Lenyatso Shikongo, “We have played a huge part in the harmonisation of the Namibian people, and fostering not only unity and closeness but also sending those Namibians who had deserted their cultural dances and song, back to their places of origin and start groups of traditional and cultural dance.”

Since the group was established, it has been at the forefront of national cultural competitions but this did not come on a silver platter.

“We consistently practise and improve on our performing styles so that we impress our audience each time the group goes on stage,’’ says Shikongo who also works for Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) seTwana radio station.

During the 2003 regional competition in Windhoek, the group took second place while in 2004 at the regional competition held in Tsumeb, it came first. In 2006, the group was invited to perform in Oranjemund during the Oranjemund Cultural Festival and wooed the crowds with their electrifying performance.

The group continued its competitive edge during the 2008 Khomas Regional Cultural Festival when it took the first place and went on to represent the region at the national cultural festival held in Rundu, Kavango region, where it came second.

During the last two national festivals held in Oshakati and Swakopmund in 2009 and 2010 respectively the group came first on both occasions.

The group has a huge fan base in Gobabis, perhaps due to the border town’s closeness to Botswana where most people in that town are fluent in seTswana but Shikongo says the most memorable performance for the group was at the birthday of the late Kuku Helvi Gwakondombolo in 2006 at the Okahao homestead.

Kuku Gwakondombolo, the late mother of Founding President Sam Nujoma, passed away in 2008.

“It was an exciting gathering of cultures. It was not only about interacting with other cultural groups from northern Namibia but proving a point that each one’s culture is strong, powerful and vibrant. No one wanted to be outclassed. It always feels good when you perform to an audience which is not one of your own as it motivates you to give your best and share your culture while learning others,” he says.

He urges government officials to always have a place for cultural groups during their international trips to showcase Namibian culture and expos.

Kalahari Cultural Group consists of 16 members most of them unemployed youth but also school going learners, who could not resist the cultural lure.

“The money that the group gets from performing for various companies and individuals is used to pay school fees for the members who are attending school and for those who do not work the group gives them their portion to take home at the end of each year,” says Shikongo.

But not all is plain sailing in a society that is driven by modernism.

Although Kalahari Cultural Group is one of the most sought after groups by event managers in Windhoek the group has had numerous cancellations due to lack of adequate transport.

In addition, cultural groups are paid “way too low” if compared to the amount other music artists.

“We are a large group because that is what identifies our culture. Yet when we perform on the same stage with local artists of kwaito and other modern forms of music, we are paid five if not ten times less. Failure to appreciate cultural artists is failure to appreciate culture,” he says, adding that this is the plight of most local cultural groups when it comes to benefits from the industry.

He argues that although there exists the guidelines on how cultural groups are paid, event managers should start looking at the size of the group because the money they pay them is not enough to make these groups self sustain thereby condemning the future of cultural groups and dance.

The group constantly keeps on improving and developing new performing tactics to ensure that their clients always get a different feel and style of their performances.

When it comes to recruiting new membership, Shikongo highlighted that although the group normally recruits new members from the Setswana community, any Namibian who wants to join it is welcome as long as he or she will respect the rules and regulations of the group.

“So far, we have a Nama member and we are always open to Namibians from other communities as long as they will respect and adhere to our rules and culture.”

Artists performing for cultural groups draw inspirations from the ability to express a lot about personality and the culture of Africans in general. And while it is the beauty of culture in dance, for the performers, it gives them a lot of joy and happiness, that through dance they can share a lot together with people they meet.

Amid the threat of cultural erosion, the group remains defiant that with enough support from locals, they can hold their own, as the beauty of African culture in dance goes beyond borders and lies in the eyes of any African identity holder. PF