For the Love of /Ae//Gams

Martha Mukaiwa

On its best days, Windhoek is the /Ae//Gams Arts and Cultural Festival.

Folks are dressed in their traditional wear like it’s the premiere of ‘Black Panther’ (2018), food stalls serve a selection of local delicacies at a pace reserved for actual, sweat-inducing competition, and friendly games of Owela delight those headed towards a main stage featuring traditional dances, local music and spoken word stars.

While there is always plenty to be improved upon, the worst thing about the festival’s celebration of culture, Namibia’s diversity and its talented artists, is that it happens only once a year.

If the chatter in tourism circles is to be believed, Windhoek is a city you can effectively skip.

One night, a decent hotel, a good steak at Joe’s Beerhouse perhaps and then off to your pick of luxury lodges and locations, where the wildlife and the landscapes are often inaccurately positioned as perhaps more remarkable than the people.

When Namibians show up and out at free, public events, like the /Ae//Gams Arts and Cultural Festival, it becomes extremely clear that the local populace is just as colourful as the country’s natural heritage.

Where else can you find Windhoekers clamouring out of just-about-roadworthy taxis as the driver notes the City of Windhoek’s festivities and yells: “Ay! What’s going on there?” only to be told “It’s Tate Buti, mos!” as his passengers walk the wrong way on the wrong day to see the often shirtless wonder.

Windhoek is also the kind of city where actors will work long and hard hours to convey the struggle of migrant workers ahead of International Workers’ Day, before an unimpressed woman in traditional attire gives an unsolicited critique, shouting stage notes from the sidelines.

“Ai, jinne! Nou wat gaan hier aan? Can’t you say something? Tell us what you’re doing! Just running around with shopping bags. No, man!”

Ah, Namibians. You’ve got to love their appreciation of conceptual performance and historical social commentary via pop-up theatrical intervention.

Arts appreciation aside, given the cultural occasion, Namibians will dress to impress.

On the list of things that are strikingly beautiful, there are women donning full Damara, Nama or Ovaherero dress.

There’s the vibrant pink of the Aawambo Ondelela so beautiful against brown skin, the feminine bows and frills of the traditional Baster apparel and the leather-clad loveliness of the Ovahimba and the San, amid so much more.

To see it all together at the /Ae//Gams Arts and Cultural Festival feels like hope.

Though Namibia has its share of tribalism and there is much to be considered and done when it comes to uplifting marginalised communities, as well as accessing true social and economic equality, /Ae//Gams is a place where Namibia’s diversity dazzles, even for just a moment.

It’s more the pity that it only happens once a year.

Imagine /Ae//Gams, or a similar scaled-down event, happened every month.

Imagine if the invitation to wear one’s traditional clothing, to perform and learn each other’s traditional dances, to eat traditional food and to discover the traditions of our fellows, was a regular occurrence.

How much more national unity would there be?

How many more tourists would spend that blessed day in our wonderful city to learn about, experience and meet the people who are the owners, the guardians and the keepers of the natural heritage that so beckons, while engaging with the international community who call the beauty of this land home?

Venture around the world and you’ll find similar monthly and weekly markets teeming with tourists eager to have an authentic experience while engaging with the average local beyond the smiling hospitality of their accommodations.

The /Ae//Gams festival isn’t perfect.

I’d like to see more of an open-air art and craft gallery with live demonstrations, an increase in traditional games and a few more theatrical performances would be welcome.

I’d love to hear dramatic orators/storytellers taking the stage to speak about Namibian folklore, history and local legends.

Imagine a screening room to view Namibian films, as well as better production value and rehearsals when presenting traditional dances.

Nothing is flawless, but the /Ae//Gams festival is ever-improving and takes a number of steps in the right direction.

As summer’s end blesses us with the last of its rays, one can’t help but bask in all Windhoek could be as an arts, culture and obvious tourist destination.

Festivals like /Ae//Gams offer a glimpse and the vision is vibrant.

–; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram;

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